“Why are you still a Christian? If what you just said was true, I don’t think I could be a Christian anymore if I were you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, I just want to understand how you are a Christian still.”
It is one of those conversations you have after you’ve said good night half a dozen times. It’s just a few short hours before the sun will rise on the other side of the lake. The fire has died down and the scraggly trees reach silently above the palm meadows. We are leaning against someone’s car at the entrance to the rainbow gathering and it is colder than I think it could ever get here in Florida. I pull my poncho tighter and look up at the stars. They have become so crisp against the black sky, now that the dust stirred up by hundreds of feet has settled.
I saw rainbow people worshiping Jesus earlier today, but they were not part of the Christian camps. They were runaways who left families, churches, and society, but they say they still love Jesus. They read their bibles, pray, and sing poorly remembered fragments of hymns patched together into something I almost recognize. But they don’t call themselves Christians. To them, Christians are those other people, the ones who have churches back home which sponsor the Jesus kitchens. Sometimes they bring a dentist chair into the forest and offer free dental services. And they preach repentance or God’s unconditional love or both.
I don’t know where I fit in here and my friend’s question catches me off guard. I trace the outline of his dreadlocks against the moon’s reflection on the water. When we first met I thought his were long compared to my own baby dreads, but now mine are down to my waist. Some of his must reach down to his knees by now. It’s been a long time. We’ve met in other states and have done ministry together. Stephen was always more open and honest than some of the others and I trust him instinctively. But this question he just asked me? Wow. So honest. So real. I didn’t see it coming and I have no answer. I fight the urge to cry and I don’t even know why.
In my previous posts I wrote about how I lost my Christian faith, of the confusion that came afterwards, and of a transformative magical circle. All of these are stories of personal experiences rather than theological reasons for my conversion. I have chosen to write about these moments first because Paganism puts far more emphasis on experience than theology. There are whole branches of Christianity that care little for the experiences of faith but focus on dogma and theology. When I was a Christian, I considered both important and tried to find the perfect balance between the two.
And, I thought that there were only these two legs of faith, personal experience and theology, intellect and reason, emotion and empiricism. Or in evangelical terms, I had my intellectual assent to the Bible’s inerrancy, and (my particular interpretation of) Christianity’s absolute truth. On the other hand, there was my relationship with Jesus, the love and emotions I felt for him, the sense of his presence, and all of the ways I experienced him in my life. If one leg grew weak, I could always stand on the other. If I didn’t feel his love or presence, I would cling to his Word, the Bible, because Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). And if I had theological doubts, I was taught to trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). And I was convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38).
That night in the Ocala forest, Stephen and I talked about these two legs of faith. He asked me about my studies in Bible College. I opened up to him and shared all of the doubts I had developed. So many ways in which Absolute Truth seemed neither absolute nor true anymore. All the little inconsistencies: the different ways to interpret the Bible, the history of theology, and more than anything, the willful ignorance of American Evangelicalism; in other words, I told him how the leg of truth was broken for me.Stephen didn’t judge. He didn’t try to argue or win me back to biblical inerrancy or ask me to trust. He just listened and acknowledged my questions and doubts, whether they made sense to him or not. And then, we talked about our experiences with Jesus, our relationship with him. In our circles it was common to put more emphasis on the experiential aspect of faith. But, to me this was a touchier subject, and I told him about my Dark Night of the Soul. How I hadn’t felt the presence of God in many years. How it all felt so dry. How worship was just an endless drag through all of the motions. How God’s love had become an abstract concept. How I didn’t experience God at all anymore. In essence, I was telling him that the second leg was also broken. That’s when Stephen asked the question. What, then, are you standing on?
Reason and experience, what else was there? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 43:5) When experience and belief are gone, I will yet praise him. I was willing myself to be a Christian. I found neither comfort or joy in my faith anymore, nor did it make any sense to me, but I wanted to believe. Although that’s not exactly true, either. I didn’t really want to be a Christian anymore. But I really didn’t want to be a non-Christian, an apostate, a backslider, or a lost soul.
I was holding on for the sake of holding on.
I didn’t understand the place of will in Evangelicalism until I had a conversation with Gus DiZerega, the author of Pagans and Christians. He argued that will had supplanted the importance of intellect and experience in fundamentalism and had become the primary pillar of the Religious Right. I think he is right, but as evangelical Christians we didn’t want to reflect on the place of will in our religion. And yet, Jesus is supposed to be the author and perfecter of the Christian faith. He is seen as the one who initiates faith journeys and the one who keeps his followers from being taken from his hand. Christians can walk away, they can choose to give up the faith, they can reject him. Those are all acts of will, the free will of the believer. But to truly lose one’s faith despite the will to keep it? It goes against the core of Evangelical theology. My story shouldn’t exist. In Germany we have a saying: with cleverness the conclusion we drew, that that which shouldn’t be, cannot be true. Somewhere along the way, I am told, I simply must have made a willful choice against God for some sinful reason.
But nothing could be further from the truth. I willed myself to remain a Christian by all of the stubbornness I could summon; I gave it my all. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes that he was “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” I have thought of that line often. My will to be a Christian only failed me when I also lost my will to live. “Better to be dead than an apostate” was my thought and when I was faced with the choice, I almost chose the former. Instead I became the most dejected and reluctant apostate. But, I learned that it is much better to have lost all three legs and remain alive. Losing my will to believe, that last leg of faith, left me broken on the ground, but not forever. The end of one faith is not the end of the journey, and if one’s religion stands only on the leg of will, it is time to move on.
All images were courtesy of the author.