7 Ways I’m Better Off Without Religious Certainty

I revisit The Missing Piece regularly, ever since a friend gave me the little book two decades ago.

I think I see myself in the story. The little almost-circle thumping slowly along, looking for his missing piece. Singing his song, talking to worms, trying out pieces that almost fit but don’t quite.

Then hallelujah!, he finds it. He takes it in and is now a perfect circle. He’s no longer missing a piece.

Only now he rolls faster. Way faster. Too fast. Zooms past the worms and flowers. He no longer has a hole to make him lopsided and slow him down. And also the new piece stuffs his mouth so full that he can’t sing his song any more, the one about how he’s looking for his missing piece.

So he makes a decision.

He lets his missing piece go and rolls away, thumping slowly along again, singing.

That little piece has equalled different things for me over the years. But the truth of the story has always been the same: The hole in your heart, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it’s there for a reason. Maybe missing a piece somehow makes you a better person.

Recently I set a piece down and walked away from it. It was a big, important piece.

I had spent most of my life looking for it. Then I found it, snapped it into place, and got rolling. But in time I realized that I didn’t like the person I had become. I had gone from feeling completed to feeling closed-off. No holes or imbalances to slow me down, no hungers to force me open.

My missing piece was religious certainty. A sense of surety that I know all about God. That my set of God-beliefs are the correct ones. I once had that confidence, but a few years ago I decided to let it go and roll away.

Which means that now I know a whole lot less about God. Almost nothing.

And I like it. A lot.

I was thinking today about the reasons why, and without much effort I came up with seven of them:

1. I no longer carry the burden to defend God or to convince anyone of anything. 

Part of what you sign up for with the Christian faith is the responsibility to protect it from foreign invaders. In my youth I memorized scriptures that said we should always be ready to explain and defend the things we believe. The whole world was a mission field.

This always felt like a huge burden to me. I’m introverted, and even at my surest I had doubts. Yet I was supposed to defend the faith and convince others to believe? Why does the almighty God need me as protector anyway?

But when I traded in my closed view of God for one that was wide open, one made up of far more questions than answers, suddenly I realized that it was never really God I was being asked to defend. It was my particular group’s beliefs about God. 

2. I appreciate the gifts of this life far more, now that I’m not so focused on the next. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die. I’ve been taught various things by people who think they know, but of course nobody does. In the end it all comes down to faith, and perhaps even more so to hope (two things that I don’t discount in the least).

When I decided to embrace my uncertainty about these things, to allow mysteries to be mysteries, my happiness-center-of-gravity shifted from the blessings of Someday to the blessings of Now. I don’t know if blessings await me when I die, but I do know that I’ve got lots of good things right here that have gone tragically unnoticed and sadly under-appreciated.

I can’t see what’s coming next, but I can definitely see what’s here right now. And this life is not nearly as miserable as I once believed it to be.

In fact, it’s pretty awesome.

3. I no longer get upset when I hear about what other people believe. 

I was taught that the stakes of faith-facts are enormous. That if a person believed the wrong things s/he was in danger of eternal punishment. No wonder Christians sometimes get so worked up.

One of the reasons I stepped away from religion was that this no longer made sense to me. Loving-God would not bet it all on whether or not we believe exactly the right ideas and then turn and make those ideas extremely difficult to navigate and agree upon. Loving-God would not hide salvation-truth like an Easter egg and then stand back while we scurry desperately around looking for it.

No. If there’s an afterlife (I don’t know), and if there’s a judgment (I’m very uncertain of this), it can’t be about having the right ideas. Not for Loving-God. It must be about something else.

Perhaps love.

So tell me whatever whacky theory you’ve got about Loving-God, whatever construction helps you get something like a grip on the infinite mystery of it all. I bet there’s some truth in it somewhere, and I bet it’s no more or less whacky than mine.

4. My morals are becoming my own.

I grew up learning about sin. That any action or thought that goes against God’s wishes, as stated in scripture, is a sin. Sometimes you will understand why a sin is wrong, sometimes you won’t. It doesn’t matter, if God says don’t then you don’t.

I wasn’t sure what would happen to my sense of right and wrong once I stopped believing in the system. Without very clear directions and a fear of punishment behind them, isn’t it reasonable to assume I might spin off my moral axis?

That hasn’t happened. Instead, in the absence of unquestionable truths to guide me from above, I’ve found the mental space to explore ethics on their own terms. To make my own choices and pay attention to their natural consequences. To think about the results of my actions on the lives of the people around me, and in the deepest parts of myself.

And after a few years of this I think I’ve figured something out. Most (definitely not all) of the behavioral rules I was taught from the Bible actually hold up on their own, even without calling them sin. They just make sense. People do lots of damage when they steal, murder, lie, cheat, hoard wealth, ignore the needy, use and abuse people sexually and otherwise. I don’t need to hear this from religion to know these rules are right, and I don’t need to fear external punishment to want to follow them.

I feel free now to sort these things out from my own experience and still-incomplete wisdom. I feel okay to insist that a rule make sense on its own merits, and to reject the ones that don’t. “Because the Bible says so” isn’t enough for me any more.

And when I feel the reasons for a rule deep down, I’m way more likely to follow it gladly. To do what’s right out of joy rather than obligation.

5. I have a much larger sense of mystery now.

I think a big part of happiness is mystery. Essential to bliss is a feeling that reality is infinitely larger than the capacity of my wee little brain. That no matter how long I live there will always be new things to discover, new experiences to amaze.

I think this because I’ve seen a tight relationship between having all the answers and being unhappy. I can tell you from my experience serving a church, the gripy-est people by far are also the ones who no longer have any questions or doubts. They closed their minds and hearts long ago, believing Truth to be small and easily knowable. They are among the saddest people you are likely ever to meet.

Life can feel big and scary. And the thought of death is terrifying. So early on we scramble to find answers to the eternal questions, words to fill in the gaping blanks. And there is no shortage of belief-systems out there eager to help us do that. I think that by the time we’re, say, 30, most of us have filled in those holes with something we were taught or something we found on our own. After then we rarely revisit them.

But for lots of reasons, here I am again. I’ve let go of my certainty, I’ve erased many of the answers I’d written into those blanks. I’m open now, and reality is huge.

But this time, instead of feeling scared, I’m thrilled.

6. I’m now open to Truth wherever I find it.

Or wherever it finds me.

I think God has given us heart-strings that vibrate with deep, resonant music whenever they encounter Truth. The source doesn’t really matter, God can use anyone or anything.

I sometimes used to mute those strings if I didn’t think the message was coming from the right place, or the right person. Afraid that the idea might not fit well with my belief system, that someone was trying to lead me astray.

One of the benefits to setting aside my certainty has been the ability to hear God speak to me from many different angles, without worry or suspicion. To trust my heart to recognize Truth when I hear it.

Truth is all around, as it turns out.

7. My God got way bigger. 

You know that thing where the astronauts look back at the earth from the moon and realize just how small it really is? That’s something like what I’m experiencing the further I get away from religion. I now see that the being who was put to me as God was so, so very limited. And that many of the things I was taught — theologies and interpretations — seem now to have been less about experiencing the divine and more about drawing lines around God. Attempts to contain the uncontainable, to control the uncontrollable.

When I was five Mrs. Norris taught us that God is everywhere. Up in heaven, all around, even inside of us. I remember the moment. We were in Sunday school, toes in the sandbox, and she said it. I looked around the room, trying to see God in the air. I squinted, thinking that might help. I patted all over my chest and head, hoping somehow to feel God inside. I stretched my little brain as big as it would go, trying to wrap it around this idea. But it didn’t work. I couldn’t make it big enough. How can God be everywhere?

I still don’t understand it, but I believe it. Because it keeps proving true to me.

Mrs. Norris was right about God. And I now see that that moment was the peak of my spiritual education. That was God at God’s very biggest.


55 thoughts on “7 Ways I’m Better Off Without Religious Certainty

  1. Please let me give you “Mrs. Norris’” email address if you don’t have it. She would appreciate your talking about her in such a loving way. It is thrilling to a teacher to know that students remember things they say.

    Your writing today makes me feel more comfortable with my own questions. I sometimes worry that my mind is not “closed” and made up. I don’t say that as a compliment to myself, just an admission that I am still searching. Your writing makes me see that maybe it is okay to continue searching.

    Hope this doesn’t embarrass you, but I love you and am very proud of you!

  2. Mark, Mark – You know this post is going to bring “them” out of the woodwork, right? ;-)

    If by “certain” you mean fanaticism, dogmatism, bigotry and elitism, I am with you.

    Oh, I happen to be one of “them” but not. I am a very conservative evangelical, retired pastor and former pagan.

    I was a pagan because of your list above – like you seem to have done, I tried it, thought about it and “knew” it was “overflowing with masculine bovine nitrogen rich compounds.”

    I am a Christian today because I found your points above to be the essence of the religion. Would that more would.

    Thanks again for an excellent post.

  3. Excellent thoughts! You will indeed get many responses to this one.
    I think this is why God answered all of Job’s accusations with more questions. Not a single answer came to Job, but in the end he responded, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” You said it well, if God can fit in your box, he’s not really God.

  4. Excellent! So happy for you and I couldn’t agree more.
    One thing I did learn from my time as a “Sunday School” teacher in the Episcopal church and Jerome Berryman, who created a Montessori type curriculum for children called Godly Play, was that children come with a clear understanding of God and we “teach” it out of them. That made a lot of sense to me.
    Mystery is so important.
    Thanks for your mysterious self.

    What is below, I copied from an website about his philosophy. He helped me unlearn the negative aspects of Christianity, specifically, and gave me permission to embrace my own spirituality.

    The educational theory of Godly Play is rooted in the pre-history of our species with respect to the use of ritual, story, and the creative process. Unfortunately, postmodern children are losing their ability to be active participants in narrative and ritual, which impairs their use of their own natural creativity (imago dei). The use of Montessori’s approach to education has been adapted to Godly Play in order to stimulate children’s active participation in story and ritual and to awaken their creativity for the learning of the language, sacred stories, parables, liturgical action and silence of the Christian tradition. This is the most appropriate kind of language to cope with the existential limits to our being and knowing.

    The above combination of factors enables children (and adults) to become playfully orthodox. They become rooted in their own tradition and at the same time open to others, to new ideas and the future in creative ways.
    Jerome W. Berryman, Senior Fellow

  5. amen! again! I too have recently abandoned the traditional liturgical churches of my heretofore life in favor of a church which abandons ‘stuff’ and concentrates on the awesome mysteries yet sureties of God, Jesus, and the Word… gone are the rituals.. the seasonal traditions which bind one to the practices of man through the ages… often in an attempt to put God in their box. and woe be to the next one down the street which might not use the same box! I love your whole blog but particularly I feel for points 1 and 3 as those traditional churches preached the need to share, yet spent so much time enforcing their rules that evangelism became more about them than their God.
    I recently attended the installation of a pastor into a conservative liturgical church senior position. part of the ceremony… and I do believe that is the correct term.. or ritual might work as well… anyway… was for him to confirm that he believed and stood on the three major creeds of the church… the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian.
    as he readily agreed, it occurred to me that while I would agree with them in principle, and while they do come to the primary same points of the church then and now…. they were merely men, church fathers if you will, making every human attempt to put their God in a definable box… one particularly using a series of ‘if, then’ and ‘this but not that’ statements. I sat there confirming for myself that this was the very reason I had walked… how dare I use those time honored traditions to try to remove the mystery… to try to contain God into that completed circle to which your story refers……
    and… how does one say that one confirms all three? does that mean the composite of them? or… maybe just maybe… he could confirm that he was every bit as struggling with the need to say ‘believe this not that’?
    I love your posts! I sincerely hope you reach out to that Sunday School teacher to let her know you appreciate the truth she shared!
    There’s a book entitled Your God is Too Safe.. the author escapes me at the moment and don’t want to wake the family to check it but I highly recommend it… it helped me to see that God does not belong in a box…. He belongs everywhere… in, around, through…..

  6. Your thoughts are my thoughts. I have been searching and researching God and Religion every since I was a teenager. I wanted to understand how science, theology, history, and life experiences fit together. I am still searching but have begun to understand that God is, was, and always will be no matter what I think; however this sense of “wonder” is a gift that urges me to keep believing and keep searching for more and more of “truth” wherever I find it. I am now 79 years old and am so happy to have this “uncertainty” to keep me exploring science, theology, history, and my life experiences as I continue my life journey. Thanks be to God.

    • The big problem, Nita, is we try to drag God within SpaceTime and treat Him as a finite being. By definition, He exists outside SpaceTime and is infinite. That may not hel.

      But what it does say is that physics gives us a clue to “what and how God thinks” (i.e., He is logical and rational). It also says that we cannot grasp His essence, which means what He, in some ways, remains a mystery.

      At the same time, He is, since He created SpaceTime, He is also knowable on an intimate level.

      Yes, it is a mystery, which is the very thing that makes it worthwhile.

  7. Coming to a point of embracing mystery is what it means to be a Catholic. We actually eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. And since there is no time and space in the Divine, we are actually consuming our very selves in the process since Christ and His Bride are ONE.

    • I was going to comment something similar!

      It’s interesting to me that I’ve had many of the same realizations as the author, but that my journey has lead me from astructural Protestantism (Church of Christ) to almost-agnostic self-defined belief in God (college) to the biggest, baddest liturgical behemoth of them all (the one-and-only, the Catholic Church).
      I found that my little mind could not imagine God or even imagine that I imagined God. But the centuries of brilliant theological minds have produced so many concepts of God, all within the framework of what little we do know, that through them I could approach a God who was bigger and grander than I could ever have imagined on my own.
      The Catholic Church also loves her Sacred Mysteries, yes? These deep expressions of God are so unknowable that it’s near-blasphemy to claim to understand them; they simply are: Incarnation – God-became-flesh. Atonement – God-became-sin. Trinity – God-is-three.

      Of course in his incomprehensible light, there are things we know as through a glass darkly, things God is and is not. If there are not, then God becomes nothing-in-particular, a product of a human mind perfectly capable of believing contradictory things. God IS love and IS NOT hate, yes? God IS holy and IS NOT wishy-washy, yes? God IS good and IS NOT evil, yes?

      While I think God does beautiful things in the hearts of those who approach him in devotion and humility, I am immeasurably, eternally grateful to have found the Catholic Church. May we who find ourselves in the fold of the Bride of Christ never forget the incredible blessing we have. God be with you.

  8. You have some good insights, Mark. I especially appreciate the humility that seems to surround your words. We know less than we think we know, and we just as well admit it.

    But I have questions: Is God in charge or are we in charge? If is us, then who among us? If it is nobody, then humanity is set adrift. If it is God, and he happens to loves us and intervenes among us, there is hope.

    • Vic, great comment. But think for a moment. If God is not in charge, why do we need Him? No, I am not a Calvinist. Yes, Man does have Free Will. Its the latter that causes most of our problems.

      Who was it that said, “Experience prevents most mistakes, however, experience is gained by making mistakes. ?

  9. Mark, I love your beautiful insights and always look forward to reading your blog. As a follower of Jesus, I’m not sure I have ever experienced the dogmatic certainty you describe. My ‘faith journey’ has been more of a ‘doubt and questioning journey’, so I guess we have a lot in common.

    Oddly enough, I treasure the historic creeds of the Church for the very reasons one of the other responders found them wanting; they represent a wonderful, human attempt to capture the mystery of God in words.

    One of my favorite writers, G.K. Chesterton wrote this: ‘Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair’. I will never win a theological debate, but I believe this much: despite my brokenness and doubt, I am a beloved daughter of God. My relationship with God matters more than dogma or creeds. I am called by Jesus to live a life that reflects the love and grace I have received.

    Chesterton also wrote these interesting words: ‘I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy’. I hope you find someday that the God of your faith has been in the mystery all along.

  10. “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.

  11. Such a great post! I didn’t think I would agree with you at first because I’ve always loved the missing piece book. But I think if we acknowledge that we will ALWAYS have a missing piece, we can remain thirsty for knowledge, understanding and truth. What good are we to the world if we have it all figured out? If we remain pliable and changeable and open to God’s mysteries and revelation, then this world becomes a remarkable place. Thank you for a great read.

  12. We search
    we’ve already been found.

    But that’s about the only “knowing” that stands firm. You are able to articulate the searching and the knowing — as are some of those who’ve commented.

    Thank you Mark.

  13. I found this article quite interesting. When you are taught that you’re religion has the right view of God it can be difficult to view God this way. Best wishes

  14. I wish dogmatic religious believers could understand this perspective. I used to be Mormon, and have since then adopted a similar view of God and the Universe as you’ve well described here. What a difference it makes to my daily life for the better! I’ve tried to explain what you explained to dogmatic believers, but it sails over their heads.

  15. I can’t begin to tell you how much this blog entry resonates with me and my (oh so limited) understanding of the Christian faith. Thank you.

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  17. Pingback: Religious Certainty – binarysearchtree

  18. It seems to me that there was/is so much misunderstanding by the author of this article on what God/religion is. Within all of the bullet points he appeared so poignant on there were attitudes of laziness and/or intolerance that would be the writers fault. Using religion as a scapegoat due to overgeneralization and the inability to truly understand who God the Father is, boils down to (and I said it before) the desire to not be responsible for any course of action other than your own comfort and pleasure. AKA laziness. Waxing poetic while appealing to others human urge to ommit more “things to do” doesn’t make this article the answer, and certainly doesn’t give one human the ability to give you the “answer” you’re continually trying to be validated for. Via media there seems to be so much more scrambling by those looking to be sure there is no God/religion. Why the uncertainty, yet so much vehemence on insisting there is nothing of the sort? Would suck to be wrong. Right?

  19. Pingback: Thoughts on God | TheStarrList

  20. I am not sure I believe in “God”, however like Santa Claus, maybe it’s his magic that exist all around. It is you, and me, and the energy of that universe that speak and that we should listen for and trying to be in tune with. Anyway, since leaving my own very strict religion behind I have to say I agree with you. I am so glad that piece of me is gone! My life holds more value to me now than ever before!

    • Very well said. God is ultimate reality to me. God is, was, and always will be. No magical, not mythical, just is energy, source, being and unconditional love. God is always within us, outside us, everywhere present, all knowing, etc. Words fail me but God never does.

  21. Few can say that they have been touched by God, but I have been. God as the Holy Spirit came to me in my sorrow on 6/22/79. I felt Him and knew Him. The Spirit talked to my spirit. It was like a hug of warmth like no other. The comfort of His love was promised by Jesus before His Ascension. The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit— The Trinity and yet are one God. I have faith in what the Bible as God’s Word says.
    I have been all my life a member of the Church of Christ. We must all search for salvation, for truth with fear and trembling.

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  23. This morning I came upon this quote from Thomas Keating: “The desire or demand for certitude is an obstacle to launching full sail on the ocean of trust.”

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  28. I just stumbled upon your lovely words while searching on ‘religious uncertainty.’ I was googling this topic on the heels of reading a book I think you would greatly enjoy (perhaps you’ve already read it.) “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary,” by Marcus J. Borg.

    Fantastic read.

    • I think Marcus Borg certainly left his mark as an original Christian Thinker when he passed away this week. I am so glad he left a body of work for those of us who admired him to continue to ponder and examine.

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