[Beliefnet, March 5, 2000]
Beautiful ring. Did you buy it yourself, or is it an heirloom?
Beautiful faith. Did you choose it yourself, were you raised in it?
Such contrasts went through my head when I read a recent news story about a 12-year-old Jewish boy in Dallas who had been invited to a Baptist youth event. He enjoyed it so much he asked to go again; he had been taught about his own faith, he said, and wanted to learn about others. After the second event he came to a decision. He signed a card stating that he took Jesus as his savior, and asked to have his Bar Mitzvah called off.
His mother, needless to say, was outraged. After the boy had some conversations with the education director at their synagogue he returned to Judaism. The education director declared that she would be working to fortify Jewish children against Christian evangelism.
Here’s the interesting fact buried in the story: the boy’s mother is a convert from Christianity to Judaism.
Did you inherit that faith, or choose it? Is one method of acquiring faith better than another?
This story reveals in microcosm the profound change we’re undergoing in how we acquire religious faith. Used to be, you were Presbyterian because your folks were Presbyterian, and you sat on the same spot in the pew that your grandpa’s fanny had worn shiny. This is what the news story above described as a high-stakes issue of “survival of religious identity.” An advocate might say: your faith is a heritage that weaves you into a community both present and past. It is a rich part of your identity.
On the other hand, that Presbyterian might decide to convert to Judaism. Here an advocate might use different terms: you are thinking for yourself, listening to your heart, weighing the world’s spiritual treasures and determining what has the ring of truth.
There’s no doubt that the latter path is rapidly replacing the former. This very website is evidence of that. From a heavenly perspective, Beliefnet must look like a triple-cloverleaf highway at rush hour. Seekers are changing lanes, merging, and zooming on and off ramps with gusto. Heritage? That was for grandpa. I want to think for myself.
In general, I think this shift is a good thing. It means more genuine engagement with faith and less debilitating nominalism. But I’ve got three warning flares.
1. How old do you have to be to reject the faith of your parents? I was thirteen, about the same as this Jewish boy, when I rejected the nominal Christian faith of my childhood. Like him, I was curious about other faiths, and spent my high school and college years enjoyably exploring alternatives.
If a twelve or thirteen-year-old is old enough to declare his faith during a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation, he’s old enough to reject it. He’s old enough to affirm a different faith, or to decline to accept any. If religious tradition declares that this is the age when one is mature enough to choose, it can hardly set limits on what is chosen.
As a parent, however, I find the image dismaying. No parents want their child to reject what they hold dear at such a tender age. The solution is prevention: parents must recognize this shift toward explore-and-choose religion, and be diligent about passing on both the fervor and content of their faith. “Religious identity” is the bare minimum that faith can be; in fact, it might not be faith at all, but just a label. As St. Peter wrote, “Stand ready at all times to give a good defense of the faith that is in you.”
2. For your own good, choose a whole package — don’t just browse. My search through the world’s religions came to an end when I realized that I wasn’t smart enough to assemble my own faith out of the pieces I liked best. The problem was that I couldn’t get beyond my own limitations and prejudices. In order to acquire wisdom beyond my feeble allotment, I had to submit to something broader, deeper, and wiser than me, and take the whole package — the things I understood as well as the things I didn’t. At the time I chose Hinduism, finding it the most theologically and aesthetically appealing of the world’s great faiths.
3. Don’t be surprised if you get a big surprise. We speak here as if this entire business is a matter of our independent decision. But if we are dealing with a spiritual reality on the other side, not just human whims and fancies, our gestures toward it can elicit dramatic and unexpected results. The God we are seeking could be seeking us as well, just as diligently and a great deal more efficiently.
About a year after I chose Hinduism I was touring a historic church; I found myself suddenly knocked to my knees before a statue of Jesus. I could hear an interior voice saying, “I am your life.”
Having spent the previous eight years feeling general contempt for Christian faith (compared with the wonderful new faiths I’d toured), I was stunned by this event. It tore to pieces all the tidy spiritual landscape I had designed and populated with my preferences.
This was replaced by a deep hunger for Jesus Christ, the kind of yearning love you feel only for another person, not for an idea or principle. He was the most indubitably real thing I have ever encountered in my life. In an instant I fell in love, and all the rest of my life is a leaning and questing toward him.
This is not a game, not a cafeteria, not a boutique where we select the faith that we think will look most flattering on us. Mighty spiritual forces are at play here, and also no doubt at war. As we pass from an era of hand-me-down faith to one where faith is chosen, it is well to be sober and remember that the process has two sides. In the words of Jesus: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” You have only one soul to offer; be careful who chooses it.