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If you’re walking away from the church, here are other things you … – ABC News

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Mandy Smith
If you’re leaving church or walking away from faith, the very word “pastor” may make you cringe. But if your questioning of pastors and all they stand for leaves you with an uncanny need for a pastoral presence in your life, I’m writing for you.
Because when I demanded answers of the church, I needed a pastor more than ever before. I needed a trusted ally as I demanded integrity between scripture and tradition. But instead, when I shared my questions, the pastors in my life often made a face. I’d thought I was in a family that could hold me in my thrashing. But instead I discovered I had a family that packed my bags as soon as I had doubts.
Now that I’m a pastor I feel myself making that same, anxious face when someone risks voicing their questions. When someone’s belief is shaky, I feel my own pastoral failure. When someone says they’re leaving, I fear for my church’s sustainability. But I want to respond more from compassion for the one whose whole world is in upheaval than from the way their upheaval sets up tiny tremors under my feet.
And so if you’re feeling that upheaval, I write for you. If the injustice, the politics, the inconsistencies, the irrelevance has you walking away from faith or church or both, I write to you. I write to say the things I wish someone had said to me in my doubt (and I’ll try to keep my hand-wringing to a minimum). And I write to offer the comfort I received from four pastoral voices who surprised me along the way.
I know now that in asking hard questions I was actually being faithful to my instruction. I’d been told there was truth to be found and I’d been taught to set my heart after the seeking of it. I’d been told Truth was a person and that finding that person might cost me everything. So when there was a conflict between the truths I read in the Bible and things I saw in the church, why did naming that conflict make me the heretic?
I see now that there were three heresies of contemporary Western Christianity I still uncritically embraced, even in my questioning. Naming them didn’t bring instant resolution, but it released me to a more courageous, curious, human pursuit of truth. If these pernicious parts of contemporary Western Christianity are also following you even in your leaving, I encourage you to question them.
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In response to my questioning, a faithful friend, in a desperate effort to curtail my wanderings, said, “If God doesn’t exist I don’t want to know about it.” This proclamation, which seemed so zealous, struck me as a deep heresy. Thankfully it wasn’t long before I met the first pastor in my questioning, Christian mystic, Simone Weil:
One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.
As nice as it sounds to fall into God’s arms, that’s meaningless if God doesn’t exist. But even so, these words opened a fresh possibility — maybe the God I’m questioning is a God who is not affronted by my questions, even if humans who represent God had been. If God exists, that’s just who God is. And a God like that is a God I want to believe in.
And so I took permission to grapple for dear life like Jacob, to bellow like the Psalmist, to contend like Job. I stomped and pouted like Jeremiah. And just as it didn’t get those courageous biblical characters rejected by God, it didn’t get me rejected by God — even if some people who led the church rejected me. It made no rational sense to pound on the chest of a God I wasn’t sure I believed in. But the part of me that still hoped God was there was willing to live the oxymoron.
To seek absolute certainty, as much as it seems zealous, is heresy. So, for God’s sake, leave that heresy behind.
There’s a rich tradition of Christian scholarship. So my questions naturally took me to libraries and conferences and the feet of academics — wonderful but limited resources. It never crossed my mind that my wrestling might also find expression in prayer or generosity, art or nature. Instead, I got stuck in a loop of thinking and talking to the point of exhaustion. In my anxiety, I imagined the painful process would only end when I finally stumbled across the ultimate fact-statement. My anxious desire to find that elusive fact that would resolve my pain kept me from facing the deeper truth — that my mind was tired and my heart, despairing.
Here the wise voice that pastored me was that of Christian epistemologist, Esther Lightcap Meek. Until then I’d never considered that the very way we question shapes what we find:
We tend to think knowledge is information, facts, bits of data, “content”, true statements — true statements justified by other true statements. And while this isn’t exactly false, we tend to have a vision of knowledge being only this.
Here is another heresy of contemporary, Western Christianity — the belief that the call to grow is a call to fill our heads with ideas alone. Meek describes a more beautiful and dangerous way of knowing:
Knowing is a pilgrimage. It requires taking personal responsibility, born of love, to pledge allegiance to what we do not yet know. It requires relying on seemingly opaque guidance to venture in the darkness of half-understanding. We invite its gracious and surprising self-disclosure, seeking to indwell its clues to make sense of a hidden pattern. We risk our forever being changed. It is an adventure … Knowing is a gift.
While I desperately wanted to just resolve the tension, I discovered that I wasn’t yet the person who could receive the insight I longed for. My scrambling to arrive had shut down my wonder and curiosity, stunted my personal development. So I chose to be patient with my own limited understanding. I embraced the ways we’re shaped by unresolved things and remembered how to learn with my whole self — mind, senses, instincts, and heart. There’s a completeness in making peace with incompleteness.
To focus on truth as ideas alone, as much as it seems zealous, is heresy. So, for God’s sake, leave that heresy behind.
A few months back, I took an informal social media survey asking current and former Christians to define how they understand the popular use of “deconstruction”, the multi-layered word which is often used to describe this wrestling and redefining many are undergoing in their faith. As I suspected, the survey brought many varied responses, most expressed with pain. But there was one thing every single answer had in common — they all described an incredible amount of personal work. The definitions began with:
“A person examines …”
“Someone investigates …”
“I look at my beliefs through new lenses …”
“I pull apart …”
“I dismantle my theology …”
“We disentangle …”
Someone shared the definition of theologian Kirsten Sanders: “the struggle to correct or deepen naive belief.” Derek Webb, a musician who’s been called “a public deconstructor” joined the conversation, describing deconstruction as “taking a regular audit of your presumptions about invisible reality”. And Brad Jersak added his definition: “questioning constructs”.
There’s no doubt that whatever deconstruction is, it involves a lot of effort — seeking, reading, journalling, conversing. Whether we do this alone or in community, to feel full responsibility for it is exhausting. And here’s the thing that just feels like another heresy of contemporary Western Christianity — the self-determination of it all. We’ve been taught to work hard for our salvation, to discipline ourselves to become like God. And even as we question everything the church has taught us, without realising it, we still bring those soul-crushing habits with us.
Yes, the Bible calls us to take responsibility but it’s always in response to something God initiated. God is the one who made us, who redeems us, who transforms us over a lifetime. Any choice we make to participate is a response to that grace (which means “gift”), a stick-figure drawing given with love back to the one who gave us the crayons in the first place.
To work in our own strength, as much as it seems zealous, is heresy. So, for God’s sake, leave that heresy behind.
Here’s where another pastor, activist and monk Thomas Merton, spoke calm into my striving:
The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
Here is a better way: to know — whether or not we believe it’s God — that truth-seeking is a work done in us, not only by us. There is a way that time and sleep and tears will shape our capacity for the Truth we seek.
The final pastoral voice in my questioning came from scripture itself. I’ve condensed this quote from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi to highlight his embrace of the messy process of hungering for truth:
I want to know … Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal … If … you think differently, that too God will make clear to you … The Lord Jesus Christ … will transform (us).
It saved me to watch this founder of our faith in that unsettling space between past and future. Even Paul knew the disruptive experience of releasing what we’ve been before we know what we’ll be. Even the very proactive, intelligent Paul knew how to let himself be wholly transformed. While Paul certainly embraces his own agency in this process — I want, I press on, I strain — at the same time, he’s aware of his limitations, acknowledging he is not Lord of his own transformation. Even as he exerts himself he knows that there is a life-giving force at work beyond his own power: Christ Jesus took hold of me. God will make clear. Jesus transforms.
To reject the belief that God has no capacity for questions is not to reject God. Question that heresy. And you might come to know a God who is engaged and dynamic — even (especially) in the intimacy of wrestling. To reject the belief that faith requires us to dominate our own understanding is not to reject faith. Question that heresy. And you may find in yourself a new capacity for curiosity and adventure.
I’m just one small person but here’s what my wrangling taught me (and what I believe scripture and the historical, global church — outside of contemporary Western Christianity — affirms):
Whether or not you call it God, something wants to work in you, giving you capacity to embody truth. In the meantime, there are tears to be shed, walks to be wandered, naps to be had, and skin to be bared to the rain. Those things also hold truth. You might just find that you believe more than you think.
Mandy Smith is pastor of St. Lucia Uniting Church, Brisbane, and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture.
The ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is home to religious reporting & analysis, ethical discussion & philosophical discovery, and inspiring stories of faith and belief.
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