I received a forwarded email that originally was sent by some media guy who lost his faith reporting on religion. In that email the following excerpt was provided, abbreviated already, and I abbreviated it more:
… Having been raised to believe in a just God, my faith was shaken when my husband and I lost our ten-year-old child to Cystic Fibrosis, a congenital disease for which there is no cure.
We felt betrayed that a loving God could bring such pain to parents who lived by the Golden Rule and followed the Ten Commandments. As we coped with our grief, we couldn’t help but wonder why our love for our child wasn’t enough to keep her alive and why our faith wasn’t bringing us any comfort.
After losing another child to the same illness, we came to the conclusion that we were naïve to believe in the Sunday School version of a deity that sits in a place called heaven and doles out rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad. We have only to look at world events and know this isn’t true.
So, who to pray to? An impersonal deity who lets bad things happen to good people? We still haven’t figured that out. But it is difficult to abandon a life-long belief.
First of all, I am sympathetic to the woman who wrote this. I don’t think I blame her for her reactions. She merely compared the version of Christianity she received with the world as she experienced it. What she describes as the ‘Sunday School version’ of God is in fact what many people receive growing up, and what they receive even as adults. This is anecdotal evidence for a state of affairs I’ve been calling attention to repeatedly. For example, many of the nonChristians I discourse with also have ‘Sunday School versions’ of God floating around in their heads.
I won’t belabor the absurdity of presuming that one has learned all that was needful in regards to Christianity by the fifth grade. No one imagines that a fifth grader knows all there is about math, history, and English. Instead let me point out that in many places in the Christian Church it is asserted that you shouldn’t need to know anything more than what you learned in Sunday School- or confirmation class, or whatever.
But what if it is the very methods of transmitting the faith that is actually undermining it left and right in our society? Is it really the case, as I have argued, that the Christian church is producing nonbelievers and atheists?
How might the email writer above have responded to the death of her children had she known about the book of Job, for example? What about Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus? Whatever else she may have thought, she would never have believed that her love could keep her kid alive or that her faith was about bringing comfort or that God sits around doling out rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad. You don’t need to look at world events to know that isn’t true- Luke 13:1-9 would have been enough to fix that.
So what to do? Pastors are the front lines here. They have to seriously ask themselves if their education programs are actually fueling unbelief. But pastors fight an uphill battle. Introducing real meat into a church’s educational programs will be met with a lot of resistance by parents who want church to be ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’ and don’t want too many demands on them or their children.
But fun and excitement, when placed on scales opposite to the death of two children to Cystic Fibrosis, has as much value as excrement. I don’t know what the solution is. There probably isn’t just ‘one’ solution. But emails like the one I’ve described continue to drive me to consider ways that the Church can change its approach.