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Why Believe? What Do We Believe? Do We Need the Church? Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to sit with 13 young adults between the ages of 16-30 and talk about faith issues. I asked them “What do you believe? Why do you believe or don’t believe? And what do you think about the Church? Is it something necessary or unnecessary, helpful or unhelpful, for someone’s journey of faith?” Now what’s interesting about this group of young adults is that all of them grew up in families of faith and throughout childhood and into their teen years went to church pretty regularly – attending Sunday School and Church camps and participating in other church activities. They all also have some strong and faithful Christian role models in their lives.

Now in their young adult years, however, most of them are pretty disconnected from any community of faith. They’re filled with uncertainty, questions, skepticism, and outright confusion about Jesus Christ, the importance of Holy Scripture, the role of the Church, and what place faith actually has in their daily lives. I love each of these young adults and wanted to hear where they are in their spiritual journeys because I firmly believe that every single person is on a journey of faith. Whether someone considers themselves a faithful Christian, a “spiritual but not religious” person, a Buddhist or Muslim or secular Jew, an agnostic, an atheist, or someone who simply doesn’t even think about anything of faith, whatever label someone places on themselves, each of these labels may simply define where they may be on their journey of faith. Yet they are on a journey!

And I firmly believe that we have to meet each person wherever they’re at. In a non-judgmental way, we have to listen to what they believe and ask them if we can journey with them. Of course, I always hope to journey with them on a path that leads towards our Creator, towards the One True God, but I realize such a journey sometimes follows a serendipitous path. Our faith journey is a lifelong adventure and only God knows how and where it will end. Christ is knocking on the door of everyone’s heart. He is patiently waiting for each person to respond to His call. He loves everyone in a distinct, intimate manner, but He loves each of us so much that He respects our freedom – the freedom to seek after Him or the freedom to ignore Him.

If God patiently waits for each person, who am I then to judge or condemn anyone or who am I to try and coerce someone on a path they may not be ready for. I myself have discovered the “pearl of great price,” a treasure so beautiful and life-giving but I can’t impose it on anyone. I’ve experienced the unconditional love and breathtaking beauty of the Divine. I’ve truly been blessed to “taste and see how good the Lord is.” Yet, I can only share the wonder I’ve experienced in faith and hope to show others the path to discover it for themselves, but only they can decide whether or not they are interested.

I’ve been thinking much about my discussions with these dear young adults and in response to my interactions I’ve decided to offer a four-part sermon series on “Why We Believe? What We Believe? And Why the Church Is Necessary for Someone’s Journey of Faith?” Of course, this sermon series isn’t just for these young adults, but it’s for anyone who may struggle with doubts and questions and skepticism of faith. I’m thinking of people in our church who may struggle with their faith, of the many people who have fallen away from faith, and for the countless people in our society who have never even been a part of any community of faith throughout their entire lives. I always remember the time one of my son’s best friends from high school who came to our Paschal Resurrection Service a couple years ago and when I asked him after the service what he thought about the service, he replied, “Mr. Veronis, that’s only the second time in my life that I’ve ever been inside a Church. But I did learn something tonight. I never heard that Jesus rose from the dead. I learned that tonight.” The following year my son brought one of his college buddies to Church and this friend asked, “Why do you keep calling someone the “Virgin” Mary? Who is the Virgin Mary and why would you call her a virgin?”

To all those who have never thought much about faith, to all those who have fallen away from faith, to those who are struggling with their faith, to those who don’t want to lose their faith, this is the first part of “Why We Believe? What We Believe? And Why The Church Is Necessary for Someone’s Journey of Faith?”

In Part 1, I want to focus onfaith” in general and I begin with the question: Why have humans in every culture throughout history believed in something beyond this physical world, something beyond themselves, often something supernatural or transcendent? Diverse cultures and peoples came to believe in many gods, some believed in spirits and demons, others in the one God, others came to understand everyone on a journey toward a place beyond, like heaven, or multiple journeys through reincarnation which may lead to bliss or may lead to nothingness. The interesting thing that I want to note is that anthropologists and historians alike agree that all peoples in various cultures believed in something beyond this physical, material world; they believed in something beyond themselves. Humans throughout history have felt that their finite and physical existence did not define the entirety of their existence. Something greater than themselves existed.  This “something greater” has given birth to the world’s religions!

We in our contemporary society should take note. The present secular and materialistic worldview that dominates the West seeks to compartmentalize and often minimize religious or spiritual reality. Over the past 200 years we’ve given into the enlightenment spirit where as we progress scientifically, technologically, medically, and socially we believe that with such progress religion and religious views have become archaic and thus, irrelevant.

Yet with all the progress we’ve made over the past hundred years, and with the exponential changes happening today, it’s interesting to note that the human condition hasn’t changed at all! Literally, the same vices and temptations that plagued humanity 3000, 2000, or even 100 years ago are the same - Pride, greed, lust, anger, envy, apathy, laziness, gluttony – our egocentric desires which corrupt the human heart. And these passions lead to violence, oppression, evil and death.

No advances in technology, science, psychology or any other field can resolve the vices of the heart. None of these advancements help us fundamentally develop and cultivate the essential virtues of life –divine love, humility, generosity, a deep rooted joy, peace and hope, or self-control, contentment and moderation.

And what is the modern world’s answer to life’s greatest dilemma, death itself? With all our advances, we all still die. Yes, maybe we live until we’re 100, but we can read in the Psalms how some people 3000 years ago lived until 100. Our modern world with all its progress has no answer to death, unlike the central message of our Christian Faith – Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by his own death and granting life to those in the tombs.

Back to my central point that every people and culture throughout history have believed in something beyond themselves. WHY? Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, a former professor of World Religions, answers this way:

Religions are born out of humanity’s yearning for the ‘Sacred,’ for the Infinite.
The divine image, which is humanity’s essential characteristic,
has never been destroyed. And this image draws us to a transcendent reality.

There is something inside each one of us that yearns for something beyond ourselves. This is why every people throughout history have sought after this Eternal Transcendent Reality. Huston Smith, the noted scholar who wrote books on “The World’s Religions” and “Why Religions Matter: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief” puts it this way:

Everyday earthly existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely.
Built into the human makeup is a longing for something “more”
than the world of everyday experience cannot offer.
This longing strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for
in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of the air.

Both Archbishop Anastasios and Huston Smith challenge our secular, materialistic worldview which tries to reject or minimize faith. Yet, we learn from history that humanity was created for something greater than our present human condition, something greater than the here and now. No matter how prosperous, comfortable, well-educated and happy we may be in this earthly life, there is something deep within us that longs for something beyond ourselves.

Maybe we can conclude with the wise words of Saint Augustine, who summarized it best: “O Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”