Al Rawiya

Foundations and Torn-Up Bibles

Author’s Note: This piece consists of the Prologue of my book entitled The Faith of an Unbeliever. This book is a spiritual and philosophical memoir about my phenomenological experience with Christianity amidst a vibrant religious milieu. As I explain in the piece, I grew up in a Christian family, school, and village. This mist of religiosity had always enveloped the entirety of my life. It was a world view of sorts, one out of which one had to struggle, reevaluate the very foundations of one’s being and put to the test one’s fundamental identity. This is the story of what happened to me. I fell into  proverbial Thomist doubt, but without the satisfaction of a rebirth, a spiritual awakening. This new identity, or this remnant of an old and scattered one, while I am left to feebly pick up the pieces, the tears in my eyes held right there, frozen has grotesquely killed my once cherished past. In short, the piece and, in fact, the book, is a depiction of a struggle, a reworking and a reassimilation of beliefs that once lay below the depth reachable by avid scrutiny. It is my heart in pieces.   

Unlike the Apostles, who were blessed with tongues of fire[1] to bless the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ, I was blessed with fear. A fear born out of my inability to comprehend where I stand in this faith. I come to you with a Christianity for the Earthly, the Agnostic, the confused, the anxious, the wavering, the Unbeliever.

Blanketed by the first snowfall in over a decade, the Cathedral of Resurrection is one of several churches in Kfaraakka, a small Greek Orthodox town in Northern Lebanon. Photo courtesy of Karim Mitri.

I live in a small Greek Orthodox town called Kfaraakka, nestled in the rugged hills of Northern Lebanon. Despite its small size, Kfaraakka boasts more than five churches, chapels, and shrines that I know of. Religion is ubiquitous in Kfaraakka, manifesting through the people –sometimes a bit too brutally. Both my parents are Greek Orthodox Christians, and that is how I was raised. My father was born and raised and stands his ground until today in Kfaraakka while my mother grew up two minutes away in Kousba, a town whose story almost perfectly mirrors ours. I was baptized on the left-hand side of the picturesque Mar Nohra. A church whose lime stones never quiver, who endured the liturgical bellows of hundreds of generations, cries of thousands of babies, whose baptismal name I share.[2] 


With all that in mind, it is worth mentioning that religion was never at the forefront of our everyday life. However, it did come into the conversation more often than you’d think, just lingering in the background. A random verse, some maxim, some way to convince me not to punch my younger brother, or eat chocolate without asking permission. A way to alleviate my fears when a big rainstorm hit or when my grandfather died. It was always here, and I always cherished that fact. It was comforting, even if naïvely. It was a good outlet, an antidote to the worries a child might have, although I never realized that at the time.


In our house, walls, shelves, and vitrines were adorned with Orthodox icons of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms, their eyes gently yet firmly looking over us, protecting us. In the dining room, we had an icon of the Last Supper inside one of the see-through light-brown cupboards. It was glorious. Each house had to have one. Icons were scattered in almost every room, and each of us wore either a cross, St. Catherine Labouré’s miraculous medallion of the Virgin Mary or a combination of the two as a rosary.


My Dad carries a paper Icon of St. Jacob in his wallet somewhere, and has a baby blue Orthodox sewn cross–a gift from the sweet nuns at St. Jacob’s monastery–laid behind the rear-view mirror of his car. My mom has a special place for St. Anthony of Padua in her heart. She always has his Icon somewhere or other, and always taught us to pray to him whenever we lost anything of value, including ourselves.

In Collège des filles de la charité Dar En Nour, Karim can be easily identified among his fellow classmates. They were all dressed in the school uniform as they sat together in the church. These masses were a common event that took place regularly, with the frequency varying depending on the occasion. Photo Courtesy of Karim Mitri

All my life, I went to a French Catholic missionary school, Collège des filles de la charité Dar En Nour, where my mom taught and the place from which almost everyone in my family graduated. It was a sweet and warm albeit in some ways backwards school. I can safely say that I owe a lot of my manners and good heartedness to the people who taught me there, and raised me the Christian way. It was a Catholic school, par excellence. We had to wear uniforms every day. A white, button-up chemise, midnight blue formal pants with the school logo sown on one of the pockets, an off-blue jacket, and absolutely no colored boots! It was a strict school with a strict rulebook, but it wasn’t so bad.


We had catéchèse classes. We would leave our class, where we had all our sessions, and go to a salle de catéchèse, which was supposed to be a holy place, where we would learn all about Christianity and the Bible. I don’t know why. 


At the time, I loved it! It meant getting out of class while everyone was still in and wasting some time strolling around the school. But now that I think about it, it feels kind of strange. It’s as if the normal class wasn’t holy enough to hold these lectures in. And in some ways, that was true. When we were there, you didn’t swear or laugh out loud, disrespectfully. You didn’t scream or shout, because well, Jesus was watching, and there was a sort of looming, not quite fear, but rather audacity that came from such a classroom. The strange thing is that the normal classroom, just like the salle de catéchèse, also had crosses and icons; it also was a place we prayed in and a place where learning in the name of Christ took place. Perhaps the crosses and icons were not as noticeable or acknowledged as something beyond a formality, but they were there, nevertheless. In the classroom, it was perhaps just something in the background.

Embodying the spirit and heritage of Kfaraaka, The Lady of Kfaraaka stands as a timeless symbol of the village's essence. Photo courtesy of Karim Mitri

As we entered the salle de catéchèse, an Icon of Mary and Jesus centered the room, old and worn-out. Directly facing the entrance door, was a big open Bible, stood on a dark brown pedestal; no one was allowed to touch it. As you entered on the left, there was a storage area where lots of books and worn-out little Arabic Bibles were placed. They were torn up with scotch tape all over them, as if their holiness differed in any way from the big and shiny one up front. I never knew why they were like that and why no one seemed to care. The Bible is Holy: one cannot drop it on the floor, sit on it, read it while one is eating or one’s hands are dirty. Still, these Holy Bibles were torn-up. They had become like that after so many years of wear and tear; the pedestal Bible was probably far older, but untouched, polished, and taken care of. We weren’t the richest of schools, but we did have two fully equipped and operating churches and one chapel that needed a lot of investments to bring it to life. Why couldn’t it have gone to those torn-up books?[3] Who reads the small, torn-up, dirty Bible? And who reads the big, clean, and pretty one on the pedestal? Who is on the pedestal?


Since I didn’t go to church every Sunday and my parents were absolutely against joining any sort of Greek Orthodox Young Man Christian Association, these classes were where I received all of my formal religious education. I still remember all the teachers and priests who taught me over the years, as an emblem of good-heartedness and faith, mostly. I still talk to them from time to time and run into them whenever I visit school, and God bless them, they’re still the same as ever and that warms my heart. It was a time of consistency, warmth, and certainty. It was also a time of grotesque naiveté.

A drone shot of the annual mass held in the gymnasium of Collège des filles de la charité Dar En Nour. Photo Courtesy of Karim Mitri

In the third grade, we were learning about Genesis and my catéchèse teacher at the time, Madame Rim, told us, “Don’t ask ‘How?’ Ask ‘Why?’” and I was intellectually unsatisfied with her entire discussion –as much as a third-grader could be. I went into class radiating wild enthusiasm; I was going to learn about how the world came to existence! If you can just take a second to imagine and appreciate how excited a nine-year old must have been after considering such a question and being promised a response. For me, the answers to my most important questions had to come from God, didn’t they? I thought a lot about what she said to me, then as well as now. The ‘How’ would place my teachers in an awkward position and so, they avoided it at all cost: they simply didn’t have the answer for it. And how much protest can you really get from a nine-year old? A simple “Because” that holds in itself no logical or semantic value, would have sufficed to shut thirty 9 year-old kids in a second. A linguistic crime. My teachers never intended to shut students away from knowing certain truths, they did not deliberately set out to corrupt large groups of youths. Nevertheless, this is how it happened.


The “why” seemed easy enough. A priori, our lives were good; God put us in this world to be good and live well. This was undebatable, a given. And so, taking this ironclad assumption, we would answer the “why did God create the world?” with the simple fact that “He loves us!” And it seemed true enough and hard to argue against. Yet, I came home that day thinking God loves me, and that’s why I’m here, that’s why the world around me is here. God loves Dad, Mom, and everyone! And that is why we are all here, and in my own little fantasy, everyone had a smile on their faces, rejoicing in the sunshine, which –oh yes- was God’s creation too. I held on to that picture for quite a long time, and it seemed very plausible to me, until it didn’t. But what else is there?


         “How?” I couldn’t let go of that question in all my years of growing up. How? How did the universe come into existence? How are we here? It was always in the back of my mind one way or the other and I went through a variety of doctrines, a variety of possible explanations, each one helping me out a little and then letting me go into skepticism once again. I started with, “God created it.” How? This loop of hows rendered the problem almost impenetrable, and it was unavoidable. It was at this moment of utter separation from the world that I identified most profoundly with the universal human condition. Thinking about it, what I was going through was perhaps the most typical character development of a self-aware human being wavering in faith. Yet through this unoriginality flourishes a certain uniqueness, a je ne sais quoi that somehow allows one to escape through the narrow crevices of universality and share one’s most intimate stories. It is only during the end of this unreachable totality of tales, canons, tellings and retellings of the same human agony that this universality accomplishes itself, a complete tale of wavering, doubt, and radical acceptance. Therefore, what I participate in is a small but essential brick in the infinite tower on the way to God.[4]


         To quench my thirst or rather alleviate my severe anxiousness, I started watching science videos online. I watched more scientists discuss the world and its how-ness than I am comfortable admitting. I learned and I learned, and it seemed to lead me somewhere, until it stopped.


I said I did it just for fun, but in reality, I had an itch, an itch to find out what in the world we’re doing here. And just writing it out like that seems beyond naïve and idiotic, like what did I think I was going to get? But I think I just needed something, an inkling of truth, perhaps a trajectory, a direction towards a truth, and that would have been enough for me. There was, and almost every scientist who gave a talk was convinced about the trajectory, about the plan to reach beyond, and answer the question of how we got here.


         However, if I were going to grasp this problem, at least rationalize it, I needed to think more profoundly and sentimentally. I needed to access a new realm of thought. A year later, I hopped on the Existentialism and Nihilism trend that seemed to catch my era of popular culture by storm. My intrigue was bluntly superficial at first and for a while.

Cover Art of the Stranger by Albert Camus

Shortly after, I bought The Stranger by Albert Camus and I remember being flabbergasted. What is he on about? Why does this feel so good? Why do these words make me feel so freed? And I was wrong; all the prejudices that I developed about this philosophical current were mistaken.


Meursault wasn’t careless, he was just an absurdist. Was he happy? Was he not? Did he believe in God? What was his answer for the “How?” I’m so worried about? I got an answer for none of these questions. I remember finishing the book and remembering all the passages about the sun shining in the sky, and pondering its meaning, racking my brain, searching up potential answers everywhere and anywhere while the answer was just there, eyeing me amusingly. The sun is just itself. The world is what it is.


Annoying, right? No one could have offered a less satisfactory answer. But think about it: the world is what it is, nothing more. It was not created by something, not architected for our good, out of love some invisible deity has for us. The world does not mean anything on its own. It is not for anything or anyone for that matter, it just is. We are the ones who attached all that other stuff through this eloquent and intricate dialectic we have developed over millennia. This is the truth Meursault came to.


This is what I kept thinking about for such a long time, pondering and reexamining every aspect of it. More importantly, where did God fit in all of this? I hadn’t the faintest idea.


So far, it has become apparent to even the least careful reader that I am in dire need of belonging to a movement, to an idea, a convincing set of words, a satisfying speech, a good book, an eye-opening epiphany that could grant me peace of mind for life. However, by pursuing this need, I ignore the principle issue and I miss the question by light-years and fall into the Sophist trap responsible for the execution of my Athenian hero.[5] By virtue of wanting to belong and search for an idea to pursue and belong to, I have failed my quest in its entirety. Thus, it seemed clear to me that if I believe something with all my heart and I am willing to defend it no matter what, I have, ironically, not reached a truth at all. But, the temptation is too great.

It is true that these dogmatists do not have the truth, but they have things I yearn for: comfort, certainty, and identity. What I have is an incessant search for the truth I know I won’t get and an uneasy feeling of constant anxiety and doubt.


Imagine sitting on a very comfortable couch. You sit cozily, your back rubbing against the soft cushion, exhaling a breath of a time well-spent. In my case, I can’t sit but I can’t stand up either, and I am forever stuck in this in-between, this bent position that has no name, no identity, no ideological place in the world, simply a glitch in the system, an action that isn’t called an action on its own without the existence of both its start and its end. I am in this incomplete state of uncertainty. How can one find comfort in that?


I kept remembering Meursault. He never seemed to leave my mind. Did he really not care that his mother died? What kind of epiphany did he undergo? I think for me to understand Meursault, I had to redefine “caring.” The same words everyone uses had different meanings for him; it was a new and authentic way of viewing the world, and for a while, it appealed to me, and some parts of it still do. I do believe there is a certain indifference to life, to living in the world, that things just happen by tautologically and incidentally happening. It helped me put to sleep once and for all notions of fate and destiny and all that is meant to be. Life is not meant to be one way or the other. Suppose it is, by whom is it meant? Who means it? Am I supposed to infer God from a manufactured linguistic passive structure that holds no apparent rational validity? How do you know it is meant to be the way it happened? Do you know any other way it happened? Can you compare?


Meursault and Camus seemed like too much of a commitment in the sense that I had to let go of the fact that when someone dies, I will feel sad and I will cry my eyes out, especially if it were my mother. That I will bury her and have a funeral service for her, and do it because that’s the way to do it. I do believe these things and their necessity in one’s life, no matter what. I believe I will be happy when I propose to my wife, when my son graduates from college. I will care and care about this life, even if a little less frantically, and even when I admit that when my mother dies it is something that happens just like the crackling yellow leaf falls to the ground. That there is no larger plan, there are no bigger pieces being moved in some invisible realm. It is grotesquely non-teleological.[6] I will be convinced to believe in what I see, in front of me, with my very eyes. But, of that can I even be sure?

End Note: I consider this piece and the book in its entirety never as an attack, an accusation, or a condemnation, but rather a salvaging, an attempt to gather whatever pieces there still are, whatever survivors, into a functioning unit, even if slightly, even if it won’t live that long. It is a plea to not give in, to reconcile Faith and Atheism, not pin them against one another. With such an endeavor, I come out with enemies from all sides out of my unwillingness, or rather inability to formulate the quintessential nature of my Faith, or its lack thereof. But falter not, because this project consists not in simple cries of helplessness but a persevering albeit catastrophic plea to restructure one’s Faith, fight for it even when one is in the darkest pits of doubt such that, if we can only see God on Earth, let us, at least, see Him. I offer an illustration of an intellectual quest drenched in a wildly personal struggle. It is an attempt to learn who I am.   

[1] “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested[a] on each one of them. And they were all blessed with and radiating the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:2-4 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE).


[2] In orthodox tradition, baptism is a full body cleansing in water and Holy oil, symbolizing Holy Spirit and fire, a tradition that goes back many centuries in my village. Through this ritual, the child is assigned a godfather, my uncle Tony, and a godmother, my aunt Rima, and a baptismal name, Elias, after St. Elias.  


[3] The diehard Marxist amongst the readers would notice this as an analogy to the people at the time of Bourgeois Christian society where a keen resemblance arises between the Bible and its reader.


[4] The myth of “The Tower of Babel” is one of a tower built to be tall enough to reach Heaven and meet God. It was built by a people whose power lay in the fact that they spoke the same language and were thus, unstoppable. God interfered and confused them by having them speak different languages, to stop them from accomplishing such grandiose goals. Gen. 11:1-9, NRSVCE.


[5] Sophistry is when one utters a superficial false statement that appears to be true, contents oneself with this appearance and refuses to delve any deeper into the subject-matter. Historically, the sophists were a group of pre-Socratic “philosophers” and whom Socrates (my Athenian hero) opposed and received a death sentence as a result of an unfair trial.


[6] A term coined by John Steinbeck to explain the way of the world: un-designed.

Karim Carlo Mitri  lives in a little olive town in the North of Lebanon named Koura. He is a writer, a researcher in the humanities and social sciences, and frankly, an avid observer of the human condition. He received his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Philosophy from the Lebanese American University and has published in the fields of Renaissance Literature and Women’s Studies.



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