My spiritual journey may be as much about what I’ve discovered and cultivated as it is about what I’ve left behind.
I’m presently facilitating a Quaker discussion group for those in my congregation who are relatively new and are seeking a richer understanding of the Quaker tradition. We’ve begun by sharing our own stories: how we ended up at Camas Friends Church, including all the people, forces, and experiences that facilitated our spiritual journey to this point.
Two common themes in these stories were disillusionment and deconstruction: the experience of becoming increasingly troubled by elements of our religious pasts; and the dismantling of once-taken-for-granted truths that no longer seem to “work.”
And, at the risk of forcing a narrative on the participants, I feel like I observed a common movement toward Love in these stories. Like the discovery of a kernel beneath layers of religious baggage or a light at the end of a traumatic tunnel. A kernel worth retaining and a light worth magnifying, despite the reasonable option of leaving religion behind altogether.
This is not a celebration of my meeting (local church). I am proud of my congregation. But Camas Friends Church is a human organization made up of good but flawed people, a family writ large and thus carrying with it all the frustrating yet laughable dynamics one might expect to find in a community trying to be something like a functional family. Nevertheless, there is something compelling these people experience at Camas Friends Church, either because it is really happening (I assume this) or because we desperately want to believe it is happening (I’ll concede the possibility of this).
I certainly feel that many layers have been stripped away in my own spirituality. Things that once felt important to me that no longer do. Things I’ve set aside. Things I no longer need.
I no longer need to defend my faith. For a season of my life in high school, you would think that the most important part of spiritual formation was battle-preparation. The world was out to corrupt or eliminate Christians like me, so I’d better be able to stand my ground and speak compelling about the merits of my faith.
Actually, it wasn’t entirely about battle but strategy: I had to know how to expose the “farce” of evolution so as to convince my friends of creationism, or prove—yes prove—that Jesus was a God-man, like a lawyer before a jury. Defense was not only about maintaining religious faith but winning others over. Which is fine, to a degree; if you believe you have something important, even crucial, you want others to experience it!
In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time defending people than my faith. I feel a bit embarrassed in the wake of Parkland when I think that taking a stand for what I believed in as a teenager didn’t mean speaking out against gun violence but praying around the flagpole. I wasn’t ashamed of my faith. I guess I wasn’t ashamed of gun violence either.
Also, there are people in other parts of the world whose lives are genuinely under attack because of their faith. Not so much in the U.S., I don’t think. Our hysteria is mostly unwarranted. I no longer believe my faith is under attack. Not from science. Not from secularism. Not from Muslims. Not from declining cultural morals. Actually, my concern is that we, as Christians, are on the verge of hitting the self-destruct button. We don’t need the help of manufactured enemies!
If Christianity, in some form, needs to go away, maybe that’s fine. But if the way of Jesus—his moral and social vision, his practical love, his character, the transformative nature of living out his teachings and imitating his compassionate action—if these things are lost, then I think we are doomed.
Perhaps, in reality, learning to defend my faith was more about convincing myself. It was for me, not others. I just wonder if all that energy put into defense led me to miss the point—or the call—of what I was defending.
I don’t need to save your soul. When I was in my early twenties, I wrote a letter to someone I cared very much about, telling him I loved him but was concerned about his salvation. His unbelief would surely doom him to hell! I told him I wanted to see him in heaven, not hell. Obviously! Unless there’s something productive about spending time in hell, who’d want anyone they care about to go there?
Before justifiably calling me “the worst” for writing such a letter, do understand the sincerity with which I believed everything was at stake. “We”—former me and like-minded Christians—really believe a large percentage of the world’s population is eternally damned for their wrong beliefs. And we think that God is genuinely bummed about this, even though God’s hands are tied (except in some more deterministic theologies in which God sends people to hell because it makes God feel like a man with big manly muscles or something akin to that).
One thing that bothers me, in retrospect, is how little I seemed to really believe it. It was like a script I rehearsed but rarely if ever performed. I prayed for the “lost” and asked God to use me to save them. But then I just sort of got on living my life, doing my homework, going for a jog, drinking Hefeweizen, playing Super Nintendo, and harming others with the same, unaddressed character flaws. I was a bad Christian, unwilling to really help the damned. Or, maybe, I just knew in my heart that it wasn’t true.
I don’t believe my friend is going to hell, anymore. If he is, then I’ll see him there. I’ll bring dessert.
I don’t need to sing “Famous One” ever again. I used to really enjoy “leading worship”: being the front person in church-y bands, doing my best to recreate the newest Chris Tomlin song, asking my electric guitarist to do the guitar part “just like on the album,” and creating emotional experiences for people with my B-minus singing voice by playing familiar songs that would lead them to emotional-spiritual bliss.
I believe God is present where Love is present. When I experience the presence of God, it is because I am experiencing Love in some form. Music is powerful and, if music can direct me toward Love in some way, either through its lyrical message, its beauty, the sincerity of the musicians, or through the connective experience of singing with others, I appreciate its function in spirituality.
But I am now a little troubled when someone leaves a religious gathering and says “I really felt God today” because the music was particularly (or accidentally) pretty to them or because they experienced a kind of crowd euphoria bordering on mob mentality—the emotional rush of being excited about the same thing with a large number of people. I fear such spirituality can too easily become a flimsy, strung-together collection of emotional highs rather than something subtle, steady, and ever-growing.
For that matter, I kind of think God is over worship, at least as I experienced it. God gets it—we’re thankful, God’s holy, we suck, God’s great, and so on. I believe worship should orient us toward what matters most, cultivate attentiveness and compassion, and help us transcend our egos and personal concerns, binding us to something greater and larger. Does singing about God’s love lead us to express that love in a concrete way rather than simply functioning to reassure us that we’re special (or that God’s special and we’re scum, depending on your tradition)?
We are special! You are special! God is special! But I no longer believe that my fundamental problem, at least as a straight white American male, is that I’ve lost sight of how special I am to God or forgotten that God’s a bad ass. My main problem is that people around me are suffering, and I’m not convinced that I really care. Like, I sincerely want to care, but maybe just don’t. I believe spirituality is at its best when it helps me care.
I don’t need to be certain. Whenever Joann asks me “are you sure?”, no matter the topic, I almost always say “no.” Certainty, for me, is not really real. Claiming certainty is a form of self-soothing, something I force so I don’t have to cope with the anxiety of not knowing, of mystery, and of faith.
When I say “I believe,” I mean it. It’s a belief, an act of faith. Do I know, without a doubt, that God loves me? Nope. Am I sure Jesus is worth following? Nope. But I believe these things. I’ve taken the leap of faith. I’ve said, “this is the story I’ve put my faith in.” If I’m wrong, I want to know, so as not to be wrong anymore. Until then, these are the things I’ll believe.
I now see how important it is to be uncertain about matters of faith. Certainty closes me. It makes me overconfident. It makes me inhospitable and dangerous. It makes me controlling.
Doubt, mystery, faith as trust—these things open me, humble me, make space for others to speak and shape me. They help me let go.
I don’t need to be “wild at heart.” I became captivated by some “be a manly Christian man” literature in early college. In some ways, it helped me. At its best, it encouraged me to “not waste my life” and showed me that spirituality ought to be about transformation, about becoming a certain kind of “better” person rather than just thinking the correct things. At its worst, it taught me a narrow sense of manhood, an even narrower understanding of womanhood, and, consequently, a problematic way of understanding relationships.
Back when Joann and I were just buddies in college, a friend of hers in poetry class told Joann that she’d overheard me in conversation with my new girlfriend the day before at a coffee shop. In that “DTR” (define-the-relationship) conversation, I’d asked this girl to be my girlfriend by saying: “would you be my beauty?” Joann and her friend both did a mental barf, as befits my cheeseball language. I wish I could say I used these words simply because I was a huge dork. The likely reality is that I said them because I was sweetly misogynistic, assuming that as a man I was the main character in a grand adventure that included finding a bride who was created to be rescued from singleness, support my quests, and affirm my manhood.
What’s truly “wild” is the forced lack of authenticity in many Christian spaces. Some of these spaces reinforce a cookie-cutter image into which one must fit. You are encouraged to fall in line. To be “known” only to the degree that what you reveal about yourself is not too disruptive to the sensibilities of those with clout in the organization. We tell people “this is what you must think to be truly ‘in’, otherwise you’re a problem and we’ll correct you or expel you. These are the words you must say, even if you don’t feel they fittingly describe your experience. If you want to be on the first-string praise band, you have to look like this. If you want to be a real man, these are the hobbies you must enjoy and the way you must treat women. If you want to be a godly woman, these are the desires you must suppress for the sake of your man. If you have doubts, stop it, you backslider.”
People need the space to be who they are and share their authentic truth, without shame or dismissal or attack. Obviously I will urge you to reconsider your ideas and actions if they seem dangerous to you or others (often a matter of perspective, I suppose).
One refreshing element of our Quaker discussion group is the authenticity. People’s stories do not end with a tidy bow or sense of arrival. Doubts remain. The feeling of being “on the way” remains. There is no expectation of what a person should think. There is no need to present oneself in a certain light to be accepted, as far as I can discern. People are able to say essentially: “here’s what I believe, here’s what I don’t believe,” without apology or forced resolution. That is SO refreshing.
I recognize I am on the way, too. I am not enlightened. I am not fully aware of the ways my present spirituality is undermining my commitment to Love. I hope I discover these problematic practices and beliefs sooner than later.
It is fair to ask, in any kind of deconstructive process: “what’s left?” or “What are you constructing?” If I’m saying, “this is not important to me anymore” then…what is important?
That’s easy. What’s important to my “Jesus-faith” is seeing arrogance transformed into humility. Cowardice transformed into courage. Self-loathing transformed into self-compassion. Overpowering turned into empowering. Entitlement turned into generosity. Anxiety about otherness transformed into appreciation of difference. Hurried people slowing down. Overly hesitant people speeding up. Unmet basic needs now met, quickly and thoroughly and competently. People without a voice given a voice and people with too much voice piping down. Disgruntled withdrawal turned into healthy and creative conflict. People holding tightly to their lives laying down their lives. Self-abandoning conformity replaced by self-dignifying authenticity. Fear turned to love.
This is what is important. This is what remains. And the greatest of these is love.