Ruth Tucker is associate professor of missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief (InterVarsity Press).
What made you decide to write a book about walking away from faith?
Those of us in the Reformed tradition, especially, try to sweep [it] under the carpet because we have our kids, just like those in other traditions, who grow up in the faith, go on into seminary, start pastoral ministry, and then at some point walk away. We are just bewildered by it. We don't want to talk about it. We don't have any response.
How have people reacted to the book?
I was speaking to a group of atheists not so long ago and somebody raised their hand and said, "It's the first time I realized you can have it both ways. You can believe and be a Christian, but you can also have doubts and unbelief."
This book has confused some people. I was talking to my own church in an adult education course. And a man came up to me afterwards and he said, "Now, when did you finally move beyond this unbelief?" I looked at him like, "Have you been listening to me?" I told him I have never to this moment moved beyond it."
Some must react to your thoughts with relief because they realize they are not the only ones who doubt.
I get that far more than the other reaction, especially with my students. I have had so many students come into my office and say, "Oh, that book has just freed me up from struggles that I had. Because here I'm at seminary and wondering, 'Am I the only one?' How can I go on into ministry when I'm struggling? At times do I even really believe the whole ball of wax?"
And there is a sense of relief that [the book is] not just me telling my story, but countless of others who have gone through this difficulty, this struggle.
Does your own story show an intersection of belief and doubt?
I live with belief and unbelief ever present in my life. I struggle.
I have often wondered, Is it in the genes? I had two brothers and two sisters who walked away from faith. And why is it that I don't? I feel this sense that I couldn't walk away if I wanted to, that God has a grip on me, and yet there is always this sense of wonder and looking into the galaxy and saying, "Where is this personal God of the Bible?"
What doubts do you wrestle with?
My faith is a very strong faith, but it is settled into a faith that includes the paradox, mystery, and tension. So my only struggle is not the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or the Incarnation or the Transfiguration or something like that. It's just the very existence of the personal God in the Bible.
I have no trouble believing a God of natural design, designer of the universe. But I will sometimes think, does this God of the massive universe know that Ruth Tucker is talking to Dick Staub, and does he care?
Many people find comfort in understanding that there is the dimension of mystery to our faith.
I took a lot of Bible theology courses in my college studies, and I learned all the attributes of God. We could just chalk off everything. We had God in a box. We knew who God was precisely. Never do I remember anything about mystery and the unknown and the hidden God.
To teach a course on God and theology or on who God is without that element of mystery and hiddenness is cheating the students.
Too often people respond to those who are having intellectual doubts, and especially scientific philosophical doubts, in a very rational way instead of speaking of the mystery and the tension that we have in faith, and also the poetry. We think we have to give ten proofs for God, and yet faith is much more aligned with the poetry and prose.
What are some of the predominant reasons that people leave this faith?
The biggest hit to a Christian-fundamental belief came in the mid-19th century with Charles Darwin and evolution. That was very difficult for Christians.
A lot of Christians pulled back and really became reactionary against any new scientific finding. That's what we find with young people. When they go off to college, they'll take science and philosophy courses, and there is no foundation of belief in these courses for the most part. That's what hits the hardest in the late teenage years and early 20s.
What else can cause doubts in the minds of believers?
You're reading through the Old Testament and you read about some of the plagues in Exodus. You think, Now, wait a minute. You take that very literally. And so how do you tie that in with your rationalistic, scientific worldviews? It is very difficult.
Lifestyle is also a real issue with people. How do we tie in scriptural teachings with who we are as individuals? It's not just homosexuality and extreme feminism and things like that. We all at one time or another—sometimes almost daily—live as practical Atheists. Would we behave the way we are behaving if we believed God, the God of the universe, were present at this very moment? Yet that's what we teach as Christians. We don't live like it.
The book begins with a case study of Billy Graham and Chuck Templeton. Tell us about the contrast between these two guys.
We have Billy Graham growing up in a very strong Christian family [and] Charles Templeton growing up in a very dysfunctional family. His father left when he was a child, never to return. His mother was often so in debt that they were hiding from the bill collectors behind the sofa.
He came to faith as a teenager and then went on into ministry without any real training. Later he did take seminary training and really sought God after he'd gone through some serious doubts. And yet he struggled with doubts to the very end of his life and actually walked away from faith. His autobiography is entitled A Farewell to God.
He since died. He had Alzheimer's. At the very end he said he would like to believe but he just could not believe in this personal God of the Bible who would allow a starving refugee woman to call out to God for rain when her baby was dying and there was no answer.
I think a lot of us struggle with that sort of thing, but we almost put a cap on what we can think about or what we can doubt about because we say if we step beyond that line, does that mean that we won't go over the edge? Chuck Templeton would say it's intellectual suicide if we don't explore the far reaches of doubt and unbelief.
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