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On Losing and Keeping Faith

 
Several months ago, an old college friend tracked me down and sent an email. We had not communicated in decades. Over several days, we sent messages back and forth, catching up on our lives, families, and work. Finally, we broached the issue of faith. My friend, like me, had majored in religion. He asked, “How has your faith changed since college?” That question elicited a long email response from me about faith lost and faith kept, which eventually evolved into this article.
 
Faith Lost
 
I became a Christian believer as a teenager in a conservative evangelical church. Since then I have lost much of my youthful faith. For example, I have lost faith in a literal Bible. It’s beyond me how people in the twenty-first century can still believe everything in the Bible should be taken literally. For example, a God who approves of polygamy, slavery, subjection of women, and brutal genocide? If I had to believe everything in the Bible is literal, I could not be a Christian.
 
Although it will trouble many traditional believers, I’ve lost faith in a God of supernatural intervention. If God does intervene in the world in supernatural ways, then why do pandemics occur? Why do children get leukemia and elderly people get dementia? Why do hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis create devastating destruction? If God can intervene in such matters, yet constantly chooses not to do so, what does that say about God?
 
In all my years of ministry, I’ve never once seen what could be called a supernatural miracle. The only viable conclusion for me is that God does not work in the universe through supernatural intervention. I do believe God works through human instruments, and in other ways our limited minds cannot fully comprehend. For example, it seems likely to me that God constantly works in the universe through natural and organic ways, including the ongoing process of evolution. Instead of being a “supernatural” God, perhaps God is more of a “super natural” God.
 
I’ve lost faith in other traditional beliefs as well. For example, I no longer believe in substitutionary atonement, that “Jesus died for my sin.” While that metaphor made sense to an ancient world that practiced animal sacrifice, I find it theologically offensive to think God required a bloody sacrifice of his son in order to forgive humanity. That feels like divine child abuse. Other examples of lost faith could also be given, including eternal punishment in a “devil’s hell,” and God’s rejection of all religions other than Christianity. I’ve also lost faith in the image of God as “the man upstairs.” These days I think of God more as a mysterious life-force and love-force than as a humanlike deity.
 
Faith Kept
 
Clearly, I’ve lost faith in many traditional beliefs. Some in the conservative camp would say these kinds of faith losses mean I am no longer a Christian. However, that’s not my understanding at all. I still hold many important Christian affirmations.
 
For example, I have faith in the Jesus story. I don’t know the veracity of all the historical claims about the life of Christ. The Gospels were written four to seven decades after Jesus’s death during a prescientific age with a massive supernatural bias. Clearly, many of the stories got exaggerated over time. Was he born of a virgin? Did he walk on water? Did he make blind people see? What exactly happened at the resurrection? Did he literally ascend into the sky? We don’t know all the facts about the life of Jesus and never will. But in the end, it doesn’t matter very much.
 
Regardless of the exact historical details, the Jesus story is deeply compelling. The birth of Jesus tells us that God engages the world through human instruments. The baptism of Jesus tells us that God claims us as God’s own. The teachings of Jesus tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves and seek justice in the world. The example of Jesus tells us that we are called to serve others. The crucifixion of Jesus tells us that God is a suffering God who enters our deepest pain. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that hope can be found in all circumstances.
 
Recently, I visited a sanctuary full of stained-glass windows depicting the story of Jesus, from birth to resurrection. It deeply moved me. I realized once again that the Jesus story is my story, that I belong to this narrative in powerful and meaningful ways.
 
Not only do I have faith in the Jesus story; I also have faith in Christian practices like love, forgiveness, kindness, justice, inclusion, service, and gratitude. I have faith in Christian values like integrity, character, humility, and marital fidelity. I have faith in (healthy) Christian community. And I have faith in the Christian mission to advance the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” So while I’ve lost some traditional beliefs over the years, I also retain significant elements of authentic faith.
 
Faith in Transition
 
We live in a time of great religious transition throughout the world, especially in the United States. Church membership and worship attendance are rapidly plummeting in America, made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people are leaving the church in droves. The fastest-growing religious group in our nation is people with no religion.
 
Recent surveys show that fully one-half of Americans no longer believe in a traditional God or a divine Christ. For example, in 1990, about 75 percent of Americans believed in an “all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect and just Creator of the universe who still rules the world today.” In 2020, only about 50 percent of Americans still affirm that belief.
 
In a major 2020 religious survey, 52 percent of Americans said, “Jesus was a great teacher but he was not God.” These kinds of widely held, nontraditional theological beliefs were not even on the radar a few decades ago. Now they are rapidly becoming the majority view. Clearly, we are witnessing the collapse of traditional doctrines and conventional church life for large numbers of people in the Western world.
 
The new version of faith emerging among progressive Christians in the twenty-first century is still tentative and uncertain. That means many thinking believers must live with a great deal of faith ambiguity in the present moment. Unresolved faith is not an easy theological place to reside. But it’s where large numbers of people find themselves. Many of us can relate to Barbara Brown Taylor’s comments, “I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now.”
 
My guess is that we’ll have to live in faith ambiguity and transition for a long time, likely for the rest of our lives. After years of struggle, I’ve finally made peace with that reality. I know less about God today than ever before. And that’s OK, even healthy. I now fully embrace the ambiguity. One of my favorite characters in the Bible is the father who came to Jesus, pleading with the Lord to heal his child (Mark 9). Jesus told him healing was possible if he had faith. The father responded, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” That verse gave birth to my new website, “Doubter’s Parish,” designed to help people grapple with faith in the twenty-first century. It also inspired my new novel, An Inconvenient Loss of Faith, which can be accessed at no cost on the site at www.doubtersparish.com.
 
Like many twenty-first-century believers, I have plenty of unbelief, especially around traditional doctrines like a literal Bible and a humanlike God of supernatural intervention. However, I also have plenty of belief—especially in Jesus, healthy Christian community, Christian practices, Christian values, and Christian mission. And that faith, even with its many ambiguities, is more than enough.
 
Martin Thielen is a United Methodist minister and author of the best-selling book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? His website is www.DoubtersParish.com.

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