When my husband and I learned he was being transferred to central London for his job, we felt overwhelmed with the prospect of choosing a home in the right location. Being in my 20s and an Anglophile of ridiculous proportions, I was interested in the beauty of the surrounding villages, tea shops, and museums. Michael, the more levelheaded of us, determined our most immediate need, beyond proximity to scones and a pot of Earl Grey, was a church.
Shortly after our arrival, we visited a local congregation and immediately felt as if we’d come home. The worship stirred us, and the people, unlike the British weather, were warm and welcoming. However, I had the immediate impression I was in over my head with the preaching. Our pastor, John, who had been educated at both St. Andrew’s and Ridley Hall in Cambridge, taught with a fierce intellect. He made his messages accessible for the average congregant, but it was clear his knowledge surpassed that of many pastors I’d previously heard.
One of the first sermons we listened to John preach made a lasting impression on us and helped me settle into the weekly rhythm of expanding and stretching both my critical reasoning and my convictions. In the sermon, he said that being a Christian does not require you to “check your brain at the door,” but, rather, faith is meant to be mulled over, wrestled with, and thoughtfully examined. True faith can stand up to intellectual rigor. While I had not engaged in anything of the sort until then, John gave me a glimpse of what my faith could look like.
His sermon was an invitation to use all parts of me, including my intellect, as a means of worshipping and knowing God. It was an invitation to exploration, critical thinking, and a faith based on more than generalizations and good feelings. I began examining my beliefs by listening to voices of those who disagreed with me, beginning with my church small group, who gave me the immediate opportunity to put this into practice.
For the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by believers who practiced their faith differently than I practiced mine. They welcomed non-Christians into intimate faith experiences, held mini-services in pubs, and prayed for strangers. Some of them had divorced, some were in recovery, and some were walking a fine line between doubt and belief. When I realized they had something to teach me about faithfulness by virtue of their faithful lives, it helped me begin to embrace other voices too—those who were marginalized, those who came from different traditions, and those new to faith. In my friends, I saw an example of how to still one’s heart and listen without an agenda or instant rebuttal—how to take questions to Scripture and to God in prayer.
His sermon was an invitation to exploration, critical thinking, and a faith based on more than generalizations and good feelings.
One of the challenges of becoming a Christian as a child is that we can become stuck in the developmental phase and particularities of the church culture in which we came to know Christ. We often adopt the tenets of our parents or our denomination with little wrestling—which is good and right when we are childlike in our reasoning. We memorize Scripture and learn the stories, but many of us carry this no further. Allowing a pastor or teacher to do our thinking for us, we sit as if empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge on a Sunday morning.
Christians need to become questioners, lifelong learners, open-minded, well-reasoned individuals who enter into a conversation with our faith. We need to hold nuance in one hand and moral absolutes in the other, asking how they balance. To study the Word of God through the lens of history, church tradition, communities of color, theologians, and nonbelievers can lead us to a greater understanding of the true source.
After listening to voices within the church, I expanded to areas beyond the Christian experience. I looked to scientists, doctors, and artists and asked what I could learn about God from their work. We understand the Bible better when we study how others interact with it—even those who don’t believe exactly as we do.
This practice of “examin[ing] everything carefully” and “hold[ing] fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) has helped me realize when I’m being sold a version of Christianity that has nothing to do with Christ. Asking questions of our religious traditions doesn’t change the nature of God, but it does change us. Given today’s political and social climate, we need deep-thinking, curious Christians—people who are well studied, imaginative, and intuitive.
Approaching faith in a more robust way has done more than simply increase my empathy and compassion; it has removed the fear that my faith will collapse under scrutiny. When I approach the church door, I do so with every part of me. I’m no longer an empty vessel waiting to be filled, but rather a person who enters into glorious mystery with hope.
Illustration by Peter Greenwood