“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.