Cloud of Unbelief

Jan 10, 2002 |J. Budziszewski

Ever get the feeling your faith is no longer real? You know, that sneaking suspicion you can't quite explain? Theophilus may be able to help diagnose your problem.

A good many students really do visit me to talk about the Christian faith — not because I'm wise like Theophilus, but because I'm Christian like he is. Out-of-the-closet Christians are so rare among the faculty that weíre noticed quickly. Unfortunately, I am often a poor representative of Jesus Christ; Theo is in every way wiser and holier, and in general I would much rather write up his conversations than my own.

However, the conversation that follows is from my archives, not from his. If, midway through the dialogue, you begin to wonder why the professor is so much slower on the uptake than usual ñ well, now you know. — Dr. Budziszewski

* * *

"Are these your office hours?"

I turned to see a young man 20 years of age. "Yes, come on in. You aren't one of my students, are you?"

"We haven't met. Somebody told me you were a Christian." He sat down.

"I am. Then did you want to talk about Christianity?"

"If that's okay."

"Certainly. Are we going to talk about it in relation to some academic matter, or man to man?"

"Man to man."

"Then you understand that I'll have to speak from the perspective of my faith, not as a representative of the University."

"Yes, that's how I want you to talk."

We settled in our seats. "What is it exactly that we're going to talk about?"

"Lately Christianity is starting to seem unreal to me."

"Unreal?"

"I mean it's been getting harder to believe."

"Did you believe it before?"

"Yes. I'm a Christian."

"We'd better find out whether we mean the same thing by 'being a Christian,'" I said. "What do you take it to mean?"

He replied without hesitation. "You're a Christian if you understand that God visited us as Jesus and took our sins upon Himself on the Cross — and if you've repented of your sins, and you've accepted Him as your savior — and you try to do everything he said."

"That's how I understand it too," I said. "May I press a little? When you speak of committing yourself to Christ, are you speaking of something you've done yourself?"

"Yes, at 14, when I was baptized."

"Was it your own decision?"

"Everyone back home is a Christian, and we're pretty close. But it was my own decision. I knew what I was doing."

"Yet now it's beginning to seem unreal."

"Yes, and I don't know why."

"What exactly are you finding hard to believe?"

"I'm not sure."

"For example, is it God Himself that's beginning to seem unreal?"

"No."

"Is it what Jesus said and did?"

"No."

"How about the Resurrection? Is it that?"

"Yes, I think that's it. It's just hard to believe that the Resurrection actually happened."

"So that's the main issue?"

"Yes — I think so."

"What is it that has made believing in the Resurrection more difficult for you?"

"I don't know."

"Have you run into an argument against the Resurrection — some reason why it couldn't have happened? Perhaps from a book you've read, or a friend, or a teacher or your own mind — some objection which you don't know how to answer?"

"No — that hasn't happened."

I couldn't counter an argument if there wasn't any. Was it really possible that he had no reason for his wave of doubt?

"Do your friends argue against the Resurrection?"

"No."

"Do you find it hard to believe in miracles generally?"

"No."

"Are you concerned that the witnesses to the Resurrection might have been untruthful?"

"No, not exactly."

"Is the problem, perhaps, with the Bible in general? Do you find it difficult to believe that the Scriptures are truthful and accurate?"

"No, it's only the Resurrection I'm having difficulty with."

"Why?"

"I don't know. It just seems — as though it couldn't have happened. You know?"

"Let me make sure I understand you. You admit that you have no intellectual grounds for disbelief."

"Right."

"Absolutely none."

"None."

"But disbelief is creeping up on you anyway."

"Yes."

"As though a cloud of unbelief had simply drifted over you and begun to descend."

"Yes, that's just what it's like."

I realized that he was as puzzled as I was. No wonder he had been willing to seek out a perfect stranger.

"Let's do a little detecting," I said. "May I ask a few personal questions?"

"Sure."

"You don't have to answer them, I'll stop any time you want, and you can leave if you think I'm out of line."

"Go ahead."

"Sometimes people stop believing in the Christian faith because they don't want to believe in it — because it makes them uncomfortable or unhappy."

"Why would it do that?"

"For example, if they're angry with God. Could your problem be something like that?"

"No, I don't think so. I don't have a problem with God."

"Or if they've been doing something which by Christian standards is immoral. Could it be that?"

"Sometimes I commit sins, of course," he said, "but there's nothing that I've kept up with — nothing I haven't repented."

"Have you been made to feel ridiculous for being a Christian? I suppose you've noticed that it isn't 'politically correct.'"

"I know about that, but it hasn't affected me personally."

"No snide comments about Christianity from teachers or from friends? No sneers? Not even any raised eyebrows?"

"With the people I know, it just doesn't come up."

Belatedly, an indicator light had begun to flicker in my mind. "Why doesn't it?"

"It just — doesn't. It's not discussed."

"Do you have any friends you can talk over Christian things with?"

"Not really."

"Do you have a church where you worship regularly?"

"I used to, but I wasn't comfortable with the church I was brought up in, and I haven't kept it up."

"Why weren't you comfortable? Did you disagree with what you were taught? Did the people give you a hard time?"

"No, I agreed with everything taught there, and they were good Christian people. And I know Iím no better. But the worship was — well — too noisy somehow. I wanted to sit still and think about God. The worship made it hard to sense His holiness. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, I came to feel that way about the church of my childhood too. But there are lots of different kinds of churches. Some worship by 'making a joyful noise unto the Lord,' others by 'being still and knowing that He is God.' Have you tried looking around for another church?"

"No."

"Are you a part of any Christian student group here on campus?"

"No."

"Do you know any other Christians here at the University?"

"I don't think so. Or if they are Christian, they haven't said so."

The indicator light had stopped flickering and was shining steadily. "I think I may know the solution to the mystery."

"Do you mean why the cloud of unbelief is descending on me?"

"Yes. Tell me if this makes sense to you."

"Go ahead."

"I'm guessing that even though you didn't quite fit in at your old church, you and your family and your church were all pretty close."

"Oh, yes."

"So you saw the Christian life being enacted all around you."

"Sure."

"But here at the University, that's all gone, isn't it? You've lost your spiritual support network. I suspect that the reason why the Resurrection of Christ has come to seem unreal to you is that the Christian life had already come to be unreal for you."

"Is that so important? I try to live like a Christian."

"What do you think? Jesus gathered disciples, and He sent them out two by two. Paul founded churches, and said the Church is the Body of Christ. The author of Hebrews said 'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.í"

He considered for a moment. "That makes sense."

"Sure it does. Even quiet people like you are social beings. God just made you to be social quietly. You have friends; well, you need spiritual friends, faith-partners."

"Where would I find them?"

"Join a student Christian fellowship to find Christians who are like you. And join a church to find Christians who aren't like you."

"Can you suggest any?"

"I've always wanted to write out a prescription," I said. On a slip I jotted the names of some healthy churches and student fellowships, being sure to include several 'quiet' ones. Then I added the titles of a few good books, like Lewis's Mere Christianity and Stott's Basic Christianity. Finally I scribbled in the web address of an article on the Resurrection. Handing it over, I said "If you want to get out from under the cloud of unbelief, I think this will help you."

He took it and shook my hand. "Thanks."

"Will you visit me later to tell me how your faith is doing?"

"Yes," he promised, and he was gone.

Copyright 2002 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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