Welcome to the first Bishop In The Grove book club discussion about our February book, Faitheist, by Chris Stedman!
Let’s get something out on the table: I have never done a book club before. As such, I’m kind of winging it. My hope is that it can be informal, conversational, and ongoing; I envision there being multiple BITG book club posts about Faitheist. This one is simply designed to get the ball rolling.
Let’s get started!
First, reading this book made me wish I could give Chris Stedman a huge hug. I kinda love this guy. His willingness to tell his personal story, a very vulnerable act, is nothing short of inspiring. Think what you will about atheism, Christianity, or interfaith dialogue, but you cannot deny the courage it takes for a person to tell their story to the world. And more than that, Chris frames his story as an introduction into a deeper conversation about the identity of others. He’s looking for dialogue — real dialogue — and offering himself up in an attempt to initiate that dialogue.
Chris may not be a Christian anymore, but there is a selfless, sacrificial-like quality to his approach that reminds me very much of the Jesus I admired as a young man. When speaking to atheists, Chris asks the potent and controversial question: “Do we simply want to eradicate religion, or do we want to improve the world?” One should not underestimate the gravity of that question in the circles that he moves through.
There’s also something bardic in the telling of his story. There is a message, a meaning, that transcends the book-jacket subtitle: “How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.” Chris, I believe, in his quest to form connections with the religious, is trying to inspire us all to recognize our common humanity, and to acknowledge that that is enough to justify our striving toward peaceful interaction. Our shared humanity is the universal base from which we can construct all kinds of meaningful and sustainable communities.
About mid-way through the book, I came across a passage in Chapter 5 (Unholier Than Thou: Saying Goodbye to God) that caused me to put the book down for a few days; it affected me quite deeply. Chris tells the story of making his way to El Salvador on a pilgrimage of sorts to the site of Monsignor Óscar Romero’s assassination. Chris documents a series of connected events that occurred; events the include a discussion he had with a fellow student about a tattooed Bible verse on his leg, the emotional impact of being in the church where Romero was killed, and the revelation that the verse which he’d discussed earlier — a verse which he regretted having made permanent on his skin — was the very verse that Romero had preached about on the morning of his assassination.
It was Chris’ evaluation of the events that gave me pause.
“I don’t know why I felt I needed that episode to be intentionally orchestrated in order to cull significance from it — it was significant on its own merit. I imagine that a desire for purpose is innate for many of us. We presuppose that learning occurs within larger, cosmic narrative structures. Things matter because there is an implicit reason behind their occurrence, and it is our job to discern the organic meaning within. Constellating and creating our own sense of meaning from such moments can feel insufficient; discovering some preordained answer seems more compelling. In that moment I wanted to be handed a fate, not fashion my own.”(93)
The conclusion that Chris reaches here is, itself, insufficient for me for several reasons.
First, this rationality still feels like an extension of Christo-centric thought. I read this and think, Who said anything about intentional orchestration? That concept is born straight out of a Christian paradigm. One needn’t believe in a god that is authoring your life in order for you to see the meaning inherent in a series of events…. or even to recognize that there is some kind of authorship taking place.
When Chris says that “things matter because there is an implicit reason behind their occurrence, and it is our job to discern the organic meaning within,” I shout YES! But I also recognize that this story — a story that he, himself, told by unpacking events that were strangely, clearly connected — was, in a way, a story being told to him.
It might not have been God doing the telling, but it was certainly not a story that he wrote all on his own. I wanted for Chris to see was that the people on the bus, the tour guide, and even the memory of his fallen idol were themselves the ones telling and authoring this story to Chris, about Chris.
(That’s the making of a mystery in my book.)
For some, this might be the moment when they say, “It’s God,” or “It’s the Goddess,” or “It’s _______ who made this happen,” and I — like Chris — think that’s missing the point. It is awe inspiring because it is happening, not because it was orchestrated. And I’m a believer that awe, wonder, and reverence even, are natural and fitting responses to events like the one he had in El Salvador… even if you don’t ascribe them to a deity.
You see – I’m trying to get at a kind of transpersonal awareness that felt missing from Chris’s re-telling of this one story. His evaluation was, to me, lacking because it did not acknowledge now, from his present vantage point, that this series of events was somewhat awe-inspiring in its unfolding. He included the story, but then missed the opportunity to experience any kind of wonder at the coincidence. It didn’t have to be a wonder born from a Christian context — or even any context which ascribes all meaning to the supernatural — in order for there to be wonder.
And as a religious person, I value wonder. I value uncertainty. I value and honor the mystery of human life and its intersection with non-human life. Chris demonstrates throughout the book a deep love of justice, equity, and humanity. His love is commendable; inspiring, really. I wonder if there’s any way for Chris — or other non-theists and Humanists — to cultivate some degree of love for and wonder at the mysteries surrounding the experience of being human.
Is it possible for an atheist to make a space for the kind of wonder that feels integrated into the lives of many religious people, without adopting a set of beliefs that is in contradiction with hir ethics and principles?
Perhaps that answer will come in the memoir Chris writes about his life from ages 25 to 50. Or, I might be able to shoot him a message on Twitter and see about interviewing him for the blog!
Now, onto the discussion!
Did you have a similar reaction to this section of the book? How did (or do) you read it?
If this ties into another section of the book that resonated with or affected you, feel free to share that as well. This is the first of several book club posts inspired by Faitheist, and I will likely bring elements of this first conversation into my subsequent posts.
[And for our March BITG Book Club Book, check out the icon at the top of the right sidebar or the BITG Book Club page!!]