During the first weeks of the semester I often think about my first weeks as an undergraduate–this time around, exactly forty years ago! In this post from a year ago, I identify the early stages of something that has obsessed me over those four decades–what do I do if the foundation of what I believe is wrong?
Starting college at age eighteen, three thousand miles away from home, might have been daunting under other circumstances. But as I watched my father drive away from the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College in August of 1974 after our week-long drive from northern Vermont delivering me to my freshman year at a school with a Great Books curriculum designed for pointy-headed geeks like me, the only college I ever even applied to, I was inwardly rejoicing. “I’ll be staying close by in the area for a few days in case you change your mind,” he promised through the open driver’s side window after he shut the door, obviously looking for signs of tears in my eyes. “Okay,” I said. “Fat chance of that happening,” I thought. This was a chance for me to reinvent myself amongst people who knew nothing of my history and baggage that often felt like the burden Christian lugged around on his back for the majority of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
No one in college knew about how tough my adolescent years in school had been, with few friends and the frequent target of ridicule for reasons ranging from my close-to-straight-A academic performance to my concert pianist aspirations to my general incompetence at team sports to my raging introversion. Come to think of it, probably most of my fellow freshmen had been similar targets for similar reasons in their junior high and high school experiences. More importantly, no one here knew that I was a preacher’s kid, that I had been steeped in a particular version of conservative Protestantism since infancy, or that I had spent the last academic year, after graduating from high school at age sixteen, as a student at the tiny Bible school my father was president of because everyone agreed (without asking me) that barely seventeen was too early to enter college. As far as I was concerned, I would be perfectly happy to never darken the door of a church again. I was starting over.
There is, of course, only a certain amount of starting over from scratch that any human being, even an eighteen-year-old, can do. But my plan worked in a number of ways and I felt more at home and comfortable in my own skin in college than I ever had. Then during the fall semester of my sophomore year, our seminar text for several weeks was the Old Testament. I was raised on the stories of the Bible, forced to memorize large portions of it from age five all the way through high school, but this was the first time I ever had the opportunity to read the Bible as literature rather than as “God’s word,” in an academic seminar context rather than in church. I was psyched, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this strange secular and sacred brew. But then one evening after seminar, the guy in the dorm room next to mine, who was also in my seminar, popped his head in the door. “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” John asked. His tone was not accusatory; he was just seeking information. Apparently it was becoming increasingly clear to my seminar mates that I knew a hell of a lot more about the Bible than they did. My reinvention efforts were suddenly at risk.
It was one of those moments such as one occasionally encounters in movies or TV shows—time stood still as I stepped out of myself and considered how to get out of this. “What the fuck are you talking about, dude?” was one possibility, but I wasn’t feeling it. “Yes indeed I am a born again Christian. You want to be one too?” was another, but I wasn’t feeling that either (if I ever had). In a classic case of “How do I know what I’m thinking until I hear myself say it?” I finally said “Yes I am, and it works for me. But if you have anything that works better, I want to hear about it.” I liked that answer. It marginally committed me to something (although in a way that would have made the folks back home cringe), but didn’t make me sound like a Bible-thumping fanatic. I had not overtly rejected my faith; instead I sort of turned it into a matter of preference or taste. All the time sounding open-minded, liberal, and uninterested in talking about it any further. Not bad, and it worked. I don’t recall that John, or anyone else, ever asked me about being a Christian again.
I was reminded of this encounter recently as I read Choose Life, a collection of sermons delivered by Rowan Williams on Christmas and Easter at Canterbury Cathedral during his ten-year tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury. In “The Hidden Seed of Glory,” his 2009 Easter sermon, Williams begins by describing how often interviewers ask him questions such as “How do you know God exists?” or “How do you know Christian faith is true?” There are, the archbishop continues, two tempting ways for a person claiming to be a Christian to respond, both of them wrong. The first is what Williams calls “the apologetic shuffle”—“Of course I don’t really know; this is just the truth as it appears to me and I may be wrong.” The second is “the confident offer to prove it all”—“here are the philosophical arguments, here is the historical evidence, now what’s the problem?”
This caught my attention, because although I’ve never been tempted to go the “confident offer” route (the philosopher in me knows that won’t work), what I told my friend concerning my Christianity almost forty years ago was a version of Williams’ “apologetic shuffle.” Truth be told, I’ve been apologetically shuffling concerning my faith for just about all of the forty years since on the rare occasions in which I was not able to hide it. I often urge my students, who tend to have an unwarranted and unearned dogmatism about whatever it is that they believe, to get in the habit of tacking on to the end of belief claims something like “this is what I believe, but I have a lot to learn,” or “this is what I believe, but I might be wrong.” The problem with saying that concerning one’s faith, as Rowan Williams points out, is that “it reduces faith to opinion and shrinks the scale of what you are trying to talk about to the dimensions of your own mind and preferences.” So if I believe that my Christian faith is more than a matter of subjective personal preference, and also know that my faith cannot be proven true on the basis of factual evidence and logical argumentation, what options are left? Is there a navigable path of faith between the Scylla of dogmatism and the Charybdis of subjectivity?
Only recently have I slowly become aware of the best, and perhaps only, way to communicate about my faith. Williams, as he frequently does, expresses it simply and beautifully. “Resurrection has started. How do we know? Not by working it out and adopting it as a well-founded opinion, not by getting all the arguments straight, but because we are dimly aware of something having changed around us.” And this change cannot be simply talked about—it can only be lived. A changed life is the only evidence. During my sabbatical four years ago, as slow and incremental changes were happening internally, one day a couple of my fellow resident scholars said “you aren’t the same person you were when you arrived two months ago.” And they were right. For the first time my faith was becoming real in a way that transcended both personal preference and logical analysis. And it had to be lived rather than talked about.
We need to hear what is so often the question that’s really being asked when people say, “How do you know?” And perhaps the only response that is fully adequate, fully in tune with the biblical witness to the resurrection, is to say simply, “Are you hungry? Here is food.”