To hold onto Jesus. That was the idea. I figured there must be some consensus that would pull me back from what one of my professors calls "the postmodern abyss." When we face the depth of our biases, our limits, and the pervasive relativity of all other people's judgments and opinions as well, there is usually a point at which we want to throw up our hands in a "there's no hope" gesture... and then drown ourselves in vodka and chocolate.
Or in those darker moments, we want to hit the rewind button and unthink all the thoughts that led to such a bleak place of disappointment in faith, in the way things "just are."
One of the ways some Christians pull back from that edge is to commit to an authority structure that they choose to trust to make those discernments for them. Perfectly valid. Just didn't work for my overly busy brain. Others advocate a generous orthodoxy, focusing on what they call diversity within the tradition while embracing essentials. As long as we stick to essentials, the thinking goes, there can be diversity of opinion around things like baptism or confession, how the Lord's Supper is taken or how church authority is structured while embracing a similar view of the trinity, Jesus as God's Son, the story of salvation etc.
Yet even the essentials become divisive because, let's face it, some traditions really do think it is heretical to see the resurrection as a metaphor rather than a physical reality, for instance. As a result, a generous orthodoxy usually implies a conservative view of the faith and theology.... which means, then, that the more liberal branches of the church aren't considered part of that larger diversity after all. In the ancient and medieval world, church councils were called in order to "force" consensus over essentials... Today, most Christians take a dim view of that kind of coercion and therefore, there is less ability to enforce a particular definition of Christian essentials. Consequently, folks like me find themselves back in the morass of competing views even about essentials.
Not only do Christian essentials take a beating in our era, but if we move beyond our own western Judeo-Christian world to take a look around, we find that our faith must account for a much wider and more diverse humanity than the ancients ever considered.
History is peopled with far more non-Christians than Christians. What relationship does our faith have to their lack? Why has "our" God been silent on the far side of the world? Why do some people get to be born "into" the right faith while others must somehow surmise that the orientation of their culture, religious and philosophical worldview is askew, and they should be internally curious to find "the one true God" who has not been a part of that history or heritage?
Being a globe-trotting young person meant that this question plagued me.
I used to wish I had the spirit of Paul so that I would be glad to exchange my salvation for the damnation of the lost on the far side of the Atlantic and beyond. I wasn't quite that brave, but I did feel it was utterly unfair that I should be "blessed" and others "cursed." On what grounds could I claim that God's sorting of humanity (as I had been taught) was just?
Language, the plain meaning of words, became the new ground for this theological game. What did justice mean for God if it didn't mean the same thing for humans? Did forgiveness require blood? Is sacrificial death consistent with God's love and grace? Can the words "love" and "grace" and "justice" really mean the opposite of how I experience them when they are applied to God? And if language changes every generation, how can I know that the language of the ancients comports with our use of the same words today? What did heaven mean to a first century person compared with a generation who saw men land on the moon or the Hubble telescope's view out of our galaxy?
Truly, I came to the devastating conclusion that I could not know, did not know, would not presume to know the truth about God and reality in any kind of absolute, non-negotiable, categoric way - not even in a bare-bones essential kind of way.
While my mind would no longer accept what felt like a scripted version of the faith, my heart knew that I had loved the faith... loved it so much that it was still at work in me despite the fact that certain theological perspectives literally turned my stomach or made me angry. In spite of everything, I still loved the Bible and Jesus, I still found the narrative of redemption and lift powerful in my imagination, I believed in forgiveness and living in such a way that good overcomes evil. I was committed to repairing relationships, caring for the poor, and working to create conditions that promote community esprit de corps. Yet I didn't believe. The beliefs I had taken for granted as a Christian had evaporated and I couldn't fake that I still believed them, no matter what.
Bonhoeffer's writings rescued me from feeling utterly alone. In Letters and Papers from Prison, he underscored the importance of honesty and plain speaking about our Post-Enlightenment era and its impact on our beliefs. He wrote fearlessly about the loss of God in modern life. I was and am deeply grateful to him for giving me permission to admit the truth about where I was, at that time, without fear for my soul. I had lost faith. I had to face it.
So I gave up. I let go.
I stopped praying. I stopped going to church. I stopped reading the Bible. I trusted that answers (of another variety entirely, yet of what sort I could not say) would come some other way.