After the waiter refilled our drinks, my friend looked up from his bowl of chili and asked a question. "What would my life look like," he said, "if I believed in God I mean really believed in God?"
He'd just returned from a trip to Mexico, where he'd encountered some Christian missionaries who traveled about, approaching people to talk with them about Jesus. They'd left behind families, homes and jobs, and yet cheerfully told him that they were "unbelievably fortunate" to be doing what they were doing.
My friend isn't looking to sign on for the missionary nomad life, but he does have some serious questions about the role faith could have in "real" life. He wonders what would happen to our lives if we felt like God wasn't just an idea, but as real as the car we drive or the person sitting next to us. Or if we really believed we're accountable to someone beyond ourselves and the people who love us.
What if it really mattered?
Most people don't mind if you say you believe in God, as long as you don't let it get in the way. It's "nice," but it really doesn't seem to have much to do with the life you lead every day in the real world. God, for many, isn't much of a factor when we're busy trying to keep up with a Day-Timer, dealing with the kids or trying to negotiate our way through a difficult relationship. Sometimes that changes when we're facing something that scares us. But how relevant will it be to whatever you're going to do after you finish reading this?
I didn't have any ready answers for my friend. But if he really, in his gut, believed in God, wouldn't that change almost everything? If there's a God, and that deity is responsible for my being here and being who I am, shouldn't I allow that kind of a God to "get in the way"? If there's a God, how close should I let him get? Is it enough to think of a God who created me but is, in the end, too busy to be very concerned with my everyday activities and the outcome of my life? Or one who is concerned about those issues but believes it's now safe to be a spectator and hope for the best, because I've been given the things I need?
Christianity teaches that God's son came to Earth and was tortured and killed on our behalf. If that's true, should it have any impact on the way I live? Judaism teaches that the Messiah has not yet come, but may at any time. If that's true, how should that affect my outlook? Buddhism and Hinduism don't really focus on God as a being, but believe that individual enlightenment is achievable through a series of reincarnations. If that's true, what does it mean for my life? Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but not as God, and Mohammed as at least his equal. If that's true, to whom should I look for guidance?
Often, when we do look to someone for guidance, for advice that carries authority, it seems to be to someone who does have a firm belief in God. Why do we respect that in a person? Why is it that we almost universally admire people of strong faith and wish we were more like them? Many people when asked to name their heroes included Mother Teresa on their list. Why is that? Perhaps there is something in us that recognized something in her, something bigger and maybe better than ourselves. How did that get there?
What, my friend wanted to know, would be different about us if we arrived at a point of consistently strong belief? Would anyone notice? After all, most people try to be nice and get along with others. What would we devote our time to? Would our relationships change? Would we treat our significant others, family members, friends and co-workers any differently than we do now? What about total strangers? Would we change our attitudes about work and money? Our priorities?
The renowned spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once wrote, "To say with all we have, think, feel and are 'God exists' is the most world-shattering statement that a human being can make. When we make that statement, all the distinctions between intellectual, emotional, affective and spiritual understanding fall away and there is only one truth left to acclaim: God exists."
And if God exists, and I can own that belief, then my perspective has to change. Somewhere lies truth, and my need to decide if truth is what I'm comfortable with it being, or if it's something that's there regardless of what I think.
I do believe in God, but sometimes I wonder, like my friend, if that belief reaches my core, and how accurately my life reflects it.
God. What difference does it make?
Tom Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education and a free-lance writer.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.