In some of my classes I ask the students to reflect on how they have learned think of God as they grew up and how their views of God have changed through their lives so far. These student reflections always give me insights into the minds of young adults today. Not surprisingly, some write about how they learned to think about God as an old man with a beard. Others write about God as a being who always watches them. Many students these days seem to think of God’s constant presence positively; God is always there when they need help. But others describe God’s ever-present vision more negatively, as if God is watching to make sure we humans don’t do anything wrong. God is the combination of a cosmic Santa Claus and cosmic police officer. God keeps track of “who’s been naughty and nice” and is ready to punish those who have been naughty. I am not surprised by the fact that students report that they learned these images of God as children. But I am quite disappointed when they think these images are the way their churches encourage people, including adults, to think about God. Frequently, my students say they’ve left their childhood faith behind because they can’t believe these things about God anymore.
Listening to my students has convinced me that church members, (mainline or evangelical, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox) are often “frozen” with an elementary school understanding of God. It’s as if that’s all Christianity has to offer. Within the church there is no room to grow past simplistic views of God. So, if you grow and change, your only option is to leave.
Recently, one of my student’s wrote something that really caught my attention. This student, a conservative Christian active in his church and Christian group on campus, wrote something like this: “Since the time that I learned about God, my view of God has not changed, and it never will.” My heart sank when I read his words. I know what he means. He is trying to express the firmness of his faith. He does not want his beliefs to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine,” or by the “empty philosophy” he hears from his professor (me). He sees this attitude as a virtue. He could even cite chapter and verse! To some extent, I understand.
I am saddened nevertheless. This student is shutting off his mind and heart to the Spirit of God. He is saying that nothing could make him change and grow in the way he thinks about God. But the way we think about God should change! As we learn more and more about the world through science and experience, as we grow as Christians, as we struggle with suffering and experience joy, I would hope that our understanding of God would be always changing. As we encounter the very real complexities of our world, I would hope that our faith could help us see that God is bigger than we had thought, big enough to be the Lord of the real world. If not, why should we hold on to God at all? Wouldn’t it be better to follow the example of the students who leave religion behind?
As I teach my courses (philosophy and religion) one of my objectives is to get students to think in new ways, to examine their assumptions, and yes, to think critically about their own beliefs. I am not trying to destroy their faith. I am trying to help them be open to intellectual and spiritual growth. I am, in short, trying to help them change. This is what God has called me to do. So, it is discouraging to hear a student say that he or she will never change. I am even more discouraged when I think that this attitude is reinforced by the churches and fellowship groups which some of my students attend.
Why do young women and men tell me they have left behind the faith of their mothers and fathers? One reason is that the God in whom they have been told to believe is not worthy of their belief. Until we start to grow in our own understanding of the mystery and greatness of God, until we see that God is way more than a cosmic Santa Claus or an omniscient police officer, the church will continue to be left behind by those growing up in today’s troubled, difficult and complex world.
Christians believe that God does not change. That does not mean that we should not change, even in our beliefs about God. We can never fully understand God, so we always have room to grow. When we grow in our way of seeing God, it is not God who changes, it is us. That is a change we should welcome. It is the work of the Spirit of God transforming our minds and renewing our hearts.