Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Journey, Part 2: Cracks Appear

This is part 2 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

Between my perceived dualism of my agency and God's, my laserlike focus on "relationship with God" or a "decision for Christ" as the be-all and end-all of Christian spirituality, and my rationalistic distortion of the faith, it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. You can't run the "Christian life" on such misconceptions any more than you can run a car on water. 2010 and 2011, for me, were marked by my first two major "crises" of doubt, which served to shatter these illusions, or at least begin their end.

Summer Project

The first signs of the aforementioned trouble started to appear when I was on Summer Project in Milwaukee, helpfully documented here about a month after it happened. Specifically, my conversionist take on my relationship with God and my dualistic view of how my agency and God's agency interact turned out not to work in actual ministry. I expected that if I believed the right things and took part in inner-city ministry, God would do amazing things through me, like I thought I'd been promised. But one evening, during the mens' Bible study as we were sharing ways we had seen God at work, I couldn't think of anything. The problem, I thought, lay with my faith—but how could that be? What was I doing or believing wrong? Wasn't it all about what God had done, not me? I journaled my confusion:
I want faith and I'm praying for faith but I'm not finding it and it can't be God's fault so it's my fault and I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Why am I the only one not seeing God at work? Why am I stagnating? Except I can't live for God inwardly or outwardly on my own. ... If I don't see Him at work in my life, am I being lazy or impatient? (2010-7-5)
I seemed to be interpreting John 15:5 to mean that I couldn't do anything of spiritual value on my own, which (in my flawed dualistic thinking) meant that I could expect it to happen completely apart from my own efforts. If things weren't working the way I'd hoped, there was nothing I could do (for "apart from me you can do nothing"); was my faith somehow wrong? Did I really have faith? Was Jesus really still the Lord of my life? Were His promises trustworthy?

Unfortunately, I didn't end up actually resolving that issue; I had to get back to my ministry, after all. I resolved to set aside my expectations of God and keep following Him even if He didn't seem to be doing anything through me, even if He seemed to make my life worse. I misinterpreted Job 13:15 ("Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him", actually part of Job's attempt to justify his case to God) and considered it my "life verse". At the time I considered this the big important faith decision I needed to set everything right (from my blog post: "I made an intentional decision to put my faith in Him"), the highlight of the whole project, but looking back I realize that I was simply denying my doubts, sweeping them under the rug and moving on. They wouldn't remain there forever. Nothing made any more sense to me then before; I just decided to keep going anyway, without really knowing why, thinking that this bold decision was an act of "faith".

2011 small group

But, of course, more episodes of doubt followed. The next came one night in 2011 during a meeting of my church small group. I have no idea what we were talking about; as was so often the case, my thoughts and questions led me on a trajectory that was far removed from the rest of the group. This doubt was overwhelming and confusing, as doubt so often is. As it began, I journaled (emphasis mine/original):
If we grow in relationship with Christ just to help other people know Him, that's circular and pointless. I want it to be more authentic, more real than that. What is the life of Christ? What is the death of Christ in us? ... So much of the time this seems like just idea manipulation, pointless exercises. How do I 'plug into' God and make sense of it? Works aren't the point. Emotions aren't the point. Knowing isn't the point. What is the point? Nothing matters. Except God. 
I'm struggling not to see [Christianity] as a different version of normal life with no substantive difference. ... I've suddenly realized how empty, meaningless most of my actions are day-to-day. I see it in others too. I'm just a shell of a life. Is anyone not a shell? People with Christ in their hearts. But what does that mean? I do have Christ, and I'm a shell. (2011-11-30)
The day after, I posted some brief thoughts on seeds and shells. The divide between my internal faith (the seed) and external faith (the shell) had become undeniable. Externally I did all these "Christian" things that didn't really make sense to me (like "know Christ" and evangelize people so they could "know Christ" and evangelize others), and then off in another part of myself I thought about my actual questions of faith and belief. But my belief and practice rarely conversed with each other; my thinking was disconnected from reality and my praxis was disconnected from any theoretical grounding. I had begun to feel this gap acutely.

In retrospect, this was inevitable and unsurprising. While I myself largely focused on thinking (and blogging) on matters of belief, in practice I largely just conformed to the expectations of what was "normal" for my Christian circles. As I realized this disconnect and tried to close it by connecting my thinking with my practice, I began to realize that many elements of how I lived as a "Christian" didn't make sense (like the seeming circular emphasis, especially of Cru, on the "point" of knowing Christ being to share Him with others, until I wasn't sure what else it actually meant). As I began to question more and more elements of my external faith by trying to connect them with my internal faith and being unable, I became less fervent and more ambivalent about living my faith out. I still inwardly believed "the gospel" as I'd been taught it, but I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with how I saw it lived out in American Christianity and how little this seemed to correlate with my own understanding. I wrote:
I want to get a good look at Christianity without the 'bandwagon-y” religion getting in the way. So often it's just about knowing the right answers and having the emotional experience—the head and the heart only. (2011-12-21) 
Christian theology is a beautiful study of the divine, but Christian praxis is riddled with contradictions. I desperately want to connect my everyday life to the eternal, to meaning outside of myself. I don't see how to do that in Christianity. (2011-12-22)
These critiques are not entirely fair; to an extent, I was projecting my own two-level conception of Christianity onto the church. I was simply unable to see things in a more integrated way, and I never got substantial help in doing this. It was also around this time that I dropped out of my personal involvement with Cru:
I dislike how normative Christian culture is. ...Is there pressure to 'add to' God's work? …You can't put Christianity into someone from outside. They can only accept Jesus into their heart—the center of their being. … I want to go deeper than [just acting like Cru people to fit in]—I really identified with and supported Cru's mission, but I think I did it all to please Cru, not God. I was a Christian as a lifestyle, as logic and a desire to be part of something, experience something [meaningful], but I only fleetingly connected my faith to my real needs that were instead met by shallow religious facsimiles. Is it wise to incentivize Christian events by what you will get out of them? There is such great pressure to accept the gospel now, I can see why it might not have time to 'drop down'. (2011-12-29)
There is a lot going on in this entry. My sense of Cru's ethos was something externally imposed stemmed, again, from the disconnect between how I internally processed and understood my faith and the ways that faith was 'supposed' to manifest, which I saw as normative. So I followed this ethos, but because of this disconnect it was "all to please Cru, not God". I also saw a conflict between perceived pressure to "accept the gospel" and allowing it to actually permeate you. I saw Cru as focusing much more on the former, for as many people as possible. All of these things were echoes of my desire to close the gaping chasm between my 'authentic' internal faith and 'inauthentic' external faith that had become evident in me.

As these doubts filled the gap between my internal and external faith, I increasingly withdrew from the manifestations of faith that I had previously participated in due to external pressure, but which no longer made sense to me. I expected to find a better way to live out my faith, a way which would be totally consistent with the glorious gospel I knew and "make sense" as I expected, and even to lead others to it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, looking where it has taken me), the doubt would go much deeper...

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