There are as many paths to God as there are individuals. This is the fourth post in a series that looks at six of the most well-traveled paths for contemporary believers. The previous post explored 'The Path of Independence'.
This path gets more crowded every year. People in this group typically begin life in a religious family, but drift away from their faith. After a childhood in which they were encouraged (or forced) to attend religious services, they now find it either tiresome or irrelevant or both. Religion remains distant, though oddly appealing.
Then something reignites their curiosity about God. Maybe they've achieved some financial or professional success, and ask, "Is that all there is?" Or, after the death of a parent, they start to wonder about their own mortality. Or their children ask about God, awakening questions that have lain dormant within themselves for years. "Who is God, Mommy?"
Thus begins a tentative journey back to their faith -- though it may not be the same faith they knew as children. Perhaps a new tradition speaks more clearly to them. Perhaps they return to their original religion but in a different, and often more committed, way than when they were young.
That's not surprising. As I mentioned in an earlier post, you would hardly consider yourself an educated adult if you ended your academic training as a child. Yet many believers cease their religious education as children, and expect it to carry them through adulthood. People in this group often find that they need to reeducate themselves to understand their faith in a mature way.
When I was a boy, for instance, I used to think of God as the Great Problem Solver, who would fix all my problems if I just prayed hard enough. Let me get an "A" on my Social Studies test. Let me do well in Math. Better yet, let tomorrow be a snow day.
If God was all good, I reasoned, then God would answer my prayers. What possible reason could God have for not answering them?
As I grew older, the model of God as the Great Problem Solver collapsed -- primarily because God didn't seem interested in solving all of my problems. I prayed and prayed and prayed and all my problems still weren't solved. Why not? I wondered. Didn't God care about me? My adolescent narcissism led to some serious doubts, which led me to consider the possibility that God didn't exist.
My lukewarm agnosticism came to a boil during my college days at the University of Pennsylvania. During freshman and sophomore years at Penn, my friends and I spent many late nights arguing loudly about religion (usually after too many beers or too much pot). Those late-night sessions, though friendly, raised doubts about the God to whom I had prayed when I was young. But at the time they were just random doubts and unconnected questions.
They coalesced when my freshman-year roommate was killed in an automobile accident during our senior year. Brad was one of my closest friends, and his death was almost too much to bear.
At Brad's funeral, on a humid spring day in a wealthy suburb outside of Washington, D.C., I sat in a tasteful Episcopal church, surrounded by Brad's shattered family and my grieving friends, and thought about the absurdity of believing in a God who could allow this. By the end of the service I had decided not to believe in a God who would act so cruelly. The Great Problem Solver wasn't solving problems but creating them.
My newfound atheism was invigorating. Not only did I feel like a person with a first-rate intellect, I was proud to have rejected something that obviously had not worked. Why believe in a God who either couldn't or wouldn't prevent suffering? Atheism was not only intellectually respectable but also had some practical benefits: I now had my Sunday mornings free.
So I firmly stepped onto the path of disbelief.
This journey continued for a few months until a conversation with a mutual friend of Brad. Jacque (she pronounced it "Jackie") came from a small town outside of Chicago, and was what my friends derisively called a "fundamentalist," though we had scant idea of what that meant. (It meant that her faith informed her life.) Jacque had lived in the same dorm with Brad and me during freshman year. Though wildly different from Brad in outlook and in interests, the two became close.
After an accounting class one day, standing in a snowfall outside of our freshman dorm, I told Jacque how angry I was at God, and how I decided that I would no longer go to church. My comments were flung at her like a challenge. "You're the believer," I thought, "explain this."
"Well," she said softly, "I've been thanking God for Brad's life."
I can still remember standing in the cold, and having my breath taken away by her answer. Rather than arguing about suffering, she was telling me that there were other ways to relate to God, ways other than as the Great Problem Solver.
Jacque's response nudged me on to the path of return. She hadn't answered my question about suffering. Rather, her words reminded me that the question of suffering (or the "mystery of evil" as theologians say) is not the only question to ask about God. Her reply said that you can still live with the question of suffering and believe in God -- much as a child can trust a parent even when he doesn't fully understand all of the parent's ways.
It also reminded me that there are other questions that are equally important--such as "Who is God?" Not being able to answer one question does not mean that others are not equally valid. Her answer opened a window onto another vista of faith.
Yet I was still stuck with a big question: If God wasn't the Great Problem solver, the God of my youth, who was he? Or He? Or She? Or It?
Not until I entered the Jesuits did I begin hearing about a different kind of God -- a God who was with you in your suffering, a God who took a personal interest in your life, even if you didn't feel that all your problems were solved -- that things started to make some sense. That's not to say I ever found an entirely satisfying answer for the mystery of suffering -- or for why my friend's life was ended at 21. But it helped me understand the importance of being in a relationship with God, even during difficult times.
When I was a novice, one of my spiritual directors quoted the Scottish philosopher John MacMurray, who said that the maxim of "illusory religion" is as follows: "Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you." "Real religion," said MacMurray, has a different maxim: "Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of."
(Next: The Path of Exploration.)
James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of 'The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life', from which this series is adapted.