In my sophomore year of college, I stopped going to church. Like many of my peers, I was busy with school, distracted by friends, and didn’t find church necessary. Surrounded by intelligent non-believers, I realized that through years of Sunday school, sermons, and worship services, nobody had explained to me why we believe any of it.
Suddenly my delicate structure of arguments about predestination, evolution, biblical metaphor, and forgiveness came crashing down. The foundation of my beliefs had been rooted in the assertion from my parents and church leaders that The Bible is God’s Word. That foundation was gone, replaced by a question:
Why should I believe The Bible?
To non-believers, that question is obvious. To me, it was eye-opening, crippling and gut-wrenching. I had happily marched through high school, confident that I had faith figured out. I went to college, asked why, and suddenly everything I thought I knew collapsed.
One of my biggest complaints about The Church today is its failure to explain why we believe what we do. Go to virtually any church and you’re likely to hear teaching based on a foundation of beliefs the listeners are assumed to already have. This is a dangerous disservice to the members of the church, especially the youth, who might not have that foundation.
In the context of traditional education, this approach makes quite a lot of sense. A calculus teacher will talk to his or her students with the assumption that they all understand the basics of algebra. An English composition teacher will assume his or her students can already read. The Church can not take these prerequisites for granted.
Its students come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some have a foundation rooted in blind confidence in their parents’ beliefs, ready to collapse when they encounter their first intelligent atheist. Some have a foundation based on promises of hell-fire if they object. Others have no foundation at all. If a church only preaches to those who already have a real foundation of belief, they risk losing anyone who doesn’t.
When I reached that terrifying question of why, I very nearly left The Church for good. It took years, but aided by C.S. Lewis and Francis Spufford I was able to rebuild my beliefs on a deeper foundation that included some answers to why.
I should not have had to find those answers independently. For every person like me who had the resources to dig into the philosophical underpinnings of theology, I suspect there are five more who simply give up. I can only think of a handful of times in the last few years when my church had a discussion about belief that was empirical rather than biblical. The church I attended as a child never talked about why we believed in God.
Maybe it was because the parents and leaders were scared of what would happen if they let their guard down. Bible based teaching is easy because there is always an authority to go to for answers. The nuance can be debated, but with Bible in hand a pastor can confidently stand in front of a congregation and say “do this because The Bible says so.”
Maybe the leaders were concerned that opening the door to questions of why would make them look like they lacked faith. Maybe they thought if their church was “evangelical” or “spiritual” enough they wouldn’t have to justify their belief. I don’t know what my church leaders thought or feared, but their silence on the issue left me utterly alone when I asked myself, “why do I believe this?”
I vividly recall laying awake at night in an anxious sweat, trying to make sense of God, to make sense of how I could be one of “those people” that thought there was some mystical, unknowable force out there. I remember when I sat in a Christmas Eve service and asked myself, “why do we accept this absurd story of a virgin birth from two thousand years ago?”
While everyone else thought about presents under the tree or the dinner that waited at home, I did my best to avoid a panic attack and hide my flushed cheeks as I wondered whether I and the rest of the congregation had allowed ourselves to be duped by a ridiculous story.
My blinders of tradition and vicarious belief had fallen away and everywhere I looked it seemed like everyone either had their blinders firmly in place, or was now an atheist. On a snowy day after that Christmas Eve service I went for a run up and down Cathedral Hill in Saint Paul, praying (shouting) to a God I hoped was there.
I begged God for something to help me figure out how to believe. For the first time since I’d begun asking why, I got an answer. In my mind’s eye I saw an image of a reassuring hand resting on my shoulder, and I felt that reassurance in my heart.
I’d like to tell you that I was knocked to the ground by The Lord, or that I heard His voice from the sky, but I didn’t. I’d like to tell you that I unlocked the great logic puzzle of life and proved beyond a doubt that God exists, but I didn’t.
I had a feeling, and it felt like God. As small, unrepeatable, and physiologically debatable as that fact is, it became the cornerstone in a vastly stronger foundation of belief: I called out for God, and I felt something.
Was it just a feeling? I don’t know, but starting from that feeling I began rebuilding my faith. Ironically, when I still wore the blinders of tradition I thought I could see everything. I thought I knew all right from wrong, that I had the answers to all of the moral questions. With my blinders off and tradition discarded, I realized how little I actually knew.
Rebuilding my foundation became a game of Marco Polo as I stumbled around, calling God’s name and moving toward wherever I thought I heard an answer.
The stronger foundation I have been building is much less well defined that what I had before. It’s a little fuzzier around the edges, and it leaves room for doubt. Still, it’s robust enough to withstand questions like “What if there is no God?” because now I can answer:
“I don’t know if there is a God. Neither do you. And that’s okay.”
The Church needs to be okay with questions of why. Discussing them will make The Church stronger, not weaker. If you are a church leader and you are not comfortable talking about the why of your beliefs, maybe you need to rethink your beliefs. If you are a Christian and your stomach knotted up while you read this (like mine would have a couple of years ago), take a deep breath.
It’s okay to ask why; you are not alone.
P.S. Francis Spufford has a phenomenal and unassuming chapter in Unapologetic devoted to the feeling of God. If you’re looking for a starting place and don’t mind rampant cursing, take a look.