Teaching Faith to Youth

I’ve been doing a short series on Sabbath afternoons with the youth of our congregation talking about faith. I didn’t have any when I was a teenager and was not raised in any sort of religious environment. So I find, as a rabbi to a vibrant group of teenagers who are vital members of our congregation, that this whole business of teaching faith to youth and listening to their issues and questions is fascinating.

In my first talk with them, hoping that I was properly picking up on a major source of teen angst about faith (pressure from parents and other adults to “just believe, darn it”), my main message was: relax and don’t feel pressured to believe or to short-circuit the very important process of your own thinking and seeking to have your own experience of God, goodness, and beauty in life.

I also shared with them that it is not intellectually dishonest to begin our search from within our own Judeo-Christian heritage. It is not “intellectually dishonest” to fail to give equal consideration to other traditions (pantheism, panentheism, agnosticism, atheism, etc.). No one can truly do that anyway. To think properly from within pantheism, you would need to live as a pantheist for a while to truly understand it. I’m sure Buddhist priests have their own ways of explaining why us Jews and Christians are wrong. Objectivity is a myth. But no worries: the Judeo-Christian tradition is very wise and quite likely to bring us to a whole understanding of God and truth.

In my second talk with them, I shared a rational argument. I believe rational arguments have a limited but real value to them. And teen minds in particular need a good understanding of at least one rational argument for God in order to survive in a confusing world where “anything goes.” I’ll say more below about the limits of reason and wisdom, but for now, I wanted to lay out a simple argument: Lewis’s argument (found in Miracles and I have blogged about it) from the idea of the mind as a way of knowing.

If we say there is no God then why do we trust our minds? Think, apart from God, how did our minds get here? If they are random and undesigned then how do they “see truths”? Why should we believe in “facts” or “truth” at all? How could there be a naturalistic explanation for the origin of our brains and the notion of thought or reason that gives us any confidence in them?

Now, tomorrow I am giving a third talk and here are some notes and thoughts. The main ideas (but not all the wording, obviously) come from Heschel’s God in Search of Man in the second chapter, “Ways to His Presence.”

Do not think that the way to know God is like a mathematical equation, a scientific breakthrough, or a philosophical theory. God is not known purely with reason, cannot be completely known by anyone, and experience is equally important to reason in our way of knowing.

There are three ways of knowing God (Judaism and Christianity emphasize all three):

(1) Sensing his Presence in the world (Isa 40:26) — worship.

(2) Sensing his Presence in the Bible (Exod 20:2) — learning.

(3) Sensing his Presence in sacred deeds (Exod 24:7) — action.

Heschel already taught us that knowing God is not a passive task, like analytical thinking. It is an active task, like situational thinking (for example, we’re in danger and we need to find a solution to save ourselves).

A person does not need perfect faith to worship, to learn, and to do deeds of love and kindness in God’s Name. Rather, our faith will grow as we worship, learn, and get involved in healing others through divine acts of love.

Learn these things and participate. Along the way do not be afraid to ask questions. Do not shy from the problems of God’s hiddenness. Do not let people tell you there are no problems. But neither should your faith be so weak that you give it up for the problems.

COMING: God in Search of Man #5 (reflecting on Heschel): the limits of reason/wisdom — mystery — science hits a barrier — so do philosophy, theology, and prayer — it is true to say both “wisdom is good” and “wisdom doesn’t have the answers.”


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Atheism, C.S. Lewis, Christian, Faith, Judaism, Judeo-Christian. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Teaching Faith to Youth

  1. Jason Hess says:

    Having been a youth pastor I must say I really like the main message you shared with them in your first talk.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

  3. I like the platform that your using to engage the youth. It’s a very welcoming and non-threatening approach that I think will prove effective. I was reading chapter 15 on Faith in God in Search of Man after reading this post and it reminded me of a principle your teaching. Heschel quotes Proverbs 14:15 “The thoughtless believes every word, but the prudent looks where he is going”.

  4. Shalom! i loved this post. what a good way to share it.
    mine is a work in progress (i just started it actually, but i intend to commit myself to this and to evangelize to the youth as well)


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