Religion & Beliefs

Hipster Intellectuals Who Believe in God

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God. Now, our embarrassment, shame, nerves and fear around making this very simple claim have had mostly to do with wanting to keep … Read More

By / January 23, 2008

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God.

Now, our embarrassment, shame, nerves and fear around making this very simple claim have had mostly to do with wanting to keep our faiths free of associations with scriptural literalism and religious narrow-mindedness. We haven’t wanted to be misunderstood. And because we’ve been embarrassed and hesitant, our professions of faith, when we’ve made them, have tended to be almost entirely defensive. Yes, we believe, but we’re not like those fundamentalists and the Bible-thumpers. Yes, we believe, but we’re not on the front lines arguing against gay marriage or stem-cell research. Yes, we believe, but we’re not praying to usher in the end of the world. Yes, we believe, but we’re not the Moral Majority. Yes, we believe, but we’re not going to try to convince you to believe what we do.

All this backsliding, all these buts, have often made ours a negative faith. Because we find certain, often very public, religious views not just distasteful but also often culturally blinkered and politically dangerous — arguments for a six-thousand-year-old Earth, for example, turn our stomachs as much as they offend the truths we know about the natural world — until recently, we’d turned inward.

Before we knew each other, our faiths had been our own private affairs, pilgrimages we’ve undertaken in the hope of both finding and, yes, pleasing God. All alone, unfortunately we could do neither.

Faith is not, we’ve learned, a private matter at all. We’re tired of faith coming between us. God’s will is that it may live between us. Faith is nothing if not shared. And so, over the years, in becoming faithful friends we’ve told each other stories about where we’ve come from, how we’ve believed through our joys and our tragedies, how we’ve faced God alone, how we’ve both sinned and overcome sin, how we’ve both nearly died and overcome death. For us, this storytelling—religious confession, in a way—has become a key to our religious lives. But once we started talking, the important stories of our faith became inseparable from the friendship itself. Not only were we finally opening up about faith, but we also began inspiring and teaching each other to live more faithfully.

In the years before we met, our faith lives had become compartmentalized. We’d made our ways into and within communities that were at best skeptical, and at worst hostile, towards both religious sentiment and any appearance of belief in some religious truth. We understood why—again, hating literalism and religious sanctimony—and genuinely participated in that skepticism and hostility, while at the same time privately praying and attending religious services. Often alone.

Although they did not start out this way, our approaches to religion had, by the time we met, become largely academic. As undergraduates, we took The Bible as Literature, looked for biblical allusions in literary texts, studied religion and politics, and distributed in creative writing workshops stories and poems loaded with religious themes. Faith, or belief in God, was hardly a matter worth discussing. Skeptical of both the pious-seeming “College Catholics” and the overly studious and insular Hillel groups, back then we existed on the religious fringe, preferring rock shows and girls to Bible study and campus-sponsored Shabbat dinners. We each learned to pray quietly, and anxiously.

Later, though, we both studied theology in graduate school, and largely for the same reason: with the belief and hope that we could reconcile our academic interests, which included the desire for intellectual honesty and integrity, with our admittedly irrational religious devotion. What better places, we thought, to do this than divinity schools attached to major academic institutions?

Scott chose Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, which is affiliated with Columbia University and is the former home of neoorthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed in 1945 for his part in an assassination plot against Hitler. Peter chose Harvard Divinity School, onetime home of American religious giants Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Santayana, and studied with Richard Neibuhr, son of the famous Union professor. We found each other after we left divinity school. We became friends.

Of course, after we met, as we’d been with most of our other friends, we were quiet about our faith lives at first, as had become normal among people like us: in short, East Coast liberals with advanced degrees who read contemporary literature and listened to independent music. Relating our experiences of faith had never been easy. Having learned to protect ourselves from embarrassment in public, we rarely spoke explicitly about God, often throwing our hands up when asked to answer one way or another whether God existed or not. Palms turned up seemed a strange gesture for two men with graduate degrees in theology.

Yet fortunately, with each other, our language betrayed us. The tension between a comfortable and acceptable skepticism and our undeniable religious temperaments had created in us the hypersensitivity we needed to recognize each other as kindred spirits. Possessing something like what’s known as “gaydar” in the queer community (but may be even queerer in our world), after a little hinting around, Peter finally asked: Do you believe in God? With each other we have finally learned to be more expressive about God. Over the same time we’ve grown more comfortable being expressive among other friends and family and, to some extent, in public. Through this effort, we’ve tried to prove that one can have an authentic religiosity and a genuine appreciation of holiness that is marked by healthy questioning and doubt—without needing to ever say anything definitively or universally about God. This was the great discovery of our friendship.

Yet, as much as the language and myths of our traditions often highlight what is unique about our faiths—that God’s covenant is marked by circumcision, say; or that, in Jesus, such laws no longer apply—we share another language, as well, one of art and literature, music and sex, family and friendships, a cultural language that supports a much broader conception of faith. God can never be exhausted by traditionally religious language. Not only does no one tradition ever capture holiness, but from pop songs to birdsong, tics to tattoos, we find it everywhere.
Through our friendship—one based on curiosity, trust and difference in matters of belief—we’ve come up with a moderate approach to faith, one that’s easier to stomach, both for us and, we’ve learned, our communities than the louder, more extreme positions in the culture. We see myth as myth, edifying stories that tell only of the possibility of another world, and always in the service of this one. We see practice as practice, not only in our religious liturgies, but more important, even, through our attentiveness and actions outside of worship, performing the will of God. Being friends takes practice. And we encourage each other to practice being better sons to our parents, lovers to our partners, and even fathers to our children. In the end, we see religion as a way to engage ethically with our commitments to God in daily life, rather than a preparation for a final encounter with God in the afterlife. And all this without any shared belief in what God is, or is not. The faith between us is a faith in this world. Hastening the end of time, a key idea to many fundamentalist conceptions of religion, is to hasten the end of all we love. It is to hasten the end of practice. It is to do away with the languages we share, and represents a disastrous end of faith. Religious fundamentalism, like its opposite extreme, a vehemently secularist atheism, understands belief instrumentally and reads sacred texts literally. But, to read the scripture literally is to remove it from the world, to hide its frail, yet boundlessly hopeful humanity behind some perfect, almighty hand of God. Lost are its literary beauty, its wonder, and the more complicated ethical and moral teachings developed over centuries by all religious traditions.

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ALSO IN JEWCY: Amy Guth interviews Korb and Bebergal

Excerpted from The Faith Between Us by Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal (Bloomsbury, 2007)