For those interested, I have an update to my journey here.
My purpose in writing this is to narrate my spiritual journey over the last six years so that those who care about me can understand some of my thoughts on the ways I have changed over the last six years. Because of my upbringing and the social and cultural world in which I have existed for the last six years, my self-understanding and self-narrative is largely rooted in religion and faith, which is why I have spent so much time writing about religion and faith in both personal and academic contexts. I have told bits and pieces of my story before, but never this much of it. I don’t know that I could ever tell all of it, but here is some:
I grew up in the Churches of Christ. Historically understood, the Churches of Christ are the fundamentalist branch of the Restoration Movement, a unification movement that took place during the 2nd Great Awakening and sought to restore the New Testament Church. The Mainline branch is the Disciples of Christ and the Evangelical branch is the Independent Christian Churches. In recent times, many Churches of Christ interested in surviving the decline in church attendance have become broadly evangelical in ethos and emphasis, if not in self-understanding. This is the kind of church I grew up in.
I grew up believing the that the bible was the infallible Word of God, that Jesus died to save us (but specifically me and specifically you) from our sins, that I would undergo conversion in a specific moment (CoC emphasis was on baptism), that I ought to live a life of personal piety (including cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus) in response to God’s grace, and that I had a duty to share this message of God’s grace with other people in the world.
Using Scot McKnight’s metrics, I would have been considered a 4 point evangelical even though I didn’t know to use the term. We distinguished ourselves from the fundamentalist Churches of Christ (like my grandma’s church) by emphasizing our acceptance of non-KJV bible translations, instruments in worship, casual worship, and, perhaps most importantly, fellowship with other Christians outside of the Churches of Christ.
As I came of age and went to ACU (an evangelically-minded, rather than fundamentalist, Church of Christ university), I responded to a perceived shallowness of the evangelical subculture in three distinct ways:
First, I picked up on the typical Gen Y response by emphasizing the importance of social justice. In particular, I wanted to challenge the assumption that Christians needed to be politically conservative. While my parents vote for republicans, they never (in my hearing) connected their faith to their politics. But it was certainly in the air. In particular, my critique hinged on what the prophets and Jesus had to say about wealth. At the very least, I was interested in living a Christianity that was not rooted in conservative, suburban America. This critique of the Church had great currency in the bible department at my university.
Second, I became interested in a theologically robust Christianity. That is, I felt like the theology I had up until college experienced was trite and unfocused. I, like many others of my generation, discovered neo-Reformed theology coming from the pulpits of Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper. These pastors heavily influenced my idea of orthodoxy. I became very conservative in my theology and understanding of the Church. This included a kind of fundamentalist Calvinism paired with a conservative reading of scripture, which meant I believed in, among other things, double predestination and the subordination of women in the Church and in marriage.
Third, I began attending Beltway Park Baptist Church, a charismatic baptist church. I encountered the charismata for the first time–speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc. While I fully embraced, without second thought, the previous two responses, I was always ambivalent about this third approach. Additionally, as Beltway was the context in which I lived my faith, it had a very large impact on my understanding of my Christian witness. I joined a lifegroup in which I finally felt like I was part of a group of people living an authentic Christian life; our focus was on a) colonizing our everyday lives for Jesus and b) bearing one another’s burdens. Their were sporadic emphases on evangelism, but these never persisted.
Another influence on my faith, largely latent at this point, was my brother. He had converted to Roman Catholicism two years prior to me going off to college. I had attended mass with him several times at this point and came to have an interest in a) a historical understanding of Christianity and b) a liturgical approach to Christianity.
As I began taking upper-division classes at ACU in my major (English) and my minor (bible), I soon lost my neo-Reformed theology and my fundamentalist way of reading scripture. My academic studies opened the bible to me as a human text written in a particular religious, social, historical, and literary contexts. Things were more complicated than I had previously understood. Additionally, I quickly became ambivalent about the hyper-urgency and hyper-charismaticism present in the church I was attending. I became more interested in art, literature, and scholarly pursuit and less interested in trying to discern God’s will. After I returned from a semester abroad in Germany (where I had attended an Anglican church regularly), I began cycling through periods of time in which I would regularly participate at Beltway and periods where I would largely ignore that aspect of my life. The main concern was that all of my close friends were deeply involved with Beltway.
My semester in Germany reawakened my latent interest in the historical and liturgical church. At this point, my brother had decided that he would enter the seminary in order to become a Catholic priest. I had also taken a course on church history while I was living in Germany and attending an Anglican church. Furthermore, during this same period, I began walking back some of my core evangelical assumptions. I stopped believing that the bible was infallible and I broadened my understanding of the Gospel beyond Jesus’ dying to save us from our sins. It was during this period that I really began cultivating an interest in theologies of liberation with a Christus Victur model of the atonement.
(I think the intellectualization of my faith is well-known, and is something I have written about extensively in other places–especially here. For the sake of brevity–what little of it will be left when I am done writing this–I will primarily focus my story on my growing acceptance of historic liturgy. But, suffice it to say that scholarship, philosophy, critical theory, and doubt have been very important for me as I have stitched together my academic and spiritual selves).
I also began incorporating liturgical elements into my own prayer and worship. That is, I started praying the canonical hours, using a rosary (sporadically), acknowledging the liturgical calendar, and following the lectionary in my own bible reading. Nevertheless, I continued my participation in a Beltway lifegroup because so many of my friends were present in the group.
Toward the end of my senior of college, as my relationship with Amanda deepened, we chose to permanently leave Beltway and that lifegroup (which had disbanded anyway as folks graduated) and, instead, join Highland Church of Christ. As I returned to the churches of Christ, I did not feel like I was coming home, but I did feel like I was visiting a close relative’s house. It wasn’t home, but it was comfortable and safe and familiar. And, finally, I was able to let go of the tension with which I held my new(ish) theological beliefs. Highland was hardly more liturgical, but they were far more hospitable and open to different approaches to faith. I knew that my heart would never fully settle in a non-historically liturgical tradition, but I was content for the moment.
Highland is a unique church. Home to all kinds of folks from all kinds of backgrounds, it was probably the most diverse church I have ever been a part of. Lots and lots of ACU professors attend Highland, and their moderating influence is felt. Highland is also led by a team of elders and ministers who are less interested in typical evangelical concerns like helping people get saved, and more concerned with incarnating Jesus in the lives of those who need help. Highland is interested in social justice work, community development, ecumenism, spiritual formation, and cultivating the unique gifts that the diverse members of the congregation bring.
But perhaps more than anything, Highland taught me that it is not about what you believe, but whether you love–if you give yourself for the sake of your neighbor. A year ago on Palm Sunday, Jonathan Storment (preaching minister at Highland) preached a sermon in which he emphasized the nonviolence and humility of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. He told us that the only thing that matters is love—that every group believes stuff, but the test of a religion is whether it moves people to love friends and enemies and brothers and strangers. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword, but Jesus offers another way. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to the accolades of his people, and he doesn’t let it get to his head. He heals Caesar. He beats our swords into ploughshares. While Highland is not historically liturgical, and while it openly grapples with current congregational concerns like the role of women and homosexuality, it is a wonderful place and a beautiful group of people.
Furthermore, since last September, I have been attending the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on a regular basis (Amanda sometimes joins me). This is the first time since coming to college that I have felt completely at peace in my spiritual journey. I have loved the sacramental and liturgical life. I have loved walking through the liturgical seasons of the year. I have found my soul unfurling in worship as I am able to graft my emotions and my experiences onto the traditions of the church. I feel like I have finally come home.
Thus, in the last year or so, I have emerged with a coherent personal narrative and worldview. At my core I believe that the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord. Jesus as Lord means all other things are not Lord. Pleasure, power, and self are not Lord. God has, in Christ our Lord, provided a way for us to be free from the idolatry of sin and the bondage of the Powers from now unto eternity. True freedom means embodying the ethic of Jesus: Love God, Love Others. Jesus said “they will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” I think that there are plenty of Jesus followers, some of whom are Christians. Like Brian McLaren, I suspect that there are plenty of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, etc followers of Jesus (whether they know it or not). I orient my life around (and will continue to orient my life around) the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. I subscribe to the ecumenical, historic consensus of the Church on matters of theology, but I recognize that having a particular belief does not necessarily make one more loving. Nevertheless, historic, orthodox, Christian theology inspires in me worship. It helps make me more like our Lord. And, moreover, I particularly affirm inclusion above exclusion in formally organized Christian bodies, especially in matters of adiaphora (ordination of women, blessing of same-sex marriage, etc).
My faith is rooted in (and watered by) history and beauty. I am drawn to God by the life of the mind, by both art and intellect. Worship is easier and more genuine the more my soul basks in the Mystery of God. And, to me, that Mystery is best expressed in the ancient way—the mixture of creed and chant, of Truth and Beauty. I find the spiritual practices of the ancient churches to be compelling. My faith is rooted in (and watered by) genuine, sacrificial love for the other. I am drawn to God by the life of the heart, by giving and working and loving. Worship is easier and more genuine the more my soul basks in the Humanity of another. And, to me, that humanity is best expressed in the relational way—the mixture of hospitality and friendship, of Blessing and Love. I find the radical practices of the intentional communities to be compelling. I feel compelled to “come home” to the ancient church with her spiritual practices so that I can be nurtured and grown in the life of Love. Nevertheless, both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches teach and practice exclusion in a way that, though I understand, I cannot endorse. My theological predilections are historical Protestant in any case. And there are Protestant Churches that have retained, in my view, the ancient way alongside a spirit of inclusion.
Last summer, Amanda and I decided that, once we move, we will look for a church that better fits our different needs and desires. I knew that I was interested in whatever church we end up settling in to have three points of emphasis: historic self-understanding and liturgical worship, a complicated relationship with scripture and spiritual authority, and a progressive/inclusive ethos in which all people are welcome. While I found all of these at Heavenly Rest in Abilene, we will move to Dallas in six weeks. As the date gets closer, Amanda and I have been discussing what kind of church, and what churches specifically, we want to begin investigating. While I have loved the formality and ceremony of the high church liturgy at Heavenly Rest, Amanda is less interested in such things. Furthermore, there is something about the drive toward holiness present in evangelical traditions that has always been of inestimable value to me. Thus, the first church that we plan to visit is Kessler Park United Methodist Church, which is about 2 miles from our new house. It is a gay-affirming church in the broader Methodist tradition. Like most Methodist churches, it is a mixture of formal and informal, of historic liturgy and newer innovations. We are very excited!
I am sharing this now, during Holy Week, for a couple of reasons. First, it is a suitable post given the liminal space in which I find myself. I am still in Abilene, but I am increasingly focused on Dallas. There has always been an already but not yet quality to my spiritual walk (something I think appropriate to every Christian journey!), and there is an already but not yet quality to our move next month. Second, and perhaps more fittingly, my spiritual journey is–appropriately–the story of a conversion. Just as the unbaptized and unconfirmed are baptized and confirmed on Easter, reflecting the death to life movement inherent in the sacraments, so too my story being told now, so close to my final Easter in Abilene, emphasizes the movement I have made from death to life. It is, after all, the Story of a Soul.