This year, our pastor has been periodically asking members of the congregation to talk about what is saving their faith. We are full of church refugees. They have been abused. They have been lied to. They’ve been raised on much the same theology as I was. We thought we were on God’s side, that we were good people, and we’ve learned that it was all based on a thoroughly screwed up understanding of who God is and what God wants. I’m not even saying Christianity is a bad thing, but some versions of it are. I’m not saying that everyone who believes that version is a bad person, but some of them are. This is the (brief) story of my last straw and why, having given up on Evangelicalism, I still haven’t given up on God.
What’s Saving my Faith?
Growing up, I was Church Boy.
We lived three blocks from Rochester Christian Reformed Church, and I could cover the distance at a dead run. I knew this because I’d done it so often—I was also Procrastinating Boy. On Sundays we were at church for two services (10:00 AM and 5:00 PM) plus Sunday school and on Wednesdays for choir practice or Cadets, aka Calvinist Cadet Corps. My sisters went to, no joke, Calvinettes. Even my spellcheck thinks that’s a weird name.
I went to Christian elementary school, attended Campus Life meetings in high school, and went to a Christian college. After college, I attended the church I’d grown up in, then a smaller Christian Reformed congregation, then, when that got too Republican, Crossbridge Community Church. When Crossbridge closed, I went to Capax Dei, which merged with Quest to become Artisan Church.
Along the way, I also became guitar and bass and cello playing Christian Music Leader, Recovering Reformed (reformed Reformed?) Theology Nerd, Spiritual Formation Promoting, Poor Folk Loving, Racially Aware, LGBTQ Affirming, all-around Church Man. American, Evangelical adjacent Christianity, permeated my life. I was one of those people who Took Faith Seriously.
Evangelical adjacent because in my Reformed upbringing, thinking was boffo, and I was never down with the anti-intellectualism I saw in Evangelicalism. We learned about Reformed Distinctives™, aka how we were better than the hoi polloi, like Evangelicals and fundamentalists, and especially Methodists.
I gradually learned moderation, nuance, and just how weird Calvinism was. I also met nice Methodists. I remained a theology nerd and continued to think carefully about my faith and refine it over decades. I became a Progressive Evangelical™.
Why am I standing in front of you talking?
So, why am I standing in front of you talking about what’s saving my faith?
Evangelicals pissed me off
Let’s start here: Evangelicals pissed me off. Most of the people in this room have left mainstream Evangelical churches or been pronounced persona non grata. We’re saddened, disgusted, or traumatized by our Evangelical history, sometimes all three.
All my life, Evangelicals told me to do the right thing, even when it was hard. I’m a late boomer, and our parents fought World War II. They defeated the freaking Nazis. I grew up around thick Dutch accents in church, and some of those folks had been honored by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to protect Jews from the Nazis—they just did it because protecting the persecuted and outcasts was the right thing to do. A lot of others died in the process.
But then Evangelicalism grew and became powerful and assimilated small churches with independent streaks. Thinking carefully was replaced by thinking right thoughts, and a community became a tribe. Risking your life for outcasts was replaced by attacks on outsiders. Gracious welcome of strangers and the poor was replaced by righteous indignation at foreigners taking our jobs and not following our customs. Sure, good folks gave to Compassion and Samaritan’s purse to help poor folks far away, but heaven forbid they should move into our neighborhoods. They could have their own churches if they wanted, but if they came to ours, they’d better fit in.
It became painfully clear that most Evangelicals not only weren’t willing to risk their lives to protect strangers, they weren’t even willing to risk their own comfort or 401Ks. They want to be protected by the persecutors. They were willing to tolerate and even support a disgusting bully so long as he was their bully.
Evangelicals love to talk about having a Good Witness, and I finally realized they had shot their witness to hell. Apparently, their theology made very little difference in their behavior. They weren’t living according to a Biblical worldview—they were being good, upright folks, which, remarkably enough, looked a lot like being middle class, white Republicans. This shot my trust in them to hell. My belief in God had been based on scripture, and my belief in Scripture had been based on what I’d been taught—that it was the very words of God and without error. If I could no longer trust the people who had taught me, I could no longer trust their version of scripture, and if I could no longer trust scripture, I could no longer trust their version of God.
So I went back and looked at their theology (i.e. study of God) and found that it didn’t hold up, at least not in the way I’d been taught. For instance, the belief that God is all powerful forces us to ask, if God is omnipotent, then why does God allow evil? There is an entire branch of theology devoted to answering this question, not very well. It’s only possible to believe scripture is without error with so many caveats that inerrancy no longer means much, and I find it much simpler to admit that scripture is a very human document, which is somehow inspired by God, whatever that means. The idea that Jesus died to take God’s punishment for our sins, which is central to Evangelical theology, owes more to feudal society and the fact that Calvin was a lawyer than to scripture. It turns out that there are multiple atonement theories that don’t rely on divine child abuse, but Evangelicals only teach the one that does.
Fundamentalist cranks like to portray deconstruction as an indulgence of overprivileged hipsters and heretics. But I didn’t deconstruct anything, and this was no indulgence. Instead, once I understood that the foundational doctrines of Evangelicalism were unsupportable, the bottom fell out. I felt like I had a theological structure that was floating in air with nothing to hold it up. Beliefs that made sense within the Evangelical bubble suddenly made no sense outside of it, and my inherited theology collapsed under its own weight.
What do I believe? Do I believe?
To be frank, I was no longer entirely sure God existed. I was mostly sure, but it seemed wise to avoid certainty about a divine being who, by definition, transcended our understanding. I simply couldn’t conceive of a world without a first cause, and I chose to call that first cause, God. I saw both good and evil in the world, and my intuition told me that evil could exist if God was good, but good could not exist if God was evil, so I figured that God was probably good. It seemed to me that the rest was conjecture, and the best we could do was muddle toward God as well as we could.
That was painfully disorienting for a former Church Boy. My carefully constructed faith had been so central to how I saw myself and found meaning that losing it left me feeling unanchored and rudderless. I didn’t know what to hang onto or where I was going, and panic started to set in.
Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. I can get through this.
Evangelicalism was dead to me, but not God. Christianity was the language I knew, and I’d invested too much in learning it to suddenly convert to, say, Buddhism. However, I could learn from other traditions. I could rebuild the foundations of my faith, this time without inerrant scripture as their bedrock. First, however, I needed to ask some basic questions:
- Could I know anything about God with certainty?
- And if I couldn’t, what and how could I know?
Growing up, I was taught that we could only know about God from scripture—it was the one true revelation from God. This was so central to Reformed theology that Calvinists have a Latin phrase for it: sola scriptura or scripture alone. But given that my trust in scripture was shot to hell, how should I read it? Could it be true without being entirely accurate? How could I treat scripture with respect while not taking it as the actual words of God?
Gradually, I came to see scripture as valuable mostly because it had passed the test of time. Millions of people from hundreds of traditions had read and wrestled and argued with it for millennia. Call it commentary or tradition or reason—all of it it is people working out how to live well in light of sacred texts.
Even within scripture Abraham and Moses bargained with God, Mary asked, “how can this be?”, and Jacob wrestled with God through the night to demand a blessing. They weren’t meekly submitting to God’s word or finding simple and obvious answers in scripture. They were creation questioning the Creator and insisting that they be listened to and taken seriously.
If one could argue with scripture, then there must be other sources of truth to argue from. Clearly one could reason about scripture. What about other religious traditions? Was there evidence of God in nature? How could I experience God myself?
Reason shouldn’t be a hard sell here, but in the more fundamentalist corners of American protestantism, human reason is suspect. Certainty is easy—we simply need to obey the plain truth of scripture without question. The problem is, the truth of scripture is anything but simple or plain. Scripture is a collection of ancient texts birthed in equally ancient cultures, foreign to our own, written in ancient languages and words that have changed their meanings over time. Understanding these texts requires studying their cultural contexts and literary forms and discerning what the original authors were trying to say. Inerrancy tries to bypass all that work by promising easy truth, but only doing the work produces real wisdom.
Even though I was angry with Evangelicals, I still saw a lot of value in communities of faith. Some of it had to do with the community and some with the faith. I didn’t want to abandon Christianity, much less community—just to leave toxicity of Evangelicalism. Other traditions, even other religions, offered different ways to understand God. It wasn’t as if I’d never ventured outside the Evangelical bubble—to the contrary, I’d always felt like a bit of an outsider—so this was more of an evolution than a leap.
For example, I went to Houghton College and met nice Methodists. Then, early in our marriage, Chris and I hung out with United Methodists on a spiritual formation retreat called Walk to Emmaus, which grew out of the Catholic Cursillo, and I discovered that there were both United Methodists and Catholics I really liked.
I was introduced to the writings of Richard Rohr and Henri Nouwen, which are gateway drugs for Evangelicals learning about Catholicism, and I strayed a bit further from the neatly fenced confines of my Reformed upbringing.
I began to read real Jewish writers, not Evangelicals in Jewish drag. I enjoyed the fresh perspective of a people who have argued with God and scripture and the lamppost for millennia.
The ways other traditions approached faith and were so different from those I’d been raised with that questions Evangelicals obsessed on didn’t even apply. My people were so ignorant of the cultures that had birthed our faith, and afraid of anything learned in the 20th century that their fiercely held beliefs were unmoored from history and walled off from reality. They cast those with questions as weak minded or bad influences, but I came to believe that certainty about the transcendent was the real sin, and a modest agnosticism was a sign of spiritual health.
Diving uncritically into a new tradition would simply be looking for certainty in a new place, so I approached them with a certain reserve, yet healthy and deep relationships are built on vulnerability. Perhaps I could be both gracious and skeptical. After all, I see so much grace and wisdom in a Dalai Lama and so little in a John Piper or Franklin Graham that I can no longer dismiss the one and look up to the other based on a shared religious label alone. I can’t leave Christianity entirely, and it will always be my mother tongue, but I will be open to wisdom wherever I find it.
Since I’d become skeptical of the special revelation of scripture, what could I learn about God from, say, the natural world? If God had made all that was, then it followed that the creation should bear the marks of the creator. And if we were part of creation, then shouldn’t our nature somehow reflect the nature of God? Doesn’t scripture itself say that the skies display God’s handiwork and that we are made in the very image of God?
Frustratingly, natural theology has faced significant challenges from inherited understandings of the natural world—it has been overwhelmed by the assumption that the natural and divine are distinct realms. Equally, it is distrusted by those who would make Jesus so divine that he never could have had a zit. More than two millennia after Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine, we still fight like alleycats over the idea that he could have been both fully God and fully human.
Still, it seems to be a path worth following. The rocks may well cry out, even if I can’t expect them to recite the attributes of God.
Experience of God
My last, great, hope for rebuilding my faith was having an incontestable, personal experience of God.
I’m a pretty intellectual guy, and engaging my heart over my head has always been a struggle, but rational approaches to finding God had failed me. Could I have an experience of God? If I could bypass rationality and meet God directly, then I could be sure that God existed, that God cared about me, and that I wasn’t praying to air. Right?
The temptation is to make this yet another attempt to find certainty, and I’ve learned certainty is a mirage. Clinging to one transformative personal experience would be no better than clinging to inerrant scripture or infallible dogma.
Contemplative practice is not a shortcut to find oneness with God. It is a tool to build a relationship with God. It is a practice, meaning that it requires repeated and sustained effort. In short, it’s work.
I am still a novice. I try centering prayer, and all I experience is chaos as I wearily repeat the Jesus prayer again and again and again. I’ve tried prayer beads (aka the Anglican rosary) to keep myself on track, but it still feels like vain repetition. The good news is, this is normal. I have to keep doing the work. There is no guarantee that I’ll find perfect inner peace, but there is a good chance that I will get better over time and learn, with practice, to quiet my soul. Once it is quiet, I hope to hear the still small voice of the Spirit speaking to me, and learn, finally, simply to be with God.
The conclusion of the matter?
There is a thread that runs through all these paths, and that is uncertainty. None of them will prove that God is real or present or that God loves me. None will open my eyes to see that God was there all the time. None will make me feel like I am being held in God’s arms. All of them are ways to pursue God; none of them are ways to arrive. I am gradually coming to peace with that.
When Evangelicals failed me and my faith collapsed, uncertainty enabled me to keep believing something, anything about God. It continues to give me that freedom because it is far better to wrestle with honest questions than to hold tightly to brittle dogma. If certainty was my only option, then I would have to walk away from belief. Uncertainty is saving my faith.
If Christianity is worth anything, then the incarnation must be its beating heart. Traditionally, Easter has been the more important religious holiday for Christians because it celebrates our salvation from sin and hell, but I no longer believe in the Evangelical notion of hell. It too is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Salvation from sin, all the things we do to hurt others and harm our relationship with God, that’s worth talking about—but first there has to be a relationship with God. Christmas celebrates God coming to be one of us! There is a way to have a loving relationship with God, and it is a gift!
There are questions, so many questions, about the historical Jesus, yet . . . if God did become part of our world, what does that imply? The transcendent creator of the universe became one of us. I don’t see how we could possibly establish this factually—what does factual even mean when considering the transcendent?—but I can say this: if God really has become one of us, that changes everything. God is no longer an abstract concept or absent deity but a living, breathing person who walked with us and was thirsty and hungry and tired just like us. And if scripture is to believed, God is still one of us—it boggles the mind to try to grasp what that means. So, I will continue to reach out to God in the humble hope that Emmanuel, God With Us, will honor the dearest desire of my heart, and answer.