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.

file0001703193213by Simon Cross

As a child I caught a butterfly. In the moment of its capture, the tiny creature’s fluttery kisses tickled my fingers. I knew for certain it was there.

But then the butterfly grew still, content to sit in the darkness of its small prison. I grew concerned, was it dead? Had it somehow escaped?

I peeked in, and through the dappled daylight caught a muted glimpse of wing. Folded and shadowed, it looked a different beast, but I knew it was the same thing.

Time went on and I grew bolder, opening my hands wider to get a better view.

And then it happened: I opened them to look in, and the butterfly flew off.

And as I looked at the butterfly skipping through the air, I knew that it was right. It belonged in the wind, not in the stuffy silence of my closed hands.

So I followed the butterfly’s meandering maze, and it led off me in a dazzling dance.

© Simon Cross 2018

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…