Stumbling, tumbling, rumbling, and bent over, we reached the top. My lungs bursting, and veins pulsating in my throat from exhaustion and high altitude, I felt an exuberance at the panoramic view on top of Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina. Mt. Mitchell is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. My friend Tim, a theologian and a writer, and I hiked 5.6 miles to the top. The scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers plays over and over in my mind: the fighting Uruk-hai are running non-stop carrying the Hobbits Merry and Pippin on piggy-back toward Isengard, and one struggling Orc hybrid says, “I need a breathah!” in a working-class south London accent. Me too. On top of that mountain though, and cracking open a tall, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, all was well. What a view: 360 degrees of blue mountain ranges. “Look, there’s Lake James! There’s the Linville Gorge and Table Rock!” After chatting it up with a few people (I’m extroverted), and impersonating Harry Carey for a Cubs fan (“Ho-lee Cow”—she bore the Cubs emblem), three young men come up to the lookout area as well, breathing heavy, sucking air, and bending over, resting their hand on their knees. And yet, they were only coming from the parking lot just down the way!
“Hey, look at those guys. They’re drinking beer.” Yes, Tim and I were drinking beer. We really are that cool. I noticed one of the guys had some really floppy ear lobes. What do you call those? I’m so old and out of touch with culture. Ah, well. “How are you guys?” I say, raising my extra tall can of beer. After exchanging pleasantries, I discovered they are community college students taking a break by driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, seeing the sights (they are truly a wonder to behold). They even got up at 3:00am (or something super early) so they could run a large circuit and make it back to Raleigh, which is over 4 hours away from Mt. Mitchell. Community college students: there’s my “in.”
“Oh cool. I teach at a community college. What are you studying there?” The dude with the ear lobes tells me his course of study and then asks me what I teach. “Philosophy,” I say. “Ethics.”
Then he tells me he wanted to start a philosophy and/or religion club on his campus, exploring Spirit and Nature and pagan religion. “But,” he laments, “the folks from within [the culture of] Southern Christianity shut it down.” He said “Southern Christianity” with an air of caution and silence, just in case anyone was listening. I lamented with him, saying this was terrible. I said I was also shocked that such a thing would happen at a secular school. Don’t all schools these days have all kinds of clubs ? (In fact, they do). I couldn’t get the reason why it was shut down, but I affirmed him in his desire to have a club. “I think it’s great that you want to explore these things. It’s good to get together with others and talk about the deep things of life, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Now, the first thing to remember when engaging with a person interested in spiritualism and pagan religion is to affirm their desire to commune with others and talk about the Big Questions of Life, which is what this guy was all about. And why does he want to explore the relationship between Nature and Spirituality, but for no other reason that modern technology and industry has cut us off from Nature, leaving us yearning for The Answer to life’s questions about meaning and identity (Who am I? Why am I here?)?
Then—get this—he says, “Yeah, we had Christians interested, atheists, Muslims, Jews, and Mexicans.” Mexicans, huh? Tim and I laughed about that later. We still do. I told this story to my ethics class and they laughed as well —especially one of my Mexican students!
So, first, affirm the person where they are at in their journey in this thing called life. Find a point of congruence with them. That is, find a way to say “yes” to what they are doing in life. Use your own personality to do this. It can be as simple as, “Hey, that’s really cool. I’d love to be part of a discussion group like that,” or, “Yeah, wow, I bet some interesting ideas bounce around in that room, huh?”
Second, find a way of congruence between the two of you on a personal level. “I like to talk about the Big Questions of Life as well. In fact, I’m involved with a campus group, too, and we discuss things like God, the Bible, world religions, identity, meaning, good and evil, Jesus, and all kinds of things. It’s called Ratio Christi, which is Latin for ‘the reason of Christ.’ (We say reason for Christ, but Christi is in the genitive, so the possessive of is more accurate. But whatever).
Then, I usually follow that up with a question that is pretty laid-back. This is the kick-starter for the conversation because it’s a question. This is really important—asking a question. That way, no one’s preaching to anybody; if there’s anything people don’t want these days, especially in a public place, on a mountain top, at a park, at the grocery store—wherever—it’s being preached to. To foster the “laid backness” of it all, I kinda tilt my shoulders and scratch my head and ask in a timid way, “So, do you have any kind of religious background at all?” I squint my eyes a little and pose a questioning look on my face. I do all of this to help the person know that I’m not going to get in their face, and that I’m genuinely interested in them, as opposed to merely getting a point across. I do want to get a point across—that Christianity is worth believing—but I want to make the person feel warm, welcomed, and invited to just be real—to be themselves.
“Yeah, we were all raised in church,” he says. The other two agree. “But we’ve left church,” he says. Their reasons were all the same: they felt sheltered in their small, rural church upbringing, and once they got out into the “real” world, they had to say No to the church, and yes to well…reality. How did I get this information from them? Well, part of it is I know what rural churches all over the country, but especially in the Bible Belt, are like: full of anti-intellectualism, and mindless Christianity. (Rural churches are also small, and can leave young people feeling isolated from the rest of the world. This is not to say there should be no rural churches, of course. It’s just a fact of experience for today’s youth). The other part is, I asked them to tell me about their experience. “So, is it ok if I ask you a question about that?” “Sure.” These guys seem genuinely delighted to talk with Tim and I.
“What was your experience growing up in church?”
They said it was a sad experience because they had lots of questions but never got any answers.
At this point I chuckled. “Ok, so lemme guess. Your pastor told you to “just believe” and never offered you any evidence for believing in God or the Bible or whatever, right?”
“Yes,” they all nodded.
“Man,” I said, shaking my head. Once again, I’m affirming their experience—and I’m affirming their rejection of church. Gasp!
At this point, I really want to get a message to them. Leaning back and putting my hands up and waving them back and forth like I’m an umpire calling it safe, I say, “Hey, look. I’m a Christian, but I totally dig it as to why you’ve left the church. I’d do the same thing if that was my experience. But if I could just leave you with one thing—without sounding preachy or anything—it’s just that, yes—keeping searching for the truth. I have come to believe that there really are reasons to believe that Jesus really is the Son of God. But again—I totally dig why you guys have exited the church. But just keep searching, man. That’s a good thing.”
After that, the guys asked looked to Tim and inquired about him, too. “Yep. PhD. Theology,” he says. (Tim was content to stand by and listen to the convo, even though he could offer a lot to say). After a few more words, the guys all approached us and shook our hands, and the leader of the group gave me his card to give him a call some time.
But it was time to head home. I feel like we could’ve spoken for hours up there on the mountain. Here are two guys, drinking beer, hiking up the mountain, one is a philosophy instructor, the other is a Ph.D., and they’re still Christians after all these years. “Those guys wanted to embrace us!” Tim exclaimed on the way down. It sure seemed that way.
Surely this is all by the grace of God that we met these three young men on top of the mountain. We were there at the right time, and we prepared to encourage them to continue to seek answers to life’s Big Questions, and that Jesus is once again back on the table and worthy of consideration. They don’t have to have blind faith. There are answers. (In addition to telling people about Ratio Christi and its website, I typically mention a favorite documentary of mine about the historical reliability of the Exodus story, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, and that I wrote a booklet on it, documenting further scholarship which confirms the biblical story. Young people really care about whether the Bible is true. Just telling them to have “blind faith” isn’t going to cut it.
How did the conversation go so well (in addition to the grace of God)? Well, first, all throughout, I affirmed the young man in his desire to start a club. I also affirmed him in lamenting how some Christians had allegedly treated him. I affirmed all three of them in their exasperation with their rural church upbringing (not that rural churches have the same resources as those in urban centers. But I still affirmed them in having a distaste for the anti-intellectualism they had to drink as youngsters every Sunday). Second, I mentioned that I too, am part of a club, and that I too, am interested in the relationship between Nature and Spirit, and that I too, am interested in the Big Questions of Life. Third, I asked them to tell me their story about their religious background (if any). Fourth, I encouraged them to not give up on Christian belief, and to continue to seek out answers, and I held confidence that such answers are really there for them. Finally, we shook hands, said our names once again, and bid each other adieu. I felt a sublime sense of pleasure at the encounter, that the Lord was “in it” the whole way, and that I was fulfilling my vocatio—my calling—in this life by talking to these nature-loving young men. “It didn’t hurt that we were drinking beer,” Tim said with a laugh. I reckon that’s true.
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