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.
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.