After a couple of years of diving into the depths of theology, it had become clear that the “Sunday school faith” I had absorbed from my local congregation would not be enough to answer my difficult questions. At the same time, the deeply liberal theology of my college professors projected a God that was too weak and too far from the Jesus of Scripture for me to accept. Was I going to have to choose between being faithful to the God that I loved and having intellectual integrity?
This was about the same time that a Campus Crusade for Christ minister at my college handed a bunch of us copies of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I’m not sure he knew what he was doing. The group of us that read the book together quickly began re-envisioning Christian faith in terms that our Cru minister couldn’t accept. We started outreach to our campus by joining the critique of Christian caricatures and proclaiming a new way of being human. At the heart of this new way of living was the radical move of becoming actual friends (and not just “witnessing to”) our skeptical classmates. We weren’t just friends with Nathan, we actually enjoyed his presence (most of the time). He was part of our “circle.”
But even while I was having something of a revival in my faith, I was growing increasingly uneasy with the difficult questions that my church was leaving unanswered. Pluralism. Evolution. Left Behind. The seeming lack of concern for those that suffer. This wasn’t going to work anymore. I appreciated the rigorous depth of the Tillichian theology I was reading in class. It didn’t seem Christian to me at all, but it was at least thoughtful.
I had been listening to Rob Bell for a couple years at that point. Rob’s sermons fascinated me. But I couldn’t figure out where he was getting some of the history he was teaching. And then one day I happened across a reading list that he had put together that was making it’s way around the web. Somewhere on there I recall it saying: “Anything by N.T. Wright.” That’s the guy I wanted. I want the one that you can suggest “anything by…”
I bought a copy of New Testament and the People of God. I know now that there were many easier places for me to start. But the first 200 pages of that book blew me away. I knew that I had no idea what he was actually saying. I also knew that the few parts that I understood were exactly where I needed to be. His was an intellectually astute orthodoxy. And that is what I needed.
Since I read that book I have earned (nearly) three degrees in theology. When I reread those parts of New Testament and the People of God, I now understand fully what he intends and my intuitions then were correct. I have yet to find a single problem with the theology of N.T.Wright except for his prejudice against contemporary worship music. He can be forgiven for that. And I have actually become an intellectually astute orthodox theologian myself. I’m no Wright, but like him, I imagine myself to be part of the solution.
What solution? To what problem?
Every day I have university students come to me asking difficult questions:
“My friend says that when I pray I only “feel” like God is with me because of the way my brain is wired.”
“How do I respond to my roommate that says she can’t believe in God because her mom committed suicide? She says God could have stopped her mom.”
“My friend left the faith because he finally admitted he is gay. He says he doesn’t want to be gay. It is too hard. But he says he just can’t deny that he likes boys.”
These are not the kind of questions that you answer with Sunday School theology. Theologians with great minds struggle with these questions every day. But I have come to one very strong conviction: The Gospel of Jesus Christ can withstand your toughest questions. As I explain the complex version of the answers to these questions to college students, I inevitably hear them breathe a sigh of relief. They want to believe. But we haven’t given them good reasons to trust that they can. The Sunday School answers are not enough for them either.
So here is the call that I issue to pastors and church leaders and those that aspire to be. Stop telling young people that they have to “just believe” and instead give them complex answers to their complex questions. As soon as you hear yourself responding “It’s really pretty simple…,” just back away from the bumper sticker theology. Admit that you don’t know. Tell them you will find out and then do it. Even better, do the research with them. Help them see you struggle with it. The Gospel may be simple enough for a child, but it is also complex enough for the most difficult questions.
What are the questions that have really challenged your faith? Have you found sufficient answers? Who helped you find your way?
Related Post: My Unremarkable Ministry Among College Students