I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my spiritual journey. I know I have the account of it here on the blog, but it is woefully incomplete and evinces a strong misunderstanding of my heart and mind. I wrote it about six weeks before we moved from Abilene to Dallas, and I drew together what I thought to be the dominant strands of my faith journey so far: the role of the new (intellectual inquiry; doubt) and the role of the historic (liturgy). I ended the blog post on a postive note, looking forward to the move and our search for liturgical and progressive church.
I guess God had other plans.
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When I first wrote that blog post, we had every intention of moving to Oak Cliff. We had signed a lease agreement for a house there. And while I was all prepared to face opposition, I soon discovered that the opposition was correct: it would be totally unsafe to move to the area of Oak Cliff to which we were planning to move.
So instead, we found a crappy apartment in Dallas across 75 from SMU. As we started to settle in, we began looking for a church. Following my idea that what I wanted was a progressive church that embraced liturgy, we began visiting a number of mainline churches. We tried a Lutheran church but couldn’t connect with the people. I attended a Methodist church for a bit, but never quite fit in. And then we (re)discovered mold in the apartment and moved in with Amanda’s parents in Garland. And, after six weeks of looking, finally found a house to rent in Garland.
So, we began looking for churches again. Recognizing that my dissatisfaction with the other churches we had visited likely stemmed from unfamiliarity, we decided to visit a Disciples of Christ church in Garland. The Disciples, we believed, would maybe feel like home given the connection to the Churches of Christ, but they would also be more progressive. But despite the wonderful people we met and the fantastic church, we never felt even the beginnings of connection. It wasn’t home.
By this point, we had been uprooted from our home in Abilene. We not only had lost our friends, but I lost the place where I had been a student for six years. Amanda lost the hospital at which she trained to be a nurse. We lost the hodpodge community we had created out of ACU people connected to a couple of different churches. Our only regular connection was with Amanda’s parents (what a tremendous blessing it was and continues to be to live so near them!), but we were becoming desperately lonely.
I then did the unthinkable (I couldn’t have imagined doing this even a few months prior); I began looking for Churches of Christ in the area. Richardson East Church of Christ got a few hits on our radar, so we decided to visit. The first Sunday we were there was the first Sunday we felt that we had been able to relax in a long time. Everything was familiar. We met loads of people that knew somebody that we knew (the ACU connection really helped). That evening, we attended a Life Group and, for the first time since leaving Abilene, felt like we had been seen, heard, and understood on a deeply spiritual and personal level.
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I wrote in my earlier post that, after leaving Beltway and joining Highland, 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.”
I go on in that older post to describe Highland Church of Christ as a stopping point on a journey out of Evangelicalism and toward the mainline churches with their progressive theology and historic liturgy. In particular, I describe my time attending the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest for almost a year (concurrent with attending Highland).
While I certainly felt that way at the time, I think I was blinded by what I wanted to feel and believe rather than what I actually felt and believed. And Abilene had this way (because of the overlapping communities of school, work, and church) of allowing me to explore without commitment. The reason that I could really enjoy and experience the liturgical and sacramental life of Heavenly Rest was because I had Highland, our life group, and our close friends to carry the emotional and relational weight.
My interest in liturgy is, or so I’ve discovered, basically aesthetic. I like to think it’s a bit more than aesthetic, but really the only couple of reasons I can think of for my love of historic liturgy is that a) I think it is beautiful (and beauty helps me connect to God) and b) it is historic and ancient (which, in my book, makes it better). I certainly don’t think everyone needs to embrace liturgy. And, as it turns out, I have a distinct preference for number of lower-church practices (congregationalist polity, priesthood of all believers, simplicity, believer’s baptism) because they better jive with my idea that God is open to absolutely any, and every, one.
In fact, what I read as a “return” to tradition (my embrace of historic liturgy) turned out to not be a return at all, but instead the newest in a long string of ideas I tried on. Liturgy, in my context, isn’t traditional; it is innovative.
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The theology I walked away from during the latter half of college, which I had embraced toward the end of high school, (accounts of which can be found in various places on the blog) was a theology in which God is a bully who sends people to Hell if they disagree with him. The Gospel is primarily about sin (legal infraction) and repentance. Grace, by God’s mercy, allowed me (a totally depraved creature) to repent; it gave me a knowledge of my sin.
Biblical scholarship, critical theory, and doubt were all instrumental in me having the resources to walk away from this theology. And that was a good thing. It was important that the kind of fundamentalism I had run into be broken off of me. It was important that I level a critique at a church that excluded women, hated gay people, and insisted that spiritual knowledge of God was easy.
But as I discovered about a year and a half ago, the liberal theology into which I was walking was a dead-end. The materialism, concern with power-relations, affirmation of identity-politics, etc began to seem like nothing more than a baptized Left. Was there anything more to the faith? In my resistance to the hegemonic and oppressive God of conservative evangelicalism, I think I missed God entirely. I began to wonder why I needed God at all for my political positions; couldn’t I just take my liberalism (or socialism) without holy water? So, in the summer of 2013 I read Thomas Oden’s magisterial Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. In those pages, I (re)discovered authentic, historic, Christian theology. I found transcendent truth.
My mistake was to assume that only historically liturgical churches could lay claim to orthodox theology.
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Since we moved to the Dallas area, I’ve been exploring what it means to embrace tradition. Last summer, I read Kathleen Norris’s book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. In it she recounts how she inherited her grandparents’ farm and subsequently began attending their Presbyterian church. Even though her spirituality looks a lot more Catholic (she is a a Benedictine oblate), she has discovered truth and beauty in the tradition from which she descends.
Back around the middle of my time in college when I was struggling with having much of a story to tell about my journey to faith, I was encouraged by a mentor to meditate on these verses from the beginning of Isaiah 51:
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you
His point was that my story was the story of faithfulness; that my family had been rooted in the faith for generations. Submitting to any tradition, but in particular a religious tradition, is important because it a) cultivates humility, b) suspends the heavy cognitive lifting in having to construct an ethical/cultural/social system by oneself, and c) resists the atomizing and individualistic value system ascendant in our society.
My religious tradition, the Churches of Christ, has plenty of problems that I am well aware of. Nevertheless, embracing one’s heritage, one’s family (warts and all), is an act of maturity in many contexts, and is a necessary one for me in my context. In the same way that I have faith whether I want to or not, the Churches of Christ is my family whether I want it or not.
The difference is that I am now willingly submitting.
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I am still working out what it means to submit. It doesn’t mean not objecting or asking questions. it doesn’t mean not thinking for yourself. But it does mean acknowledging that maybe you don’t know all of the answers, that maybe others who have gone before you had discovered something good and valuable.
I have been pretty heavily influenced by a kind of conservativism (in the vein of Wendell Berry, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Peter Kreeft, and others) that could be better understood, in today’s parlance, as traditionalism. Peter Kreeft has these helpful categories: the conservative trusts the state (read big systems, not just government) and the church, the liberal trusts the state and not the church, the socialist trusts neither the state nor the church, while the traditionalist trusts the church and not the state. In this model, the socialist and the traditionalist are united in a rejection of the big and impersonal, in the bureaucratization of people (I wrote about this relationship here).
The traditionalism that I embrace rejects new ideas like free-market capitalism and the atomized individual, instead embracing communitarian and organic unity models of human social and political relations. In rejecting the libertarian ethos of the age, it insists on a transcendent moral order. It rejects Enlightenment scientific rationalism and embraces, instead, a more humble epistemology infused with the mystery of God in creation.
In coming home to the Churches of Christ (and the broader non-denominational/evangelical tradition to which they belong), specifically Richardson East Church of Christ, I am choosing to submit to a way of doing and being in the world; I am embracing the communal habitus of a place.
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While this post explored my spiritual journey through a perspective on religion as such, with some forays into politics and culture, there are clear connections between the content of this post and discussions of my work (both as a student and teacher), my ethical formation (the virtuous life), and my civic formation (the political life). I hope to write about some of those connections soon!