For many inquiring people, traditional ways of coming to faith are no longer offering the promise they once did. In specific, neither growing up in a religious community, nor seeking a dramatic conversion, is for them.
Is there another way? I believe there is. But first, a few words about these much cherished older routes to life in the Spirit.
One word is that the idea of growing up in a respectable community of always-been, always-will-be believers has a certain coziness about it. But the womb-to-tomb nurture it idealizes too often puts seeking contentment over facing challenges and building consensus over encouraging exploration.
And dramatic as they may be in the moment, decisions for faith made in the dark nights of desperation, or in the heat of hell-fire-and-damnation preaching, or in the ecstatic state of encounter with what may seem Divine at the time, are notorious for their lack of staying power. Most importantly, they do not leave much room for further growth in knowledge and love of God and the world.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, conversion and nurture have tended to be opposed to one another. Distressed over this state of affairs, many religious teachers have insisted that coming to faith requires openness to both rather than to just one. But I find little evidence that combining these approaches is any more effective than is following one of them to the exclusion of the other.
What today’s spiritually hungry most deserve is an altogether different way to faith from these more traditional ones. As I envision it, it is a way of coming to our own conclusions about life, the world, God, meeting the needs of others, and what is to come, on earth and in heaven.
To follow this way, one must be open to learning about and facing courageously as many visions of, and alternatives to, faith as human beings are capable of generating. A faith worthy of the name considers at every step of its development the possibility that one or more of these alternatives — mythological, philosophical, religious, ethical — may make more sense than one’s own considered beliefs do.
A faith truly worth living by is a faith built upon respectful deliberation about the alternatives to it, and not upon petulant insistence that there are none worthy of a true believer’s respect and deliberation at all.