Growing up Southern Baptist in a small north Alabama community in the 1970’s, I remember well those perfervid, traumatizing altar calls centered around a question phrased something like this: Do you believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you died tonight that you would be admitted into the presence of God?
I didn’t believe beyond a shadow of a doubt — I didn’t then and I don’t today. I don’t think that I ever will. In fact, I don’t think that I’m psychologically wired to believe anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. From time to time, I’m even tempted to question my own existence. Two generations ago, raised in such a neurotically religious environment, I was consumed with guilt by such doubts. Today I realize that among reasonably educated, well-read people, I’m far from an outlier.
I was reminded of this reading Julia Baird’s splendid piece in the New York Times titled “Doubt as a Sign of Faith.” She reports that even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, occasionally grapples with doubt. And judging from some of his past experiences, that’s not surprising. Some thirty years ago, he lost his 7-month-old daughter in car accident. He recalls the period that followed as utter agony; yet this agony placed him on a spiritual journey that ultimately led to his investiture as archbishop.
Doubt, as I see it, is inextricably linked with any spiritual pilgrimage, regardless of the form it takes. In the age of Big Data, the struggle with doubt will only grow harder. Every time I log onto ancestry.com, I’m amazed at how, through a combination of algorithms and crowdsourcing, my ancestry has been traced as far back as the 12th century without my doing a thing other than subscribing to the service.
This is one example among millions, perhaps billions, of how our understanding of our place in the universe will be refined in the decades to come.
I, for one, believe that all these refinements made possible by these digital advances will challenge many of us to redefine our faith. As odd as it may seem to orthodox believers, whether or not God exists has become increasingly irrelevant to me. Somewhere along the way in my faith pilgrimage, I discovered theologians such as Paul Tillich, John A.T. Robinson and other theological mavericks. God is real to me because he has been incorporated, however imperfectly, into every facet of my being. In a very real sense, He has become the ground of my being, to paraphrase Tillich’s memorable phrase.
I’ve even improvised my own theology, which I call the theology of the sacred space. I see it as a very simple, straightforward theology: I’ve striven to create a sacred space within and without me. I have tried to incorporate the attributes of God — the sacred — within me. And, an expression of that faith, I have striven to build and to maintain a sacred space around me, extending the attributes of God to whomever I encounter. At times, I fail rather miserably. I give in to hate, greed, selfishness, bigotry, chauvinism, smugness rather frequently. Sometimes I’m very selfish with my sacred space.
But, despite this rather unorthodox faith, I feel as though I walk in the light. As strange as it may seem to some, I don’t worry about cultivating a mindset about God. I simply strive to incorporate the attributes of God into my daily life.
It may not work for many others, but it works for me.