A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post describing what I was feeling in the months after graduating from Seminary. I remember exactly how I felt when I wrote that post. I remember feeling as if I was convincing myself that my life was headed in the right direction. Reading it now, I can hardly believe it was me that wrote those words. I am a completely different person writing this piece today than I was back then.
Often times, when I describe my life after graduation to other people, I hear this phrase, “It sounds like you are on quite a journey.” I feel bad saying this, but it makes me uncomfortable calling what I have experienced over the past year a “journey.”
Is deconstructing your faith a “journey”?
In my opinion, the answer is no.
I have recently finished Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Fr. Richard Rohr. For where I am in life right now, this book brought much comfort through teaching me language and helping me name some of what I am feeling and experiencing with my faith. I have radically changed how I act out my faith and what I believe. I used to feel ashamed of how I have changed. I was ashamed because I had left behind a theology that was abusive yet was still being practiced by many of my good friends and family members. If I did not participate in their theology with them, could we still remain in each other lives? Sometimes the risk of losing a person and being isolated was enough to make me compromise myself to the point I would become even more ashamed of my actions. This pattern of negative thinking had to stop. I knew it was time to make a significant change in my life. I began to question everything I had set my life up on, mainly my faith and belief in God. This was the significant change my life needed; I had never doubted before. I have shared that my faith has been tied up in much of my identity for most of my life. The grip was beginning to loosen and after reading Rohr, I felt empowered to feel free in my unknowing. This idea was the thesis of Falling Upward. Once we have relinquished control over the outcome of our lives, we can truly begin to live and feel free during it. The idea that I am moving in a direction with no guaranteed outcome (except maybe more uncertainty) is actually the most liberated I have ever felt.
I have given up control, and it feels so freeing.
I have picked up a new book, Insurrection, by my friend Peter Rollins. For me, it appears that this new conversation has continued where Rohr has left off. While I am happy to know that I can find peace in the unknown and liberation in “falling,” I still feel incomplete in naming my experience. I don’t want to call it a “journey”, but I need to name it something. This is the life of a Post-Modern thinker. Before the Enlightenment period, human beings were perfectly content going through life thinking they had little or no control over anything that happened to them. It was the Gods (or God) that controlled things and humans were simply lucky enough to be along for the ride. This idea of a “Cosmic Snowglobe” where everything is predictable does not sound the like something designed by a Creator God, an entity that brought to life the most beautiful and complex creatures ever imaginable. Things are not so simple now. We have discovered (or at least we think we have) the ability to rationalize and therefore begin to think for ourselves. This has been the greatest fear of organized religion since it’s genesis. If humans can rationalize for themselves, what use is there for a God?
Let me stop for a moment. I want to remind the readers, and even myself, that I have dedicated most of my life to serving God. For me to say so casually, “What use is there for a God?” shows that there has been a significant change in how I experience and interpret my faith. What I want to emphasize is that it is perfectly okay for me to put my faith through this kind of test because if my faith really means anything to me, it will still be there when all is said and done. I have begun submitting my beliefs to this type of scrutiny because I am desperate to know if I am able to find any truth behind what I have been taught. If the words in the Bible really are divine, then they should be able to withstand a little heat. (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego anyone?) Taking this idea a little further, if God is all that God promises to be than God can handle a little bit of questioning.
In chapter 2 of Insurrection, Rollins asserts the idea that most Christians are misrepresenting a very important aspect of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the moments leading up to his death, Jesus asks God (questions, doubts) if it truly is God’s will that this event takes place. In his dying breaths from the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
Haven’t we all cried these words?
Rollins identifies that when Christians stop looking to the death of Christ as an event to observe, rather as an event to participate in, we can then truly begin to experience a new reality, one with more freedom and less anxiety. “The moment we feel the loss of all that once gave us meaning is not a time in which we are set free from Christ, nor is it a moment where we fall short of Christ. It is the time when we stand side by side with Christ. To believe in the Crucification means nothing less than participating in it.” How do we begin to do this? Start by looking back at your own life and look directly into the moments you have been avoiding. Only when we begin to acknowledge our hurts are we able to process and heal from them. This is no way meant to be an easy task. And you very well may need to seek some help in figuring out how to get yourself into a space where you can begin to process your feelings. Until you take a peek into the darkest corners of your life, you will never truly know your full self. Grab a flashlight, you’re going to need it.
In my latest blog post, I shared about a few traumatic events from my childhood that planted some deep seeded feelings of unworthiness, shame and fear early on in my psyche. In a way, I feel comfortable naming these events a “death.” I call them “deaths” because, in my experience, I remember feeling, in the moments after experiencing the trauma, a feeling of nothing. It was beyond feeling numb, it felt closer to feeling like being awake during a surgery. I saw this terrifying movie called, Awake, that is about a patient that is under anesthesia, but it still conscious of what is happening throughout the surgical procedure. The idea alone makes me never want to enter a hospital again. But as I reflect back on how I felt during these times, this is the most accurate way I can describe the pain I was feeling. I was aware that some significant hurts were taking place, and I knew those hurts needed to happen to allow me to heal. I was avoiding the pain of enduring these hurts, and in doing so, was becoming a version of myself that I did not like.
These events could also be described as individual “deaths” in my life, times where I had to re-build a new version of myself, a version that was able to overcome the trauma that I had just encountered. When I think back on the time shortly after enduring a traumatic event, I would revert inward. This was unnatural for me and made the situation even more uncomfortable. Eventually, my behavior shifted so severely that I began to act in inappropriate ways and in very serious situations. I remember being in the hospital, the night my Grandfather (Bumpa, we called him) died and was making jokes trying to ease the tension in the room. I did the same during my other Grandfather’s viewing, this time on my Dad’s side of the family. This kind of behavior continued well into the later years of my life. I continued to mask myself with new personalities and in this action, I became further and further detached from myself. And to make matters worse, I was trying to make sense of all of the tragedies in my life in relation to my faith. My reality was becoming so dark that I needed to find an explanation for why I was having to endure so much pain and unhappiness. My theology told me to put it on to God. So I did.
I now realize that the theology I was brought up in had sold me a very big lie. I was taught throughout my formative years that God would “never leave me.” While I believe this to be true, to a certain extent, I now believe there absolutely have been times where God has “left me.” When you hear this you might think, “No way, God’s presence is everywhere.” I would agree with you, again to an extent.
Many Christians look to the life of Jesus as an “ideal way” to try and live out and interact with the world around them. Many look to his miracles and teachings, but what about his struggles? When most folks in the church talk about any struggle Jesus’ overcame, it is partially assumed to be easy because he was “divine.” Regarding these struggles as easy can certainly take away from the full picture of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. I can think of at least three times in Jesus’ life that God “left” him. Here is my point, because we are given the gift of free will, God is going to “leave” all of us at some point. We cannot have free will and a deity that interjects every time something is about to go wrong. So, by this logic alone, God is going to leave you, in that he is leaving you to make your own decision, for your own life. He is going to leave you to encourage you to “lean on your own understanding.” This has been my “life’s verse” and I never understood it until now.
God is not asking me to trust Him at all cost, he is asking me to trust myself, which in turn gives God the confidence to trust me with my life. My life is God’s greatest gift to me. I owe it to God, and to myself, to push against even my most valued and cared for beliefs. Its like I said before, on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” God has given you permission to ask the same. But to do so means you are acknowledging that his presence has been removed, temporarily. That is a hard idea for some people to become comfortable with. But you have to know, in removing his presence, you have been given the gift God has been wanting to give you, he has given you your life.
I am thankful for both of these books because they have each taught me some valuable lessons. Rohr’s work has reminded me that my life and my faith will be something that I experience. Life has highs and lows, the lows come so you learn to better appreciate the highs. I have also become more comfortable with change. I have stepped into a “second half of life” and that is not something to be ashamed or afraid of. It is a source of strength and pride; something I should value and continue to learn from. I have also learned to embrace the moments where God is letting me live. These are the moments where I doubt, where I push back, and where I challenge. My faith has become an actual relationship and that is something that takes work. How do you learn how to do the work? I have found reading to be very helpful. Both of these books are by very different authors, I have also found reading diverse voices to be helpful during this time in my life.
I have only read four chapters of Insurrection but this is my synopsis so far: Set fire to everything you know, stay warm while it burns and start putting it back together when it’s all over. It’s that simple. Certainty is a thing of the past. Doubt is the future. Doubt is the freedom you experience when you throw out all that you have held onto and are finally comfortable being on your own, in your own skin, with your own thoughts. Jesus challenged everything that made sense to most people in his time on earth. Eventually, it cost him his life. But I have to ask myself the question, “Had Jesus not given up his life, would he really have been satisfied?” Even though Jesus questioned his own destiny, he was willing to walk the path necessary to “gain eternal life.” We have been given the same opportunity. How will you choose to decide?
I will end with one of my favorite stories, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Most people familiar with the story know this is a tale about a young boy, from humble parents, and his Grandfather who are given the opportunity to tour the town’s illustrious chocolate factory. During the visit, each person is given a new “secret candy” that is set to be released very soon. This candy is not like any other candy because this candy will last forever. This means a child that does not have much, like Charlie, only needs to buy one piece of candy for the rest of his life. In a way, he has been given a gift he can use forever, and this gift is very valuable because it is made of secret ingredients. You could say that with this gift, Charlie has been given access to an exclusive club. He now belongs, and as a kid who grew up on the outside, belonging meant friendships and new experiences. With this gift comes great responsibility and Charlie is tempted many times to use his gift for evil, instead of good. In his final test, Charlie acts in a manner that is counter-cultural to how many people behave when they have been given a special gift. He gives the gift back.
In giving this gift back, Charlie does two things. One, he removes the unnecessary responsibility off of himself for keeping this secret candy all to himself. If he cannot share it with others, he does not want it. And second, in giving back his gift, he gains a life that he could never imagine. I feel this story has a lot of parallels to how modern day Christianity is practiced. In church, we give people responsibilities they are not ready to have. In church, we allow language and practices that are exclusive and don’t allow all people to participate equally. In church, we hide, conceal and divert attention away from what truly matters to most of us, one another. I identify with Charlie. I am giving back my “Everlasting Gobstopper.” I am trading a life of certainty in for a life of unpredictability. After all, if I cannot experience life, then have I really lived at all?
If deconstruction is not a “journey” than what is it? I don’t know. I am unable to name it, I have not lived or experienced enough. What I do know is, the moment I think I have it all figured out, I am no back at the start. You see, a journey has an ending, it has paths and it has a direction. I have none of those things. But what I do have, is my intuition, my sense of self, and my life. I may have lost a lot along the way, but just look at all that I have gained.