Prodigal Wannabe

It would be easier, really, if I were an atheist; even better, a prodigal atheist. Then I could descend into profligate living, waste all my substance, wreck my health, spend years wallowing in sin and, at the end of it all, return home to have God forgive all and kill the fatted calf for me. As it is, I'm stuck with being the older one, you know, the brother (or, in my case, the sister) who stays home (read: goes to church), cares for the family estate (read: spends my life writing about the Christian tradition), and has to watch as all the returning younger siblings get all the attention and food.

I'm not even any good at pretending to be an atheist. I have no intellectual qualms about believing in an Ultimate Reality that exists in and of Itself and yet loves its creatures. That's easy. It makes infinite sense, much more so than all of the tortuous efforts atheists usually make to try to prove that what we sense and can measure is the only thing that is. Okay, yes, they (the intellectual atheists) might accuse me of wanting imaginary friends, but I'm with Anselm on this one: I can imagine this Being-in-Itself even though I can't sense or measure it; therefore, I am confident that it exists.*

My problem, however, is exactly the reverse of Anselm's: I have understanding, but no faith. I'm not sure where this leaves me, exactly. Perhaps I'm not really the elder sibling taking care of things while the younger flirts with secular materialism, self-realized spirituality, post-structuralist theories of interconnection, and other such diabolical delusions (sorry, I'm feeling a bit less than even-minded today). Maybe I'm the one wallowing in sin, refusing to acknowledge my blindness and ingratitude.

On reflection, that actually seems more likely. See? It would be better if I were an out-and-out atheist: then, I would not be deceived by the appearance and behavior of belief. I would have the chance of waking up one day, looking around at my life and saying, "Oh, my goodness! It's all been a giant mistake!" And then off I'd be to the font for baptism, my sins washed clean and ready to start all over again. As it is, I've been baptized--as a child, to be sure, but I remember my baptism quite vividly; even worse, I believe in the sacrament and do not think that it should be repeated, so there you go. I'm a Christian, but not a very good one.

What do I mean by that? Well, yes, there are sins in my past that I'd really rather weren't, and I know there are things about my life that I should probably change now and haven't. But what bothers me more is my efforts at trying to change and failing so utterly. I've been saying my prayers in the mornings once I get to my office for some months now, more particularly, reading a Morning Office of psalms and prayers along with other spiritual reflections, but it still doesn't really feel like prayer. It doesn't seem fair. I believe in regular prayer! It's what I'm researching and trying to explain, but I can't do it, somehow.

If I were a true prodigal, it should have had some effect by now, right? My failing in faith would then be simply one of ignorance, cured once I learned all the answers and got the right texts to pray. Instead, I know all the answers (well, okay, most of the obvious ones that people seem to stumble over, as well as many that haven't occurred to most people to ask for some time), but I'm still out here in the cold, watching the party from outside. I know that part of my problem is precisely this feeling of entitlement, the elder sibling wanting the fatted calf, too--the irony being that the elder sibling already has all that the father owns and somehow doesn't realize it. On reflection, though, I think maybe the bigger problem is that I think I can actually do something about any of this, that I can control my awakening to faith.

Ha! how's that for a conundrum? The more I want the experience and not just the intellectual conviction of faith, the less likely I am to achieve it. Because, of course, it isn't something that one can achieve; it's a gift.

Which brings me back to my initial complaint: where's my party, anyway? Haven't I been a good kid?***

*Otherwise how could I have come up with this idea in the first place? Even unicorns aren't wholly imaginary, after all; they look like horses.**
**I wish I were a better theologian; then I might have a chance of explaining this assertion as something other than just a conviction. For the purposes of the present argument, however, what matters is that I don't have an intellectual problem with faith in God and never have.
***Well, no, otherwise I wouldn't be asking this question, now would I?


  1. I am curious - why do you think an atheist would want to "descend into profligate living, waste all [our] substance, wreck [our] health..." etc.?

  2. That would be the "prodigal atheist," not all atheists. It's a play on the parable, where the younger son goes off and wastes his inheritance. Although, from a Christian perspective, yes, it is a waste of our inheritance as God's children not to acknowledge his love, but this wasn't a post intended to argue for the existence of God; rather, I'm struggling with my own theism, as it were.

  3. Thanks again for the thought-provoking post, FB! I suppose I really only have one comment, on your conclusion that you’re a Christian, “but not a very good one.” Unless I am mistaken, you seem to think this is a bad thing, but I’m not so sure it is. After all, the Paul was quite clear that “There is no one who is righteous; not even one.” I also think I’m a pretty poor Christian, but frankly, I’m ok with that, because I’m not sure a truly “good Christian” in the sense you describe exists; for one to think otherwise would mean that he was not adequately accounting for his sins, a common problem these days, as you so eloquently pointed out recently. I think it’s natural to want to find that one text or one answer that would solve everything and make us all be just the way God wants us to be (I do too). Of course, we will all get that someday, but we’ll have to wait until we die or He comes again. In the meantime, I don’t think anyone is really the older sibling; we’re all the prodigals, but, as Christians, we know we are and it makes us uneasy, which is a good thing, because that’s what keeps pride from seeping in and leading us back away from home. This can make us feel like we’re on the outside looking in sometimes, but frankly, I wonder if that’s so because we’re looking in the wrong direction, at ourselves and not at others, as I believe you say here. For my part, I really enjoy reading your posts because they’ve helped me to look more closely at my beliefs and awaken my own faith, which I really couldn’t do when I tried to do so myself. So take heart, FB; I pray you’ll find the assurance you seek, though I know that you’re not a bad Christian for seeking it. And if you ever get lonely outside that party, just take a glance to the side; that’s where the rest of us will be standing right along with you.

  4. Bless you, Christopher! This is very wise.

  5. I always did think the poor elder brother got the short end of the stick. His fricken father wouldn't even give him a lousy goat for his years of faithful service. No wonder the younger brother went prodigal: he probably was turned off by the crap his big brother went through for their addlepate papa. :-/


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