Falling away from faith was not a dramatic moment of devastation, as though it all happened at once. There were moments of terror as I studied theology on my own. I remember opening the Jesus Seminar website with the door locked while sweating and shaking so much, I could hardly type in the website address. I deleted my Internet history the moment I logged out worried that if I died that night, I wouldn't want Jon to think my final act had been embracing heresy. I'm nothing if not dramatic.
Yet if you think about it, the stakes were that high. I was on the verge of apostasy (if you lived in my brain, you'd know it was true) according to the evangelical formulation of faith. Yet I couldn't stop. I had to know "everything," had to rethink everything.... which is impossible of course, but I was determined to try.
Jon and I had many conversations that were probing, difficult and at times, scary. He worried about me; he was upset with me; he loved me. I shared (how can I not share?) but I held back the scariest thoughts from Jon. I processed most of my theological journey with a couple of online friends who were reading the same books. I did accumulate a surprising number of Hans Kung volumes and Jon certainly noticed my nose buried in them most days.
And that's probably why one day Jon came home from teaching at Xavier excited to tell me that Hans Kung would be at Xavier that weekend! Like the good fan that I am, I immediately stacked up all my Kung volumes (better than working out with weights, I tell you) and stood in front of the mirror changing outfits six times.
We sat in the third row. Kung was brilliant, of course, but he never really answered the one question that drove me at the time: who gets saved and how? Or did he? Was I stuck in a moment I couldn't get out of?
Still, I bought Kung's latest book and threw myself at him for an autograph as he descended the stage. I'm pretty sure he didn't know what hit him. And rats! I forgot my camera but I have the memory.
The point is, Kung approached theology in a way that took me in new directions. His thinking about salvation had to do with the Kingdom of God in the here and now. His passion had to do with dialog and mutual sympathy between the religions. He felt all of these constituted Christian commitment and were in accord with Christian values and theology. In fact, he reminded me of my Aunt June (famous on this blog). She often spoke about faith in these terms and I had dismissed her theology for years as liberal... yet suddenly her words echoed Kung, and as I let myself consider them, they opened windows rather than slamming doors.
My aunt is the one person I thought to seek as I felt my faith collapsing. She's the one who said, "God likes ambiguity a lot more than we do." I knew I could ask her any question and she wouldn't be worried about me. Why did I know that? Why would she feel free to respond that way? And of course she did, in six pages of single spaced compassion and clarity. More fresh air rushed into the room of my heart.
Back at the Kung seminar, while I was standing in line for a glass of wine (yeah, a Catholic school - I know!), I met a woman in the theology program at Xavier. She told me Amazing Things, like Dr. Paul Knitter was one of her teachers (yet another hero of mine and friend of June's). So when Jon and I got in the car to drive home, he said, "It's a no-brainer. You should get your Master's in theology."
And with the sound of inevitability, I knew I would enroll. A year later, I began my program without faith but with much hope.
My primary problem (as I thought about it) was that I could not see how my own mind processed information. I still felt like a prisoner and victim of my thought patterns, and wanted someone outside of myself to help me see them. I wanted criticism, challenge, and most of all, the tools to evaluate the claims others made about the faith for myself.
I consider my entry into grad school (in hindsight) the most honest act of faith I've exercised. It's not often someone chooses to devote four years of life to subject matter her mind no longer accepts as true. It often struck me as funny that I was studying virtuality and could get a degree in it! I could not see anything clearly, yet I walked directly into devoted focus on Christianity in spite of not believing any more.
I determined that it was time to start over. Completely. Which I did.