Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Falling away from faith Pt. 4

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.


Rebecca C. said...

Thought I'd let you know I'm still reading. And loving seeing your thoughts.

DSE said...

Julie – thanks for your honest story. Lovely to see such clarity of thought in describing your journey.
I have some questions really. I believe what first moved you away from the missionary experience and the Vineyard experience was the sexual infidelity you found there? It was only later that you began to question the authenticity and validity of various interpretations of the scriptures? How have you interpreted the Council of Nicea – with the Nicene Creed – essentially ‘approved’ by all in the early faith (only 2 opposed of 380ish)? The apostolic creed also seems broadly ‘approved’. Would these be sufficient for an intellectual / literary foundation?

In terms of an absolute interpretation of the Bible (down to even what books are in it, and what the actual text also means) even in terms of NIV, The Message, The Good News, the King James versions – this is also a Muslim concern {That’s not a criticism by the way}. In short terms for Muslims the WORD became text, and for Christians the WORD became Flesh and Blood. So the critique is why, like Mohammed, did Jesus not write a book – the book of Jesus? If such a book existed and was absolutely clear and unequivocal – would that suffice for us?

Perhaps, deliberately, Jesus never meant it to be an absolutely clear and unequivocal book. Perhaps that had been tried and found wanting – the Old Testament? Perhaps the faith is meant to be messy, easily misinterpreted, emotional, grace requiring, shaky, difficult, human?

I’d be interested to hear more of your Vineyard experience. My understanding is that this community was built on more than just intellectual acquiescence or clarity. It was built on emotional interaction in community and emotional connection to Jesus. In community did you experience such emotional (hair raising) connections to Jesus, and how do you now view those times?

If I sound critical at all, please forgive me, I do not mean to be.

I love your writing – keep it up ! !

Barbara said...

I am soaking up your words. I am right where you left off in part four - I stopped going to church, I rarely read the word and it seems that I pray out of habit and compassion for others (intercessory prayer I guess you'd call it) but not communicative prayer with God. I am curious to read Part Five and see where you are now...

Kansas Bob said...

Julie, this is beautiful:

"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.

Loving the read, Bob

julieunplugged said...

Dse: I believe what first moved you away from the missionary experience and the Vineyard experience was the sexual infidelity you found there?

The only bearing sexual infidelity has had on the deconstruction of my faith has been to validate the idea that the Holy Spirit seems inactive in many Christians' lives despite the claims to the contrary.

We left the field to join the prophetic/holiness/charismatic movement thinking it would lead to greater power on the mission field when we would return ten years later.

I actually quit the missionary team while still on the field. I got tired of pretending all the time that I was not a missionary in order to win people to Christ. I also became deeply troubled by the volume of people around me every day destined for hell. I felt that I had to resolve that issue - why people were headed to hell and what could be done about it.

We left the Vineyard after my husband no longer found he could work on staff (for many reasons I'd rather not share). We continued to go to church for another year until the Easter service included a spoof on a boy band and an Easter bunny in children's ministry. That pushed me over the edge.

Evenso, I was invited to speak several times (a women's conference and once to the entire church) after we no longer attended. (No infidelity there that I know of.)

The deconstruction, as I've written at other times, began when I started to discuss theology on the Internet. I was startled to discover that even among homeschooling Christians, there were passionate differences about what constituted the essentials of the faith. So I went a-huntin' for those essentials.

I'll discuss my take on the councils at another time. Too much to delve into at the moment, but perhaps some of what I think will dribble out in the next installment.

dse said...

Thanks for your response Julie - much appreciated.

Steve said...


Keep going. What has happened to your heart and mind since letting go? What role has your grad degree played in all this?

I also wonder about your thoughts on the creeds, noted by "dse"?

Might I also note here that Jesus never called himself a Christian - another novel way of looking at things.

Have you ever read any of Dallas Willard? If not, do! Anything!

And finally, and most enormously to me....what of Jon in all this??

mariam said...


I have to say I am hoping for a happy ending to your journey. I am thinking of Kahil Gibran's statement paraphrased,

"When we love it is not that God is in our hearts, but that we are in the heart of God."

God's heart is big enough to lovingly hold all of creation. The story of redemption and forgiveness which resonates for you with its beauty, is beautiful because it is for all. If we, with our fragile, finite human hearts and brains can imagine and desire extending God's love to all, how much more can God do? A theology that separates us and others from God is no theology at all.

julieunplugged said...

Steve, I have read Dallas Willard. A couple of his books. He was someone I turned to early on in the process.

r. michael said...


I truly admire your diligence in pursuing these lines of thought. Most people are not that persistent to pursue the answers they are looking for...or brave enough even to ask the hard questions. I find that most folks (Christian or not) are satisfied with believing what they have been taught and are happy with that as was I...until recently.

I can't help but feel though that you may find yourself returning to "faith" some day...obviously not in the way you came...but do you see this as a possibility? A seeker like you does not stop seeking, and asking, and probing.

One more question....what did it feel like when you woke up one day and realized that you did not "have to" believe any more? scared, sad, exhilerated or what?

julieunplugged said...

r. michael, I love your comments and questions. They help me include things I might miss otherwise in my sharing. So keep asking. I think I addressed dome of these in part 5.