Monday, October 29, 2007

Two shall become one belief and then two and then... (Part One)

When friends and family heard that my faith had shifted from committed evangelical to something resembling a liberal amoeba, invariably the next question would be, "But what about Jon? What does he say about it?" I used to take offense to the question. It felt paternalistic, like I needed his approval to change my beliefs or that if he had known, he could have prevented the changes. Looking back now, I don't think those were the reasons people asked about Jon. Some worried about how my revised beliefs would impact our marriage, others wondered if Jon's beliefs had changed too, and perhaps some who knew us best hoped Jon would at least protect the kids from my theological wanderings.

Jon, to his credit, has always resisted answering for me when asked what I believe. He has never defended me or criticized me to others, even when he himself worried about where I was headed. Honestly, the one thing I never anticipated when we married was the possibility that one of us would lose our orthodox Christian beliefs.

Back in 1984, our marriage vows stated that we would "reach the Berbers (indigenous Moroccans) for Jesus Christ" until death do us part. Yep. In our vows. So naturally the idea of walking away from the evangelical version of faith never dawned on either of us, let alone the idea that one would and one wouldn't. You may as well have asked us if we thought it possible that one of us might go through a sex change operation at some point in the future. Unimaginable. (And honestly, now on this side of 40, I think I'd ask young engaged couples to really scan the horizon for what change might mean - in sickness and in health is one thing, but changed religious beliefs and gender are not outside the realm of possibility any more.)

Lucky for us, our marriage was tested long before I reevaluated my faith. Put two dysfunctional people (adult child of alcoholic parents - Jon - and adult child of divorce - me) in a new marriage on the mission field among Muslims without any team members or other Americans in the town... well, you do the math. We left the field within two years and landed in therapy for two more.

Our faith commitment definitely helped us. We knew divorce was not an option. We believed in the power of prayer and love and 60 minutes a week with Jane, the therapist. We saved our marriage and went back to the mission field for another year. During that year, I went through a major shift in faith (I became an enthusiastic pray-er ala Mike Bickle and the Kansas City Fellowship). Jon had to deal with a shift in my theology even then. I quit our missionary team and devoted myself to prayer.

Together, we revised our thoughts about missions and Muslims, and returned to California to be in the Vineyard where we'd learn more about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. By year 15, we had a stable marriage and family. Then we moved to Ohio.

Coincidentally, the Internet became my lifeline to friends and relationships after that move. As I've shared elsewhere, I began examining my beliefs because I couldn't get a majority rules on any one important doctrine (particularly salvation). Jon knew that for me, the idea of hell had been the chief force behind my theology and evangelical drive. So it didn't surprise him too much to see me checking out books about reformed theology, openness theology (Clark Pinnock) and those emergent ones by Brian McLaren. When I came home with Hans Kung, though, he raised an eyebrow.

I began sharing some of the challenges to traditional faith that these writers raised for me. Jon listened openly, though less interested in theology than I was. He hung with me until I started talking Jesus Seminar, revised morality and loss of faith in the bodily resurrection of Christ. This was when I noticed him start to show signs of concern. I remember one particular conversation where Jon said, "It's all fine unless you lose Jesus. If you lose Jesus, you lose everything." I knew I had hurt him. That's when I determined that I had better stop sharing my thoughts so openly with him and used the Internet for deeper exploration of the questions I had.

Those next couple of years were very interesting and deserve more time than this one post can give it. I want to turn this discussion into a series as it is too much to condense seven years into one blog post.

I will leave you with this for now. It is impossible for the beliefs of one married partner not to impact the thinking and beliefs of the other. Whether those beliefs have to do with organic vegetables, politics, gun ownership, education of children, parenting or theology, marriage partners talk to each other so much that it is inevitable that the discussions will lead to shared conclusions and/or deeper understanding and sympathy toward formerly rejected viewpoints. If this doesn't occur, it is very very difficult to stay married or intimate. I have friends who have lost their marriages during these kinds of reevaluations... The tension became insurmountable.

So what I'd like to share in the next installment are a few examples of challenges we faced, how Jon and I did contribute to each other's changes in belief and what we did about the kids in the meantime.


Drew said...

Sounds like a wonderfully cathartic exploration of r you past and I thank you for sharing it here.

My wife and I have more or less changed in parallel which is not, from what I have learned, a common thing. It all started with us when I went to seminary and we got married while I was a student.

Once I fully accepted my sister (who came out) and found this to be the switch to motivate my deconstruction and reconstruction of my beliefs in concert with the reality of experience, I think it liberated both of us from the shackles of dogma. Hard to be truly human when your focus is on superhuman and unattainable.

Now I liken my theology as a "dirt" theology - and I use dirt in terms of Mary Douglas' understanding of matter out of place. Our conditions of pure and impure are largely arbitrary. The problem is when we assign those conditions some eternal and immutable status. That's when the hurt begins.

If God does not change, then I am the one who need to be comfortable with my own change. I need to learn how to relate to my mutability. I need to learn to relate to my very core as being something somewhat out of place.

Lacey said...

thank you for posting on this. i'm looking forward to reading more.

r. michael said...


I can so relate to this as I am in the midst of these discussions with my wife and they are difficult discussions. I have come to realize that for a lot folks evangelicalism becomes their when you start to question that underlying belief system you are questioning everything that they have built their life upon...hence the fear. "what if I have wasted my life following something that is not true or at least not true as I have come to believe it?"

I have to admit though if my wife and I traded places I would feel much like she does now.

One of the things that has helped in our discussions (we are taking baby steps here) is not to discuss outright the validity or fallacy of a particular truth but to examine the context in which we understand it (I don't know if she knows she is getting a good dose of postmodernism here but suffice to say it is, for now, a more tactical approach). It does not feel so much to her as a direct assault on her beliefs. Still, I don't want her to necessarily adopt my point of view...just be able to respect it.

I find this particularly challenging as we still attend church and are looked up to as leaders to some degree so I find myself (to go back to my earlier statement) caught between two worlds...not fully out of either or in either.

This blog helps ...although I don't like the idea of my real self being a virtual person.

Rahime said...

I can already tell that I'm going to appreciate this series.


julieunplugged said...

Drew I LOVE the term: "dirt theology." I stole it (giving you credit) as my religious views on Facebook. Wonderful term. Fits with how it all feels to me now.

Michael, postmodernism helps a lot! I have a series in the works for this blog that I'm calling Postmodernism 101 which will explore how postmodernism has influenced my faith changes and how it helps me stay related to evangelical faith without embracing it. So you are on the money with that observation, I think.

Welcome Rahime.

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

Great topic. I am one of those people whose marriage did not survive the changes that occured in my marriage. I was the one whose religious perspective radically changed and, in hindsight, I believe my wife felt that I have had many years to think about what happened in my marriage I also now believe that theological/philosophical changes and differences were not the primary cause of the collapse in my marriage. I mention this because I think Christians can often give to much credence to the importance of thelogy and miss some of the obvious problems in a marriage. I am not suggesting you are making this assertion but only pointing out my experience. You also mention the importance of talking about such matters and reaching a shared conclusion or sympathy towards the other but this is very difficult, imo, because certain Christian traditions/sub-cultures don't encourage spouses to engage the wayward or backslidden spouse. My wife and I couldn't discuss any of the changes I was going through because of the potential danger in doing so for my marriage slowly and gradually died due to lack of intimacy in an important part of our lives. You are very fortunate because I suspect you are a rare exception to the rule...

Ampersand said...

Interestingly, when I fell away from faith I think it was even disconcerting for my non-Christian husband. Although we were more alike in belief after I fell away, I think he wondered what kinds of changes might come next. Change is both hard and invigorating for a marriage sometimes.

Bilbo said...

Ampersand writes:
"Change is both hard and invigorating for a marriage sometimes."

Bilbo: And I would like to add that change is's the nature of history and the human experience...and...I think our chances of surviving the changes in our marriage is dramatically increased if we can accept and "embrace"...and hold the tension that change is both hard and potentially invigorating. I think we do ourselves, our marriages and our partners a great disservice when we can't accept or embrace that the difficulty and pain associated with change is a normal part of the dance of all marriages.

julieunplugged said...

Bill, I thought of you as I wrote this post. I mentioned the therapy early in our marriage because I don't think we could have survived such a shift in beliefs without having learned the value of a healthy relationship earlier on. It's not to say that we never h ad dicey times after therapy (we sure did!), but we were more conscious too of the ways we contributed to the damaging moments in our marriage and knew better how to take responsibility for them when they occurred... and learned how to find our way back to each other.

Change is most certainly inevitable. I think I'd like to shout that from the rooftops.

Dave said...

Ashleigh Brilliant has a saying: "Constant change is here to stay."

Kansas Bob said...

Change is something that can present an opportunity for vulnerable and transparent discussion.. with the possibility of bringing hearts closer. Unfortuntely change often creates an atmosphere where couples shut down and stop talking.

In our marriage sickness and phyical disability have created a change in our relationship that is often difficult to talk about.. the temptation to shut down is there all the time.. life can get so hard at times. These are the times when we have to dig deep into our hearts and allow our spouse to help us and we them.. it often takes all of the energy, humility and effort that we can muster.

I think that the reward can be great if we will allow these times to change us and makes us better people. I mean, really, who ever said that life was easy.. no pain, no gain :)

Drew said...

I just came to the term "dirt theology" as I was posting a response here, but I have thought about it before.

Could be a book title someday, but I have to finish my damned dissertation first.

I was listening to a nice set of lectures on sin by Paula Fredriksen from Boston U. and posted a ditty on just how strange the Christian obsession with "the other world" really is.

I guess there is a fine line between pragmatism and agnosticism. But I have learned to be a damn good tightrope walker these days :-)

Drew said...

BTW - Go Steelers! :-p

Ampersand said...

KB, I really feel you on this one:

In our marriage sickness and phyical disability have created a change in our relationship that is often difficult to talk about.. the temptation to shut down is there all the time.. life can get so hard at times. These are the times when we have to dig deep into our hearts and allow our spouse to help us and we them.. it often takes all of the energy, humility and effort that we can muster.

Energy, humility, and effort, indeed. And may grace be abundant for you, and all of us.

Kansas Bob said...

Thanks Ampersand.. marriage is something you always knew that you would have to work on.. but nobody expects overtime :)

mariam said...

Here is the thing that surprised me. My husband is an atheist and I was worried that my becoming a Christian would be another wedge in our already troubled marriage. But our marriage has improved a great deal. It is more loving; there is less tension. I could say it was an answer to prayer - I did desperately pray that our family as a whole would be healed and remain intact. BUt I also think that as a result of my commitment to CHrist, to being loving and forgiving, to living in gratitude and acceptance, even my including my husband and the things that were troubling him each night in my prayers, that it wore off on our marriage. I became more at peace, less crazy, less obsessed with what was going wrong. Weirdly (or maybe not - they do say this will happen) my husband seems to have been somewhat transformed as well. Love begets love. The theology doesn't matter.

julieunplugged said...

It's so interesting mariam that you experience more grace and less stress by leaving behind your agnosticism or atheism and entering Christian faith. In the old days, I would have attributed it to a life transformed by the Spirit, answers to prayer and a theological outlook that emphasized forgiveness, love, peace, acceptance etc.

What I find so curious is that for those of us who have walked away, some of those same descriptions apply to how our marriages were transformed by leaving the Christian beliefs to the side and really enjoying/knowing our spouses as they were (without needing them to change to be better spiritual leaders or partners, more committed to _______).

I like your last comment: theology doesn't matter.

Lol! Hey I got my Master's in it. I *has* to matter. :) But it doesn't. Not really. Love it the thing.

julieunplugged said...

Love ::is:: the thing.