In my earlier post today, I summarized the comments I received from my initial question, “What are the one or two biggest challenges you face to staying Christian?”
Now we move to part 2, which is ways in which you have found to move forward. Most of you found it very encouraging to be able to lay out the challenges you face, and I know many readers were encouraged by watching that process. I am hoping that part 2 will continue along those lines.
I’m a little nervous about moving on, though, because ”moving on” commonly implies minimizing the challenges–”Oh that’s not really a problem. Here’s the answer, now move on.” I would like us to avoid that common pattern.
I’ve thought quite a bit about “why move forward?” so I’m not just winging it here. However, I do not want you to read my own thoughts below as any sort of mandate for the rest of you, an attempt at an iron-clad defense of Christianity, or an etched-in-stone “here I stand” statement.
These are my present thoughts on addressing and living with the challenges to staying Christian, and you are free to accept, ignore, modify, be bored, whatever.
I will number them (because I have German blood) as separate items, but these reflexions overlap.
1. I don’t think the life of Christian faith is fundamentally “rational,” by which I mean it cannot be captured fully by our rational faculties. I have long felt that a God who can be comfortably captured in our minds is no God at all. I see our sense of what is rational as often more the problem than the solution. I am not for one minute saying “reason doesn’t matter.” I am using reason as I write this. I read and write books. I mean only that the life of the mind has its place as an aspect of the life of faith, not its dominant component.
In other words, I belief that faith in a true God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational) and mystical. I try to remember that as I work through intellectual challenges–and I mean “work through,” not avoid.
2. Related to #1, I see the two pillars of the Christian faith as expressing the mystery of faith: incarnation and resurrection. Though conscious of reductionism, I see these two elements as making Christianity what it is, and both dodge our powers of thought and speech. I don’t mind saying I find it strangely comforting that walking the path of Christian faith means being confronted moment by moment with what is counterintuitive and ultimately beyond my comprehension to understand or articulate.
3. In dealing with the various challenges of reading Scripture–especially as a biblical scholar–I try to keep #s 1 and 2 before me. Over the years, I have expressed this process by way of an analogy (not “identification”), often referred to as the incarnational analogy–Scripture is a full and unfettered participant in the ancient cultures in which it was produced (as Christ was a full participant in 1st century culture), thus reminding me to expect Scripture to reflect an ancient, other-worldly, mindset rather than my own categories of thought.
4. I have had my share of “God moments” in my life. I’d like to have more–maybe I’m just not paying attention. I know that any alleged subjective experience of God can be explained otherwise, but I have had some experiences that lead me to question those alternate explanations.
5. “The things I want to do, I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do, I end up doing.” I feel there is something deeply wrong with this picture, and the Gospel story explains me. Let me stress here that this isn’t “proof” of Christianity. In fact, it is my Christianized self that even leads me to phrase my internal struggles by co-opting Paul’s language from Romans. But for me, this is a piece of the puzzle that becomes more evident the older I get.
6. Embedded in some of these points is my growing conviction that “journey” or “pilgrimage” is a powerful metaphor for the Christian life. Hence, I expect at times to be in periods of unsettledness, uncertainty, fear, and other sorts of things that help remind me that who I am, where I am, and what I think do not define the nature of reality. Ironically I feel exploring my own realities more deeply are a means by which I can learn to relativize them.
7. I have come to believe that periods of struggling and doubt are such common experiences of faith, including in the Bible, that there is something to be learned from such periods, however long in duration they might be. I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to me to end the journey.
8. This final thought only occurred to me recently, and I am not sure if I am gaining some insight in the second half of life or if I am missing something. As a brain-oriented person, I have tended in my life to look down on those who say things like, “If I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t make it through this,” or “If God isn’t real, I don’t know if I can hold it together.” These sorts of sentiments always struck me as irrational, for the weak-minded, those who “needed” a crutch. If Christianity is true it has to be for reasons other than “I need it to be true.”
In recent years, however, I have begun to see this from a different angle–and this ties in very much with #1. I have begun to see that those who cry out to God may be perched at the very point where true communion with God begins, because they are in the unique position of surrendering fully from self to God.
I see this modeled in Job, who is given the choice at the outset of the book of whether he will trust and worship in God because he is well off, etc., or whether he will surrender and trust/worship God because…well…no “because” other than God is God–i.e., for no discernable reason external to the current crisis. (I owe this insight to a guest lecture C. L. Seow gave in a Wisdom Literature class of mine many years ago.)
Those who truly suffer have no where else to go, which means they have fully surrendered–including giving up anything under their control, any “reasons” for holding on. Perhaps it is only in suffering that we can die to ourselves and put our (overactive, western, rationalistic) life of the mind in its proper place. We just cry for help, free of what we have constructed of God.
I know I keep returning to the idea of mystery, but that is where I am (and where I am is what this post is about).
Anyway, this is how I am at present living with the genuine challenges to the Christian faith. Take all this for what you feel it’s worth. Now it’s your turn–just try not to be as longwinded as me.
In a post last week, I asked you to think about the one or two biggest challenges you face to staying Christian. Including private emails, I got about 300 responses, many of them heartfelt and moving. Thanks for your courage and honesty!
Although a wide range of challenges were mentioned and specifics naturally differ, I grouped them under five broad categories below. I hope this helps.
One request at this point: As we continue here, I want to remind you that this is not the place to defend the faith by offering counterarguments to what has been expressed, no matter how sincere. Neither is it the proper forum for former Christians to chime in and offer their opinions on how these challenges lead to one and only one “logical” conclusion.
There was a fair amount of this type of banter in the previous post (and in a follow-up), and such responses tend to dishonor those who relayed their experiences. I will be diligent in removing comments from this thread that I feel are driven by an apologetic motive in either direction. There are other websites that do this sort of thing. If you feel you really have something to say, ask the commenter for his/her email address and permission to send an email with your thoughts.
My intention for writing the post was not to undermine faith nor to set up issues for which I could give pat answers. I simply wanted to give people the space to express themselves in a spirit of trust and group support for the ultimate purpose of encouraging a continued walk of faith, however that might be configured in each person’s experience, community, or theological tradition.
To utter one’s deepest fears about their faith is for some only slightly less risky that buying heroin on a street corner, and such fear is too common a phenomenon in the various iterations of conservative Protestantism, i.e., for traditions rooted in the importance of detailed and absolute knowledge on a wide range of topics. For a variety of reasons, these “systems” are not viable for a considerable element of the Christian population. It is what it is. And, like any conflict–internal or otherwise–talking about it unloads a burden, a first step to at least getting some perspective.
I’ve numbered the main categories below, but these aren’t rankings (except for the first, I suppose, which seems to be the overarching stressor expressed). I am simply summarizing what I saw as the themes that came up. If you see an angle I am missing, by all means tell us.
I’d like to list my own top challenges at the end. Then, in a separate post (coming within a few hours–I don’t want these posts to be too long), I’d like to give you space to talk about why you stay on the path of Christian faith. This will only work if you limit your comments not to what others should or should not do, but how YOU navigate the challenges–either generally or specifically. Keep it personal. I’d like to begin that conversation by laying out some of my thoughts.
Anyway, here are the 5 main challenges I saw in your comments.
1. The Bible, namely inerrancy. This was the most commonly cited challenge, whether implicitly or explicitly, and it lay behind most of the others mentioned. The pressure many of you expressed was the expectation of holding specifically to an inerrant Bible in the face of such things as biblical criticism, contradictions, implausibilities in the biblical story, irrelevance for life (its ancient context), and the fact that the Bible is just plain confusing.
2. The conflict between the biblical view of the world and scientific models. In addition to biological evolution, mentioned were psychology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. What seems to fuel this concern is not simply the notion that Scripture and science offer incompatible models for cosmic, geological, and human origins, but that scientific models are verifiable, widely accepted, and likely correct, thus consigning the Bible to something other than a reliable description of reality.
3. Where is God? A number of you, largely in emails, wrote of personal experiences that would tax to the breaking point anyone’s faith in a living God who is just, attentive, and loving. Mentioned were many forms of random/senseless suffering and God’s absence or “random” presence (can’t count on God being there).
4. How Christians behave. Tribalism, insider-outsider thinking; hypocrisy, power; feeling misled, sheltered, lied to by leaders; a history of immoral and unChristian behavior towards others (e.g., Crusades, Jewish pogroms). In short, practically speaking, commenters experienced that Christians too often exhibit the same behaviors as everyone else, which is more than simply an unfortunate situation but is interpreted as evidence that Christianity is not true–more a crutch or a lingering relic of antiquity than a present spiritual reality.
5. The exclusivism of Christianity. Given 1-4 above, and in our ever shrinking world, can Christians claim that their way is the only way?
These issues aren’t new. We all know that. They keep coming up, which is sort of the point. I understand that some may feel they have found final and universally applicable answers to these issues, but the fact that these issues don’t go away tells us something: either the answers aren’t all that persuasive or the answers aren’t getting to where they are needed.
Whatever the reason, in my opinion, opening up and talking about these things with others also on the Christian path should not be the exception but the rule.
As for my own challenges, I resonate with all of these on some level. My personal top challenges–those nagging back seat issues that keep forcing their way to the front seat–are: various issues of intellectual implausibility, few and far between “God moments,” random suffering, and the fact that Christians can be complete jerks to each other and everyone else (I being chief among them, to borrow Paul’s words).
“Implausibility” is a word that a couple of the commenters used (also “plausibility structure”), and it captures well what I am thinking here. So as not to be misunderstood, let me elaborate on just this first point. The issue is not really the miraculous nature of Christianity, but things like: Heaven portrayed as “up there” and hell beneath; if Jesus is coming back to judge the world, what’s keeping him, especially since NT authors (Paul, Revelation) seemed to think this would happen very soon.
For many of you, I know I’m singing to the choir.