Defending the Faith
Due to my decision to start college at the age of 66, I have been privileged, for the past three years, to spend most of my time attending class, studying, and socializing almost exclusively with 18- to 22-year-olds. The intense course of study at my small liberal arts college creates a community of students that are extremely well read, thoughtful, curious, and very open to in-depth conversations about almost anything pertinent to being human. Including religion.
Like many Episcopalians, I tend not to wear my religion on my sleeve. In spite of a pretty wild conversion from atheism to Christianity, I have an almost Victorian aversion to religious “enthusiasm” and a dim view of proselytizing. I’ve long thought that Christianity would be better served by understanding its own problems than by trying to win new converts. But I’m living in a community where I am expected to be able to make a plausible case for my choices in life. Being able to make that case makes me, in effect, an apologist for my religion. Why do I call myself a Christian and why do I go to church?
Many young people are not happy. Due to a confluence of variables that are endlessly discussed in the media—breakdown of the family, loss of community, confusion over gender roles, fear for the future of the planet, technology, etc., etc.—many young people are struggling even to envision a future, much less envision their role in it. Their cynicism and pessimism are deep. We may move happily from little angels and Christmas trees to Easter bunnies, but our religion looks very different from the outside. Where we see a deep and profound orientation to life, they see two thousand years of arrogance, perversity, hypocrisy, cruelty and the brutal suppression and exploitation of indigenous peoples. They see a religion hopelessly corrupted by its own power. Of what use is it, really, to anybody? Before we can effectively explain what Christianity may have to offer to young people, I think we have to be able to say what it means to us, as individuals. We need to ask ourselves tough questions.
What do I think religion is for? Has my religion accomplished this for me personally? Do I believe the Bible literally, metaphorically, in some combination of the two or in some other way entirely? If I do not believe the Gospel story is literally true, is there some deeper meaning in it that makes it true for me in another way? If so, what is it? In the religious marketplace of ideas do I think that all religions are equal, or that Christianity has something to offer that other religions do not? If so, what is it? Do I think Christianity has made me a better person? If so, how? Do I think Christianity has made the world a better place? If so, how? This last question is a tough one.
If Christianity “worked” then wouldn’t the Christianization of Europe have ensured that there would be no more war, ever? Christian people would simply refuse to commit violence against other human beings, except perhaps in self-defense. (Yes, I know that is a can of worms!) G.K. Chesterton famously said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” If this is true, what are we missing? What have we not understood? What have we been too afraid to try? Everyone is tut-tutting over the decline of religion and the increasing association of what religion is left with toxic nationalism. Once only kings and queens were called defenders of the faith. It seems now that we are all called to defend our faith, if it means anything to us. And we can only defend it if we ourselves understand what we are doing with it.
I think we, as Christians, have long been afraid to ask ourselves tough questions because we are afraid of somehow undermining Christianity. What does that say about our confidence in our own religion? It seems to me that if a young person is interested enough to ask any one of us honest questions about how we experience our religion, we owe them honest answers. We should be able to say “This is why I go to church. This is why I fall on my knees before the cross. This is why I participate in the ritual of the body and the blood. And this is why, when the spirit has left my body, the words I am the resurrection and the life will consecrate my earthly remains to eternity.” What any person, young or otherwise, does with this information is up to them. But at least we will have spoken our truth, and there is power in that.