The Faith of a Wimp

In Tom Matlack’s last column, ‘Questioning My Faith,’ he declines to choose a particular religion. One reader thinks that makes him a wimp. Here, they talk it out.

[Read the article that set off this discussion here.]

So the whole point of this article is that you chose to take the easy way out. Instead of thinking, praying, researching issues that are deep and difficult, you’re just going to worship and make idols of the things around you. Instead of standing for God and being a strong example to your son of what that means, you’re going to make your son into your God. Wimp.

Michael

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No, the whole point of the piece was that I spend most of my waking life thinking, praying, researching issues that are deep and difficult.

I am a practicing Episcopalian, but my search has led me deeper, into faith of a more general variety. Yes, I see God in the moon, in my kids, in my wife, in the world around me. I think that is what all the great prophets have taught. Did I misunderstand your point?
Tom Matlack

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With all due respect, is “faith of a more general variety” really faith at all? Does believing in things that are physical in nature really require any faith? I have faith that my car will start and drive me to work—big deal. I have faith that the sky will be blue and the sun will be bright—so what? Is there anyone on Earth who does not possess that kind of faith? If not, then is that really “deeper,” or is it as shallow as you can possibly get?

Religious faith, by definition, is hope and belief in things that are unseen. This is the faith that your son is asking about, and that he wants you to provide him guidance on. He wants to know if you think there really is a creator, an all-powerful god—not whether he himself is a god, or your wife is a god, or whatever else that makes your particular life happy and comfortable. Just like your children (especially your sons) desire the wisdom of your experience and look to you as an example for everything (how to conduct yourself in social situations, react to difficulties, act in competition, etc.), they also crave spiritual wisdom, and for you to set the example of what a man of God looks like.

Would it be inaccurate to say that, by looking for God in these things (or people), that you are using them as idols? If you think that calling them idols is exaggerating, that it’s merely looking for some semblance of God in his creation, then can you really know a man (or God) by merely looking at his art, his inventions, or even his children? If not, then how do you get to know him, especially if he seems unreachable? One way is by talking to others, perhaps friends of his who are probably closer to him than you (pastors). Or you could read a book about him (the Bible). Or, even though he seems hard to reach, you could still try communicating with him (prayer).

If “all the great prophets” are saying the same thing as you suggest, then are they really all that great? Well, there is one prophet that said something completely different. And I don’t think anyone could dispute that he was great, whether you follow him or not. Hopefully it’s obvious that I’m talking about Jesus. Isn’t he the only one that should matter to an Episcopalian (and therefore a Christian) anyway? Andy why is that? What is it that made Jesus so great anyway?

For starters, he spoke incredible words of wisdom that are very widely quoted still today (2000+ years later), even by atheists. He performed miracles and incredible feats of healing, providing, multiplying food, altering physical objects, controlling the weather, fulfilling hundreds of ancient Old Testament prophecies, and demonstrating without a doubt that he had supernatural powers, in front of thousands of witnesses at a time. And not only all of that, but he lived a flawless and sinless life, too.

Or did he?

Think about it, if Jesus really didn’t do these things, or if he really did sin, wouldn’t the people who witnessed the sins or the lies about what he did (or didn’t do) have come forward, especially after he had been brutally executed? If the people who followed him were not fully convinced that he was who he said he was (the messiah, God become man, etc.), then would they really allow themselves and their families to be tortured and killed for Him?

Sorry to drone on, but I just wanted to explain, logically, why in comparison the rest of the “prophets” are really mere fools, or at the very least just flawed and sinful humans.

I know it’s not easy to pursue something that is invisible. But there are plenty of logical reasons to believe in a real, personal, all-powerful creator of a god, and there are plenty of reasons why your son (and other children, and wife too) want and perhaps even need for you to be a spiritual role model for them.

Hopefully I can encourage you to be just that. To dive into your Christian faith and get really deep. Then the next time your son asks, you can tell him with great conviction and purpose. Or better yet, he won’t even have to ask, because he’ll know the answer just by watching your example.

—Michael

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Have you been to the Temple Mount and seen how Jews, Muslims and Christians treat each other? It’s not love but violent hatred. The wars of the world have been largely born out of specific faith, where one group of people has decided they have direct access to God and go about killing those who believe in a different faith.

I respect your belief in Jesus greatly. I would never try to convince you that your faith is not valid. If you have been saved by Jesus and it is working in your life, that’s all I need to know. To me, the question of God and faith is not something anyone else can answer. That is exactly what I mean when I say that my own faith is of a more general variety. Let me try to explain a bit better.

Fourteen years ago I was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal for putting together a $2 billion deal. I was 29. That week my wife kicked me out of the house for being a drunk and a cheat, leaving behind two baby children. I sat in a church parking lot on a sunny Saturday morning with nowhere to go, wondering what I was going to do. I called my mom and tried to explain to her how I had gone from wünderkind to homeless in a matter of hours.

I eventually got an apartment and started to pray. I went to AA and heard other men tell their stories. No one tried to tell me what to do. The first night I had my baby son at my new house overnight, I fed him a bottle for the first time. I inhaled the smell of him and felt his body go limp in my arms. I realized that I had completely missed the reason I was put on this earth. It was in that darkened room, holding my boy, that I first felt God’s loving hand.

In the months that followed, I spent a lot of time trying to define what I had felt—to put a name on it and erect a picture of God in my mind to hold onto. Ultimately, I just let go and comforted myself knowing that there is a God who has a plan for me, and I really don’t need to concern myself with what that is and what He looks like. To me, it all came down to the third step of AA, which says, “Turn your life and will over to the god of your understanding.” To this day, when the going gets tough, I find a private place, get on my knees, and recite those lines.

Perhaps what spoke to me about AA’s broad view of faith is my own grounding in Quakerism. The Quakers believe that we all have an “inner light” that allows us direct access to the divine. They were formed at a time with the Church of England was corrupt. So it was important to them that each person have the religious freedom to define their own vision of God, undisturbed by intermediaries with ulterior motives. In Quaker meetings, there is no minister or priest—only silence. And when any member of the meeting is moved by the Spirit, they rise to give testimony (originally, they literally “quaked” with faith). The Quakers were and are Christians. They believe in Jesus. But just that we each see Him differently.

In my original piece I held out a bit on purpose. I actually do believe in Christ. I take communion. My family attends the Church of Our Savior, a lovely Episcopal chapel literally down the block from our house in Brookline. My son Cole was baptized there. My wife and I were married in a very similar church in Tuxedo Park, New York. So I guess you could actually call me an Episcopalian, though I have never referred to myself that way.

On Sunday morning, we can hear the church bells ringing as we walk out our front door. I have grown very fond of the priest, the congregation, and the physical space with its stained-glass windows and spiritual air. What I like most about going to church on Sunday isn’t the music or the Bible reading, or holding my wife’s hand. It’s the time to rest and think. To pray. And to hear a man I like and respect talk about faith in a way that I can understand and reaches beyond Christ. He is talking about the Bible for sure, but his message is much broader than that. He challenges the congregation to take God’s word and live it as broadly as possible. Which gets to the crux of my faith.

I believe in Christ. But I also believe in the Buddha. And I believe in Allah. And I believe the Jews are right. And my atheist friends are on to something too. I believe in one god that we all find in different ways. When I hold my children or kiss my wife or see the moon hanging in the window, I remember that I am a just a speck of dust in a massive cosmos over which I have no control. And the goodness of my life is a miracle for which I am eternally grateful.

—Tom Matlack

photo by lonnaj

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Well said.

    Press, Radio, and films.

  2. Kevin Shea says:

    I have admiration for those who have found a faith or a way of believing that they can embrace with conviction. It does not equate with courage, though. You could make the case that it is its own form of cowardice, because by believing so strongly in something one can stop thinking and questioning. It has, more often than not it seems, the unfortunate side effect of making the believer close minded, exclusionary and in the extreme cases, irrational.

    Nothing wrong with a little irrationality, it is a necessary component of faith in anything. It is not, however, logical. This is where Michael’s case starts to fall apart. He says that he is trying to explain logically why prophets other than Jesus are fools or flawed mortals, but the entire premise is based on faith: believing what the Bible says.

    Sorry, but you can’t make a logical case based on premises that aren’t supported by logic (i.e. able to be proved).

    It’s nice to think that Jesus was original, but he wasn’t that original. All faiths that I am familiar with have prophets, teachings, etc. that talk about love and faith and kindness, about the need to live virtuous lives, The Buddha, the Torah, Krishna, Allah, all of them.

    Michael may be right when he says there are plenty of “logical reasons to believe in a real, personal, all-powerful creator of a god”, but that doesn’t equate with any particular faith. That belief can be pursued no matter which shrine you visit or prayer you say. It is unfortunate that belief, as it is being defined by those who strongly believe, too often becomes exclusionary.

    I wasn’t aware that having the courage to admit that you don’t know, that you don’t have all the answers in a neat bundle, signified being a wimp. On the contrary, it takes courage to say that one doesn’t know. Kudos to Tom for being brave and honest.

  3. I agree with the original column.

    I do not believe in god or a higher power. Instead, I choose to put my faith in things that are tangible. My friends, my family, etc. Instead of blindly living my life by the rules of an old book, I think for myself.

    And let me tell you, if you don’t think it took a never-ending busload of faith to be a Red Sox fan prior to 2004 then I don’t know what to tell you.

  4. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks Daddy Files. And Ron yeah I am not the greatest when it comes to the Traditions. Seeing as my whole story of sobriety is out there in book form not sure I can hold back now. Agree Kevin that the only thing I find offensive about any religion is when they claim to know the one true path where all others are relegated to inferior status. All too often in this world that is the case, and bloodshed and war soon follow. I gotta believe that God, whatever your belief, is about human compassion.

  5. David Wise says:

    “I am a just a speck of dust in a massive cosmos over which I have no control.” This quote is perhaps the only thing I don’t agreed with. To me, it’s the same old “we are but filthy rags in the sight of God” sentiment that Christians have. I believe we are co-creators in the universe and each of us possess a part of the divine. We are immortal souls and choose our karmic paths in life. Shanti

  6. Tom Matlack says:

    Agreed David. It is just way of fighting the ego which tells me I am way more important than I actually am. That said, my belief is like you that we each carry the Devine in our souls.

  7. Ken Goldstein says:

    Faith almost by definition has to be personal. It is a decision we each make, what to believe. Institutions lure us with the promise of belonging, which we all desperately need, but in offering that bait, almost universally trade on our insecurities with the exercise of power, their underlying purpose. My sense is that the group exercise of conformity over the individual’s right to self determination is at the core of religious corruption — the turning of moral ideals into judgment, which for me represents the antithesis of faith. If faith is personal, my decision, but acceptance in an institutional sharing of faith requires me to subordinate my personal redemption to the judgment of a gathering of strangers whose true agenda can almost never be transparent, how does judgment (qua indictment) help me to better determine what I actually do believe or can believe? If faith has the potential to be the root of all goodness in that its author and owner can make the choice to lead a life that is selfless, judgment has the potential to shut down the reflection of the individual and replace it with conflict that is manifest in expressions of ranking. That isn’t to say that belonging cannot help us make better choices if honest dialogue is shared, but the arrogance of proclaiming one’s own reflection to be superior to others cannot likely help the emerging moralist to be anything but silenced, weary, and ultimately angry. The laws of society are delicate and necessary for us to live among each other, but the core value of faith and spiritual inquiry would seem to me always to be a function of the private rather than the public, thus the value of institutional judgment in assessing that which is personal will always be more a conduit of conflict than resolution.

  8. Fascinating conversation, here. Faith, by one definition, is “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” Hope and conviction are not the currecny of wimps. I read in Tom’s work a struggle between conviction and humility, which is a noble struggle for any person of faith. My life of faith is not so much about taking a stand for something as it is being committed to the search for that something. And the orientation to that search shows itself in the life I live – or so people tell me. I, like Tom, “practice” Christian worship, but am not afraid to embrace what is of value in other faith traditions, or even to acknowledge value in them.

  9. Sandra Parrotto says:

    Now this is a meaningful conversation…Such a difficult one, as well. There are specific “rule out” factors that make being a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist exclusive. So… for someone who sees their faith with reverence and conviction, they are left feeling as if they’re on the outside or “wimping” out. As Ken Goldstein mentioned, the “promise of belonging” cuts deeply when we are excluded from belonging as someone of faith because we choose not to buy into the “rule out factors”.

    I find myself in conversations with those who have chosen to “belong” and am left feeling not wimpy, but certainly unacceptable. Am asked to provide proof for what I believe, justify why I won’t buy-in and then seen as an alient (uninformed and skewed). Everytime someone writes about an experience close to mine, as Tom has, I am grateful for the support in simply believing – for being on a path that questions, learns and searches for the answers to my humanity. Thx to the Good Men Project – you continue to amaze me…

  10. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks Ken, Roger and Sandra for expanding the conversation. As always, the goal is conversation about the most important topics, not close ended answers.

  11. Randy Strauss says:

    Christianity is a religion. Faith is spirituality. In that sense, religion is a path and faith is the destination. We may take different paths, but we are all heading towards the same place.

  12. The phase that stood out for me in this article was “a picture of God in my mind to hold onto”. If God is an incorporeal spirit, then we can’t really form any picture of God. And even if we believe that Jesus was the Son of God made man, we have no way of knowing what He looked like. I think the Jews were/are on to something when they refrain from depictions of God or even from saying His name. Since the Bible tells us that man was made in the image and likeness of God, it should be enough for us to see God in one another.

  13. Kevin Shea is absolutely right when he says that your friend Michael’s argument unravels when he tries to make a rational case for something irrational: faith in what cannot be proven. A point that I think Michael misses is that faith in something doesn’t automatically give your life meaning, or guide your actions in any way. You could have faith that, for example, someone has already died for your sins, and so you can just relax and do whatever, because you have insurance against sin. I’m not saying that’s Christian dogma, but it’s certainly one way it’s interpreted by people.

    People turn to religion for different reasons. Meaning is one, but so are a desire for community, transcendent experience, moral challenge, or social acceptance. I found myself within organized religion for a few years, because I was humbled and grateful to be alive, and I wanted to express that in a way that held meaning. I found the laws comforting and adherence a meditative, spiritually rewarding practice.

    But once those laws no longer held me through faith, I was lost again. I’ve since regained comfort in expressing my more religious impulses, in whatever way comes to me. I think I still find, as Daddy Files does, that my faith belongs in the world. We should have faith in our marriages, friendships, and children. I have faith in my dog, and in the sun rising.

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