THE MYSTERY OF FAITH
The following article appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, April 21, 2019.
The Easter story. Of God’s dramatic rescue operation can read more like a Marvel comic than historic event. Yet all across the city this week, people are celebrating a God who raised his son from the dead with a promise that he’ll return to set the whole world right.
Even as I kneel at the cross to worship this Easter, I’ll ask the difficult question: How do I keep believing this?
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to sort it out, having spent decades as a religion reporter.
Once, when I worked for ABC News in New York, the network assigned me a story on the treatment of faith on Ivy League campuses. I traveled with camera crews to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, interviewing students and faculty on how these universities, founded as training rounds for Christian leaders, had grown intensely secular, sometimes even hostile to belief in God.
At Harvard, one course was an outlier and so popular there was a waiting list to get in. Psychiatry professor Dr. Armand Nicholi taught it. The syllabus compared the world’s view of two brilliant 20th century thinkers: Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis. Freud argued that God is a figment of our imagination. Lewis saw reasonable evidence for God’s existence..
We spent an afternoon filming Nicholi’s student as they debated the meaning of life, the problem of suffering and the possibility of life after death. Afterwards, the professor asked me to join him for lunch at the Harvard faculty club
Across a table draped with linen and set with fine China and silver, Nicholi asked me a question that caught me off guard.
“ What about you, Peggy? Are you a Christian?”
The subject of an interview seldom interviews a reporter, whose job it is to stay personally detached from her stories, but we were done shooting this story, and I didn’t mind him turning the tables.
“Yes, I am,” I said and I left it at that.
By Jewish law, I’m actually Jewish because my mother was. But I was raised outside the church and synagogue and became a Christian, by choice, in college.
Among my journalist colleagues and smart nonreligious friends, to say you followed the teaching of an invisible God, through a book you believed he inspired, was about as wacky as saying you believed in extraterrestrials. How is it, as one ABC News producer once asked me, could I have gone to college, be a thinking person and still believe the Eastern story?
That’s exactly what the Harvard psychiatrist was asking. His follow-up question made me squirm.
“ Why?” he asked me. “Why are you a Christian?”
For a few moments, I couldn’t find words. I glanced out the window at students carrying their backpacks across Harvard Yard. I scrambled for something philosophically impressive to say, but there was no fooling this professor. Instead, I let the raw, honest truth come tumbling out. “Because I haven’t found anything better,” I said.
Nicholi’s face softened. He leaned against the back of his chair, smiled, and said, “That’s a good answer.”
It had seemed good enough for Jesus. In one New Testament story, Jesus, who called himself “ the way, the truth and the life,” taught in a Galilean synagogue that whoever followed him would live forever. Many in the crowd turned away. The Greek text says his teachings were too hard for most to swallow. As the crowd drifted off, Jesus turned to his 12 disciples and asked if they were going to leave him, too. Peter said, “Where else would we go? You have the words of real life. We’ve already committed ourselves.”
when I committed, it was because I believe Jesus had the best answers to questions I’d wrestled with for years, questions that science left untouched. What am I here for? Is this all there is? What can I hold on to when life feels unbearable?
The answers my family handed down didn’t satisfy me. Since the material world is all we can see, in the end, life came down to survival of the fittest and then you die. Volumes of Ayn Rand, not Bibles, lined our bookshelves. But without knowing it, my parents had handed me a Bible without words. They let me loose at an early age to play and explore in a material world so full of staggering beauty that my imagination was primed for the possibility of a creator.
By the time I was 11 years old, we had lived in four States and three countries. Whether I was swimming with sea turtles over coral reefs in Barbados, exploring the jungles of Mexico or riding my horse bareback along Buffalo Bayou in Houston, the raw beauty of nature stirred my longing for something transcendent.
In college, I studied Greek mythology, Russian history and religion. But I was most at home in the journalist department, where I could indulge my endless questioning about what gave life meaning.
About that time, a speaker on campus introduced me to the radical teachings of Jesus; it was as though an unseen hand moved my disjointed puzzle pieces into a grand picture that finally made sense.
This was a story that told me my life mattered and that God could work in the world for good through us. And almost as important, it explained why we keep messing things up.
When I stepped out in faith to believe, it was as if someone switched on a light, and I began a spiritual journey that would reshape the trajectory of my life.
I can’t tell you I’ve heard God’s voice. I can’t prove that the dramatic changes in my life and relationships are a result of the supernatural, but I often experience a sense of God’s presence and am aware that what I can’t see may be more real than what I can. And when the inevitable losses and betrayals of life send me into a tailspin, turning to God is like finding the interior room in my house when the tornado sirens blare.
At WFAA-TV (Channel 8) in Dallas, where I worked before ABC News, I produced a series for the 10 p.m. newscast on near-death experiences. My cameraman and I traveled the country interviewing people who had been on the brink of death after whitewater rafting accidents, car wrecks or emergency surgeries. They described out-of-body experiences that swept them through a tunnel of extraordinary light and led them to a whole other landscape where an all-loving presence greeted and enveloped them.
My last interview for the series was with Dr. Kenneth Altshuler, chief of psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He told me that near-death experiences are caused by physiological changes that occur in a dying brain, a kind of hallucination.
Like Nicholi, as our interview ended. Altshuler asked me what I thought.
I have no way of knowing whether people who have had near-death experiences had chemical reactions in their brains or genuine encounters with God. I told Altshuler that both faith and reason led me to believe there could be a loving God whom we’ll meet when we die.
When I got up to walk out of his office, Altschuler said something I’ve considered countless times over the years. He said he didn’t know which of us was more courageous: him, for believing that “when you’re dead, you’re dead,” or me, who believed we could live forever.
I still translate that as, “Which one of us is the greater fool?”
Fraud would point a finger at me, arguing that I use religion as a crutch because I’m afraid to face the brutal realities of life and death. Lewis would point to Jesus’ own disciples, whom the Bible said went into hiding and wimped out in fear when their leader was killed on the cross; but later, when they met the resurrected Christ face to face, they were so sure he had risen that most of them willingly faced violent deaths. In order to spread the news.
Because of the work of these disciples, today Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with more than 2 billion followers. Here in the United States, however, in the same way that many universities broke their historic ties with the church, Americans are abandoning their faith in droves. For the first time, religious “nones,” those who claim no religion at all, top a survey of American religious identity.
I confess I’ve sometimes wondered whether it would be easier to throw my beliefs overboard and live unencumbered by the constraints of my faith.
Forgiving my enemies and caring about others’ needs before my own is counter instinctual. It’s tempting to flow with the tide and worship at the glittering altars of self, power, and pleasure.
I’m uncomfortable with the dissonance between the visible and invisible worlds I inhabit. Sometimes I envy my friends who say with confidence, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
That’s not me. I find the Bible difficult to grasp, and God often seems silent. I still don’t understand why he didn’t answer my prayers for healing for my mother, who survived the Holocaust but later succumbed to depression and took her own life.
These are the kinds of questions that drive people away from belief in a loving God. I’ve learned to look at them less as threats and more as invitations to go deeper. Even the most unanswerable questions can’t erase all the little resurrections I’ve known. Nor can they diminish the love I’ve experienced in my life-giving community of faith. So I hold on, like Jacob of the Hebrew Bible, who wrestled an Angel of God through the night, demanding a blessing.
In the end, Jacob won both the wrestling match and God’s blessing, but he walked away with a limp. I relate to Jacob. Sometimes I feel spiritually crippled by my struggle with God. When Jacob limped away from his drama with the angel, God renamed him “Israel,” which in Hebrew means one who “wrestles with God.”
The 17th-century scientist Blaise Pascal once said, “in faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
Easter can be blinding. Christianity rises and falls on whether it’s true—on whether God supernaturally intervened in human history and raised his son from the dead, or whether the story is just one more religious fable.
So, which does take more courage? This Easter, I want to lay that question to rest.
If I’m wrong, I’ve got little to lose. If I’m right, I’ve got everything to gain.