I have long been conscious that a significant proportion of Christians who study theology at university come out of their degrees with their faith severely shaken if not destroyed.
I have more recently encountered the opposite phenomenon – of large numbers of students considering themselves to be atheists or agnostics, but finding themselves fascinated by religion, studying it to degree level and beyond, and remaining as interested as ever. They come to our offices hoping for an internship with us – looking, that is, for an opportunity to spend more time with religious people, talking and thinking about religion, for no wages.
The Church of England reported today that the number of students taking Religious Studies at A-level has risen for the seventh year in a row. The press release states that:
Church educationalists interpret the continued increase as further evidence that young people are interested in exploring religious perspectives on the big questions in life, and in studying how different moral and cultural frameworks shape people’s understanding of the world around them.
So why, if the un-religious are so fascinated by faith and recognise that a concept of the transcendent helps people to understand and interpret the world around them, do the religious tend to fall away when they explore that understanding in more depth?
The cynic will explain it by saying that ‘religion’ is a fascinating sociological phenomenon and the students are interested in much the same way that people are interested in the ‘bearded lady’ or ‘5-legged cow’ at American County Fairs. On further scrutiny, such as that offered by a theology degree, they claim, the tenets don’t stand up to the application of reasoned thought, and the (duped) faithful fall away in droves.
I hope its obvious by now that I don’t find that explanation to hold water for Christianity. I think it holds up very well to reasoned thought, and there are many books on the market which take just such a critical approach to, for example, the historical validity of the Bible, or whether there is any explanation other than the Resurrection for the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb.
The evidence stacks up, but a deep understanding of the message of God throws up some hard teachings and some areas in which we have to accept that we simply don’t know the answers or understand the mind of God. That can be a fatal blow to a faith which may never have been introduced to such conflicts.
When those with no faith study Christianity, they see that its followers have a perspective on life which enables them to live in freedom and that is very attractive, but the closer they look, the more clearly they see the cost attached to such freedom.
Christianity is a hard road; Jesus never promised anything different. If we sell, in our churches and Sunday schools, a dumbed-down, anodyne ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, we have to expect some to fall away when faced with the reality of sacrificial living in a fallen, often hostile, world.
Yet we mustn’t, either, sell a picture of doom and gloom, for alongside the call to take up our cross and follow him, Jesus promised that his yoke would be easy and his burden light. How this can be true, when we read of the tortures faced by the first Christians, and the persecutions endured by believers in many parts of Asia today, is a mystery, and one we will never understand from the outside.
The decision before us, and before all those peering in at ‘religion’ from outside the frosted window, is whether to trust God in the midst of hardship, or gaze longingly at the ‘joy set before us’ then, overcome by fear, turn and walk away.