Calling All ‘Reflective Exiles’

“Reflective exiles.” I recently came across this striking term in an article by Philip Harrold called “Deconversion in the Emerging Church.” These are people who have left the established church (and sometimes their faith altogether) because of dissatisfaction with the church’s answers (or non-answers) to difficult questions. Hard questions like, “Why did God seem to command genocide in the Old Testament?” and “What happens to theology and biblical interpretation if evolution is true?” and “How could a good, loving God send people to Hell?” and “Why does God allow mosquitoes to evolve such that they aren’t squashed by rainstorms?”

Perhaps more churches should pay attention to “Faith Development Theory,” the psychological study of the stages of religious development, which holds that “critical appraisal of one’s inherited beliefs is necessary to achieve a sense of personal integrity” (Harrold). In the church, these “reflective exiles” often find themselves bumping up against a developmental wall. Robert Guelich and Janet Hagberg, in their book Critical Journey, made use of Fowler’s categories, arguing that churches need to help people move past that wall and into a more authentic and intellectually integrated faith.

But asking hard questions can generate tremendous anxiety in institutions, like established churches, which too often slip (probably without consciously realizing it) into self-preservation mode. This leads to greater frustration among those reflective exiles; so they–in increasing numbers– find their way to the exit.

If you are one of these reflective exiles (or feel yourself becoming one), I’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments. Perhaps we can start a revolution that will find its way back into the local church.

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  • Yes. It would be great if rather than slipping into self-preservation mode, our churches could help people explore these questions in small groups, studies, etc.. We need to be able to ask hard questions, and feel more comfortable receiving them, even if we cannot give the answers.

  • Encountering constructive-developmental theories of self-formation was among the most liberating discoveries of my life. Folks like Fowler, Kegan, and Schnarch have given me a new context to understand my perennial faith struggles. So many issues between my community and I which were irresolvable on the level of content were able to be re-approached on the formal level.

    The continuing struggle is, however, that so many churches function in a rather developmentally stunted therapeutic mode. Rather than leading congregations toward growth through the anxious places in our lives, it seems that we are more prone to develop institutional anxiety management systems which operate on the basis of reflecting back to the congregants what they would like to see as true about themselves.

    The problem, then, for the ‘reflective exile’ is that “the tough questions” are not therapeutic. They create anxiety about the stability and coherence of the hermenutical foundations of the community. The self-reflecting, anxiety-managing church, then, faces the choice to either grow through the anxiety, or push the anxiety out by whatever means. Hence… the exile.

  • That’s odd; I was always told by my if you don’t like it, then you can leave. Is there such a thing as the ‘reflective deported’?

  • whoops. “…by my charismatic, fundamentalist denomination…”


  • Valekhai

    This is the kind of thing that I keep wanting to hear. My deconversion (moving from Christianity to atheism/agnosticism) wasn’t as horrible as some; I wasn’t disowned by my family, my friends didn’t abandon me, and my pastor didn’t try to perform an exorcism to fix me. But looking back, one thing that really strikes me most is that I went through this deconversion experience while I was still attending church regularly. After getting out of it and hearing other people’s stories, it turns out that that isn’t uncommon. We just keep it to ourselves because out of shame and/or fear; many people who do come forward as having doubts and wrestling with the big questions typically do run into that “developmental wall” you talked about.

    I seems to me that if experiences like mine are not uncommon (and they must not be, judging by how many times I’ve heard similar tales and by the studies I keep seeing about how many young people are leaving the church and why), then it’s well within the church’s interest to become a place where these kinds of discussions are not hidden but encouraged.

    I have my doubts if that’s possible, though. If Fowler’s stages are correct (I think it’s probably generally true, but perhaps not a matter of fact), then it seems that most churches are Stage 3 institutions. People who reach Stage 4 have to leave. Perhaps Stage 4 people can band together and form different churches, but by-and-large I don’t think it’s feasible to expect Stage 3 churches to change to accommodate Stages 4 and up; if they could do that, they wouldn’t really be at Stage 3 anymore.

    • “People who reach Stage 4 have to leave. Perhaps Stage 4 people can band together and form different churches, but by-and-large I don’t think it’s feasible to expect Stage 3 churches to change to accommodate Stages 4 and up”

      I think there’s something to this. I attend an Episcopalian church now. Their liturgical emphasis and “big tent” philosophy makes one of the few kinds of Christian churches I feel I can participate in without living within a total shell. However, were I to bring some of my old conservative friends to church, they’d feel that the whole thing was a godless sham since all their norms of authority (conceived via stage 3 modes) would no longer be operative.

      Speaking of big tent… I recall not to long ago Philip Clayton and Brian McLaren were hoping to start a movement that was inclusive of conservatives and liberals (or probably something like stage 3 and stage 4->s). I remember seeing photos from some of the events. I saw a lot of non-traditional, tatooed, dreadlocked progressives, but really no traditional conservatives. Seems to me there’s a reason for that… and this picks out the central difficulty in all this.

  • faith_exile

    I do not know whether to laugh or cry as I listen to discussions by the “Christian” intelligencia. What could one who admittedly believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God – a faith that recognizes there are legitimate reasons to question Scriptural inerrancy (O how I long for the day when I meet a Christian who believes in evolution and acknowledges there are legitimate reasons to question that theory) and yet still believes by faith – add to the discussion seeing as I will most likely be tuned out or written off because of that confession? It is not because of my intellect that I believe the Bible is God’s word. Rather in spite of my intellect do I believe. What some of you need is an experience of the Lord’s transcendence, something in the vein of Pascal’s memorial, to humble the pride of your intellect. How many of you have experienced the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge? Have you the joy unspeakable Peter mentions? Do the Corinthian letters have any epistemic implications or practical consequences in regards to your faith cogitations? Do you really believe human wisdom is foolishness to God? Should I even be asking these questions because they presume a belief that the Bible is true? Can you not, as a “thought experiment,” at least entertain the possibility that the Biblical passages just alluded to actually correspond to concrete, lived realities accessible by the epistemic miracle of faith? If so, it follows that from within such a reality scientific laws and theories (applying only to the physical realm and therefore logically and scientifically having absolutely zero authority or applicability in regards to spirit, which is non-physical) pose no real threat to that faith, unless one suspends it for the sake of mere reason. Have you not the mental elasticity to hold the tension of the paradox in its manifold manifestations? If not, why not allow others to walk in that tension without implying their faith is somehow ignorant or inauthentic because it does not find it necessary to bow to current cultural and scientific trends? What is eternity? Why not simply admit that you have not experienced God in an intellectually humbling manner, are threatened by those who have, and have built yourselves a philosophical high tower with which to look down your nose at the ignorant fundamentalists below to relieve your own “anxiety”? Why not instead pray to experience Christ and celebrate his mystery instead of trying to figure him out and fix the intellectually beleaguered church? Of course that would imply repenting of your pride and embracing the foolishness that is the gospel, with all its social, academic, and professional consequences….

    • Valekhai

      I haven’t been able to cross that threshold where I can believe in spite of my intellect. It still feels dishonest to try. But try I do.
      Your post is kind of fascinating for me. Keeping things in terms of Fowler’s stages (since it’s already been brought up; if you’re not a fan, I understand, but for this conversation it’s useful in a “rule of thumb” sort of way), you seem to be coming from more of a Stage 5 perspective as opposed to my Stage 4. What’s interesting for me is that you seem to have some of the same issues regarding talking to Stage 4 folks as I have talking to Stage 3. It looks like you think that your point of view will be dismissed, perhaps even ridiculed. And you may be right. As a result, you seem to see yourself as being above them in some way, that there’s something better about your approach that lets you realize something that they can’t.* This is excellent. It points out some issues (assuming the developmental approach) that I hadn’t considered yet, but need to be taken into account.

      *I don’t mean to be putting words in your mouth, so please forgive me if this doesn’t at all match up with how you actually feel. This is just the impression I’ve gotten from what you said and you chose to say it.

    • bscarb

      Faith_exile – great post! I wish I had written that. Can I quote you?

  • Matt

    Thanks for this post, Kyle. It is greatly needed. I’ve experienced this, and I know so many people who are experiencing it.

  • Valekhai, who were you responding to in that last comment? Were you addressing me or someone else?

    • Valekhai

      My last comment was to faith_exile.

      • Ah, yes. I see the nesting feature now. Carry on.

  • faith_exile

    Admittedly I am not familiar enough with Folwer’s stages to locate myself within them, and frankly find the notion that one could scientifically/rationally classify the development of faith absurd. Faith is a miracle. I understand how you got the impression of superiority from my post. The above article was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back and is aimed at the smug intellectual superiority that lurks just below the surface of many a Professor Robert’s comments and “questions.” Me thinks he questions too much, although his parroting co-conspirators in unbelief could learn a thing or two from him about the art of discretion, winks aside.
    At least you have the intellectual integrity to admit that you are not a Christian. Unfortunately, Dr. Roberts is a professor at an academic institution whose purpose was at some point in its history is to equip BELIEVERS for ministry. In all fairness Dr. Robert’s theology belongs at another institution three miles west of Bethel, as the crow flies. With all his talk of having “authentic” and “integrated” faith I wonder how Dr. Roberts maintains his professorship at a traditionally conservative institution like Bethel when his beliefs depart so radically from theirs?
    I do not view myself as superior. I view myself as prophetic. My post was a rebuke. Dr. Roberts is a public figure who posts many a learned sounding opinion that is contrary to the Bible, the very book Bethel (and his job) owes its existence to. He has impressionable students who lap up his every word. There seems to be an epidemic of cigarette smoking, tattooed Seminary students who believe “faith” is a combination of politically correct social action done whilst name dropping popular Continental philosophers/theologians of the moment, who question everything so they can do whatever they want, and wonder why Christianity has little to no relevance in our culture. Dr. Roberts and his ilk are partly responsible for this sorry state of affairs. I can only hope my words may spare a student or two such an unoriginal fate.
    So I ask, what if the Bible is actually true? As one who was once mastered by doubt; who once was infected with the spiritual disease of intellectualism; who literally had his rebellious mind ripped out of his head by the grace of God, I cannot claim any superiority. It was a divine gift. But that does not change the fact that I know where I came from intellectually and where I am now. I know by experience that what the Bible says about things like revelation is true. The “natural mind” cannot grasp them, only faith can. Many others “know” the same things. It is painfully evident that Dr. Roberts does not know or believe the most basic elements of Christianity (creation ex nihilo, the virgin birth, etc.), and it is obvious why: he does not have faith. There would be no problem if he admitted as much, but then there is that professorship….

  • Jfou

    Hey Faith-Exile,
    Your argument it is a strong misrepresentation of Kyle’s position, as well as his students. We all love Christ, it’s just that we recognize that we have different experiences of Christ’s love for us, and we cannot force others to experience Christ’s love as we do, but we learn from each other so that our love of Christ may abound. In this, we actually have a strong faith in Christ’s love for all, and not in our own understanding. We all love the Bible, it’s just that we are on a search for its meaning for our lives beside how it has been abused by pastors and parents to force their will upon us. We look to reclaim the Bible’s message of hope and love in the midst of its misuse to subjugate and separate.

    We are all desperately trying to follow Christ and to live “biblically” in this world, and I would argue that what we are all trying to do this together. Thus, as a community, this is a great prophetic voice to our culture today. It speaks to the world that Christianity is not about oppression, it is about liberty. It is not about separation, it is about unity. It is not about hate, it is about love. Christ and the Bible have strong messages to our culture today, and one of the strongest messages is an invitation to a loving community with God and with others. The “most basic elements of Christianity” are not creation ex nihilo or the virgin birth, doctrines that came to be much later, but rather, the most basic element of Christianity is God’s love for humanity that is so clearly made known in the Bible.

    But back to this community. In this community, all are free, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live. We are all dependent on God’s Spirit to live and be alive, and so I definitely agree with you. In seminary, there is a tremendous temptation to live only in the mind, and that is idolatry. And yet, God has gifted us with minds to think. What seminarians need to realize is that God has also gifted us with hearts to love, souls to live, and strength to do. In all of this, we are to love the Lord our God fully. Kyle, myself, and many others in seminary (even Bethel Seminary!) and in thinking churches and communities all around the world are trying to do this with fear and trembling, by the grace of God, and in the name of Christ, and by the power of the Spirit.

  • faith_exile

    Jfou, you are right. I am guilty of parodying Dr. Roberts. Being only a layman with limited education I cannot give a learned critique of his theology. Hence I must bang me Bible. You see my head is too small to resolve the apparent contradictions Dr. Roberts’ theology presents me. For example, a casual reading through his archived blog posts left the impression that he is everywhere synthesizing the offense out of Christianity. I thought I picked up somewhere that he was a Kierkegaard scholar, not a Hegelian! I have been terribly mistaken about Dr. Roberts and will not darken your discussions any further with my ignorance.

    • I have a feeling that both Kierkegaard and Dr. Roberts would be inclined to locate the offense of the Christianity on a different level than you seem to. The offense of Christianity should not be understood as rejecting all objective* analyses of the sources of our tradition (i.e., biblical criticism, comparative religious studies, empirical rationality, sociological factors, etc.). Such rejection is not a noble action of faith, but dishonesty and the height of human foolishness. Such strategies may suppress the anxiety generated by the challenges to our faith tradition for a time, but, like all false ways of dealing with anxiety, it breaks out again, usually in the form of violent fanaticism.
      The offense of the gospel is seen on the cross. The offense is on the level of faith not subject/object rationality. It is the offense which is located in the possibility that created finite beings might live in the power of the infinite God who is revealed in suffering self-giving love.

      *Kierkegaard did not reject objective analysis as such. What he was after was those who felt that faith could be justified objectively, and therefore without transformation or personal struggle. Furthermore, his subjectivity was never intended as an epistemic tool to justify various religious propositions (e.g., virgin births, etc), but rather was the mode of the apprehension of faith.

  • Kyle Roberts

    Everyone: I’ve been MIA since I posted this. I’ve been involved in a conference the past few days and didn’t have spare time to engage. But thanks for your comments!

    faith_exile: Since you remain under the cloak of anonymity, I don’t feel too terribly compelled to respond to the “parody,” as you call it, of my theology, but here is, to me, your most disturbing statement:

    “It is painfully evident that Dr. Roberts does not know or believe the most basic elements of Christianity (creation ex nihilo, the virgin birth, etc.), and it is obvious why: he does not have faith..”

    On what basis do you make this claim? I most emphatically believe in creation ex nihilo and in the virgin birth. At the recent conference (on “origins”), I made the point that whatever one’s view of how to interpret Genesis 1-3 in light of current science (e.g. young earth creationism, progressive creationism, or theistic evolution), it is important to affirm creation ex nihilo, since it secures the dependence of creation upon God (which was a key motivation of the doctrine throughout church history). In any case, I have never written or said anything otherwise, so I’m scratching my head as to why you would make such a claim–and then to say I do not have faith! Remarkable.

    If you would like to come under the cloak of anonymity, I would be happy to buy you a cup of coffee and discuss theology and faith with you. It sounds like you must live in the area.

    As for the “offense” of Christ and your suggestion that I’m more Hegelian than Kierkegaardian, I have to say that I think you’ve misunderstood what the “offense” is. For Kierkegaard (and indeed, for Paul) the offense is the God-man and the cross. That God would become a single individual human being, live among us, and die for our sins! We need no other offense besides this. And we certainly don’t need to construct other “offenses,” or stumbling blocks to faith, by avoiding difficult theological questions in the church (which is the point of my post) or by our hostility toward each other as believers.

  • Kyle Roberts

    *that should be “out from under the cloak of anonymity”

  • Craig

    I am a reflective exile. I used to receive invitations to lead Bible studies and book discussions at my evangelical church, but have since gone away to college and graduate school. A decade has passed, and though I feel now that I’d have far more to contribute to my local church than I ever before, I don’t expect to receive any further invitations. Though I seek the good of the church and my former fellow churchgoers, it is not the sort of good that the church’s leadership typically has in mind. (A few facts might help clarify the difficulty: these days I do not really believe that there is a God, or that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. If we to list all the things that characteristically differentiate evangelicals from non-evangelicals, there would probably be more items on that list that I find unattractive than items that I find attractive. I am even morally opposed to some of the doings and teachings and tendencies of the church.)

    I’d rather remain out of contact with my former evangelical friends than make enemies with them. I think so highly of some of these people and our past friendships that I’d rather not see them again than to see them again only to reveal how far apart we’ve drifted–and to reveal to them that I now oppose the very ideals that we once mutually cherished and which brought us together. With respect to the institution, my heart is still very much invested in the doings of the church. The options are frustrating. I therefore find so very enticing the question about how to start a revolution.

    One of the structural problems, it seems to me, is that those who deeply disagree with their local church tend to leave their local churches. The churches therefore suffer from the absence of loyal opposition. Churchgoers are surrounded by people who think similarly, and this itself influences the content of the pastor’s teachings and how these teachings are received. Should I try to return to my local church (I’ll be nearby it again this summer)? I fear, however, that this would be either a waste of time if I just sit silently in the pews, or, if I intelligently sought to regain a voice in the church, an act of deceit. If some exile could discover an attractive way to return to his/her local church, this might serve as a model for many others. Write an interesting blog about one’s return and this might even inspire a movement.

    Should I instead investing my time in trying to write another essay or a book? But how do I get evangelicals to read it with an open mind and to take it seriously? Or how do we write a book that might sweep through the evangelical circles and shape the conversation (like Rob Bell’s book on Hell)? Minimally, it seems I would need a coauthor or an editor or a strong endorsement from some influential person still on the inside. It might be fun to brainstorm about a theme or a layout.

    Any thoughts?

  • faith_exile

    “The offense is on the level of faith not subject/object rationality.” Kierkegaard relentlessly emphasized the subjective. His foundational understanding of the Christian life of faith was to “exist as the single individual before God.” That is a subjective awareness of being God’s subject given by faith and maintained by the will. “Faith is a gift and a task.” With this understanding (which I exercise intentionally on a daily basis and have from it experienced a transformation of consciousness beyond my powers of expression) I cannot see how Kierkegaard’s notion of offense can be on the level of faith and not subject/object rationality. I agree that the offense is primarily in the cross, but Training in Christianity demonstrates how that offense manifests itself an an offended subjective intellect is certainly included. Not wanting to split hairs I will leave it at that.

  • faith_exile

    Dr. Roberts
    With what joy did I read your affirmation of creation ex nihilo and the virgin birth! The “cloak of anonymity” saves face when my passion runs ahead of my facts as the above so wonderfully illustrates. Reading what I took as your endorsement of theistic evolution I parodied you as a radical liberal and that was not fair. My general disagreement here is your belief that the church is in decline because it cannot adequately answer the hard questions, particularly those of science. I believe the church is in decline because it does not have faith and therefore cannot not do things like teach Reflective Exile’s how to walk on water while the storms of competing truth claims rage about. They may point to the wind and the waves as the reason for their deconversion, but what else could they say never knowing there was a trans-rational option? You do not seem to pose a solution to the problem that I find congruous with a Bible that commands us to believe or the writings of Kierkegaard who emphasized the “thou shalt” and said things like: “You cannot reflect yourself into faith…faith is immediacy after reflection.” Of course you do not have to believe everything the Bible or Kierkegaard says, but being a seminary professor and Kierkegaard scholar opens you up to critiques along such lines. The compromise suggested in another blog post that gives truths of the physical realm to science and spiritual truths to the Bible does not leave us with a Word that can be heard with the childlike simplicity and trust from which faith springs. It appears to me you are going down a false path that assumes a scientifically integrated theology (information) will produce a growing church (faith) when the problem seems to be a faithless church that knows not what to do with threatening information. My apologies to you.

  • To call someone an ‘exile’ is an assumption that they were banned. Many left of their own accord and they were certainly free to do so and they don’t need to go back. A revolution you say? Toss the tables over. That’ll cause a revolution.

  • Denise Maney

    Our body has acted on this dilema. We have collectively (including the pastor) disbanded our church. We are now Soma (Greek for body of Christ). We are meeting unconventionally in public places: parks, restaurants, bars, etc. We are ACTING on our faith, sharing the Gospel, and learning to story. That is, taking passages of the Bible, reading them, and learning to just “tell” the stories of the Bible, without reading it to someone. Our witness in these public venues is amazing. There are many that have left our body. Some, on good terms, but it’s just not for them. Others think it’s “cultish”. We are enjoying our freedom. We are doing faith, not religion.

  • Denise Maney

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