Reconnection and an Old Kinship:
A week ago, I received a particular letter from an old friend of mine with whom I have recently begun corresponding again; he is one of my friends from my years at Ouachita. Our first acquaintance was in 1991 during the beginning of my second, and his first, year there. Through our short several years of walking along the common path, this man became one of the few people whose spiritual steadfastness, flexibility, and common sense I had come to respect over those years and beyond; even though I left Ouachita as a nonbeliever, I still respected him and admired that he still, to this day, would not settle for anything less than What Is Right.
We Felt The Answers As We Walked:
In our early years at Ouachita, he and I and a several other friends would gather together ad-hoc and discuss our religion, our bible, our lives, and our faith. Sometimes during our chats we would delve into something we were studying in our bible courses or foundational theology classes or perhaps something from a lecture or sermon we attended. Sometimes we’d discuss the things that weighed heavy on our hearts, minds, and souls. Being a faith-based college, these kinds of discussions happened quite often all over the place. But even with these given surroundings, very few examinations, and fewer examiners, I feel, went as deep into faith as our particular circle of friends. Though my major, minor, and work-study kept me away in parallel but close circles, I had the great fortune to join with them on many occasions.
On a cold, damp, overcast evening some time near the early winter of 1992, we wrapped ourselves up in warm clothing, put on our hiking shoes, packed up our flashlights, some snacks, water bottles and bibles and we hiked, the five of us, to a small clearing in the woods between a large pasture north of campus and the Ouachita river to its east (an area where I had enjoyed hiking alone many times). As we talked about some heavy and important things like personal inner struggles and problems, and as we touched on some inner places where we needed help, we felt the Holy Spirit move us. So we talked, opened up, and shared. To us, true change was to begin on the inside.
In one spontaneous instant, one of us stood up, held up their hands, and started praying, opening up the conversation to our Lord. The Spirit was calling and we answered: we locked together, arms around each other, huddled close for warmth and healing, and we prayed the prayers of five humble mendicants, five believers who intensely needed strength to make it through our days. The Spirit moved us, and we kept praying, kept pouring tears; some of us knelt down, some of us lay prone, but we kept praying. When we felt our hearts were about to burst, we stopped, ended our prayer with blessing and praise, then we opened our eyes and perceived that something had changed. Upon picking up our satchels, we wiped away our tears, smiled, and quietly streamed our way out of the woods towards the nearby pasture to return to campus.
It was then, as we neared the edge of the woods, that we noticed the big white fluffy flakes of snow. If my memory serves me well, at that early in the winter season, snow was possible but improbable, and it was not on the forecast. Knowing this, we looked at each other and scratched our heads, expressing wonder about the possibility, any at all, of any relation between the two events — the prayer and the snow — and we laughed, elated, agreeing that whether it was a sign to us or not, the snow was provided to us by our Lord. Bless God! Bless God! On our trek back to campus, we were giddy, our spirits lifted, and we knew that everything was going to be alright.
Walking Into the Debate — the Reversed Roles:
Some years later, I had been walking around campus late on this one particular evening. My mood had been foul for a few days, and I was deeply troubled, hence the walk. After having lost and left my faith a few months prior, I was still wrestling with questions that I could not answer without the faith that provided those answers. As I walked, I crossed paths with my old friend by happenstance. At that time, our paths in life had diverged a bit but, given our proximity, we still ran parallel. So, with our first chance to talk in months, we stopped for a light Chat About Things and found ourselves sitting on the streetside steps of Lile Hall for the better part of 2 hours. I confessed to him my recent loss of faith. I presented my new views, and he played (for lack of better terms) Devil’s Advocate against my views; he grilled me, presented logical arguments, scripture and doctrine, allowed me some space to cast some doubt on my own doubts, and generally shook me up. I was some small measure offended or taken aback by his grilling, but only offended to the extent that he, quite necessarily, probed and questioned where others would have backed away. Chilled and sore from the concrete steps, we said our goodnights. As I walked back to my dorm, I was visibly shaken. His questions made me reconsider my own questions of faith.
Our paths diverged a little more steeply after our conversation that night. This probably had less to do with faith differences and more to do with social circles, but the agreeable schism was still there: he was still a believer, I was still an agnostic. About a year later, our circles crossed over again when my friends, mostly theatre majors, were involved in a production of “The Grapes of Wrath”. Through a twist of coincedence, this friend was also on the cast; his role was that of the Reverend Jim Casy, a preacher who had fallen from faith. Superb acting and delivery aside, I felt that the coincidence of his role to our prior discussion was quite heavy and a fair amount ironic.
In December of that year, about a week before I was due to leave Ouachita for perpetuity, I crossed paths with him again at the student center. We had some time to kill, so we had a quick chat, catching up on my leaving school and what’s been going on in the past year or so. I brought up the subject of his role in “The Grapes of Wrath”, and expressed to him that the character he played was the very definition of what I had become in my own loss of faith some time before. I believe this gave him pause to reflect. We wished each other well in our lives and parted ways. It would be a few years before I would see him again.
The Travel Alone, and a Quiet Agreement:
We have recently reopened communications after several years of lost track. In the 9 years since I left Ouachita we have both been down long roads; he has brought me up to date with the major events in his life so far: marriage, seminary, international travel, divorce, wandering, reconstruction, return to school, and so on. A lot of changes.
It was in this recent letter that he confessed to me that he, too, had lost his faith. It was during his time in seminary; with each passing year, he felt less certain about his faith until it had simply evaporated and vanished. This was similar to my own struggle, insomuch that when faced with religion day in, day out, when it’s in your face everywhere you turn, when you’re forced to address it in its big and small forms, in its feelgood and stoich means, religion itself grows threadbare and worn, and you begin to see the thinness of the threads of faith which keep it held together. His news came as a mild shock to me, but given what I had read of his writings online and from other context clues left around the net, I did have some expectation that his faith had been left behind just as it had happened to me and to many, many others in the world. But it was still a mild shock.
Genesis To Exodus — My Own Answers Destroyed:
At some point along my path at Ouachita, I poked my head up and looked around; to the left and to the right I saw instances of the extremes of religion and faith. One morning, for instance, I counted no less than 20 “Jesus shirts” on my trip from my dormroom to my first class of the morning; this was from seeing only 30 people within the distance of 150 yards. My world, on that baptist university campus, was the utter reflection of a church camp. It was in this environment that I saw too much of the ridiculous, I heard too much of the insane, and I tasted too much of the nauseating. This troubled me, and after several more observations, tests and expositions, and I had had enough. In trying to boil down my religion into the essences of pure faith, in trying to get to the golden nugget of God inside it all, I started asking questions, I started examining for myself what was said, what I had previously taken as gospel truth. It was in this examination that things fell apart for me. If I had a strong doubt about one portion of my religion, my faith in the other portions was highly suspect; the supporting evidences for those remaining portions were dubious at best. I had to have truth, validity, proof. Faith’s suspension of disbelief was no longer enough.
Historical record, alterable as it is, tells us that indeed there was a man named Jesus, born in Nazareth, and that he, at the age of 33, was led up to his crucifixion following a particularly complex betrayal snafu. But, without the shelter provided by faith, I cannot tell you, and believe it for a minute, that he was the one true Son of God in Flesh who came to die for us and to symbolically save us, His beloved, from eternal punishment and abandonment in hell fire for our sins. I cannot believe that; at one time I did, but I cannot any longer. I can no longer have life-committing faith in the unprovable. I cannot prove that we have souls, that there is a Heaven, a Hell, a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. My hands are empty.
This is the place where faith falls short; it evaporated when I started asking questions, and disappeared when the feel-good numbness of Being Right died from my head. Doubt has been cast into the fold. Party over. Faith is belief regardless of proof; the presence of proof supports belief, the absence of proof supports faith. Given the lack of proof and my newfound loss of faith, I could no longer believe.
On To Revelation — the Question Mark At the End:
Over the years I myself have travelled around and back, holding onto a diminishing hope that there might be Something Higher, something guiding us or fueling us from and/or towards the spiritual realm. I sought something else, thinking maybe some other religion would pick up where Christianity failed. I examined other religions and schools of thought. My self-guided studies ranged from Taoism, Buddhism and Zen to Paganism, Wicca and, to a small amount, Satanic/Humanist dogma. From those studies I picked up many threads and found things that were similar or universal, things that we should all hold close to our hearts and take to task: Golden Rules, the “love your neighbor”, “do not raise your hand to murder” stuff. Those tenets do not require faith, only community. But everything else about those religions and theologies, the supernatural stuff, required faith. And it was there that I met my stumbling block; I could not get past the issue of faith. If I could not believe and maintain faith in the Christian idea, without the support of proof and evidence, I could not believe and offer faith, completely, in any other religious ideology. Whether I have failed to see something or I have succeeded in seeing something is an unanswerable question, but this has become my view and my life.
So what have we now? We have a question with no answer. I have no answer to this gentle question of faith. In the complete absence of proof, how can I believe and continue to believe?