When I was 15 I thought Christians were all idiots.
And I had good reason, based on what little I knew. Raised in a home where the most religious thing we ever did was say grace at dinner, I had very little exposure to church. I’m not even sure I knew it existed.
Despite this, I was always instinctually curious about religion. I was raised to be a reader, and at 14 I had (on my own!) gotten a copy of Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. I also had a Pentecostal friend who took me to see a play at his church. This drama, which lasted at least an hour, showed sketches of the last moments of peoples’ lives. If they were a perfect person, they got to walk up the shiny stairs to the pearly gate; if horrible sinners, they were dragged screaming by the devil, down the aisle to the back of the church. The show ended with an altar call.
In my smug 14-year-old mind, I thought: this is Christianity? Fear and emotional manipulation? An inability to see the moral complexity of the world? I would have no part in this. I did not go up to the altar.
But at 16 something stopped me in my tracks: I met an intelligent church. And I felt what I would later realize was the Spirit at work. After some months of attending, I asked my youth pastor: How do you believe in a guy up in the sky? Isn’t that an absurd belief? How is God different from that image of an old man on a throne?
She smiled and replied, “I think that’s the image of God I had in high school.”
This was what I had needed all along … someone to take all my confusion and questioning seriously. In other words, an intelligent apologist. Someone who had thought through my questions and doubts and through them found truth.
I got baptized at 19.
I write this because I believe that apologists are necessary for the strength of Christianity. Pope John Paul II spoke of the New Evangelization. This is mission not just “to the ends of the earth” of traditionally non-Christian lands, but also to our own land, to the people who have left church or are barely hanging onto it.
At the same time, I have long had a deep and abiding curiosity in other religious traditions (the Huston Smith streak). Recently, I read The Silent Dialogue: Zen Letters to a Trappist Monk, a book consisting of a series of letters between a young David Hackett and his Trappist spiritual advisor. Hackett had recently been baptized as an adult convert when he decided to go to Japan and explore Zen Buddhism. At the end of two years’ exploration, he came to this realization:
“Though I may have real and sublime experiences of God’s love, without solid roots in the teachings of my faith I run the real risk of becoming disembodied, so detached from my religion, culture, and social setting that I am neither more fully human nor more fully divine, rather I float about like a helium balloon in some psychic no man’s land. . . . . But no dialogue can come about if the participants are not first firmly rooted in their own community, culture, and spiritual tradition. This has been the lesson of these past seven days, and too, perhaps, the greater lesson of my Asian journey.” (152-4)
On the other side of the world, exploring Buddhism in a very non-Christian area, Hackett found himself turning back to God. He found that he needed to further establish the foundation of his worldview in Christ. He enrolled in seminary to better understand his faith.
Hackett’s experience is mine. This summer, I spent three months in Kathmandu, studying Buddhism at a Tibetan monastery. I hit a wall, an inability to understand much of the mindset of Buddhism. For all its beautiful practices and philosophy, the concepts of karma and rebirth just don’t sit with me. I can’t believe them. I have to hold to my faith that the world is coming to a purpose, a fulfillment in God’s plan, and my hope that I will be reunited with God when I die rather than reborn into this broken world again. Like Hackett, I found that Christ was in me all along – not in a Gnostic sense, but in a sense that it’s who I am – a child of God and a follower of Jesus. I can’t deny that. I’m not afraid to affirm it as I had been before.
I am now at university, focusing on scripture and theology, learning Greek and Hebrew. I am still curious about Buddhism, though exploring other religions may be an odd subject for an apologetics site. But I believe that apologetics are needed there too. An apologist can be a minister to those who have grown up in church and left it, those who may have followed their curiosity to another religion. Just as some apologists can specialize in scripture, some in philosophy, we need others to focus on knowing the ideas of other religions to best speak Christ to those worldviews. It’s hard to learn the lingo of another tradition. It takes training to speak their language and understand their ideas. Christians who don’t do it will look foolish in trying to engage them. But the goal of sharing Christ’s love is well worth it.