After I left my faith behind, I rejoined the human race. I entered a period of profound, no-agenda curiosity which was both exhilarating and liberating.
For instance, when a friend confided that she had never once felt God's presence in her life despite praying for it earnestly as long as she could remember, I felt compassion. I didn't sense a sermon coming on. I didn't tell her new ways to pray, I didn't redefine God's presence, I didn't think she was insincere in her attempts to "feel" God, I didn't change my theology in that moment to recast non-experience of God as the same thing as experience of God. I simply listened and accepted her report as true. I also knew that I could never again believe in God's presence for everyone with absolute confidence. My theology would have to be big enough to include non-experience as well.
I went from being a believer (as in, believing propositions) to believing (as in, taking people at their word). I hasten to add right here that my belief in propositions was every bit as much about relationship to God through Christ as anyone else's. No matter how passionately we cast our faith in relational terms (meaning we didn't generate our experiences but that they are sourced in God), the facts remain: we interpret our experiences (peace, love, joy, forgiveness, freedom, hope, healings, wonder, awe, the conversations we hold in our heads between ourselves and what we call God) as evidence of our relationship to God based on propositions we believe (that there is a God who manifests godself in Christ who now resides in us through the Holy Spirit).
Christians also believe that this God speaks to us and interacts with us in discernible ways. That's what Christians mean by relationship. Christians refer to their experiences to validate those propositions they embrace and believe. That's why we call Christians "believers." In other words, Christians are those people who interpret their experiences through a specific propositional lens that they accept as true, which they describe as relationship. In turn, they present their experiences to others as validation of those propositions.
Muslims, humanists, scientists, Hindus, atheists, postmodernists, Jews, animists... don't. They interpret similar experiences of peace, connection, love, joy, miracles, mission, hope, wonder, mystery and so on, through a different grid with other propositions supporting their interpretations.
So I went from being a believer (in Christian propositions) to believing (that other people's methods of interpreting their own lives held validity for them and could make coherent sense of their experiences adequately). It made a huge difference in how I looked out at the world around me.
Mother Teresa once said that she looked for and saw Christ in the faces of those she cared for. She tended to them as though she were tending to Christ. When I first read her words, I thought I'd misread the quote. For so long, I'd been taught that my goal should be to live in such a way that people saw Christ in me, so that non-Christians would be attracted to Christ as I lived my faith before them. In other words, the goal was to have other people look at my face and see Christ. Certainly Christ wasn't in the "unsaved," as far as I knew. Yet Mother Teresa thought otherwise.
In this season of "un-faith," I tasted Teresa's point of view. I can't say I saw Christ in others as she did. However, I did see the other... without trying to manage the encounter. I listened. I valued. I believed. The "so that" never followed. I began graduate school with this disposition toward others.
My first professor taught Pauline Writings and is a member of the Jesus Seminar. He remains my favorite professor. Dr. Dewey helped me see the "first century other." Prior to that class, my grid for evaluating Scripture and beliefs came through the filter of the 20th century, of literacy and post-Enlightenment science. I unconsciously managed these influences when I'd read about biblical times and peoples. I would look for points of connection between the biblical text and my worldview. I'd shape my readings (not deliberately) to support both the propositions I held to be truly Christian while staying related to reality as our time and place defines it. It is a very tricky process and one that requires a great amount of discipleship to make happen "successfully."
Let me explain further. What I mean is that while most of us honor science as a valid tool for explaining reality, medicine, historical research etc., we also resist science's claim to explain everything. For example, while I believed in the resurrection, I didn't believe in resurrections. While I trusted that miracles in Christian churches were sourced in God, I dismissed miracle claims of other faiths and did so on scientific grounds.
It's a tenuous way to hang onto faith - this need to balance our worldview against an ancient one. And in fact, many ex-fundamentalists leave the faith when this gap becomes too strained.
I went into that first class wary of my professor's interpretations of Scripture (not because I didn't like the Jesus Seminar... on the contrary, I liked their books very much). I worried that the JS scholars were manipulating the Bible to suit their particular theological aims. During one lecture, my jaw dropped when the professor said that the first century Christians believed in Jesus's resurrection.
Rewind that tape, please. Isn't the JS filled with anti-resurrection tweedy-blazered materialist intellectuals who eschew magical thinking? Naturally, my hand flew into the air to press that point.
Patiently, Dr. Dewey explained the worldview of first century citizens. Without reproducing the lengthy detailed discussion here, suffice to say that what stayed with me at the time was the idea that cosmology (how we understand the relationship of our physical world and the surrounding universe) impacts beliefs. It struck me forcibly that how the first century Christian described what he or she experienced was shaped by that cosmology... and even if we think we can adopt a similar point of view, we are actually believing very differently just because we are no longer living within that era.
In other words, I stopped thinking about how the first century believer's point of view might validate the beliefs I was supposed to have in today's century, and for the first time, listened to the beliefs and viewpoint of a first century person without needing to scientifically analyze them, without systematizing them theologically, without adopting or interpreting them (at least, I attempted to withhold my own immediate reactions to those beliefs). I allowed there to be profound difference between me and a first century believer and "read" texts with that difference in mind (not trying to harmonize or scientifically examine or criticize). As a result, I was put in touch with what constituted the insight that drove the descriptions of their faith experiences, rather than an apologetic that supported their claims. (I will develop this idea in future posts so just sit with it for now, if it doesn't quite make sense.)
I found the process of allowing the other to be different (really different) fascinating and wholly "other." Interest in difference became one of the the chief ways I spent graduate school. I stopped making evaluations (or rather, I stopped letting my evaluations control my readings and interpretations) and instead, adopted a posture of openness to and interest in difference. I allowed myself to be drawn into the utterly other (fascinated rather than threatened, for instance).
Another way to put this attitude is this: Dr. Dewey says that you have not fully entered another time and place sufficiently until you can smell the garlic. It's not enough to read texts, even in the original languages. We must make an attempt to inhabit the world with all five senses, as best we can.
As I moved forward in my theological odyssey, I made it a priority to "smell the garlic" first... to let myself adopt someone else's perspective (even when it drove me mad!), driving to understand how it cohered for that person (people), for that time, for that place, for that moment in history.
This dedicated process of standing in the shoes of the other created the greatest shift in my formerly fundamentalist mindset... a shift that didn't occur until I had screamed in the margins of several text books and stomped around the Xavier quad in tears.