Seeking a better question for religious conversations in an increasingly secular society.
Getting Rid of the One Question
I am a clergyperson in Portland, Oregon, an urban contexts of the None Zone.
In my conversations with folks, I meet plenty of Nones, Dones, and whatever other all-encompassing term we come up with for people unlike ourselves. I’ve also watched evangelists have conversations with people on the subway and in coffee shops.
And from my practice and observation, I want to get rid of one leading question from our evangelical and theological conversations: “Do you believe in God?”
Yes, that question. Because dividing the world into atheists and theists isn’t as helpful as another framework.
Theory: Theology in Three Circles
Referring to the chart above, here’s the three different people you will meet anywhere on the planet.
“All That Is” | The first type believes that everything about the universe will be discoverable by humans. Given time and scientific advancement, every unknown will become known. Every miracle will be explainable. Every weird metaphysical question will be solved or discredited. We see that the march of human achievement move beyond the biblical account. Back then we believed demons caused epilepsy, or leprosy by the sins of parents. We’ve advanced in our understanding of the human condition since the Bible. We’ve split the atom. We’ll discover other things in a CERN laboratory. So in time, humans will discover everything in the universe. For this person, everything is eventually knowable by human discovery and intervention.
“There is More” | The second type believes that there is something “more” about the universe that is beyond human discovery. That there is an energy or an infinite power beyond our finite ability to discover or comprehend or even control it. This infinite power affects our lives in tangible or intangible ways. It is not able to be fully known by humans, no matter how smart we get. Like an asymptotic line, we can advance to be ever-so-close, but we can never actually comprehend or understand this power. This person is comfortable with the unknown, and confident that the unknown is not possibly knowable or replicable by humanity.
“More Has Intent” | The third type believes that this something “more” has intentionality, or sentience to it. This “more” has purpose and effects its purpose through human effort or in conflict with human effort. This is where we anthropomorphize the “more” into God, Allah, Buddha, and other entities in faith traditions. All of these faith traditions believe that this “more” has intentionality to it and acts in accordance with that intention. We know this through statements like “God’s purpose” or “God’s dream” which mean that God is drawing humanity into something beyond where we are at the moment. This person believes that there is an infinite power unknowable by humans and that power does things to move humanity forward.
A better question
So given the above differences, I wonder if another way to have faith conversations in an increasingly secular society is to ask two questions:
- Will humans eventually discover everything to know in the Universe or is there something “more” to the Universe beyond eventual human comprehension?
- Does the something “more” want something for humanity and does it act in some way to make that happen?
This might be a helpful way to start the conversation. When we start with “Do you believe in God?” the term “God” assumes intentionality in a way that 2/3 of types do not. It helps with the conversation to give space for the diversity of spirituality.
It is less important for the conversation whether a person is atheist, agnostic, or a believer. It is more important to find out how they believe humanity, science, and mystery interact. I think that leads to more illuminating conversations than the labeling conversation does. And perhaps then when you do get to God, and describe who God is, there’s more clarity whether you both see God the same way or there are tweaks that can lead to enlightening conversations for both of you.
- How would this different question affect your faith conversations?
- How does the three typologies sit with you?
Thanks for your comments below and on social media!
Because I am a panenthiest and like to use the Integral Spirituality Lens to see pretty much everything, I love folks who ask this question “Do you believe in God”, which is a step up from “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord & Savior?” – My response is a) “belief is a non-experiential way of knowing”, and b] what specific model of “God” are you referring to? If you’re referring to the Three Guys in the Sky, or one part thereof, “No” – if you have a slightly broader concept – I experience that transcendental or interconnected potential on a fairly regular basis.
I don’t GROK that humans will ever know “all that is” because knowledge, in the cognitive sense, like the Universe itself, is ever expanding. There will always be more as we reach the edges of our current limitations simply because The Universe is infinite to the best of our reckoning – not to mention the limitations placed on our perception by our language, culture, status, etc., etc.
Whether the more that we don’t know – or the MOVEMENT of the more that we don’t know to actualize into the Known – or that which we are capable of experiencing has intent is a really fascinating question.
Well, if you are open to bringing everybody and anybody in no matter what they believe as long as they are willing to pay to keep the lights on, then this seems like a good idea.
Even in the “None Zone” of Oregon, 1% claim that The United Methodist Church is their religious affiliation. That would be almost 30,000 adults. That means a lot of souls to restore to their prior membership considering the official membership and attendance statistics of Oregon-Idaho. There are a number of districts with more United Methodists attending on the average Sunday than your whole annual conference.
Congratulations on your election as an additional jurisdictional conference delegate.
Reminds me of Borg when he says dividing the world into theist and atheist is not that helpful. Instead he suggests a better distinction is between dividing the world between those who believe “This is all there is…” and “Those who believe there is something “more.”
There are a whole set of questions that get asked by well intentioned evangelicals that are rather nonsensical when heard from outside of their theological lense.
1. Do you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?
2. How long have you been a Christian?
3. Do you believe in God?
4. Do you go to a bible believing church?
Frankly, I am reticent to place “God’s” essence primarily in what we don’t scientifically understand. As our scientific knowledge increases God decreases. Or worse yet people “believe” God because it explains something science can’t explain. Then when science “explains” that something the ground of belief dissipates
Thank you Jeremy. We are long past when everyone was thought to speak and understand the same “church” language. Being spiritual, believing in God, having faith can mean different things even to people living in the same household. I like your alternative. I plan to use it as a conversation starter tomorrow night.
This is helpful, Jeremy. Thanks for posting it — I’ve been having some interesting conversations with my students on this topic.
I’d add one more level. Between ‘there is more’ and ‘more has intent,’ I think there’s something like ‘there is more, and more can be known experientially.’ My sense is that there are people who are a bit agnostic on ‘intent’ (which requires some sort of sentience) but who think that whatever more is can be connected to or experienced. On the other hand, you’ll likely find people who don’t necessarily believe that all can be known and understood, that there very well might be more out there — but that there’s really no conscious or intentional way to get in touch with it.
Not sure if that makes as much sense now that I’ve written it out, but it just feels like there’s a bit of space between “more” and “intent” to be filled in.