Also toward the end of high school, I began to question my faith. This questioning isn’t associated in my mind with the other struggles I was having, but it was no doubt connected. What I was doing wasn’t working. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was searching for something more.
The apologetic works of Josh McDowell, his Evidence that Demands a Verdict series and More than a Carpenter, among some other books, were reassuring to me for a time. In this phase of my questioning, reassurance, more than anything else, was what I was seeking. I was looking for reasons to believe what I believed. But a broader challenge was yet to follow.
My senior year, I was a co-leader, with my friend Josh the Baptist, of our school’s Bible club. (I remember, notably, that there was a Catholic girl in our group. I was curious about her faith; it was the first time I’d ever known a Catholic — at least, it was the first time Catholicism had ever come up with someone I knew. We never really talked about it, though.) I took an aggressive posture in planning to get the word out, finally set to “take my school for Jesus” like Pastor Pat had urged. But it all was steam. I remember one day before biology class, I was pushing some religious view or another, when an Indian friend challenged me. I don’t even remember what he said, but it probably had something to do with evolution. I was entirely unprepared for it. Suddenly, all my gung-ho and bluster fell flat. I realized in an instant that for all my bold insistence and assertions, my beliefs had no intellectual foundation. My punctured faith rapidly deflated.
More than searching for why I believed what I believed — for which I now seemed to have no adequate answers — I also began wondering why I believed this, instead of something else. Why Christianity, out of all the other religions in the world? I realized how little I knew about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I realized how little, ultimately, I knew about the big bang theory or evolution or scientific theories of the beginning of the universe. I went to the library and checked out books.
My search, admittedly, was never as deep or far-reaching as I know many others have sought. I remember in particular only three or four books that I read: one book about the big bang theory — the evidence for it, and different scientific interpretations of the evidence. I remember the “oscillating universe theory” provoked a lot of thought. It was the first time I truly wrestled with the idea of eternity and infinity, of when and how the universe began its existence from non-existence. And I remember a book, a broad, unbiased, comparative examination of a number of major world religions, especially Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I remember there being attractive elements of each of them, but deciding ultimately that Christianity was the “best fit” for me, and that I had no reason to put my faith in anything else, or to disbelieve what I believed. My quest at that time didn’t do much to strengthen my weakened foundation, but at least it brought me to a point of rest, however precarious.
I first found that my faith had no intellectual foundation, but was founded instead on emotion; then I discovered what a weak foundation emotion could be. Pastor Pat left Calvary, abruptly and unceremoniously. His successor, Pastor Glenn, was a good guy, much more down to earth and less fiery. But the excitement and hype of Pastor Pat’s time were quick to evaporate. In its absence, I fumbled for something else to stand on. To my dismay, I found so much of what I’d been building to be a house of cards. It only took one good gust to knock it down.
I must have been having inchoate doubts for a while. I must have been reading Scripture. But one weekend I went with the youth group to our state youth convention. The guest speaker was a particularly fiery one I’d heard a number of times before, one popular and well-liked. But something was different this time. Very suddenly and all at once, something hit me. This is all wrong, I thought. Finding no peace in the auditorium, I retreated to the restroom with my Bible and a notebook, and sitting on the floor, began furiously scribbling notes about all that I saw that was wrong.
Charismatic Christianity, of which Pentecostals and the Assemblies of God are an element, centers on miraculous spiritual gifts, including prophecy and especially speaking in tongues (see 1 Corinthians 12-14); charismatics believe that these gifts continue to this day, and didn’t die with the Apostles. Charismaticism, at its essence, is very emotional — some would say ecstatic. Glossolalia itself is commonly defined as “ecstatic speech.” Being “moved by the Spirit” generally entails being moved to high emotion. And at that moment I realized the fallacies of being led by emotion. How could one know what was God and what was just excitement? I noticed that the louder the preacher shouted, the more excited everyone became. I noticed that when it came time for an altar call, the musicians would begin to play something sentimental to pluck at the crowd’s heartstrings. Most troubling of all, I noticed the preacher speaking in tongues before the crowd, babbling into the microphone — something plainly contrary to Scripture on its face:
If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
(1 Corinthians 14:27-28, ESV)
There was no one to interpret; it was only empty babbling. And this was, and is, a common occurrence. Charismatic Christians, who claim their belief in miraculous spiritual gifts has scriptural support, ignore the guidelines of the very Scripture they claim for support. (Granted, this by itself doesn’t undermine the validity of speaking in tongues — those people could, it could be argued, just be undisciplined and practicing disorderly worship — but another time for that debate. At the time of this realization, it seriously undermined my faith in charismaticism.)
I had filled up several pages that night before I was done. It all flowed out like water, like a dam bursting. When I got home, I made an appointment with Pastor Glenn. I brought him my list of challenges. He had no answers for me.
I believe I stopped going to youth group soon after that. I had lost faith in the brand of Christianity I had been pursuing. The intellectual and emotional foundations of my faith had been tested, and proved to be weak. In short order, when my world fell out from under me, I would have no faith to cleave to. I was stranded in the wilderness.
But even through all those years of darkness, of being lost, of feeling abandoned, I never seriously questioned that God was there. I couldn’t find him — I felt he had forsaken me — but deep down, at the core of my being, I had a kernel of faith: I believed in God. Even when I doubted everything else, this much I knew. Even when all my world was shaken, this much I could I could stand on.