The Needed Crisis of Self-Faith
What Baptism means for the Deconstructing, Renovating, and the Christ Following
There comes a time in everyone’s life, I think, when they stumble across some quote or line of thinking and they feel they have discovered some hidden nugget of truth that may change their life if they let it. And maybe they think it is some forgotten nugget, left dusty on a shelf for far too long. They pull it out and dust it off and inspect it from every angle and then, in some assured moment of hubris, they enclose it in quotes and slip it into their Comp101 final paper with a flourish. They have found the answer to humanity’s problems. They are nineteen years old. They know everything.
This time came in my life when I read Søren Kierkegaard’s quote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” I don’t remember where I read it, some magazine article or book of quotable quotes, but I do remember dipping into my college library basement, dark and dank, and paging through reams of Kierkegaard books to try to find its source (this was after the Internet, of course, but before we all had it at our fingertips at every moment). I went to college later in life, aged five years more than all my classmates, and, in my mind, the quote proved my maturity. I knew things they didn’t yet know about the world. I had wisdom they hadn’t yet lived enough years to gain. This quote was evidence.
What I didn’t know was that those two lines would propel me into a future in which I kept moving forward but always looked backward. I was desperate for understanding, intent on dissecting, bent toward scrutiny. I wanted to understand why the world was the way it was and why my world was the way it was.
The next few years of my life became marked by this scrutiny. I was in a Christian university surrounded by Christian friends and Christian activities, but inwardly, in the secret of my own bedroom and my own heart and mind, I was a scientist. I read philosophy, theology, poetry, literature. I became aquatinted with questions and mystery. When I read the Bible, I read it with skepticism. I began to observe my life as if it were some experiment in the legitimacy of the Christian life (or at least the Christian life as I thought it was). I applied mathematics to matters of the heart. If I did X and God did Y, then Z. And if Z did not happen for me, but I had definitely done X, then my only conclusion was that God did not do Y.
Enough of this applied mathematics will lead one directly to deconstruction, or a faith crisis, as we called it in the mid aughts. I hung around the neighborhood for a while, but by late 2009, I was on its doorstep begging for an invitation inside.
I lived it forward, but I understand it backward. I see my own errors in judgement, my own failures in understanding, and my own misapplication. But I also see answers given to me in those years reinforced my math faith. Pray more, sing more, worship more, memorize more, root deeper, doubt less, question less—do all this and your faith will bloom.
But my faith didn’t bloom. Instead my faith was revealed to be as flimsy and one-dimensional as a cardboard-cutout of a Christian. I looked, acted, spoke, and sometimes even believed the part, but my faith was almost entirely in my ability to do those things and in the Christian institution’s ability to believe they were enough.
There are stages to a faith crisis, one is devastation. One is hope. One is disillusionment. One is grief. And one is when it is tempting to believe our questions are new or at least improved, that we have joined some secret echelon of curiosity, that we are the true scientists and explorers, and everyone else is a herd-like sycophant. We can become like that college freshman, whipping out our Kierkegaard quote with flourish and panache.
I’ve been reading A.J. Swoboda’s After Faith (which I keep thinking is A Curious Faith’s older brother). In his chapter on the practice of being wrong, he quotes Thomas Merton saying about a group who wanted to change the liturgy of the Church: “This they want after lauds, at four in the morning, between Lauds and Prime—when there should be a quiet interval of reading—a lot of liturgical novelty and excitement. Understand my groans. They call themselves the liturgists.” Swoboda goes on, “They want Jesus and the church shaped by their newfound ideals.” And then he quotes our beloved Eugene Peterson, “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.”
As long as there are young adults in the world, there will be moments of awakening in the world. There will be epiphanies. There will be resurrection. The baptism of adulthood means putting to death some childish ways, waking up to the world as it is and not just as we want it to be. And for many who have grown up in some sort of faith environment, no matter how good or bad it is, these moments are necessary. Every one of us, without exception, must engage what we believe honestly and humbly, we must be wowed by what isn’t and by what is.
And the temptation for all of us during this baptism, is to believe we have been fully raised to newness of life before we actually have. There is a death that happens beneath those waters, a shedding of the life we had but also the life we still have and will have until we face Christ in the new kingdom. Our great mistake is in believing we are the ones with the words of eternal life. We stop looking backwards. We stop repenting for yesterday. We stop experiencing the daily continual baptisms, our need for new mercy and grace for each day. We begin to believe what we know now is better than what we have ever known before or will know in the future. We believe we have arrived.
There are some certainties in this world and in Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life, but my greatest mistake would be to believe that the way I see and experience him is the way, the truth, and the life. The poet Denise Levertov once wrote, “every step an arrival,” and I find this to be the way of faith—true faith and not contrived faith.
A friend told me recently that he is realizing so much of his faith has been in people and institutions, but now that so many people are falling away and institutions are crumbling, he is realizing his faith was misplaced. I understood his sentiment. This is part of baptism. This is part of dying not to faith in Christ but in dying to misplaced faith.
A crisis of faith is not really a crisis of faith at all. It’s a crisis of self belief. It’s a crossroads where we look at the way of certainty, of mathematical belief, a seen and felt trajectory, and then we look at the way of faith in Christ and the edge seems to drop off far sooner than we’d like. It’s learning to be content with the phrases “I don’t know,” or “I haven’t learned this yet,” or “I think I messed up,” or “I need help.” It is a practice in turning our palms up and living forward, but learning what seems to the whole world—and even to our very selves—backward.
If you’d like more thoughts and words from me on faith and the process of living it forward, please preorder my book A Curious Faith. Preorders help authors immensely with getting the word out about their book. You’ll get the lowest price locked in and you’ll get the book the day it releases! Win. Win. Win!