Few things are more paralyzing to believers than that particularly dread gloom which inevitably dawns whenever a vague, gnawing sense of the unreality and irrelevance of the claims of Christian faith begins to crystallize in experience. Leo Tolstoy, after publishing War and Peace and Anna Karenina and receiving world-wide fame and accolade, experienced a jolting mid-life crisis of faith in his early 50’s in which he questioned the significance of everything he had accomplished and lived for up until that point. Frantically seeking out what the meaning of life might be, he recorded the initial findings of his desperate quest in his short work Confession. One passage in particular struck me as poignantly giving voice to an experience many Christians stumble upon in their own seasons of disillusionment, but probably struggle to express concretely:
“[The people around me in my youth] led me to the conclusion that I had to learn my catechism and go to church but that it was not necessary to take it all too seriously…My break with faith occurred in me as it did and still does among people of our social and cultural type [i.e. the intellectual elite]. As I see it, in most cases it happens like this: people live as everyone lives, but they all live according to principles that not only have nothing to do with the teachings of faith but for the most part are contrary to them. The teachings of faith have no place in life and never come into play in the relations among people; they simply play no role in living life itself. The teachings of faith are left to some other realm, separated from life and independent of it. If one should encounter them, then it is only as some superficial phenomenon that has no connection with life…[A person] can live dozens of years without once being reminded that he lives among Christians, while he himself is regarded as a follower of the Orthodox Christian faith. Thus today, as in days past, the teachings of faith, accepted on trust and sustained by external pressure, gradually fade under the influence of the knowledge and experience of life, which stand in opposition to those teachings. Quite often a man goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him.
A certain intelligent and honest man named S. once told me the story of how he ceased to be a believer. At the age of twenty-six, while taking shelter for the night during a hunting trip, he knelt to pray in the evening, as had been his custom since childhood. His older brother, who had accompanied him on the trip, was lying down on some straw and watching him. When S. had finished and was getting ready to lie down, his brother said to him, ‘So you still do that.’ And they said nothing more to each other. From that day S. gave up praying and going to church. And for thirty years he has not prayed, he has not taken holy communion, and he has not gone to church. Not because he shared his brother’s convictions and went along with them; nor was it because he had decided on something or other in his own soul. It was simply that the remark his brother had made was like the nudge of a finger against a wall that was about to fall over from its own weight. His brother’s remark showed him that the place where he thought faith to be had long since been empty; subsequently the words he spoke, the signs of the cross he made, and the bowing of his head in prayer were in essence completely meaningless actions. Once having admitted the meaninglessness of these gestures, he could no longer continue them.
Thus it has happened and continues to happen, I believe, with the great majority of the people.”
This passage haunts me. I find it terribly accurate, possessing a vivid ring of truth possible only to those who have firsthand knowledege of such internal events. I have myself felt nauseatingly near to this situation in seasons when certain vague moods were present, brought on by the seeming unreality of faith in antithetical dissonance with my experience of the world. I have also witnessed many fellow believers slowly, unremarkably walk away from Jesus as a result of such perpetual disenchantment, barely even aware of what was happening to them at the time.
Tolstoy reminds me of several important insights here. First, nominal Christianity, for all of its seemingly unthreatening ordinariness, is the most spiritually destructive dynamic in the world. Nominal Christianity receives its birth in the pits of hell, and tends to produce offspring in accordance with its own ghastly origins. It breeds despair in those who are aware of the complexities, difficulties and moral darkness of the world. It encourages the abstracting of faith from “real life” and thus prepares the way for apostasy when suffering or internal angst arise. Those who confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord over all, but who deny him by their actions, are the greatest hindrance to the kingdom of God in the universe. Nietzche is not nearly the obstacle to the gospel that Joel Osteen is to most people, nor Richard Dawkins in comparison to the health-and-wealth “gospel” of the modern suburban church. You know the breed of which I speak–the kind of church which enthusiastically proclaims a sort of emotional well-being which can avoid the nasty dark nights of the soul, promising instead the pyschological dimensions of the American dream, if not the financial ones. The already/not yet tension of the apostolic testimony becomes simply “already,” “now.”
One of the most important lessons I have ever learned is that the gospel simply doesn’t “work” if you don’t take it seriously, on its own terms, submitting to its demands within its own narrative framework and construal of life’s meaning. Christianity will not do anything to alter our existence in the least, if we limit it to the realm of mental ideas alone, or subordinate its exclusive claims for loyalty to more important aspects of life such as politics, marriage, economics, the desire to be safe and comfortable, or personal ambition. While horrifying to experience, the seasons in which faith seems full of unreality and fantasy ought not to surprise us. God is not mocked; we reap what we sow.
Second, Tolstoy reminds me that doubt and apostasy are rarely only, or primarily, matters of intellectual coherence and argumentation. When the paradigm shift (to use Thomas Kuhn’s marvelously helpful terminology) takes place in which the permanent transition from faith to unbelief becomes real, it is not usually a single idea or new insight that causes such jarring movement in a person’s life. Rather, it is the quite obvious result of the comprehensiv, long-term internal pressure of a thousand experiences of unreality, irrelevance, and disquietude finally boiling over to the point where it is no longer tolerable to the human spirit to say that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. Faith simply does not explain or help to manage my perceptions and experiences of the world any longer. It is not tenable. “So you still do that” is now a compelling existential argument over against the unconsciously discredited vision of Paul in his letter to the Romans.
Lastly, Tolstoy demonstrates that what we need most in the Christian life is an ongoing, tangible, Spirit-produced sense of the reality of the gospel’s beauty and power as we follow Jesus together in community with others. Just as doubt can be encouraged and provoked by seeing that faith is just as unreal and nominal for others as it is for me, so the life-giving power of faith can be nurtured not only by my own experience and knowledge and seeking after God, but also by experiencing God through others who are legitimately sharing in and actively connected to His divine life. Tolstoy motivates me to pray Paul’s request on behalf of the Ephesians with new zeal and intensity:
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:15-20)