Wanting it to be true, but fearing that it isn't.
Feeling like you’re losing your faith can be terrifying. This is especially so if you’ve been a Christian for a long time and your faith has been central to your identity. Facing your doubts and long-held – but suppressed suspicions – can feel a bit like standing on the edge of the abyss as the ground beneath you starts to give way. You don’t want to fall in, but you can’t find any solid ground that allows you to step back from the void. On the one hand, you want to retain your faith, but on the other hand, you want to know the truth, even if the truth turns your life upside down.
Strangely enough, sometimes it can be the smallest thing that brings us to the edge. Oh sure, cancer, financial ruin, a broken marriage, and the death of a child can do it too. But often a faith crisis is the result of something more mundane that catches us off guard and drives us down the rabbit hole. In his book, the Sin of Certainty, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns, shares the story of how his faith crisis began.
Flying home from an academic conference one day he decided to pass the time by watching one of the many in-flight movies offered by the airline. The film he chose was Disney’s A Bridge to Terabithia. The movie is about two fifth-grade girls in rural Virginia; Jess and Leslie. Jess and Leslie become close friends despite the fact that they are near polar opposites. Jess comes from a fundamentalist Christian family that faithfully attends church every Sunday. While Leslie has no religious background or inclinations. However, one Sunday Leslie attends church with Jess and her younger sister, May Belle. On the way home the three girls have the following conversation.
Leslie: That whole Jesus thing. It’s really interesting.
May Belle: It’s not interesting, it’s scary. It’s nailing holes through your hand. It’s because we’re all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.
Leslie: Do you really think that’s true?
May Belle: It’s in the Bible. And if you don’t believe in the Bible, God will damn you to Hell when you die.
Leslie: I seriously do not think God goes around demining people to Hell. He’s too busy running all of this.
That seemingly harmless exchange sent Enns into a tailspin.
In a flash and without words, I thought quietly to myself, I think Leslie’s right…The idea that the Creator of heaven and Earth, with all their beauty, wonder, and mystery, was at the same time a supersized Bible-thumping preacher, obsessed with whether our thoughts were all in place and ready to condemn us for eternity to hell if they weren’t, made no sense – even though that was my operating (though unexamined) assumption as long as I could remember.
A fifty-two-second exchange in a movie – a Disney movie, for crying out loud (this is embarrassing) – uttered by a fifth-grader and total outsider to the Christian faith…Leslie’s comment confronted me with a simple yet profound and uncomfortable question: When the dust clears and in the quiet of your own heart, what kind of God do you believe in, really? And why?
An innocent movie, on a random flight, on an average day, caused Enns to have a faith crisis. Suddenly he was face to face with the most important question anyone can ask: does God exist and if so, what is he like? Asking that question is filled with uncertainty. As Enns warned, “Once you start down this path, there’s no telling where the dominoes are going to fall – and then what? And then what, indeed.
Pete Enns managed to retain his faith. But his story illustrates three things. One, that a faith crisis can sneak up on us when we’re least expecting it. Two, that even for those who are well grounded in the faith, it can be caused by the most insignificant of encounters. Three, when it does, it creates in us a sense of disequilibrium, anxiety, and fear. That thing that gave us a sense of security, identity, community and told us our place in the world is all stripped away in a faith crisis. And there is nothing more terrifying than that.
If you can relate to Peter Enns, take heart. You’re not alone. Thousands of others have gone through a similar dark night of the soul. And although it’s a torturous place to be, there’s hope. After all, Enns didn’t lose his faith. In fact, he would say that he came out on the other side of this experience with a stronger faith. The same can be true for you. No matter how difficult it might seem from where you stand, deconversion is not inevitable. At the same time, there isn’t a 12-step plan that can guarantee that you won’t leave the faith at the end of your journey. But there are some things you can do – and do with intellectual integrity – that makes deconverting less likely.
If you’re torn between wanting to keep your faith and the desire to know the truth even if it means deconverting, I encourage you to continue reading the other sections in this series. My hope is that in them you will find some parcels of solid ground that will allow you to gain traction and retreat from the abyss.