In Light of Having Wandered

A small, blue, old hardcover booklet sits wedged between the stationary on the top of my desk shelf. Its age is evident in the faint musty smell, the sewn binding, and double spacing after each full stop. It’s a piece of Lutheran Literature, entitled Hold Fast to Which Thou Hast!, presented to my maternal grandfather on his confirmation day, written in the book’s inscription page as May 28th, 1939.

The booklet’s purpose is admonition, encouragement, and warning for youth on occasion of their confirmation. It depicts a young wanderer as standing at the parting of ways, on the brink of engaging the world. In its opening chapter, it reminds the reader how fortunate and comfortable life has been thus far, culminating in a statement that still lingers in my memory:

“And this is by no means all. You were born of Christian parents in the midst of Christendom. You are no poor, miserable heathen child. […] What a wealth of grace from the Triune God is yours by virtue of your baptism!”

This language has fallen out of use, but the implication carries timeless offence. Others consider themselves neither poor, nor miserable, on account of lacking the Christian faith. If they did, they would accept it for this very reason. Indeed, those who have abandoned their old selves to enter faith seem the most genuine.

How can we who were born in the “midst of Christendom” ever understand the minds of the converted, or even those who do not believe? The experience of finding faith—of esteeming it higher than what we hold in our hands—is missing. We never left where we were to arrive at where we are.

I’ve said, at times, that I wish I were a converted atheist. In these moments, I perceived that what I now know as doubt and skepticism would have once been indulged as unbelief; and having rejected this unbelief that I once embraced, I would be as I am now, but with a sense of intellectual completeness that seems elusive.

Perhaps it isn’t the intellectual issue at all that drives me to think such things. In matters of reason, it’s assumed that reason stands alone. You do not pay special attention to people who believe 2+2=5, simply because you have never experienced their perspective; the truth of a logical statement is unencumbered by experience. Faith, however, comprises more than reason, and is necessarily so encumbered. It seems there is value in knowing you truly rejected everything you were, to become what you are.

Rather than discovering faith, we who were “born in the midst of Christendom” can only have this experience by discovering “lostness,” reaching out and touching the vacuum of faithlessness that was once untouchable. Is it necessary for us to have this experience? We hesitate. Few Christians would say so. But through themes of repentance, our faith undeniably treasures this principle. Only then can a wanderer authoritatively claim he saw relative “poorness and misery” in his circumstances, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, the father is not overjoyed at the son’s presence, for the son had begun there. In the father’s dialogue with the older brother, we see the father’s joy is exclusively because the son had returned, in light of having wandered.

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3 Responses to “In Light of Having Wandered”

  1. Wabasso Says:

    In the last paragraph, does “we” refer to those who grew up in faith?

    I guess I’m just wondering if I interpreted the point correctly. You’re commenting on how there may be a difference between people who grow up in faith and people who at some point adopt it? I’m not sure if you were trying to make a point about it though.

    Sorry to ask for layman’s terms but I am interested in your writings (as well as why you feel motivated to write them in the first place, but I didn’t want to digress).

  2. Your doubt and skepticism, even though you’re a believer, is still unbelief.

    In Mark 9 there’s this demon possessed kid that has been frothing at the mouth and rolling into fires since he was little. Some of the disciples were arguing with the teachers of the law, apparently, about how to fix the kid. His father was all crestfallen because he had come expecting the healer to heal, and his disciples couldn’t deliver. So he says, “Jesus, take pity, and help us, if you can.”

    Mark 9:23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
    24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

    Our faith’s foundation is not on experience, or circumstance. That is a weak foundation. Sometimes God works in mysterious ways, through miracles, and answered prayers, to draw us into faith, to help us believe. But our faith is not to rest on those things. Those things are to point us to the cross. The foundation of our faith is an event that happened 2000 years ago, the visible, fleshy, human incarnation of the invisible God, he proved his claims to be the son of God, he died on the cross for our sins, and rose again. That is where our belief lies, not in our complete intellectual understanding of God. God will forever be grander than us, his plans will be beyond our sights. But we know of his love for us, and his faithfulness, from the cross. That is our sure foundation.

    So I don’t think faith SHOULD be encumbered by experience. After all, if we only had faith when times were good, then it would be easy to believe in a good, loving God. The most stellar exemplars of faith are those who, when the prayers go unanswered, and they can’t see God’s faithfulness, and they have what seems like nothing, can still say “God is good, God is faithful, God loves me.”

    Ironically, I feel reason is encumbered by experience. Philosophize until the cows come home, dear professors, but when it comes down to make decisions in plane of the real, there is just wisdom, and no room for “the love of wisdom.”
    (An example: A phil prof of mine once said in class something along the lines of “AIDS spreads in Africa because of their cultural superstitions, rape, and homosexuality.” This bugged me. In a class on gender, ethics & sexuality (otherwise known as “The Philosophy of Sex”), this, of all things, bugged me. Because I knew that when you make statements like that, the fear of those with HIV/AIDs goes up. After class, I suggested that perhaps the phrasing of his statement would influence fear or hatred or misunderstanding. He said that his statement was true, and fear hate or prejudice would be the illogical conclusion of his listeners. It wasn’t his responsibility to make them reason well. Here, reason fell flat, in that it became useless in his selfishness. Here, my professor used his brain to get himself out of a moral obligation. Instead of looking at reality, and the reality that statements like that reinforce negative stereotypes about AIDs victims, he used reason “unencumbered” by reality to keep his conscience clean, or perhaps to simply avoid admitting he was wrong. Reason has to be “encumbered” by experience, or the bottom line, or the decision – making process or whatever you want to call it, or else it’s just a mental exercise, it’s useless.

    Anyway, I think that’s unrelated to your post. I just have a beef with “reason,” in the philosophical sense, that always seems so divorced from reality.

    As for this idea of lostness, which I do think is fascinating.

    I think we as Christians, even if we’ve been Christians our entire lives, are as needy for Christ as the most “heathenest of heathen.” If you agree to that statement, you have to ask why. The reason is that even though we’re Christians, and perhaps haven’t gotten ourselves in as much trouble as some of the other kids, we’re still incredibly depraved (to use a nice archaic term with fire and brimstone connotations ;)). The hardest thing, I think, for us life-long Christians to accept, is that we are not as good as we think we are. I used to wish I was like that woman, the one who cried on Jesus’ feet, and was known as a harlot (or something). She loved much because she was forgiven much. Well maybe if I had sinned more I could love more. It’s not that I need to sin more, I need to realize how much I’ve already sinned. Us long-time Christians are very often like those people in the Bible that think they’re well, so don’t need a doctor.

    I don’t think you need to reach out and touch the “vacuum of faithlessness,” I think there’s enough right there in your own heart, and mine.

    Well, I think that’s enough for me for now. 🙂

  3. (This post was revised for clarity after both Matt and Christine’s comments).

    Thanks Christine–although I had intended a slightly different meaning than what you addressed, I think your comment still applies in principle.

    It may well be that as human beings, whose states of mind are hardly black and white, terms such as “I once believed,” and “I do believe” are only approximations to the truth. We slide smoothly between them. There have been times when I’ve circumnavigated the spectrum of faith in a day, but I never speak of having “60 minutes of atheism,” and it’s certainly true that unbelief coexists alongside one’s state as a “believer.”

    Yes, I’ve got enough of a vacuum of faithlessness available to me, as if I were a thermos.

    As for the moral part of it… while I believe there is a marked difference between those who grew up in the church and those who’ve come into it, you’re right–we’d be deceiving ourselves to think that we’ve really stayed so close to any standard of perfection, so as to lack understanding compared to those who willingly depart from it.

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