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Faith Adrift

I’ve long held a fascination with doubt and unbelief. As a child, I wondered why some people believed in God and some didn’t. It was unsettling to me that it was possible to “read” existence in such radically different ways and with, at least so I thought at the time, with such dire consequences for getting one’s reading wrong. 

Like many who grow up thinking, implicitly or explicitly, that life is a contest to see who dies with the most right ideas in their head, I was drawn to apologetics, to rational arguments about God and religion and who’s right and who’s wrong. I studied philosophy of religion in university and exerted tremendous energies trying to find the one rational system that could encompass all the others (and, if I’m honest, to justify my own religious convictions). In graduate school, I wrote a master’s thesis on the “New Atheism,” interpreting it as an incoherent howl of moral rage against the God they claimed not to believe in—a theodicy, of sorts. Here, too, underneath my stated task was a thoroughly apologetic goal: I wanted to prove to myself and others that belief was rational, and unbelief was not (or at least not as rational). I suspect that long time readers of this blog (which is, incredibly, thirteen years old today!) will recognize that this thread has run through much of my writing over the years.

As it happens, unbelief was on the menu last Sunday during worship. For the last three years or so, I have set aside the Sundays between Epiphany and Lent to address faith questions of the congregation. I usually get a fairly wide range from the practical to the hermeneutical to the existential. Last Sunday’s question might have encompassed all three: “Is it un-Christian to doubt one’s faith?” I remember when I first saw that question thinking, “Well that should be right in my wheelhouse! God knows I’ve spent enough words on issues of doubt and faith over the years!” But in the process of writing the sermon, I discovered something. I’m not really as interested in apologetics as I once was. I wasn’t super keen to “make the case” for faith, at least not as a dry, rational exercise of lining up arguments and mowing down objections as I once might have been.

Perhaps it’s simply that I’ve grown up a bit (wouldn’t that be something?). There is something blessedly naïve, even charming, about the idea that matters of faith and doubt can be reduced to mere rational arguments, and that the doubter is simply waiting for an eager beaver with an armload of books and essays and proofs and to come and save the day. Arguments might help a bit here or there, but nobody embraces their view of the world for purely rational reasons. We are irrational and emotional creatures to the core. Our faiths and our doubts go far deeper than what can be proved or disproved. This is true of all times and places, certainly, but it is certainly true in the present cultural moment where nothing is settled, where everything is up for grabs, where nothing is given and everything must be taken.

51VgOGDn1bL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Timothy Larsen addresses this in a recent review of Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. The story of the rise of unbelief is often told as the inevitable triumph of reason over faith and superstition. But this doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story, according to Larsen (and Ryrie). The roots of unbelief can also be traced through the emotional lenses of anger and anxiety—anger at frequent abuses of ecclesial authority, anxiety at some presentations of church teaching (i.e., predestination, eternal damnation, etc.). These inexorably led to a thoroughly moral critique of belief. Reason is playing a role in all of this, but it certainly isn’t steering the ship. Emotion is doing most of the heavy lifting.

What I found most fascinating about Larsen’s review is his diagnostic of the sociological phenomenon of the “nones”—those who check off “none” when asked to describe their religious affiliation. It’s not so much that people are consciously rejecting faith, he says, but that it was never passed down, at least not in any kind of compelling form. This failure may even have been for good, or at least understandable reasons. Christianity’s history of coercive forms of evangelism or catechesis makes churches and parents reluctant to truly commend the faith. The rise of overall living conditions and leisure culture and the welfare state mean that people no longer feel a need for church in the ways that people once did. And gradually, faith becomes peripheral, ornamental, nostalgic, perhaps, but nothing terribly vital, coherent, or compelling.

According to Larsen, the story of the rise of unbelief is, broadly speaking, not so much about any kind of explicit disavowal of faith as of its gradual drifting away:

Repeat the cycle just once, and you have a generation that hasn’t necessarily rejected religion—but, in all likelihood, hasn’t been initiated into it. When the English soccer star David Beckham’s daughter was born, a journalist asked if he planned to have her christened. He replied, “I definitely want Brooklyn christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.” This is not a culture of having rejected religion—whether intellectually or emotionally. Many of the “nones” don’t know how to pray for the same reason they don’t know how to read Roman numerals: No one taught them when they were young, and so they now assume it must not be worth learning. Maybe Jill doesn’t believe in God because her grandparents let her parents stay out late on Saturday night and then sleep in on Sunday morning. Anger and anxiety play their roles, but so does apathy.

This fits with what I see and hear out there in the post-Christian wasteland. It fits with the palpable anxiety I encounter in pretty much every church circle I’m a part of about the dearth of young people in the church. It fits with the parents who grieve that their adult children have little to do with God or the church, who sometimes feel like failures for not being able to pass along a robust faith, who wonder what this says about their own faith. It fits with what I hear in conversations with many Gen-Xers and younger, who often embrace a smattering of causes and exotic beliefs about the world, who claim to believe in something or to be “spiritual” but have no coherent moral or metaphysical architecture in place to support and give shape or substance to things.

I guess the moral of the story is that apathy and inattention can be powerfully destructive responses to the world. A generation or two of this, as Larsen says, and you arrive at a point where an influential person can utter a sentence like, “I definitely want my child christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet” and nobody really bats an eye or ponders the head-spinning cultural and religious confusion such a statement evinces.

And, perhaps more importantly, the moral of the story is that Christians need to be able to understand, articulate, and practice faith as an all-encompassing way of being in the world that actually addresses our deepest emotional needs of belonging, meaning, forgiveness, moral vision, redemption, and more. This is not necessarily the time for better arguments for faith, although these can undoubtedly do some good. But human beings are far more than argument processors—we are emotional, social, meaning-makers to the core.

So, for those of us who care about matters of faith, those of us who worry at all that is being lost as faith drifts away, those of us who grieve the isolation, anxiety, and triviality that our cultural moment seems to be breeding, this is more likely a time for an appeal to the gut than to the brain, to emotions rather than to reason alone. It’s a time for demonstrating and speaking about the ways in which faith matters in the world and in our own lives. If, that is, it still does.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jimmy the Kid #

    Thanx for the post… the last two sentences I think are very important. Over the years, I have had a shift in thinking of what my role is in the world as a Christian: I have moved from an emphasis of going to Heaven when I die, to trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. If we are into justice, mercy, compassion, helping the poor/widows/orphans today, I think that is something our kids and the world can embrace as meaningful.

    January 22, 2020
    • Thanks, Jimmy. I think that the church, at its best, should seek to articulate and live out a faith that is expansive in vision and in hope—for this world and the next. Any time one is emphasized at the exclusion of the other, we settle for something less than the total gospel.

      January 22, 2020
  2. howard wideman #

    Hopefully a faith that involves Christ. The word christened should give Beckham a clue

    Sent from my iPhone


    January 22, 2020
    • You would think… 🙂

      January 22, 2020
    • Paul Johnston #

      Take heart, brother. Let us do what we can. Pray, fast, worship, experiencing the joy of Christ, then giving our permission, allowing that Spirit of joy to animate our being. This is discipleship. This is evangelization.

      And when the Spirit seems to have abandoned you, pray, fast, worship. I like to think that the Spirit never leaves us, rather that the world is a very demanding task master and I often follow its commands.

      January 23, 2020
      • Thank you, Paul. What you say here is surely true. The world is, indeed, a demanding taskmaster.

        January 23, 2020
  3. I was listening to a recording of Billy Graham preaching last night on shortwave radio and it made me realize once again just how far we have drifted away from the plain and simple Gospel message.

    January 23, 2020
    • I admire Billy Graham as a human being, but I think that the gospel he preached was too small, at least sometimes. I don’t think he ever intended to preach a gospel of individualism and “decisionism” divorced from discipleship, but I think this was often how he was heard. I think the gospel is far broader and more all-encompassing that individuals and where they go when they die which seemed to be the focus of much of his work. Again, I don’t think this is unimportant, but it’s just not nearly enough.

      January 24, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        Your observations here resonate with me as well, Ryan.

        I am often awed and humbled by the obviousness of Mr. Graham’s faith as I have been by many evangelical believers but I too am concerned over the focus on individualism. Intentionally or not, it seems to have left the door open to American style capitalism and its politics over, “christocentric” understandings of discipleship.

        Without some universal principals that transcend our cultures and their politics, we will remain a fragmented body of Christ.

        January 24, 2020
  4. Rick #

    I resonate strongly with your movement away from making the “case for faith” and instead, practicing one’s faith “as an all-encompassing way of being in the world that actually addresses our deepest emotional needs of belonging, meaning, forgiveness, moral vision, redemption, and more.” In my younger years I was consumed with “making the case” but completely disregarded practicing the necessary disciplines that create the foundation for drawing on my faith to meet my own deep emotional needs. And I fear that I have passed that absence of healthy practice along to my own children as I see them struggle in their youth to practice either of those kinds of approaches to faith or belief. It has now become my quest to learn how to draw on a new kind of hope that comes from a wellspring of emotional wellness built on that kind of faith. All too often still, my hope is built on “the case” which is not capable of filling the void in my soul.

    I would also offer that there is a need to distinguish between the the kind of doubt that is a direct contrast to “certainty” and the kind of doubt that you describe as “unbelief”. To the first kind of doubt, there is a bright side – one cannot have faith without doubt. Some doubt can be a healthy thing in that scenario. But I agree, the kind of doubt or “unbelief” that we see around us today can only be met by the kind of life-encompassing faith that you also describe – the kind that meets our deepest emotional needs. Lord knows we need it – the ever-twisting quest to come up with a unique identity of some kind certainly isn’t meeting our need for emotionally-meaningful lives!

    January 23, 2020
    • Amen. Very well said, Rick.

      January 24, 2020
  5. Richard #

    I would like to read your thoughts regarding the connection of this post to the stats that show the greatest number of those who have left the church and faith are those in the last half of their life. Not only not “passed down” but “given up on.”

    January 24, 2020
    • I’m not sure which stats you are referring to (“greatest number?”), although I am certainly aware that abandoning the church and/or faith is not the unique province of the young.

      How do you interpret this phenomenon?

      January 24, 2020
      • Richard Thiessen #

        Rick Hiemstra from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Published Jan 8 2020. The greatest declines in weekly attendance are in the Silent Generation and Boomers if you compare their early experience to today. I dont know how to interpret this.

        January 24, 2020
      • I assume this is the article you’re referring to?

        I suppose the easiest interpretation would be that the rise of the “nones” is at least in part attributable to the ebbing away or decentralization of faith in the Boomers and the Silent Generation. What we’re seeing today is the fruit of trends decades (or more) in the making.

        Of course dividing people into these neat categories always runs the risk of oversimplifying. Boomers and Gen X-ers and Millenials and younger are all swimming in the same cultural waters, after all. We’re all influenced by the individualism and consumerism that is rampant in our time. We’re all making our way downstream of the enlightenment with the rationalism and disenchanted view of the universe that it spawned. We’re all struggling to cope with the digital age and how it is rewiring our brains. So, there are obviously huge cultural, economic, social, and philosophical trends underneath all of this data.

        And I’m also just old-fashioned enough to not be prepared to get rid of theological categories of sin and stubbornness and hard-heartedness as telling part of the tale, too. This is true from Gen Y up to the Silent Generation because these are human tendencies. Surely at least part of the story of all this decline is because the way of Jesus is demanding and we would rather be our own gods.

        Oh, and, as I said in the post above, the church must also own its own failings in this narrative of decline across all generations. Church history is a bit of a mixed one. We have done much that is good and commendable. We have also, at times, portrayed that gospel as decidedly less than good news, and we have sought to transmit it in oppressive and self-serving ways.

        Here’s another piece that a friend linked to yesterday that also describes the landscape in what I think is a pretty accurate (and sobering) way.

        January 24, 2020
  6. Paul Johnston #

    People don’t willingly leave someone or something they love and depend on.

    January 24, 2020

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