Thursday, January 10, 2008

Here's what they've said over the years

Quick caveat: The following post is descriptive of conversations that took place years ago when I was in the midst of change. It is not reflective of where I am today. But it may be helpful to those of you who are in the middle of that transition or who know someone who is. Hence the post.

I've been dusting off various old journals and digital copies of forum posts I've made on the Internet over the last seven years. I stumbled across this post from an ex-fundamentalist site I used to frequent. As I slowly admitted to the unraveling of my faith to friends and family, I collected a variety of responses.

I don't get these responses any more. Amazingly. What I get now is friendliness, acceptance, polite questions and perhaps more often than any other response: silence. But I don't mind the silence now (like I did then). I appreciate it. I feel respected by it. I find that I can now be in my old contexts of fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservative Christians and feel perfectly at ease. I even find myself able to pray with/for them and to speak their language (so to speak) when I need to.

But I wanted to post this entry because it's so representative of the types of unhelpful responses many of us experience when we're going through these seismic faith shifts. I've italicized what I think are more helpful responses for those who'd like a script for how to treat your disillusioned struggling soon-to-be ex-Christian friend. :) Why not? It's my fantasy.

My conversations went like this (drawn from real interactions):

I said: I can't live with the idea that God damns people for eternity if they've never heard of Jesus or Christianity.

Answer: How do you think God feels? Don't his feelings matter? He created these people and they rejected him...

More helpful response: It is awful to think of human beings suffering forever. How have you felt about the various theological options for reconciling a loving God with eternal damnation? Why don't they work for you?

I said: I realized I had never considered whether or not the Bible was the "Word of God"/ divinely inspired. I had been taught that it was a right belief for Christians, was presented with "evidence" from a Christian viewpoint and was shown in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that if I didn't believe it, I couldn't join up. I had never heard that there were Christians, even, who didn't hold that belief. Let alone scads of rational people who don’t believe it at all.

Answer: You need to get into the Word. You need to have faith that it is God's Word and then the Word will speak to you and you'll know it's from God.

Follow-up from me: Certainly. That's exactly what I've always been told and have practiced. Still, how did you ever hear about inerrancy of Scripture? I mean, you didn't come to that viewpoint without someone suggesting it, did you? How many new Christians get up one morning, start reading the Bible and suddenly think, "These are the very, exact, perfect words of God!"?

Answer: You can't be a Christian without believing the Bible is the Word of God. And it has proven true in my life. (Anyone heard of circular thinking?)

More helpful response: I'll have to think about that. Would anyone come to a view of inerrancy without the explicit teaching of that doctrine? I don't know.

I said: These (various and sundry theological) questions have troubled me for my entire twenty years in the faith.

Answer: (thought and implied) Aha! Evidence for the fact that Julie may never have been saved to begin with...

More helpful response: It must feel really weird for you to have had questions all those years while asserting that you believed the main doctrines and acted on them in spite of the questions.

I said: I'm no longer a conservative evangelical and have questioned every single belief I have ever held. I don't line up with any of the cherished doctrines any more.

Answer: I worried about you and prayed. The Lord showed me that you were still his. I was so comforted. He told me that you were just going about your questions in a different way.

I thought: What "different way" is that? How else do people question something? Glad you are “comforted”... but I wish you would know the me I'm sharing with you, not the one you are creating for yourself so that you will feel more comfortable.

She said: You have a really good mind and Satan knows it and is trying to use it. He is attacking you. And because you have a good mind, you have to be extra careful not to be drawn in to his arguments that are lies. It’s a huge responsibility.

I thought: There's nothing to say to this. I can only thank her for her genuine care.

Someone else said: These are good questions Julie and they all have answers. My husband is really good at theology and he will show you what you need to know so you won't have to have these questions any more.

Someone else said: Let's have coffee. I've been through exactly what you're going through and then I found the Lord again.

I thought: Uh, can't be what I've been through if you came out on the same side you started on...

Yet someone else said: Here are some books you may not have read yet - hands over Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

Ironically, this is the first book I read as a new Christian in college. Moreover, I read all of McDowell's books and any apologetic work I could get my hands on.

Someone online wrote: Read Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith.

And so I did. That's when I knew I had begun a real theological education. His book felt small, un-nuanced and theologically shallow compared with the diversity of opinions I had begun to study outside of evangelicalism.

An old sorority sister said: How does your husband feel about this change in you? After all, he's the spiritual head of the household.

She hasn't returned my emails or phone calls in four years since posing this question to me in email.

A church friend could have said: We could tell you were struggling and we've been worried for over a year. That's why we've gossiped about you behind your back, I mean, prayed and have never called or cared to ask what you think now and why.

And most of my friends from the old days said: Nothing.

I have several friends who've never said a word yet have gradually disappeared from my life...

--

If you know someone going through a spiritual climate change, the best way to love and support her is to not take her experiences personally. Usually a person in flux is confronting her beliefs for very good (and sometimes painful) reasons. Even if the friend in question was the most radical, committed example of evangelical conviction and action you knew personally, even if that person is the one who led you to faith, the deconstruction process of faith is deeply personal and is not meant to be a commentary on you or anyone else.

Of course rejection of doctrine implies that those who still believe it are not dealing with reality (the new reality approved by the formerly committed believer). Yet interestingly enough, even in the height of my critique of evangelicalism, of the doctrines, of the practices and attitudes that drove me crazy, I didn't feel judgmental of my friends who held onto faith. (I know some do.)

What I did resent was the implication that there was a quick fix for me or that I had never actually known or experienced God before, like they had.

The friends who have served me best during this season are the ones who showed interest in me and my thought processes, who trusted that I was the same person in question mode as I was in committed evangelical practice, who asked me real questions borne out of curiosity, not out of a need to corral and rescue.

If you're reading and you're one of those friends, thank you. I love you.

13 comments:

mariam said...

Julie,
It sounds as if you are still hurting:( Whenever we leave something or someone that made up a huge part of our life for so long there is a sense of grief and loss even if the departure is positive and good for us. Some days we feel fine with it and other days we flounder.

I'm curious though. How did you respond to questions like yours or people like you when you were a conservative Christian?

julieunplugged said...

Mariam, I hope I didn't convey that I'm still hurting. I'm not. The meat of the post is from 2004.

It's sad that some of my old friends have distanced themselves from me, but I'm not hurting from it any more.

As to your question: I don't remember anyone I knew personally falling away from faith while I was an active evangelical. Theological questions have always fascinated me, though, so I usually enjoyed discussing them.

In 2002, I did have one close online friend, though, who went through a serious loss of faith before I did and I wept for her. We had a very open relationship and conversed about all the stages she went through. I listened, asked questions, read books and articles she read to understand.

I did at times feel panicky as I watched her not find answers to the questions she had. So I do empathize with the anxiety a change like this produces in close friends. For sure.

R. Michael said...

Julie,

I was really moved by the dialogue of this post. Because I am still in the midst of this process it kinda hit a nerve with me.

Understand about the silence part. For those few who I have discussed this with, the silence reaction is the one I get most often...like I a speaking a foreign language to them. I look for a glimpse of connection but I usually receive a glassy-eyed stare. I really don't think it is on their radar screen.

On occassion have received the "Satan" response...usually accompanied by the "you're a tortured soul" follow-on, but my response to that has been that during this entire process I have committed myself to two guiding principles...1)brutal honesty with myself and 2)no fear. I think it is the "no fear" response that usually ends the conversation.
Fortunately I have found a friend (who is also a professor of OT at a local college) who listens to me and expressed many of the same issues, doubts and feelings that I have. He has singularly kept me from thinking that I am losing my mind.

I am interested though in what you were feeling through this process as well as what you were thinking. Clearly there had to be some feelings of rejection and disappointment, at least at the time this was going on if not now...

Dave said...

The thought occurred to me as I read your post that the answers you received were all characterized by their lack of empathy and respect that are almost guaranteed to create defensiveness, whereas your suggested "more helpful responses" all demonstrate good reflective listening skills that open the way to further, more genuine levels of conversation. This jumped out at me because I lead workshops on the subject each month. :o)

This realization leads me to lament the degree to which "power and control" tactics become the norm in many theological conversations that take place in Christian circles. People get into analyzing motives, trying to fix problems, squelch dissent or keep their own doubts and denials under wraps, and the first quality to be dispensed of in those situations is compassion for what the other person is going through. I don't want to come across as condescending here, but answers like those you quoted here seem to me like little more than neuroses trying to defend themselves...

Drew said...

Dave hit it straight on.

It is hard to hear when people of any religious or otherwise other dogmatic perspective respond with their own language rather than actually listening. I am consistently astounded how maintaining the group boundaries becomes more important than love.

And in fact doctrinal reification actually replaces love. It is as if Jesus never died as a result of that same kind of behavior - a people he loved, but could not love back. It is as if they never read any Paul's understanding that following the Law as a means to salvation will lead to failure and will only reveal our own foolishness. It is a shame that so many fundamentalists are trapped in Old Testament law even more so that most Jews. If the fulfillment of the law has been revealed to them, why do they ignore it? 'Tis a mystery.

My wife gets into these conversations with folks on Cafe Mom constantly. One atheist asked her, "I probably won't care to believe in God any day soon, but is there room in your heaven for me too?" The answer was yep. For you, the hookers trying to support their kids, steel mill workers who don't have time to go to church because they are afraid of losing their pension, and a slew of people the fundamentalists despise because those were the ones Jesus was able to reach back in the day - they actually listened.

mariam said...

I'm glad you aren't still hurting, Julie! I realized that you were quoting from years back, but the fact that you were revisiting it and giving examples of things you wish people had said, made me think it was still a little raw.

I've always found focusing on one of Don Miguel Ruiz' four agreements - "don't take anything personally" - helpful, although hard to do. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. I remember having somewhat judgmental thoughts about people who were stuck in "victimhood" before seeing the profound impact being a victim of CSA had on my daughter. I also remember judging people's parenting skills on how their kids "turned out". I remember thinking people of faith had some sort of mental weakness. Now I eat a lot of crow. In order to forgive myself for my past ignorance and lack of empathy, I have to forgive others for the same. I recognize that they are where they are now and I am where I am now. My perceptions are formed by my experiences as are theirs. I like r.michael's idea of speaking in a foreign language - it is the language of experience and a language they won't really understand until they have seen or had those experiences.

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I appreciate your willingness to be open about a very difficult subject for most people. I can only relate to those who said nothing...and...consequently felt hurt...but in hindsight...I now suspect a lot of folks say nothing, largely out of fear...and...subconsciously, they must be thinking if he can fall away than what could happen to me...and...falling away, or going into self imposed exile,which is what I did, can have major implications not only for the individual, but for one's family and other aspects of social and community life. I too think I have gotten over the hurt but I still have a hard time reconciling while people in leadership didn't make more of an attempt to intervene. That's the great mystery to me. When I left the church I had attended for years I was very close to the pastor and was known by many leaders in the church and I can't understand why they stood by and remained silent.

Rob said...

Hey, Julie -- this is awesome stuff. One of the things I haven't mentioned about my own "drift" is that, on the morning that I woke up a few years ago and realized I was no longer an evangelical, I felt like I had just dumped a bossy, controlling girlfriend. It felt really liberating and empowering! Then came the ongoing processing of the sadness, sense of missed opportunity, a little loneliness... but always enough joy to never look back....

Ruthola said...

I recognized my comment in there Julie! "I'm worried about you and praying for you" was natural for me because of loving you and Jon and your precious kids, and wondering if the Ohio move was a big mistake. We had a backlog of 3 years in a homegroup with you and Jon that made it seem surreal to hear you talk about shedding your faith like an outgrown old coat. And I did and still do take comfort that God holds on to YOU, rather than the other way around. Maybe I didn't give the perfect response, but I gave the one that was in my heart. No regrets. I wish people had loved you better, and cared more, and I wish you hadn't been so far away while going through all that.

julieunplugged said...

Hey Ruth!

Ruth, thanks for your sweet comment. That wasn't your comment in my list (I wasn't generalizing, but had specific people in mind for each one), but I understand that you identified with it. Thanks for your prayers and heart of love. I do feel them.

Rob said...

Ruthola -- as someone who identifies closely with Julie's journey, I'd add that I don' think people loving us better or caring more was ultimately something that would have changed the trajectory of our journey.

It's more an observation of how hard it is for people of faith to watch a fellow traveler go in a different direction. I saw it when I first broke from Islam and I saw it when I later broke from evangelicalism, and I'm sure I'll see it if I break from my latest gang of nuts.

augie said...

Julie, thank you so much for your blog. I have struggled with much of the same issues as you and have found your writing exquisite. Keep up the great writing.

augie said...

Julie, thank you so much for your blog. I have struggled with much of the same issues as you and have found your writing exquisite. Keep up the great writing.