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.