file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.

 

priestMy post about tipping over the certainty curve created some extra interest this week, after Thinking Anglicans posted posted a link to it on their website.

Some of the thoughtful responses to it, led me to write a little more about the process, rather than going in to the post about silence, which I had planned as the next in this series. That one will come soon.

Before I go into some more detail about the process, I should point out that I don’t mean to suggest that evangelicalism has a monopoly on certainty. All traditions have their elements of certainty, dogma or orthodoxy. However, one of the reasons I pay some particular attention to evangelicalism is a tendency within particular parts of it to prefer total certainty to mystery or doubt. In this post I will refer to a couple of individuals who clearly were not evangelicals.

So another thing to make clear is that the arc or curve that I depict in the original post is a deliberate simplification of the process, I don’t mean to genuinely suggest that there is either a very straightforward line, or that the journey is ‘one way’. Rather the real picture is more complex, and always dynamic.

The best model I have seen for understanding the complexities of this kind of process is called Spiral Dynamics, a very complex piece of work which purports to be an overarching meta narrative that explains human development. As a good GenX postmodern thinker, I’m innately suspicious of such a meta narrative, however, experientially I resonate with the process described by Spiral Dynamics thinkers.

That doesn’t mean though, that I believe there to be no value in the curve model. All of these things are limited, they are deliberate and knowing simplifications of a complex situation. They are visual aids, just as, for instance, parables are story aids to understanding similar things.

So, speaking of parables, let’s reconsider the curve, in particular the way in which the curve model maps with the parable of the prodigal son. I use this curve a lot, and the curve images I use below also highlight/map in black text, what I believe are the key stages of the way people view God/ultimate concern in a journey of spiritual development.

In this story, the son starts off at the bottom left of the curve, looking up to his father (the God figure) in the knowledge that in him, all needs are met. He is developing in the place of ultimate safety and certainty. Naturally enough though, the son develops, and goes through the difficulties and frustrations, and disillusionment of adolescence. This precipitates something of a crisis – where he believes that life elsewhere would be better than what he has. And in some ways, of course, he is right. He is a child, and he recognises that adulthood is different to what he has now.

prodigal_sonSo in the story, the son leaves home, and becomes physically distant from his father – in a similar way someone may leave the certainty of evangelicalism, or any other dogmatic view of God, and become physically distant from the church. This is the beginning of his period of deconstruction, during which the proto evang-exiter may become arrogant or conceited about his or her journey. ‘I know the way to live, and it’s nothing like the old way…’

But this is not a long term sustainable way of existing. Not for most people anyway. It’s hard, and it’s quite false. There’s a sense of denial about it, and there is a very good chance that this is likely to precipitate another crisis, or series of crises. In this case the son finds himself utterly degraded, and comes to realise he is in a place of paradox. At this stage his desire to be with his father is strong, and he makes a return.

For some ex-vangelicals, ex-Christians or church leavers, there is a return to their home, although like the prodigal son, they are not returning as the same person who left. They are changed. They now, perhaps, have a more rounded, less certain view of the world (it’s not hard and fast, these journeys are not the same for everyone). And their return may not be to the fold of evangelicalism either, rather it may be a return to the church more broadly. Hence you find many ex-vangelicals in the bosom of traditions that embrace a more mysterious or apophatic understanding of God. The paradox stage.

peter1Another example is the disciple Peter (a non evangelical of course), who goes through a similar process to the Prodigal son. In this case, Jesus is the God-figure, the point of ultimate concern. In the first place Peter is dependent upon Jesus, seeing Jesus as the answer to everything. Jesus is all powerful at this stage in their relationship, and Jesus is at his miracle performing best. As things develop, Jesus plays an almost parental role in Peter’s life – he has left his family to follow him. But then crisis hits, and all of a sudden the miracle working Jesus has gone, and a new captive, powerless Jesus has emerged. This throws Peter in to a state of turmoil, and he finds himself denying the master he had followed so closely until now. At the point of Jesus’ death, Peter is at his most distant, entirely removed from Jesus. He is not arrogant at this point, rather he is broken, which demonstrates that everyone walks this path in a unique way. Peter’s re-encounter with Jesus is his experience of the mystery of un-earned grace, and he moves into a place of all pervasive love and acceptance. Does this make him perfect? No. Does it make him totally wise and enlightened? Again no. This illustrates that this is not a simple process as this curve would make it appear, this is not the end of Peter’s story. He goes through a new set of curves, crises, and moves forward. But this curve is quite clear, he tips over the edge of certainty. Mother Teresa

This kind of process accounts for the myriad stories of loss of certainty, and loss of faith, that characterise Christian ministry. The proverbial dark nights of the soul. Mother Teresa (Catholic) is an oft cited example, her doubts were made public after her death, and they demonstrate that she suffered greatly. And of course there are many others who experience the same kind of issues, and whatever tradition they come from, it’s jolly hard.

For the activist, this is a particularly difficult experience, and this is partly why I’m interested in the experience of evangelicals, who are fundamentally, part of an activist tradition. The certainty stages are much more steady ground for the activist, who often needs the reassurance of certainty to provide her/him with energy.

I suppose fundamentally my point is that for all of us, the God we grow up with, needs to die. I don’t really care what tradition you’re from, or what religion, or belief system, or philosophy. That which guided our childhood must, at some point perish, if we are to advance in to spiritual maturity. In each person the process is different, probably unique. In many, perhaps most, it involves a crisis, or series of crises. And, in my experience, inevitably certainty has to die away. It can be the work of a lifetime, and many of us never get there.

If you feel that you are going through a period of deconstruction, you might like to come on a retreat with me to talk about the process. You can express interest here.

bible1

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).

certainty2

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…

 

file000612565099I’ve realised from the responses I got from the first blog in this series, that a lot of people who engaged with it, aren’t leavers themselves, but the parents of leavers. And so before I go on to write more about leaving, I want to write about that particular issue. Because it’s a painful one.

For a lot of church leavers, the process happens in early adulthood. There’s a natural point just around the 18 – 20 mark when young people who have remained in church through their teens (by hook or by crook) may choose to walk away.

It feels like a part of the process of growing up, of establishing one’s own identity, of coming to terms with the nature of the world, and your own relationship with it.

There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for some young people when it comes to church: ideas about the nature of God, of prayer, the Bible and so on, often seem to conflict with their knowledge or experience of the world. You either learn to live with that conflict, learn to overcome or deny it, or you choose to accept that what you were taught is actually wrong, and if its the latter, then it can feel like there’s little point in keeping on going to church.

For some, the whole thing of going to church can be an impossible burden, it can weigh you down, oppress you, to the point where you feel a sense of great relief in leaving.

Even if there is a sense of relief, for the leaver, this can be a difficult process, and they may need support in managing it, which is what this blog series is really about. But there’s another dynamic too – the evangelical parent.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who I’ve known who have shared, indicated, or tried to disguise their pain at the departure of their children from the tradition they had grown up in.  (I wasn’t counting in the first place, but if I had been, I’d have stopped by now.)

For some parents there is an ability to rationalise it, to come to terms with it in some way. Just as they tend to when a loved one dies, previously strict ideas of God’s judgement often start to become a little woolier at this point: ‘God knows they are a good person, so surely…’ And of course this is a similar process to one which the leaver may have gone through too. ‘I just don’t believe that if there is a God, they are as mean as that…’

But still there can be a sense of dread. Nobody wants to believe that their child, their beloved, will be consigned to an eternity away from God, and lets be honest, that is what the majority, or at least a large proportion of evangelical churches teach is the case for those who aren’t Christians. And to be a Christian is to fit in a rather narrow mold.

So there’s a number of ways of approaching it:

1) You can tough it out. ‘They made their choice, I just pray God has mercy…’

2) You can deny it. ‘They are still Christian at heart, this is just a phase’.

3) You can engage with it.

Option three requires a lot of resource. Principally it requires thinking, and that means a reappraisal of your core beliefs, and it may require the conscious deconstruction of parts of your own evangelical theology. This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving evangelical church, although I’ve seen it precipitate that too. But I’ve known lots and lots of evangelicals who remain in church despite, not because of, the theology they are taught. ‘Where else would we go? Our friends are here.’

But it’s that moment when the child tells the evangelical parent that they are moving in with their girl/boyfriend, or that they just don’t believe in God anymore, and perhaps they never really did – and all this reinforces to the parent that things are not how they used to be, or perhaps how they hoped they would be. And maybe it feels like a part of you has just died an aching death, and you realise you can’t ignore it any more. Or you can, but if you do, it’s going to be really hard. 

For me, the only real solution is to engage. I’m not keen on denial, and I don’t think toughing it out is a long term solution. I think you have to talk, to think, to reflect/pray/contemplate, to read, and to talk some more. I’m keen to facilitate that kind of conversation, and I’m easy to get hold of. Facebook message me, tweet me, or email me. There are answers, they just may not fit the kind of way you think at the moment.

file000881450729Surviving the death of the tradition that raised you.

It can be difficult growing up as a Christian, perhaps particularly an evangelical.

But if that’s tricky, for many, worse is yet to come.

For many who are born into an evangelical tradition, or were nurtured through it, a spiritual or existential crisis which eventually propels them out of that tradition is profoundly unsettling.

Often, such is the singular emphasis of evangelicalism, that to be anything ‘other’ than evangelical, is not to be Christian at all. And for an evangelical, to not be a Christian can literally mean a fate worse than death.

But there are more approaches to Christianity than the one enshrined in contemporary evangelicalism. The broader Christian religious and spiritual tradition is one that has spent 2000 years in development, and has a vast array of  schools of thought. Some ancient, some modern, some post-modern.

Whatever reason may have propelled the newly ‘ex-evangelical’ from the bosom of the church, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that Christianity as a whole is lost to them forever. And for some people, that’s important: research shows people who no longer identify as Christian, often maintain some of their key beliefs and motivations. The person of Jesus, for instance continues to get enormous respect from a variety of directions, very often people continue to believe in a god of some sort, albeit perhaps not the God they were taught about. Alternatively some continue to believe in the kind of God that evangelicalism taught them about, and they have come to reject that idea of God, often for very good reasons.

While evangelicalism does a number of things very well, it has its weaknesses too, just as every tradition does. For instance, one of its great strengths is that many of the great social reforms have come from evangelicals, and today its often people from that tradition who are actively engaged in issues of social justice. What helps to keep people motivated in engaging in this kind of activity though, is precisely the sort of thing that can cause other problems. There’s a single mindedness that spurs many on to great things, but which doesn’t always handle questions well. A crisis of faith, a period of mental ill health, profound existential angst, questions over gender identity or sexuality, disillusionment with a leader, any of these can prove to be very difficult for an evangelical church to manage,  and these are frequently ‘exit points’ for the disenchanted.

And there are other things too, profound moral convictions can come into conflict with the kind of theology expounded in evangelical churches: environmental issues, human sexuality, politics, and many more ideas become flashpoints for those struggling with an evangelical identity.

Image result for christ of maryknoll by robert lentz ofm
Christ of Maryknoll, by Robert Lentz OFM

So what becomes of those, who some describe as ‘ex-vangelicals’? Very often feelings of disillusionment lead to a wholesale rejection of church, and they find themselves removed from the embrace of community altogether. Some find that this suits them, that in fact church had been, or had latterly become, more of a hindrance than a help in the development of their personal spirituality, or corporate involvement in matters of great importance. Others find a new home in another tradition, yet others decide that not just evangelicalism, but all of Christianity has become a toxic brand, and they want no more to do with any of it. They say there’s nothing like an ex-smoker to bemoan the ills of smoking…

But where an interest remains, it can be very difficult for a church leaver to reconnect with Christianity in a meaningful form, years of hearing how ‘other’ traditions are, if not evil, at best only ‘kind of’ Christian, can mean that one is disturbed by the idea of engaging with any of them. Quakerism, for example, which has provided a home for many who have left the evangelical church, is roundly derided in some quarters of the church for its open stance on matters theological and social. Mystical traditions, which actually share a huge amount with charismaticism, are distrusted and seen as being aligned with ‘new age’ thinking – a huge evangelical bug bear. Apophatic or negative theologies are often thought of as ‘atheism lite’, or even atheism writ large. In other words: not Christian. Orthodox and Catholic traditions are often seen as ‘too religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ (because of course, evangelicalism has no idols…) Process theology, which offers (among other things) a new way of looking at the power of God, is considered heresy by conservative evangelicals.

But in all of these traditions and more, there are profound treasures to be discovered, and the ex-vangelical can find in progressive and liberal circles, in Orthodoxy and other traditions cadres of dedicated, engaged, love filled people just like them, who are struggling through life with questions, doubts, sincere commitments, phobias, and querks. As well as all the other usual collection of failures, mess-ups, and disaster zones that constitute the human race.

If you or your friends are struggling with these issues, and want to explore what kind of tradition or theology you could begin to engage with, I’d love to come and talk with you. It’s not about finding something we all agree with, after all, we all have different opinions, and our opinions change over time. That’s kind of the point.

My work and my ongoing research has led me in to contact with a wide range of traditions and theologies which represent something of the breadth of Christianity as we know it. I also identify with, and have a profound sympathy for those who leave, or have left evangelicalism. I now offer ‘house conferences’ which are basically privately hosted talks and discussions, on precisely this subject. If you are interested in hosting a house conference, drop me a line and lets talk.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post a short series of blogs about ideas and places that may be worth you exploring after evangelicalism. I’ll also aim to answer questions as I go, so feel free to tweet me, facebook message me via my page, or bung me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

file1951346280860.jpgRecent reports that show a growing number of young people identifying as having ‘no religion’ are evidence not of growing secularism, but actually of a society which post secular.

New research, by Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, details percentages of 16–29 year olds across 22 countries who identify as having ‘no religion’. Of the countries studied, only eight had a majority of young people who self–identify has having a religion.

In the UK, the figures are clear, and follow a common narrative: Seventy percent of British young people identify as having no religion. This is not, contrary to some press coverage, a shock statistic. The movement in societal terms has been clear for some time, Brits, particularly young ones, have increasingly identified as having no religion.

The Church of England records what it describes as the ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ at its churches, and noted by 2013 that the percentage of English residents who attend church had halved, from three to 1.5 per cent of the total population over a period of forty years. Similar trends are to be found within various contexts, including in America, where church attendance has historically been high, and where a growing proportion of the population are now reporting that they have never attended a church service.

But not attending church, or having ‘no religion’ is certainly not the same thing as having no beliefs, as other studies have shown: According to one report, approximately 30% of those who belong to no religion at all, claim to believe in life after death (something that not even all church going Christians necessarily believe).

Further to that, 7% of self-professed atheists believe in angels; and approximately one in four of the UK population believe in reincarnation, including one in seven atheists.

This social change has occurred during a period of time in which British culture has become notably more diverse, with a growth in the number of religious and cultural identities reported in surveys. Some of the ‘new’ religious identities are ‘joke’ or ‘parody’ religions, but not all. Some of the new religious identities, even the more playful ones, that have come into existence, have at their core a sense of Tillichian ‘ultimate concern’, making them genuine in a theological sense.

At the same time as this change has taken place, social attitudes have altered to become more tolerant and accepting of diversity, with an acceptance of, or preference for, spirituality over religion: other research has shown that ‘nones’ are generally ambivalent towards the church, regarding it perhaps as more inconsequential than negative. Its not so much that the church has been violently rejected, or rebelled against, just that it has been found to have little meaning. It may be useful in certain times (major tragedies etc.), but on the whole it has little of importance to offer, and certainly doesn’t endow the attendee with the kind of symbolic capital that it used to.

This social climate, which allows for or encourages a liquidity or plurality of belief, underlayed with a marked decline in the size, scope and power of the mainstream religions (particularly Christianity), rather than being purely secularist, is indicative of post secularism. Within a postsecular society, religious thought continues to play an important part, actively shaping ‘social life at different levels and in a variety of forms’ (Habermas) but no longer acts as the dominant or defining narrative.

Rather than seeing the total destruction of religious activity and belief as one might expect to be the result of the process of secularisation, what we are actually seeing is the changing shape of belief, and its movement away from the contained or institutionalised form. For Christians, this may pose a challenge, but should not necessarily be unwelcome.

The idea of inclusion seems so simple, and yet the practicalities of it grow increasingly complex.

Working for a charity which has inclusivity as part of its core ethos, I hear too often the voices of those who feel excluded, for one reason or another.inclusion_church_shareable

And if it isn’t one reason, it really is another – we seem constantly creative in our ways of creating barriers and walls between one another. Then of course, if we are committed to bringing down those walls, then we become exclusive of those who are not so inclined.

It is for these reasons that I like to talk about inclusion, to discuss, openly and honestly, who feels included, and who excluded. When do you feel included, by whom, and how?

Close to where I live, on the edge of my council estate, where there should be an access road on to the bordering private housing estate, there is a big metal wall. It genuinely looks like something from the cold war, and it probably is about that old. Whenever I go past that wall, or point it out to someone, I am forced to reflect on what that wall says about our society, and what it means to those who live on my side of it.

And now politicians talk of walls, and no fly zones, and of who belongs where…

Inclusivity seems so simple, yet it is so difficult to put in to practise.

So this is why I’m excited to be part of a day conference where we will talk, simply, openly, explicitly, about what it means for people to be included in church. Mostly, over the last few years, the ‘inclusivity in church’ conversation has revolved around sexuality, as part of a corrective to a collective obsession with something Jesus had remarkably little to say about.

But while this remains a live issue, there are plenty of other issues of inclusivity in church – ranging from disability to gender, and from learning needs to poverty – very much the elephant in the room, so far as I am concerned.

Of course a conference about inclusivity is by its very nature somewhat exclusive, not many people are as keen on conferences as me, not everybody can get to Grimsby (even if it is the centre of my world), and not all of us can speak or read English well enough to follow the discussion.

But it’s a starting point for some, and a stepping stone on the journey for others, and if you would like to join us, then please do. There is a small charge for the conference, but if you haven’t got the cash, then its fine, we have a free ticket code too.

In an ideal world there would be a multitude of voices, all talking about how we can make our churches more inclusive, and working out plans of action to help one another do just that. But that’s the simplest form – and we all know it will be more complicated than that, inclusivity always is.