A friend of mine from Trevecca recently posted this comment on FB: “I’m pretty sure that a major difference between the generations when it comes to seeking God is that the older generation sees it as a science while the younger generation sees it as an art . . . . In seeking God as a science I mean that people can be very formulaic about how God is found. Do this thing in combination with this other thing and then you find God. (Kneel at an altar + confess your sins = Salvation achieved). Postmodernity is much less interested in the that kind of thinking. A person of this era is as likely to find (or be found by) God in the lyrics of a Ben Folds song or a film by Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) as they are to find Him in a sanctuary.”
I have been thinking about this concept all week. Though I do see generational differences in approaches to faith, of course this is by no means a generalization that applies to everyone. (As my friend mentioned as well on FB.) However, I can recognize the truth in that “formulaic approach to God.” Let’s look at some of the “formulas” I’ve been exposed to on my Christian journey:
Pray every day + Read the Bible every day = A spiritual person
Talk about God alot to your friends + Witness to strangers = Being the “salt of the earth,” aka a good evangelist.
Desire a deeper relationship with God + Pray for the Holy Spirit to take your desire to sin away = Entire Sanctification
Believe that everything that happens is God’s will + accept that will without question = A life of Love, Joy, Peace, and Happiness
Believe that God chose a particular spouse for you + Abstain from sex before marriage = A mind-blowing wedding night.
Marry someone who’s a Christian + Pray together a lot = A happy marriage
Show up at church for all the feasts + Fast before liturgy = A blessing from God
Kiss the icons + pray twice a day = A good rule of prayer
Wear a headscarf + serve in the church = A good (female) Orthodox Christian
Grow a beard + learn to chant = A good (male) Orthodox Christian
So some of those are a little tongue-in-cheek of course, but you get the gist. It starts to feel like the math quizzes I took in fourth grade. I could memorize quickly and could easily learn the rules of long division, borrowing, and multiplying decimals. I could get all the right answers on the quiz and earn an A on my report card. But when you asked me to explain what borrowing is or what decimals represent, I couldn’t answer. (True story. I did not really understand that “borrowing” meant exchanging tens for ones and exchanging hundreds for tens until college. I just memorized the procedure.)
Maybe I’m just a good postmodernist, but I believe that faith is far more complicated than simple formulas. Being a Christian does not mean that you do not suffer. Being a Christian does not mean that you are hopeful, joyful, and peaceful all the time. Being a Christian does not mean that your marriage and family are perfect. Being a Christian does not mean that you will always get what you want, or that you will always have enough money, or that you will always be happy and healthy.
I believe that faith is wrestling. Faith is a struggle. Faith is gasping for breath. Faith is clinging to something and someone that I can’t see and often can’t feel and can’t even fully comprehend. Faith is fighting to believe that God is a God of Love in the midst of so much pain and un-Love in the world. Faith is Jacob fighting with God, and then demanding to know God’s name. “Tell me your name, I pray,” Jacob said to God.
Faith is also beauty. Faith is enormous and staggering, and is beyond the realm of mere formula. Faith is a mystery seeping into our souls. Faith is looking at people and seeing glimpses of God in them. Faith is staring into the eyes of Mary holding baby Jesus in an icon and knowing that She is praying for you. Faith is walking into the woods and feeling like you’re in Eden. Faith is sinking shoulder-deep into the salty ocean water and feeling God’s arms in the waves. Faith is listening to a song and being brought to tears by the mercy you find in a lyric or a melody.
Let’s not confuse knowing the formulas with knowing Jesus. Let’s not confuse following the rules with a deep soul-knowledge of God. God and the Christian faith cannot be contained by human formulas. Though some of the things in the formulas above are good spiritual disciplines, they should go hand-in-hand with the understanding that faith is a mystical experience.
I will go through the motions for you, I will. I will do all The Things and say all The Words and sing all The Songs for you. I will try to trust you when you tell me that the motions will eventually lead me to a deeper, richer faith. But when I fall down, give me your hand. When I fail, give me mercy. When I turn away, love me anyway. When I find God in a place that is not The Place and is not in The Formula, withhold your judgment. Know that I am like Wrestling Jacob, and I am saying, Tell me your name! Remind me of who you are! Even as I struggle, remind me!