Two young men, Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb, become friends and slowly discover they share faith. While Peter is Jewish and Scott is Catholic, their frank discussions, compiled in their new book, "The Faith Between Us," explore belief and meaning with both earnestness and irreverence.
While it was somewhat different when we first met, I learned of Scott’s faith in an exchange over e-mail. I had only actually met him once before in person—both of us were attending a reading in Boston. And for the next year we corresponded daily. Slowly, details began to emerge. We’d both studied theology in graduate school. One Sunday Scott wrote that he had just returned from Mass. He taught religious education. In another note I wrote that I was going to temple on Yom Kippur. Our references and allusions were curious: the Bible, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonheoffer. Our religious lives seemed more than tradition, more than just familial habits. There seemed to be something at stake. Then one day, while my son played on the floor at my feet, I asked Scott if he believed in God. Not only did he answer yes, but he also seemed to know exactly what I meant by the question.
The few other times I had openly admitted to someone that my faith was more than agnosticism, conversation usually turned to the meaning of the words I used. Do I believe God is a person? Do I think God has a body? Is there a heaven? A hell? I tried to avoid having to answer these kinds of questions because I was afraid anything I said about God would be taken literally, no matter how much I tried to argue that I didn’t mean any of it that way. In certain company I might not talk about religion at all. A number of close friends are openly hostile to any idea of not only organized religion, but any kind of spiritual worldview at all. Sometimes, when I am staying over at a friend’s house, or even my in-laws’, I find it impossible to say, “Excuse me for a while, I have to say my prayers.” I can think of nothing more embarrassing. So I find a time, often when everyone else has gone to bed, and I sit on the floor in the dark and pray.
Scott knew when I asked if he believed that I was asking if he had doubt also. I was not asking if he was in perfect communion with a higher power, not asking if he was “born again,” not even asking if he believed God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. I was asking if he looked for the sacred in his life, if he had encountered holiness. And then when I confirmed that I believed too, we didn’t speak explicitly about faith for a long time after. It was as if believing in God was simply a state of being, like our age, where we were born, the names of our parents. Our faith wasn’t something to talk about. For perhaps the first time in either of our lives, it became simply a way to talk to each other. It was colloquial. It was slang.
Many of my friends might still peg me as agnostic. More comfortable than ever admitting a belief in God, I still rarely let on that I am deeply theistic, that I pray, or that when I fast on Yom Kippur I am seeking real atonement. There is no risk in saying,” Well, there might be something, but I’m not sure what it is.” No one faults anyone’s agnosticism. And for those people I know whose belief does lean toward some kind of theism, they have no religious life to speak of. It’s easy to stand in between worlds, with no challenge, with no religious practice. As a Jew, this is made all the more effortless. If, say, at a party someone wants to know about my religion, I might simply say that I’m Jewish, but that says nothing about my conception of God, or if I even have one. Luckily, Jews get a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card in regards to public religiousness. There is a certain presumption that Jewish practice is merely tradition, that reading out of the Haggadah on Passover is like hunting for Easter eggs on Easter. If I tell someone I am going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, there is no hidden wonderment about my belief. Of course Jews go to synagogue on holidays. Religious practice doesn’t imply a belief in God. Belief in God is irrelevant.
Ironically, the irrelevance of belief is a very Jewish idea. The first commandment reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” There is nothing here about belief. Belief is either presupposed or else the reality of God is so certain that having “faith” in something you cannot have a direct sensory experience with is redundant. In this sense, Judaism is not concerned with faith.
More important, simply believing in God alone does not serve the world in any way. While plenty of the Jewish commandments are about religious ritual and dietary restrictions, many more are about how to live in this world ethically, how to be honest in matters both personal and public, how to be charitable, how to be just. Neither God, human beings, nor the world is improved by faith alone. It seems counterintuitive because there is a natural religious tendency to want to believe that faith alone makes us inherently good. (In the same way we often think that enough remorse should redeem us without our having to pay consequences.) But neither the first commandment, nor any of the following, mentions faith at all. The first commandment is interested in love. Even the Hebrew word for faith makes this relationship clear. The word for faith (or belief) is a derivation of the word amen, which is a declaration of an oath, a promise. In this sense, faith is not about believing that God exists, but rather believing that in some way we can be in relation with God, that we can each trust the other to fulfill the terms of this oath—in much the same way that we must relate to a loved one or a friend. In a way, we enter into an agreement of sorts, a contract that we will act faithfully, we will return phone calls, pick up the check now and again, remember birthdays. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether or not God exists in some provable or literal way, but rather that I believe in God. And I trust that God believes in me.
While not at all interested in whether I thought God might have created the world in six days, or if he had actually performed any of the other miracles we both knew from the Bible, when Peter first asked if I believed, he wanted to know whether I’d ever encountered the holy. Had I met God the way he had? Had I trembled? And then, even as I answered Yes, even while I still believed in a personal relationship with God, the efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Eucharist and the Resurrection, eternal life, heaven and hell, even then our connection was not in our experiences of the holy but in our very decision to talk about God. No, I had not trembled. No, God had never torn the roof off my life. God was never so violent. God was never so powerful. Instead, God had always had my life safely under his control. In short, we connected then in our shared belief in the basic value of religious language and the power of stories to make meaning of humanity’s encounters with the sacred.
“Yes,” I said, “I believe.” And that was the breakthrough. We started to explore faith together. Through what we thought was a shared belief in God, though, we learned to believe in each other. Today, however, after years of friendship, we face a new and perhaps bigger question: Is belief itself, the belief we thought we shared, actually irrelevant? Is the hope of encountering God even necessarily at the heart of a faithful life? Can a Jewish theist and Catholic atheist really share a faith between them?
I say again, Yes.
Peter and I still speak the same language. We can both talk of God’s Creation without my having to believe that there ever was a Creator. With God as pure metaphor, I can faithfully and religiously care for God’s Creation by living as if he were behind it all. We can both talk of the will of God without my having to believe in God himself. I can faithfully and religiously do his will by living as if there were a God. Belief, as Peter says, is irrelevant. What matters is love.
It’s as true from a Christian perspective as it is from a Jewish one. Jesus imagined a better world. In Luke’s version of the central Christian teachings known as the beatitudes, Jesus preaches that the poor will be blessed. The hungry will be filled. The weeping will laugh.
Even at our most optimistic, we rarely if ever sound so hopeful as this. That’s because Jesus believes in love more than we do—although not, I believe, more than we can. He would never ask more from us than is humanly possible.
Yes, in a strange biblical twist, by placing his ultimate faith in us, in Jesus, God acts as if there is no God. He challenges us to do the difficult things. To bless the poor. To feed the hungry. To comfort the distressed. Love God and love your neighbor, he says, and then he goes away. He dies as one of the poor, the hungry, and the distressed.