Last year I wrote of the sad case of Philip Wentworth, who lost his Christian faith at Harvard in the early years of the last century. While I suggested that his reasons for rejecting Christianity were pretty superficial, others walk away from faith for more weighty reasons. Among these are:
1. Failure to make the faith one’s own. The Bible properly emphasizes the corpus Christi and the communal character of the faith. However, it’s possible that an individual church-goer rests too heavily on the faith of the community and hasn’t sufficiently appropriated it for herself. If the community fails her in some way, she leaves behind, not only the community, but the faith of the community as well. Reciting the creeds only in church, she cannot bring herself to recite them outside its walls. They are not really a part of her.
2. Disillusionment with the Christian community. One need only recite the familiar litany of clerical sexual abuse, adulterous evangelists and greedy television preachers to recognize that, for many people, Christianity’s truth claims collapse in the first hint of less-than-saintly actions from supposed saints. I know someone who likes to use this line in his stories of the past: If I were not a Christian before I met you, I would never have become one after meeting you. Ouch! There is, of course, no way to justify unchristian behaviour, which tends to negate the work of the entire apologetic enterprise.
Of course one needs to bear in mind that the Christian community makes no claims to perfection. The community and its members are fallible. This does not make them any less than the people of God, redeemed by his grace through Jesus Christ, yet many stumble over this imperfection.
3. The justice of God. We’ve all heard this one before: How could a good God allow. . . fill in the blank: the Holocaust. . . the Armenian genocide. . . Idi Amin. . . the earthquake in Haiti. . . the death of my neighbour’s infant son. . . you get the picture. Job’s friends were certain that his suffering was connected to sin. And it’s true: a lot of suffering does follow on the heels of personal evil. But a lot of it does not.
4. Personal tragedy. This is essentially the same as 3, except that it happens to oneself. Undergoing a personal tragedy either brings one closer to God or pushes one away from him. There is no satisfactory explanation for why some people respond the first way while others respond the second.
5. Loss of a sense of God’s presence. Some years ago FT published Carol Zaleski’s disturbing article, The Dark Night of Mother Teresa, and we now have her private writings collected in Come Be My Light. What startled me in reading of Mother Teresa’s experience was the recognition that I, as a quite ordinary Christian, seem to have a more vivid sense of God’s on-going presence than Mother Teresa did – at least after her initial visions of 1947. Yet she still answered God’s call on her life and served him for the next half century, which is all the more remarkable given what we now know of her. Nevertheless, many people conclude from similar experience that God does not exist.
6. Lack of a Christian upbringing. Billions of people around the world grow up in nonchristian households. Some embrace the faith later in life. Most do not. While some of the former stick with it and grow in it, others try it out for a while and then leave it behind for something else. If you have not first experienced the love of God in the love of your own parents, it may be difficult to experience it at all.
There are certainly other reasons I have not mentioned here, but this is at least a place to begin in coming to grips with the mystery of unbelief. Others may be able to provide more such reasons.