One of the most challenging parts of navigating the unraveling of my faith was trying to sort out my relationship to the Christian Tradition as a whole, and to the communities and people who were instrumental in forming the faith that I could no longer embrace. The process of shedding what I once believed to be certainty was disorienting on its own, but adding the relational component (and the subsequent loss of many of those relationships) left me feeling unmoored and isolated.
In my travels and conversations over the past five years or so I have met so many people who, like me, felt they were experiencing an exile of sorts. They could no longer remain in the churches and denominations that had shaped them, and as a result, many of the most meaningful relationships they had were also severed. The pain and disorientation that the loss of these relationships brings is real and deep. How do we stay connected to the Christian Tradition, especially when we can no longer affirm some of the central beliefs of the majority of Christians? What about the relational losses that have left significant wounds? What is our obligation (if any) to respond to the questions and concerns of those who shaped our earliest religious imaginations? Ive spent a lot of time over the years wresting with these questions, and I think I’ve made peace with the path forward for me. So, while I am sure this is not a “one-size-fits-all” journey, I hope some of what I’ve learned will help.
Embracing a Tradition of Change
I’ve come to see a distinction between Tradition and tradition. The latter (lowercase t) is about how we structure our gatherings, or how we interpret a certain text. It’s about the particular ways we do things that, over time, have been given a sense of authority. The other, Tradition (capital T), for me means being connected to a way of seeing. When I talk about the Christian Tradition, I mean the way of seeing that continually calls us to live in more compassionate, just, and generous ways. In that sense the Tradition is all about change. It’s about leaving behind ‘eye for an eye’ and embracing enemy love. Like Simon Peter in Acts 10, it’s about changing our minds—literally repenting—and realizing that God’s love is far more inclusive and universal than we dared imagine. Being faithful to tradition often means making no changes, asking no questions, and keeping things the way they’ve always been. In this sense, tradition is about not messing up and handing the same responsibility to the next generation. However, Tradition isn’t about specific doctrines and interpretations. Tradition is about the way we engage, with open hearts and minds, speaking to and engaging the needs of this moment. From this perspective one of the most Traditional things you can do is break with tradition when our understanding of God and the needs of the moment call us to. While I have had to break in numerous ways with the tradition, I feel more at home in the Tradition than perhaps I ever have. To put it succinctly, tradition resists change, while Tradition necessitates and instigates it.
Relationships, Anger, and a Way Forward
One of the causes of my deepest pain over the past decade has been the loss of relationships that accompanied the transformation of my faith. Every part of my life has been impacted. I lost connection with the communities that shaped me, the mentors who taught me, and even family members, most of whom I’ve had to block on social media. My unraveling led to a deep sense of anger. Not only had I lost significant relationships, but I also felt like I had been intentionally misled. For example, I wasn’t told that our interpretation was one way of seeing God, Jesus, the Bible, tradition, etc. On the contrary, I was told it was the only correct interpretation. Actually, it wasn’t even an interpretation, and to resist it or question it meant being opposed, not to church leadership or doctrine, but to God.
The anger I felt from both the lack of information and the loss of relationships was all consuming for a period of time, and to quote Don Henley, “if you keep carrying around that anger, it’ll eat you up inside, baby.” I didn’t want to be angry, but I also didn’t know what to do with my anger. Over time, with a lot of trial and error, I’ve landed on a couple of practices that have been helpful and healing. I am not carrying the anger in the same way that I used to, and the anger I do feel is much more generative. That has actually become a litmus test for me: When I am angry, what is created? Does my anger lead to something good and generative in the world? (Like the time Jesus got so angry he healed a man with a withered hand) Or, does my anger lead to a self indulgent brooding and planning how to get even? One is a creative anger that seeks to end injustice, and the other is probably more about my desire to lick my wounds and save face.
The Benefit of the Doubt
It took a while for me to realize that the people who taught me and shaped me were likely doing the best that they could with the information they had. This won’t be true in everyone’s story, and I acknowledge that. For me, I think it’s largely been the case. They taught me like they did because they believed it to be the right way (and the only way). Giving them the benefit of the doubt, while also being able to let go of those beliefs that were toxic and unhelpful, has been so transformative for me.
Boundaries Are Our Friend
I mentioned before that I had blocked most of my family on social media. Sometimes the block button is the best thing you can do for self-care. Not everyone can be trusted to be in your life. Not every voice is one you need to listen to. For us to be our healthiest us, the best version of who we can be, it will likely mean creating boundaries.
Recently I added a new boundary on social media. I will no longer engage a reply or question when it is clear that the person asking it is trying to somehow catch me in a heresy. Just the other day a friend from years ago popped up on social media, asking questions about Progressive Christianity. It was abundantly clear that he 1) wanted to expose me as a heretic, and 2) display his evangelical bona fides. I just decided not to engage it, not because I am afraid of being exposed as a heretic, but because life is short and I am not spending it arguing on Facebook. When people bring the opposite kinds of comments and questions, even if they end up disagreeing with me, I love to engage in those conversations. It’s mostly about trusting our intuition. When we sense an interaction is off, then we get to say so and move on. That doesn’t make you unChristian; Jesus didn’t answer very many questions from his interrogators, either.
I’ve also decided I won’t reply to emails from people who knew me “back then” (when I was far more orthodox), that call me a heretic or demand that I tell them my opinions of the doctrines of their choice. That isn’t my work to do, and it’s ultimately not going to helpful to them or me.
Boundaries are all about health and wholeness, and when I have lacked boundaries in the past I also ended up lacking the health and wholeness they can bring. Boundaries are the self-care that helps us heal and love our neighbors as we’ve loved ourselves.
What Would You Add?
These are a few of the ways I’ve come to approach my relationship with the Christian Tradition/tradition and the people who were part of my earliest, shaping experiences. I’d love to hear from you! Is this helpful? Have anything to add? Share it with us in the comments.
This is what I needed to hear. I love God. I love Jesus. However, I have always struggled trying to reconcile what I was taught, with what I felt growing up in church. I've always looked at progression as the right direction, while almost everyone I know still believes as they always have. I taught my children to pay more attention to Jesus and less to "church people". They share this feeling of progression with me, but it has left us on the outside of what almost all the people we know practice. Relationships within our family have already suffered over our difference in politics, and a certain former (thank God) president. Always, in the back of my mind, is the nagging thought, "What if I'm wrong?". I feel encouraged by your words and knowledge. I knew this was the right path when you quoted Don Henley, lol. I look forward to my journey. Thank you.