Great, so things were shifting. Congratulations, Josh, that’s called growth, and it happens to everyone.
Except that it doesn’t, at least not in this way.
One realization I’ve come to through this process is there are many (maybe even most) people in this world for whom the larger structure they were handed at birth essentially remains the same till death. This isn’t to say they don’t mature, but that the basic foundations don’t shift substantially. And this is fine, even necessary for society. However, once I saw these seismic shifts weren’t the norm, I then had to accept I was neither special nor enlightened, because after the initial terror of loneliness subsides, the next stage seems to be arrogance.
For me, it began intellectually: I began thinking differently, breaking and rebuilding my heart’s highways one small question at a time. I did not feel the need to tear it all down, but was also beyond tacit acceptance. Slowly, piece by piece, I inspected the building blocks of my worldview and either replaced or returned each, trying to balance on the tip of grace between between isolation and conceit1
But what exactly changed? In conversations with others who have gone through this process of reframing faith, that is to me the key question.
Did they simply begin doubting beliefs previously held with certainty, declaring, “I don’t (or I can’t) believe it!” and walking away?
Or a traumatic or mystical experience that shook the very foundations of reality?
Was it simply a question where before none existed? Did they read a book or hear a sermon or have a conversation in which another person hammered holes into their faith walls, opening entire horizons of alternative views where once was only solid, unquestioned belief? And (I always want to know) did that frighten or excite them? Was the light streaming in through the wreckage invigorating or did it leave them terrifyingly exposed?
Perhaps it was a change in other areas. Did they travel or meet people who lived and thought differently; whose experiences led them to opposite conclusions, so that once cut-and-dried issues now had the nuance of relationship? Did they begin to see issues as the people living real lives behind the news stories?
Usually, it’s a combination of all these things, the sum of which can drive a person toward radical shifts not only in the arrangement of their mental furniture (i.e. beliefs), but more importantly, in the way their beliefs are held.
These forces not only change the what of our beliefs, but the how.
And make no mistake, though being able to call oneself an orthodox “Christian” certainly involves specific items of intellectual assent (cf. the ecumenical creeds), Jesus overwhelmingly weighted his ministry toward how people held their beliefs in the world.2
But then again, maybe I believe that about Jesus because that’s where I’ve come down personally. It’s difficult – impossible, even – not to make our gods self-referential.
My own journey has comprised many of the above: from pure doubt and unforeseen questions, to exposure to those who were not “male, middle class, and white,” experiences ultimately leading to rifts between myself and many with whom I had once intuitively shared so much. As some US immigrants share the shift in their thoughts and even dreams from the their native tongue to English, my language and thought patterns changed. As I spoke with family, old schoolmates, and church friends (and 90% of midwesterners), I felt the increasing divergence.
To them I was asking questions that appeared nonsensical; making connections that were virtual non sequiturs to their worldviews. It often felt as though I were asking them to explain the color Pitbull or to provide mathematical proofs for the ethics of rocks.
Yet I could not stop the questions – nor the answers to which they led. Just as a highway crew must immediately turn and repave the road they’ve broken, I had to pursue each question to the bitter end. It felt more and more like the opening scene from my childhood favorite, The Land Before Time, when the “earth shake” separated Littlefoot from his family, inciting his dangerous pilgrimage to the Great Valley.3 As if my growing love for liturgy wasn’t enough to divide us, the aforementioned “mental furniture” was continually moving around the room, like a confused internal decorator just discovering feng shui. Whether discussing theological issues such as biblical inspiration and atonement theory, scientific topics like evolution and climate change, or changing social norms surrounding racism, patriarchy, and homosexuality, I became increasingly separated from the spiritual and social circles I had always known.
The changes were unmistakable and irreversible. So I embraced them. I began to find joy in the rumble of the ground moving beneath my feet and the noise of the road work in my heart – and prayed I could present these changes with grace, avoiding both arrogance and isolation. Whether people decided to accept the new person they saw on the other side of the gorge was yet to be seen.
1. I imagine the slow, piecemeal nature of this process contributed to the frustration of those who encountered me later. It happened so quietly that when I resurfaced with a host of new views, they were at a loss.↩
2. Not to mention “belief” as we understand it today is a far cry from what Jesus was likely referencing or asking for from His disciples.↩
3. I of course and speaking of part one – I refuse to acknowledge the other twenty. Also, I know that was shoehorned, but I had to put it in.↩