Thursday, August 02, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 2

It doesn't take long to discover that Christians don't agree on much of anything. You can find pro-choice and pro-life Christians, Christians who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and those who don't, Bible-believing Christians and Bible-critiquing Christians, pacifists and militarists, soul-winning missionaries and food-giving social justice activists. There are even Christians who don't believe in God!

All of these Christians draw on a combination of tradition, experience, Scripture and reason to explain the version of faith they find most compelling, most fitting, most true. Being the most compelling explanation of the faith apparently matters to most versions of Christianity. Tolerance for diversity of opinions doesn't often characterize theological discussions.

Certainly, some ideas about what it means to be Christian have less credibility in the larger Christian culture (mainstream Protestants and Catholics). Still, centuries of debate have gone into some of the core doctrines the (majority) church claims as inescapable, Holy Spirit-given truth.

One of the ways Christians manage the diversity of opinions is to reduce the faith to "five essentials" or the ancient creeds or the little 'o' orthodox core tenets. Then believers debate which ones those are, appealing to established authorities such as the Pope (RCC), tradition (EO), or the Bible (Protestants). All versions claim a connection with the early church and the Holy Spirit.

Since sharing a common view of essentials has mattered to the "church" for most of history, I often felt compelled to weigh theological arguments and decide between them (I didn't think much about who had the right to interpret as I did which interpretation made the most sense to me). I discovered early in my journey that "trying on" a viewpoint aloud (online especially) was dangerous to me and my business. I wasn't in "danger" as in 'at gunpoint', but rather, the questions I had and my attempts at answering them called my faith into question for communities who depended on shared faith statements.

By this time, I had read a ton of theology. The claims to certainty started to sound a little desperate to me (perhaps mirroring my own need to find a place to stand confidently). I asked myself: Why was there such a need to clamp down and require a perspective of fellow "believers" (or doubters)? Why must those in leadership state emphatically that an answer can be found or that a specific tradition has found it? I realized that I knew the answer to that question, though.

For instance, if one of the tenets most believers accept is that the Bible tells the true story of salvation, yet there are 15 different ideas about what that story is, the next step is to wonder how to interpret the Bible in order to arrive at the "right" answer. And of course, committing to an answer matters because things like where you live (America or abroad), how you spend time (winning souls or working in a job or raising your kids), how you spend money (donations to missions or soup kitchens), and how you treat "the lost" depend on how you answer this question. Even whether or not you believe in creationism versus evolution or how to think about miracles (do we pray for the sick expecting healing or not?) impact how you see reality, how you interact with it. These issues are not abstractions. I knew that how I lived my faith depended on the answers I believed.

So I changed the focus of my questions. I pulled back the lens and determined that doctrinal issues would fall into place if I found a reliable source of interpretation for the Bible and the tradition. Rather than asking which doctrines were truest or most correct, I decided to find out who had the best credentials to determine what those doctrines ought to be. Simple enough, right?


Chuck said...

Where does this "change of focus" regarding doctrine and authority occur on your "spiritual timeline". Post Vineyard, post missionary...?

Dave said...

I think that the process you describe here (trying to find the "right interpretation") is what drives so many people to literalism, if they aren't otherwise beholden to a strong denominational tradition. Rather than try to figure out which of the more nuanced/complex "versions" of Christianity is the right one, they settle for an approach that pretty much insists that "what the Bible says it what it means." This offers the advantage of seeming humility, "letting God be God," and also saving us a lot of time and trouble trying to figure things out. And from there follows some of the strange cosmology, forced harmonization of scriptures and a habit of mental rigidity that continually seeks to prop up the argument, block out all of the dissonant information and ascribe malevolent motives to everyone else who "refuses to believe."

Do the parallels to Enron jump out at you the way they did to me?

julieunplugged said...

Post missionary and post Vineyard. I'd say that this process started about 18 mos before I entered grad school which for me started in 2003. I was on the rapid road to total deconstruction in about 2002.

julieunplugged said...

Dave, glaringly so! I found the whole Enron "spirit" utterly creepy. Their meetings reminded me of est (even moreso) but also of the holiness/prophetic movement, missions and the Vineyard at its heydey.

The sense of superiority to others, the clarity of the mission and the strong leadership of those you count on to know more than you and to be trustworthy... these were all present.

R. Michael said...

Looking forward to the next chapter of this journey....for a long time I have been saying to my wife when we come home from church that something isn't right but for a long time could not put my finger on it. So much of what you are writing about is what I find is wrong with our understanding of God and Christianity.

My question is (and I am not wanting to spoil the ending here...) but at the end of this are you happy with where this journey has led you? I suppose the search for what we find is "true" does not necessarily lead to happiness but I can't help but wonder if there is a God what does that mean for us? Is he (or she) completely unknowable? If so are we "OK" with that?

R. Michael said...

sorry, want to change my previous question...Wanted to say are you satisfied with where this journey has led not not necessarily are you happy with it...I am not so much interested to know whether you are happy with it but rather are you content with it.

julieunplugged said...

I will write more about how I see where I am now, but to answer the essence of your question: I do feel content. :)

R. Michael said...

Glad to know that you have contentment about it. As I seek some of the answers about life, God, and faith that lead me away from my evangelical roots I realize that I am not just walking away from "the faith" as it is expressed in that group but also from the community and the sense of signficance that being part of that community gives (which is also one of the issues that I have a problem're in or you'e out). This to me is a greater challenge and requires a lot more fortitude than to walk away from some of the teachings that I have a problem with.

No need to respond to this...just some of my thoughts that I hope you can address in your story. I sense we are on the same road but you are way ahead of me on it.

mariam said...

Julie, it is as if you and I are on a journey coming from opposite directions. I am theogically naked and picking up bits as I come. You come to the journey bundled up like farmer in a Winnipeg snow storm and you are shedding as you go. I wonder where we will meet?

When Josh on Jesus Creed talked about my "heresy" it made me smile and I was secretly pleased. I thought you had to had to know what you were doing to be a heretic.

I am looking forward to Chapter 3.