I’ve written a lot about faith and doubt within Christianity over the past year or so. Doubt has been my constant, dark companion. I can understand now why Martin Luther (according to myth) hurled a bottle of ink at a devil that was taunting him. I’ve been hurling my own ink, trying to fend off the monster.
I could easily shrug off the doubt and turn to the warm light of my faith, stuffing all the questions back into the box, but I can’t do that. My understanding of integrity doesn’t let me shrug off genuine questions. I know that I need to value truth, and that truth requires certain proofs to be true. I know that humility, asking questions, and accepting my capacity to be wrong is integral to living a good, upright life.
These principles have led me into a dark spiritual discipline of asking hard questions, and I am being led into a radically new place, an alien wonderland. It’s a new kind of Christianity, one that I think might start to grow more and more as people confront science but are unwilling to let go of religion. Here’s where I’m at:
I can’t ignore science anymore.
I can’t ignore science anymore. I can’t ignore the fact that miracles would leave patterns on the physical world that could be tested and observed. This is not to say that there is no mystery in the world, or that people don’t have extraordinary, supernatural-like experiences. But I can’t deny anymore that there is next to no scientific evidence of spiritual existence, despite how much I deeply hope and yearn for that spirituality reality. I am a mystic at heart, and I think that a part of me will always believe in the supernatural, but I also can’t deny that the supernatural needs to be tested and observed to be validated by science.
The implications of this for my faith are huge. External truth claims such as the resurrection of the dead, the existence of the soul, and the reality Godly, angelic, and demonic realms require testing before they can be stated as certain. This means that my whole configuration of the cosmos is up for question. That is incredibly hard for me.
This doesn’t mean there is no supernatural, but that my only upright option is agnosticism. I am open to the reality of the supernatural (read: I am desperate for it to be true) but I can’t make a claim about the world around me that exists outside the systems of science. I can state hopes, dreams, and hypotheses, but I can’t make truth claims outside science.
I need you to know that this is traumatizing.
Dear atheists: much as I respect you, I need you to stop rejoicing over this transformation in my life. Stop singing victory chants over the carcass of my faith. I’ve lost my mother: the womb that taught me to live and breathe. I’ve struggled with this slow process for years, and it’s like watching my beloved grandmother die of cancer when I was in college.
And what does this mean for my life? For close to 3 decades, I have believed that I am immortal in Christ, but I am confronting for the first time that this might be the only life I have. There may be an afterlife – and I hold out hope that there is – but there is a growing likelihood that my existence as a conscious being will be cut off by an eternity.
That’s a huge, hard, scary paradigm shift to swallow. I’d even call it traumatic. So please, stop with the celebrating. What I (and so many other doubters) need is empathy and compassion.
I need to find goodness and redemption in my religious experience.
I’ve scoured the world of the New Atheists for answers, but I was just left feeling desolate. To the New Atheist Movement, religion is bad, bad, bad. The sooner you throw it away and never look back, the better. It’s bad for you, bad for society, bad for the world. Religion is nothing more than a parasitic infestation of the mind, corrupting our better angels of reason and enlightenment. (I accept that this is how I hear them, and that I may miss nuance. I’m open to discussion if my interpretation is wrong.)
I’ve spent close to 30 years of my life in religion. In order to move forward, in order to be whole and integrated and move into whatever is ahead of me, I need some sense of goodness from my religious experience to take with me into the new world, otherwise I am just left with futility. To believe that it was all bad, all corruption, is to be left in desolation. I need some intrinsic goodness and value that only the religious experience can offer. I believe that this is one way in which New Atheism is failing enormously: many of us can’t just cast off this huge chunk of our lives as a parasitic, ugly monster. We need to find goodness as well as the ugliness in it in order to move on.
I’m discovering interior religion that does not conflict with external truth claims.
In her TED talk, journalist and paranormal investigator Carrie Poppy differentiates between internal and external truth claims. She says,
I believe that there are two kinds of truth, and it’s taken me a while to get to this place, but I think this is right, so hear me out. I think that there is outer truth, and there is inner truth. So if you say to me, there was a man named Jesus and he once existed, that’s outer truth, right? And we can go, and we can look at the historic record, and we can determine whether that seems to be true. And I would argue, it does seem to be true. If you say “Jesus rose from the dead,” oohh, trickier. I would say that’s an outer truth claim. Because he physically rose or he didn’t – I’m not going to get into whether he rose or he didn’t – but I would say that’s an outer truth claim: it happened or it didn’t happen.
But if you say, “I don’t care if he rose from the dead. It’s symbolically important to me, and that metaphor is so meaningful, so purposeful to me, I’m not going to try to persuade you of it.” Now you’ve moved it from outer truth to inner truth, from science to art. And I think we have a tendency to not be clear about this, to try to move our inner truths to outer truths. Or, to not be fair about it to each other, and when people try to tell us their inner truths, to try to make them defend them by outer truth standards.
Hearing this talk put things together for me. I am still part of the Christian tradition, and Christianity is my formative worldview. I’ve realized, however, that my faith is on a journey from outer truth to inner truth.
In his book Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again Through Science, Mike McHargue (AKA Science Mike) argues that even as we doubt, or find the claims of religion preposterous, we can still develop an experiential neural God network. This network is cultivated through prayer, meditation, and religious activity, and it can be a source of profound happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.
This is where I find my faith: I don’t know anymore whether Christ was literally raised from the dead, but the transcendent myth of Christ is something I meditate on daily, something that enriches my life and, I believe, makes me a better person.
After years of not attending church, I am now back in church.
Here is the most ironic part of all: after years of struggling to go to Church, I now find myself attending church every Sunday, and finding more fulfillment in it than I ever have. I find myself in the Episcopal tradition, full of beauty, ritual, and mysticism. I also pray the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer every morning and night.
Not only do these practices leave me feeling satiated and at peace, I also can’t help but feel that they are objectively good for my brain: I’m not as lonely as I used to be, my focus is better, and I go through my day feeling happier.
This still leaves a lot of unanswered questions and conflicting emotions.
I know that most other Christians would say that my hodgepodge faith is heretical, and it probably is. But honestly, I don’t care. I’m just happy to be finding an interior faith that gives me some sense of meaning in a deeply chaotic world.
But what about the external world, and my place in it? What about my consciousness, and my soul? What about the fate of humanity, and it’s place in the cosmos?
These are questions I don’t have answers to, where I once had certainty. That’s hard.
The only solution I can think of is to continue to have integrity, humility, and kindness. To keep asking questions, and to keep hoping that, just maybe, we tiny creatures with magnificent brains can figure out this universe and why we are here.
Do you have your own journey of doubt within a faith tradition? I’d love to hear your story, and how you have learned to survive the experience. Share your story with me in the comments below.
16 thoughts on “A New Kind of Christianity: Inner Truth Vs. Outer Truth”
I am happy for you that you’ve found a remanant of faith within. When you are old it will seem more like a knowing and you will be convinced of many things you do not now accept. Your journey is good and valuable. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Jeff, thank you for your kind words.
I really sympathize with this. Agnosticism makes so much sense to me that I’ve accepted that that’s the term that best fits where I stand … and yet I go on trying to be a Christian–partly because of family, especially my husband, but partly for me. It’s a difficult place to be, as I don’t feel like I’m truly free to miss church from time to time while I struggle, don’t feel free to be fully open about my agnosticism, but I also don’t entirely want to leave. I find meaning and support in the community, the symbolism, the beauty and hope I find in belief even if I can’t wholly believe it, and the order and structure that religion gives to life and the community it forms. (The community can certainly be toxic, but I’m lucky, right now, to be in a parish where I have gay friends who live openly and hold active roles in the church.)
It’s been a year since my religious studies class, but I seem to recall many quotes from top anthropologists who felt religion served a variety of social goods … and I’ve got to run, or I’d try to look them up! But they’re out there. Geertz and Durkheim and all those guys, many of them atheists, saw at least some value in the contribution of religion to society and the individual.
P.S. I’ve been following your blog, but failing to comment, as I had a baby in March! She doesn’t like to let me have both hands free to use the computer! But I’m reading and appreciating and enjoying. 🙂
Jenna, thank you so much for sharing. That is an incredibly hard place to be. Like you, I find comfort in the scientists and anthropologists who say that religion is beneficial. At this point, I’m just looking for agnostics and atheists who aren’t assholes about religion. I’ve recently discovered Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue and How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg: two very helpful books in understanding the positive value of religion.
Take care of yourself in this whole process, let me know if you ever need to talk.
I will respect the girl who thinks my abilities are carbon monoxide poisoning. But, I have already had loads of medical tests, and that’s never been true.My respect for her enthusiasm is what is real because she knows one very important thing is true. She understands a connection between art and magic exists. That connection is the real explanation for faith. When a soul is lit by the fire of creation it can find many ways of hearing. I hear truths before they are spoken, but only in my mind. I don’t know why and leave that to God.
Thank you so much for sharing. I definitely think there are some deep mysteries out there that science does not yet understand. What sort of experiences with the paranormal have you had?
I’m in those early stages of deconstruction where I have my list of doubts, but haven’t yet begun to “own” those doubts; I mean to say, I haven’t started calling myself agnostic. My issue is a bit of the reverse of yours—I would be relieved to know there wasn’t an afterlife (life is exhausting, an eternal life sounds even more exhausting), but my upbringing and God-neural-network (speaking of Science Mike) makes me afraid that there is. I think I would be a bit relieved to write it all off, but something inside me insists that it’s all true. I even gave up prayer for Lent this year, which was strange, almost alienating. Hm, clumsy words I have. But you’re not alone, and I continue to hope that we can each come to a conclusion (even if it’s open-handed and fluid) that settles comfortably in our souls.
Amy, thank you so much for commenting, and for sharing your thoughts. I deeply appreciate your honesty. I completely understand what you mean by having a list of doubts but not owning them yet. I feel like that’s where I’ve been for a long time, and I only recently started owning them. What I wanted everyone to know was that I needed time with these doubts – that I needed (and still need) lots of time to process them.
Your perspective on the afterlife is a new one to me. I generally assume that we all want to live forever, but your perspective makes sense. Living is indeed exhausting.
Thank you, again, for sharing.
So much of what you written here fully resonates with my own experience. It’s what I’ve meant when I’ve previously said to you (and others in my life) that “I *choose* to be a Christian,” not because my mind necessarily fully believes all that the faith describes, but because it makes me happier, gives me order, and gives me peace. So I just go with it. I like this language about “inner truth,” because that’s what it is for me. I don’t have some strong defense for it. If it’s not at all true, then crap. It is terrifying what that means for the afterlife (like, literally, absolutely, 100% terrifying…and it grips me with fear whenever I contemplate annihilation). But if it is true, then great! Regardless, what it does for me in the here and now is tremendous.
My experience is a lot different from yours, but I still resonate really strongly with your blog posts. I didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist tradition. I went to a Methodist or PC(USA) church depending on where my family lived at the time, so there was more of a big tent mentality. When I went to college I started dating a girl in my dorm. I also started getting involved in an evangelical campus ministry. Even though it was evangelical I was attracted to the focus on connecting faith with social justice and strong community. There were times when we talked about “the lost” (non-evangelicals) and looked down on Muslims. looking back, there was also the assumption that all real Christians believe in biblical inerrancy, and there was an inherant complementarianism. These things made me uncomfortable, but I felt like my more liberal perspective was at least tolerated, and I was attracted to the strong sense of community and purpose, so I overlooked the things that made me uncomfortable.
I ended up dating the girl I mentioned for all of college and four years after. I was all in, but looking back on it I can see a pattern: I was constantly trying to prove I was a good enough Christian. She wanted a “strong” Christian man who would be the head of the family (spiritually and otherwise), and this was not compatible with my flavor of faith, which learns by questioning things and values egalitarian relationships. I was blind to that at the time, and by the time I woke up to this, it had been 8 years and breaking up was really painful, even though she initiated it. I was constantly trying to prove my worth as a Christian and to convince her that our relationship was not a distraction from her faith. My faith was inextricably bound to this relationship and the community that came with it.
I’m oversimplifying and apologize if I’m making myself seem like an innocent victim. Her version would probably be different. It has been really hard to break down that neurological real estate that associates my worth with my faith and acceptance in a particular community.
Once I was able to start healing I found books about historical criticism and more progressive faith. It has been life-giving to put language to the doubts I always felt when I was in the evangelical community. I also dated other women and found someone who affirms my mode of faith, even as it continues to evolve.
One way my faith evolved was to start questioning purity culture. After 6 months of dating my girlfriend and I were in love and took our relationship to the next level. We were very intentional and used the most effective birth control we could find, but she still became pregnant almost immediately. That may be TMI, but it’s a defining part of my life and faith. We got married and had the baby, and it has been the most challenging and joyous thing I’ve ever done. We just had a second baby (on purpose this time).
I love my wife and kids and we are able to provide a loving, supportive home. Finding out about the pregnancy was joyous and terrifying. I also realized I had a lot of baggage from my previous faith community and felt a lot of guilt for going against the purity culture embedded in it. My family and friends were super supportive, but I couldn’t shake feeling like I was a bad person for not having a family in the way idealized by a lot of the evangelical community. The only people who were judgmental, in fact, were my friends from my college ministry group.
I’m proud of the marriage and the life we’ve built and I refuse to place the way my first baby was born in the same category as adultery or revenge porn. I have had a voracious appetite the past several years for books about the history of the Bible, different ways to interpret it, and how to build a strong faith that doesn’t define itself by what it doesn’t believe anymore.
Wow, this has been long! Thank you for your work. I’m not part of the LGBTQ community, and I didn’t come from a fundamentalist background, but I have connected with your writing. It has been life-giving to me.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, and my apologies for the belated response. I’m so thankful you find the writing here life giving.
And that isn’t TMI at all. Thank you for sharing, and I celebrate your family. Purity culture is definitely a beast to overcome, so I understand the anxiety you express here. We all have difficult religious backgrounds, in some shape or form.