Called to Unbelief

Sometimes we have to un-believe in order to find faith.

Posted Jan 29, 2018

Abbey of the Genesee/David B. Seaburn
Source: Abbey of the Genesee/David B. Seaburn

In my latest novel, Parrot Talk, the recovering alcoholic father of two brothers comes back after many years. In the interim, he has been born again in the most unusual way. While carving the Thanksgiving turkey, he slices a piece that looks, to his eyes, like “Jesus, hisself.” His sons, especially Grinder, are beyond skeptical. Pop, though, is not. In fact, he sees in his son a lost man:

“You can make fun of me all you want. Maybe I earned it. I don’t know. But I’m tellin’ you, if you ain’t got somethin’ to believe in, somethin’ to hold onto in this world, whether you know it or not, you’re just wandering in the wilderness, all alone, nothin’ to hope for, pretendin’ its okay. Even though it ain’t.”

I think Pop is describing a dilemma that many of us have faced or will face in our lives. We reach a point where we no longer have anything solid to hold onto. And sometimes we may not even know it. I know that as a young Presbyterian minister long ago it took years for me to recognize that the faith of my Fathers no longer had meaning for me. And that I was holding fast to something that had slipped through my fingers long before.

For a great many years thereafter I wandered in a wilderness, my only hope being that the wilderness was where many before me had found faith.

In a recent interview, the poet, Christian Wiman said, “God calls some people to unbelief so that faith can take new forms.” This reached me like a life raft, helping me keep my head above deep water. I have been reading Kierkegaard recently and have found his distinction between belief and faith instructive for my own journey. In many circumstances, belief is tied to objects, doctrines, rituals, which can be rich and life giving, but can also be stagnant and stultifying. Faith, instead, is dynamic, it refers to how one lives one’s life no matter how strongly or weakly one is attached to beliefs. Sometimes one must un-believe in order to find faith.

This has helped me feel a little less alone, a little less in the wilderness. Faith celebrates and cultivates trust in spite of doubt, openness in spite of risk, compassion in spite of the weight of suffering, hope in spite of despair.

David B. Seaburn is a writer. His latest novel, Parrot Talk, is available at Seaburn is also a retired marriage and family therapist, psychologist and minister.