The Lenten period commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism. During this period, he meditated on the mysteries of the faith. After the forty days, he emerged from the desert and began his ministry in earnest.
It is traditional over Lent to give something up. By doing this, the community collectively expresses its repentance of the sins for which Christ died, occurring several years later at the end of the period commemorated by Lent – which we now call Easter.
This Lent, I decided to do something different. I am an atheist, albeit an occasionally tormented one who is sympathetic to faith in general (if not some of its specifics). This year, in order to raise money for Mencap, I am giving it up. I shall take part in all the traditional religious Lenten activities – worship, fasting etc. However, the heart of my project lies in an honest attempt to think about and inhabit the world in a Christian way – that is, to try to reflect on my experiences according to Christian narratives and imagery, and to be sensitive to any kind of presence of the divine. I shall spend the next forty days, like Christ, in a period of tormented reflection, hopefully emerging on the other side, and preferably with some kind of profound new insight.
Aside from the charity fundraising side, I have actual theological interest in this project. I am a theology student, specialising in philosophical questions. As such, I know a fair bit about certain aspects of faith. However, I am totally ignorant about others. This project will hopefully change this, giving me some first-hand experience of what it is like to live a life of faith.
I’m quite open to the idea that religion is a way of seeing the world that can only be apprehended as true ‘from the inside’, where you can see how well it fits our experience, so in order to properly ‘give up atheism’ I need to learn to be able to see the world like this. Furthermore, I’m open to the idea that there is a God that people authentically know in an interpersonal way. Obviously there would be no way to tell if this were actually the case even if you did have an intimation of this sort of relationship, but seeing as this is such a central part of what seems to be the Christian experience I need open myself to the possibility of meeting God in this way. And the only way to do that it seems is to inhabit a Christian form of life.
There are some obvious potential issues here. The first is that my project seems to assume that you can just ‘choose’ to think about the world in a certain way. People who I’ve spoken to about my project have expressed incredulity at the idea that one can just decide to have faith. Indeed, if it is at all possible, then it makes trouble for the old atheist argument that you cannot expect people to have faith if you do not give them a convincing rational argument such that you put them in a position in which belief is involuntary.
This, however, is wrong. Obviously you can’t just leap into a gestalt switch off the bat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ease yourself into it gradually, through effort and reflection. After all, a person who has just converted to a religion probably won’t think about the world in the same way as someone who has been a member for a long time will. But they will slowly cultivate that way of thinking during the process of their formation.
Secondly, there is the issue of how I know what a ‘Christian way of thinking’ is? I can’t see inside other people’s heads, so any image that I try and live up to can only be a simulacrum of the true believer.
This is more of an issue. The solution here is to note that a) this is a problem for all converts too, who also try and think in a ‘Christian’ way and b) we don’t question the way people think in terms of authenticity once they’re ‘in’ the Church. Consequently, it seems to me that a Christian way of thinking is just one that involves being guided by the sorts of narratives and images you acquire within your religious community, and can’t be specified more than this. As such, I will draw from the three and a half years I’ve spent thinking about theology in order to try and frame my experience in this way.
So far, the process has been difficult. I have realised firstly just how strong the anti-religious sentiment in me can be. I am angry at how it has hurt people that I know and care for, and how it denigrates things which I believe are good and true. Furthermore, as a transwoman, there are sides of religion that are directly less positive for me, which I am forced to confront. One of the most challenging aspects of the process so far has been trying to negotiate this opposition and find the grounds for faith in light of it.
I have also realised just how hard faith is in itself. It is a huge commitment, and places you under enormous pressure. There are so many problems you can encounter which challenge your ability to hold it, and I admire the steadfastness displayed by actually religious people who keep both faith and good spirits in the face of them.
Most importantly, though, I have realised just how little I really understand faith. The process has been humbling, requiring me to reflect honestly upon myself and my approach to the topic. Over the past week I have come to realise two main things: firstly, I am far less capable of grasping the nettle by the leaves than I thought. I have had to capitulate on the more conservative theological approach I previously considered best in part because I just cannot make myself believe its contents. Secondly, I am quite theologically arrogant, and up until Saturday held an impractically high standard for ‘satisfactory’ faith.
That said, the process has also been really enjoyable. I have gained many insights about my own character and inner life, and, even only a few days in, it has helped me develop a better understanding of myself. I also feel like I have grown in my understanding of faith in general, and thus in my understanding of my faithful friends. I’m not finding it easy, but it is rewarding, and I’m really curious about what I will have learned and how I will have developed at the end of the process.
In the meantime, I’m writing a daily reflective blog here. Check it out to follow my progress. The reflections mentioned in this article are much more fleshed out in its entries. Furthermore, it’s frank and personal, so if you’re feeling voyeuristic it’s a good opportunity to explore my inner life.
If you are interested, you can donate here. The cause is really worthwhile, so please give generously if you can!