Living According to a Story

By Kyle Cupp

I was born to a Buddhist father and a somewhat lapsed Catholic mother, so you could say I had a divergent and confusing theological upbringing. Essentially I heard two different stories from my parents about the almighty and everlasting. One told me that Jesus was a significant but only human prophet; the other explained how God became man. The devil featured prominently in one narrative, at least to this boy’s active imagination, but he never made an explicit appearance in the other.

My parents divorced when I was four, and with their separation came two conflicting accounts of what had happened and why. I grew up hearing incompatible stories about the here and the hereafter, about the visible and the invisible. Being the audience of multiple stories that didn’t add up, I faced a crisis of belief, at least to the extent possible for a young boy: who and what did I believe? What was the truth and who spoke it?

I had trust issues growing up.

As fate or a California court would have it, I spent more of my time with my mom, and so it’s not surprising that she proved to have more influence on my religious upbringing. Besides, my dad wasn’t much for expressing his beliefs. He had a statue of Buddha and would answer my inquiries and curiosities, but he never, so far as I can remember, sought to raise me as a Buddhist. It wasn’t until I approached double digits that my mom got right with the Church and had me baptized and receiving Holy Communion.

I want to say I was in fifth grade, having recently moved from a suburb of Los Angeles to a suburb of Des Moines, that I began to take an active interest in my faith. A good friend who didn’t look favorably upon the Catholic Church would later help push me along. He was a bright kid from a non-denominational tradition, and he was the first to really pose challenges to what I believed. I don’t know if I debated him initially because I truly believed or because he was challenging something that was mine, but my eagerness to defend Catholicism fueled a new fire in my belly to learn and understand what it was I supposedly believed. And so throughout middle school and high school I pondered a lot about God, religion, the Bible, and the teachings of the Catholic Church. I read a fair amount of apologetics and a little bit of theology.

Not surprisingly, my choice for college was a small liberal arts school in Ohio well known in Catholic circles for its dynamic orthodoxy, ardent allegiance to the Magisterium, and unwavering devotion to the faith. It was (and is) a school to which pious Catholic parents feel safe sending their offspring. There was no danger of a theology professor proclaiming something contrary to official church teaching. The student body flocked to one of several offered daily Masses. Lines for confession were always long. While not every attending student felt the fire of the Holy Spirit coursing through his or her veins, the vast majority were enthusiastically and proudly Catholic. Sellers of religious-themed t-shirts loved us.

I studied English during my undergrad years, and while I took only two theology classes in all my time there, I remained persistently smitten with God and Holy Mother Church and in constant thought about both. In my senior year I took a few philosophy classes as electives and, having fallen madly in love with the ol’ flirt Lady Philosophy, made the decision to put off paying down student loan debt so as to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. What can I say? The love of wisdom leads to unwise life choices.

You can rightly suppose that we read a lot from Catholic philosophers, but, to the school’s credit (or at least to the credit of a professor or two), we studied thinkers who I’d assumed were enemies of truth. I came in time to discover that people who didn’t conceptualize truth the way I did weren’t my intellectual adversaries. I took a keen interest in the thought of Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur, two philosophers whose works have continued to fascinate and influence me over the past decade. I may owe more to them than to any specific Catholic philosopher for how I today understand the world. For better or for worse, their influence upon my thinking has reformed how I think about God and religion and how I live my faith.

Largely because of that ancient head-screw called philosophy, a new crisis of faith whirls like a storm in my unstill soul. While I still strive for faith, hope, and love, I’ve ceased grasping for certainty. While in my younger years I could have professed my belief in unequivocal terms, I can no longer speak of my faith as a sure thing. It’s not that I disbelieve, exactly. Rather, I’m not sure that what I think is my religious belief really is genuine, Vatican-stamped faith. I ask myself questions I cannot answer. Am I really responding to a God who reveals? Or am I rather (or also) engaged in group-think or the comforts of a shared mythology? Perhaps my faith is only an opiate. Perhaps it’s my unconscious way of dealing with neurosis. At most, I hope that I have faith and that my faith teaches me to love as fully as one can. That is my hope as I walk in darkness, not really sure but with an inkling that I may have seen a great light.

My current crisis extends beyond my holding hands with uncertainty. While I’ve not given up on religion in general or Catholicism in particular, I have said farewell to a specific conception of God, namely God as explanation, and in so doing have joined hands with the atheists and agnostics, if not for the whole of life’s journey, at least for a section of the walk. To clarify, I continue to call God creator and savior, but for me God is not the solution to riddle or a formula. God’s not an answer to scientific inquiry or the end result of metaphysical speculation. God is wholly other than all these lines of human reasoning, all these constructions fashioned to explain the world. My need for God is not the need of a student seeking to explain a mathematical theorem, or the need of an ethicist looking for a basis for good behavior, or someone searching for the last piece to a grand puzzle. The divine isn’t the intellectual rope that ties the whole system together. God ain’t the Dude’s rug.

As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis. If I believe in God because God explains this, that, and the other thing, then I can be almost sure to have a belief that’s not long for this world. When science or philosophy answers this, that, and the other thing, what will be left of God? Nothing may be impossible for God, but a god used to explain the world may well, in the end, be reduced to nothing.

What is left of my faith when I have forsaken this idea of God? Having fled from the crumbling ruins of the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause, where do I go in search of the sacred? What conception of the divine lies ahead of me, having kicked the dust from my feet and departed the cities of certainty and supernatural explanation? In short, why do I still believe?

I continue to believe, to walk the paths of faith, because I believe a story and continue to choose to believe that story. More precisely, I believe in a grand sacred history that has been given embodiment in a plurality of diverse narratives, epistles, and other sacred writings. I interpret these writings in ways literal and figurative and in ways between. While I don’t look to the books of the New Testament for a historical transcript of the life of Christ, I cling to the hope that they reveal a Divine Person and give flesh and blood anew to impossible events, namely the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. On the one hand, my choice to believe the truth of these writings—writings that don’t perfectly add up, to be sure—is a decision to believe that an underlying thematic truth speaks through incredible, fantastical tales told to me by mostly unknown strangers, and passed down to me by figures holy and insidious, self-giving and power-hungry, saintly and vicious. On the other hand, I find some of those who have told and retold these stories, particularly the early Christian martyrs, to be credible witnesses. Those who have given their lives for Christ did so not merely in defiance of their murders, but as an act of witness embraced in the hope that their enemies would become their brothers and sisters. That kind of love strikes me as the height of love. And it’s been known to work wonders.

What does my faith give me? It gives me a love story. Not a story that explains love, but a story that gives birth to—and directs my heart, mind, and very being to—the fullest expression and fulfillment of love. It is a story that means everything if it means anything at all. It is a story about what it means to be human and what it means to be divine, both of which tell of what it means to love. My religion tells a love story about a humble God who reveals and who gives humanity, through the sacraments and other gifts, the grace to respond in faith, hope, and most importantly love. In this sacred romance, faith and hope are not ends in themselves, or even eternal things, but the temporal means to an eternal end. That end is love. According to this story, there is no need for faith or hope in heaven, and so you will not find them there. What you will find, if there is anything after death to find or a paradise to find it, is love.

Am I, because of my faith, better at love than those with no faith? Difficult to say, but I’m going to guess the answer is “No.” Am I, because of my faith, better at love than I would be without my faith? Also difficult to say. I hope the answer is “Yes,” but then I cannot answer with certainty. At the end of the day, I walk in darkness like everyone else, and I hope that this sacred story, the story of my life, and the stories all around me in what I see and hear are all one in the same, even while they are many and different.

I willingly admit, however, that this story to which I harmonize my life may be a fiction, that my choice to follow Christ may be akin to fashioning my life after Aeneas, Portia, Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins. It’s possible that the silence I hear in prayer is not the silent Word, but the voiceless breath of oblivion. Or it may instead be the case that my faith is terribly weak, that I see but do not observe, have open ears but do not hear. Perhaps I’m asleep in the garden or living an endless flight from Jesus’ arrest. Perhaps I am, like Judas, betray him with a kiss and seeking to make amends all on my own. Perhaps I’m not seeking forgiveness at all, and am, like Captain Ahab, poised to strike the sun if it insults me. Hell, I may have chosen the wrong religion.

My faith doesn’t free me from these unsettling possibilities. It doesn’t whisk me away from the battlefield like a protective Aphrodite. Instead, it fills me with fear and trembling and places me in the hopeless situation of not knowing what I love when I love my God. Yet I would not choose to be anywhere else. I’ve no interest in certainty, gnosis, or other false comforts. Nor do I wish to close the book of faith and place it on the bookshelf, unread, ignored and unlived. I intend to live according to a story I love, to share it with those I love, and to allow it to guide my steps and convert my soul, even though I journey to who knows where. And I intend as well to incline an ear to the voice of alterity, to reasons and rhymes that might expose my faith to its undoing. As John Caputo would say, I intend to remain unhinged.

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29 thoughts on “Living According to a Story

  1. First of all, I really liked this post, and it will take me a while to absorb what you have said in order to appreciate it fully.

    I do have one comment–maybe it’s more of a musing–on one thing you have written:

    As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis.

    It does seem to me that the “natural” has an inherent difficult in explaining “why’s” and “should’s / ought’s” It seems to me that the act of seeking the natural explanation for anything does not even purport to explain those things. (Not that it’s important, but I’ll admit upfront that I identify as an agnostic who sometimes leans toward theism and that I am not very competent when it comes to philosophy.)

    Again, though, thank you for writing this.

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    • During a discussion of the philosophy of science, at one point, a professor of my acquaintance threw out a curveball at some of the moralists in the room (sociology students).

      “Let us assume for a moment that we can indeed describe the causes of war scientifically. That is to say, at some point, someone has observations of accurate enough measure to say, ‘If you do (this set of things), you can prevent war.’ Is this ‘good’ knowledge, or evil knowledge?”

      Several students said it was good knowledge, I waited for his deliver of the punchline.

      “If we assume that this is actually accurate knowledge, then it is quite likely that there is a converse set of knowledge… that is, there is (another set of things) that one can do it *cause* war to come about. If we study one… ‘how to prevent war’, it is likely that we will discover as well ‘how to cause war’. We have therefore created evil knowledge, during the process of creating ‘good’ knowledge, if we accept your premise that knowledge itself can be ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as an essential property.”

      Science isn’t really about a metaphysical “why” or “ought”. It’s a structural “how” or a causal “why”. The explanatory domain of science isn’t really going to contain the answers to the questions you’re asking.

      Stick to the philosophy :)

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    • Thank you. I wouldn’t look to science for an explanation of why one ought to act in such and such a way, but nor do I think one need necessarily turn to religion for an explanation for why X is morally right and Y is morally wrong. Ethics provides answers to these sorts of questions.

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  2. I once read a grandmaster claim that there were five no-question-about-it good first moves to the game of chess: c4, d4, e4, Nf6, and g6. Other moves were either just plain bad (Nh6), or else interesting, but still inferior to the five good ones (f4 is actually quite playable, but it might not be my first choice in a really important game).

    Ultimately, what matters in the opening stages of the game is not which one of the big five moves you choose. In fact, you can get away with many of the “inferior” initial moves too, provided that you follow a sound strategy otherwise: develop the pieces without delay; occupy or at least influence the center; make no needless exchanges; put the king in a safe position. If you can do all that in ten to twelve moves, you’ve survived the opening.

    I think a lot of arguing about religion is analogous to arguing over which initial chess move is best. Good people — good at chess, or at life — have chosen all of the big five, so to speak, and sometimes some of the lesser ones too.

    Bobby Fischer called e4 “best by test,” and I think he may just be right. Yet plenty of awful players also play e4. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James made much of the biblical saying “by their fruits ye shall know them” — meaning, for him, that the outcome of religion was more important than the dogma. It may be that outcome is all that matters.

    If he’s right, we might not need religion-as-dogma at all. But it still feels good to play the very same move as Bobby Fischer, no?

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  3. This might seem like a small point, but as I understand it, faith and hope (as well as love) exist in the afterlife. If heaven is spent getting to know and love God, then as the old song says, after 10,000 years we won’t be any further along in knowing the infinite God than when we began. You can spend an infinite amound of time pondering the infinite. And yet, that whole infinite time you’re going to be acting on faith (because without full knowledge, there can be no certainty, and the affirmation of an uncertainty is faith) and hope (because, again, without completeness we are still on a journey, and the anticipation of a future good is hope). But the greatest of these is love, which is God, the object toward which our faith and hope are directed.

    So I think that’s why we need to develop all three while still on earth.

    I’m not sure if what you’re describing is faith. It’s definitely not certainty. It’s said that there are four approaches one can have toward knowledge – certainty, faith, skepticism, or denial (certainty of the opposite). The subject of God doesn’t allow certainty as one would be certain of a potato. (What can I say, I’m eating lunch, and it’s hard to be more certain of anything than of a potato.) So that leaves you with faith or skepticism. Whatever you are, you’re not in certainty against God, so there’s room to grow in faith.

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    • I seem to distinguish more than you between faith, which I’d define as a range of meanings from a believe in things unseen to a response to a God who reveals, and knowledge. Where you describe faith as an approach to knowledge, I consider it a different kind of act from knowing, though both may be aimed at truth.

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      • I put that badly. Where I said “four approaches one can have toward knowledge” I should have said “…toward a fact or a truth”. I realize that blurring the distinction between knowledge and a knowable thing is a rookie mistake in philosophy.

        I think you’re right that faith is both a response to an unseen thing and a response to the entity which communicates about an unseen thing. My response to a claim on Wikipedia is going to be an assessment of both the claim and the site making the claim. The Abrahamic faiths have always stressed that the claims about God weren’t being made by Moses, Paul, etc., but by God himself.

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  4. As best I can tell, the human mind has an almost infinite capacity for compartmentalization. One point I found curious: your belief regarding the reliability of 2000 year old evidence. Given your desire to believe, and the desire to believe of all the intervening retailers of the tale between then and now, maybe you should have a little more doubt. As scientists know (or should) the easiest person to fool is yourself.

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    • Indeed. As a skeptic (that’s my initial move, you know), I’d remind you that strong claims demand strong evidence.

      I have no trouble believing that a Jewish preacher named Jesus lived 2000 years ago. I have no trouble believing that the Romans crucified him. Asked to affirm the Resurrection, I’d have to answer that we need a lot more to go on.

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      • Just one Jesus? I’m fond of the idea (because it confirms my beliefs) that the Gospels are varying attempts to tell stories about a time in which radical preaching was popular, then suppressed. The differences between the various gospels, including the heterodox ones, is explained by the different messages the writers of the gospel are trying to convey. But they all refer to a common Jesus as a literary device, not as an attempt to be historically accurate.

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        • I could believe that as well. I think the evidence doesn’t rule it out, anyway.

          There’s a strong parallel here with the life of Socrates. How much of what Socrates said is Plato’s invention? How much comes from the master himself? We’ll probably never know. The same appears true of Jesus.

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        • From a biblical history standpoint, it’s pretty evident (to me) that Mark is the only Gospel that was written *about* Jesus.

          Matthew, Luke, and John were all written *for* an audience (in each case a particular different audience). Thus the discrepancies.

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        • Some of the gnostic gospels seem to use Jesus as a literary device, but the four most prominent gospels all characterize Jesus as a doer as well as a speaker. Jesus is a believable character when the four gospels are read together. Some of the gnostic writings portray Jesus differently – as different from the four gospels’ description of him as dialogue-Socrates is different from Republic-Socrates.

          Another difference is that no one tortured Plato to make him admit that his later Socrates wasn’t authentic. A lot of the gospel writers and their friends died rather than say that their Jesus wasn’t real. And their deaths indicate a confidence in, not just the words depicted in the gospels, but in the actions.

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        • I’m not sure what you mean by choice. However much or little evidence one has, that evidence will point toward one hypothesis as being more likely than the alternatives. If you don’t then go with the probabilities implied by the evidence then what you are choosing is to me more wrong than you need to be.

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          • The evidence I have at a given moment may point to hypothesis X as more probable than hypothesis Y, and yet if I’m missing key evidence or what might be key evidence, then my choosing X because X is more probably at the time could be a choice against what is real. In the case of the Resurrection, I’m not sure that we can gather conclusive evidence one way or the other, so at the end of the day, I either choose to believe it happened or I choose not to believe.

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    • Oh, I’m good friends with doubt. On some days it seasons my faith; on others it’s the base ingredient. As I mentioned in the post, I admit that my faith may not be true and it may not even be faith. I willingly remain open to those possibilities.

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  5. Kyle, I really enjoyed this post. A few considerations:

    1. My wife is a Buddhist and I am a Catholic, and I actually find a lot more in common between the two traditions than between say Catholicism and evangelical varieties of Christianity. In particular are the ideas that salvation is found by living a virtuous life, the importance of ceremony and ritual, deference to authority, respect for the natural world, obsession with death, monasticism, humans as dust, etc…

    2. You say: “As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis. If I believe in God because God explains this, that, and the other thing, then I can be almost sure to have a belief that’s not long for this world. When science or philosophy answers this, that, and the other thing, what will be left of God? Nothing may be impossible for God, but a god used to explain the world may well, in the end, be reduced to nothing.”

    I think you’re guilty of accepting the atheist’s crude reductionism as the only lens through which it may be acceptable to view the world. Science as we know it is part of the Cartesian program, which means it’s all about cutting off and isolating elements in order to understand them. As a metaphor for this process, consider the human body: we may understand the processes underlying the cell, or we may understand the mechanism of some disease, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the person; in fact, scientific knowledge only increases the amount of questions we feel compelled to answer. 10,000 years ago, before culture really took off, the big questions which we felt compelled to answer were along the lines of “what are the seasons?” and “why do we die?” We’ve answered the first question. but in so doing opened up a Pandora’s box of (literally) cosmic questions. We still don’t have a satisfactory answer for the second question. So you’re right that no natural explanation has been replaced by a supernatural one, but each natural explanation we unearth has dramatically expanded our awareness of just how much we don’t or can’t know.

    3. Have you read Life of Pi?

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