Rebecca’s friend Rachel ran up to her with big news: “I know who the tooth fairy is.” They were in second grade. 

The night before, Rachel had awakened while the tooth fairy was exchanging the tooth left under her pillow for a dollar.

“It was my dad!” she said. “My dad is the tooth fairy.”

When Rebecca got home she couldn’t wait to tell her mom. “I know who the tooth fairy is. It’s Rachel’s dad. Ronnie Loeberfeld is the tooth fairy.”

After a short pause, Rebecca’s mom said, “Why, yes he is. And it’s a big secret. So it’s important that you don’t tell anyone.” 

Rebecca did keep the news to herself. But she remained in awe of Mr. Loeberfeld. She couldn’t stop thinking about how, in addition to his day job, Mr. Loeberfeld had a demanding and important mission. He collected all those teeth and distributed all that money night after night.

Children are very observant. But they don’t always draw the right conclusions about how the world works. In fact, many of us hold on to our childhood beliefs long into our adulthood. Take for instance the case of Christy Kruger.

At a party she got into a conversation about endangered species. After a while Christy asked her friends, “Are unicorns endangered or extinct?”

An awkward silence followed. Eventually her friends burst into laughter. Another silence followed when her friends noticed that Christy wasn’t laughing. Until that moment, she had believed that unicorns were real.*

From time to time atheists respond to my religious writings as if I were announcing a belief in unicorns. Some of these critics can be especially harsh. None more so than those who had grown up in fundamentalist churches.

What they frequently attack turns out to be the simple, naive beliefs of their own childhood. They reject a literal reading of, say, the story of the Flood or the creation of the cosmos in seven days just a few thousand years ago. It seems not to have occurred to them that our theological understandings and our ways of reading scripture can themselves mature and grow.

The funny, awkward, and sometimes painful thing about belief of any kind is that it’s a process of learning and unlearning. This is especially the case when it comes to beliefs about spiritual matters. 

We’re dealing with an infinite mystery. We have finite hearts and minds. So of course we’ll always be stretching beyond where we were previously. The Christian writer Sarah Bessey puts it like this, “Anyone who gets to the end of their life with the exact same beliefs and opinions as they had at the beginning is doing it wrong.” (See her book Out of Sorts)

Frequently, my atheist critics tell me that they now believe in what science can demonstrate as true. Unlike me, they’ve grown up.

The world—the real world—is material. Measurable. Quantifiable. As far as truth goes, everything other than objectively verifiable data has to be subtracted out of our experience. Values, purposes, meanings. Those are purely subjective. Reality doesn’t offer such things. It’s all in your head.

In other words, in the materialistic world proposed by consistent atheists, life’s meaning is just a fleeting illusion. It’s not real. 

What is real is that everybody dies. The rich and the poor. The powerful and the oppressed. Winners and losers. Everybody ends up buzzard bait or worm food. And with your death goes all that stuff that you thought had made your life worth living. That’s what brought the author of Ecclesiastes to cry out, “Vanity of vanities! … All is vanity.” (1:2)

But here’s the thing. Experience as we actually live it—what Phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl call Lived Experience or Erlebnis—is composed of sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, passions, and memories all woven together as a tapestry. Focusing only on those things in experience that can be weighed and measured requires a major subtraction operation.

We’re always encountering our world as if it ought to be meaningful. Okay, sometimes we can’t make sense of what’s happening. And that can be confusing and even painful. But it’s the very nature of our consciousness to grasp for some meaning in what we’re experiencing. What matters? Why should I keep going? What’s the next right thing to do?

I happily acknowledge that scientific truth has vastly improved human life. It made my daughter’s heart surgery possible, provides life-saving medications, and made Louisiana habitable by giving us air conditioning. But it can’t show us how to lead a meaningful life. Wisdom does that.

When Jesus talks about truth he’s talking about wisdom. He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:13) Wisdom is neither theoretical knowledge nor technical know-how. 

Wisdom is also more than knowing the moral law, knowing what is good and evil. Wisdom is the ability to discern what will be genuinely helpful and fruitful, healing and nurturing in very complex situations. In a word, wisdom is the ability to navigate life’s varied and often puzzling circumstances with love as our guiding principle.

Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (9:10) This doesn’t mean that wisdom is rooted in being afraid of a wrathful God. “Fear” should be understood as awe. Wisdom begins with awe. With being aware that our existence derives from and depends upon a being whose love for us exceeds our wildest imaginings.

We grow in wisdom by leaning into that love. Being vulnerable to it. Trusting it.

And we don’t have to go looking for that love or seeking that connection. The Spirit of Truth comes to us. Unbidden. Offering reliable, unflinching companionship along life’s way.

Wisdom begins with a real, experienced connection to the holy in our everyday coming and going. Right here in the lived experience of our often messy lives. 

The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once said, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” I’ve talked about that elsewhere as being a worldly mystic. (Looking for God in Messy Places, pp. 121-122)

I don’t believe in the spiritual equivalent of the tooth fairy or unicorns. I believe in the risen Christ. And I believe in him because I’ve been paying attention, as best I can, to what my lived experience teaches me.

*These stories are drawn from “Kid Logic,” This American Life. Episode 605 (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/605/kid-logic)

You can read more about wisdom, worldly mysticism, and encountering God in our ordinary lives in my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places. Click here to learn more.