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Facing Questions
of Faith

by Greg Friedman, O.F.M.

Singer Paul Simon has a line in one of his songs that goes, "Faith, faith is an island in the setting sun./But proof, proof is the bottom line for everyone." It's my personal opinion that Simon is on to something about religion in this song. I've sat looking out over a lake at dusk, tracing the dim outlines of what I thought was an island. The darker it got, the less certain I was.

Faith is surely like Paul Simon's poetic image. We believe in God. We believe God is at work in our world. As a Catholic Christian, I believe God changed human history in a dramatic way through Jesus Christ, and that our Church is the pathway through which I am brought to God's love. That's my faith.

Some days, my faith provides me a clear, distinct vision. But other days, when the eyes of faith cloud over, I want Paul Simon's "bottom line"—proof.

When the shadows gather in my faith life, I admit to some unsettling and perhaps scary feelings. Is God really "there"? Is Jesus real? What happens if I have questions about Church traditions or teachings? My personal life depends a lot on how I live my faith. It guides many of my decisions (including my vocational choice as a priest).

When I experience times of trouble, faith gives me a comfortable, secure feeling—like going home and sitting down to one of my mom's home-cooked meals.

So, when faith questions arise in my life, it's normal that I may feel strange, uncomfortable, even lost. Perhaps you've had that experience. This Youth Update won't answer all your faith questions. Why not? Well, because of the nature of faith.

We'd all like proof for every situation, but we know that some things in life must be accepted without proof. How many times have you eaten food at a restaurant? You put faith in those who prepare the food, trusting that you won't get sick. To have proof, you'd have to be right there for every step in food preparation—from the farm where the food was grown to the kitchen where it was cooked.

If you accept that being human means living in faith, and if religious beliefs are important to you, then you take seriously questions about matters of religious faith. Since you're reading this Update, I presume you may want to explore what to do when questions come. I hope you'll allow me to share some of my own experience of faith questions.

What's True?

One experience I had with a religious question came early in my seminary training. One of my first courses in Bible studies examined some of the familiar stories in Scripture. Now, your high school religion courses cover how the biblical storytellers used dramatic, even poetic language to enhance—for example—the story of the passage of Moses and the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea. You know that the purpose of the story is to show God's saving power, and not to give strict history.

But I was a kid who grew up watching movies like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Now I was learning that the Scriptures were much more complicated than the Bible stories I had read as a child. The simple faith I had brought from my childhood to the seminary couldn't handle this challenge at first. Just what was true?

Questions can shake us up, especially when they concern things that are important to us. Is God real? Does God care about me? If God does care, then why do bad things happen to people I love?

The questions that spring up in the area of religion remind me of questions that occur in relationships. Have you had a disagreement with your best friend that made you wonder if the friendship would survive? Have you experienced jealousy or misunderstandings of others' actions?

The first time doubts arise in an otherwise good relationship, your whole world can collapse. The same thing can happen when our faith is called into question.

What's Normal?

For most of us, challenges to faith occur when we become more independent of our parents and family, where faith is usually nurtured. Outside that circle lurk lots of questions.

We might hear our cherished beliefs challenged at school or in other social situations by people who don't share our faith or upbringing. We might wonder how to explain our beliefs to friends who don't understand us. We can be as disturbed by a serious intellectual challenge from a teacher or fellow student as by a tasteless joke about Catholic belief or practice. Eventually we're faced with a decision: What do I believe?

Recently, I began interviewing people for a television project on adult faith. Most of the people I spoke with had a variety of faith questions as they grew up and experienced life. Some left organized religion for a time. Others tried a variety of religions. Some had to face serious crises, such as their own illness or the death of a loved one.

From my own life, and from these stories, I can assure you: You're normal if you're asking questions about what you believe. Questions are a necessary part of one's journey of faith. Faith development requires us to take responsibility for what we believe. That may bring us into confrontation, at times, with what our parents and teachers have taught us.

Children are vulnerable to lots of things that can hurt them. Parents have to exercise their authority in ways that don't leave much room for questions, in order to protect their children. (Would you stop to explain electricity if your little brother was about to stick his finger in a socket? Do your parents explain how sleep is necessary for good health to your little sister who wants to stay up all night?)

As children grow up, however, they experience more of life on their own. Where Mom and Dad's authority left little room for questioning, now there are all sorts of "gray areas" to life. Good and bad are tougher to sort out, and simple, direct answers don't always work.

Good Company

Perhaps you've had older brothers or sisters come home from college more "grown up" than when they left home. They might feel free to challenge your parents' authority. You might be surprised to know the same thing happened in the Catholic Church back in the late 1960's.

You've heard how Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council to help the Church adjust to modern challenges. Did you know that when that meeting started, there was a gentle—but definite—revolt among the Church leaders gathered for the Council?

When Pope John proposed the idea of the Council, some of his advisers, who felt there should be little or no change in the Church, prepared the Council's agenda. At that time, the relationship between most Catholics and authority in the Church was closer to that of parent and child. Those in charge of the Council's agenda—like protective parents—hadn't left much room for discussion or debate.

But when bishops from around the world arrived in Rome, many of them believed, as Pope John did, that new ways of talking about and practicing faith were possible. They protested the set agenda. In some ways, their protest was like a college-age son or daughter who comes home with questions and challenges for Mom and Dad.

The bishops who pushed for a change in the agenda won the day. The Council was opened for greater discussion, and many changes came about, like adapting the liturgy to more contemporary forms of celebration.

I like to remember that story when I have questions that confront situations and organizations that seem rigid or unyielding in the face of my questions. I feel that I'm in good company with the bishops at the Council. They were able to have their challenging questions heard.

You're also in good company when your religious questions are more personal. The story of Nicodemus, told in the Gospel of John, is a good case in point. He was a Pharisee, with a strict set of beliefs. But he went to Jesus to ask questions, and was challenged to a richer faith. Nicodemus, in many ways, had a childlike faith. Jesus taught him about being "born again" in the life of the Spirit. So you're in good company: Nicodemus is just one religious character with questions. Lots of very holy people have had them.

In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, Moses had questions for God in the process of leading Israel from slavery. The prophets, like Jeremiah, often brought their challenging questions to God. The Book of Job (rhymes with robe) is the story of a man with lots of questions. Job was a basically good guy—but a lot of bad things happened to him: the death of his family, the loss of his property, bodily sufferings. He wanted to know why a good God would allow a good person like him to suffer. The whole book is full of Job's discussion on the subject with his friends who come to console him. The longer you live, the more likely you'll have questions like his.

When Life Hurts

Once I was helping a young couple whose tiny, premature baby was dying. Intensive care had been discontinued, since there was no further hope of survival, and the doctor and nurses allowed the parents to hold the child as she was dying.

As the baby was breathing her last, the father invited me to take the little one in my hands for a few moments, which I did reluctantly, since the emotions I was feeling were pretty overwhelming.

Later, when death had come peacefully for the child, there was silence. Usually, the priest is expected to say something—a prayer perhaps—that calls on God for help. But I didn't know what to say. My comfortable theology and my familiar prayers seemed no help at all.

I don't remember what anyone said at that point. I guess somehow love got us through. And perhaps faith did, too, but it was a faith that had to be stretched painfully to fit this new experience.

Some wise teachers have helped me see that being left with questions I can't answer leads me to a deeper faith and trust. I learn to depend on others and on God. Allowing God to love and support me through other people in times of questioning has helped me to grow in faith.

Wrestling With the Questions

If you are beginning to see how questions can be important, then let me suggest five ways to wrestle with the faith questions you may have:

1. Admit you have questions. Facing up to what bothers us is the first step in understanding. If a friend was showing some odd behavior, for example, and you wondered if he or she was still your friend, you could either sit at home and worry about it, or you could act. You might do some checking around and perhaps even ask your friend directly. Do the same with your faith questions.

2. Be honest. Some people make a game out of life's questions. They get so caught up in the act of challenging cherished beliefs that they don't stick around for the chance to dialogue and discover if there are answers. Find out honestly where your questions are coming from. If, for example, you question going to Mass as a waste of time, is it just because you like sleeping in on Sunday morning? Or are you serious about what God, Church and Sunday Mass are all about?

3. Be flexible and open to change. Change is often a source of many faith questions. Over the last 30 years, as the Church changed, lots of folks found their faith shaken. A young Catholic told me recently how the decision to allow girls to serve at Mass affected her: She heard that some of her fellow parishioners were upset when she served at Mass. She benefited from the change, but now had to deal with others' questions! My experience is that if we are patient and flexible in such situations, new ideas or practices in religion or changes in our parish will be more manageable.

4. Be faithful to the family. My independence from my parents, my questioning of some of their ways of doing things and even some of their values, doesn't mean I want to be cut off from them. The same ought to be true between us and our "faith family"—the Church. Sometimes people's consciences may lead them outside the Church—often a painful separation. I believe that our Church family is big enough to accommodate a lot of diversity and that it's understanding enough to tolerate my faith questions. My quest for deeper faith, or to understand Church practice and tradition, as well as my wrestling with the fact of suffering, have all been enriched when I've shared them with others in the family of faith which is the Church.

5. Be open with God. In the end, faith is about my relationship with God. If I can't take my questions to God in prayer, then I may be avoiding the one experience of dialogue that can be the most fruitful. True, finding God in prayer may seem like Paul Simon's experience of trying to find "an island in the setting sun." But the effort is worth it. God is there and wants to find us.

Don't let the fact that your questions may arise from anger or hurt or confusion stop you. A wise friend once assured me that she took all her questions to God, even the angry ones, because she believed that "God is big enough to deal with my questions." As far as I know, she and God are still good friends!

Acts of Faith

I promised you at the beginning of this Youth Update that I wouldn't try to answer your faith questions. Many of mine remain unanswered after 25 years in religious life and almost as many in the priesthood. But I don't hold the record for faith questions, by any means. When I was about to be ordained, an elderly priest, a man we all respected as a man of real faith, shared his struggle with us.

"Each time I hold up the host at Mass," he told me and my fellow seminarians, "I have to make an act of faith." The fact that faith did not come easy for this good and holy priest has been a constant comfort to me when wrestling with my own faith questions. May you find—if not an occasional answer—at least the power to make that same act of faith in a loving, understanding God.

Father Greg Friedman, O.F.M., has been a parish minister, magazine editor and director of public relations and has written several books. He currently is director of the video department for St. Anthony Messenger Press and Franciscan Communications, producing religious television programs.

Dave Weller, youth minister at St. Benedict's in Covington, Kentucky, invited Pat McEntee, 20, to join Matthew Deavy, 14; Mike Norris, 15; and Laura Martin, 17, for a reading and critique of this Youth Update. They really appreciated much of of what's here. What they didn't appreciate isn't here anymore!

 

The Prayer of a Seeker

Dear God,
I'm walking this road without a map in my hand. Once, I knew where I was headed on this journey, but now, I'm not so sure. Anyway, all I've got are a few directions scribbled down, some advice on how to read the road signs, maybe a place up ahead to ask the way when I get lost. Help me set my feet toward you. Steer me to those who will guide me wisely. Send me true companions along the road. Teach me that feeling lost may not be cause for panic, but may lead to new and challenging paths. Let me know that you are always walking with me.
Amen.

 

Q.

How is an adult faith different from the faith that teenagers have?

A.

When I was a teenager, my understanding of God and other people was drawn from a smaller circle of experiences—my family, friends, parish. Since then, I've been exposed to a wider world, new ideas, a lot of change and tougher questions. It's helped my faith grow. That seems to be the normal way we grow, but there can be adults with "childish" faith, too. Harvard psychologist James Fowler speaks of stages of faith from infancy to adulthood. He says that teenagers typically move from acceptance of what has been taught them to reflection, critique, doubt and then deeper belief. Fowler isn't sure that everyone keeps moving and growing in faith. Your question means you probably are.

Q.

Did the Second Vatican Council really change a lot of things? How did it make a difference for my faith?

A.

A lot of direct change happened because of the Council, and since then, Catholics have looked to the documents of the Council for guidance when new possibilities for change arise. For example, the changing role of women wasn't treated extensively by the Council, but it paved the way for the pope and bishops to discuss that role. As far as making a difference in people's faith, I think one significant change from the Council was to broaden the opportunity for more Catholics—including young people—to take on varying roles and ministries in the Church's liturgy and parish life.

Q.

Where should we go for answers when we question our faith?

A.

Ask a teacher, parent or priest to help. Don't let the fear that your question may sound strange, stupid or disloyal put you off. We've all been there ourselves. You may also know the answer yourself. Be quiet and prayerful and listen. God is present within, sometimes with answers, sometimes with new patience for unanswered or unanswerable questions.

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