A student says to his religion teacher: I’m not sure I still believe in God. The teacher says back: The real question is whether God still believes in you.
This is an old, old story in church, university, and seminary circles. Its glibness still elicits groans along with gratitude, because it substitutes cuteness for empathy in making what are in fact several important points about God and faith.
One is that having an idea of what the Divine is like comes before having an assurance that anything divine exists. To say this another way, the central question for faith is not whether there is a God at all, but whether there is a God worthy of being worshipped.
Throughout the history of religions, many ideas of God have surfaced which cannot yield a satisfactory answer to this question. The deities they conjure are best referred to with a small g. G for false.
Some of these gods seem utterly indifferent, others endlessly demanding, and still others perpetually angry. All of them are more self-absorbed than they are evil. But none exhibits a goodness that should ever be construed as deserving of praise. Alienated from whatever wisdom they once might have possessed, their power runs amok far more often than it secures order in the world.
Gods like these are best hoped to have no existence at all outside the overstimulated neurons of disordered brains.
Another point this story’s judgment-laden punchline suggests is that religious people, who should know better, often do not listen well. From this perspective, the story’s cleverness cannot cover over how shockingly uncaring “answers” to serious questions can be. In this case, instead of respecting its poser’s inner distress, it one-ups him with an almost gleeful flourish.
Many, many people are suffering this same kind of distress today. The dark side of the gods they have been told about are slowly and insidiously extinguishing the light, truth, and life which are the gifts of faith at its fullest. And sometimes they do not know to whom to turn for help.
What they most need is permission and encouragement to name the kinds of god in whom they neither can nor should any longer believe. And an invitation to think about what it would be like to worship a God who believes in unbelievers more than they may believe in themselves.