You Don't Have to Be a Believer to Believe

As I made plans for my mother's memorial mass at the tiny St. Vincent Catholic Church in Pentwater, Michigan, I asked my brothers and my mother's grandchildren -- with some trepidation -- if they'd like to participate in the service.

There were the Prayers of the Faithful to be read, as well as two passages from scripture, and the bread and the wine to be carried to the altar.

My trepidation was not unfounded.

My nephew, an evangelical, jumped at the chance to read from Romans. My son and daughter, who grew up in St. John's Episcopal Church in Oakland and are now an


St. Vincent Catholic Church, Pentwater, Michigan. Photo by Barbara Newhall

agnostic (an apatheist to be more precise) and a beginner Buddhist respectively, agreed to take on Isaiah and the Prayers of the Faithful.

But my brothers and some of the grandchildren were uneasy at the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of people to read from a document they didn't believe in. One granddaughter thought she might be able to read a passage, but only if it didn't mention God.

Exasperated, I blasted out an email. "It's not necessary to 'believe' the scriptures!" I declared. "'Belief' is seriously overrated!"

Between my nephew and my own children, I had enough readers to fill all the reading slots, so I offered the two "non-believer" granddaughters the wordless roles of carrying the bread and wine to the altar. They accepted happily.

What I didn't tell my nieces was that to my mind, while the offering of the bread and wine doesn't involve words of assent to - belief in - any kind of doctrine, the act does reflect another kind of belief, the faith and trust kind. It is the bringing of a hopeful heart to that which is. (Or as Christians would put it, to God.)

I want to argue that my "unbelieving" nieces are not unbelieving at all. They are full of trust and love and light. They showed up for their grandmother. They generously carried the bread and the wine to the altar of a tradition they neither understood nor subscribed to.

As I see it, they did all this with a great deal of hope -- and belief.

c 2015 Barbara Falconer Newhall. All rights reserved.

For more on this topic, read about Harvey Cox, who asserts that you don't have to believe to be a Christian . . . Are you a Somethingist? Find out at "They Don't Believe in God, but They Do Believe in Something"

Barbara Falconer Newhall is the author of "Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith."