Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations

Part One:

*Links are highlighted.

What follows is a personal reflection on my own evolving faith journey, as opposed to anything overtly theological or scholarly. Since my last blog post on Anglican Realignment, my family has had the joyous, privileged addition of a newborn baby to both amuse us, and remind us to be thankful for God’s generous provision and grace in our lives. That significant life event, twinned with restarting my Theology MA and getting stuck back into my professional work, has taken up a surprising amount of my time and energy (!). I have thus stayed my scribal hand from verbally excreting more half formed thoughts into the Christian stream of consciousness known informally as the ‘blogosphere’. In an age of disinformation overload within our 21st Century, Westernised digital economy, this is (un)certainly no bad thing. Talk is cheap; ambiguous symbols on HD screens even more so.

Considering all of the above factors alongside the humbling reality that my previous post prompted barely a squeak from the virtual wilderness into which it was jettisoned, I doubt that this one will garner much more (if any) subsequent engagement or feedback. Consequently, I shall be as frank, outrageously verbose, infernally imaginative, linguistically rabid, grammatically arcane, and unapologetically cantankerous as I please (although before you get your hopes up, I may end up being necessarily restrained at points). You have been warned; let the lyrical waxing commence!

Faith Shift(s)

‘What happens when all we once believed begins to become less solid and secure? When we sense that what weve been doing is not what Jesus had in mind for his followers? When we have years of head knowledge but our hearts feel empty and dead? When our tried-and-true methods of connecting with God stop working? When were disillusioned with church and dont know where to turn? When our faith is shifting and it feels like were in a free fall?’ – Kathy Escobar. [1]

‘Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.’ -Brennan Manning. [2]

Both of these quotes were sourced from Kathy Escobar’s book Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart. As I began reading her timely, yet far from timid tome, my somewhat corpulent cognitive and emotional faculties began to quiver like the loose midriff-fat on an over ambitious Russian Cossack dancer. Picture a morbidly hairy giant of a man, clad in obscene circus lycra, who seems hell bent on practising his macabre movements uninhibited in front of a dirty second hand mirror, and you get a sense of my state of mind at the time in question. As my neurological cellulite sprang into a state of perverse, electrified puppetry more akin to a mannequin than the man I’d been, I became dimly aware of a metaphorical energy saving light bulb casting it’s disappointingly (non)incandescent light above my forehead. In other words, I suddenly recognised myself in Kathy’s text, and was rapidly smothered in a soul-searching garment of existential distress.

I knew that my faith had been shifting for at least a year or so, possibly much longer. I had just lacked the foolish wisdom of hindsight and/or opportunity to frame my perspective(s) in any kind of coherent language in order to make any sense of it all. Kathy had just provided me with the grammar and vocabulary to do that. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I realised that not only did I feel alone and disconnected, but I felt doubtful; not so much about the existence of God (been there, done that, done with that), but rather about my place in the world. My purpose(s) and plans as regards serving God in and through the Church seemed to have faltered, and I felt cut adrift in an ocean of discontentment and uncertainty.

Yet, as fortune (or indeed, the Spirit) would have it, I had (inadvertently?) stumbled upon a veritable compendium of kindred spirits who had grown disillusioned with (and in some sad cases been rendered virtually dysfunctional by) their experiences of Western Evangelicalism. Dechurched and disaffected, their collective voices wrapped around my lingering loneliness like a warm, insulated blanket enshrouding a victim of spiritual hypothermia. It was time to face up to some cold hard facts about my own story, and take solace from the (dis)comforting reality that I wasn’t alone after all. Others had already embarked down these less well travelled roads, and the faint flicker of their fading candelabras beckoned me in psiren-like fashion down what I still hope will be the narrow path toward Jesus Kingdom.

Bolstered by this new sense of optimism and solidarity, I refused to allow the serpentine tendrils of middle-aged, sceptical apathy get the better of me (why be apathetic when a quasi midlife crisis is so much more fun?). Thus, after much protracted deliberation (aka procrastination) I recently applied to volunteer for a well respected Evangelical parachurch organisation (who shall remain nameless), which necessitated the formation of a written account comprising a sober, coherent, and honest summary of my past and present spiritual journey. This process was enormously helpful for me, as it forced me to recall numerous aspects of my faith leading up to the point of conversion and beyond; it is all too easy to suffer from spiritual amnesia once one has been a believer for any significant length of time. I had lost sight of where I had come from, was (and in some ways still am) struggling with where I had ended up, and consequently had no idea where I was supposed to be going. Disorientation gripped me like the ravenous maw of a diseased Rottweiler, and furiously thrashed my former certainty to and fro like a canine stress reliever.

A Background Story

My background as a Christian is relatively complex. I was originally raised Roman Catholic and, without really understanding why, I began my first tentative steps as a nascent believer in the tradition by being ‘baptised’ as an infant (yes, I wrote that in order to provoke a gasp of incredulity from my Baptist friends. More on this later). I then ended up attending a Catholic school, going to mass on a regular basis, celebrating my first communion, and even enduring confession. The latter struck me as being particularly farcical since I frequently attempted to fabricate various minor incursions in order to pacify the priest and thereby get off lightly with a few Hail Marys as penance. Smells, bells, rosary beads, and liturgy made a reasonably potent impression upon my earliest memories of the Church. Unfortunately, the tragic revelation (thankfully only by way of our local newspaper) that the priest in charge of our local Catholic Church was a paedophile who ended up doing serious time in prison left an even bigger indent upon my perception of organised religion.

By the age of eleven I was done with the Church (or so I thought!) and was relieved to not have anything more to do with it as my secondary school was thoroughly secular; ‘Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony’. [3] Fast forward nearly fifteen years and I was steeped in the kind of sinful behaviour that would have required more than several bags full of rosary beads and an awful lot of Hail Marys to start even chipping away at my spiritual debt (to say nothing of my material debts!). Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll might be a well worn cliché, yet I had spent the entirety of my adult life up until the point when I came to faith in Jesus Christ relentlessly pursuing all three of them. I found myself hurtling toward rock bottom without a safety harness and had reached the point when I was all but ready to give up entirely.

Salvation & Strife

Cue my first encounter with Evangelical Christianity and lifeline of the Gospel. Without going into too much detail (this is not a testimony as such) I returned to the Church, joined a local independent evangelical/charismatic congregation, and was (re)baptised by full immersion in a heated swimming pool. Before long, despite seeing much positive change in my own lifestyle and mindsets, I also began to have my first notable experience (as an adult) of the kinds of conflict that can occur between rival factions within Christian communities. Sadly, this first church which I attended as a new Christian became what felt like a relentless hotbed of ambiguity and unresolved internal tensions. To this day (at the time of writing), said church has arguably not yet recovered from that difficult period of fragmentation and retrograde motion, wherein the congregation rapidly shrank in numbers and lost any grip of their central focus on student outreach. [4]

Quite why this transpired the way it did and/or the precise details of what went on behind closed doors to precipitate such an exodus is (for the most part) beyond me; it would be easy to blame shift. Yet perhaps the mysterious, murky grey morass of our collective human condition provides enough explanation as to why body of Christ is as much a hospital filled with people suffering from the sickness of sin, as it is a holy temple replete with saints who are gradually moving from glory to glory (Mark 2:17, 2 Cor 3:18). Doubtless, I played my part in the dissolution of that community, even if I was new to the game, it were. It turns out that a fresh Christian convert can be just as much of an ignorant, indignant, narcissistic, blinkered, self righteous prig as the next person (who knew!). Whatever specks I may have perceived in the eyes of my brethren turned out to be mere splinters from the large plank(s) of wood firmly embedded in my own tunnel vision. [5] Whatever the case, people started to vote with their feet. It wasn’t long before I followed suit.

None of this is to say that my memories of my first church are solely negative (far from it!); I have only scattered a single layer of monochrome paint on this particular canvas. If I were to keep sketching a more accurate and balanced picture, this already gargantuan blog post would arguably spiral out of control! Read into that what you will, but suffice to say that whilst I refuse to sugar coat my potted history of recollection and have only mentioned some of the division that existed within this congregation, it would be unfair to castigate the flawed efforts of a great deal of (mostly) well meaning people; my purpose here is not to present a detailed account of every aspect of this churchs life. I am more interested in reflecting on the way I responded to my initial encounter with a revived faith via Western Evangelicalism, which was itself filtered through the already blackened contextual lens of this single, British, independent charismatic paradigm.

Fusing

In retrospect, I can see now that I had begun to enter a phase that Kathy Escobar calls ‘fusing’. She describes this stage in her adopted and adapted model of evolving faith as follows:

…we all experience a formative season in our faith journey that sets the stage for everything that comes afterward. Fusing, the first phase in the faith formation (and faith shift) process, is what most religious converts go through regardless of their denomination or faith tradition…New faith typically causes an ascent in which we move closer to God by moving farther away from where we were. [6]

She goes on to describe what fusing consists of more clearly:

Three steps comprise Fusing: Believing (the point where we come to faith), Learning (where we begin to embrace an influx of theology, spiritual knowledge, and group expectations), and Doing (when we start actively serving, volunteering, and participating). [7]

For Escobar, fusing is also characterised by three values or attributes; ‘affiliation’, ‘conformity’, and ‘certainty’, all of which ‘shape us in significant ways’. [8] Thus, we typically want to ‘belong’ and ‘align’ or be affiliated with groups of like minded people, so we try to conform to the rules (written or not!) and subculture of the groups we join (oftentimes subconsciously), whilst imbibing the elixir of binary thinking; the latter of which Escobar describes as being ’strengthened by a strong net of absolutes’. [9] I am at least vaguely aware now of how I exhibited all of the above markers (confirmation bias notwithstanding) in multiple different contexts over the past ten years. [10] As regards certainty, I even succumbed to the seductive temptations of fundamentalism in my quest for firm ground to build my fledgling faith upon. Needless to say I discovered that, much to my chagrin, the rock solid certainty being offered by many within the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ tribe was in fact little more than a sordid pile of sand which was itself resting on even shakier foundations and unquestioned presuppositions.

Many years and three churches later (yes I know, more on that next time!), my question is: what do you do when your faith begins to shift? What happens when your affiliations change, you resist conformity for its own sake, and find yourself plunged into the maelstrom of uncertainty?

Some might even call such an angst ridden process an identity crisis. I prefer Kathy Escobar’s faith shift model. If I ever get around to writing my next post, I’ll attempt to explore what some of these cataclysmic changes look like for me at the moment. Briefly, I shall consider how a formerly lapsed Roman Catholic can truly embody the parable of the prodigal son by leaving the sheep pen, encountering wolves, realising that he has lupine like tendencies, and returning to a different paddock only to discover that the journey home might require further pilgrimage. It seems that (amongst other things) I am (re)embracing infant baptism within an Episcopal framework which emphasises sacramental piety as a means of encountering the real presence of Jesus Christ. Can a Pentecostal-Charismatic Credo-Baptist *convert* to Anglicanism whilst retaining a firm connection with a distinctively Vineyard spirituality? What does any of that even mean?!

I’m glad you asked! Until next time then…

M

Endnotes:

1. Escobar, Kathy, Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: Convergent Books; Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 4.
2. Manning, Brennan, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Sisters, OR, USA: Multnomah Publishing, 2005, 23.
3. Name the formative film from which this quote was derived? If you can’t, stop reading and go and find out: you are unworthy of this level of intertextuality. If you aren’t sure what that means, I can’t help you. 😂
4. Size is, of course, no indication of spiritual vitality within a church. Yet the transition from being a thriving city centre gathering with regular attendance figures well into three digits, into a small home group comprised mainly of long standing members does speak volumes about the challenging aftermath of division. It turns out, as Jesus warned us, that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt 12:25, Mark 3:24-25, Luke 11:17).
5. Go on, admit it: you probably have just as much propensity to point the finger at others as I do. Often what we loathe in others is a reflection of our own foibles.
6. Escobar, Faith Shift, 23.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 29.
9. Ibid, 32.
10. Take for instance: acceptable modes of conversation, leisure activities, lifting hands during sung worship, speaking in tongues (can of worms right there!), etiquette and unfamiliar social norms with regards to interacting with the opposite sex, Christianese, etc.