“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
In the Bible, there is a curious story about a man named Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee and one of the religious elders with whom Jesus is in constant conflict. Nicodemus approaches Jesus alone at night, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” and proceeds to ask a series of sincere questions.
It is clear that Nicodemus is a seeker, attracted to Jesus’s unconventional teaching. It is just as clear that he does not want anyone to witness this meeting. A powerful, successful man, Nicodemus is embarrassed—or perhaps afraid—to be seen questioning his own religious beliefs and considering something new.
There is a modern version of the Nicodemus story that I have seen many times, though it isn’t necessarily Christian. I often meet middle-aged people who are having religious stirrings for the first time, or at least for the first time since they were young. But like Nicodemus, many find these urges confusing and even troubling, especially if they moved away from faith earlier in life.
These seekers I talk with usually believe their spiritual yearnings are unusual, but they aren’t. Research from the United States shows that religious attachment commonly falls through young and middle adulthood, but then increases through one’s 40s and beyond. The theologian James Fowler explained this pattern in his famous 1981 book, Stages of Faith. After studying hundreds of human subjects, Fowler observed that as young adults, many people are put off by ideas that seem arbitrary or morally retrograde, such as those surrounding sexuality. They may also become disillusioned by religion’s inability to explain life’s hardest puzzles; for example, the idea of a loving God in the face of a world full of suffering.
As they get older, however, people begin to recognize that nothing is tidy in life. This, according to Fowler, is when they become tolerant of religion’s ambiguities and inconsistencies, and start to see the beauty and transcendence in faith and spirituality—either their own faith from childhood, or some other. Fowler’s later research asked whether the stages he found in the 1970s and ’80s held against modern developments (such as falling religious participation in the U.S.); he observed that they did.
For those who embrace faith at this stage, it is a joyful epiphany; religious and spiritual adults are generally happier and generally suffer less depression than those who have no faith. And the benefits of finding faith as an adult go beyond life satisfaction, according to research on the subject: Religion and spirituality are also linked to better physical health. This could be in part because the majority of studies find practitioners are less likely than others to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Whether it’s organized religion or not, as I’ve argued previously in this column, having some kind of practice or structure that allows one to ponder life’s mysteries and move beyond a focus on the self can greatly increase happiness and life satisfaction. But for those who feel the common spiritual stirrings of midlife, the journey can be difficult. The road to faith is filled with obstacles that can cause a spiritually hungry person to turn back, if he or she can’t see a way around them.
Obstacle 1: Santa in the church
Once, when my kids were little, my family and I drove past our Catholic church, and my oldest son, then about 4 years old, asked whether Santa Claus lived inside. My wife and I laughed a lot at that question, but it highlighted a typical problem in the formation of faith: Our first impressions of faith tend to be made as children—and those impressions can haunt us as we mature. People often dismiss religion as a mishmash of myths and childish nonsense that well-adjusted adults should logically leave behind.
Indeed, many opponents of faith attack it by appealing to precisely these childish impressions. For example, just before Christmas in 2010, I saw a billboard at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey featuring the silhouette of the Three Kings approaching Bethlehem. The caption underneath read, “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!”
I will admit that I broke out laughing when I saw it because it was such a clever ploy by a group opposed to religion. But it was not an appeal to reason—exactly the contrary. It was an appeal to reduce faith to a story many of us heard as children, and to reject it outright if, as adults, it does not seem likely to be literally accurate in every detail. That’s about as reasonable as divorcing your spouse because he or she doesn’t live up to the happily-ever-after fairy tales you heard as a child.
The solution to this obstacle is to reacquaint yourself with faith with mature eyes. If you reread a book from your childhood as an adult, you’ll likely find it very different from what you remembered, and pick up on things you missed when you were young. The same is true with religious practice. We all have hard questions about the meaning of life, and one of the benefits of religious traditions is that their sacred texts, religious scholars, and longtime practitioners have considered these questions before. If the last time you attended a worship service or read a religious text was as a child—or if you have never done so but have only imagined what they’re like—try doing so as an adult with an open mind and heart. They might just hold truths that your memories and imagination do not.
Obstacle 2: The “none” in the mirror
The answer to the question “Who am I?” is what psychologists call a “self-concept.” Changes to the self-concept can be uncomfortable, and people often react with intense resistance to anything that threatens how they have come to see themselves.
A perfect example of this is someone’s self-concept as a nonreligious person, or in the parlance of survey research, a “none,” as more than a fifth of Americans classify themselves. Although seeing yourself as a “none” might not seem like a barrier to finding faith—it’s a void to be filled, right?—it is itself an identity, one that for many people could feel as powerful as “Catholic” or “Buddhist.” That can be hard to let go of. As such, merely entertaining religious or spiritual ideas can feel like a threat to the self-concept.
The key to overcoming this obstacle is to remember that, even if “none” is an accurate description of you at the moment, it doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. In fact, it’s healthy to regularly interrogate your self-concept and be open to the idea that you can change, rather than making a onetime decision, then clinging to it forever. Even if you continue to identify as a “none,” you’ll know that the decision is right for who you are now, rather than a past version of yourself.
But if you do want to explore your spiritual side, you don’t have to abruptly change your self-concept from “none” to “very religious person.” You might think of yourself as “none right now,” or perhaps, “none, but open to suggestion.” This injects the elements of humility and flexibility—even vulnerability—to your understanding of yourself, which has a powerful effect. Although you may not have faith right now, the door is cracked open. Something interesting might just wander in.
Obstacle 3: The tyranny of time
To develop spirituality or practice faith requires time and effort; there’s no getting around this. As such, it competes with the demands of our ordinary lives. That’s a huge imposition, and the time commitment may be enough to deter some people who are craving spiritual practice but find it too daunting to rearrange their lives to make room for it.
The Hindu concept of Vanaprastha (in Sanskrit, “retiring into the forest”) is illuminating here. Consistent with Fowler’s findings, Hindu sages have long taught that middle age brings a natural longing for spiritual development. But it doesn’t come without cost; it requires stepping back from the pressures of ordinary life. A person must focus less on worldly ambition to create more space for spiritual practice—prayer, meditation, reading. Only with this commitment can one achieve the next stage, Sannyasa, in which one lives in the bliss of enlightenment during old age.
For the busy, modern adult, Vanaprastha may sound basically impossible—who has even a free half hour every day to read and pray? Who has a block of time every weekend to spend sitting in a house of worship? And thus, we may kick the can of faith down the road of life to an imagined future in which there is finally enough time.
But what if, instead of seeing your spiritual journey as an imposition on your scarce time and energy, you shift your mindset to see spiritual exploration as an adventure in and of itself? For millennia, one way seekers have done this is through pilgrimage. Personally, I walked the ancient Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) in northern Spain. Over more than a thousand years, this route has been followed by millions, who walk hundreds of kilometers in prayerful contemplation. My Catholic faith will never be the same.
The pandemic limits this kind of physical pilgrimage at the moment. However, the principle remains even if you don’t leave the house: Reframe your spiritual journey as a research project in which you are the human subject, a pilgrimage that could help you learn more about yourself, and about life itself.
When we think of our identities as fixed and unchanging—I am this kind of person; I am not that kind of person—we’re shutting ourselves off from many of life’s possibilities. Being open to reevaluating our ideas about ourselves can keep us from getting stuck in patterns that aren’t true to our changing selves. And the research I have presented here shows that when it comes to faith, many people do change with age.
If you are feeling an unexpected spiritual pull, realize that it is normal. If faith is something you really want, don’t be put off by the obstacles in your path—and unlike Nicodemus, don’t sneak around. No matter where you wind up, the journey of spiritual discovery can be one of life’s greatest delights. As the Indian yogi and poet Sri Aurobindo described the adventure of faith:
A divine force shall flow through tissue and cell
And take the charge of breath and speech and act
And all the thoughts shall be a glow of suns
And every feeling a celestial thrill.
Celestial or not, the thrill is real. Lean into it.