Illustration by Mahalia Lodge
I wanted out. Christianity had always been a prominent part of my life, having grown up in a religious community and attended a religious school. But at the end of year 12, I didn’t want any more of it. I didn’t believe in God, and felt scorn for religious people, which inconveniently put me at odds with just about everybody I knew.
I felt lonely for not having people to relate to. I felt pride in being a virtuous stalwart supporter of reason. And I felt frustration that the people I was surrounded by would not change their views.
The way I saw it, Christians were lazy. Since at least the time of Darwin, maybe even Galileo, their religion had been proven fundamentally at odds with the laws of logic and science. Surely any reasonable person should be able to see this, my 18-year-old self seethed. I felt the fact that engineers, musicians and teachers whom I knew did not see this could only be because of wilful self-delusion; that is, laziness.
I admired the attempts by radical Christian thinkers to break this laziness, but despaired at their inefficacy. In 1999. John Spong, former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, wrote a book titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die. He outlined 12 theses, à la Martin Luther, as to why Christianity must reform if it is to be taken seriously in the modern world. The first thesis read, “Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.” Spong’s writing seemed to me so lucid, so pertinent. Yet it enraged me that it had so little practical success. Spong is a pariah among mainstream Christianity and his experience is not unique. For instance, when Colorado Pastor Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins refuted the traditional Christian notion of hell, his congregation numbers dropped by half.
Witnessing these trends, I concluded that Christianity was impervious to reform. Around the time I finished school, I stopped going to church and called myself an atheist. But since then, I have been surprised to find my opinions have changed. I’m still coming to grips with how this could be so, but maybe it’s a result of having had the freedom to explore religion on my own terms, rather than having it imposed on me.
Since leaving the Christian bubble and attending university, I’ve grown to appreciate the good things about Christianity and Christians. It’s quite a turn-around, but I now spend a lot of time engaging with Christian and practices.
Because of their introspective nature, Christians—real Christians—are alert to certain critical truths about the world that others miss. The newly founded church I now attend makes a point of examining weekly the harmful messages peddled by the corporate culture and opinion makers of our time. Messages like ‘you can have it all’ and ‘you deserve it’. This is contrasted with the Christian message that life’s purpose is to serve others, and put oneself last. The consumerist culture has been known to increase narcissistic anxiety, while the Christian worldview gives its believers a sense of purpose and meaning beyond themselves.
Perhaps this is a false dichotomy. I don’t mean to suggest that selflessness somehow belongs exclusively to Christians. After all, there are many secularists who live lives of compassion and generosity, and many ‘Christians’ who live lives of selfishness and greed. Nevertheless, the positive experiences I have had at my new church demonstrate that there are religious institutions out there that are intellectually and morally compelling. So much so that even someone as cynical as I has been able to find in them value and truth.
The thing about religion I had previously failed to grasp was that it is about lived experience. It is not about what goes on in a person’s mind, but about what they see and feel. It doesn’t do a lot of good to fret about whether religion’s supernatural claims stack up, whether miracles can occur, or whether the world was created in six days. People who engage deeply with a religious tradition mostly do so in such a way that can hardly be conveyed in words; it is a deeply personal thing. By appreciating this, I can better empathise with people of faith. Only by seeking to understand the perspectives of others can I expect others to understand my own. My denigration and intolerance of Christianity in my late teens was more a hot-blooded act of rebellion, I now realise, than of principled protest.
Many young people have had bruising experiences with religion, and I’m sure that some of you reading can identify; the disillusioned Catholic school graduate has become something of a popular cliché. The 2011 census numbers measuring religious engagement indicate that Australians under 30 are 50 per cent more likely to report “no religion” than those aged above 30. But I wonder how many of those many young people may rediscover a more robust form of religion—or at the very least, an appreciation for it—later on in life, as I have. It is my hope that the Christian church will grow in its capacity to meet the social challenges of the present age, and I hope to be a part of this, rather than an observer sniping from the sidelines.