What to Read During a Faith Crisis

lilly-rum-303215

Back in college, I experienced a massive spiritual crisis — like usual. I wondered if God wasn’t real and humans had invented religion to survive the soulless empty universe — like normal. This time, however, it wasn’t just my brain churning up question after unanswered, unanswerable question. Schleiermacher and Freud and William James were hammering these questions even when I wanted to check my brain at the dining room door and talk about dating.

My spiritual crisis paralleled my recent Android phone meltdown.

I first noticed something was wrong when my phone contracted demon possession and began typing sweet nothings to my husband (such as ccccccccccccCCCCCCCCCCCCCCççççç). Nothing a restart can’t fix, I thought.

Wrong.

The sweet nothings worsened. Then the demon refused to let me close out of my conversation with my sister, and when I overrode it by shutting down Messenger, it petulantly opened Snapchat and Ibotta and Duolingo, rearranged the app order, and wrote insults about my technological abilities.

Just kidding on the last one, but the phone was thinking them, I’m sure.

The demon possession drove me to the holy book of Google, where I tried to exorcise it via installing a virus scanner. It wasn’t a virus. That left actual demon possession, or a scrambled digitizer and flawed touchscreen. Something was wrong with the phone itself.

That’s how I felt about metaphysics at that point. A few little bugs here and there might indicate something could be horrifically wrong with the theistic worldview. Nothing a good brain restart couldn’t clear up, a la C. S. Lewis. Then the bugs persisted. And worsened. And C. S. Lewis stood by helplessly as I drowned in the quagmire of atheist epistemology — or, to put it in technological terms, every single doubt was opened, rearranged, and refusing to close out.

I puzzled over philosophy as I puzzled over badly spelled Android help forums. You’ve got a virus in your thinking, Christian apologetics suggested. Run this line of thought against the heathen philosophy. But Lee Strobel and random apologists who ran ugly websites in exclusively Times New Roman font were no match against the wiles of epistemology.

My thinking didn’t have a virus, I concluded. The whole theistic system was just broken. I didn’t want to believe it, in the same way loving Christians feel forced to call gay marriage an abomination simply because the Bible says so, against all evidence to the contrary. Except in this case, all evidence pointed towards theism’s brokenness, and only a desperate intuition that this couldn’t be all there is to life made accepting that evidence difficult.

I dragged myself into my history professor’s office one last time to share the embarrassing news that I’d lost the good fight to empiricism, dreading another unhelpful Christian argument that even further convinced me that atheist’s had the corner on rational discourse.

He offered me one suggestion: stop reading philosophy, and start reading theology again.

That helped. A lot. (But pro-tip: don’t count Aquinas’s Summa Theologica as helpful theology in this regard.) Discovering Orthodox theology changed my life. Reading David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? came the closest to satisfying my questions on theodicy. Then a friend mailed me Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts. 

It didn’t solve my spiritual crisis, but it took control of the bugs opening doubts without my permission. Now I could open them myself, gently, calmly.

My professor also told me something else that day — that the weight of all humanity believing in a higher power might mean something — and another professor told me that to know truth from untruth, you must experience it. I didn’t know it then, but their words gave me permission to listen to the intuition battling against the bleak empiricism I felt forced to follow.

And where do you listen to intuition, where do you find experience? Why, in a class on modern British novels, of course — which reminds your beleaguered soul about the power of narrative to convey truth in the best, most honest way.

If I were a professor now, and somebody as spiritually and intellectually scrambled as junior-year Bailey walked into my office, I would recommend not only theology but specifically theological memoir. Anne Lamott if you’re more liberal. Ann Voskamp if you’re more conservative. Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Addie Ziermann if you’re deconstructing.

When the little demons are flying and the doubts are opening and shutting and getting punted all over your metaphysical framework, when you’re no longer sure of specifics like up or down, or perception or reality, or true or untrue, narrative cuts through that. Narrative takes it down a couple theoretical notches. Narrative gives you permission to sit and observe — maybe you’re getting the answers wrong because you’re missing a couple crucial pieces about life. Narrative doesn’t demand you come to conclusions. It simply demands you listen, and respond (usually with tears and exclamations of Why didn’t anyone ever say this out loud before?).

Narrative gives you another, earthier, human way of exploring truth — via vicarious experience. Narrative takes on flesh and walks among us. And narrative is honest — it just says what things are; it leaves tensions and mysteries in all their frustrating, beautiful, awful, true, contradictory ways; it doesn’t trick you with moralisms and platitudes; it doesn’t try to fit everything in the universe together into one unsatisfactory metaphysical system.

It focuses on one story, one thought, one paradox of life at a time. It requires faith, real faith that accepts both the revelation and the hiddenness of God working through a present-day narrative. It integrates body, soul, and mind as only a good story can. It satisfies the intellect as well as the intuition.

When you’re in a spiritual crisis, read those books. God isn’t a problem to troubleshoot. God is here to be experienced.

Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

Advertisements

23 thoughts on “What to Read During a Faith Crisis

  1. Savannah

    Bailey, this post is incredible. Thank you.

    I’ve also found that narrative is helpful for other types of faith crises. In my own life, I take a lot of comfort in narrative when I have negative experiences with churches or Christians. I never understood how negative experiences with Christians can be an “argument” against faith until I experienced some myself recently. For whatever reason, no matter how much I hold up Christians against Christ knowing that the latter is the “true representation” of Christianity, Christians can seem more palpable (is that the right word??) and therefore more…convincing. Somehow narrative gets me out of that. I don’t know why.

    Maybe it’s because during those times, everything about Christianity starts to seem cruel. And the only way I’ll get close to it without cringing is by staying on the perimeter. Excuse me while I probably take Emily Dickinson totally out of context (I was only an Econ major), but it reminds me of the line “Success in Circuit lies.” Somehow it seems like narrative keeps you tangent to the circumference of a circle. (I’m borrowing the imagery that Dr. Somerville used to explain this line of the poem. Thank God for math references to keep me sane in English class ;) )

    Or maybe it’s because narrative gives you experience that might be more positive than your own, or if it’s negative, you can see that other people “made it” too. Hmm.

    …I don’t know. But bottom line is: narrative is awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Yes! I think narrative often reminds me that the Christians who spout hate aren’t the heroes of the story and that God uses anyone and anything (Samaritans and adultery, for instance, from Jesus’ parable to “The End of the Affair”) to spread his grace. The bad guys lose at the end of a good narrative; the good always triumphs; and it’s never about who’s in and who’s out, which I feel like is the kind of Christianity that makes me ill.

      I love the imagery of keeping tangent to the circle. Narrative certainly does that for me!

      (Also, mad respect that you took Somerville. I was too scared and protective of my GPA. :P)

      Like

  2. Mike Stearns

    Yea, Aquinas is an apologist, not a narrator. He won’t give you the same impression of scripture as the others. He’s an idealistic rationalist, not a pragmatic artist. He’s trying to explain things literally instead of appealing to the audience’s emotions to captivate it with the mysteriously sublime.

    That’s the real problem a lot of people have with scripture. They take it too literally as if it’s supposed to explain how the world really works. Atheists always complain about scripture’s inaccuracies and frivolousness, but that’s not the point of scripture. The point is to be taken figuratively, creatively, and playfully in order to convince people to peacefully coexist. The same purpose applies to religion’s externalist realism. The point is to share symbols among followers so they’re all on the same page in contrast to getting caught up in the vortex of introspection. It’s not to provide a factual framework in contrast to theory. Yea, there are proverbs and heuristics, but in the grand scheme of scripture, those are rather small parts of it. Obviously, they should be taken with a grain of salt as well since they apply to the time period’s lifestyles.

    Was religion created to fill the voids of a soulless world? No, it was created as part of the evolution of civilization (as talked about a lot by Joseph Campbell’s [u]The Power of Myth[/u], Emile Durkheim’s [u]The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life[/u], and the studies and writings of Christopher Dawson). It established the foundations of language, law, and culture for people to share among each other. Yea, some people craved for an explanation of the natural world, so they were catered to. For example:

    – Some people wonder why they feel very strongly to do something despite how they don’t choose those feelings. Scripture labels these feelings as callings.
    – Some people wonder how the world exists while struggling with eternity. Scripture tells them God created the world and has always existed and will always exist.
    – Some people wonder about how they have the ability to make things happen. Scripture tells them they have a soul and that the soul is connected to God existing in all of us.
    – Some people wonder what happens to us after we die, how people can be motivated to care about the future after they leave this world, and how people can be expected to endure suffering despite the sabotage of happiness. Scripture tells us there’s an afterlife with salvation and damnation.

    Anyway, the bottomline is people like allegories. They settle our nerves in a convincing way, and when they’re broadcast and published, they ensure us that others are listening and reading them too so we don’t feel alone. Faith is the foundation and reinforcement of this feeling of fraternity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Durkheim!! THAT’S who I was trying to remember. He was the worst faith destroyer of them all at the time. ;)

      I personally think religion, Scripture, and narrative is more than about fraternal unity, in that I think there’s actual truth to the intuition that there is a loving God. But I 110% agree that Christians need to interpret the Bible more as a narrative and less as an Android help forum for life’s problems. Parts of the Bible are some of the most beautiful narratives out there, even from a literary and not religious standpoint.

      Like

      • Laura Jinkins

        “…an Android help forum for life’s problems…”

        What a fantastic (and sad) description! It is true. I am continually frustrated and saddened by those who have turned God’s letter to us into a manual for a “successful life” — it seems they are only concerned with the scripture in so much as it enables them to achieve personal success.

        Like

      • Mike Stearns

        Eh… early Durkheim, yes, but later Durkheim came to terms with believing it was a part of the human condition. Originally, he believed society could get by with rational secularism, but he eventually realized the emotions of humanity needed to be tempered in an orderly manner.

        You’re Protestant, so I’m guessing you believe he destroyed faith because he emphasized the need for external symbols to communicate a sacred object? It’s kind of how Protestants accuse Catholics of being idolizing heretics.

        Like

  3. Rae Poynter

    Thank you so much for writing this. I recently ordered “Searching for Sunday” as the title is descriptive of my recent life. I was raised Orthodox (in a priest’s family nonetheless), but after getting involved in an evangelical group in college things turned upside down. The certainty of that group in their beliefs only left me with more doubts and questions, to the point where I wanted to walk away from it all. Rediscovering the beauty of liturgical church life has helped immensely, but that nagging feeling of searching and questioning still lingers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bailey Steger

      I haven’t yet read “Searching for Sunday” (it’s downloaded on my Kindle, which I forget about often), but I’ve heard amazing things. I am fascinated by your personal journey, as evangelicalism was my starting point and Orthodoxy the life saver that pulled me to dry ground (only to have to reject all of Christianity and start from scratch again). I hope you find what you’re searching and questioning for.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rae Poynter

        Thanks, I hope the same for your journey too. If evangelicalism was all I had known I’m pretty sure I would have flat-out walked away, but the peace and connection I knew in the Orthodox church somehow keeps me holding on to hope. <3

        Liked by 1 person

    • Jasmine Ruigrok

      I’ve had a friend telling me to read “Searching for Sunday” for years. Apparently it’s similar to a much loved, well read favourite of mine called “So You Don’t Want To Go To church Anymore” which is written like a fictional story, yet it addresses a lot of religious dogma within it. Great read. Highly recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Remnants of Wit

    Very thought-provoking post. I agree that narrative can help more than any theodicy or treatise. I’m just a little confused by this one sentence:
    “I didn’t want to believe it, in the same way loving Christians feel forced to call gay marriage an abomination simply because the Bible says so, against all evidence to the contrary.”
    I can identify with your feelings, because I have also struggled with my views on homosexuality. However, I’m not sure what you mean by the word “simply” and “against all evidence to the contrary.” If you’ve been reading Orthodox theology, I imagine that you’ve come into contact with sufficient evidence for upholding the standards of Christian tradition, which tends to speak with one voice on the matter of interpreting the Bible’s stance on homosexuality. (Since “Orthodox” is capitalized, I assumed you were referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church, not lowercase-o Christian orthodoxy. But if I’m mistaken, please let me know!) Could you please elaborate on the meaning of this sentence? And if I’m misinterpreting your meaning or being uncharitable,or if you need me to be more clear, don’t hesitate to call me out.
    Thank you–I love reading your blog posts.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, goodness, you’re not being uncharitable!

      I’ve noticed a tension in Christians on the issue of gay marriage. Deep within their soul, they want so badly to affirm it. Objectively, nobody is harmed. Children of gay parents don’t grow up to be ruined. Gay people can be absolutely amazing and full of grace. Love is always a good thing, isn’t it? All of this sounds too wonderful or at least innocuous to call an “abomination.” But many people feel compelled, despite that inner compulsion otherwise, to believe that the Bible calls gay marriage an “abomination” and that, somehow, “abomination” is an appropriate, good, godly understanding of gay marriage.

      The conflict is between our perception of reality (“gay marriage really doesn’t seem like a big deal; in fact, it seems objectively good”) and our loyalty to tradition’s and/or Scripture’s authority on defining reality. At that particular sentence, I wasn’t referring to capital O Orthodox thinking, but rather run of the mill evangelical thinking. “All evidence to the contrary” was referring not to Christian’s long stance against gay marriage but rather to our sense of reality, science, sociology, etc.

      I meant to simply refer to a conflict between our perception of reality and our “duty” to an authority. In my case, when I was struggling with atheism, my perception of reality was, deep down, that there was a good, loving God, but I felt compelled to reject that because of my duty to intellectual honesty, philosophy, logic, etc. — in a similar way that Christians feel torn between their perception of gay marriage and their duty to Scripture or tradition.

      Does that make sense?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Remnants of Wit

        Thank you for this thorough response. I understand what you mean now. I suppose the differences among Christians lie in the ordering of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I tend to put Scripture and tradition over reason and experience, because the latter is lifeless if divorced from the former. But I digress… once again, thank you for this post and your reply!

        Like

  5. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Ahhh doubts and questions. Gotta love ’em. Quickest shortcut to crazy town I know of, but in hindsight is always worth the trip. I would add the book “Know Doubt” by John Ortberg to this list. I found it to be a lifesaver through my own spiritual crisis some years back. It has left me more sure than I’ve ever been in my faith simply because I was no longer deathly afraid of doubting.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I haven’t read that book; my similar read was “The Sin of Certainty,” by Peter Enns. It’s amazing how much calmer and surer I’ve become now that I’ve given up fear of doubt and the sin of certainty! :) One of life’s great paradoxes, I guess.

      Like

  6. I am Aranab

    holy books are as true now as they were when they were written. Each of us has our own unique experience with god. And the best and true way to really figure it out for ourselves is by learning the basic of each religion and then learn about greek philosophers and stoics and then work on your own experience of what worked for you and what you understand.

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s