This post was originally published over four years ago [edited now only slightly for fluency and clarity], when I first ventured to put words to my thoughts about my questioning. At the time I felt like it was a really new thing, to question the faith of my youth, or express doubts about what I was always taught to believe. I feel like a lot has happened in those four years, a lot of growth, a lot more wrinkles, a few more grey hairs — I think I hoped that I would have it figured out by now, even in my doubting. But the truth is I don’t, and I’m learning to be OK with that. I am OK with that. There is a depth and beauty that emerges when you allow things to be, just as they are — the good, the bad, and the ugly — without trying to shoe-horn your feelings and thoughts into the rubric of acceptable Christianity, OK? OK. Good. You are enough, just as you are.
There begins a slow, steady dripping,
like a leaky tap,
echoing in the still, sleepy hours.
Through a dark house
Across bare, boarded floors
Eventually the basin holds enough water
for me to see
a rippled reflection.
That leaky tap just won’t quit, even since before I wrote about the fire that characterised my Pentecostal upbringing – when within hours I had half a dozen people express their gratitude for me sharing my experience, because they could simply relate, and it gave them hope – the slow and steady drip continues. The basin overflows, the water leaks out, covers the floor, it finds it’s way into every room. It soaks into the carpet, ruining everything I once believed to be true. That soggy carpet has gotta go. But underneath it is something far more amazing, more foundational, more able to withstand the harsh treatment of life and somehow obtain more beauty along the way.
Our stories make us who we are, and when we share them they can also be a lantern of hope for others on that dark trail. When we share our stories – especially if they are stories of doubt and pain and questioning – those around us feel a little less alone. That’s a great thing, to feel like there are people who have gone before, or people who are walking side-by-side in the twilight. For people like me, who have grown up under a dogmatic reign of a particular (and often narrow) set of beliefs and rules, any hint at broadening that spectrum can feel a little dangerous – a slippery slope towards unbelief.
I think of my old way of believing as like a carpeted room – comfortable, warm, safe. Stepping out of that carpeted room is not encouraged, and any whispers of maybe peeking underneath to see what the floors are like… well, what’s the point? Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good carpet? It’s plush, it’s taken a lot of effort to keep clean and pure, it looks expensive! But sometimes the destruction that happens is beyond our control. The wine is spilled, the dog vomits, the mud is accidentally tracked in by unruly children.
Whether explicitly or not, we were taught not to question, not to critique or analyse. We were to surrender our intelligence to the group-think of our particular tribe. Education and critical thinking were frowned upon. Unless you could by it at a Christian bookstore, it wasn’t worth reading.
In Immortal Diamond the Franciscan Priest, contemplative and author Richard Rohr, talks of the search, the gradual discovery (…that dripping tap…) and personal growth as an uncovering of our True Self (…that full basin…), in which we find, at our very deepest core that “this discovery of our True Self is also at the same time a discovery of God” and our own unique expression of who I am in him and who he is in me. The deepest truest ‘you’ is that God-expression of your soul, and that is different to mine. Fundamentalism, legalism, and rigid religious thinking are more about making sure everyone is falling in line, ascribing to the beliefs of the leadership and following unquestioningly. It is a form of control, and it works really well. Self discovery and forging your own path are discouraged. And so, after a lifetime it seems, I have only began to discover these deep, true expressions of my soul (God-in-me) since opening myself up to questions I was long ‘protected’ from, since acknowledging that doubt is the “necessary partner to real faith”. Faith isn’t blind belief, or stubborn certainty. Faith is holding onto belief in the presence and tension of doubt. In removing myself from the mold and role I was taught to fill, I have found more and more of who God is, in finding more of who I am.
I’ve slowly and steadily outed myself over the last few years as a ‘progressive Christian’. Being affirming of LGBTQI rights, to believe that all should be able to live as the rest of us in a free society is not really a popular position among many in my faith community. Distancing oneself from a belief in a literal Hell is a one-way ticket there, according to others. Acknowledging an Old Earth and the science of evolution is supposedly completely incompatible with a Christian faith and I might as well just say I am an atheist (which is the worst thing anyone can be – apparently!). Consequently I think I have backed away from engagement out of fear of being rejected. I haven’t known how to have constructive conversations about differing beliefs without things becoming heated, without feeling attacked. I’ve struggled to connect with church, and with people for whom belief is easy. I don’t necessarily want to convince people that it’s better over here on this side (in many ways it’s not – it’s quite lonely at times), and neither am I interested in being pitied and condescended to and ‘prayed for’ because I think differently.
It’s been painful not having that foundation of certainty I once used to hold dear, that so many around me still hold dear. It’s painful because I’m critiqued by those who seem so certain that they are right, and therefore that I am wrong, and in need of guidance and correction. It’s painful because the people who seem so concerned for my spiritual well-being are actually the ones being the most hurtful. But that pain has brought with it its dear and welcome companion: growth.
And though I still secretly long to sink my bare feet into that thick, plush carpet again, and to confidently stand tall and strong and firm and right in what I believe, in that comfortable room, at some point I knew it was all over, it’s cleanliness was irredeemable – it was too stained, soggy, and smelly, and no attempt at cleaning it would fool anyone. So I kicked up the edge of that carpet that was beginning to fray, that was becoming threadbare and inconsistent, and unintentionally discovered something beautiful. I picked at the perimeter, I took a little peek at what was really hidden beneath.
Since then I’ve spent a lot of time stooping down, bending forward, leaning in to the slow process of peeling that carpet up at the corners, tearing it slowly and painfully away from the walls, revealing what was hidden all along. And it’s not over at the revealing, it requires real work, real strength, persistence and commitment. It requires some sleepless nights, it requires inviting people in to help, even though you’re not used to asking.
My fingers are raw from removing the residue; scraping, sanding, running hands over rough boards, acquiring splinters, tracing lines and knots and nail marks.
I find myself reveling in the unique beauty, and the echo of walking on wood, instead of quietly covering with bland uniformity, instead of muffling mystery.
And here’s the thing, I’m no longer afraid to make a mark! Each step, scar, and furrow only deepens the beauty.
That unforgiving carpet is long gone. Wooden floors are so much more gracious – every mistake adds depth and beauty, rather than stains and stale smells.
So, to the doubters, to those who dare to hope that there might be so much more flavour beyond the dry and tasteless crust of rote religion, you may find that once you begin to be ill-at-ease with the expression of uncertainty, that you no longer ‘fit’ into your groups – those groups that come with broad shoulders and a confident gaze and easy answers.
You may feel small under the heaviness of your questions, you may feel alone on those dark nights when unbelief rattles you and the hot tears in your soul burn with that fearful question “what if this is all there is?” Know that you are not alone, that doubt is the natural and essential friend of faith.
You might find that in your seeking and unlearning that (as Richard Rohr so poetically invites us to consider) “what you seek is what you are”, you might just find God (or whatever you want to call that glorious, warm, quiet, intensity that exists at our very core) waiting for you within the very questions you were warned not to ask. In the words of that enigmatic personality, Jesus, “the one who keeps on seeking, finds”.
Keep on seeking. Grab that carpet with both hands and join me in the fabulous holy work of kneeling, and renovating these comfortable rooms where we once stood with such certainty.
And to the young, passionate souls with the world just beyond your door, or to the well-versed, certain veterans of the fatih… please – don’t look down on us Holy Doubters. Don’t belittle our questions or dismiss them with pat answers, or brush our very earnest search for truth under the corners of your plush, new rug. Be slow to speak; really listen, without judgment. Don’t assume that because we are walking a different path that we don’t know or haven’t truly experienced God
All too soon, you may just find yourself stepping out across that threshold, grabbing our hands and running or falling out into that wide grey world, out into the mud and the grass and the fallen leaves and the teeming life and sacred death of this rich and mysterious landscape.
You might find your boots laden with clay and your fingernails a little chipped from scrambling in the forgotten wild. And you might find that these things, when you return home to rest, soil and scuff and flatten that well-kept and presentable carpet. And you might discover that it is not really necessary after all…
that it was concealing something far more beautiful and rich and deep,
and marked with the evidence of life,
and with the soles of those who have gone before.