Pull the Thread

God, religion, and the fragility of belief

Pull the Thread
Photo by Wim Arys / Unsplash

In 2022, Wharton Professor Nina Strohminger polled her students on the income of the average American worker.

The correct answer is $45k. A quarter of the class guessed over $100k.

When news outlets picked up the story, the public was shocked. How could such highly educated people be so out of touch with reality?

But imagine you are an MBA student at Wharton.

Chances are, you grew up going to very elite, expensive schools alongside peers whose parents made a lot of money--just like yours did. Once you start grad school, you watch upperclassmen regularly receive job offers between $100k and $200k.

It is a bubble that the rest of the world does not operate in, but you do. This is your bubble. And, though you try, it is very difficult to adjust for the influence your bubble has on your worldview.

The point here has nothing to do with money and everything to do with perspective.

Though we intellectually understand that everyone views things differently, our brains are not wired to grasp the full complexity of this reality.

Think about how complicated your life is. Multiply that complexity by 8 billion people. You can't.

If our worldview is so limited by our painfully finite experience, are we even capable of grasping such a thing as solid truth? Can any of us trust our beliefs?

I never liked being told what to believe. Not because I was a rebel but because I was a skeptic.

Church was a struggle.

I was apprehensive of “believers” because I knew the most convincing argument is the one you most want to hear.

Were we all just buying into the same mass delusion and calling it faith?

Were we all just in desperate need of a coping mechanism, and religion was the fix?

Were we all just perpetuating dogma because it’s easier than not?

Further, the most devout “believers” I knew were raised in Christian homes by Christian parents attending Christian schools. Was it a stretch to think they were just brainwashed? Was I being brainwashed?

To explore the answer, let’s step into the shoes of three people:

One. Imagine you are the son or daughter of an evangelical pastor. You know the Bible. You know you're saved. You have known God since you were seven.

You were told Sunday after Sunday that your greatest purpose in life is to tell other people about Jesus and his forgiveness. This makes perfect sense to you. Repentance, forgiveness, salvation, got it.

When you go off to college, you join a Christian group like a good Christian kid. They tell you the same things you've been hearing all your life.

So you go and spread the gospel on campus like a good evangelical. Most people don't want to hear it but are polite enough to ignore you.

But one day, someone confronts you. You only believe all that because you were raised to. You've been brainwashed.

You brush it off, but they've planted a seed. Would I believe all this if I were not raised to believe it?

Two. Now imagine you are the son or daughter of a professor. If God was ever a topic of conversation, it was through an academic, anthropological, or sociological lens. Under a microscope or through a telescope but always behind glass. Always at a distance.

Eventually, you go to college and are walking to class when another student comes up to you, "What do you know about Jesus?"

And you listen to their spiel because you're a polite person, but you really are about to be late, so you cut them short, "Sorry, but I have to go."

You brush it off, but you have this weird thought. That kid didn't seem completely crazy. Maybe a little odd but at least sane. Can a sane person believe in God?

Three. Worse, imagine you were abused by people in the church. Your childhood was filled with fear, confusion, and pain at the hands of people who were supposed to keep you safe.

You grow up, and a college student handing out pamphlets tells you to come to Jesus. God is love. Repent of your sin.

You scoff. Some loving God who would let that happen to me.

Different upbringings leading to different questions, all culminating in a common angst–a mental tension that’s hard to avoid when it comes to belief, religion, and God.

The person who was born into the tradition is faced with the fear that they’ve been brainwashed.

The person who was an observer of the tradition is faced with the fear that there might be some validity to what they always viewed as insanity.

The person who was hurt by the tradition is faced with the fear of not knowing what’s worse: that God is real and is cruel enough to let evil persist, or that he’s not and there’s no meaning, sense, or justice in any of this.

What are you supposed to do with all that tension?

The least helpful thing to do is ignore it. I’ve found the far more rewarding journey involves diving into the uncertainty.

If your mental maps about the world are a knit sweater, pull the loose thread. It might unravel the whole thing. That's the point.

Even if in the end all you're left with is string, it’s worth the time and effort to knit a new, truer sweater.

Here are a few misconceptions I realized while pulling apart my sweater. My hope is they’ll help you if you’re trying to knit yours back together.

First, it’s a myth that God doesn’t want to be wrestled with. When Jesus calls people to make him the bedrock of their lives, it is not a call to blind surrender.

What’s the name of his chosen nation? Israel. What does Israel literally mean?

“Wrestles with God.”

Does God require unthinking obedience? I don’t think so.

“When Jesus laid out the good news of God’s kingdom availability to all, he ended by calling people to “repent and believe the good news!” Or to paraphrase: ‘Rethink everything you think you know about what will lead you to the good life, and put your trust in me.’”
- John Mark Comer, Live No Lies

When he says, “repent and believe,” he is not demanding the surrender of agency. He is inviting his listeners to rethink everything they know about the very basis of reality and to trust there might be a better way.

Second, many of Jesus’ teachings commonly interpreted as commands were not commands. They were statements about the nature of reality.

You cannot serve God and money is not “you shall not.” It is “you cannot.” The two are incompatible because no one can serve two masters wholeheartedly. When the heart is entwined with one, it has no space for the other.

Far more often than telling us what to do, he tells us how the world really works. It is less, do this. It is more, this is how things are. Respond as you will.

When he warns his disciples to avoid sin, it’s less because it’s wrong in some abstract moral sphere, and more because it’s a trap he does not want them to become enslaved by.

Jesus does not pull the “God card” on his subjects. There is no, I am God, you are not, so you must do what I say.

On the contrary, he goes to great lengths to explain why the Kingdom of Heaven is the best place to live through parables, sermons, and stories.

To clarify, when I say Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God, I’m not talking about an afterlife. I am referring to what the world looks like–here, now, and in the age to come–when God’s will is brought forth. A world where understanding, forgiveness, and love are the basis of our lives.

His invitation isn’t to merely agree with a doctrine but to reconsider our entire understanding of reality.

What are we really living for? What do we really want?  What do we really need?

Third, the disciples did not follow Jesus out of obligation or guilt.

What happened was they witnessed a new vision of what the world could look like–what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven–and said, I want that. That peace. That truth. That rich life.

Jesus brought this kingdom down to earth, and the disciples wanted to live there with him.

They followed him because they genuinely believed they’d be foolish not to. There was no better way.

Fourth, Jesus wasn’t just a good moral teacher. He was a good life teacher.

When people rejected Jesus’ teachings, he had no problem walking away.

He didn’t cajole anyone to agree with him because taught from the perspective that if they knew the true nature of reality, they would act as he instructed them to.

His teachings weren’t just the correct thing to do in an abstract moral sense. They were the natural response you would have if you knew how reality really worked.

It’s less because they’re morally right. More because they’re literally true. True in the sense that they hold up when tested against reality.

Pastor John Ortberg and Philosopher Dallas Willard say it well in an excerpt from Living in Christ’s Presence:

Dallas: Jesus was a man of truth. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, not of correct doctrine. I am just saying that we need to tell our young people, “Follow Jesus, and if you can find a better way than him, he would be the first to tell you to take it.” [emphasis mine]
John: Isn’t that dangerous?
Dallas: It’s dangerous not to do that. What you wind up with is people who don’t believe what they say they believe. You wind up with people—as Isaiah and then Jesus picked up—whose tongues are close to Jesus, but their hearts are far away. See, your tongue follows correctness; your heart follows truth.”

When he teaches, it’s rarely from a moral angle because morality is the natural result of living life in line with how reality really works–a reality Jesus claims was created through him.

“The main thing is, when you hear Jesus, do what he says. Don’t build a theory. Just do what he says, and reality will teach you, and that is where authority ultimately lies."
- Dallas Willard, Living in Christ's Presence

Faith should not and cannot be divorced from the intellect. In the end, Jesus offers a faith that can be tested.

Practically, when a person lives by his teachings–regardless of whether or not they attach them to him–they can’t help but become more like him. Which means they can’t help but experience more of God’s peace, love, and goodness.

A person who decides not to lie can’t help but become honest.

A person who forgives can’t help but become compassionate.

A person who turns the other cheek can’t help but become humble.

A person who gives can’t help but become generous.

An honest, compassionate, humble, generous person is not afraid to walk in the light. They are not afraid to be exposed.

This is what he means when he says the truth will set you free.

“The test of religious life is life, and that’s where Jesus lived it.” - Dallas Willard, Living in Christ's Presence

His grand claim is that, if we follow him, we’ll find there is no better way to be human than to be the kind of person who lives in the Kingdom of God. He speaks with such authority because he knows there is no better life than the one he has on offer.

This is confusing at first when you think about how he died and how uncomfortable his life was, but the Kingdom of Heaven is an upside-down economy.

The way to gain is to give.

The way to win is to lose.

The way to lead is to serve.

In an ironic twist, the way to have the fullest life is to give yours away.

Helen Keller observed, “There is joy in self-forgetfulness. So I try to make the light in others' eyes my sun, the music in others' ears my symphony, the smile on others' lips my happiness.”