Some of you readers send me really interesting stuff, for which I’m grateful. One of my favorite readers for this is a guy in California, who sent last night this heartfelt and compelling BuzzFeed essay by Jessica Misener, a Millennial who lost her Evangelical faith, and misses it. Excerpts:
Statistics show that younger people are currently leaving evangelicalism at faster rates than older people, which many credit to differing beliefs on topics such as same-sex marriage. For me, it was a traditional soul- and spirit-crusher: graduate school.
After college, I moved to Connecticut to study religion at Yale. My faith had gotten me more interested in the Bible, but I also wanted to study it from an academic standpoint. Anyone can be a secular student of religion, examining the Bible as a historical work of literature in the same way one would analyze Shakespeare or the Euthyphro. This scholarly approach to the biblical text was the one taught at Yale. But still, I entered my program with both feet planted in my evangelical sandbox. You can study the Bible like any other book but still keep your faith, I told myself. If I really believe that this book is true, then it should hold up to even the most rigorous historical-critical scrutiny.
Of course it did not, because it cannot, not on the terms Evangelicals demand (e.g., “inerrancy of Scripture”). More:
I was forced to confront the fact that I’d converted into a pre-fab worldview: one hatched largely in recent American history from Jonathan Edwards and the theology of the Great Awakening, and one that “family values” politics has buoyed through modern decades.
This was something the evangelical students in my program at Yale talked about often: the behemoth of doubt that sets in as your airtight hermeneutic of scripture is drained from the bottom. Christians from other traditions didn’t have it so bad. Catholics, for example, could fall in the same academic dunk tank and emerge with the same doubts about scripture, but they could still lean on other things their denomination held sacred, like the Catechism, papal infallibility, and the sacraments. We evangelicals, with our infallible view of scripture ripped from our hands, were left gasping for air. If you crumple and toss out a literal reading of the Bible, then what does it mean to talk about Jesus literally dying for your sins?
I would phrase it differently. It’s not that Catholics (and Orthodox) devalue Scripture, along the lines of, “Well, Scripture is wrong, but at least we have the Pope, or the Desert Fathers.” It’s rather that our Churches’ view of Scripture is a lot more complex and discerning. It’s a false choice to say that either Scripture is 100 percent infallible in a literal sense, or that none of it is reliable. It’s rather that Scripture requires an authoritative interpretive community, which is the Church. When are we free to read Scripture as a metaphor, and when must we accept it literally? Both churches have answers to this, but they aren’t simple answers, and they aren’t strictly binding. You can find Orthodox Christians who believe that Genesis is literally true, and must be affirmed as such, and you can find Orthodox Christians who believe that Genesis is a “true myth” — that is, a symbolic story, like parables, through which God reveals foundational truths about Creation that are beyond the comprehension of us finite creatures (that’s what I believe, for the record).
I regret, for Misener’s sake, that she was so focused on an all-or-nothing hermeneutic (something that, as she apparently grasps, is a modern invention) that she found she couldn’t believe Scripture at all. The experience of both ancient churches offer her a far more complex understanding of Scripture, one that does not require one to be a modernist who takes the entirety of the faith within quotation marks.
Misener regrets it too. She’s got too much intellectual integrity to believe something she thinks is not true simply because it made her feel good. But she also seems to have too much intellectual integrity to dismiss it all as an opiate:
I know — I think — that Christianity isn’t real, but I miss believing it was real. When I got confused in my career, or hurt by a broken relationship, fellow Christians assured me that it was all part of God’s plan to lead me to the right calling or the right person, something that made me calmer and more willing to take risks. Now when things don’t go the way I want, I cling to a vague “everything happens for a reason” sentiment or confront the fact that shit, maybe life IS meaningless, because now I can’t view trauma as just a rolling ball in some cosmic Rube Goldberg machine.
Some days I wake up in my bedroom in Brooklyn and I just don’t know what to do, in an existential sense. Christianity gave me something to do. A large reason I converted to the faith as a teen was because I felt a weird void in my life, like something was missing that no relationship, amount of money, or enviable career could fill. The Christian message was packaged and sold to me as the only thing that could fill that void. And for six years, I let it.
Her hunger for the One in Whose likeness she is made explains that void. And all the rationalist doubt in the world will probably not extinguish it. She still has within her a desire to know the Truth — which is not a proposition, but a Person — and can satisfy that desire. The divine Logos, the Word, is not what she has been taught.
Just this morning I spoke with a Catholic university professor who teaches Dante, consulting with him about my planned book. He’s a believer, and his faith informs his teaching of Dante. But he does not proselytize with his book. I asked him for advice on how to present Dante and be faithful to Dante’s theological understanding of the book, and my own spiritual experience, without turning my book into an apologetics text or a document for proselytizing.
He said it’s not as big a problem as I might think. No need to preach to people; just present the material and let Dante speak for himself. “The secret is that people are dying for intelligent talk about God,” he said. “The reason this is going to be a good book is that it’s something people are dying for.”
When I think about the audience for my planned book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I think of Jessica Misener: someone who longs for that real connection to God, but is burned out with what she thinks is the only way to Him. Anyway, read her entire essay; it’s very good, very honest, even brave. I can’t think that there are many young adults living in Manhattan writing for BuzzFeed who would confess that she misses being a born-again Christian.