An Invitation to Doubt

The peak of my conservative, evangelical education included several weeks at a Christian apologetics summer camp while in high school and later as a freshman in college. Those weeks included hiking in Colorado, eating my weight in delicious frozen custard, and learning the conservative evangelical script for hot-button political issues. As the years went on and I lived a little more life, I ran into what some call a “crisis of faith” and was forced to again reconsider what I’d been taught, directly and implicitly, not only in summer camp but in Sunday school and my private Christian education thus far. The script wasn’t helping.

Admitting “I don’t know” can put you in hot water, especially in some evangelical circles. Knowing this, I quietly practiced those 3.5 words as I explored the rest of my college experience, got married, and worked a “real” job. Even as I entered my first few seminary classes I was desperate to cling onto some of that script I’d learned. I assumed that to admit uncertainty was to be either uneducated or too progressive, I might as well become an atheist!

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

Flannery O’Connor

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. I found others who expressed concern or confusion over what was commonly accepted in the church. I was relieved and hopeful, but also sad. A faith crisis (or the act of doubting or deconstructing spiritual beliefs) is not usually linear. My faith has both peacefully and horrifically evolved over my brief lifetime with new questions, different experiences, and new perspectives. It’s been a cycle of death, lament, and new life.

Death and resurrection shape the Christian faith, literally and metaphorically. Doubt is a piece of this cycle. Are we not called to resist the urge to conform, be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” and die to ourselves? Isn’t doubt necessary for death and transformation to occur? Perhaps like me, you had/have some idols that need to die, that you need to doubt.

Maybe white Jesus isn’t real.

Maybe Christian nationalism isn’t patriotic.

Maybe God isn’t male.

Maybe Christianity isn’t monolithic.

Maybe science and faith can work together.

Maybe the Bible isn’t clear.

I’m learning to hold the answers loosely and ask a few more questions with holy curiosity, as some might call it. “Always write your theology in pencil!” a beloved professor used to say. Even the most elaborate pencil marks can be edited or erased to make room for better theology and better practices. And because of my doubt, and the willingness to erase some “certainties,” my faith continues to grow deeper.

In my experience, faith isn’t certainty and doubt isn’t apostasy. Faith is the risk of finding joy, beauty and contentment while living in the midst of unanswered questions. Faith is vulnerable and messy, colorful and dynamic, not always chiseled in stone or black and white.

“…because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

A note to the church.

I’ve let go of plenty of unhealthy beliefs (with more to go, I’m sure) and held on to some important ones. Perhaps these things are different than what you’ve held on to. That’s ok. And while I don’t feel like we should romanticize doubt or prolong it unnecessarily, I do think the evangelical church can do better by avoiding the all-or-nothing, black or white, in or out, us and them approach to Christian spirituality.

The church is not for those who are certain or sinless. The church is (or should be) a gathering of sin-sick people, even those with questions and disbelief, searching for wholeness and hope. Is there room in your pews for those experiencing seasons of wilderness? or lament? or silence?

“To a healthy faith doubt is a healthy challenge.”

Os Guinness, In Two Minds

We need to stop being so surprised by doubt. Jesus did not come for those who “have it all together” but instead came to offer healing and rest to those with heavy weights on their hearts, minds, and bodies. If we’re honest, these weights find us again and again in life in different ways. Suffering, pain, doubt, and grief are a reality in this world. Do our congregations, sermons, worship and outreach practices, and theology reflect this?

To those who are unsure.

If you are challenged by what you read in the Bible or what you’ve been taught in your faith community allow me to invite you to ask your hardest questions. You are not alone.

I recognize your church or family may not be a safe place to express your dissatisfaction or pain but please search for supportive spaces that are. (There are many, many online communities!) If we can learn anything from the Psalms, Job, or even Jesus’ disciples in the Bible, God is not afraid of our questions.

Read a bit more:

Crafting a Mission Statement for Marriage

On the topic of marriage, one of the more meaningful topics Aaron and I have recently discussed was a mission statement. It’s come up at a perfect time, too. We’ve been challenged in recent months to be more mindful in our relationship, vocation, and patterns of rest. A mission statement, although kind of corny upon my first impression, (can we find another name!?) has offered renewed focus as we enter our fourth year of married life.

Similar to developing a rule of life, a mission statement considers several categories. Aaron and I opted to keep it simple and chose to include spirituality, the physical body, the heart, and the mind. (We also included a statement that introduced the categories we chose.) You might prefer more general or specific areas. Just like the rule of life, this should relate to your particular context.

photo: steven schultz

This activity may stir up easy and not-so easy conversations. These are important but if you find yourself continually down the rabbit trail, focus on the ultimate goals for the relationship. What’s the big picture? How would you like to be remembered? This statement can be helpful by showing you where you’d like to go as a couple, even if your present circumstances aren’t what you’d like them to be.

Here’s a few questions to get you started:

  • What makes you come alive, as an individual/couple?
  • What factors strengthen the relationship?
  • Where do you want to grow together?
  • Where would you like to be in 20 years? 40 years?
  • Who would you like to be known as?

Below you’ll find the current state of our mission statement with a few descriptions. We expect it to adjust as we grow together and potentially expand our family. I hope that you’ll be encouraged and inspired to write one for your own relationship.

We aim to humbly honor the complete imago dei found in each person, in spirit, body, heart, and mind – reflecting the Trinity, which has no hierarchy. (In this introductory statement it was important for us to recognize each other as whole, individual reflections of God. We do not believe the act of marriage “completes” us, nor do we believe hierarchy, especially gender-based, is appropriate in our marriage.

We aim to engage with scripture, as well as offer up holy questions and creativity, to grow closer to the Creator and in our worship and witness to God’s eternal faithfulness. (We believe embracing uncertainty and mystery, as well as divine creativity and curiosity, is important to our faith and study of the Bible. It is also important to us that we refer to God with gender-neutral language whenever possible.)

We aim to holistically care for and share our bodies with love, respect, and wonder. With proper nourishment and rest we hope to be sources of generous hospitality for one another and others. (Although we have very different methods of achieving physical health, we both believe our bodies are extremely important to not only our individual wellbeing and also communal wellbeing in marriage and society. We recognize the human body is impressionable and powerful – something that requires deep respect and care. Physical spaces are important too, and significantly impact all other areas of life, thus our hope of generous hospitality either in presence or place.)

We aim to listen to one another empathetically, speak to the other with gentleness, and strengthen each other with truth and patience. (We could list the fruit of the spirit in this category but we’ll save that for another day. Both Aaron and I feel our emotions pretty deeply, and I’m stubborn as hell, so this is something we’re actively working on.)

We aim to pursue wisdom through thoughtful study of scripture and our world, in history and present day. We encourage the exploration of art, ideas, and stories to sharpen our minds (and imagination), direct our energy, and increase compassion for others. (Thoughtfulness and intellect are God-given gifts that we believe should be encouraged and continually developed in marriage. We hope to be lifelong learners.)

I only include the italicized descriptions for the purpose of this post, otherwise this statement isn’t too long. Your statement can be playful and concise, or detailed and romantic – as long as it reflects your mutual vision for marriage.

I created a reminder for us to hang somewhere in our home. (Still figuring out the perfect spot.) If you’re up for sharing, I’d love to see or hear about yours!

Rule of Life: An Ancient Practice for a Contemporary Life

There is always somewhere to be, someone to talk to, something to read or do, especially with the expansive grip the internet and social media (and politics) have in many people’s lives. The amount of information we consume each day can be overwhelming and stressful. In all of the “busyness” of life it’s very easy to find ourselves (and our calendars) in disorder.

Since reevaluating my priorities last summer (and some significant changes) I’ve been learning a lot about establishing some sense of order in my life. Believe me, there’s too many things we have no control over but it is possible to create new rhythms, or rather, practice ancient rhythms in our contemporary context.

photo: rod long

A ‘rule of life’ is just this. This practice is no stranger to the Christian faith. Saint Benedict crafted a rule for monastic life hoping to instill healthy habits for both individual and communal life. Many of his principles seem radical but his work encourages community, obedience, humility, and contemplation – things we can still benefit from today.

“Rule” sounds legalistic at first. And while you could apply it in this way, a rule of life is simply a tool to help us avoid “living life on accident,” as a professor used to say. We require blueprints to build almost anything of substance, like a house or business. Why not our lives, too?

“From the creative point of view, the monastic rule is an instrument for shaping a particular kind of life for which a person has deep and genuine desire.”

Thomas Moore, Preface of The Rule of Saint Benedict

Write your own eulogy.

To begin creating your very own rule of life, be prepared to brainstorm. There are a few different books on the topic of drafting a rule and they each have different approaches. You can create a list, outline, table, or even something more artistic. A holistic approach is required, no matter how you look at it, how you record it, or what your life consists of. Be prayerful and honest in your exploration. How do you intend to live your life? What legacy would you like to leave?

Draw a map.

You might begin listing your desires and priorities within general categories like head, heart, and hands, or body, mind, spirit. These categories may expand to include areas like, vocation, finances, health, relationships, spirituality, pleasure, etc. Even exploring your personality through the Enneagram may be helpful. Your goal is to evaluate and write down your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual goals within the context of your life.

Use your calendar.

The next step would be to organize your desires, goals, and priorities from each area into measurable steps. This is best done by using a timetable of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually tasks. You may find you prefer to use bi-weekly or bi-annually as well. This element helps keep you on track with your goals. For fun, you may also incorporate your goals to the liturgical calendar of the church.

Find some examples here.

photo: caleb george

There is no task or goal too simple or too large. For example, you may include brushing your teeth twice a day and scheduling bi-annual visits to the dentist. It may be important to you to write down relational goals, whether weekly meet ups with friends or colleagues, regular date nights, or family activities. You may include things as frequent as meal planning or spiritual disciplines and infrequent as spiritual retreats or vacations. This rule of life is for you, make it thoughtful and meaningful.

The rule exists as a tool. Allow it live alongside of you and assist you, not guilt or discourage you. As life inevitably changes, your rule may also need to adjust. Perhaps you welcomed a new member of the family, a career change, or your goals/needs simply shifted.

Like a trellis, a rule of life supports and guides our growth. It supports our friendships with Christ so that we bear the fruit of his character and are able to offer his nourishing life to others.

Ken Shigematsu, God in my Everything

For the hesitant.

If this ancient practice seems like just another thing you don’t have time for, don’t toss it out the window yet. Everyone has a rule of life. We have habits and patterns that structure our days but also years and decades of our lives. How would your life (or schedule, relationships, vocation, etc.) be different if you prayerfully replaced patterns of disorder with patterns of rest, discipline, and nourishment?

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11

Additional resources:

Impure: Harmful or Healing Liturgy?

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church through liturgy. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Not all churches or religious spaces are “liturgical” like the Catholic or Anglican communions might be. Yet, all churches have particular spiritual languages and practices that order their worship and shape the way their audiences view their relationship with God and others. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, songs, prayers, gestures, as well as scripture readings, creeds, and rituals give form to one’s faith and directs worship. In this post I’ll be using the term liturgy to refer to these general elements.

Liturgy can edify but it can also silence and re-traumatize. It’s role in perpetuating cycles of sexual violence in the church and associated households cannot be underestimated. At the same time, liturgy has creative and theological power to address and interrupt spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual violence.

Further reading to consider as you read through the following two major areas of concern:

Is God male?

The Bible, as well as religious language often in used in Christian contexts, frequently refers to the divine imagery of God as a King, Lord, and Father with exclusive male pronouns. Submission and surrender to God may also be included alongside this imagery. Combined with the authority of predominantly male clergy, this can be harmful for survivors of trauma.

Although female clergy may be increasing, men are often elected/hired/called as leaders in evangelical congregations. Yet there is a significant gender gap in the pews. Research finds that women may pray more and attend services more regularly where they make up the majority of many Christian communities.

In a country where 80-90% of reported rape victims are either young or adult women, what messages does male-centric liturgy communicate to survivors of sexual assault and rape in the pews?

photo: joshua eckstein

“Not only is scripture interpreted by a long line of men and proclaimed in patriarchal churches, it is also authored by men, written in androcentric language, reflective of religious male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question, the Bible is a male book.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Perpetuating the exclusive patriarchal nature of these images, terms, and environments fosters potential justification of abuse of power and resulting violence. Even though they may believe the Bible to be inspired and authoritative, these factors can make it difficult to participate in worship and connect with God as not only as survivor but also as a female. Trauma can feel alienating and isolating, perhaps even more so within one’s faith if it feels as if God has abandoned or betrayed them.

To echo the concern of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in the words of Mary Daley, “If God is male, male is God.” If we believe the idea God is a sovereign male ruler of “his” children, then the hierarchy of male leadership over women may also exist. This is fertile soil for abuse of power. Women and survivors alike may ask, is there a place for me? Will I find relief or protection from my suffering?

So, is God male? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male?

  • God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
  • God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
  • Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.

It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.

(This brief video covers the Swedish church in their exploration of gender-neutral language for God and the diverse perspectives.)

The Eucharist

The Eucharist is one of the most fundamental practices of the Christian faith. It can be spiritually nourishing for both the individual and the community. Yet just as something has power to inspire and provide sustenance for the soul, there is the potential for this power to be damaging.

Sitting, standing or kneeling, bread or wafers or crackers, grape juice or wine, small plastic cups or drinking straight from the silver chalice — the combinations for communion abound. The prayers associated with each element may differ but often reflect the story of the Last Supper.

photo: nicole honeywill

Researcher, Hilary Jerome Scarsella sees the eucharist and other ritual acts as “a negotiation of power relations.” From the language to the posture, communion can be interpreted as harmful for those who have experienced sexual violence. Trauma can be relived, unfortunately. Hearing the words and prayers of the eucharist, kneeling to receive the bread and cup from male clergy, or simply kneeling at the rail to drink from a cup, may produce a strong, if not visceral reaction from those who have been abused.

“The survivor who shared the second glimpse described taking the bread and wine as practice for the next time the person abusing her would force his body on her. Her communion participation, then, seems to have functioned as practicing the role of abuse victim quite literally. In communion, she took on and embodied the role of one who does not have the power to decide what will and won’t be allowed into her body.”

Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Victimization via Ritualization: Christian Communion

Scarsella was also included in a Menonite group who adjusted the language in their communion prayers in an effort to frame the unjust, bodily sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a light unique to him. Their work resulted in two alternative texts for prayers included in their eucharist. The first removed the words “body” and “blood.” The second left these words but added more contextual information (or “framing words”) to better communicate the message of freedom and salvation from sin and suffering.

“In other words, does our worship release captives? Or recover sight for the blind? This process felt like participating in what Jesus announced his whole mission to be about.”

A group member from #WeAreMenno: A new Mennonite communion liturgy addresses concerns of sexual abuse survivors

The fact that scripture and faith practices of the Christian tradition have been used to oppress and re-traumatize others does not invalidate their ability to provide restoration and healing. Often this requires stepping outside of “the way things have always been” and humbly listening. We read scripture and participate in our faith with lenses unique to our personal biases and experiences. Recognizing this and allowing others the space to speak and be heard could be transformative.

Here are some examples of liturgies for survivors of trauma and sexual violence. While researching on purity culture and the damage done at the hands of the church, these prayers and songs inspired me to continue, especially this song.

Read more in this series:

Impure: A Reading List on Purity Culture

For my final masters project, I wrote on the implications of evangelical purity culture. And let me tell you, what a wild ride. Normalized sexual violence, gender roles, politics, #ChurchToo, liturgy — there is a little bit of everything packed into this paper.

This paper has gained quite a bit of interest since mentioning it on my Instagram last month. My hope is to break down my research into digestible, accessible pieces for others to benefit from. (What use is all this if I hoard it all in my brain?)

Purity culture, or the evangelical sexual purity movement of the 1980s-2010s, establishes sexual “purity” as the ultimate standard for those waiting to be married. (Marriage is assumed.) In this subculture, to be sexually “impure” would be disastrous in all other areas of life and would doom any relationship with a future spouse. In both political and pastoral spaces, methods of control and fear seek to maintain patriarchal power over the hearts and bodies of young people, though primarily girls and women.

Stories and testimonies reveal the abusive nature of “purity” teachings and practices. Girls and women are often dehumanized and denied vibrant sexualities of their own. If feelings of discomfort or reports of sexual violence are made known, they can be frequently silenced and ignored. Sadly, there are real convictions buried in these teachings – blinded by ignorance and the fight for power. There seems to be no intention to inflict harm on to others. Rather many of those who participate are held to a conviction which values hierarchy between men and women, emphasizing a woman’s submission to men’s needs. “Purity” is interpreted as protection. More on this later.

Before I jump into the research itself, I wanted to share some materials on the impact of the evangelical sexual purity movement or abstinence-only education.

This reading list is fairly brief and does not include academic articles. Even so, these examples are moving and incredibly revealing. Please note, many portions of these texts discuss sexual trauma, which can be triggering or overwhelming for some.

Books or Essays

Blogs

I would also encourage you to read through the #ChurchToo on Twitter or sign the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual Statement.

If there are other articles, books, podcasts, etc. that have been helpful to you, I would love to read them and include them here. If your experience in purity culture has been positive, I would also love to understand more about your story.

Read more in this series: