“Finding God in the Waves” by Mike McHargue
Viewing beliefs as “butterflies on an open hand”
Reviewed by John Seel
There is no loneliness like that of the Christian who doubts. Many within the church assume that doubt is something to be ashamed of, considering it to be inconsistent with faith. And so we silence our doubts and live in fear of public shaming and communal ostracism. This reaction will turn a doubter into a skeptic.
Listen to the words of one of the world’s leading atheists about his experience in the church as a teenager:
I became exceedingly religious and consequently anxious for supposing religion to be true. For the next four years a great part of my time was spent in secret meditation upon this subject. I could not speak to anybody about it for fear of giving pain. I suffered acutely, but from the gradual loss of faith and from the necessity of silence.
So writes Bertrand Russell, who would later pen Why I Am Not a Christian, a perennial classic among college sophomores.
A great number of Christian teens are likewise living in fear and the silenced shame of doubt. Youth groups and Christian schools breed them like rabbits. These kids have no safe place where they can express their honest confusion aloud, no safe person to hear their confession.
In Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science, Mike McHargue has written a book for these very people, a contemporary autobiographical roadmap for the spiritual skeptic. McHargue grew up in the church, became an atheist, then later returned as a hesitant, somewhat limping follower of Jesus. The candor of his spiritual pilgrimage—which is filled with pain, humor, and insight—conveys to many who are on a similar journey that they are not alone.
What do you do when God dies? For a person who has grown up in the church, losing faith in God can provoke an identity crisis of mammoth proportions. There is today more widespread social support for a person coming out as gay or transgender than for a fundamentalist Christian coming out as a nonbeliever. The attitudes of others and the internal struggle itself can make this a shattering life experience.
I speak from experience. Having grown up on the mission field surrounded by professional Christians, I went off to a secular liberal arts college where I had a soul-rattling encounter with theological diversity not unlike Don Miller’s experience at Reed College as depicted in Blue Like Jazz. In a philosophy course on existentialism in my sophomore year, I read Saint Emmanuel, The Good, Martyr, a novella by Miguel de Unamuno. It is the story of a seemingly godly Spanish Catholic priest who is revered by the villagers but whom we discover, by the end of the story, does not believe in God. He uses his pious actions to cover over a multitude of intellectual doubts.
Reading this story triggered a turning point in my life—the moment when I abandoned my parents’ faith and began the process of finding my own. The existential weight of feeling the loss of God, the falseness of prayer, the meaninglessness of calling came crashing down on me in my dorm room. Loneliness doesn’t quite capture the feeling. It is an aloneness coupled with the sense of being “lost in the cosmos.” Nietzsche gets at this when he wrote, “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from the sun…?”
So reading of McHargue’s step-by-step abandonment of faith for atheism brought back many painful personal memories. Forty-four years later I still have the copy of The Existential Imagination in which Unamuno’s story is included, sitting here beside me as I write this review.
Since those days in a Texas college dorm, doubt has become culturally ubiquitous. For the modern believer faith is rightly fused with doubt. This is the experience of most thoughtful Christians, even when the church won’t acknowledge this reality. McHargue writes, “These streams of faith and doubt, religion and science, collide in our culture, creating rapids and whirlpools that rob people of their sense of meaning and purpose.” It is for these reasons that this book is a gift for the modern believer, for the spiritually frustrated, for the spiritual skeptic…in other words, for many of us.
But this book will not appeal to most orthodox believers. It is not a simplistic de-conversion/conversion story—the spiritual equivalence of boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. It’s a lot messier than that—more like boy gets girl back…but discovers he’s also got an STD.
McHargue now considers himself a Christian and is active in his church. And he remains completely realistic about his ongoing doubts and doesn’t brush over them as inconsequential or meaningless. He holds them in accepting tension. In his book he reminds us of Anne Lamott’s observation that “the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.” He cites a friend whose life was changed by the discovery that “faith and doubt need each other. When I heard that, I realized, no wonder I was such a screwed-up Fundamentalist. But when I let the doubt just be there, my faith grew.”
This book is complementary to Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty. McHargue learns “that the need for certainty is an addiction we can kick—that it’s possible to have faith, and even follow Christ, without needing to defend historical Christianity like a doctoral thesis. We can approach beliefs not as gems to be mined from the earth and protected with clenched fists, but as butterflies that land on an open hand—as a gift to enjoy but not possess.”
We can approach beliefs not as gems to be mined from the earth and protected with clenched fists, but as butterflies that land on an open hand—as a gift to enjoy but not possess.
The value of this book for those who are struggling spiritually is that you are not alone! McHargue counsels, “If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug.”
This book is a spiritual travelogue of a pilgrimage that is still unfolding. The difference between a film and life is that life doesn’t usually have a neat third act, a tidy resolution. Sometimes it’s messy all the way through; so, too, this book. McHargue has not given up his highly honed analytical mind or his childhood fundamentalist bias for left-brain thinking.
In the book McHargue appeals repeatedly to his strong affinity for and knowledge of neuroscience—arguably to the detriment of a whole-orbed, mystery-respecting faith. I find, in this regard, that Ian McGilchrist’s thoughts, as expressed in The Master and His Emissary, are of much value, in that he critiques the West’s overdependence on left-brain analytical thinking, at the expense of right-brain intuitive thinking. But by the end of his book even McHargue acknowledges the limits of science, concluding, “Only a poet or a painter can do the work of sharing this truest of all things. Love.” If love is the basic reality of our existence, then we will need more than science and reason to fully grasp reality. I look forward to the next chapter in McHargue’s ongoing pilgrimage, and will enjoy this book as a much-needed and valuable step in the journey.
If McHargue were a character in the storytelling contest depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he would win the prize. Don’t miss out.
John Seel directs the Sider Center’s New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues. He is the founder and principal of John Seel Consulting LLC, a social impact/cultural renewal consulting firm. He was formerly the director of cultural engagement for the John Templeton Foundation and associate research professor at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is an authority on reaching the millennial generation. Seel has an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.