Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

10 March 2009

Thoughts on the Current Lapsing Trend

There seems to be a sudden rash of interest in faith loss of late. Recently, I was invited to talk informally with students about doubt, and many more showed up than had been anticipated. Then I started getting emails from various people on the topic of doubt and faith loss, including a some marked with red "High Importance" exclamation points from a student writing a paper on the subject. And then, in scanning the news recently, I found that the same interest not just among the mostly ardent believers surrounding me but out there in the world. Here are a few headlines from yesterday: Americans Becoming Less Religious, Study Shows (LA Times). Most Religious Groups in USA Have Lost Ground (USA Today). Study: Fewer Catholics in New England (MSNBC).

Having just finished the manuscript of a book on faith loss and strategies for sensing God's invisible presence , I'm excited, of course. Maybe more people may buy my book! (A Field Guide to God, due out in early 2010.) [The book's subtitle—always a difficult part of the publishing process for me—is still under consideration, for which, pray that I'm not talked into anything dorky or cutsey or otherwise offensive or embarrassing. In fact, pray that they let me call the book just A Field Guide to God, which in my view is plenty pfiffy to sell it.]

But there's a deeper level on which the problem, if it can be called one, interests and excites me. All these people leaving the church are, after all, going somewhere else to look for God—potentially somewhere better, if church wasn't where the excitement of God's presence was for them. They're moving. Not just leaving, which sounds so much like an end, but going somewhere. I'm guessing they're not just going home to watch TV and eat potato chips and forget about God altogether. Historically, the death of religion always brings faith growth. This leaving or lapsing or loss is, has got to be, the opposite of complacency and stagnation—both of which worry me more than whether or not people are attending one or the other church.

Not that church is bad. Or necessarily a place where faith stagnates or becomes complacent. Often quite the opposite.

But the biggest danger to true believers, in my opinion, is not that their faith will disappear but that God will. In their perception, at least. They'll start taking God's presence—and all evidence of it in their experience, in nature, in their interaction with others, and in the miracles that fill our days—for granted. Or, as my students write in their papers, for granite. For an edifice, or a set of rock hard traditions, and stop caring much about the divine parent behind it all. Invisible and inaudible and intangible, but, as Paul reassures the Athenians in Acts, "not far from any one of us" (17:27 TNIV). As believers, we can have faith, but lose a sense of God's presence. And that, I think, is a worse place to be than simply questioning or rejecting the practices of this or that group of believers to which they had previously belonged.

I lost my faith entirely, as I saw it, for over a decade of my life, and that was a hard thing. But, as a result of that loss, I think, I later came to believe in a bigger and more relevant way. More questioning and doubt laden. Less accepting of pat answers. More appreciative of God's involvement in my life. More aware of the listener on the other end of my worries and longing, the invisible arm across my shoulder, the silent shuffle of another's feet as I walk in my garden.

Doubt, as I see it, is good, perhaps the best thing that can happen to a believer. If you doubt, you are searching, trying to find God. And God hovers nearby, having designed all of history, every boundary between us, every division, as a way of causing us to notice and come. Or so Paul sums up all of history for the people of Athens, whom he describes as "extremely religious. . . in every way." He told them that "From one ancestor" God "made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-27 NRSV).

So that we would search. And perhaps grope and find. I love this verse.

Grope. God wants us to grope, expects us to have to grope—and planned it that way, in fact.

Anyway, that's where I am with this business of doubt and lapsing, in case you want to know.

[There, now, I've spent the entire morning blogging after a year long hiatus while I worked on my book. For me, it's all but impossible to do both well. That's another problem with blogs—in addition to bloggers' tendency to misjudge tone and audience and end up sounding like asses—that I neglected mention in class when we were talking about blogging the other day: You either blog or you write.]