On faith, doubt, and growing up in church

I have such happy memories of growing up in church. I remember vanilla wafers and flannelgraphs on Sunday mornings,  all the girls in our tights and ribbons, all the boys in their tiny jackets and miniature ties. I remember memorizing the books of the Bible to the tune of nursery rhymes and reciting verses in exchange for AWANA pins, trading prized “Bible cards” for candy, and earning Pioneer Girl badges for giving my “testimony.” I remember daydreaming about playing the coveted role of Mary in the Christmas pageant while perched in the baptismal as a manger-scene dove and singing a slightly off-tune Handel’s Messiah in the choir every Easter.

I made my first life-long friends in youth group and played out the awkward flirtations of my first crushes in the fellowship hall. There were road trips and lock-ins featuring elaborate games of Capture the Flag followed by contests to see who could stuff their mouth with the most whipped cream.  There was my nerdy junior high stage where I joined the church puppet team and my (obviously much cooler) high school phase where I joined the church drama club. There were service projects that turned into laughter-filled afternoons of paint fights or leaf-jumping, “missions trips” filled with white water rafting, and, of course, Nationals, where thousands of hormonally-charged Evangelical teenagers gathered every other year on a college campus to  rock out with Jeff Deyo, “rededicate their lives to Christ,” and scope out potential future spouses.

But there are less happy memories too.

I remember literally biting my tongue until it bled to stifle noises of disgust when told that women should “submit” and not dress in such a way as to cause their “brothers in Christ” to “stumble.”  I remember freezing in terror-stricken panic when required to pray aloud. It felt like such a violation, such a public display of something that was so inherently private to me.  I remember waves of visceral dissonance when expected to proclaim my absolute certainty in “faith alone, in God alone, as found through the Scriptures alone.” But, most of all, I remember anxious, guilt-laced confusion when people would talk about “being in love” with God or having Jesus as their “best friend” or “experiencing His presence.” No matter how hard I tried, I could never relate to those sentiments.

On every retreat, my counter-parts would raise their hands in the air, tears of joy streaming down their faces as they claimed to feel the transformative power of God’s love while I cried tears of sheer frustration over my inability to feel those same emotions.  I was convinced it must be my own fault. It must be something I was doing wrong, some unknown sin, something I was missing. Maybe I wasn’t really “saved” after all.  Maybe I had too many intellectual doubts. Maybe I wasn’t one of the “elect.”  When I shared this fear with my pastor, he encouraged me to pray for stronger faith. I did. I prayed morning-noon-and-night for certainty.  It never came.

By the time I graduated from high school, Sunday morning services had become a dreaded cycle of trying and failing and trying harder and failing more miserably to feel something – anything.  I felt sick to my stomach with guilt when I skipped church and heavy with sadness when I attended. Eventually, I determined that the guilt of non-attendance was preferable and I gave up dragging myself out of bed on Sunday mornings.

In lieu of organized religion, I cobbled together a version of Christianity that made sense to me, an  amalgamation of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and various Greek philosophers. The gist was that truth exists, but human beings can never know for sure that we’ve found it. We can only hope.  We should pursue the  path to spiritual enlightenment that is most accessible to us.  We should put one foot in front of the other, progressing with increasing virtue and peace to guide us on our way.  But we can never be certain that we’ve chosen the right way or even that there is a “right” way, seeing as we do “through a glass darkly.” All anyone can do is their best. And that looks different for everyone.

It felt authentic to me. It felt right. It still does.  But for years I held these beliefs secretly and with the anxious certainty that “real” Christians would consider me a heretic if they knew. As a result, I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a Christian – but I felt even less comfortable calling myself agnostic. Evangelical services made me cringe, but not as much as the scorn my non-religious friends heaped on Christianity.  I had never felt more alone.  I had no tribe anymore, no “us”; only “them.” I still attended Sunday morning services from time to time, but always feeling like an imposter.

A strange thing happened as years went by though. More and more of those people I was so afraid might judge me –  those same people who once raised their hands in the air and cried ecstatic tears on retreats – began confessing to me that they no longer considered themselves Christians. By now, this increasingly angry, disenfranchised group encompasses a vast majority of my childhood friends. They all give variations of the same reasons  – they don’t believe the Bible was inspired, they don’t believe that a “good” God would doom “non-believers” to hell, they don’t believe there’s only one path to heaven, they don’t believe that gays should be prohibited from marrying or that women should be subservient to men, they don’t “feel” God anymore.

“I don’t either.” I tell them.

“Wait. I thought you were still a Christian,” is the most frequent response.

Until recently, my best explanation has been a helpless, somewhat shamed shrug. Maybe I’m not technically a Christian. I’m certainly not a “good” mainline Protestant. I never claimed to be.  Maybe there’s no room for true, ongoing doubt in mainline Christianity.

But lately, I’ve started to wonder – maybe there’s only as much room in Christianity as people who profess to be Christians make. Maybe, if uncertain Christians were more vocal, fewer people would be leaving the church – or at least maybe they’d be leaving with less hostility, with less of a feeling that they’ve been bullied and oppressed during their time as congregants.

I wonder what Christianity might look like if it revolved less around rote, Americanized rituals and more around an honest, intelligent, open-ended discussion. What if we took a page from Rainer Maria Rilke and focused on helping people “live the questions,” as opposed to offering easy, canned answers?  What if we banned play-acting certainty along with empty clichés and, instead, welcomed messy authenticity? What if we opened the door to plurality? What if we recognized the truth and beauty in other faith traditions, accepting Rumi’s claim that there are “hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground”? What if we taught teenagers to “feel” God by encouraging them in the rich discipline of mysticism instead of encouraging them to get caught up in the passing, groupthink fervor of a weekend retreat? What if worship weren’t hymn-sermon-communion-hymn, but a concert, an academic lecture, a play, a conversation over dinner, a meditation?

And, at the same time, what if the people who have resigned themselves to vitriolic anger at the church were a little less willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater? What if they realized that their absence only serves to makes the church narrower?

What if we all made a little more room for nuance?

I’m writing this rather uncomfortably personal post because I wish someone else had written it years ago.  Maybe they did and I just never found it.  But I’ve wasted so much time feeling guilty and anxious, twisting myself into knots, trying to believe things I will never be able to believe.  I think it might have saved me years of unnecessary angst if I’d know there were other people out there experiencing these same things without renouncing their religion altogether.

Even if I’m not the picture of an orthodox Christian, even if I find more transcendence in yoga and music and fiction than in stain-glass sanctuaries and the Apostle’s Creed, I’m someone who hasn’t given up. I’m someone with doubts who is still looking for divinity where I can find it.

I think my old friend C.S. Lewis might approve, at least tacitly. Even if I’m looking in the wrong places, better to look than not. “Better to begin at the wrong end than not to begin at all.”


11 thoughts on “On faith, doubt, and growing up in church

  1. Reblogged this on unpacked thoughts and commented:
    A great post from an old friend. It’s funny that we grew up in church together and never realized until recently that we’d been struggling with many of the same problems of doubt, guilt and frustration at the same time. While the journey she’s been on for many years hasn’t always been easy, it has always been about digging for answers and asking tough questions. An admirable thing that I wish more people could proclaim they themselves have done.

  2. Malinda,
    I came by this blog via Nate’s repost. You might find you are even less alone than you realized. Best of luck on your journey.
    I wrote a blog post some time ago that I consider a response to some of your thoughts.

  3. Malinda says:

    Chris Carter! Wow, it’s been years. Thanks for commenting and sharing your blog. I always enjoy reading about other people’s beliefs, especially people I grew up with.
    A couple of quick thoughts in response, not because I’m interested in starting a detailed debate but because I think the ideas you present are interesting and worthy of consideration.

    To me, the Garden of Eden is an instructive story that cautions humans as to their limits, much like the myth of Icarus flying too close to the sun. I certainly believe in the pursuit of knowledge, but always with the humble awareness of our fallibility. (In the vein of Socrates, Plotinus, or Confucius – “To know what we know and what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”) Science lives by the tenants of reason because it claims only to explain the physical world. Something we can know. But I think it’s impossible to live by the tenants of reason when attempting to explain the spiritual world. Something we can’t know – at least on earth. I don’t believe that irrationality automatically makes something more plausible – I think that’s a huge hole in Lewis’ reasoning, But, at the same time, I don’t believe that you can rule out the existence of something irrational (or super-rational, as the spiritual realm claims to be) through the exercise of pure reason. A lack of certainty as to the existence or non-existence of a spiritual world – one we can’t see – is only response that feels logical to me.

    But, even though we differ in our conclusions, I can certainly appreciate and respect your thought process.. Thanks again for sharing your link – and for the well wishes. I return them heartily. Best of luck to you as well, sir. 🙂

  4. One more from LBC chimes in. I have been looking for a post like this. One that articulates a thoughtful transition from the evangelical upbringing we experienced. One without the resentment of feeling betrayed or lied to.

    • Malinda says:

      Thanks so much for the comment, Ellison. Glad you found your way to this post and that you can identify with it, at least a little. Hope all is well with you!

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