I struggled to reclaim faith early in my college years.
At least that’s what the struggle seemed to be about as I was living through it. Looking back, it seems more likely that I was actually struggling for a way to let myself be reclaimed by a loving God.
Whatever the precise nature of the struggle, it was intense and urgent for me. I had reluctantly but defiantly turned away from my childhood faith because I had questions to which I could not find answers.
When I reached out for help, the people to whom I had turned seemed threatened by my questions. They told me it was a sin to doubt.
Not knowing what I didn’t know, I assumed that they were hiding the fact that there were no answers to my questions.
I was graced in college with some people who took my struggles seriously. A few of them were my teachers, who took time outside of the classroom to offer me ways of approaching faith that creatively combined head and heart and that honored doubt as a necessary part of faith.
One of those teachers put in my hands “The Dynamics of Faith” and “The Courage to Be,” both by Paul Tillich.
I had been mesmerized by Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and other writers who either gleefully or grievingly wrote about a world without God – a world filled with beauty and pain, with menacing threats to any sense of lasting meaning, and with the inevitably burdensome but surprisingly ennobling necessity for each person to shoulder responsibility for the shape of his or her life.
Tillich incisively engaged these broadly “existentialist” themes, and I was exhilarated by his writing. He pointed me toward a new way of being Christian.
Tillich also introduced me to an existentialist whom I’d overlooked: Soren Kierkegaard. He was a “Christian existentialist” and, in my limited world, I hadn’t known there was such a thing.
It’s safe to say that since meeting Kierkegaard my ways of seeing myself, God and the world have never been the same.
His writings aren’t necessarily “scripture” for me, but I’ve read his “Purity of Heart” many more times than I have read Leviticus. To this day, Kierkegaard challenges and helps me.
Recently, I’ve been pondering again his claim that to be a Christian is to live with Jesus as a contemporary. “Becoming a Christian in truth … [means] to become contemporary with Christ. And if becoming a Christian does not come to mean this, then all the talk about becoming a Christian is nonsense and self-deception and conceit.”
This idea of our being “contemporaneous” with Jesus is compelling and exciting and demanding: We relate to him as a here-and-now reality.
For me, that means that Jesus is with us to teach us and help us, in us to heal and restore us, ahead of us to lure us into God’s future, behind us to nudge us forward, and all around us, so that we meet him in the places and people we encounter.
More than any “argument” for the truth of Christianity, what persuades me over and over again is the immediate and inescapable presence of Jesus.
Whatever I think about faith grows, at last, from what I know beyond knowing, which isn’t “ideas,” but the God who meets me in him.
In his “Journals,” Kierkegaard said, “My whole life is an epigram calculated to make people aware” and “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful, you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.”
It’s as good a way as any I have found to describe my understanding of vocation: to make people aware of the God we experience in the contemporary Jesus, who makes saints out of sinners, hope out of despair, and “a way out of no way.”
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches and an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. He will join the religion faculty at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in the fall. He served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, for more than 13 years previously. A version of this column first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.