An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no, it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”
This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.
So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.
The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you. Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).
On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there. Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!
And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.
Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.
After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.
But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.
Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.
Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…
Pietistic Evangelicalism has always been a schismatic element in American Episcopal Church history (e.g., the Methodist Schism of 1779-1784; the Cummins Schism of 1773; the bulk of the ACNA Schism of 2009, etc). Both the High Church/Catholic and Low Church/Broad Church historically have incorporated elements of Evangelicalism into their models. Standing by itself, however, Evangelicalism has always been problematic.