Thursday, March 3, 2011


Cartoon: Lost at Sea

Lately, I’ve been frequenting some blogs written by self-described Christians who are deep in the throes of doubt or ex-Christians who are now skeptics, agnostics, heretics, and/or atheists.  While some are quite comfortable in their present position, many tell heart-wrenching stories of doubt, inner turmoil, fear.  Why is this topic of interest to me?  Because for the past ten years or so, I have been going through a period where I have questioned everything. 

M. Scott Peck says that people entering Stage III in the spiritual journey begin to question the religious doctrines with which they were raised: 

Stage III Skeptic, Individual, questioner, including atheists, agnostics and those scientifically minded who demand a measurable, well researched and logical explanation. Although frequently "nonbelievers," people in Stage III are generally more spiritually developed than many content to remain in Stage II. Although individualistic, they are not the least bit antisocial. To the contrary, they are often deeply involved in and committed to social causes. They make up their own minds about things and are no more likely to believe everything they read in the papers than to believe it is necessary for someone to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior (as opposed to Buddha or Mao or Socrates) in order to be saved. They make loving, intensely dedicated parents. As skeptics they are often scientists, and as such they are again highly submitted to principle. Indeed, what we call the scientific method is a collection of conventions and procedures that have been designed to combat our extraordinary capacity to deceive ourselves in the interest of submission to something higher than our own immediate emotional or intellectual comfort--namely truth. Advanced Stage III men and women are active truth seekers.  (The entire article can be read here.)
This doesn’t sound like such a bad experience on paper.  But in the nuts and bolts and guts and gore of real life, the transition can be an earth-shattering experience that affects all aspects of our beings - emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, and social.   And to make matters worse, many who enter this stage don’t know what’s happening to them.  I know I didn’t – for the first time since I became a Christian, I didn’t know where I was spiritually.  I had always been a person of great faith, what was happening to me?  I felt lost and alone in a great sea of questions.  I ran from the questions that kept arising, and tried to fight the questions that I was unable to suppress.  Adding to the difficulty, in my opinion, is that the majority of churches are at Stage II (Formal, Instutional, Fundamental, threatened by anyone who thinks differently from them), and so there is no place in these churches where people are allowed to ask questions.  So not only do we have all these questions, but there's no safe place to ask them - we have have people all around us who think we're falling into heresy.  In fact, I was actually "churched" as it's called here in the Bible belt.  It makes a scary place even scarier! 

 In my lonely “dark night,” I grasped at anything that might shed light and help to give me understanding about what I was going through.  I read Madame Guyon and Saint Teresa.  I read the writings of George Fox and Watchman Nee.  And while all these were helpful to some extent, they also seemed to be dark writings presented in antiquated language, difficult to understand from my 21st century perspective.   After that, I discovered the writings of contemporary mystics like Evelyn Underhill and Father Thomas Keating which explained a lot.  And thank God for the internet – I did find other crazies there, and that was of some comfort. 

I think one of the challenges is if we dare to question, if what we have previously known is NOT true, then what are we left with? Nothing? It sure feels that way… But there is a time for everything, even a time to tear down (Ecc. 3:3)…or, to use the contemporary term, deconstruct.  We must be willing to subject our adolescent faith to questions in order to make the transition into a more mature level of faith. I don’t claim to have all the answers; I’m still very much in transition myself. But I did come to a place where I stopped resisting the questions. I can remember thinking, “I’m just gooooing…” And everything as I had known it did crumble. (I won’t go into specifics – you might think me a heretic!)

I have been very fortunate that I came into what I can only term “a new place” in which I’ve found a greater faith; a greater certainty.  I like to think that at last I’m moving into Stage IV, into a more mature faith (I wrote about some of this here).  But I realize, as well, that even that is only the beginning.  And while I think I’ve been through the period of intense questioning that the skeptics describe on their blogs, I wonder.  My doubts may be as nothing compared to theirs!  In either case, I think Brian McLaren is correct in what he says in the trailer for his soon to be released book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words: “After we complete the four stages once, we go through them again and again, each time at a higher or deeper level.”

Peck says "Knowledge of these stages is so important because it facilitates the acceptance of others even though they may be in different places spiritually." Doubt is natural; doubt can even be very good and necessary for growth.  There is a great need to make room in our diverse faith communities for people on all levels of the spiritual journey, even the skeptical level!  And I think that’s what the emergent church folk are doing – they don’t claim to have all the answers, but they ARE trying to make a place where people can feel free to ask some of their questions.  

Update!  This "late-breaking video" just in from Reflections blog.  I just had to borrow it and add it to this post.  I realize it's an extreme example, but it is a sad example of what happens when there is no room for questions..."Westboro Baptist Church Family Disowns Daughter"


Don said...

I agree with you that Brian and the emergents have created a place where one can doubt and question without feeling "heretical". Wish I had known about them earlier in my journey. Would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights where I wondered what was WRONG with me.

Mae said...

It does fell like you're losing your mind when the questions start happening, doesn't it? But when I first heard of Brian McLaren and the emerging church, I was still steeped in fundamentalism and dualistic thinking. It took me a while before I was ready for the same kind of questions they were asking. Now, I don't think they go far enough :) but I'm glad they're in there having that conversation with the evangelicals. I admire them for it - I don't think I could do it! Thanks for stopping by, Don - I appreciate your encouragement!