Before I go further in defining the parameters and describing the particulars of the change in my thinking over the past few years, I want to address one other factor that contributes to the process and experience of change: the subjective dimension. Simply put, we never make a significant change in our beliefs or practices until we feel the need for change. We will never take the risks associated with change until we are convinced, rather more instinctually than intellectually, that change is desirable, possible, and maybe even necessary.
At least that has certainly been true for me. I am today open to the possibility of truth in ideas and concepts that, only a few years ago, I regarded with derision and dismissed with prejudice. My thinking began to change when my circumstances changed, and I was no longer bound emotionally to an earlier pattern of thought and behavior.
You see, Kathryn, before we can accept an idea as true, we must first be willing to admit that it might be true. Similarly, before we reject or repudiate a concept that we currently embrace, we must entertain the possibility that it might not be true.
As a conservative evangelical Christian, I could never embrace certain truth claims because I was convinced—emotionally and intuitively—that they simply could not be true. In that frame of mind, I was not willing to read the work of scholars and writers from the other side (the “liberal” side) of the theological and political spectrum because I could not envision any scenario in which their thinking might have merit or plausibility.
Likewise, I was invested so heavily—emotionally, economically, vocationally—in the theological system that undergirds evangelicalism that I could not entertain the possibility that my presuppositions, and consequently my doctrinal beliefs, might be wrong.
The first cracks in my theological and spiritual foundation appeared in early 2005, as I prepared to teach a course called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity. At about the same time, I began to sense that my growing affinity for the liturgical tradition in Christian worship might jeopardize my employment in a Bible college affiliated with the Anabaptist and Free Church tradition.
A weakened foundation cannot long support a crumbling superstructure, and, by 2007-08—with the death of my mother, the loss of my job, and my wife’s illness—the superstructure of my faith was trembling as if in an earthquake. Eventually, the foundation all but collapsed, and I found myself standing on shaky ground, surrounded by the rubble that had been the framework of my faith.
In short, evangelical Christianity failed me, first at an emotional level and then rationally. The intellectual doubts I had never allowed to invade my mind began to gnaw on my gut. With nothing left to lose, I started to do what had previously been unthinkable. I considered the possibility that I might be wrong and that “they” might be right.
If you will allow me to change from a building metaphor to one from the world of sports, I suggest that evangelical spirituality, the tradition in which my perceptions of faith were first formed, is too often the religious equivalent of quidditch, the fictional sport invented by J.K. Rowling and played by wizards and witches in the Harry Potter novels. That is to say, we know the rules, we know the terms, we know the object of the game, but nobody plays it, because it requires players to soar and dive while sitting astride flying brooms. (There is an earthbound version, known as muggle quidditch, but it lacks the supernatural dimension of the “real” thing.)
We evangelicals have developed an impressive theology of spirituality. Our leaders and teachers are adept at summarizing the rules of the game, using stirring and inspiring language that employs dramatic biblical terms like transformation, renewal, and empowerment. We compose elaborate pep talks (we call them sermons) that challenge the players (church members) to give themselves unreservedly to the contest and to “leave it all on the field.”
As with the Harry Potter sport of quidditch, however, evangelical spirituality exists almost exclusively on paper—in sermon notes and seminar outlines and inspiring lectures that leave listeners spellbound but fundamentally unchanged. It is too often confined to the locker room instead of getting out on the field. There is too much rule review and strategizing, too little grunting and sweating, soaring and diving.
For forty years I studied the game of quidditch, so to speak. I read all the manuals, bought all the equipment and the uniforms, and showed up for every game. But the contest in which I found myself engaged was not quidditch. It was something far less thrilling, and I didn’t know the rules. In fact, I’m not sure there were any rules. If so, they were routinely ignored, and the erratic play that resulted was perplexing, discouraging, and, in a manner of speaking, futile.
The problem is, we’re misreading the manual, I believe. The game we are supposed to be playing is not quidditch. It is far more mundane than that, but a mundane reality is still better than an exhilarating fantasy. The game we’re supposed to be playing is sometimes brutal like football, often plodding like baseball, and repetitive like basketball—morning prayer, matins, evensong, compline, then once a week, Eucharist; repeat.
In my experience, evangelical spirituality promised but didn’t deliver. To extend the sports metaphor, it talked a better game than it played. Now that I understand the situation, I know why I was discouraged and frustrated. Now that I’m learning to read the manual through a new lens, I’m beginning to be involved in playing a different kind of game with a different set of expectations.
It’s rougher, dirtier, but ultimately more fulfilling. It promises no flying broomsticks, and the rules are simpler. There are really only two: love God and love one another. Once the unrealistic expectations are sorted, the likelihood of active involvement by all the players will be, I think, greater.
I apologize, Kathryn, if I sound angry or annoyed. In truth, I’m delighted to be where I am, but I do think it’s important to talk about how I got here, even if it sometimes sounds like sour grapes. It’s just that I have a crate of flying brooms that are apparently defective; they don’t fly. Oh well, they do sweep, and that’s a better use for them anyway.