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.]


kd said...

Wednesday night I opened my RSS and actually stopped and squinted at the (1) next to Amateur Believer. I thought I had read it wrong. I am glad to see you are blogging again and excited to read your new book.

Interesting post... I wonder if the idea of a lost faith is possibly miscategorized. I think faith is too often thought of as a little box where everything fits neatly together, where all the gospel interpretations match, and Jesus is nice and pretty with golden flowing hair. Faith is presented as the What we Believe handout at the church's front desk. When our real-life struggle to understand God doesn't look or feel like that we feel as though we are losing faith.

In my experience, both personally and from what I witnessed of others, the loss is not of faith but of religion. This loss of the boundaries of religion oftentimes leads to the shedding of ideas that hindered ones relationship with God rather than aided in it's deepening. I think it is really this loss of "faith" that can lead to a greater understanding of spirituality and God even if the result is a "religion" practiced outside of church walls.

Loss of "faith" seems to be from the perspective of those in the organized churches/religions (not just Christian) that look at those who have doubted, questioned, or walked away from their historical parameters. The church would state, "they have lost their faith" when in actuality they have gained a faith that is based on a personal wrestling and sorting of issues rather than church attendance and ascription to a specific doctrine.

Maybe at times it is the church/organized religion that has lost the true faith of living a life for God and those who desire that have to "loose" that particular "faith" to truly find it.

I am sure there are many who truly have walked away from any faith, personal or institutional, but I would guess that many more left the institutional to find the personal. But the personal is messy and doesn't look much like faith.

...just a few thoughts. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you're blogging again. I've been a church-goer pretty much all of my life but God's presence has always been elusive for me. I felt like I'd hit gold when I found your blog because, while all the Christians I know seem perfectly nice, that's just the problem--they never express their problems with doubt, or emptiness, or loneliness when it comes to knowing God. Long story short--sorry for my blabbering--thank you for being so open and honest about your faith.

Ides Geara said...

I find more to savor and think on in your blogs than I do in the average web journal--I made sure to go back and read your entry ON blogging that you posted back in December. I seem to remember you mentioning your ideas in a rather condensed way in Creative Nonfiction class. I'm rather sad that only two others from our class thought that reading each others' blogs was a good idea--and yet, perhaps we're a more private bunch than the average. Perhaps we're not so interested in communal self-therapy as I thought we'd be. I know I simply run out of time to write anything of value. Maybe we have more worthwhile things to say and so therefore don't write anything until we have something golden. You certainly catch at the deeper things--thank you!