I used to think I was losing my faith, but now I think I’ve actually been growing it deeper all along. If that statement is relatable, this article is for you.
Rachel Ophoff recently shared her thoughts here on the RLC website about Brian McLaren’s crucial book, Faith After Doubt, in a piece called “The Only Way is Through.” I second her recommendation for the helpfulness and necessity of McLaren’s book. If you find yourself in a period of transition and change, it is a must-read. I am able to locate myself within its pages.
I’ve been on a prolonged journey through loss, doubt, and change into a new stage of faith, the one McLaren calls “Stage Three Perplexity.” Following Stage One Simplicity and Stage Two Complexity, Stage Three Perplexity brings us gifts that don’t feel like gifts, such as humility, honesty, sensitivity, self-knowledge, insight, and courage. “Perplexity is a path of descent,” states McLaren, “It is also a path of dissent.” (page 82)
It started with struggle – my struggle with a chronic illness that is difficult for others to understand and the accompanying bouts of depression that descend on me from time to time because of it. I have not found a place for chronic struggle in the church as I’ve known it, which seems ironic.
In 2015, my grandfather passed away. Suddenly, a lot more of my theology rang hollow. “This can’t be all there is to it, and I can’t just go along with it,” was a familiar refrain in my head.
Then came 2016 and the election of Donald Trump. My theological questions and concerns intensified and then exploded in 2020 over the behavior of the church around me. “Is this really who we are?” has been answered again and again throughout that time with a resounding, “Yes.”
I turned away from the appeals to agree to disagree and focus on unity—which can feel like a death sentence to people whose lives are in the way of power—and started searching online.
I attended a virtual forum one day that ended with a prayer that brought me to tears. I felt hope flood back into my heart as I heard someone pray with such passion and compassion, love and strength. I didn’t know it at the time, but that person was Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. I followed Jacqui and others online to uncover a whole host of beautiful examples of goodness and love in action (Shane and RLC being chief among them) that ring with truth and reality.
I haven’t figured it all out. I haven’t answered all my questions. I haven’t replaced my old theology with anything as concrete. And I don’t think I’m supposed to. I know love has everything to do with it. I cling to that, and it is enough, even in those times when it doesn’t feel like enough.
Leaving behind spaces you’ve outgrown is soul-stretching work. It doesn’t often make people happy. If you, too, are asking big questions and reaching deeper, you’re probably getting your fair share of backlash because your questions and doubts threaten the status quo. It can be hard. It can be lonely. It can hurt deeply. It can be confusing. It can feel never-ending. Every time I try to explain it, even now, it all gets heaped up in my head and won’t come out right. How can trying to love as fully and completely as possible bring about so much upheaval?
I know I’m just another person online that won’t fill the spaces of belonging that readers have recently left, whether physical or emotional, but I hope you’ll take courage in knowing you’re not as alone here as you feel. We might be going somewhere individually and together that is going to be bigger than we can imagine. There is hope we’re going to make it to what McLaren terms “Stage Four Harmony.” Listen to his overview of this process:
Looking back on my own spiritual pilgrimage, I have come to see ‘the still more excellent way of love’ as the telos whose gravitational pull has been drawing me through Simplicity, then through Complexity, then downward through Perplexity, and then deeper still, toward an experience that is too profound for words, the experience of Harmony…Faith was about love all along. We just didn’t realize it, and it took doubt to help us see it. (pages 87-88)
I wish I could just get to Harmony now, but McLaren says it takes time and can’t be rushed. It is best to lean into love, release control, and throw out timeframes and expectations.
In the meantime, here are a few words for the journey, taken from a time I was fortunate to spend in the mountains, where trails often lead first over looming foothills before opening up to panoramic vistas of breathtaking, snow-covered peaks.
I need to climb the hill
of seeing God
before I can glimpse
of God everywhere.
Am I close?
The light broadens
on the path ahead.
Deep blue between the trees
might soon reveal the curves
of a vast, captivating
I travel alone
in courage and fear,
trying too hard
and not hard enough,
since breaking away from
left behind with nowhere
new to bind. Turning, turning.
Is this even the trail?
and irritate, push and prod,
trudge and plod, drag and discard,
rummage and root, rethink and roam,
into reality I hope
is too big to recognize