She lingers like a ghost in the night,
this memory of my mother, framed
by a distant light: the stately stillness
of her furrowed brow, the slight tilt
of her chin catching the light, defiant.
The moment when the lone tear hangs –
perched impossibly as though straining
against the world – comes to me
again and again in a vision of the night,
its lingering like a thread tethering me
in my seasons of incertitude.
Up until a few years ago, if you asked me if I considered myself a person of faith, I am fairly certain I would have answered in the affirmative. I would have had the receipts too, of faithful observance and community that came with the particular brand I subscribed to, Pentecostalism. Sometime between then and now – and I would say it has really been in the past two years – what I believe has slowly become more fluid, the near iron-clad certitude of those days now replaced by what I can best describe as ambivalence. To riff somewhat on a marital metaphor, it feels like a marriage that has slowly unravelled, ending up in the unwanted woodlands of a divorce of sorts. For what it is worth, it has not been the worst of breakups though; I still retain membership in the church I called home, and continue to contribute to all the good work they do in the community. The songs and thoughts from those days still resonate deeply with me. On the outside therefore, it is not particularly apparent that a deep ambivalence festers. Underneath is where it has been a sea of change, the main symptom being an absence of a desire to partake in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fasting.
In reflecting on the necessary and sufficient conditions which have resulted in this state, three things come to mind. First is the intellectual struggle to square Genesis with the science of origins, and the wider implications of that for original sin and biblical inerrancy. The very public de-conversions of the likes of Marty Simpson and Josh Harris, and the failings of the Ravis and Lentzs of this world have also contributed I think. The death knell though, I think, was the trifecta of lock-downs, remote church and moving cities (to one in which Christianity – or a Judaeo-Christian worldview – is not predominant), which finally severed the tenuous hold the memories of deeply emotional, spiritual experiences held on me. H and her passing also cast a long shadow on all of this, given her long and storied part in my life and her own strong faith journey.
The origins of my faith journey go back to 1992, in the year I was 11, although my levels of observance have waxed and waned over the years since then. Not being the particularly emotional type, the enduring memory of the day is me sobbing uncontrollable under the weight of the conviction of the message, and joining forty or so folk at the front of the building when the alter call wall made. Two periods, at least in my memory, come to mind as ones in which I was at full pelt, the undergrad years through to national service and then working in the deep Nigerian South (East), and then the 2012 to 2018 period. Across both spans, my spiritual influences were theologically conservative – read Piper, Mohler and the TGC/ Reformed Theology crowd.
Also of note, I must admit is the influence of the prosperity gospel and all its trappings on my conceptions of faith and belief. In my memories, the influences were first from cassette tapes, then reams of Word of Faith magazines from the Kenneth Hagin crowd. That trickle eventually became a firehose, spawning several homegrown versions of that prosperity meets charismatic meets mighty man of god model.
The irony that the majority of these folks hold to a high view of predestination is not lost on me. In that view of the world, and how God saves, those who are saved are saved solely at God’s discretion which suggests those walk away were perhaps never really saved in the first place. A lack of spiritual fervour in that worldview is a symptom of lost-ness not doubt. To quote John Piper:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie.It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world.
To those from my old tribe therefore, I am lost in a manner of speaking, and might never really have been saved at all, leaving my soul in peril of eternal conscious torment. There are moments when I tend to agree too, given what the parables of the sower and the wise and foolish builders suggest, that it is the seed which sprouts readily without deep roots – or the house built on sand – that is readily browned out or swept out to sea by adversity.
This then is the tension that I struggle with internally, what the head understands to be objective truth and what the heart wants to be true do not appear to be the same thing, or even reconcilable at first blush. The main external effect of this tension is in my relationship with S. Seeing as she remains deeply wedded to the Charismatic life with all its trappings – including an extreme willingness in my view to ascribe everything to the influence of God and/or Satan depending on the outcome – tensions seethe and bubble beneath the surface from time to time amidst the mundane bits of life. Implicit in her beliefs – and my ambivalence – is the unspoken accusation that by not pulling my spiritual weight I am a source of entry for Satan and his roving gang of minions. It is a tempting – if simplistic – lens through which to view the world, only it doesn’t add up for me, and adds to the sense of cognitive dissonance I battle daily. What does it matter if Adam was a historical person or not?, she sometimes asks, or if the earth is 6,000 years old or 6 billion? But those are the very things which have wrecked the scaffolding on which my faith experiences have been built, and in the absence of those experiences the whole thing has come crashing down.
It is only in the past year that some semblance of coherence and a path forward has come together in my head, and I have the guys at the Voxology Podcast to thank for helping me articulate this state, of spiritual homelessness. For all my grouses, I have never quite managed to chuck everything all out, baby and bath water, a point which registered very strongly with me recently whilst listening to the Nicene Creed being recited. The core beliefs of God as creator, Jesus as his son and all are ones I cannot repudiate and still want to hold to and grapple with in the light of everything else. What is however clear is that the extras from my old tribe are ones I cannot hold on to unequivocally. In thinking about what a stripped back, core version of faith is, I am grateful for the work of the likes of John Walton, the Bible Project and N.T. Wright, which at their core encourage a reading of the biblical texts in their original contexts (both in time and culture). Also of use is a framework described by Preston Sprinkle of the Theology in the Raw pod in which he talks about Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy and Orthopathy as being foundational elements of a real world faith (my emphasis); right beliefs allied to right practice AND right passions.
What is not in doubt though is that this will be a long and challenging journey, and is unlikely to end up in the place things once were.