Student Series: Sunday’s Child — Finding Faith After Doubt

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Today I experienced God’s presence in an unexpected way. I was listening to Kings Kaleidoscope’s new record Zeal on a drive from Nebraska to Missouri. The album’s penultimate song “Oxygen” concludes with a creative envisioning of the classic Sunday school children’s song “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

There are many things to love about the production of the song—the pulsating rhythms, the string section, and of course, the choir. But as the album wrapped up and I continued my drive along the silence and sounds of the road, I couldn’t stop singing those words. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

Along the drive the clouds were stunning, and the sun was shining with that bright afternoon light, making the early spring grass look greener than it was. Something about the combination of nature and music opens me up to transcendence. Yet even with all that beauty, nature was more like an ornament than anything else. What was truly touching my soul were the words in that Sunday school hymn I learned as a kid.

This story is significant for me because I’ve really wrestled with my faith the last five years. At one point, I remember thinking that I was more ‘agnostic’ than ‘Christian.’ I wasn’t simply dealing with a crisis of faith. I was experiencing a death of faith with no guarantee of resurrection. I was Saturday’s child. Stuck between the painful reality of Friday and the promise of Sunday. Uncertain of it all, I had lots of questions. I was prepared to give up on my faith. Several times I almost did. I understand why so many of my friends have as well. Sometimes we’re Saturday’s children even as much as we’re God’s children.

Tracing the line between those years of existential crisis and my experience of God’s presence today is a challenging one but I think ‘being like a child’ has something to do with it.

Part of growing up—and this is true of love as much as it’s true of faith—is learning that our simple notions about life don’t always work. We start to see the moral ambiguities in life and question some of the black-and-white categories we’re raised to believe. We touch genuine tragedy and learn that some experiences don’t have silver linings as much as we wish they did. We face major life disappointments, whether being rejected by a romantic partner or not finding success in the career we always wanted, and we often have to trade our ideals in for more discouraging concessions.

Every person’s story is different but there is something universal about the progression from innocence to experience, childhood to maturity, simplicity to complexity. It’s at the heart of every coming-of-age film. Lady Bird is a recent example that explores that progression from innocence to maturity. Nonetheless, what truly sets Lady Bird apart is the way it moves beyond that traditional character arc and brings the story back full circle. In the last scene of the film, the main character Christine begins to discover how much she misses her home back in Sacramento and calls her parents to say she loves them. In this scene, Christine stands in front of a Catholic church, which symbolizes a homecoming of sorts for her—both in relationship to her family and her faith.

Christine’s character development echoes what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” According to Holmes, there is a fundamental difference between the simplicity one possesses by virtue of their youth and the mature simplicity one recovers after they’ve wrestled with the complexities of life. The former is cheap; the latter is costly. From a biblical point of view, one could highlight this progression as the movement from childishness—which St. Paul talks about “putting away” (I Cor. 13:11)—to childlikeness. Becoming “like a child,” according to Jesus, is the sign of greatness in God’s kingdom (Matt. 18:3-4).

I say all that to say that I felt today, perhaps more palpably than I have in a while, my heart returning to a simplicity of faith. It’s strangely foreign and familiar. It’s like I’ve been here before but I wasn’t the same person with the same faith I have now. It reminds me of what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur described as a “second naiveté.” While I know the word naiveté tends to have a negative connotation, I understand what Ricoeur’s getting at. It takes a simplicity and a childlikeness to keep returning to faith. I felt that today as I sang those words from Sunday school. I don’t think I’ve ever believed them or loved them more than I have today.

Even as I write this, I’m reminded of the story of Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the twentieth-century. On his US lecture tour in the early 1960s, a student at the University of Chicago asked Barth to summarize his theology. Pausing to reflect, Barth famously responded that his life work, which includes the largest systematic theology ever penned, could be summed up by the words he learned at his mother’s knee: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

When I first heard that story, I didn’t know what to think of it. But as I think about it now, Barth stands out as a symbol of mature simplicity on the far side of complexity. There’s something truly powerful and moving and even humbling about it. Call it a homecoming. Call it childlikeness. Call it a second naiveté.

Whatever it is, I hope I keep finding it. Even when I’m Saturday’s child, Sunday’s only a day away.

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