A few weeks ago I posted about friendship, claiming that “who you are when nobody’s looking” isn’t necessarily the truest testimony to who you are.
I want to riff on that a bit today, in conversation with my Open Letter to New Testament Intro Students. In short, community is crucial for keeping hold of your faith when your faith is challenged.
The context within which a dearly held conviction is challenged, and the way that faith is depicted in relationship to that challenge, can make all the difference in whether that challenge leads to a lost faith or a reconfigured and strengthened faith.
In response to my open letter, several commenters voiced their concern that critical reconfiguration of what the Bible is and what it says do not happen more in the church. And I think there is something tremendously important about this call. Yes, we have to handle the issues carefully and not unduly disturb the faithful.
But here’s the problem with pretending that the Bible is something it is not: if the context of faith depicts the Bible, or science, or belief in one way, and then a student enters a non-faith environment and discovers that the Bible or science or belief are entirely different it creates an apparently clear choice. Either stay with the faith and reject the learning or hold fast to the learning and reject the faith.
The reason why NT Intro destroys people’s faith in college is because the community of faith has not been forthright about what the Bible actually is, and so the student is confronted with a choice between belief or knowledge.
In general, communities help create and perpetuate systems of plausibility. This can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on the truth and benefits of how the group is perceiving and articulating reality.
If Christianity is true, then the calling of the church is to articulate, and demonstrate, a coming reality that is often not visible to human eyes: Jesus is the enthroned and coming Lord. We need community to keep making that reality real, to help us be renewed by the transforming of our minds, by the conversion of our imaginations.
This means that when we’re struggling, we need the community. If we leave it, we are placing ourselves on an interpretive grid where this true reality is not accounted for in the interpretation of the world. And its unbelievability can quickly become unplausibility, and the faith withers.
It is precisely because context is crucial for wrestling with faith-challenging issues that I think it is a seminary professor’s duty to deal with all the difficult issues in class. The fact that Christians, in a Christian setting, while confessing Christ as Lord, can acknowledge these things is, itself, tonic against the notion that certain realities about the Bible or history tear apart the very fabric of Christian faith.
In the film Gods and Generals, Stonewall Jackson utters this provocative line to a dying man who confesses to unbelief: “Well then, I will believe for the both of us.”
When we’re struggling, we need people to believe for us. We need people to carry our belief when it cannot carry itself. We need ourselves to be infused with the gift of faith that comes from the participation in the body of Christ. And we need to know that our struggles can be Christian struggles, modes of living and doubting that honor the Christ whose faith saves us.