[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on Feb. 1, 2014.]
By Roxane B. Salonen
One of the most insightful discussions I’ve ever had about faith took place with an atheist.
It was a months’ long email conversation, closing in on a year when things finally went kaput. No matter how much we’d yearned to build a bridge between our worldviews, an impasse eventually took hold.
By the end of all our invigorating chats, we’d also grown plain tired; the adventure had run its course.
There were moments during our marathon discourse, however, when we exchanged virtual high-fives, triumphant over having proven the naysayers wrong. We created a blog together – a brave experiment, we thought – and marveled at all our commonalities despite differences.
When the elephant in the room made an appearance, we told him to get lost. And he did for a while, but eventually misunderstanding and disconnects emerged, and without a deep base to bind us, we realized we’d reached the end of what was possible.
In hindsight, however, there were gains. Though I didn’t change my stance, nor did she, the experience stretched me, challenging me like nothing else to step into another’s life and, if not agree with her conclusions, at least glimpse how she’d come to them.
The fall really came down to words and the visuals we attach to them. One of the most jolting discoveries for me was realizing our pictures of what faith is didn’t even come close to a match.
When she shared that her fellow non-believers gather regularly to “study” the Bible and pick at its myriad inconsistencies, I scratched my head. Why waste time disproving something you’re passionately convinced doesn’t exist? Why not instead take advantage of a life free of encumbrances and moral expectations from a mythical almighty?
And was it possible some atheists were more interested in the book containing one of the most predominant faith stories than the faithful themselves?
But then she shared her findings, and my mouth went agape as she introduced me to the God she’d discovered – a murderous tyrant who went on deadly rampages when things didn’t go his way.
The verses she showed me were real passages but taken out of context, and as such, had become distorted. I’d been living within the story of faith my whole life yet her version was unidentifiable to me. How had I missed that dark, ugly tale?
Our differing perspectives seemed as much to do with our differing locations as anything. She was peering in from the out, while I had been experiencing faith from the in. From her perch, the stained-glass windows looked black and marred; from mine, abundantly colorful and light-filled.
But one cannot know a faith from the outside-in no matter how hard you try. In her outside-in peering, she’d missed a lifetime of motions, songs and words filled with wisdom and clarity; things that had kept me tethered and hopeful and spoken of love and life rather than death and despair.
I realized at some point that if her version of God had been the same one to whom I place all my trust I would have walked away, too.
And so in the end, I fell to the invisible, intangible and incalculable. I uttered a prayer she might have shirked, but it was all I had left. Besides, raising a simple petition to God seemed the right thing to do. “Dear Lord, please stay near her so she might come to know you as I have.”
Recently, a friend shared with me a poignant line from the journal of Christian mystic and writer Thomas Merton.
“The world is transparent,” Merton wrote, “and God is shining through it all the time.”
Though my atheist friend and I parted ways several years ago, I still see her name everyday on a virtual prayer list on my laptop. And I dearly hope that someday the force that kept our hands from ultimately clasping will vanish, and that we’ll find ourselves stricken with delight while looking, shoulder to shoulder, upon a loving God who has been with us from the start, shining through the transparency, guiding us even when we failed to see.