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.
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