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Pastor recounts journey from faith to doubt

CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland Today

COBOURG - Grace Christian Reformed pastor John Suk has published a book telling a personal story that he hopes might help others.

Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey From Faith To Doubt is the story of a pastor who used to have all the answers, Suk said in an interview last week.

"Through a number of events that happened in his life, he came to the conclusion that he had many fewer answers than he had first supposed," he recounted.?The genesis of the book lay in his 10 years as head editor at The Banner, the full-colour 32-page weekly magazine of the Christian Reformed faith.

"For me, it was a very visible place as leader of the denomination. I loved the job, it was a lot of fun, and I liked the responsibilities.

"During that time, I was struggling with a lot of issues I really could not give vent to on the editorial page. The church had not hired me to be a loose cannon in the bottom of their boat. I had accepted the responsibility to be a certain kind of leader.

"After 10 years, my wife and I took a trip for one whole year in a recreational vehicle, during which I did 12 stories on 12 ministries in 12 locations. The cover is the RV and the car we towed."

This journey gave him time to think, as well as bounce ideas off his wife and the many friends they visited on the road.

"I think what I realized is that the faith I had as a seminary graduate didn't meet the challenges of the world I was living in.

"In the course of my years with as Banner editor, I had been to Rwanda soon after the genocide. I had seen incredible poverty on three or four continents - Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria. I saw the atomic-bomb memorial in Hiroshima and the museum - it was devastating in terms of being able to see the cruelty of humans to other humans.

"There's a whole corporate kind of business approach of the church at its denominational level, and it's necessary. You have to have good order and good rules. But it wore on me. It wasn't the ministry I'd hoped for when I began. So I began to reflect on this and had this crisis of faith," Suk said.

"In the first chapter, I describe the moment it came to me. My doubts got me to asking what was faith like for Christians in other eras of the church," he said.

"I realized that, for the first 1,400 years of the church, no one could read or write. Faith had to be something very different than in the printed era. It was being obedient to your priest, knowing the story and trying to love your neighbour.

"It had to be simple. That's why the church had seven sacraments - each was a teaching opportunity. That's why there were beautiful pictures in the windows. That's why there were morality plays and passion plays, the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic Church - dramatic opportunities to enrich the faith for people who couldn't read or write.

"And, of course, nobody doubted. It was the universal belief of everybody. There were theological debates, but only for a tiny minority of Christians in the three or four universities that existed in Europe."

He realized this unthinking faith mirrored his simple childhood faith. Then he went to seminary, where his faith became like that of the Enlightenment era, after the invention of the printing press.

"It became an ascent to rational principles. If you didn't believe the right thing, you were burned at the stake," he said.

"My encounter with Rwanda and Japan and poverty put me in touch with the modern era, which had not worked very well for everybody - a lot of people got hurt. That was my doubting era.

"Now we live in a postmodern era, where people are giving up the ability to read and write so, in some ways, the faith of contemporary people is back to this older faith, which was uninformed yet simple. The difference is, there wasn't a universal church any more. People believe whatever they want now, for no reason at all. It's kind of full-circle.

"I describe how I as an adult person have stuck with the postmodern critique, but also the reality of all this technology in my own life diverting me from the amount of reading and study I did in the past.

"My conclusion: I don't try to convince people to be Christians, but there is the fact at the end of the book that I am hanging on to my Christian faith. But it's a very different faith than what I started with."

While it was the most difficult year of his life intellectually, he found it the most fulfilling and wonderful year of his marriage.

"It was full of ups and downs," Suk says, "but I got good advice from friends, family, my wife, saying, 'Don't be rash. You have your year. Give yourself the time to work it out. Make a decision nearer the end.""

The book runs on two tracks: the personal autobiographical content and the extensive historical critique of the different kinds of faith that have existed since the fall of the Roman Empire.

"I hope it's the kind of book that will really be helpful for pastors in trying to understand how contemporary media impact their job, but it will also be inspiring to many people, whether they are believers or not, whether they are struggling with faith - it gives them permission to struggle," he says.

Born in St. Catharines, both Suk and his wife have dual citizenship. They lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, and have travelled extensively.

"I actually wrote most of the book while I was a seminary professor in Manila," Suk says. "We went to the Philippines for a couple of years.

"After that, I was president of the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy affiliated with the University of Toronto School of Theology.

"Finally I spent almost a year, with the help of my sisters, taking care of my brother who was dying of ALS. That's where I put the finishing touches on it."

Suk was pleased that his chapter on why you can't have a personal relationship with Jesus was excerpted and run in The Christian Century magazine.

"Without trying to convince other people, I do land on the side of faith. I hope it's a truer, wiser kind of faith in Jesus, one that struggles and lives with doubt," he said.

Launches are planned for Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey From Faith To Doubt in Toronto, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (where he and his wife Irene Oudyk-Suk lived for some years) and in Cobourg - Oct. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Avid Reader, with wine and cheese and an invitation to all.