Lord, help my unbelief.
Once, there was a village. This village was entirely average. It wasn’t the greatest place on earth, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. The people who lived there got by just fine. One day, a woman came from the east. She described beautiful mountain ranges, fields of beautiful flowers, and an ocean that went on forever. Two of the villagers, dear friends, had been moved by the woman’s descriptions. Looking around the dry, dusty streets of their own village, they had to admit that they had never seen anything that might truly be called beautiful. The first friend suggested a trip to the place the woman had told them about. The second friend was hesitant, but couldn’t fight his curiosity. It was decided that they would leave in three days.
For three days, neither friend slept. The first friend was simply too excited, and the second too unsettled. They met early on the third day, ready to leave behind their bland village lives for something they had never seen but only hoped in. As the sun came up, the two friends headed east. They walked for most of the morning, stopping for a light lunch of bread and cheese. Neither had ever left the village before, and their fear of the thick forest was tempered by their growing excitement. As they ate, neither spoke. In fact, they had not spoken much the entire trip, except to speculate on what this world they pursued might be like. Their fantasies were sometimes elaborate and ridiculous, and other times, quaint and absolutely peaceful. It was a place, the friends believed, that was both simple and extravagant. They packed up the rest of their rationed food and walked on. And their journey eastward continued this way for several days.
Several days later, the friends found themselves on the banks of a wide river. They could hardly see the other side, and it stretched on from north to south as far as either friend could see. The current was strong, and rocks jutted out of the surface of the water like teeth, waiting to help the river swallow weak swimmers. The first friend began to take of his shoes, securing them in his bag tightly, ready to make his way across the dangerous river. The second friend stood nervously, watching his friend tighten his sack.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” the second friend said.
“What do you mean?” the first friend asked, confused by his friend’s hesitance.
“I mean, we could easily die in this river. And for what? The idea of someplace that we’re not ever sure exists?” the second friend said.
“What if it does exist? And what if it is even half as beautiful as the woman described? How could I live anywhere else?” the first friend said.
“But…” the second friend started slowly, “couldn’t we live well-enough in the village? How do we know that life will be better in this Other Place?”
“You needn’t go, friend. But I must.”
And with that, the first friend left his friend on the shore as he waded into that wild river. The second friend watched as his friend made his way across the river so slowly, all the while being dragged downstream by the current. The second friend knew that, if he made it across, his friend would be several miles downstream. His dear friend was not even halfway across the river when he was swept out of sight. Feeling the shame of his betrayal, the second friend turned and left back towards the village in which he had spent his whole life.
He lived out the rest of his days in the village. His life was ordinary enough. He never faced much hardship, but neither did he experience much goodness. He never heard from his friend again, though he thought of him often. Many nights, he dreamed of standing on the shore of that vast, roaring river. And he regretted his decision for the rest of his life.
My wife knows that every time Andrew Reeves and I get together, there’s a good chance that we will spend hours talking about things that are very far removed from our real lives. Lofty theologies and dead philosophers inevitably come up as we hash out our thoughts on anything from aesthetics to politics. Last night was no different. We got together for an innocent brinner and some board games—the latter of which never actually happened. I’m not sure how we got onto the subject, but we found ourselves sitting in the living room discussing politics and faith. The most difficult thing about claiming to be a Christian for me is dealing with my American context.
Ideally, I want my allegiance to reside solely with the Kin-dom of God, which, as Andrew pointed out, laughs in the face of political empires. But, in reality, I have very little faith in such a thing. Having worked in churches and having faced what it means to be a “professional Christian,” I quickly began to lose touch with the radical nature of the Christian tradition. In fact, I was often accused of being too radical, which didn’t so much bother me (in fact, I quote enjoyed it) as much as it began to wear on me, I think. Now, I feel torn, as if there are two people within me who cannot reconcile with nor dismiss one another. In me, there lives a tired Idealist and a frustrated Pragmatist. The former echoes things that I think I believe, the latter scoffs at what I actually seem to do.
As we talked last night, my inner-Idealist began to stir. It heard things that it had not heard in a long time. It nearly began to hope again. But the Pragmatist reminded the Idealist where its Idealism had gotten us before: bitter and lonely. It was idealism, the Pragmatist warned, that caused us to be quite arrogant and very isolated. And it is pure pragmatism, the Idealist retorted, that has killed our belief. The Kin-dom is irrational, inconvenient, and unrealistic; that is precisely why it’s so beautiful, the Idealist continued. At this, the Pragmatist shrugged his shoulders, realizing that he sounded too much like the voices that had given birth to him inside of me. He stands on the banks of the river as my inner-Idealist wades out into the waters, his dreams betraying his own identity.
My inner Pragmatist, it seems, wants to convert to Christianity.