In the popular imagination, religious faith appears to be a refuge for those in search of answers who are unable to live with uncertainty. This has not been my experience though. While my faith has given me peace at times, it has by no means settled the questions in my life. If anything, it has raised a different set of questions and challenged me to not be satisfied with easy answers.
I spent about 13 years of my life fairly well removed from the Church. As a boy, I had a devout heart even if my actual Catholic practice was inconsistent. In adolescence though, a stage in which asking questions takes on a new level of importance, I fell away from the Church while attending Catholic high school. On a very simple level, the most interesting and creative people I knew at the time all seemed to be on the skeptical if not irreverent side, and it was all too natural for me to take on their habits of thought as they gradually became my circle of friends. Only later in life did I come back to the Church.
When I consider my spiritual biography, I cannot fully regret this time of doubt. For me personally, it provided a necessary transition between the naïve faith of childhood and an adult faith that had room for complexity and ambiguity. In some ways, it would have been easier for me to keep trying to live my life without God—I’d had many years to practice after all—but at a certain point, I could no longer deny God’s presence and had to begin asking what difference the acknowledgement of the Divine would necessarily require of me. After all, if any true relationship opens one up to change, entering into relationship with the Ultimate could by no means leave me the same. This willingness to redefine myself, regardless of what others might think, took some courage and conviction, but I actually found much greater acceptance than I had anticipated. Among other unasked for graces, I suppose I had chosen good friends.
Who am I? Why am I here? What is true happiness? How do I be a good person? What are my true obligations? Like any belief system, the Catholic faith can appear at times to give easy answers to these questions; older generations may even be able to quote verbatim responses from the Baltimore Catechism. Words that are easily spoken in good times however, instead bleed and shed tears when they meet the unvarnished tragedies and heartache of our complicated world—and this is where meaning is actually created. Scott Kuhner, one of our non-vowed Marist colleagues, has coined the phrase: “Love is always the appropriate response.” Very true. If only it were always easy to identify what the most loving response to somebody’s pain is! If only it were always easy to maintain a commitment to responding in that way regardless of other factors!
A questioning attitude has been important to me since my youth, but my attitude toward authority has changed since I was a teenager. As a member of Generation X, I am certainly committed to questioning authority. However, I came to realize even before being drawn back to religious faith, that to question something does not mean to inevitably reject it. Questioning can be done in a respectful way as a means to deepen understanding. I question authority, precisely to determine whether or not a given authority deserves respect or resistance. To not question authority is not necessarily a sign of respect, but may actually be the result of thoughtless indifference. I understood none of this as a child.
By no means do I think the journey from childish to adult faith needs to run through non-belief, but I do believe that serious questions need to enter the equation somehow. I would like to think that my own experience of doubt has helped me to walk with people as they face for themselves what might be troubling questions and realize that uncertainty is not threatening. It may be a necessary part of a growth curve.
The “ear candy” and “brain food” for this week are closely linked to each other and to this blog post as they both reflect the dynamic involved in asking questions, regardless of whether or not answers are forthcoming. The song offers a faith-based response to one of the most fundamental questions we face, while the essay, originally delivered as a commencement address at my ver own Kenyon College, challenges us to look at reality differently.
Ear Candy: “Who Am I” by Casting Crowns
Brain Food: “This Is Water” by David Foster Wallace