If I Believed Now What I Believed Then


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It’s embarrassing, really, how embarrassed Peter and I both were back then. Back when we both believed. And back when belief itself seemed like the greatest virtue—although it was, perhaps, the greatest vice—of faith.

First, though, before returning to the embarrassment of faith, I should be clear what I mean here by belief. (And since I’m a Christian I’ll stick to what I know.) Even in the least denominational sense, when belief is the great virtue, faithfulness begins with the conviction that there is a transcendent reality, something bigger than us, more important than us, and that this something—what inseminary we called the “Ground of Being” but “God” suffices—holds the key to our origins and in some tangible way helps us deal with the fact that we are going to die. This is a mouthful. And Catholic creeds, of course, are much wordier even than this. But a simpler declaration of this sort of faith would sound something like this: I believe God is the beginning and the end and so what He says ought to shape all that comes between. Anything short of this is sin.

Now, as I said, for all that we hear about religious leaps of faith, believers tend to be convinced (although convicted has always seemed to me a nice play on words) of their belief, and usually over and above the belief of someone else. Confidence of this sort, in my experience of religious people, leads to a sense of chosenness, which in turn breeds pride. It did in me. And you’d be hard pressed to find a really convicted Christian who’s not proud to be so. And for all the biblical warnings against pride—in the Gospel of Mark it’s a sin ranking up there with lying, murder, and just being a fool—chosenness is a biblical idea. After all, who chooses if not God?

So, even as late as six years ago, when I met Peter and we started collaborating on a book about faith, I believed God was the beginning and the end, Jesus the Alpha and Omega, as we Christians like to say, and it followed from there that what He said ought to shape my life. And shape it He did. The story I tell in The Faith Between Usis how,froma failed vocation to the priesthood, to my sex life, to my eating habits, to my belief that the fluctuations of an ugly facial tic kept my moral temperature, God had always had my life safely under his control.

Now, six years ago this would have been a very embarrassing thing to say out loud. For all my proud belief, all my confident church going, and all the catechism classes I taught, I was still a good, fairly reasonable liberal. I had recently moved to New York City, where I’d made friends with ironic literary types—including, of course, Peter. And I found that my life as a seminarian (to say nothing of my virginity) was enough of a cockblock in my endless, often hapless, pursuit of women. To make known what I really believed would have been disaster. And who knows, if I believed now what I believed then, I might still be embarrassed to say anything about my faith life.

I don’t believe now what I believed then. Technically, I’m an atheist, but a Catholic one. (How that came to be—and what, exactly that means—is another story I tell in Faith. Briefly, I don’t believe in a personal relationship with God, or that there is a transcendent God to have a personal relationship with; the Christian myth, however, still shapes my ethics just as Catholicism shapes my religious practice.) Writing thebook, collaborating with this very particular, and peculiar, Jewish writer, who in the process became as good and faithful a friend as I’ve ever had, did a lot to shake my pride in being chosen as a Christian. Although not as much as being there while my stepfather, Paul, died, sitting with him in those moments when he charged his children to care for our mother, seeming totally unconcerned with his afterlife. In their ways, my relationships with Peter and Paul—yes, I’m aware of the eerie biblical coincidence—have taught me that the virtue of faith is not believing the right thing, but acting the right way.

Faithfulness, not leaps of faith, make up my belief. Paul ended his life teaching me this. Peter and I encourage this in each other as much and as often as possible, usually in the simplest ways. As we say in the book, “Being friends takes practice. And we encourage each other to practice being better sons to our parents, lovers to our partners, and even fathers to our children.”

For me, the past six years have been a kind of ongoing religious conversion. And I’ve learned a lesson that the author of our Foreword, Stephen J. Dubner, wrote about several years ago in an essay titled “Choosing My Religion”: “A religious conversion, I have come to learn, is imperfect. At best, the convert is a palimpsest. The old writing will always bleed through.” And with me, as Peter knows better than anyone, the old writing bleeds through in my writing. The religious pride I once had in a perfectly deliberate Sign of the Cross, the purity of my soul, and the hope of the Λ and Ω, now comes through in the perfectly deliberate dotting of I’s and crossing of T’s, the purity of a sentence, and the hope I have in all the words I know from A to Z. And yet, as important as I think well-crafted sentences are, and as much as a sloppy essay annoys me, I worry sometimes—say, when it takes me an hour to write one of those sentences—that as a writer I’m hardly less controlling than I was as a believer.

And as embarrassing as it is to say, this makes me a difficult collaborator. I’m stubborn. Peter and I fight a lot—every time I give him something to read, even when I gave him the first version of this little essay. So, it’s good that before we’re collaborators, Peter and I are friends. And probably also good that he still believes in God. Some days we really need His help.