Reflections on Faith, and Why You Should (Not) Be Afraid of That Liberal College Professor
If you know me, or have knocked around this blog a bit, you know that I’m a liberal, feminist college professor. You’ll also know that I’m a person of faith, because, unlike some folks would have us believe, the two are not incompatible. Despite the claims of badly conceived Christian screenplays, the average college professor isn’t out there forcing students to recant or prove their faith in order to pass a class (that’s um, illegal and we would be disciplined or fired for it).
Not standard academic procedure (in case you were wondering).
Well, perhaps I should say that being an intellectual, free-thinking professor and a Christian are not necessarily incompatible. Because if I’m honest, the way I originally learned to have faith and to believe doesn’t really float my theological or ideological boat these days.
The reason I’m a Christian and a person of faith is not because I’ve clung desperately to the things I was taught in my youth. I haven’t. If I had tried to hold on to that version of faith, I would have failed years ago. It obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.
I’m still a Christian precisely because I have let go of some of those ideas and have re-envisioned others-because I have thought and wrestled and evolved. [And there’s plenty more on where I came from and where I’m at these days in my Spiritual Autobiography.]
But let’s take a step back and think about this thing that I’m calling “faith.”
When I was a teenager in a Southern Baptist youth group (which was in many ways an excellent experience with great people), one of the popular metaphors for faith had to do with sitting in a chair. I remember being told repeatedly, in various devotionals and Bible studies, that the act of having faith is like the act of sitting in a chair. When you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will support you. Back then, I suppose that I took it on faith that this metaphor actually made sense.
Back then, it seemed to, because faith seemed that simplistic. Chairs are made to support our weight. We know this. We are certain of this. Unless they are obviously defective, we expect them to do that without even thinking about it.
I also remember-as I’m sure some others do-being yelled at from the pulpit, with a fiery fist thumping into a palm with every repetition: “You got to know that you know that you know [that you are saved, washed in the blood, forgiven, going to heaven, etc.]!”
Back then, I knew that I knew that I knew. Then I left my conservative Christian bubble, went to college, and learned that my point of view reflected only one little corner of human knowledge and experience. I didn’t let go of my faith, but I learned to allow it to evolve into something more expansive and mature [more on that in another post].
Today, I freely admit that when it comes to God, and to understanding the mystery of Christ and incarnation and resurrection and a whole other heaping pile of things, I know very little. I am certain of very little.
The thing is-that’s okay. Why?
Because faith and certainty are not the same thing. In fact, they are opposed to one another. Faith requires a leap. Expecting a perfectly good chair to hold you up when you sit in it is not faith. It’s common sense. There is no leap, no challenge in that.
Christianity, on the other hand, is not common sense. If you think it is, then you really have not been paying attention.
Well, this is your friendly liberal feminist (Christian) college professor standing at the front of the class calling “¡Atención!” (Did I mention that I teach Spanish?)
Today’s lesson: Christianity is a little freakin’ loco.
I mean, it turns the world as we know it upside down. It asks us to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us. It tells us that the least, the last, and the lost are sites of value: the least require our care, the last will be first, and the lost should be sought at the expense of everything else. It tells us that by losing our life, we gain it.
And to top it off, Christianity claims that (to borrow some language from Tripp Fuller) we can see the image of the invisible God in a homeless, first-century Jew. What??
If you grew up in church, that sounds reasonable. If you didn’t, or if you take a step backand look at it rationally, it sounds pretty absurd. It’s embarrassing. It’s offensive to the intellect, to common sense.
This isn’t a chair we can just plop down into and get all comfy in. If you take about five minutes to think about these claims rationally and (perhaps more importantly) honestly, then you must, on at least some level, doubt them.
And that’s okay too. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s what makes true faith possible.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood doubt as essential for faith. As Tripp writes, “For Kierkegaard, faith is not merely explaining the idea that Jesus is God so that it becomes reasonable or palatable; faith is facing the offense and choosing to believe rather than to be offended. . . . The act of faith is the decision of the individual alone-no professor, preacher, or Sunday School teacher can make it for you.”
Faith is not an unconscious certainty. It’s a decision that you make in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even absurdity. Faith is sitting in a chair with three legs, and against rationality, expecting it to hold you up anyway. This is not because God, the ultimate object of faith, is faulty or broken, but because our understanding of God can never be complete. It is always a chair with a few missing parts.
Faith is understanding that and taking a seat anyway.
And because of that, no matter how liberal or atheist or even hostile-to-religion they might be (because let’s face it, there are a few jerks out there in any given profession), no professor or teacher can unmake your decision of faith. You can only do that for yourself. It’s your choice.
Sure, some college professor or some other speaker or writer or friend may introduce you to an idea that will make you question everything you ever believed was true, but that’s a good thing. It’s a process that allows us to reconsider and refine who we are, what we believe, and why-usually for the better.
We have to challenge ourselves and question our own ideology in order to grow, and as most of us learn eventually, intellectual or spiritual growth, just like physical growth, can be an unsettling and painful process. That doesn’t mean that we have to let go of what is most important about what we believe. What it does mean is that we should hold it up to the light, examine it, and perhaps reshape it or whittle away at the bits that no longer seem true.
I know as well as anyone that if you open your mind to new and different ideas, it can radically alter your understanding of the world and of your place in it. In many ways, I have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other in my journey from Southern Baptist holy-rolling teenage missionary girl to who I am today.
These days I am that liberal, free-thinking college professor that I was told to be wary of many years ago (well, 19 years ago – I’m not that old). And you know what?
I’m really not that scary.
But I do make it a habit to loosen the screws on all of my students’ chairs.
Reference: Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome