I love watching documentaries; I am fascinated by them. Like all movie genres, there are a million documentaries available ranging from awe-inspiring to “Awe crap, that was a waste of time.” Recently, I watched a documentary that, I feel, fits into the former. The film was called, Jane, and it follows the early work of Jane Goodall as she embarks on the first-ever observation of chimpanzees in their natural habitat. The documentary reveals over 100 hours of unseen footage as Ms. Goodall and her camera crew take all of mankind into a space occupied by what is accepted as our closest DNA relatives, the chimps.
One of my favorite aspects of this film is watching the chimps interact with one another in a community. These mammals are not in a zoo nor have they been raised in captivity. Everything Ms. Goodall observes is accurate how the chimps behave in everyday life. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, the chimps’ behavior is so closely reflective to how humans interact with one another while living in community together. They groom one another, they feed the young together, they offer protection and resources. The community is very tightly knit. Because community is something that means so much to me, the documentary drew me to reflect on the communities I have been a part of, mainly those of faith.
In my previous two blog posts, I have shared a bit more about my experience with faith and how I have been processing/deconstructing after graduating from seminary. Much of my experience has been leaving behind any certainty I held onto, exchanging it for the desire to seek more of what I don’t know about my faith. This post, I feel, works as an unexpected conclusion to my previous two posts. I did not know it at the time, but Jane was a helpful piece to my complex “faith puzzle”.
Much of my “faith puzzle” has included doubt and questioning much of the religious dogma I was given as a young man. I have also been given the freedom to find spirituality and the presence of God in the most unique and unexpected ways. Jane is one in a long list of unexpected insights into the divine and humanity.
Ms. Goodall’s observation of chimps in their natural habitat gave me insight into how humans, in our most primitive manner, act and react in certain situations. Specifically, I am referring to the in the instances where the chimps experienced disagreement within their community. There are two scenes in the films that, I feel, greatly illustrate the fate of Christian Communities, if the church does not become a safe place for folks to bring their doubt and questions.
For part of the film, Jane observes a mother chimp and her son. I don’t recall exactly how long Ms. Goodall followed this pair, but it was long enough for her and her crew to gather some rather interesting information about the interworking of their relationship. The unique aspect of these two chimps was that they were always together. While this may not seem terribly uncommon, the exact amount of time these two spent with one another was far greater than any other pair of chimps in the community. What we see in the film is the young male never gains the courage to leave his mother’s side. When most of the other chimps his age are swinging from trees and learning to become self-reliant, this chimp was still clinging onto his mother.
She allowed this for as long as she could, but the chimp began to be too heavy for her to support. When she could no longer meet his every need, the son would become violent and aggressive, throwing things in her direction and slapping her with his hands. Eventually, the sad day came, when the mother was too old to go on, and died quietly in the night. The son was beside himself. The only source of life he had ever known, was dead. Even worse, this chimp never learned how to fend for himself. And because of this, a few weeks later, he was also dead.
The next story is not much better. This one is connected to the mother chimp’s death I just shared. She was an elder chimp in the community. Her death sent a shock through the community that caused a division between them a division could not be repaired. Because of this, part of the chimp community moved to the Southern part of the reserve, while the other’s remained in the Northern part. A few days past and the crew and Ms. Goodall arrived on a horrific scene. Overnight, the chimps from the North attacked and killed all of the chimps that had moved to the South.
So how does this tie into faith communities or my experience with faith?
As for my experience with my faith, I would say that, at times in my life, I have treated my faith in the same manner as the young chimp treated his mother. My growth became stunted. I no longer wanted to learn, grow or become “my own man.” The theology I was brought up in led me to believe I would be given the answers I was seeking through faith and faith alone. This prescription never felt right to me. Jesus lived his life by faith, but it was also by action. Is not the model we are meant to follow? The Apostle Paul and many others would argue that we have been saved by faith and faith alone, I disagree. I feel there is more to life than simply adhering to a set of guidelines, as best as you can, until the day you die. In no way do I see that as living one’s life from abundance. The book of James is contradictory to Paul, alluding that what we do with our lives it just as important as the faith that we practice. And for me, this means that my faith alone is not enough to sit back and be secure in how I live my life. I need to ensure I am helping others find the same peace that I feel in my heart. This is how I choose to practice and live my faith. And it takes courage.
When we reach a certain point in our development, we need to make a conscious choice to move forward. I am thankful for the work of Fr. Richard Rohr on this topic. Moving into a new phase of life is never easy. It can require some loss and tension within yourself. Neglecting the path to self-realization, for me, is the same a losing your life. I have felt reborn on my path to better self-realization after deconstructing my faith. But it was not easy. I had to wrestle with some things that I held very close to my heart. In a way, I became the opposite of the young chimp. And in doing so, I was relieved of the anger and frustration he exhibited as he resisted growing up and moving on from his mother.
I feel like I could have ended up like the young chimp, had I not gone down the path of deconstructing my faith. I was ready to burn my faith to the ground, but was I going to put into its place? I realize now that I was only looking at half of the deconstruction process. The other half is reassembling some sort of moral compass that allows me to think about life outside of my own perspective. Some folks call this “Spiritual Maturation.” I call it experiencing faith in abundance.
As for the second illustration, I believe that if Christian Communities continue to ignore basic conflict resolution within themselves, they too will ultimately die out leaving only the folks bickering left to sort it out amongst themselves. The more we continue to hold on to our individual religious dogma, the less likely we are going to ever be able to see outside of our own perspective. Much of the religious dogma I am pushing up against the idea that doubt and questioning faith ultimately leads a person to a life of Atheism or Agnosticism. What if the opposite were true? What if taking time to ask questions about our theology or religion could help one better understand the intentionality behind their life of purpose? This I credit again to the work of Peter Rollins. I encourage you to read more about Pyrotheology and to look into his courses that immerse you into a safe space for questions.
All of the Christian communities I have participated in, and have left, are still thriving. My absence has not changed the makeup of the communities for the better or the worse. But I know for a fact, that I am worse off having left each of these individual communities. This is what I am trying to protect others from experiencing. I was not mature enough at the time to know what I was experiencing in my faith. I lead with my emotion, as I tend to do, and that was the wrong way for me to approach where I was going in my faith experience, specifically into deconstruction. For me, deconstruction was a necessary step in helping me feel alive in my faith again. That is what I ultimately wanted, I wanted to feel alive and I wanted to feel God’s presence somewhere as I went about living. I am closer to that sense of peace.
Watching Jane, I felt God’s presence. I watched the chimp community, I listened to what was said about our brains and genetic make-ups, and in all of this, I felt God with me. I feel God often when I am challenged or am listening quietly in a safe space. I may have burned much of my faith, but not all of it. I am still confident there is a God that loves all creations, myself included. But my interest now is holding a safe space for those who are like me and are wrestling with doubt and questions. So that is what I intend to do. I have declared I have the courage to keep questioning. I encourage you to do the same when the time is right for you.
Some final thoughts; If you are a leader of a faith community, and you encounter members of your community wrestling with doubt, encourage them. Try not to shame them or make them feel bad for what they are experiencing. Their doubt is not a reflection on you or your teachings or leadership. It may be difficult to not take their questions personally, but remember that your role as Pastor/Reverend/Father etc. is to hold a safe space for your congregants to encounter the divine. It is not your/our place to judge how folks approach their personal time with God. Take time to listen, take time to learn, and take time to build and do community with this person. My guess is they need you more now than they ever have before.
If you are a member of a faith community and you’re are experiencing doubt or are questioning aspects of your faith, hang in there. If I had to guess, you are not the only person in your congregation that feels this way. It may be scary at first to seek out others that feel like you but that will go away after a while. If this sounds a bit like you or your experience, I encourage you to pick up one of the books I have listed below and read it. Then, if you are feeling brave, start a book club or group and read the book together. Doing this, you can have regular dialogue with folks that you trust and can maybe start to feel like a participating member of your community again.
The point I want to leave with is I do not wish to see church communities dwindle because they are ill-equipped to serve folks experiencing deconstruction. If church culture does not shift to include those that are seeking to doubt/question/burn down their faith, I do not see Shalom occurring. Church culture needs to make a shift, creating a safe space for deconstruction to occur. If this happens, as a whole, the culture will include more aspects of Shalom, moving humanity one step closer to experiencing the gentle, peaceful will of God.