My son, Fowler, sent me a quote by Frederick Buechner this week that speaks directly to the point that there’s no simple answer when considering the existence of a higher power.

“Many an atheist is a believer without knowing it and just as many a believer is an atheist without knowing it. You can sincerely believe there is no God and live as though there is. You can sincerely believe there is a God and live as though there isn't.”

You may need to read it twice. I did. After which I figured the key here is not what you believe, but how you live, i.e. behave.

Later in the week I read an online missive by my current favorite theological writer, Richard Rohr, about mysticism and experiential knowledge.

“For me, the word mystic simply means experiential knowledge of spiritual things, as opposed to book knowledge, secondhand knowledge, seminary or church knowledge.

"Most of organized religion has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority (Scripture, Tradition, or various kinds of experts) instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience itself. In fact, most of us were strongly warned (by church hierarchy) against ever trusting ourselves.”

I know this was certainly the case for me. So much so that the first time I went to Assumption Abbey to learn contemplative prayer, over twenty years ago, I was very, very anxious.

That changed to joy in short order, as I was welcomed into their world and transcendent tradition, immediately feeling close to God in a way I had not experienced since childhood.

This morning W.W. O’Bryan sent me a post by Catholic priest and writer, Ron Rolheiser, in which he discusses what makes for a practicing Christian.

Rolheiser believes that church must be understood as family: that simple immaturity, hurt, confusion, distraction, laziness, youthful sexual restlessness, and self-preoccupation – the reasons why most people who do not go to church stay away – do not mortally sever your connection. You remain a family member.

Toward this point, he provides a quote from Reginald Bibby, a Canadian sociologist of religion: “People aren’t leaving their churches, they just aren’t going to them – and that is a difference that needs to be understood.”

Fr. Tom Stroot spoke directly to this in a homily out at Sacred Heart in Frontenac a while back, saying, “I know that some of you are worried by the fact that your children or other family members aren’t going to church. Don’t pray for them to come back. Pray for them where they are; that Christ be working through them and in those around them in the present. They just need to know we’ll be here if they choose to return.”

Back to Rolheiser, “You don’t cease being “a practicing member” of the family because for a time you aren’t home very much. Families understand this. The church, I believe, needs to be just as understanding.”

Returning to the question of atheism, belief and behavior, I’d like to share a story I heard long ago in a spiritual workshop I attended.

A circuit riding, travelling preacher came upon a farmer who was working on the Sabbath and began berating him for violating the law of God.

The farmer respectfully explained that the spring weather had been very bad — wet and cold — and, because the day was dry and warm enough to plant, he needed to get his seed in the ground, else he feared he’d lose his crop, putting his family in peril.

Undeterred, the preacher self-righteously challenged the farmer, asking if he considered himself to be a “good Christian.”

The farmer took off his hat, scratched his head and replied, “Why I don’t rightly know preacher. I guess to get a good answer to that question, you’d have to ask my neighbors.”

— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499.