Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Rest of the Story...

It has been a little while since I last posted. I've been doing well, but busy. I'm still not entirely sure how school will impact this blog, but I think it's safe to say that I won't be posting quite as much as I have been.

I must confess that I have been tempted to swallow my pride and post the second half of of The Death of Faith, in part because some of you have kindly requested it, and in part because I don't like leaving a story hanging without an ending.

But that story has no ending. Yes, I wrote a couple more pages, and even had to read those pages aloud to some of my fellow students. But those additional pages in no way constitute an ending. My faith journey is far from over.

I am still thoroughly disappointed with the writing of the second half of that piece, but I have finally decided - with the help of some students who found it helpful in processing the narratives of their own lives - to post the rest of what I've written here. Much of it will not be new to those of you who've been visiting here a while.

Here it is, such as it is:

Raging teenage hormones led me back to church. When I was in eighth grade I ran into a girl from the church that I attended every time my mother made me go. I was just starting to really notice girls, and here was a girl worth noticing. She expressed some interest in me, which of course I misidentified, and before I knew it I was in church every Sunday, hoping that she might notice me again.

Over the next year I pursued the affections of this girl, inadvertently absorbing the teachings of that church along the way. The girl never returned by adolescent longing for her, but while I chased her, a longing of a much different sort surfaced.

Just before I turned fifteen, I had a religious experience that still defies description. I could say that I saw the sky open up, but the word “saw” would be misleading, since my eyes never perceived any visible phenomena. I could say that I heard the voice of God, but again, “heard” implies something that did not happen, as no vibrations resonated in my ear, to be transformed into sounds. This experience was ineffable, and every time I’ve tried to describe it, I have always felt, upon seeing or hearing the words I’ve chosen for it, that the language never quite gets the experience right.

I can’t say what happened. I can’t neatly weave that experience into a narrative. In fact, if I am honest, I must admit that I don’t know what happened. But I do know how it impacted my life. For the first time since my grandfather’s death, I felt the presence of God. In that moment God became for me an experiential reality, and my life had to adjust to incorporate that new reality. For the first time since my grandfather’s death, I no longer felt alone, adrift in the universe. My life no longer felt like an exercise in futility, a cosmic experiment somehow gone awry. I found myself, and I found myself in relation to the divine.

I first understood that experience in evangelical terms. In that moment God “saved” me, though I couldn’t say exactly what I had been saved from. In any event, in that moment I felt not only “saved” but “called.” In fact, as I came to understand it, that sense of calling was my salvation, for more than anything else I was saved from meaninglessness. So, understanding myself as someone who had been called by God to a particular mission and for a particular purpose, I began to identify myself as someone with a “vocation for ministry.” I didn’t use those words then, of course. Instead I would say things like, “I think God wants me to be a preacher,” or “I feel God calling me to be an evangelist,” or, “When I group up I want to be a Youth Minister.” Behind those words was a deep desire to both make sense of my relationship with God, and in doing so to somehow make myself useful.

I eventually pursued a career in professional ministry, first as a Youth Minister, working with urban teenagers, and then later as the pastor of my own, small, rural church. It was my job as a pastor that killed any sense of calling that still remained in me.

In June of 2005 I was appointed by the Kentucky Conference of the United Methodist Church to serve as a “supply pastor” to a rural congregation, while going through the United Methodist Candidacy Studies Program and pursuing my theological education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. When I first visited my new appointment I thought that it might be a strange fit: me, a “hyper-educated,” city dwelling “liberal,” trying to meet the spiritual needs of fundamentalist farmers and their families. But I was so in love with the idea of being a pastor that I quickly swept all concerns from my mind. Focus on doing your job, I told myself, and everything else will take care of itself.

To put it bluntly, it didn’t. Quite literally, a hurricane rained on my parade. When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans, my congregation quickly proclaimed it to be evidence of God’s wrath against all of the sinners down there, Sodom and Gomorrah revisited. So, ignorant of the central role that their theology of the wrath of God played in that congregation, and drunk on my own rhetorical powers of persuasion, I preached a polemical sermon against that theology of a wrathful God. I was quickly and rudely forced out of the church.

In the process of losing my job, I also lost my vocation, and nearly my faith. Since I was a teenager, I identified myself as one called by God to a particular vocation. Who was I, if not a preacher pursuing ordination? That question cast doubt upon the very shape and structure of my life. And, in answering it, I had to open up many questions that I had long since closed up, lest doubt destroy the fabric of my faith.

As I preacher I often preached on faith, saying that faith is not merely believing certain falsifiable propositions, but believing in and especially radically trusting God. To believe in God is not to believe that a God of a certain description exists. Rather, it is to acknowledge that one is radically dependent on God, found in the context of a relationship with God, and to trust God completely. When I left pastoral ministry, I had to explore that concept of faith much, much more deeply.

With my livelihood no longer dependant on my ability to articulate certain “Christian truths,” I reexamined my whole belief system, opening everything up. I gave myself permission to doubt everything that I had ever believed. I poured over volumes of church history and theology, trying to see if I could identify a single “essence” to Christianity, to accept or reject. But what I found is that the Christian faith – despite the constant cries for a single orthodoxy – has always been a pluriform faith. And I found that I could not really say that I knew anything at all concerning the nature of God. But instead of driving me away from faith, this time of doubt drove me toward faith. In giving myself permission to question core doctrines, I came to realize that it is not the propositional content of faith that matters, but rather the experience of God that all metaphorical religious language points to.

In short, in doubt, I reclaimed my faith, by focusing again on my experience of God instead of my beliefs about God. As such, my faith could distance itself both from questions of belief and even from negative circumstances in my life. I was able to focus on how much I depended on my relationship with God to get me through trying times. Times like the death of my grandfather, and the death of my dreams of ordination. And, in those deaths I found a resurrection.

6 comments:

mrieder said...

Hey sandalstraps,

I do not think you should be ashamed of the "rest of the story". It may not be revolutionary, but it rings true, and you do have a gift for the turn of phrase, which helps.

Recently I have read Francis Schaeffer. He writes well and appears to have thought through a good many things. One of the central foundations to his reasoning is based on the concept of a propositional revelation made by God to men in the form of the Bible.

This is a double-edged sword. It is great and quite a relief if the propositional revelation is coherent, cohesive, and rational; but a bane of faith if the propositional revelation is found to be inconsistent with morality and reality.

I am currently in the midst of re-interpreting the Bible and God in general. I have reluctantly left my comfortable fundamentalist castle of infallibility and ventured into the world of exploring new ideas. I have found that a fundamental reading of the Bible leads to many odd conclusions and difficult literary confabulations to reconcile textual accounts. My understanding of the Old Testament is quite liberal. I am not sure how this can be reconciled to the life of Jesus as Jesus frequently referenced the Old Testament. I have not had time to satisfactorily examine the matter. Perhaps you could comment?

Thanks,

Matt

Sandalstraps said...

Matt,

Thank you for your kind words.

I started reading Francis Schaeffer's work in my late teens, and poured through such works as Escape From Reason, The God Who is There, He is There and He is Not Silent, True Spirituality, Genesis, and The Church Before the Watching World.

I got into Schaeffer on the heels of C.S. Lewis, who taught me to think through my faith rationally. [Interesting side note: noticing the connection between Lewis and Schaeffer, Scot R. Burson and Jerry L. Walls of Asbury Theological Seminary wrotean interesting book, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time, which was released on InterVarsity Press in 1998. If that's your thing, you really should look for the book.]

While I was once an avid reader or modern apologists like Lewis and Schaeffer, as I grew both spiritually and intellectually I recognized the extent to which both of them are prisoners of modernism. They present us with compelling proofs for the existence of God, and the existence of a God of a particular description, but there are even more compelling rebuttals to most of their best arguments.

I am - as you might guess - especially suspicious of Schaeffer's concept of propositional revelation. I have written my objections to such a concept in several places at this blog, and am not entirely sure that a can condense them into a coherant comment. The short, short version of my argument against propositional revelation is that it does not satisfactorally account for the plurality of religious expressions. It also, I think, misreads the nature of Biblical language.

Almost everywhere that it is supposed by people like Schaeffer that God reveals God's self through propositional language in the Bible, such language is better read metaphorically. Such language is best read as a fumbling way to try to communicate a profound experience of God's presense.

Schaeffer is held captive to a radical form of Biblical literalism, a mode of reading scripture which fails to account for the context-dependant nature of all texts. That is, to understand a text you have to understand it in its myriad of contexts. These contexts include a historical context, a cultural context, a lingustic context, a textual context, etc. To understand a text, in other words, you have to understand a least a little bit about the thought-world and culture that gave rise to that text, and you have to have at least a basic understanding of the language the text was written in. You also have to understand the literary genre of that text.

Schaffer and others like him impose their beliefs about the Biblical text onto the Biblical text prior to reading said text, and as such read their belief system into the text. This generates a rigid, dogmatic reading of the text which has no direct relationship to the text itself.

One thing that Schaeffer does very well - and this is rare for Christians - is he attempts to read the whole Bible, and not just the last part of it. However, he views the entire Biblical text through a particular - and particularly narrow - theological lens. That he views it through a lens is not unique to him. Each of us view whatever we are looking at through the lens of our deepest assumptions and most basic beliefs. But Schaeffer, like so many in his day, is blind to his own lens, and so sees his version of Christianity as the version of Christianity, and his interpretation of scripture as the interpretation of scripture.

If you want to understand how I approach my own Christian faith, and how I read the Bible, there are plenty of posts here that you should find helpful. Look at the sidebar and see which subjects and titles relate to your own quest. If you want a reading list of books to help you see Jesus and the scriptures in a new light, I highly recommend that you start with a short and easy to read book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg. As for how to read what we Christians patronizingly call the Old Testament, there are many excellent books of various degrees of acadmic depth. If you can find it in a library, I highly recommend trying to read Making Wise the Simple by Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos. It is a long a difficult read, but no less so than some of Schaeffer.

There are thousands of other books worth reading, and of course you can't read every such book in a single lifetime. As such, while you should nurture your curiosity and not pre-censor books in your mind, you should also try to avoid wasting you precious time. In my mind - despite the depths of his creativity and intellectual rigor - reading too much Francis Schaeffer is a waste of time. He is simply too captive to a paradigm that is being discarded because it no longer answers our deepest questions.

mrieder said...

Hi Sandalstraps,

I thank you for your consideration. I will endeavor to read Making Wise the Simple by Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos if for no other reason than the authors imposing name. Imagine what she went through in first grade when it was time to learn to write one's name! No wonder she went on to write books, she had to write one every time she signed her name!

Have a nice!

Matt

Sandalstraps said...

Matt,

Johanna is Dutch, so her name - which didn't add the "Bos" until she got married - was less daunting to her as a child. Though I daresay that it must have started to seem a bit unwieldy when she moved to the States!

Full disclosure: She is one of the top Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible, but she is also my seminary advisor. So I'm a bit biased when I recommend her work. That said, I stand by my recommendation. While I am more of a student of theology than scripture - which is not to say that theology overlooks scripture - I have never encountered such a loving and profound treatment of the Torah for a Christian audience.

mrieder said...

Sandalstraps,

I fear that I have overstepped the boundaries of civility in my penchant for jest. My apologies to you and anyone else who read my post.

Matt

Sandalstraps said...

Matt,

Thank you for your apology, though I must confess that I wasn't offended. Your comment was taken for what it was.