Newsletter: What if I didn’t believe?

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Every year between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, an Episcopal priest I know uses his prayer time for a particular spiritual discipline: he tries to imagine an atheist version of himself.

That is, he tries to consider just how his life would be different if he didn’t believe in God.

So: there are some obvious things, of course. He would be in a different line of work. He would dress differently. He would be doing a very different kind of writing—maybe not doing much writing at all. His Sunday mornings would probably involve tai-chi and the crossword puzzle on a more regular basis.

But those are a handful of superficial things.

The deeper question, of course, is what he might be inclined to believe in, instead.

Without a sense of living under the sight of God, and a hope to live in a way that is pleasing to God, whose looking would he be most aware of? Whom would he be hoping to please?

What larger story about the world and how it works would he use to explain his daily experience?

Because, religious or not, everybody has some larger story they lean on. Over time, our lives come to be shaped by that story in important ways—and we come to understand what’s important and what isn’t, who’s important and who isn’t, and to live our lives accordingly.

Maybe it means something wifty, like “never date a Scorpio” because the truth is in the stars. Or analytically precise, like using cost/benefit analysis for every decision, because the truth is in the numbers. Or wondering what everyone’s therapist would say about why they are acting the way that they are, because the truth is in mind’s unconscious.

More ominously, those larger stories also teach us to see other people in particular ways, too—they determine whom we notice and what we notice about them. Sadly, so often that turns out to be less than who they are in their full complexity, not to mention beauty.

We can’t help but gravitate toward some approaches more than others. Yet each one has its blind spots.

For my friend, imagining himself as an atheist is a little bit like visiting a city, far from home, and recognizing that you could see yourself living there—that you like the weather there, that its scale and pace appeal to you, that its people seem like your kind of people—and yet, despite all that, knowing that it isn’t your home.

And yet, it shows you a lot about what your home is and is not.

Easter is a glimpse of our true home, and of what faith in its fullness promises to be.

But the light of Easter also reveals the places where God’s work in us is not yet complete, where our blind spots remain, where we remain too easily taken in by other ways of seeing the world—and even where our limited understanding of faith may distort more than it reveals.

Easter is not the joyful conclusion to the story, but the joyful beginning of a new and grander story for each one of us.

May you have a sense of God’s deep love and abiding peace as you set out on the journey.
See you in church,

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