My Disruptive Journey of Faith

Tipping-pointHave you ever been concerned about your faith? I have, it is a most unsettling experience. After pouring enormous amounts of energy and conviction into something only for it to be dislodged by rogue thoughts is scary. It’s scary because of the implications and the uncertainty of where it will all lead. What will my friends think? What if I am wrong? Even scarier; what if I am right?

Over the past ten years I have been on a spiritual search that has honestly been unwanted. I simply can’t follow an idea or belief without some substance attached so I didn’t have a choice but to walk this narrow path. This is a work in progress, but just as I expected, I have landed in a most precarious place. I am not sure what to do with that other than speak the words out loud so they become real and are not locked in my mind. Of course in five years time I may feel differently, but that is what excites me about faith. Below are a few core beliefs that I used to regard as an anchor to my faith that have over the years been violently turned upside down. The reason I am sharing with you is because I know there are a lot of other people out there who are asking similar questions but feel like they are the only person in a faith crisis… I have discovered there are many of us. I believe that a spiritual journey can have more substance when shared with other people despite the risks, although that isn’t exclusive of course. Many feel spirituality is entirely a personal journey and that is just as valid. Interestingly, when I considered the risk of an honest evaluation, I worried that what was truly core to my soul would disappear along with the peripheral questions I was trying to reconcile – that is why it has been an unwanted journey.

Yes, the peripheral stuff has been rocked but three things still remain strong even after deep personal scrutiny: I am enamoured by the life of Jesus and consider him central to my life. Also, I believe that love is the ultimate leveller and is all that is required to navigate life. And lastly, I believe that faith is a progressive journey and there is no ultimate arrival to an absolute.

After reading this you may think I have taken Gods divinity away, but it is quite the opposite. For me modern Christianity has actually has made God so small and quantifiable that I can’t subscribe to this version of God anymore. My journey has made God bigger than he has ever been – maybe more elusive, but bigger.

– My first landmine I explored was the possibility that the bible was fallible. If it was fallible, then what were the implications? In my late teens I consolidated a specific view on how life should work using the bible as a definitive guidance despite the knowledge that many around me came to different conclusions on various points. I assume that is why there are diverse denominations; Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals and many others to accommodate those fundamental differences. This unfortunately has led to division over points of difference even amongst like-minded people. For me the result has been mostly confusion. So who is right then? Are there many ‘rights’? If the bible is indeed infallible then only one view is correct making everyone else wrong – a scary proposition in my view. I am comfortable with the idea that the bible is flawed and often a contradictory book. I think it has been stretched far beyond its original intent, which was to inspire us to love. Instead it has been picked and pulled apart as though it is mathematically vibrant and holds secrets to truth under its surface like the Da Vinci Code. Now I am more comfortable putting less weight on the scriptures and see it an interesting additional assistance rather than a step-by-step manual.

Honestly I have not found the bible that helpful when it comes to following God. Only in the last few hundred years with the invention of the printing press and better education has there been easy access to scripture; it hasn’t always been the norm. I have found myself wishing for a much simpler faith than what is prescribed in today’s modern church. For thousands of years before the printing press and technology, people relied on art and community standards to guide what a response in love would be – admittedly not always a reliable alternative either. Many faith filled people have acted out their belief and contributed enormously to their community despite never reading one page of scripture and I find that comforting.

– The story of the Garden of Eden was always considered factual in my early church years. Never did I consider that it could have been figurative in nature nor was it suggested. I am more drawn to the scientific evidence that suggests life started very differently to how scripture recounts. It is hard for me to see the story as anything but a creative description by the writer. I am happy to believe that God began revealing himself to man and woman after millions of years of evolution particularly in the moment when humans became self-aware – the moment when humans first looked up to the stars and wondered if there was more. The sentiment of the Garden of Eden captures this ‘coming aware’ of self and morality in a beautiful poetic way.

I have always cringed when people presented the view that a woman was created from a rib of Adam inspiring one of the more corrupt explanations as to why a woman should inherently  have dependence on man. I actually feel anger when I think of the way men have used that premise for thousands of years as a foundation to lord over women. This still goes on in the modern church today particularly in regards to leadership structure around eldership. But thankfully it is changing; not necessarily because of a theological revelation of scripture, but more likely the obviousness of how out of step the church has become when empowering women. I love the way history shows that Jesus challenged staunched thinking about women despite the cultural norms.

– I find the story of the flood both disturbing and practically problematic. I find many physical problems with this story that I just can’t reconcile. A practical example of what I am talking about is the polar bear and the challenge for an arctic animal make the pilgrimage to the ark and survive the climactic change. Additionally there are so many species of animals on earth that I can’t imagine how they could literally fit on one boat of which the bible stipulates its exact size. It would be physically impossible.

The barbarity of humanity around this time and Gods supposed response (which is just as barbaric) has caused a graphic disparity in my mind between a God who loves juxtaposed against his other side that kills. I am appalled at the bible’s account of brutality and implicating God as proactive endorsee. It is alarming that the writers describe God in the pages of the Old Testament as a God who gives his followers permission to kill children under the guise of war and purity. I can only see two options here; either God chose a barbaric response, which is contradictory to what we know of his character, or the writer used God to justify violence and power. Based on the world’s capacity for evil, I’d prefer to believe the second option.

– Over the years I have pondered the importance of the sinners prayer and how people start their faith journey. For some it has been an important moment, for others their journey was far quirkier, even unsanctimonious in the eyes of the more traditional. I was surprised to discover the sinner’s prayer was only a recent phenomenon made popular by the likes of Billy Graham and others; it was never a theological prescript for beginning a faith walk.

– I have contemplated the bibles account of hell or at least the general sentiment carried by most Christians for many years. The conclusion I came to is; we don’t need a place called hell because people on this earth are living in hell already. That is why it is important that we do everything we can to alleviate poverty and fight for equality – bringing heaven to earth. Some Christians call this kingdom theology. If heaven were as described in the bible then how could we be comfortable living in extravagant perfection at the same time knowing people are literally burning alive… for eternity. When we enter heaven would we and God lose compassion or would we just not be aware of hell anymore to alleviate the internal conflict. Either option seems unlikely.

The Christian explanation of Gods love complicates my view on God. If God truly loves us then why would he offer friendship conditionally? My relationship with my wife would have never survived the threat of death unless she married me, which is essentially how the bible presents Gods offer of love and eternal life. I find this offer of conditional love incompatible and wonder how love could truly flourish in this context. I do believe in an after life but I have no idea what that looks like. I sincerely wrestle with the depiction of heaven as described in the bible – streets of gold and angels singing endlessly. I think we are meant to turn our earth into heaven by acting like Christ through love. I think heaven is meant to be now. If we all believe it was meant to be now, then we would take more effort to balance the world economy and have no one in poverty. ‘Not being of this world’ gives people permission to give up protecting this fragile planet we are on. Ironically many right wing Christians don’t care about climate change for that reason.

– One of my more recent examinations is the problem that the only way to commune with God and express your faith is held exclusively by the western expression of Christianity. My work in aid and development sector has shown me the damage that can happen when Christians evangelise other religions. Many religions like Islam are more than just an extension of belief; it is a way to do life within the community in which you live. Getting married, funerals, coming of age can only happen in the context of religion in some countries. For someone to embrace the western version of Christianity means to let go of the glue that holds their communities together – a catastrophic outcome. For this reason I am comfortable with the idea of other religions being on the same path to God. I am encouraged by the inclusive sentiment of Professor Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton Bible College Chicago. She did the right thing attempting to show how much Christians have in common with Muslims rather than the predictable and tired attempts of highlighting the differences. I can’t condone the idea that modern Christians somehow hold the ultimate truth. I find apologetics to defend a position of faith (evangelism) incredibly aggressive and would rather find common ground so love can exist.

tipping-point-illustration– No matter how hard I try to reconcile the Christian view on same sex marriage I always end up with a sick feeling in my stomach that in fifty years time large sections of the church will be viewed unfavourably just like it is now when history bears the churches affirmation of slavery, the suppression of women and killing in the name of God. I don’t share the anger that some Christians feel when same sex marriage is talked about and I can’t agree with the view of abstinence as an alternative. Many Christians now understand that people don’t choose their sexuality despite obstinately arguing for decades that it is simply a decision someone makes. Now science shows us that some people are predisposed to a same gender attraction through no action of their own. In respect of scientific evidence and community expectations, many churches now agree that being attracted to the same sex is not a choice but is a far deeper experience. Now many churches say that a gay person’s only option is to abstain and be celibate as an alternative to renouncing their feelings. This is to avoid being in ‘sin’ even though the bible clearly says celibacy is not for everybody. The one view I do think all Christians share is that love is central to our faith. We are meant to be intimate. Without the touch of another human, we will die. Saying to a person of same sex persuasion that their lot in life is loneliness to appease a technical requirement for ‘purity’ feels counter-intuitive and cruel. It also means that this group of people cannot share the church community and feel genuinely welcomed.

– I think buildings to house gatherings are important. Humans have been doing that for thousands of years. But I do struggle when a church builds cathedrals or buildings that go beyond simple functionality. To be transparent, I have loved sitting in ancient cathedrals in Europe. But I was sobered once I understood many ancient cathedrals were built on the backs of the poor and in some cases through a grand misuse of funds collected from people who could least afford it. In the same vein I have sincerely wrestled with the idea of tithes going to running the church and a comparatively small percentage going to the poor. I have given money to church building funds; but even before I’d done this personal examination, I felt a pinch in my side when considering if the money in my pocket would be better used in the hands of others who directly help people. After working in an aid organisation for many years the answer is more clear to me than ever.

– I have no enthusiasm when it comes to giving out aid and proselytising at the same time. If you are poor and someone will help your children, you’ll agree to anything including practising a Christian way of life in return for food, education and shelter for your family. I don’t think aid and evangelism should ever go together in order to preserve the authenticity of a faith journey.

– I have been on the Christian platform as an artist over the years and felt the temptation and pull towards the cult of personality within the church. There is something intrinsically unsettling when fame and Christianity are mixed. I don’t know what the answer is but when I think about the way Jesus descended in posture and served whenever he had the opportunity, something in me says, “Yes! That is how it’s meant to be.” The industry that has been created through Christian commerce doesn’t feel right. I wish I could put my finger on it to offer a more concise thought but for now I have to trust my gut.

– The healing journey has been a huge one for me. Partly because I grew up with the doctrine that healing was a sign that God was real and active. But more provocatively, I have a daughter with special needs, so this is personal and has a certain weight. At the end of the day I can’t share the view that God will heal you if you pray for it. Trust me, I want it to be true. If I believed that healing was possible through petition, I’d have to accept that God has preferences towards certain individuals. This would make his character unjust. I don’t believe in healing at all and it is not from lack of trying (and believing). The promise of God’s ability to intervene physically in someone’s life to make it better is a cruel proposition for desperate people won’t share this experience. I have seen the promise of healing used as a leaver to keep people engaged and hopeful rather than the more difficult task of coaching someone to ask the challenging questions confronting their own fragile humanity. It is far easier to believe obstinately for something than it is to confront reality. If God truly has the ability to heal then why stop at a sore elbow and just heal creation once and for all – or at least people who really need it.

– I am comfortable with the idea that God is not in control of creation and that creation is constantly adapting for better or for worse. In fact, I now wonder if God looks at the stars continuing to be created with as much awe as we do, which is exactly what creative people feel when they finish a piece of art. I wonder if God started creation but is just as surprised at the outcomes as we are – including the presence of evil. If God were in control of this barbaric world, I would have to accept that justice is conditional and that the abuse of a child is palatable at least temporarily in regards to ‘time on this earth’. If God is truly in control then he has to be responsible for every outcome whether evil or good. If God were capable of evil, which he would have to be if he created it, then I’d give up right now. If he didn’t create evil then the implication is that there is some random surprises making God a passenger subject to other forces, albeit temporary. I subscribe to free will and understand that this allows evil but it still doesn’t answer the bug bear of who pressed the go button on evils potential in the first place?

– I believe in generosity, especially by us rich westerners. But I wrestle with the emphasis the modern church has put on tithing (10% of your income goes to the church for it to use how it feels best). I have benefited from peoples commitment to tithe receiving my income for my contribution as a church staff member. You can imagine how hypocritical I feel when saying these things. Only a few scriptures support tithing but are a little obscure at best. In contrast there are dozens and dozens of scriptures about caring for the poor and being generous that are far from obscure. When you give money to the church I don’t think it is the same as giving money to God as I have heard described many times. I’m not sure giving to a church as an act of kindness but more an act of obedience. When generosity is expressed connected to relationship; then it has meaning. There is something void and lifeless with an automatic direct debit from your account into the churches account.

If the services the church provides are important, then I think it is fine to simply ask people to give like you would any other charity without using scriptural compulsion. It should be assessed on its merit through a productivity matrix like any other NGO that measures the impact on the community and not just the benefits its member’s experience. After all, most Christians would say the church exists for others and not necessarily them, so it is a reasonable and simple question to ask if the finances reflect that value. If the church doesn’t perform efficiently, then people should have the choice to stop giving. Many don’t fully appreciate how much it costs to put on an hours service on a Sunday. If the hours for each staff member were collated and any monies spent were made clear, I wonder if congregants would reassess their enthusiasm for the hours experience on a Sunday and prefer the effort and finances directed more practically.

– Over the years I have heard the message on a Sunday regarded as something revelationary or divine. When I was a young person I used to think that too, but now I don’t see the sermon anymore special or more holy than a conversation over coffee. I believe in the power of words but that can happen in any setting. Lately I have been wishing pastors would present ideas different to their own held views in order for people to consider multiple conclusions rather than a definitive conclusion. I would love to see the church as a learning environment to broaden and explore the latest thinking and move away from indoctrination. I hope for Christians to be the best progressive thinkers on many subjects perplexing the community raising courageous thinkers like C.S. Lewis. I wish the congregants were taught and encouraged to think more independently instead of following sermons that are designed to be conclusive rather than a provocative and open-ended discussion.

– When I was a child my father’s church would have street crawls handing out tracts explaining the gospel message. I was always embarrassed but I would never have had the courage to not participate for fear of what it would say about my faith. I was taught that evangelising was part of expressing my faith and if I didn’t evangelise then my faith could be held in question. These days I’d say if God is truly as amazing as people profess, then he is perfectly capable of reaching someone through any means, even if it is unconventional and in the context of another religion. Propagating religion in many cases throughout history has been about power and influence. I sense God in my life because I searched for it, not because someone convinced me with a simple diagram on a napkin and some cleaver apologetics.

– I have always found churches mission statements problematic when it comes to inclusivity. A mission statement says if you believe in these principles you are welcome, if you don’t, then you are not welcome. In other words, we will not change or be influenced and new comers must eventually agree with our views. A mission statement or statement of faith says we are a community that has decided on certain things and are unmoveable. I feel more comfortable being with a community that has the courage to challenge even the most revered view. Once you put a line in the sand it is hard to objectively reconsider an idea without feeling the need to defend a position.

images– I love the creation story, it is beautiful and poetic describing a creative God but I can’t believe that it is a literal account of the beginning of life. Science is not a dirty word when it comes to faith. For me science gives clarity to this complex world. The idea of an expanding universe draws me even closer to God and with each new discovery comes more understanding making me feel closer. As an example… I am besotted by the proof of gravity ripples detecting two black holes colliding. We know that it happened around a billion years ago and has reached the earth only now – just the shear distance is mind-boggling and faith igniting. For that reason it doesn’t make sense for some Christians to say the earth is young (6000 years old) based on the bible using poetic pros to describe creation. It is beautifully written and should inspire us to dream. When the bible was collated people still believed the world was flat. They believed that the sun orbited the earth and the earth was in the centre of the universe. I am perfectly okay accepting the bible was written with bias and perceived through the limited understanding of the day. It doesn’t affect the quality of my faith. Because science and humanity is a work in progress, I find it hard to anchor myself in someone else’s absolutes and therefore am hesitant when someone professes an ultimate truth. I believe our understanding of truth will develop as time goes on just like history shows. Einstein came up with the idea of gravitational waves but said it would be impossible to ever measure and therefore prove and yet here we are. So when we present a moral perspective, it should be done in humility knowing many have gone before us with conviction and been wrong.

– From a more vulnerable perspective, my heart has been broken and I am wiser for it. I was led to believe that God acted in a certain way, that he was accessible and listened closely to prayers. One day, ‘real life’ came to my house asking for the rent and I didn’t have the money, nothing I believed up to that point was of any use. I realised despite my core belief, I was subject to the laws of life like everyone else. In those moments my lollypop and extravagant Christianity made little difference to the given moment.

I was told that knowing God gave me some sort of immunity to life’s most serious challenges because I could talk directly to him, trust in him and also negotiate. But all I was left with was a sense; a sense that God was good but nothing like what I had been led to believe. Interestingly I could only reconcile that God was good if I discarded the bible. I have the willingness and capacity for a pre-modern, organic faith; one that indigenous tribes probably understood. I poured money and time into a belief that God was a vending machine where I could pull a lever and he would deliver or at least answer my prayers. If he didn’t deliver, I was taught it was somehow my fault from a rogue sin or a simple misunderstanding. It is a shame that it took a crisis in life to sober me, I would have rather been a realist from the beginning then my heart wouldn’t have broken. Like any relationship, when it breaks down you have to assess it and figure out who the person really was that you fell in love with in the first place. Then the painful bit is admitting I got it wrong.

I feel like the church managed my relationship with God like a host would manage a dating site, but God’s profile was unreasonably overstated. Every Sunday I’d hear more about God making me more curious and I enjoyed hearing about the edited updates. It was interesting, hopeful and even comforting. Sometimes during the week I’d look online at God’s profile to reassure myself that he indeed were all the things the church claimed. God looked tall, handsome and in a business suit exuding success assuring me of my own success. But now I just want to meet the real Jesus, the one behind the highly managed digital version.

I want to try and capture what I believe in a short story form, sort of a parable I guess. It maybe a little cryptic but it is a good way for me to capture the sentiment of my ramblings in a few paragraphs. Since you have endured this long blog (I’m so sorry for that), a few more words may be worth the read if I can condense it all down into a story. So here it is:

medic in war

I found myself in a dark valley where bullets where flying over the top and the noise was horrendous, it was hard to hear myself think. Bodies where laying everywhere; I couldn’t even tell which limb belonged to which body. The groaning from the wounded and innocent was unbearable. I couldn’t understand why all the violence. To my surprise Jesus has been there a while. Blood was on his clothes and bits of flesh from field surgery were stuck to his shirt and dried on. Jesus was a medic and carried pain on his face from being in the war far too long. He was nothing like the person I’d heard about, he was unshaven and generally unkempt.

Alarmingly, there was nothing calm about the face of Jesus; instead he looked concerned almost as though he didn’t expect things to go this wrong. It was shocking because I wanted Jesus to be in control and full of assurance, but instead he could only respond to the chaos by patching wounds, even Jesus had wounds from the war on his hands and feet that would likely never heal. To my surprise Jesus didn’t talk much despite all the atrocity and injustice. He didn’t need to, the closer I got I could see all he had to say in his eyes. Imbedded deep in those eyes was also hope that all this carnage would eventually end.

Then someone yelled out in a blood gurgled, grizzly scream, “medic!” Before Jesus ran off to help, he turns to me to say, “Keep low when running across the war zone,” as though he had an expectation I was here to help. I was incensed because I was wounded and bleeding and he seemed to dismiss me. So despite the danger surrounding the both of us I stand up and tell him what I think as though there is time to protest. He doesn’t say anything and just hands me his medical kit to carry and says: “follow me, there’s work to do.” It is then that I realise my stupid requests never got heard because in this valley nothing makes sense and it is so loud with explosions there is not much time for conversation. Jesus then said to me, “this war will eventually end and some people are going to die – good people that didn’t even sign up, they were conscripted.” I find myself asking, “why all this chaos?” But Jesus doesn’t say anything and just starts crawling through the mud between bloodied bodies to attend to the next guy who was barely alive. There I am… holding Jesus’ kit bag. Bullets are whistling above and bombs are exploding everywhere. My only option is to crawl towards Jesus despite the chaos and all my doubt – so that’s exactly what I do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “My Disruptive Journey of Faith

  1. Hi Jay, Much of this reflects my ‘walk’ of the past 10 years or so. Thanks for sharing it. You’re not alone. Regards, Stuart.

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  2. Thanks Jay. That’s quite a list and I share many of your re-evaluations. Sometimes we just have to ditch some unhelpful / false / misguided teaching. While I share many of your thoughts, I just want to push back on one – if you don’t mind. I too find nothing attractive in “damaging, aggressive evangelism and proselytism” – not sure who does! But like your parable, I know too that Jesus spoke and lived a message of ‘good news’ and its not a western version of Christianity. Like you, I’ve met men and women from all cultural and faith backgrounds who have found something particularly liberating in Jesus and embraced the message that they are made in the image of God and that there is a personal God who loves them so much he came in the flesh, knows our pain, died on a cross and defeated death – and we can share in his resurrected life. In many cultures, there is often a cost to this that they are more than willing to take. It is a message of hope and love. The bible encourages us to share the good news ‘with gentleness and respect’ – never with aggression or insensitivity. I still reckon Easter / Jesus really is good news to be shared – and a lot of our brothers and sisters in Africa and the Middle East and Asia and Latin America do too.
    Always good to read your thoughts – and thanks for putting them out there and sharing them. Rod

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    • Hey Rod, as always you offer your thoughts with grace and humility. I agree with you although I am probably on the reactive side of this journey at the moment so my sensitivity to discussing my faith with people is full of caution. If something will benefit another we often will share it even with benign things like the latest app you ‘have to have’. So if Jesus is really that amazing then it is natural to share the ‘good news’. I appreciate the gentle alignment. I still think God reveals himself to you with or with out a humans involvement and in some ways that experience with out humans can be more profound. I find myself reacting to Christians who evangelise as though God is dependant on their help believing the human to human interaction is the only conduit to experience Jesus. We must sit down one day for coffee. I am playing drums more these days so maybe we’ll connect in the muso world somewhere. Take care and thanks.

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