The Push and Pull of Faith
(From the perspective of an only somewhat convinced but still pretty devout lifelong Christian)
By Sarah Ortner
Part 3: The Pull of Faith.
One of my favorite writers is David James Duncan, who writes primarily about fly fishing and conservation efforts of his beloved and devastated old growth forests of the Pacific North West, and baseball and the search for meaningful connection and God. David James Duncan is a kind of reluctant theologist- it seems like he tries and he tries to write about something else- fly fishing! Baseball! Lust and sex, dammit! Vietnam War! BASEBALL!!!!- but somehow, inevitable, it sneaks around to questions of the divine. It’s not clear exactly what the Divine is to David James Duncan-what is clear is that David James Duncan is in love with It, whatever It turns out to be. And so he writes about anything and somehow The Divine gets snagged up into it, and he is writing about The Divine, and it’s kind of a glorious, messy, beautiful thing.
What David James Duncan doesn’t talk about, as far as I can tell, is the interiority of his own faith. On his conversion (at some point he identified as an atheist, or an indifferent agnostic- then at some point he didn’t) David James Duncan states “the strange thing is that conversion stories are almost all flat, almost all boring” and theorizes that it is because we rely on language to communicate them that cannot possibly convey the feltness of the experience, so an inevitable disconnect exists. Nicole Cliffe, feminist writer and editor for the amazingly hilarious sit the-toast.net (side note: you are familiar with the Toast, right? Right? Because if you are not, Oh My God, stop everything and go there now! Do not pass go! Do not collect 200 dollars! You are wasting precious seconds of your life not knowing this amazing hilarious body of work! I promise, this essay will still be here. We’ve come a long way and I am not going anywhere. Go! Go!) , recently “came out” as a new convert to Christianity. On the topic of her experience, she recently wrote a beautiful post about prayer, prefacing it with the abrupt statement “This is not going to be me explaining my conversion to Christianity, let me just get that disclaimer out of the way.” I have many friends with various degrees of experience as believers of something or other- and very few of them are willing to share their conversion story. I’m about as chatty a Cathy as it gets, and I have yet to find a way to share my story that makes any kind of lucid sense at all to anyone other than me.
But I offer that now, with so much time gone by, my faith is not really about my “conversion” experience, which is after all just an experience, any more than my marriage is about the first time my now husband showed up at my then work with a handful of raggedy flowers and a nice suit and an offer of a picnic dinner at an abandoned industrial site. That was a great move of my husband’s and it definitely wooed me- but that was over a decade ago and so much has happened since that could have not happened, or could have happened differently, and so much didn’t happen that could have happened. Which, each on their own, is a kind of mini little wooing- and so we have this marriage where each day and week and hour we endeavor to try to please and surprise the other, to support the other and let ourselves be supported by each other, and to grow a little closer to the innate mystery of the other, full knowing we will never, ever, ever be able to truly, fully, know each other. Each day we take it on faith the other is moving in this dance in good faith, and sometimes we stumble on some grace or kindness or vivid sudden passion that makes the whole thing shine with a unique, ridiculous, unspeakable marriage.
Thus so my friendships, my relationship with my parents, my experience of cat ownership- to different degrees and in different manners, but the commonality I think is in the commitment and the actions of faith, and how the practice of it draws me closer to the ones I love.
There is an aspect of faith that is similar, if considerably more impossible, to these relationships, and in my adult life this is one of Faith’s greatest pulls. I pray for peace and I find that something inside of me opens up and asks what I am afraid of that gets in the way of peace; I pray for patience and am reminded of the million ways my love ones show patience for me, and of the struggles that others go through. I pray for an end to loneliness and listen to my breath rise and fall and remember I am surrounded by air that nourishes me, in a body that carries me into adventure and purpose and joy and heartbreak. I pray for wisdom and feel like the world gives a huge belly laugh and find myself stumbling on some absurdity the next day to untangle.
I don’t have an answer about Who I pray to, aside from that generally it seems that the more I stay in relationship to This Great Mystery, the more keenly aware I am when I do some shitty selfish thing that hurts someone that I’ve done some shitty selfish thing that hurts someone, and the more I find that I can take deep breaths to get through times of terror, and the more excited and grateful I am at great beauty. I console myself by thinking that, frankly, it’s presumptuous of me to attempt to have answers I don’t have and also, honestly, it seems more the job of This Being to reveal him or herself or itself than it is my job. My job is to keep praying and trying to love and trying to be brave and trying to be honest and trying to not be shitty and selfish.
And ultimately, to me, that is a major aspect of the pull that faith exerts on me. Faith gives me an ally- even if imaginary- in the never ending struggle to not be shitty and selfish- to be brave and loving. Faith gives me a recipient of my gratitude, even if it’s only in my head. Faith gives me a sense that there is a thread that runs through this existence, that that thread is composed of love and grace and forgiveness and strength, and that I can turn again and again and again to that thread to tug on it and guide my way.
Even if it is imaginary, the guidance it exerts is real.
Go with God. Peace be unto you. Namaste. Amen.
1) If you live in the Seattle Area, this church is pretty great. Opening, affirming, deeply committed to supporting the efforts of local homeless to self organize into tent cities as well as pushing for deeper economic and racial justice, in this city and across the world. Also, their choir and organ are fairly kick ass, as these things go.
2) I am not the only one who suspects that Ann Coulter is very much doing this all on purpose, though I don’t think I’d go so far as to call her the original, way more devoted Stephen Colbert:
3) My two favorite people to listen to discuss the arguments against faith are my brother and Rebecca Goldstein, as they both are people with bracing, brilliant minds who think about things in complex and interesting ways. Only one of them publishes books and has a website though, so here is a good link read more about Rebecca Goldstein
4) The book The Brothers K by David James Duncan is possibly my favorite theological treatise and also hands down in my top five all-time favorite works of fiction. I almost sometimes wish I could come down with temporary amnesia so I could read it for the very first time, again.
5) All hail the toast!!