And Yet, Once More
To be a pastor is to regularly encounter people who find faith difficult. (It’s also to regularly encounter people who you suspect might find faith too easy, but that’s another post). There are all kinds of people in the post-Christian West whose faith kind of hangs by a thread. It retains a bit of nostalgic affection for Christian ethics, perhaps, and it craves the community embodied and offered, however imperfectly, by the church. It might even have an appreciation for mystery and a dim recognition that this life can’t be all there is. But it can often seem like not much more than a kind of half-hearted and undemanding openness to possibility. It’s a long way from deep conviction and bold faith in the great creeds of orthodox Christian faith. All that talk of virgin births and resurrection from the dead and judgment is too much to stomach. And so, faith often coasts along on the fumes of memory and vague longing, coughing and sputtering until it stalls on the side of the road.
I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s Night of the Confessor over the past week or so. Halík is a Roman Catholic priest in the Czech Republic, one of the most secular countries in Europe. His is a voice that I have come to appreciate when thinking of those for whom faith remains difficult, or for when faith feels difficult myself. Here are a few passages from this chapter that I found memorable and worthy of further reflection.
In the context of a mountain top conversation with a long-time Christian friend who announced that he simply couldn’t believe in life after death any more:
In a sense, belief in “last things” is a kind of touchstone for the authenticity of our belief in God in general. If we restrict ourselves to the playing field of this life then maybe all we need of Christianity is what remained of it after the post-Enlightenment selling off of transcendence—a smidgen of moral principles and humanitarian kindness, a slightly updated version of existentialism, and a poetic sense of the mysterious. But when the curtain is about to fall on the stage of our earthly life, all of a sudden we are dreadfully alone in the auditorium—the god of such a humanitarian religion has disappeared through the trapdoor because he was too feeble to confront death.
On how to deal pastorally with those for whom faith is hard:
If people’s potential for trust and hope has been exhausted because of the pain they have suffered, it is up to us, their neighbors, not to assail their doubts with apologetic arguments, but instead to give them close support and encouragement to regain the courage to trust, to take that step of faith that says “and yet,” “once more.”
On the “nervous laughter of skepticism” from those too old for great expectations:
Only when we truly fall silent will we be able to hear once more the voice that says to us: Fear not. I have conquered the world. I am the resurrection and the life. I am with you always until the end of the age.
Fine words, but empty promises? From behind the tent awning—and from deep within ourselves—comes Sarah’s skeptical laugh. How could that be possible, seeing that we are not only adult already, but also too old for great expectations?
“Why did Sarah laugh?” Doesn’t she realize that there is “nothing too marvelous” for the Lord to accomplish? And Sarah lies, because she is afraid. Her laughter was also an expression of her fear of trusting. “Yes, you did laugh,” the Lord insisted.
You did laugh, the Lord tells us. But maybe He’ll treat us the He did our mother Sarah. Maybe our nervous laughter of skepticism and mistrust will be transformed into the happy laughter of those who have lived to see the fulfillment of His promises.
Outstanding post,Ryan. ..and thanks for the quotes.
“……And so, faith often coasts along on the fumes of memory and vague longing, coughing and sputtering until it stalls on the side of the road.” hahahaha,thats a really Good metaphor! .. I’ve broke down on that lonely stretch a time or two 🙂
I believe from experience that there are several different approaches to faith and reasons why people believe, and hence several different responses we may need to give “to deal pastorally with those for whom faith is hard”.
For some people, faith is an emotional response to life and christian teachings, and for them, I think it is true that “it is up to us, their neighbors, not to assail their doubts with apologetic arguments, but instead to give them close support and encouragement to regain the courage to trust, to take that step of faith that says “and yet,” “once more.””
But for others, faith is a rational response to evidence, doubt comes when the evidence is called into question and disbelief comes when the evidence can no longer be considered strong enough. For these people, giving Halik’s advice seems to me to be counter-productive. They will likely feel that “courage to trust” is no more than pretending despite the contrary evidence. They need to explore the evidence, look at it in new ways, learn new facts and re-assess their former belief. Quite likely that will have to change their former belief in some way. That is my personal experience.
Then there are those who fall between the two. They hear new evidence that suggests christian faith is unfounded and this affects them emotionally. They cannot respond as Halik suggests because they are too affected by the apparent negative evidence, but they find it difficult to have the enthusiasm and the skills to investigate the evidence carefully. And so, in my experience, they tend to drift in a state of half faith, unable to believe or disbelieve or confront their doubts properly. It is very difficult for these people.
Finally, I have seen people who have emotionally decided they no longer believe, but look for evidence to justify their newfound disbelief. They will tend to scorn Halik’s response, but are emotionally predisposed to reject any evidence either. Neither response will help them, in my experience.
Maybe I am making things too complicated, but it seems to me that Halik’s response only “works” with one out of those four groups that I have personally experienced. It is helpful advice for those people, but not for the others. Those of us trying to help doubters need to try to understand what kind of doubt the person is experiencing, and then choose the appropriate response.
100% agree, Eric. Halik’s addressing a particular subset of doubters, for sure. You’ve very nicely articulated the fact that there are many reasons that faith can be rejected and each requires different approaches and responses. Thanks for this.