Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Journey, Part 1: Back to the Beginning

This is part 1 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

When announcing my hiatus back in May, I mentioned (but deliberately did not elaborate on) a "new direction" to my journey of faith, which has put my beliefs in a "new and more promising state of flux". This is slightly inaccurate since in truth God didn't shift me into a new direction; I simply realized that the direction in which He has been leading me, besides leading me away from something, has also been leading me towards something. As I realized this, the previous direction I had been planning to take my series on the gospel became inadequate; some major rethinking was in order. Hence the hiatus.

To try and make sense of this development, to set it in its proper context (theologians are all about proper context), I did a fairly comprehensive survey of my journals, which span the last six years, in an attempt to trace and summarize the trajectory my faith has taken to where I am today. The result ended up being about 35,000 words, so I'm breaking it into about 13 posts which I hope to put out in relatively quick succession. So without further ado, back to what I believed in late high school/early college! (This is the continuation of my series on the gospel, I swear)

Looking back at my old journals, which begin shortly after I left high school, such is the difference that they could have been written by a different person. And I really was a different person back then, at least in how I thought about and lived my faith. I had some big, deep-seated misconceptions about what it meant, practically, to be a Christian that would set the direction for my journey in the years to come.


As N.T. Wright explains in The New Testament and the People of God, "dualism" can mean a lot of different things, so I'll clarify my own usage of it here. By "dualism" I specifically mean a dualistic relationship between my agency and God's agency. That is, I believed that either I did something, or God did something for me, and that Christianity was, in some sense, 'about' ceasing to do things for ourselves and letting God do them for us, thereby 'trusting' Him rather than our own strength. One of my earliest journal entries shows this belief pretty clearly:
For a while I've been confused about the role of actions vs. faith in my spiritual life; if I'm to trust in God, does my current situation in life depend on my own actions or efforts? If it does things seem hopeless; if not, my free will seems useless. (2008-8-14)
I clearly saw a distinction between "trusting God", which was supposed to be at the heart of the gospel, and relying on my own actions or efforts, which was negatively associated with "religion". For example, one quote from a book about the beatitudes I've been going through says:
Christianity is about coming over and over again to rest in the life Jesus lived and the death that he died for you as a gift of sheer grace. Religion and morality turn Christianity into a system of achievement: "Do this, and you will live." But the beatitudes turn this on its head. In them we hear Jesus say, "I have done this, so you live."
It's not about what we're supposed to do, but what Jesus has done for us. The dichotomy between our agency (assumed to be fallen and impotent) and God's agency (assumed to be all-sufficient) is clear here. The gospel is about Jesus doing for and in us what we cannot (and should not try to) do for ourselves. He does the work, not us; He gets the glory, not us. So I don't think my dualistic thinking, however misguided it was, was or is entirely without support in the evangelical world.

The latter part of that journal entry also shows some of my early confusion about this kind of dualism: the dichotomy between our (useless, fallen) agency and God's (all-sufficient) agency also seems to necessitate a choice between despairing in our own strength or setting aside our free will to let God do everything. Or, trying to put them together, all we were supposed to do in our spiritual life was to somehow actively trust or rest in what He has done for you, as if the pure act of "trusting" apart from other action on our part made any sense. The Christian band Casting Crowns describes this paradox as "trying so hard to stop trying so hard". Seeing no alternative at the time, I assumed there was an answer to this question that I just didn't know yet.

A few other quotes to drive the point home:
Why should I serve God in something I enjoy and am good at? Aren't I supposed to rely on His strength, not mine? (2010-6-29)
Here I'm confused about another implication of my dualistic thinking: it seemed to turn the whole idea of "spiritual gifts" or God-given talents on its head. Doesn't relying on our own interest in or aptitude for something keep us from relying on God? Doesn't He get more glory for using someone totally unequal to the task, as He did with Moses, Gideon, David, and so many others? So shouldn't I seek to minister in ways I don't feel talented, gifted, or interested in, so He gets all the glory? (I'm not saying this is a well-developed evangelical teaching, this is just what I believed at the time, ostensibly as an implication of it)

Even during one of my major crises of doubt (more on that next time), I clung to this belief in dualism, in God working independently of me and my faith, for hope:
The strength of my faith is not what it once was. What we do is unimportant compared to what God has done for us. (2011-12-14)
I've heard that last sentence, or something basically equivalent to it, innumerable times in evangelical teaching.

Relationship with God

Related to dualism was a strong emphasis on my "relationship with God" (again, this was based on evangelical teaching I was hearing, or rather my interpretation and application of it). What I was hearing was that the point of "the gospel" was so that we could have a powerful, transformative, loving, personal relationship with God. This relationship was seen as equivalent to salvation itself (John 17:3). After all, "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion".

What I took from this kind of teaching was that everything in my spiritual life (and my life in general) depended on staying in right relationship with God. And I mean everything. In almost Buddhist fashion, I believed that this relationship was the solution to all of my problems; anything I was going through came down to some disruption in this relationship that needed to be repaired. The important thing wasn't directly confronting the problem, but fixing the relationship. I also thought of this relationship in dualistic terms: seek the face of God, reject the world and its temptations. Sin issues were solved by turning from whatever was tempting me back to God. I was constantly on guard against things "distracting" me from God. Some more journal quotes will illustrate (I probably considered all of these to be exemplary expressions of faith):
Instead of focusing so much on not sinning, maybe I should try to think of God more. (2008-8-11)
Seeking God is really all that matters—I don't have to worry about anything else. That's it. (2009-7-14)
Now, my faith means in any choice I have between my relationship with God and anything else, God wins, because I know He has my best in mind. (2011-11-22)
The first quote shows how I envisioned a very simple choice between either choosing God or choosing sin/the world. The solution to sin issues was simply turning my mind from sin to God—simple, right? The second quote states this more strongly, and shows how the evangelical tendency to highly value piously reductionist statements without nuance was rubbing off on me. The third one shows how this misconception was related to my view of dualism: the only thing I was supposed to 'do' was remain in relationship with God (apparently apart from anything concrete), and let Him take care of the rest. I'm not sure if I knew of the aphorism "let go and let God", but I probably would have endorsed it.

As I got involved with Campus Crusade (Cru) in college, this focus on relationship with God also took on conversionistic overtones: that is, I came to believe that this relationship was begun by our accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior and having your sins forgiven, which was supposed to instantly transform/regenerate you, bringing you from death to life. I saw a binary, black-and-white distinction between being "saved" and "unsaved", between "having Jesus" or not. This distinction was the most important thing about a person, and the "decision for Christ" was the most important decision of one's life. Consequently, when I eventually did run into serious doubt, it meant that I began questioning when and whether I had every really made that singular, all-important "decision for Christ" that was supposed to change everything, and if maybe I had better accept Him again just to be sure it really "took".

One more quote to tie this misconception in with the next:
Why am I trusting in my heart to let me know how it's doing? I can't just rely on some intuitive, mystical relationship with God. I need to actually get to know Him through His word and intentionally seek out His will for my life. (2008-9-2)
This relationship with God, though personal, was (I believed) mediated through Scripture. There was no place for wishy-washy emotionalism or mysticism here; our knowledge of God had to be based on His Word to us, and not on our own wishes or experiences.

Rationalism/Internal vs. External Faith

Last, and most seriously, were my own hyper-rationalistic tendencies, which created a gaping divide between my head and my heart, actions, and life. Unlike the previous misconceptions, which were at least nominally based on Christian teachings I was hearing, this one was (and still is) innate to my personality; it's a danger of being the deep thinker God has made me to be. It meant that my faith primarily played out in my intellect/conscious will (I saw no distinction between the two), my "beliefs" were often my mental assent to a propositional doctrine that was logically explained to me, and I thought I was supposed to "live out my faith" by rationally applying these beliefs in my everyday life through my conscious decisions. I expected to be able to somehow choose to "focus on my relationship with God" consistently and let Him take care of everything else, and considered this to be what the "Christian life" consists of. This colorful quote shows how I tried to do everything in the "Christian life" very intentionally, and was often frustrated:
If I consider following and knowing God to be a matter of the heart, I get into some kind of abstract, mystical, thought-policing state in which I try to turn my heart and mind to Him and am doomed to failure. If I consider it more a matter of the will, I risk getting into legalism. (2008-9-3)
In practice, in my actions (which, it turned out, were still up to me) I tended to "live out my faith" simply by going along with the expectations or application points given to me from my Christian circles. Thus, my rationalism gave rise to what I call (in retrospect) my two separate faiths: internal and external. My internal faith was dynamic and active in me, but largely consisted of merely thinking about Christian truth. My external faith was how I "lived it out" in accordance with what I was taught, but was impersonal and largely disconnected from how I actually processed faith. Obviously, this divide would lead to trouble.

Another result of my rationalistic tendencies was my expectation of my beliefs, doctrine I was taught, and the Bible to all make logical sense and to neatly cohere with each other. I believed that this was to be expected if they were true, because that's how truth works: by fitting into neat little compartments and formulas. (Obviously I no longer agree with this, at least consciously) My simplistic understanding of God's agency vs. my own was one example of this. I don't think I imagined that there might be truths that seemed counterintuitive or challenging, or that I might not understand; I believed that if it was true, it would readily appear to be so, and if no answer seemed like this, then I hadn't found it yet.

Dualism, a single-minded focus on "relationship with God", and a divide between rational "internal" and experienced "external" faith—with misconceptions like these, it was only a matter of time before something went wrong.

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