About 6 months ago, I read a book of short stories written by Yann Martel, the author best known for writing the Life of Pi. These short stories were written early in his career, before he was successful, or, even by his own estimation, very good. As he continued in his career, he improved and his work changed. Much of this change was for the better, his later writings are indubitably better than his earlier work. But I loved reading his earliest stories; it was fascinating to see where he came from, to see how his early work shaped his mastered products. He never could have created his popular work if he had not first written the other stories. It’s like the difference between listening to Taylor Swift’s “Picture to Burn” and reflecting how different it is from “Wildest Dreams”. I don’t mean that her song-writing simply improved. It grew and moved on from its more simplistic beginning to something stronger and better.
Before now, I’ve had difficulty describing my religious history, not out of any sort of embarrassment, but simply because my explanations never seem particularly accurate. When looking back, I organize my normal life in natural stages. For example, I just finished my college stage and have recently entered my unemployed stage. Simple and accurate. I usually try to describe my religious history with a similar methodology. I have the stage where I followed my parent’s beliefs, my agnostic stage, my confused, conservative phase, and my current stage (official title TBA). Although I have used this description every time I tell anyone about my religious history, it has always felt… off.
Looking back, the time I spent in each religious “state” was not experienced the same as time spent in, say, Knoxville. In Knoxville I was stationary. I was in Knoxville until suddenly I wasn’t. This description has never been true for me in terms of faith. I have, of course, heard stories of sudden conversions, people whose lives turned around in a single, lightning bolt moment. My faith has always moved at a glacial pace, its time spent not in being, but in becoming. Now, I am becoming my current self. Before now, I was becoming a confused conservative, before that, I was becoming agnostic, and I began by becoming my parents.
The greatest difficulty of this approach is that it turns every state into a kind of transition, and transitions have a tendency to be painful. And therein lies the agony of faith. It comes from the understanding that your faith has yet to reach a point of comfort. Deep down you may feel it never will. We all continue to grow throughout our lives, so should our faith. No change may be determined from one day to the next, but years later, we can look back, laugh, and cry over who we were.
So I do have a point to all of this. Looking at others, it’s easy to ridicule them or be insulted by them, because of differences in our beliefs. You may not understand why someone on TV can be such an argumentative kind of atheist or your next-door neighbor such a thickheaded kind of Christian. You may wonder why they can’t figure out basic tolerance or understand realized eschatology. But there is so much about them you do not know. You do not know where they have started, where they are going to. You do not know what beliefs they may have overcome to reach where they are now. The truth is, they may be like that forever, stuck at one limited understanding of faith, scared of and rejecting all others.
But they could also be on a faith journey of their own, leading somewhere stronger and purer. Then you can give them some little grace for where they are now. Even if someone isn’t there yet, care for people not because you like who they are now, but care for who they may yet become, their potential selves. They could be a young Taylor Swift, trying to figure out how to play their guitar, not yet realizing where that instrument will take them. And if I were you, I’d want to be friends with Taylor Swift.
UKirk UTK Alumni
Bachelors of Science in Industrial Engineering