November 8th, 2011

(no subject)

Billy Graham, the famous Christian evangelist, turned ninety-three yesterday. That's incredible, really. I saw him occasionally at company picnics when I still went home in the summer (to Boone, NC, where his son Franklin ran a ministry my parents worked for), and it always amazed me that he was still alive for another year. I don't mean that cruelly; I just remember him as being old when I first saw him on some TV show at the age of three. Yet the man always held on to life.

In honor of his birthday, lots of people in the Christian blogosphere have been writing about their "Billy" stories. Jim Wallis has a really interesting account of how he first met Billy, for instance. I don't have personal stories like that – I have met him, but only in passing – but he has been a powerful influence all my life. Many Christian televangelists (Jim Bakker, anyone?) were known for sex scandals and embezzling money, so the charlatan has become a bit of a trope in pop culture these days. But Billy always seemed honest and forthright. And he counseled presidents and kings; I remember thinking at about the age of ten that he was like the pope for Protestants. I doubt he'd appreciate the comparison! But in my heart I meant it as a compliment.

Truth be told, I was always a bit jealous of him, too. He always seemed so sure of himself and of what he believed. It was the evangelism, and in particular the boiling down his message to fundamentals. In high school, I remember wanting things to make sense like that. They never did for me, and I now see that as a good thing, or at least the natural consequence of my curious brain. I don't necessarily like the grey areas, but I can't avoid them – if I ignore them I know I'm ignoring them and deceiving myself. That's a lesson I learned from Billy Graham, though it plays out differently with me than I suspect it does with him: the importance of self-honesty.

While we're on the topic, I wanted to elaborate something I said the other day. In a post on the "under God" national motto,

I say this as someone who considers herself a Christian, though lately I seem to have more in common with the free-thought crowd than I do with members of my own religion.

That word, "free-thought," is kind of a catch-all for atheism, agnosticism, secular humanism, and the like. Specifically, according to Wikipedia, it is "a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or other dogmas." Once upon a time, I had almost an allergy to this kind of thought. I was a Christian and liked being a Christian, and tended to find the atheists I knew to be blow-hards. (Of course, Christianity has its fair share there, as does every group.)

I still believe there is something so much bigger than me that I can't even imagine what it is like. I have tried to not believe in this, but it's like trying to stay out of the grey-zones – simply not in my DNA, no matter how hard I try, and if I say I don't believe in God it feels like I'm lying to myself. So in that sense I am still a theist.

There are other Christian beliefs I struggle with, though. A lot. Belief is not a choice, so far as I can see, and so I struggle with the idea that that could be what sends a person to heaven or hell. I struggle with the idea that God's mind could be changed by prayer, or that He could decide not to help just because someone asked. I struggle with the idea of God's omnipotence and omniscience and the philosophical impossibilities that go along with it. I don't deny these things, but neither can I accept them easily. It is the struggle that is worthwhile, in my opinion.

I've long believed that all faith is agnosticism. It is the acknowledgment that there are some things we cannot know, cannot thoroughly work out and may be beyond our ability to know. In that sense, I am an a-gnostic, against knowledge where the things beyond the knowable are concerned. And when I hear people talking about what they are sure of – the "God said it, I believe it" crowd – I have to stifle the urge to gag.

The closest I can come to describing my beliefs these days is that my faith isn't about beliefs. It's about the process, the examination, and with being comfortable with the fact that I don't know and don't even know enough to believe or disbelieve. I do find the language and practice of Christianity useful. It has become a metaphor to think about these things, whatever else it might be to me. I am not sure if that makes me a Christian or not, a theist or not. Honestly!

So that is my birthday gift to the man who taught me that ideas matter, and taking a moment to close your eyes and take an honest look at where you stand regarding the great Unknowables matters more. Happy belated birthday, Rvd. Graham.

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