A few years ago, on this blog, I surveyed sorts. I asked my readers to tell me their one or two biggest challenges to staying Christian. Including private emails, I got about 300 responses, many heartfelt and moving. I honor your courage and honesty!
My intention for writing the post was to give people the space to express themselves in a spirit of trust and group support for the ultimate purpose of encouraging a continued walk of faith. However, that might be configured in each person’s experience, community, or theological tradition.
Since that original post, I have continued to get a lot of emails from people who want to express their faith struggles, and so I thought I’d repost the results and give a new batch of readers a chance to chime in.
To utter one’s most profound doubts and fears about their faith is, for some, only slightly less risky than buying heroin on a street corner, and such fear is too common a phenomenon in the various iterations of conservative Protestantism, i.e., for traditions that value intellectual certitude as a foundation for faith. For a variety of reasons (which need not detain us here), this approach to the life of faith is not viable for a considerable element of the Christian population.
Talking about it should be encouraged, not squelched, for it unloads a burden, which is a first step to at least getting some perspective.
To be clear, in your comments, if you want them to get posted, I am asking you to focus on what you see as challenges and how you navigate them (or don’t) and not on what you think others should do or not do about them. Don’t solve the issue, and don’t defend the faith—they’ve probably heard all the solutions, anyway. Respect the journey.
Neither is this the place for former Christians to flex their muscles and inform the rest of us that these challenges lead to one and only one “logical” conclusion. Quick and easy answers in either direction dishonor the experience.
As you can see below, I collated the responses under five categories, though these should not be seen as rankings (except for the first, which seems to be the overarching stressor). I am simply summarizing what I saw as the themes that came up.
So here are the five main challenges I saw in your comments.
1. The Bible, namely inerrancy
This was the most commonly cited challenge, whether implicitly or explicitly, and it lay behind most of the others mentioned. The pressure many of you expressed was the expectation of holding specifically to an inerrant Bible in the face of such things as biblical criticism, contradictions, implausibilities in the biblical story, irrelevance for life (its ancient context), and the fact that the Bible is just plain confusing.
2. The conflict between the biblical view of the world and scientific models.
In addition to biological evolution, psychology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology were mentioned. What seems to fuel this concern is not simply the notion that Scripture and science offer incompatible models for cosmic, geological, and human origins but that scientific models are verifiable, widely accepted, and likely correct, thus consigning the Bible to something other than a reliable description of reality.
3. Where is God?
A number of you, largely in emails, wrote of personal experiences that would tax to the breaking point anyone’s faith in a living God who is just, attentive, and loving. Many forms of random/senseless suffering were mentioned, and God’s absence or “random” presence (can’t count on God being there).
4. How Christians behave
Tribalism, insider-outsider thinking; hypocrisy, power; feeling misled, sheltered, lied to by leaders; a history of immoral and unChristian behavior towards others (e.g., Crusades, Jewish pogroms). In short, practically speaking, commenters experienced that Christians too often exhibit the same behaviors as everyone else, which is more than simply an unfortunate situation but is interpreted as evidence that Christianity is not true—more a tool to gain power than a present spiritual reality.
5. The exclusivism of Christianity
Given 1-4 above, and in our ever-shrinking world, can Christians claim their way is the only way?
These issues aren’t new. We all know that. They keep coming up, which is the point. I understand that some may feel they have found final and universally applicable answers to these issues, but the fact that these issues don’t go suggests that the answers aren’t all that persuasive.
Whatever the reason, in my opinion, opening up and talking about these things with others on the Christian path should not be the exception but the rule.
What are your thoughts? What makes you anxious or doubtful? What are the challenges you face? Please continue the dialogue via comments or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Pete Enns, Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens, professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.