I write this post because of a story that a convert to Islam told my World Religions class when we visited his mosque. Our professor always asked people how they came to pick their religion – whether it was because they grew up in it or converted. This man had been an Evangelical Sunday school teacher and had read a book by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict in hopes of being a better teacher. He then decided that there was not enough evidence for him to accept the same verdict as Mr. McDowell. Thus, he could no longer be a Christian because he didn’t think the resurrection really happened. However, when he turned forty, he thought he should find the right religion because he didn’t want to be on the wrong side on judgment day. I wondered if this man’s occupation might have something to do with computers (and as it turns out he was a senior engineer for IBM) since his thinking seemed to be very much based on evidence and fairly black and white. However, more than that, I learned that day that the existential crisis that drives one person is not the same as the one that drives someone else. This probably should not have come as a surprise, but it did.
My existential crisis of faith when I was a young college student also came about by reading a book. It was Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper, which was assigned for an Introduction to Missions class at Oklahoma Baptist University. It was one of the few non-required religion classes I could take that didn’t feel hostile to women. But suffice to say that I started a class being enthusiastic about sharing my faith and feeling called by God to do something that left me feeling ashamed of my faith and not sure I wanted to be a Christian. I had never thought of God as a narcissistic monster who delighted in torture before I read Piper. I took that class because I loved to worship God and wanted to serve God. I left that class not really liking God.
My existential crisis had primarily to do with hope. I remember scrawling in my notebook of deep thoughts that philosophically, I thought that love and justice might in fact be the same thing rather than opposites – and learned in seminary that Paul Tillich thought so too. But at the tender age of twenty-one, I thought my only choices were Evangelical Christianity or agnosticism/atheism or some other religion like Buddhism or something. So it seemed to me that if you were an atheist and a woman, you could be an equal citizen rather than a second class one. If you were an atheist, you might be dedicated to do something about the real world because you would realize this life was precious. Maybe in the future, there could be an ideal society where people actually loved each other and cared about each other and we learned not to fight wars and had cured most diseases. Maybe we could actually solve some of our problems and we wouldn’t have to have poverty and hunger anymore. Maybe we could even travel to other planets and make contact with extraterrestrials. And my crisis was that if the only choices out there are Star Trek or John Piper, then there wasn’t even a contest.
So do we each have our own existential crisis that drives us? In asking this question, am I making certain assumptions about the nature of reality based on my own experience? The primary reason that I did not become an atheist was because I could not imagine away what I felt to be the presence of God. It was simply beyond the limits of my imagination to not conceive that God was up there somewhere and that God was aware of everything including all my thoughts and questions (as well as everyone else’s). It was personal experience that I have difficulty putting into words or naming with language. No doubt most atheists would think it was really all in my head. And maybe I have a psychological need to believe in God because I find the idea of a random, chaotic universe unbearable. It is possible that could be the case. Fundamentalists would also say that I’m wrong because if I can’t see things in black and white and in terms of evidence, then I’m just reading what I want to see into reality. Of course, I don’t expect many of them to have read past a title like, “What is your existential crisis?”
However, that’s the point. We all perceive things differently. Maybe the people who say they’d like to believe in God, but can’t, really don’t have that sense that I couldn’t imagine away. It’s easy for me to say, “Well you just think that your only choices are Star Trek or John Piper, but let me enlighten you with liberal mainline Protestantism.” However, I don’t think I would have lost or gained my faith with a book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict. My questions would have had to do with the nature of justice and the desire for a better world. I would still ask what the resurrection means and why it matters. That is not to say that if someone proved beyond a doubt that it didn’t happen, that I wouldn’t have to accept the evidence. But as long as there is space to believe in the resurrection, I will. I think if you are inclined to think the resurrection didn’t happen because people who are dead have a habit of staying that way, then that completely misses the point. The point (at least to me) is that if even death can be overcome, then why not every other injustice and hurt in the world? Why are we limited to only what we see as being possible? But then my existential crisis was a crisis of hope.