God’s Call to Unbelief?

I’m reading with pleasure the poet Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. With a poet’s gift for fresh words to express old ideas (“the hive-like certainties of churches”), he ruminates over his unlikely return to faith after decades away. At one point he says, “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” I underlined the sentence, not sure whether it was quite right, but knowing he was on to something.

The maybe not quite right part for me is the word “unbelief.” After ruminating myself a bit, I think I would say something like “God calls us away from illusory belief” or “faux belief” or “compromised belief” or “shallow belief” or . . . you fill in the blank. Maybe fill it in with a word that describes your own less than adequate form of belief or of unbelief. (Maybe my word would be “torporous.”)

The “on to something” part of my response to his claim, which is more important than my quibble about his word choice, is that a season away from all things Christian and religious and churchy is a part of the journey of many a person with God’s mark on them. There is something about growing up Christian—in a community that takes faith seriously—that both stamps you forever as “one of ours” and impels you to flee for your life. (True in many religious and nonreligious contexts of course.) You can reject that world you grew up in—quietly or loudly—but you have a mark on your forehead—whether the mark of Cain or of Christ is unclear to you, though others often see it.

And many, not by any means all, come back. But they do not come back to what they left or to what they were. God has followed them out of the church and he will, if we are willing, lead us back. But not to the same faith we left—which, had it been better expressed, would have been harder to leave. Rather God leads us back to a faith that takes more seriously who we are and what we have experienced—and who God is. That is the realistic hope—both for those who have left and those made sad by the leaving.