The Pew Research Center reports that the fastest growing religious group in North American is the “Nones” (not “nuns”, though the way things are going, there may be none of them in the foreseeable future, sorry to say). “Nones” are those, primarily among young adults but not exclusively so, who do not identify with any organized religious group. Neither do the “Nones” embrace any particular creed or champion any particular body of theological tenets. If they do, it’s the view that since all theological systems have their valid points, it’s not particularly desirable, therefore, to espouse any one body of doctrine.
As a pastor and chaplain on college and university campuses for a quarter of a century, I encountered many “Nones”. They weren’t difficult to find on campus, but they were hard to engage in a conversation about religious manners. The idea of religion simply didn’t appear on the iPhone screens and so was pretty well irrelevant to most.
However, every once in a while, I’d manage to get a “None” to sit down with me and carry on a conversation over a cup of coffee. A couple of those conversations come to mind now. In both cases, the young person indicated to me, somewhat wistfully, that he/she had been taken to a Sunday school by his/her parent or parents, but felt they had “graduated” and moved on.
“Do you think anything you learned in Sunday school had stuck with you?” I asked.
“Sure. The idea that God was a big judge up there whom I had to please, or else. I did like Jesus, though. He seemed like a nice guy, somebody I’d like to have a beer with.”
“Do you talk to him regularly now?”
“No. When I got into me teens, I found I just couldn’t believe wholeheartedly in many things I’d been taught about the Christian religion.”
“Can you say more? What kind of things didn’t make sense for you?”
“Gee, I haven’t thought about these things for a long time. It’s hard to remember one just now . . . I suppose the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin, for one. That was too much of a stretch. At my childhood church, we used to say ‘We believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary”. I couldn’t say that, or else I’d be a hypocrite. So, I kept silent during that part. After a while, I just stopped going to church completely since I couldn’t buy the whole package of goods they were selling.”
A shame, really, to abandon one’s religious quest just for the sake of what I consider a side issue in the Christian faith. It seems this person got the idea somewhere that by faith, Christians mean for one to give intellectual assent to certain doctrines. Therefore, if one cannot give such intellectual assent to something like the virgin birth, then one is being faithless, a “None”. So goes that line of reasoning.
I recall thinking that way myself when I was younger. I almost panicked as a college freshman when I couldn’t incorporate some things I’d learned at church into my developing intellectual worldview. The virgin birth was one of those things, though there were others. What would my pastor or parents say if I told them I had doubts? How could I even consider becoming a pastor if I couldn’t accept unswervingly every doctrine contained in or suggested by the Bible? Secretly, I feared I was disqualified from being a Christian, much less a man of the cloth.
It was my own campus pastor, the late Larry Martin, who helped me understand the nature of faith. “If you know something for a certainty,” he would say to me over our own cups of coffee, “that’s knowledge, information, not faith. Faith is to trust in the reality of something when you don’t know it for certain.”
“Do you believe that all that is has been created by a loving God?” he asked me once.
“Yes,” I said, “provided we can agree that God didn’t literally fashion it all in six days, but is somehow a power or force that is embedded within and perhaps guides a process of evolution.”
“Agreed,” he said. “Well, then, don’t you think the Creator of it all, by whatever means, can arrange to be incarnated in the womb of a virgin, or anybody God chooses?”
“Good point,” I conceded.
“Besides,” he continued, “I’m surprised that as an English literature major you can’t appreciate the poetry of the Bible when it talks about things like the virgin birth.”
I felt a little slighted. But also liberated. For one thing, Larry didn’t chastise me for any doubts I had about the virgin birth and any number of other matters that troubled me that he and I discussed during my college years. Secondly, I could apply my brain and use reason in reading the Bible? That was a novel concept for me at the time.
Larry was the first to teach me that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather an essential part of it. Doubt is as unavoidable for faith as is our own shadow on the sand at the beach on a brilliantly sunny day. It comes naturally and unavoidably with the territory.
My second novel, currently nearing the end of the first draft, deals with the fate of Finnish Jews and Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I have been able to weave thoughts about profound doubt into the story. As Jews in Finland begin to hear about Nazi atrocities in Europe, their faith in the God of the covenant with Abraham is sorely tested by doubt. I help my character’s struggle with faith in the shadow of Auschwitz.
A few years after college, I discovered Frederick Buechner, novelist and preacher extraordinaire, who has been my bookshelf companion ever since. He called faith “the ants in the pants of faith”; hence, the title for this post. “They keep faith alive and awake and growing.” For other such gems of religious and practical wisdom, see http://www.frederickbuechner.com/wishful-thinking-a-seekers-abc/
Until next time, live each day to the fullest. Keep asking questions and voicing your doubts, perhaps in the space for comment below. Or send me a personal message. Don’t forget to click the “Follow” button for future posts.