Author: Justin Davis
I silently stand among a crowd of hundreds, taking in my surroundings. A few women near the front raise their hands above them, shouting a cavalcade of “amens!” toward the heavens. In the adapted YMCA, the air smells like a mixture of gym shorts and bad coffee. I look to my left: a young woman has her hand in the air, gently swaying back and forth while softly mouthing the lyrics. To my right, an older man sways back and forth, occasionally running his hand through his peppered hair. During worship, intermittent prayers are offered between songs in spontaneous ecstasy and nervousness. Amid all of the pageantry, in the middle of a large congregation of people, I close my eyes and breathe deeply. An exhalation that feels more like a sigh slowly escapes from between my lips.
“Yep, still nothing,” I silently admit to myself.
In this large and enthusiastic crowd, I feel incredibly alone.
This isn’t the first time I’ve ever felt disconnected from my faith, and it certainly won’t be the last. Recently, more often than not, I’ve pretended to believe on Sunday mornings. During worship, I struggle to believe the words that are on the screen. During the sermon, I cringe and recoil when I hear offhanded sarcasm flowing from the pulpit. I sit there alienated as a hipster-esque video explicitly tells me that those who don’t believe strongly in inerrancy are “disengaged from the faith” and need saving. Then, when prayers are offered and altar calls are pronounced, I feel jaded, like I’m trying to resist manipulation.
In these moments, it’s easy to feel as if something is wrong with me. Everyone else around me is deep into the music, swaying back and forth with hands raised high, as I’m struggling to even put the words upon my lips. The same air that is giving them life seems to be stealing my breath. I try so hard to believe. I really do. But I’m tired of forcing myself to feel something that I simply don’t feel.
In the past, many spiritual prescriptions have been given to me in order to cure this aching in my soul. I’ve been told that in order to eradicate this feeling, I just needed to believe more. To fix my loneliness, I needed to get into community groups where people are afraid to really be vulnerable. To assuage my doubts, I just needed to read my Bible more in the name of “loving truth.” Yet, no matter how hard I prayed, how avidly I studied Scripture, how many community groups I attended (and led!), or how much time and money I gave to the church, the loneliness and questioning persisted. Through the years, I’ve found that a spiritual community that is okay with such radical doubt is hard to find.
Undoubtedly, the move to Boston has been a key factor in my spiritual homelessness. Even though I’m at a Divinity School, finding a church family has proved to be difficult. The church that I attended during my undergrad career was the first church where I truly felt “at home.” I was baptized in a river just under a year ago with my church family, and to leave them was one of the hardest parts of moving away. Now that I’ve moved away, finding a such a deep and impactful spiritual community here in Boston has been more elusive than I originally thought. Part of the fault, however, lies with the way I think about religion.
As a both a person of faith and a scholar of religion, it’s often difficult for me to separate my academic deconstruction of religious structures from my confessional beliefs. My journey through Christianity is consistently marked by its own internal chaos. I’ve been through a long period of deconstruction over the past few years, and I’m only beginning to pick up the pieces. But that’s one of the beautiful (and incredibly frustrating) aspects of Christianity: it’s a faith that begs to be continually deconstructed and reconstructed. Certainty is never promised in this faith, and that makes a lot of us really uncomfortable.
We, as human beings, are addicted to certainty. One way to secure certainty is by organizing the world into neat boxes and categories. It helps us to make sense of the world around us, and provides us with a frame of reference for interpreting new information that we encounter. For years, I spent so much time and energy devoted to constructing and maintaining complex theologies about God and faith. Whether it was the false certainty that apologetics promised or the comfortable apathy of being one of the “elect” in Calvinism, I found myself spending so much intellectual and spiritual effort trying to defend a systematic theology.
Many of our churches do the same. So many resources are dedicated to building and maintaining a unified system of belief. Evangelicalism has long relied on the crutch of the paying faithful, and lines must be drawn in order to maintain the status quo. Being certain simply feels good, and it works to calm our anxieties, at least until we are confronted with inconvenient realities. At this point, we can either try to conform the doubter to our beliefs, expel them if they refuse, or tolerate them as long as they don’t disturb the fabricated peace. In my experiences, doubt is often viewed as an enemy to overcome or a temporary condition that can be tolerated, as long as orthodoxy is maintained in the end.
Quite frankly, I’m over it. I’m over having to defend and qualify every theological statement that I make. I’m tired of defending a theological system instead of experiencing the very mystery of God. I’m tired of being treated like a patient who should be praying and waiting for remission, as if my doubts and struggles are a contagious cancer to the faithful around me.
Honestly, I don’t believe that having doubts makes one less faithful. In fact, perhaps struggling, questioning, and wrestling with our beliefs is the only way to remain faithful to them. Uninterrogated assumptions are often the most fragile.
Nor do I feel shame through my admission of doubt. Shame is born through exposure. Yet shame is healed through vulnerability. We all feel disconnected from each other in some way, no matter how significant. We are made to be in community, and when we are deprived of those connections, we quickly become unsatisfied and lonely. By confessing our own feelings of isolation, we can start to be mended together through our shared brokenness.
Now, I’m not leaving the church. I can’t abandon the church, even if I feel that she has often abandoned the least of these. Jesus calls us lay down our lives in service to others. There’s a brilliant Jewish parable that demonstrates this point well.
In the story, Rabbi Haim of Romshishok imagines the difference between heaven and hell by imagining worlds in which one cannot bend one’s elbows (or must use incredibly long spoons, depending on the tradition). While those in hell cannot feed themselves under such conditions, those in heaven are well-fed, as they only eat by feeding one another.
As such, we should strive to build communities of faith in which we nourish one another selflessly, regardless of belief or creed. Even though I don’t know where I’ll end up, as a Christian mongrel, I find God in many expressions of the tradition, both confessional and radical.
Through the Episcopal Church, I am struck dumbfounded by the great mystery of the Eucharist. In Eastern Orthodoxy, I’m reminded of the holiness of God, and how sometimes the best ways to honor God is through silence and song. The nondenominational church reminds me that God desires us as we are, without any strings attached. The Presbyterian church reminds me of God’s sovereignty and grace, even if we disagree about its implications. The Pentecostal church reminds me of the freedom we have to sing and dance in response to God. Radical theology reminds me to hold all of these beliefs with open palms, as I could very well be wrong about everything.
These experiences remind me of the wide expanse that my tradition encompasses and assuage my fear of not feeling or believing what one branch of that tradition insists that I must. Each step of my journey has revealed a different side aspect of my faith that I cherish and respect. By paying homage to my past, I can come to grips with where I am now, even if it feels like a million miles from where I’ve been. No one has a corner on orthodoxy. We are all seeing through a glass darkly. Home is held in a promise, not in a proposition. And I hold onto that promise.
Through all of my deconstruction and doubt, I still adhere to Christianity. No matter how far I try to run away, God is always there, gently holding me. The narrative of the Scriptures resonates within me and functions as the framework with which I see and operate within the world. The Christian tradition provides me with the language that I find most helpful in describing my experiences with God. In the end, I see God most clearly and beautifully through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As such, my life as a Christian is remarkably simple: follow him.
Serve the poor and lowly.
Feed the widows and orphans.
Give hope and stand with the oppressed and marginalized.
Die to everything that doesn’t define me.
I don’t know what I believe about every fine point of doctrine, and that’s perfectly okay. When Jesus called upon a handful of simple fishermen, no doctrinal statement had to be signed before the disciples could follow him. They simply followed (rather imperfectly, just like me).
So that’s what I’m doing.
Following the call of my Rabbi.
Unsure of where it will take me.
Knowing that death will surely follow.
But holding onto the glorious hope of Resurrection.
So, with great trepidation, I walk through the doors of another church. The beautiful stain glass provides the only light in the immense cathedral. Large white sheets cover the altar and mirrors line the walls to my left and my right, suggesting that the old, historic building is undergoing renovation. Yet, still a small congregation gathers together, greeting each other warmly. I sit among them as a pair of singing bowls invite deep reflection and meditation. The liturgist stands up before the people, and his first words still resound in my ears:
“No matter who you are, where you are, or what you believe, we want you to know that you are at home here.”
My heart skips a beat. It feels as if a fresh wind has blown through these old, limestone walls. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I feel a tear gently gliding down my cheek. I wipe it off, and gently smile.
“Home,” I softly exhale, just under my breath.
Maybe, just maybe, it could be true.