I read a fascinating piece on Buzzfeed called “Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian.” Jessica Misener writes about her zealous dive into the faith as a teenager, her six years in a community of all-in believers, and her more recent exit from the faith and all the things she misses about it – mostly the sense of love, purpose, community, and trust in a divine plan.
I think many Christians could write a similar piece going the other direction: what they miss about their life before they decided to commit to Jesus. Even those who were never not Christians, who never identified as agnostic, can usually describe a time of wrestling. A time of indecision when they had to go one way or the other: Do I believe this Jesus stuff, or am I going to dismiss God?
It’s a terribly heated moment. There’s lots of quivering and throbbing, worrying and hoping, wondering and, perhaps, praying. After all, this is the biggest decision. Do I commit to follow this God I can’t see? Or do I say “There is no God,” and leave not only the faith, but possibly my church, my family, my way of life behind? Do I head toward the cultural promise of personal freedom, or toward the religious promise of “freedom in Christ?” Which is true? And the feeling nags: I don’t know which way to go; I think they both might be trying to trick me.
It’s scary to be on this precipice, where the only options are retreat or a leap of faith.
* * *
Jessica describes her decision against the leap and into a life of agnosticism and self-described apathy.
As a Christian – one who can point to turning points of indecision – I feel sad that this woman, who seems entirely thoughtful, smart, and genuinely concerned about truth, left the gospel she once cherished. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to her reasons for leaving, which seem to be:
- A childlike fairy-tale-ish-ness about Christianity:
Losing Jesus, someone I talked to both hunched over in prayer groups and in the darkness of my bedroom, felt like losing a friend, even if he was an imaginary one all along. Many people would call this a good thing, this kicking of the ‘opiate of the masses’ habit, and I would too. Putting on my existential big-girl pants.
- Rejection of a literal interpretation of the Bible:
…a swelling doubt about the faith I’d set out to preserve, which hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God.
…If you crumple and toss out a literal reading of the Bible, then what does it mean to talk about Jesus literally dying for your sins?
I’d love to chat with Jessica to hear more about her story and her thoughts on faith – from both inside and now outside of Christianity. But, for now, here’s something to think about regarding the issues that convinced her to leave.
“We have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” – G.K. Chesterton
We don’t want to be infantilized. We don’t want to feel like we’re not in control, that we’re subservient, or that we don’t know what’s best. Religion sort of asks this of us: that we listen, trust, obey, without question.
I’d offer two responses to this childlike Christianity.
First, we are asked to be childlike in our faith, but if we think that means uncritical approval of every comment and command, we haven’t been honest about either children or faith. Children may be trusting, as we should be, but they also ask “Why?” to no end. It’s okay for us to ask that as well. God and his Word can handle our whys.
Second, Christianity is not unique in asking for childlikeness. Each of our other options (agnosticism and atheism) requires its own form.
In Christianity, childlike faith is an outright axiom. That is, trust God as a child trusts her father.
In agnosticism, it’s a childlike indecisiveness. The “right answer” is unknown – and possibly unknowable – so the decision must be no decision at all.
In atheism, it’s a childlike discarding of mystery. There’s a sort of pride in humanity’s supposedly limitless potential to do, know, explain, and conquer.
Each of these descriptions are simplifications, but the point is that childlikeness is not a feature merely of Christianity. All our options demand it. Religion has faith, agnosticism has indecision (or worse: indifference), and atheism has a writing-off of mystery.
None of these childlike qualities are necessarily bad. Indecisiveness does not have to mean giving up – though it sometimes does. It may merely mean you’re waiting for something – new evidence, new feeling, new testimony – to nudge you one way or the other. And skepticism of mystery is a good thing. We should be questioning, curious people, asking our whys. The problem comes when we start to think that any hypothesis we can’t grasp or prove by our own means is therefore false, or even that all our whys are answerable in this life.
Faith in the God of Christianity doesn’t mean you are blindly stupid or blissfully ignorant; it doesn’t mean you can’t put on your “big-girl pants.” It means you are open to being convinced of things you can’t yourself explain. You are willing to trust things beyond laboratory facts. You are willing to accept the possibility of something beyond the natural.
Whatever your worldview, there is something childlike in it. And that’s okay.
C.S. Lewis wrote:
Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
For Christians, we are called to be childlike and mature. It’s a weird paradox.
As children of God, we are not meant to be foolishly believing everything we hear or following everyone who claims to be a prophet. That’s how you get kidnapped in your faith.
What it means to be a childlike is we trust God as our father. We are responsible for our actions before him, but he also helps, guides, and forgives as we stumble through the growth spurts of the soul. We do not have to depend fully on ourselves, nor should we. We do not have to buy into the omnipresent excuse for all kinds of faulty behavior and thinking, “This is what grown-ups do.” We cannot know everything or solve all our own problems. We maintain wonder.
Rereading the Word
Jessica’s game-ending challenge was the seeming implosion of Scripture.
There is a double danger in teaching that we must read the Bible as totally inerrant, totally literal, and authoritative for all of life. There is the immediate danger that we will take all Cretans to be liars, or think heaven is in the clouds and hell underground, or that a six-day creation story is essential to salvation.
But there’s a worse danger, and it comes when we stumble upon the humanity in the divine Word.
If we have been taught all our lives that the Bible is one-hundred percent literal, inerrant in every way, and authoritative for all of life, then we are in a lot of trouble when we happen upon what appear to be chronological contradictions. What are we to do when two Christians – or two whole denominations – interpret a passage on pacifism or church leadership differently? How can we handle scientific evidence about evolution and the age of the earth?
When these things happen, the inevitable reaction is exactly what Jessica did: she saw that her all-determining view of Scripture as the literal handbook for all of science, history, and life was untenable, and without that view, how could she trust anything in the Bible or in Christianity? When even the smallest piece of that supposedly unimpeachable puzzle is shaken loose, the whole thing comes into question and, eventually, falls apart.
The problem with this view of Scripture is that when a question is raised, it is always life or death. It always comes down to: Will I reject the question and stay in the faith, or will I entertain it and leave?
This isn’t how we should view the Bible.
I won’t go into a treatise on biblical interpretation (here’s something I wrote on the matter), but I will say I believe the Bible is true, divinely-inspired, and authoritative on matters of faith and salvation.
Of course, there are slippery-slope arguments that can be made both ways. My view is that we must defend the integrity of the gospel – Jesus as God and sinless man, who literally lived, died, and was resurrected for the forgiveness of sins – but must also leave room in the rest of the Bible for some interpretation, tradition, archaeology, science, Church insight. Otherwise we have left the gospel up to us, and if we’re wrong about even a minor issue, the whole thing collapses.
That’s what happened for Jessica: she came across things that didn’t fit her model of Scripture (a model she’d been taught was essential), and when it became impossible to hold it together, she left the whole faith behind.
For our sake, for Jessica’s sake, and for the sake of honest pursuit, let’s do better.