I had two conversations over the holidays that made me really, really wistful for that good old time religion.
The first was with an old friend that I had lost track of about six years ago. About eight years ago we lived in the same city and were in the same large circle of people involved with a local church’s young adult group. At the time, we were both contemplating Catholicism. Like me, he had an evangelical type of upbringing but was finding the theology to be lacking in some ways. So we would sometimes trade notes and talk about various Catholic-Protestant topics.
When we caught up again last month, I learned that he had indeed converted to Catholicism. I asked him why, and he paused for a moment, looked off toward the ceiling thoughtfully, then said, “Beauty and truth. I could say more, but that’s pretty much it. Beauty and truth.” We proceeded to have a longer conversation about it, which left me ultimately envying the sense of certainty he had. Of safety, almost. He said he ultimately decided that he didn’t want to keep fighting Rome and while he wasn’t on board with everything, he had ultimately decided to put aside his pride and choose to trust the authority of the church. And he seemed confident, sure, and at peace.
The second conversation was with my high school friend who has remained quite evangelical and conservative over the years. Somehow, our friendship has survived my de-conversion even if we have had some difficult conversations along the way. This year over Christmas we spent an afternoon together, and in her typical way, she cut straight to the heart of things. We started talking about my breakup (which I am still really struggling to get past, to be quite honest about it) and wound our way around to what it was that really caused my crisis of faith. She then described her own crisis of faith, which happened a couple of years ago when her husband was plucked out of his National Guard unit and sent to Iraq. It was a scary time for them given the danger he was in, and she fought with God for a very long time about why he would allow this to happen. She grew up in a broken home and her entire life’s dream was to have an intact, loving family. She had it - happily married with two young kids - but then God seemed to take her husband away, possibly permanently.
She said at that moment of crisis, she faced a fork in the road: either God wasn’t at all who she had thought him to be, and perhaps he didn’t exist at all; or God wasn’t at all who she had thought him to be, and she needed to be open to a new, deeper understanding of who God is. She said as she faced down those two decision paths, she couldn’t fathom her life making sense without God in it. Her life would have no meaning whatsoever, and ultimately, she couldn’t face that life. So she decided that she just didn’t understand God’s purposes well enough and that this was a window to draw even closer to Him. [Conveniently, her story has a happy ending because her hubby is back safe and sound and is retired from the military now. I wonder what would have happened to her faith if he had been killed in action.]
My friend started asking me what meaning life holds for me now. And I couldn’t answer her. I had to be honest: it’s a huge loss in my life that I no longer have this narrative, this story, this Great Commission style purpose that directs and orders everything. I’m struggling to cobble something together that feels as coherent, as moving, as inspiring, as that once was to me.
Yet it’s not like I can simply back up the train and hop back on. If it makes me feel good, but isn't true, what's the point? I almost feel like a cursed person for asking so many questions and not being content with simple answers. It’s led me to this place that might well be impossible to recover any kind of faith from. At this point, I truly doubt the existence of any divine presence. And I’m not even sure it’s faith that I want back, so much as a sense of purpose in life – something bigger than myself that I can grab hold of with gusto – and a community within which to live out that purpose.