Even before I began asking more serious questions about Roman Catholic teaching, I was already theologically curious. Like lots of other kids, I would ask religious and spiritual questions. For example, I would ask my Mom things like, “Why can’t priests get married?” My inquiries were very much of the “why do we do it this way?” and “what does this mean?” sort. I would have been in Junior High at the time. My Mom, who didn’t always know how to answer my questions, asked a couple of my aunts, her sisters, what to do. Apparently, I kept asking questions they didn’t know how to answer! And to make a long story short, I eventually was put in touch with a cousin from Ontario who had recently chosen to study for the priesthood. At that point, I believe he had begun undergraduate studies.
Now, here’s where my story really shows my age. My cousin Michael and I began writing letters back and forth. I mean real letters, handwritten and everything. Stamped and sent through Canada Post! Our correspondence lasted years. And while we saw in each other in person a few times over those years, our letters formed the heart of our relationship.
Being able to ask my cousin Mike questions was a huge blessing at that point in my journey. His thoughtful answers steadied me when the questions became more serious and I found myself questioning Catholicism as a whole. Our letters gave me the space to search and ask and taught me that doing so isn’t the abandoning of faith but a deepening of it.
While it’s true that eventually I walked away from Catholicism, I never walked away from Christianity. Even Mike, who did his very best to defend and explain Catholicism, respected my decision even though he disagreed with it. Because he had been such a thoughtful and patient theological conversation partner over the years, I take those kinds of questions and struggles, and the need to discuss them openly and honestly, very seriously.
Imagine if my Mom hadn’t asked my aunts what she should do. Imagine if my family had simply told me to stop asking questions. Imagine if the only feedback I’d gotten was to believe what I had been taught. Imagine if I hadn’t been able to write my cousin Mike all of those letters over the years. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d be a Christian of any persuasion right now.
As a pastor, I hope I communicate the fact that questions are welcome. I want anyone with doubts and spiritual struggles and theological questions to feel free to talk to me. Or at least to someone. I want this for the people in my church. I want this for my kids. We all need a safe space to wrestle with what we believe and why we believe it. The church ought to be such a space even though in many cases it isn’t.
Here’s the thing: we all need a cousin Mike. We all need someone who is willing to enter the fray with us, to push us intellectually, to challenge us personally, when it comes to what we believe. And someone who, all the while, continues pointing us to Christ as the way, the truth, and the light.
What questions do you have about church, about God, and about the Bible? Do you feel safe in asking those questions? Or do such questions feel off limits?
It’s not a sign of weakness to ask such questions, but of honesty and strength and humility. It takes courage to ask questions. And even greater courage to keep pressing for satisfying answers. Because the kinds of questions we’re talking about are the ones that are eternal, that matter the most, that define us and how we live in this world.
So find your cousin Mike and write him a letter. I think you’ll be glad you did.