There are a lot of reasons not to believe in God. I dwell on those reasons at times. The reasons can be alluring: Belief in God seemingly requires suspending some of what we understand scientifically. Belief in God requires confidence in that which cannot be seen. Belief in God requires hope in the believer — which can be tough to come by when we see and experience so much suffering.
WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE?
With so many alluring reasons, why do so many people still choose to believe? What makes a person decide to be a religious person? Why do many Christians choose to be Christian?
Believe it or not, I went to an entire conference addressing that final question. It was two days of answers in response to “Why Christian?”
What might surprise many about the conference was the voices of those who were supplying the answers. It’s true that some of those voices were from pastors. Pastors, presumedly, are those who are most convicted in their beliefs. (This is an argument for another time: But I offer that many pastors are often those who are most skeptical of their beliefs. Ask a pastor sometime.) Some of the voices at the conference came from non-pastors, too.
What each voice held in common was that it came out of a woman who might have reason to distance herself from the church. All the voices came from persons who had, at some point, been marginalized: Whether due to race or ethnicity, or sexuality and gender identity, or addiction and skepticism. Each, however, professed Christianity and was there to offer a witness to her belief. They each had their turn to share their story and state their case for why they were Christian.
The responses to the question “Why Christian?” fell into two distinct camps. I wonder how many of us might find our answers falling into one of these camps, too.
One camp was introduced by the conference’s first speaker, Rachel Held Evans. Rachel grew up in church. She bragged about her exploits as an award-winning Bible memorizer. But at some point she felt distanced from the church — mostly because of the role women were relegated to in her fundamentalist experience. In her experience, the church was not welcoming to women. And yet, Rachel found new connection to church and belief.
While Rachel presented at the conference, she looked at the crowd gathered in Durham, North Carolina, and said: “I’m Christian because of good people who come to gatherings like this. I’m Christian because of all these other Christians.” It was feel good moment.
Many of us knew what she was saying. We share memories in which we’ve been embraced by community. In my own personal moments of loneliness or mourning — the moments after the loss of a job or unborn baby — it’s been the people of the church who have made moves to meet me in the pits… and sit with me there.
We also heard the voices of those who were not quickly embraced by the Christian community. They, too, knew alienation — in many cases, prolonged alienation. Community was hard for them to encounter. In several cases, the church represented a source of alienation. The church — the body of believers — was a place of hurt.
And yet they believed. Why?
It was because when they looked at the life of Jesus, they realized they were not alone. Jesus, too, knew alienation, suffering, and marginalization. These people did not choose Christianity because of Christians, they chose Christianity because of Christ.
Emmy Kegler, who encountered marginalization over issues of sexuality, found a person to identify with in Jesus. She said, “My ostracism was shared by Jesus.” As she recalled Jesus’ rejection from community and friends in the days leading up to his crucifixion, Emmy noted “God knows pain, too — intimately.”
Donna Coletrane Battle encountered marginalization as a person of color in the American south. She, too, found empathy with God expressed in Jesus: “Why I come back to Christ? Because if I could’ve saved myself from living in a black body, I would have. I needed a savior,” she said. “It matters that Jesus was fully human and lived in the margins. It matters that he was beaten.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict and an admitted skeptic. Her past has hurts — including her hurting others. Yet, her guilt has not created a barrier to her belonging. “I’m Christian because maybe I could’ve been Jesus’s friend. Jesus will accept anyone. He was to merciful demons — that’s the kind of savior I need.”
In all cases, it appears that belief was not something argued, logic-ed, or reasoned into. Belief came because of a recognition of experience. They found evidence of God in their experience. Whether it be in the caring presence of others in the midst of feeling in the pits, or seeing a bit of their experience in the story of God.
What evidence of God is in your experience? Where or when has your story met God’s? The voices of “Why Christian?” suggest that God is in your story — even if you’ve felt marginalized or cast aside.
Ryan Dunn is the author. Ryan lives with his family in Nashville, TN, where he also serves as the Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church. He is one of the referenced pastors who is often skeptical of his own beliefs.