Mike’s Faith Journey PART II: …And When He Is Old, He Will Not Depart From It
This is Part II of a 3-part (at least) series. Go here for Part I.
here’s a bit of dialogue in Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (which, full disclosure, I have not read) that aptly describes the process of my faith deconstruction. It goes like this:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Gradually, and then suddenly is how my faith in God and the Bible began to collapse under its own weight. It began with one class – RELS102: Introduction to New Testament.
One college class. One Bart Ehrman textbook. One professor name Kent Clarke (yes, we called him Man Super.) I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that led to the eventual implosion of my childhood faith – it happened gradually, and then suddenly. One theological card at a time until the whole thing came tumbling down.
It was learning that the flood story I grew up with was a version of an even older flood story called the Epic of Gilgamesh. (I can’t remember why this came up in a NT class, but it did.) It was noticing that there are two creation stories in Genesis, and that God creates things in different orders in the two versions. It was the Enuma Elish – a creation story that pre-dates the Genesis story, but which the Genesis story parallels.
It was the firmament. The firmament, you guys. The metal dome that Genesis describes being placed between the waters above and the waters below. You may know it as the “expanse”, because many modern translators are uncomfortable with the unscientific cosmology of ancient Israel – but in Hebrew, the word refers to a flattened or domed piece of metal. And that was just the first few chapters of Genesis!
It was also the four gospels which disagree on a lot of the specific details of the events of Christ’s life and death – despite valiant and (let’s be honest) sometimes absurd attempts to harmonize them. It was the nigh impossible task of reconciling the disturbing depictions of God in the Old Testament with God-revealed-in-Christ in the New. Gradually, and then suddenly I began to realize that the Bible was not the neat and tidy theological textbook I wanted it to be.
As the shockwaves of these new revelations began pulsing through my faith, I found solace in my relationship with God. The Bible may be really messy, I reasoned, but at least I can experience God in worship and in prayer. But then, gradually and suddenly, it was as if God withdrew from me.
It’s hard to put into words how devastating this was. How frightening. How painful. How utterly disorienting. I would try to worship and feel flat. I would pray and listen for that still small voice and I would hear nothing. I would read the Bible looking for solace in God, only to be pummeled by texts of violence, wrath, and divinely sanctioned ethnic cleansing.
For the first time in my life I felt like an outsider in church; watching people (my people!) connecting with God – and desperately wanting to do the same – but feeling disconnected and abandoned. What began as a series of thorny theological issues to wrestle through had now become a full-fledged existential crisis.
Gradually, and then suddenly, I began to realize that the Bible was not the neat and tidy theological textbook I wanted it to be.
What the hell is happening to me? Who even am I without my faith? What can I trust if the Bible isn’t trustworthy? What if God isn’t real? Have I wasted my whole life? What about my calling, my career, my marriage, my family? What the HELL is happening to me?
One of the worst parts of that season of my life was the feeling that I couldn’t express my doubts and fears to people in my church without serious repercussions. There were no role models for me in the church. No one sharing their doubts from the pulpit, no one in a small group brave enough to say, “sometimes I wonder if God is even real.” And so, I did like everyone else – and kept my questions to myself. Well, mostly.
(Mike McHargue aka Science Mike writes about some of the repercussions people often face when they open up about doubts here.)
I thank God (we’re still in it together, me and God) that I did have a few people I could talk to about what I was going through. My wife Stephanie was a warm and steady presence through those dark nights of the soul. My parents were very supportive and didn’t judge me or try to fix me – they just loved me and prayed for me.
And my dear professor Clarke – whose class was a major catalyst for the biggest faith crisis of my life – became a wise and faithful companion for me on my journey. I spent hours in his office, spilling my guts, working through my angst over the Bible, expressing anger and frustration at him for ruining my faith – and he met me in the most gentle, pastoral, genuine, and sometimes lighthearted way.
He encouraged me to embrace the dissonant voices in the Bible without trying to resolve them. He taught me to befriend my doubts. And he told me in a knowing way that I needed to go through what I was going through – that I was right where I was supposed to be – and that perhaps someday, my experience might help me relate to other people who find themselves adrift, feeling lost, feeling theologically uncertain and alone, with no one to turn to.
A major turning point in my faith came a couple of years after my deconstruction began – I’ll write about that in Part III. But for now, I’ll end with a nod at how the beginning of my deconstruction connects with where my faith is today.
Ever since that season of my life I have had a passion for welcoming outsiders – particularly doubters. “Welcome the foreigners among you, for you were once slaves in Egypt,” God once said to Israel. Those words echo in my soul like this: “Welcome the doubters among you, make space for the heretics, the lonely agnostics and the cynical atheists. Find the ones on the margins, the ones who feel out. Make them feel in. For you were once terrified of doubt, and your doubts were not welcome in church. But your doubts never bothered Me – I count them all as the honest, faithful questions that they are. And don’t ever forget – along with all the others who wrestle and struggle and walk the tightrope of uncertainty, know this: I have loved you with an everlasting love.”