In college, I had what I guess what you might call a “crisis of faith,” which seems too neat and succinct a term for the slow-motion trainwreck that it actually was. Slowly but steadily, everything I had always taken for granted about God was stripped away, and I found myself standing in a world of stark unbelief. No words can adequately describe what that is like, when the faith you have always assumed to be rock solid and strong suddenly sways in the wind, gives one incredulous, doe-eyed blink, and collapses irreverently at your feet in a too-small pile of dusty ash.
But really, how do we find words to wrap around that experience? “Earthquake of the soul” seems better. Or perhaps, “Where is the ground that has always been beneath me?” Maybe, as in all experiences of any significant magnitude, words fail. Maybe no words can adequately contain it, so we resign ourselves to a benign description – “crisis of faith” – that, even with its tidy hospital corners, will suffice as well as anything else.
What we don’t have a term for is the rebuilding that follows. And rebuild we must, for no one can live long in a land of No Belief; we are hard-wired to place our trust in something. But there is no cliche for the labor of reconstruction: the loneliness, the painstaking sifting through belief systems and pat answers and assumptions, the endless questions, questions, questions that eventually harden into new and stronger and humbler faith. We don’t have a nice, neat little phrase for that.
It is unfortunate that “Crisis of Faith: What Comes Next” is the story that often goes untold, because What Comes Next has immense value. The faith we build in that place is a thing of simple beauty. It no longer resembles a tall tower of sticks; it looks much more like a sturdy altar of stone. And we realize that the price we paid was great indeed, but greater still is what we have gained. And we are changed and scarred but ultimately very thankful.
As for me, there were many contributing factors to my own “crisis,” and it was surely only a matter of time. But the match to the tinder was reading a short story by John Updike in freshman English. Updike often writes about Christians who wear their religion as no more than a hopeful but ridiculous talisman against suffering. A Christian himself, his writing is scathing and unapologetic. The story was called “A Gift from the City,” and I instantly recognized myself in it and was shocked by what I saw. Cue my, ahem, “crisis of faith.”
Of course, John Updike was not responsible for my struggle. In fact, I kept that book of short stories for all of these years, and last year I reread “A Gift from the City.” I was amazed that it had had such an effect on me back then; now it seemed quite harmless. His story may have merely been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but I have always secretly thanked him for daring to hold a mirror in front of my faith, for setting my feet on an arduous but necessary path, for not flinching.
John Updike died last month on January 27. I somehow regret that I never let him know the power his writing had on me at that time. I write this in his honor and in honor of any who realize that faith is far too valuable a thing to tolerate shiny impostors. I honor the courage that requires, to poke your finger in flimsy religion – not just because you can, but because it must be torn down to clear the way for something else, Someone Else, that perhaps has “no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him,” but is nevertheless lovely indeed.