People who know my faith story sometimes ask me what I would have changed about my upbringing. The answer is complicated. I grew up surrounded by smart, well-educated people. They gave me room to struggle with my doubts. But in the same way some teens feel the urge to sneak out at 2 a.m. and smoke pot with their friends, I felt a growing urge to transgress the boundaries of faith.
I don't have the typical story. My parents were 1970s social-justice hippies who volunteered with the Quakers in rural Kenya for the first part of my childhood and then raised me in the Presbyterian church when we came back to the United States. Despite their best efforts, I walked out the doors of the church at age 23.
In the years leading up to my departure, I started asking hard questions.
One Saturday morning while browsing at a Hi-Fi store with my father, I came across a TV playing Eric Clapton live in concert. As strange as it sounds, I experienced a crisis of faith while surrounded by TV screens. Philosophers call it "the problem of divine hiddenness." I wanted to know: How am I supposed to relate to a God I can't see, touch or hear? Why isn't God present the way Clapton is present? Why doesn't He have a grunge band and give concerts at the Key Arena?
Halfway through the second set, I imagined, God would climb down into the mosh pit to dance with us, and the crowd would erupt with whooping at this revelation of divine booty-shaking proximity. Then, while drinking a Corona at a post-concert bash with Pearl Jam, God would get up from his patio chair to say, "Can I take a turn on your Fender, Eddie? I haven't played in years." And that would be the moment we'd all been waiting for: God would play a deep, striking riff on the electric guitar.
Behind this less-than-serious scenario was a profound existential and intellectual problem.
"Dad, look at them," I said to my father as we stood watching the concert on TV. "Look at all those people."
"What about them?"
"Look at how they're listening. It's almost religious. All I see are people looking for a God they can't find."
My father nodded.
"How are we supposed to live with such ambiguity?"
The concert triggered something that had been unconsciously festering in my heart for years. God was not a singer making sense of my longing. He was somewhere out there in the cosmos, other and untouchable or maybe even nonexistent, and I was left adrift with no one to guide me except a man singing the blues.
After I graduated from college, I left the church for two years. I left because I was tired of church and tired of soul-searching. I left, too, because of my questions. Why couldn't the church answer my doubts? Why did a good God allow suffering? And then finally -- the Eric Clapton question -- why did God seem distant and inaccessible?
At the end of those two years, I woke up one quiet Sunday morning, ate breakfast and went to church for the first time in a long time. I went to First Presbyterian, a Gothic-style church with stone spires that was situated in the urban center of my hometown of Spokane, Wash. After parking my car, I walked up the stairway into the sanctuary and sat in the back row alone. Dark mahogany pews lined the sanctuary in concentric half circles around the altar. Organ pipes rose high and wide along the front wall. Sitting there staring up at the organ, I felt both clarity and confusion. Wondering if I'd returned too soon, I thought, "Am I ready to be back at church?"
A skeptical philosopher like Nietzsche, had he been sitting beside me that day, might have told me I was caving in to group pressure. "The herd," he would scratch in pencil on the side of the bulletin before passing it back to me in the middle of the sermon. Leaning forward from the pew behind, Karl Marx would have whispered in my ear that I was succumbing to religion as "the opiate of the masses," avoiding the admission that my belief was just a bourgeoisie myth used to control the populace. God was like a drug. A shot of morphine. An escape from reality.
But Nietzsche and Marx didn't inspire me. Their view of the world seemed artless and lifeless. Even if I turned out to be wrong, I had to follow my instincts. I woke up that morning and went to church driven by something I could only call longing. To me, that longing felt like hearing music from an open window on the street or seeing mountains off in the distance. I knew it when I saw it -- something transcendent and beautiful, something other-worldly.
The writer and pastor Frederick Buechner said "Faith is homesickness." While I was sitting in the dark mahogany pew of an old Presbyterian church, that was how my faith felt -- a desire for home, a desire for something just out of reach that was worth reaching for.
These years later, I don't have faith all figured out. I still long for a God I can see and touch. But I see God's distance in a new way. The divine hiddenness that once drove me from the church now brings me back to the sanctuary every Sunday. That distance seems like less of a gap and more like a gift, a space I can travel, a place where my longing draws me upward toward God.