Why Do I Stay [Christian]?

Joel Michael Herbert
9 min readNov 3, 2023
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Raised far right-wing fundamentalist Christian. Transitioned into the evangelical (read:slightly less fundamentalist) mega-conference and mega-church world in my teens and twenties. Went to a seminary in my mid-twenties and started to ask hard questions of my faith, and eventually (after I graduated seminary and became an ordained pastor), left it all behind in the aftermath of the 2016 election and a massive crisis in my personal life.

But I still stick around in Christian spaces. I lead music at Christian camps and church services. I even preach occasionally. I’m not an evangelical Christian anymore, but I’m still licensed to preach. Honestly, I’m really not a Christian at all, not by historical standards (does an appreciative bromance with Jesus with absolutely zero accompanying dogma count?), but I still speak in tongues on occasion, and though I don’t “pray” per se in a devotional sense, I do meditate, and the object of my meditation is what Christians or Jews might call God, often Christ or Mary, or shoot, sometimes even Krishna.

I think people are very confused by me. Which makes sense, because I’m confused by myself most of the time. What keeps me engaging in these Christian and Jewish religious spaces (I semi-regularly attend services in both traditions), and somehow, usually, even enjoying them? Is is the familiarity, the ritual, the nostalgia? Do I still “believe,” deep down somewhere (whatever that word means)? Or is it just the allure of the community, the sense of belonging I get from the people?

I think it’s probably all of those things, on some level. I don’t even know what the word “believe” means anymore, to be honest. For what it’s worth, I have no intellectual allegiance to any of the stories in the Bible anymore, no need to defend them to skeptics, or to try to get anyone else to accept them, if that’s what belief is defined as. I do know that for me, the teachings of Jesus continue to ring deeply true, and the narrative of the death and resurrection of Christ strikes a chord in me that resonates far beyond strict literalism. That’s the closest I can get to a working definition of “believe” for me personally.

Genesis 1, the first chapter in the Bible, and John 1, the opening to the New Testament’s “spiritual gospel” — an intentional retelling of Genesis 1 — both conceive of God as fundamentally two things: Light and Logos. God speaks, and God shines. But the speaking and the shining are not mere physical actions; they carry a weight that belies a deeper Reality undergirding all of Creation. For example, the Logos that is equivocated with God in John 1 is not a physical Word coming from the mouth of God, or even a physical Voice, though Logos is often translated into English as Word or Voice — any first year seminary student can tell you that these English translations are inadequate — these words speak of a far deeper nature of reality than mere physical fact. They are, if you will, the Quantum Mechanics of Metaphysics in a religious world still hopelessly infatuated with Newtonian ideas.

These concepts of Light and Logos still ring true for me, even post-deconstruction of my faith. Whatever else God may be or not be, even if God is nothing at all like the Christian conception of God — or… Nothing At All — a God, a Foundational Reality of All Things, that is Light and Logos checks out. On a purely scientific level, even if God is nothing more than the Big Bang, Light and Logos still work. Combine that with the observable rhythms through all of nature, from the Big Bang until now, of Death and Resurrection, of Life that inevitably finds a way through the worst possible circumstances, and the basic Christian metaphysical narrative still gives much meaningful shape to my life.

So for me, the hymns I grew up singing about the “old, old story of Jesus and his love,” those celebrating “Love Divine, all loves excelling,” prayers sent to melody for a higher Power to “be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true word… riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise…” these songs still find a rich meaning in the deepest parts of my soul — and of course it doesn’t hurt that they are buried deeply in me through melodies I’ve been singing since before I could speak. Even the Pentecostal songs of longing that I learned in high school and college, “modern worship” songs that taught me how to connect my heart and my emotions to the theology in my head — perhaps my first real “trans-ing” of the strict literalism of my parents’ church — these songs still resonate, and it helps that many of them are intentionally vague in whom they address, the oft-derided “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs. Yeah, so what if he is? They still make me feel something, okay?

Draw me close to you, never let me go… you’re all I want, you’re all I’ve ever needed, help me know you are near.”

“I called, you answered, and you came to my rescue, and I just want to be where you are.”

When I feel afraid, think I’ve lost my way, still you’re there right beside me… nothing will I fear as long as you are near… please be near me to the end.”

These are the songs of mystics, not theologians. And I, for whatever else I am, am still a hopeless mystic. I guess that’s it. I can’t force myself to be something I’m not — I can’t satisfy the true believer friends of mine who just want me to give up, surrender my doubts, and “just believe” (how does one do that, exactly?). I also can’t satisfy my skeptic friends who roll their eyes at me that I could continue to embrace the “opium of the masses” when I know better now — it’s true, I do know better, and it often seems like it would be much easier to just throw in the towel on the whole thing and join them in confident secular humanist bliss… but I can’t.

I just can’t. In the same way I can’t make myself “believe,” I can’t make myself not believe. Belief, to me, has come to mean that I find something to be deeply and profoundly true. I used to think of it as mental assent to a fact, and that’s easy enough to do. When you learn that 1+1 does in fact equal 2, or that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president, it’s simple enough to “believe” those facts. But that is kid thinking. That, in the words of St. Paul (in a moment of rare inspiration and coherence), is “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and understood like a child, but when I became an adult, I put away childish things.” Just as when I was a child, I learned from tables and chalkboards and repetition, facts and figures, only later to trade those tools in for writing abstract papers, learning that you can subtract a larger number from a smaller one, and that there is in fact an imaginary number, alongside what are called irrational numbers (what???) that literally go for infinity and are often represented by some random Greek letter or other ancient hieroglyph.

Wild.

St. Paul continues, “[in the same way], for now we see as though through a glass, dimly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part, then I will know, even as also I am known.”

I had to put away childish math when I learned algebra. I had to put away tracing letters when I learned how to write a story, or an argument paper. I had to do it again in college, when algebra turned to calculus, and writing assignments had to not only be technically accurate, but substantive and beautiful, and again in seminary, when I studied the lives of deeply complex characters, and learn to not just read, but to preach and make theology (the study of the Divine — again, what???) out of stories and writings in the Bible that I was taught as a child had only very specific moral lessons in them for me, like Aesop’s Fables or the Book of Virtues.

At every stage of development, I’ve had to let go of what I thought was real, what I thought was true, and reach out for a deeper level of reality. At every stage, I’ve let go of what I thought was fact in favor of a deeper truth. At first this was easy (though at the time it didn’t seem easy!) — substitute x for a “real” number; write an essay from a perspective I didn’t agree with; memorize words in a different language and speak them in a coherent sentence that can be understood by others.

Then it got harder. In history, heroes like Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln might have been not only flawed, but said and did downright evil things? In math, imaginary numbers and parabolas and matrices and values ever approaching but never arriving at zero, or infinity? In Spanish, learning to not simply memorize another language, but to think subconciously, reason, and even dream in it?

All in all, this process has been an awful lot like learning a new language, or to play an instrument — those are good metaphors. God and faith used to be like first semester Spanish for me — learn the right answers, fill in the correct blanks, circle the correct parts of speech. It made sense because there was a 1-to-1 substitution of Spanish words for every English word. Until there isn’t. Until you get into second year Spanish, and the 1-to-1 substitution doesn’t work anymore, when the rules of English grammar don’t apply, and surprise! the rules of Spanish don’t either! It’s just an idiom, an expression. It’s just the way it is. And you wouldn’t know it was that way unless you were a native speaker, because it doesn’t actually make grammatical sense, it just is.

Or consider the metaphor of learning an instrument. Every Good Boy Does Fine and F-A-C-E work great for piano lessons for elementary school students. Memorizing how many flats and sharps are in every key — all essential. But eventually you have to leave that behind. You will never, ever, be a great musician if you can’t leave all that behind. You will get to a certain point, and then stop and never be able to progress, if you can’t overcome that blockade in your head that keeps you married to the theory, unable to let go and just play.

Jazz is like that. It’s beautiful and mystifying because it knows all the rules of music, and then breaks them. But at the same time, it doesn’t break them. It simply plays. It simply is.

It reminds me a lot of the founding story of Israel found in the book of Exodus. Moses is a fugitive from the most powerful empire in the world, being sent back to his hunters by a mysterious Burning Bush that does not Burn Up, given the impossible task of freeing his kinfolk from enslavement by the most powerful man in the world, using nothing more than the rod in his hand. Moses, understandably, in a world where the gods reign supreme, wants to know the Name of this god that is sending him on such a suicide mission. And God won’t give him a straight answer.

God presents as a Flame that does not consume, and when asked for a Name, gives Moses a non-Name: “I Will Be What I Will Be.” Is God Anything At All, we might fairly ask? Is God just another word for Being, or is God, like Daoism teaches, the great Nothing of Non-Being that gives birth to all of Being?

So maybe, at the end of the day, I stay because of the Mystery. I stay precisely because I can’t put my finger on any of it, and every time I think I’m getting close, I realize how completely in the Dark I still am. Like so many things in life, perhaps I can only truly find God when I let God go.

This may be true for you; or it may not be. How am I to know your journey? I only know mine. And I know that for 30 years I chased trying to know God with all the “right” methods — creeds and baptisms and altar calls and repentance and declarations and worship and theologies and prayers and fastings… and it’s only been as I’ve let go of trying that I’ve found a degree of knowing not possible “in my former life” in Christianity, to paraphrase the Great Apostle once more.

Maybe one day I will grow weary of the Dance, and let go to solidify into a more intelligible, consistent, comprehensible form of faith, or perhaps non-faith. For now, I’ve found both of those options to be elusive, and ultimately unsatisfying.

So why do I stay? I don’t know. I find something true in the Pursuit of the Divine, even while I maintain disqualifying doubts around the Dogma of that Divine. I find Something to be more deeply true than mere fact. Indeed, I doubt the Facts to be Factual very much indeed.

But the Facts, nevertheless, are True. So it would Seem.

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Joel Michael Herbert

Husband. Father. Artist. Storyteller. Armchair Theologian. Advocate, activist and politician. Gryffindor. [neuro]Divergent.