The cartoon above from David Hayward prompted me to share some thoughts about this topic. I hear very often from people who tell me that they have “lost their faith,” when in actual fact I think that all they have done is change their beliefs. I don’t think this is just a quibble about language. Often there is a tension in the mind of people (and families and communities) about this. Most people recognize that changing one’s mind is at least appropriate on some occasions, and most would also recognize that it is necessary and healthy to change one’s mind since none of us will know everything with complete accuracy throughout our lives from childhood. Indeed, couched in those terms, Christians should recognize that it would represent sinful arrogance to believe that we know and understand everything perfectly correctly – unlike everyone else in the world and in history.
But when one’s beliefs are the object and focus of one’s faith, then rethinking ideas can seem to represent the same thing as losing one’s faith. And doing that can seem dangerous, even sinful.
And so many therefore do it alone, without talking with their spouse, friends, and others.
This is not to say that it isn’t risky to do that. I know of instances in which someone approached their changing ideas in a mature way, but their spouse or family was unwilling to accept that what was happening could be healthy and a genuine expression of their faith, and thus rejected them and drove them away. Bruce Gerencser blogged recently about this very topic.
Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale this semester with students as I taught my First Year Seminar class focused on dystopias, I made a point of highlighting the attention Atwood pays to the sense that people have in contexts such as the future the novel imagines, that they are the only ones who want to rebel against the system and long for change. Dictatorships can only thrive when we don’t know whether we can rely on those around us, and as a majority bring about change. That is every bit as true in religious dictatorships in congregations as in political dictatorships in nations. (Also, for those following the TV show, the trailer for season 3 has been released).
I had this blog post written before Rachel Held Evans unexpectedly died, and feel the need to mention her here. She was a great example of someone who understood that growing in faith, maturing in one’s relationship with God, could not but mean changing one’s beliefs. Since I posted my previous reflection and round-up about her, others have written, including Erin Wathen, Emily Swan, Pete Enns, Jim Stump, Becky Castle Miller, Emma Green, Zack Hunt, Geoff Sutton, Carol Curuvilla, Donica Phifer, Jim Meisner, Maria Pasquini, Margot Starbuck, Katelyn Beaty, Nathan Campbell, and I’m sure many others whom I’ve missed.
Richard Beck also blogged about this, focusing on the need to follow “deconstruction” with reconstruction. Pete Enns wrote, “the act of reimagining God in ways that reflect our time and place is self-evident, unavoidable, and necessary.”
Two other blog posts highlighted, in different contexts, the meanness of Christians in communicating with people who dare to ask questions or rethink their beliefs. Jeremy Myers wrote when blogging about hell:
The religious belief that hell exists only in the afterlife is the first step in creating hell here on earth for those whom the “religious” people think deserve to go there…
Indeed, the traditional Christian doctrine of hell (especially Traditionalism, or Infernalism) is almost solely responsible for creating a spiritual and psychological hell in the minds of those who hear and believe it…
The traditional views of hell end up creating hell in the minds of those who hear them.
“True believers are among the meanest people I’ve ever met,” she says, stretching out her legs in a cozy living room filled with books on poetry, religious icons and a photo of her posing with Oprah. “I cannot think of anybody of another faith who has wounded me like Christians,” she says. “Judged, condemned to hell, cast out of the body of the faithful — look me up online.”