Losing Faith, Finding Faith

Andrea Palpant Dilley, writing about a story I have myself studied in Finding Faith, Losing Faith, a Baylor University Press book:

During my junior year in college, I took a butter knife from my mother’s kitchen  and scraped the Christian fish decal off the back bumper of the Plymouth hatchback I’d inherited from my older brother. Stripping off that sticker foreshadowed the day, a few years later, that I would walk out of church.

The reasons for my discontent were complicated. By most standards, I had a healthy childhood.  I grew up the daughter of Quaker missionaries in a rural Kenyan community that laid the foundation for my faith. I spent the rest of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, raised in a stable Presbyterian church that gave me hymns and mission trips and potluck dinners.

I was surrounded by smart, conscientious Christians, the kind of people who read 19th century Russian novels and took meatloaf to firefighters when much of eastern Washington state went up in flames in the fall of 1991.

When I started into my skeptic phase, my Christian community gave me space to struggle. They listened to my doubts about faith. They took my questions seriously.

And yet when I turned 23 I left the church….

And then, strangely, I woke up one morning at age 25, climbed into my car, and drove downtown to attend a 10 a.m. church service. I won’t relate here the whole story of how I came back to the church. But if I had to follow the standard testimonial narrative for Christians, the script for my life story would go something like this:

Step 1: Grow up in a Christian church.

Step 2: Go off to college away from said church.

Step 3: Be exposed to the enticements of secular life.

Step 4: Try drugs and cigarettes and Pearl Jam.

Step 5: Leave the church because of aforementioned enticements.

Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of secular enticements.

Step 7: Return to church with penitent heart.

Step 8: Reestablish faith, discover good living.



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  • Pat Pope

    Step 9: Serve in church leadership and find yourself questioning some long-held and often taken-for-granted beliefs and practices.

    Step 10: Search for a new place that more closely aligns with your newfound beliefs.

  • The Gleddiesmith

    Step 11: Discover that Jesus wants you to serve/lead in a place where people have long-held and often taken-for-granted beliefs and practices as well as a willingness to journey and rediscover Jesus and his kingdom

  • Andrew Martin

    Step 12: Pray, watch and love your kids as they start at Step 2.

  • Hilarious and good writing. I will try to remember the phrase “vapidness of secular enticements.”

  • Joe Canner

    Andrew: Brian McLaren insists (and I have no reason to doubt him) that children do not usually start their faith journeys where their parents started them, but rather where their parents are now. That said, it’s still hard: even though they skipped a few steps there are still plenty of struggles as they work through what faith means to them, and we can’t help them much because they are going through things that we didn’t go through.

  • Jon G

    ditto, plus re-lose faith, regain faith, re-lose faith, wonder if I ever had faith, force myself to have faith, re-lose it again and then find it deeper than ever….

  • Sagrav

    The vapidness of secular enticements? Well, if you consider drugs, cigarettes, and Pearl Jam to be secular enticements, I can understand your disappointment. However, there is nothing exclusively secular about any of those things. Tons of spiritual and religious people smoke while high and listening to Pearl Jam.

    For me, the whole idea of being “enticed” to a belief doesn’t even make sense. I’m not a non-believer because the perks are better. I’m a non-believer because none of the supernatural claims of any of the worlds religions are backed up by hard evidence. No one can present hard evidence that Yahweh, Zeus, the Devil, or Shiva exist; thus, I can’t believe in them. Testaments like the one above make belief sound like a choice between different car brands.

  • Elizabeth

    Sagrav: I think “drugs, cigarettes and Pearl Jam” is stylistically used by the author as a tongue-in-cheek representation of a certain way of life.

  • I’m watching my two older children walk through step 5 and waiting for some kind of epiphany that answers the questions and doubts that perplex them.

    Faith is a gift. How else do we overcome those doubts?

    Of note, I love Madeleine L’Engle’s words (from one of Sweet’s books):
    Sometimes I just know that I am going to come down with an attack of atheism again. It’s like the flu. Spiritual flu, I call it. I get ready to endure three or four days of doubt and deep distance from God. Then, through the grace of God, I find myself spiritually well again.

  • DRT

    I see numbers! I see numbers!

  • DRT

    That sticker let’s others know that you are a terrible driver and no one should remove it. Seriously. 9 times out of 10 when you see someone do some screwy thing on the road, they have one of those stickers.

  • Jasen Lutz

    I resonate with this process except I held on to Pearl Jam. . . Mmmm Pearl Jam.

  • Trav

    I wonder if James Fowler’s Stages of Faith would have anything to say to this conversation.

  • Meri

    Sagrav: Brian McLaren may be right. Much to my dismay, my three adult children have rejected my faith while maintaining a sort of para-belief in spiritualism. On the plus side, they insist that I taught them to continually search to understand what they believe, which I certainly did. I did not want them to accept my faith simply because it was what they grew up with. I just never expected them to reject the God that I lived out in front of them. That hurts!

    I have hopes that the awareness of God I believe they once had is still there somewhere and they will embrace Him again one day at some point. Stories like this give me hope. But I wonder if the cacophony of Christian voices out there now offers so many types of Christian thinking that they tune them all out before discovering the ones that make sense to them.

    In the end, faith is still a personal journey. As similar as they may sound in outline form, we each have to discover the unique juxtaposition of some good and evil that causes us to turn back to God for answers.

  • CGC

    Hi Sagrav,
    I’m glad you are here. I think this group needs more diversity to challenge or go deeper at times than we do. I will say much of what we believe not only ties into our worldview but also our experiences that shape who we are. Atheists can say, “not enough evidence” but an epiphany, an experience with the living God can change that overnight for some. On the other hand, I find many of us are pretty set in concrete where we sit (even when we like to think of ourselves as open, fluid, enlightened, or on a journey). I can’t tell you how many Christians I have talked to about some reality or experience that some other Christian have not had, and the response is similar. “I don’t believe that. Rationally that makes no sense.” Or if I describe what is really often happening that is never said, “I have not experienced that so it must not be real.” I know there are some people who go on to say from all this that I am not going to be like those fideists or extreme subjectivists who base everything on experience. The real kicker is they are doing the same thing by arguing from their ‘lack of experience.’

  • Fish

    My girlfriend is an atheist (after spending a good part of her earlier life going to church 3X a week). She is a skeptic and can find no reason to believe in a God. I, on the other hand, have had one of those personal experiences and don’t care that there’s no rational basis for belief. I believe anyway.

  • CGC

    Hi Fish,
    I know Kierkegaard said that faith is a leap (even without reasons) but do you really have no reasons at all for your faith? That’s okay but I often hear people speak about cognitive dissonance they are experiencing over one thing or another. I just am not sure how long there can be a sustainable dissonance between reason and faith?

  • Jan

    It seems to me that most people who “steer” from the “narrow path” come to believe that they could not have come back to the “narrow path” by themselves and needed “the faith”. For some folks that may be true, but I have found that the old (and accurate, not distorted) Epicurean strategy works just as well, and is not “vapid” at all. The “vapidness” that the author experienced, some of us call “growing up”. Life is bittersweet. We all go through that rebellious age where we want to experience “the world” (a time which may appear very selfish to others, yet it is part of finding the self-identity), and after that we recognise we are part of a bigger whole and reintegrate into that whole (letting go of childish things, so to speak, or, as the author claims, going back to church). However, for a small minority of us, that option of going back becomes untenable, because we have discovered that that reintegration is possible without faith. It is not a matter of not wanting to go back, it is a matter of seeing the very faith that inspired hope as something that had to be left behind, the faith itself became something to let go off, a childish thing in and of itself. Now we are willing to accept that heavy burden of responsibility that sits on our shoulders and try our best to make the best of this life knowing that there likely is no other. It is not about being saved, about heaven and hell, it is about doing the best we can, and accepting the bittersweet pungency of being, and rejoicing in the fact that we had that short moment of sweetness. In fact, somehow even the bittersweet aftertaste becomes immensely more enjoyable than an apparently eversweet heaven…