In the months before I left for university, my mother was advised by some well-meaning church friends not to let me study philosophy because – as they said – they have known of other young people who have “lost their faith” after studying philosophy. I am very grateful that my mum had enough faith in God and in my relationship with him that she continued to support my decision to study philosophy and whatever I wanted to do (which ended up being a double-major in philosophy and psychology with electives in theology and religious studies).
Ironically, my very first philosophy professor in university did lose his childhood faith due to the study of philosophy. He was a brilliant man and an excellent teacher who gave persuasive and intelligent arguments for skepticism. For my final paper, I wrote a paper passionately arguing for the impossibility of disproving the existence of God, concluding that even if there could be no definitive argumentative proof of God, neither could the other side prove beyond any doubt that God did NOT exist. I received an A- for the paper and the comment “Excellent and daring argument… You have made any argument for or against God’s existence obsolete!” That was not quite the effect I had hoped my paper to have on him (I confess, I had hoped to convince my professor to be more open again to the possibility of God), but at least I received a good grade for it!
Throughout my nine years of study abroad, I read and heard many intelligent arguments for and against God’s existence. But they never had any major impact on my faith either way because by then I have had the privilege of having several personal encounters with God I could not explain rationally and had already started to fall more and more deeply in love with him even while I lost my way and fell into new and even grave sins. How do you explain love rationally? More importantly, why would you even wish to? For me, the question was never “Does God exist?” but “WHO is this God who has approached me, touched my heart, and calls me by name?”
I am not claiming that my faith has never been challenged or changed. As I continue to ask the questions, “Who are you, Lord? And who am I?”, I have been led on an adventure across such diverse spiritual terrain that most of my old certainties have had to die in the process. So many presuppositions I had in the past about what it meant to be a Catholic Christian were challenged and attacked – not by anything or anyone else – but by the God I sought to know and love.
Once, during the Sacrament of Reconciliation about five years ago, I confessed that I had often failed to be compassionate and charitable in my zeal to evangelise and make disciples. I was often judgmental and self-righteous instead. The priest said to me, “Ask the Holy Spirit who has set you on fire to teach you how to use that fire.” I did. I haven’t stopped asking. The Holy Spirit is the most incredible teacher, evangelist and disciple-maker. I have learned so much more ever since I started paying attention to how God grows me in my relationship with himself.
There are many, many new things I have learned about God and about how to grow in relationship with Him. I love to study and read, but my most profound revelations come when the Holy Spirit reveal Truth through my incarnate life. My Teacher uses everything to teach me, and I really do mean everything – good and evil, virtues and vices, the beautiful and the ugly, life and death, joy and sorrow, achievement and failure, strength and weakness, health and illness, union and separation… through everything the Spirit slowly reveals to me who God is and, just as importantly, who God isn’t.
I have had to let go of the old notion of God I had for most of my life. It was a notion that was handed to me in good faith and love from family and Church, but which was also heavily distorted by human blindness and woundedness. I never realised how small my understanding of God was and how different he could be from what I thought I knew about him until I started paying attention to my inner life.
There is a song I love by Downhere with these lyrics:
How can I say I know You
When what I know is still so small…
So let me rediscover You
And by Your grace I’ll follow through
Reveal to me the God I thought I knew
Let me rediscover You
And breathe in me Your life anew
Tell me of the God I never knew
And let me rediscover You
God is revealing himself to be far wider and wilder than I thought possible. The vastness of His truth and love transcends anything we can grasp about him. I honour all the seasons of my life and all the seasons I have walked in my faith. But I am holding to what I know and love more loosely now – especially God. Because it is impossible to hold or define him. I just hope to lose myself more fully in him and so be at rest at last!