Here is a post that went up on Provoketive.com recently which I am now occasionally writing for:
I was just listening to an interview with Doug Pagitt (whose book Preaching Re-imagined, among others, was a big eye-opener for me when i first started doing youth ministry) on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, and he was talking about how the dominant narrative for Christendom prior to recent decades was one of moving from “being lost” to “being found.” This is illustrated well by the extensive familiarly you find in the West with songs like “Amazing Grace”… “I once was blind but now I see.” This idea was, and for many perhaps still is, the dominant thinking about religion in general and Christianity in particular.
What Pagitt suggests is that in today’s cultural climate, which he calls “the inventive age” (see his latest books with this phrase in the title here), people in North America are more likely to have conversions for “aha” to “uh-oh” than from “I don’t know” to “aha.” Pagitt is not implying, however, that these people are all saying goodbye to their Christian faith. He makes a distinction between the current context as a post-Christian era vs. post-Church era, arguing for the latter more so than the former.
In many ways, I find this to be true in my own experience. It’s not a new story; I hear it frequently. Like Pagitt, my faith background was significantly influenced by conservative evangelicalism. For those who can relate, what’s funny about the way this story usually goes for people is that we started singing “Amazing Grace” so early, it’s hard to remember a time when we were ever “lost.” I didn’t have time to get lost! By my baptism at age ten, I don’t even know how many times I had already prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. During high school and most of college, if I did any reading related to difficult theological questions, it was usually to seek out confirmation for what were already my solidified doctrinal presuppositions.
After college and partly during seminary though – though not really because of seminary – I went through a challenging season of having many of my assumptions questioned . . . in some ways I may have even been too open-minded for my own good. Nonetheless, I experienced what I guess could be called a second-conversion – a conversion to not knowing. It was a conversion to a place of frustration with preconceived boundaries and filters. I wouldn’t have ever have called myself agnostic; nor would I fit into the popular category of “spiritual but not religious.” But a fundamental paradigm shift definitely took place, and it has deeply affected my worldview. It wasn’t just about the creeds of orthodoxy. My transformation touched the political, economic and cultural. Nor was it about left and right – while there may have been implication there. The product is unfinished, and there’s a combined sense of both liberty and estrangement as a result.
I still confess the faith of my upbringing, but its significance for me has evolved substantially. I sometimes wonder how this fits into the rubric for discipleship. Maybe I’m off course a bit? On the other hand, maybe I’ve learned how to be a little more honest and gracious toward myself and other people. Most importantly perhaps, the journey doesn’t have to end at this point, and having conversation with others about it might be the doorway to the next chapter.
Despite my resonance with Pagitt’s thesis, I do have some doubts about its soundness insofar as it’s superimposed on American culture writ large. To what extent do others really relate to this, and to what extent is it more of a sub-cultural, Bible-belt phenomenon as a result of things like the information revolution, hipster Christian trends, and environmental changes in the burgeoning stages of young adulthood? In addition, this narrative might also just nicely follow the typical stages of faith development – rules, doctrine, doubt, mature belief (or second naiveté) – but for some reason I’m not sure. Maybe I just want to feel more special than that 🙂 The Emergent Church movement (with which Pagitt is associated) has sometimes been accused of being too ethnically and culturally insular, of being composed primarily of middle-class folks. Whether this is fair, would it necessarily take away from the legitimacy of this testimony for a portion of North American Christians like myself?
Peter Rollins talks a lot about a church “beyond belief”. We have our differences, but what Pete proposes seems to me to be striking a chord with a lot disenchanted would-be Jesus followers. In order to do or be much of anything, a community certainly needs belief. Going beyond belief doesn’t mean doing away with it or even changing it – though change might happen. Moving beyond belief means changing how we believe. Do we believe primarily with epistemology (knowledge) or ontology (being)? Do we lead with confession or action? Do our beliefs first comfort or direct us? Which kind of belief did Jesus embrace? Maybe it’s not always either/or. Dark days require consolation. But what does belief look like for privileged citizens in the land of plenty and power? This is one of the main questions I hope to explore here, especially with regard to the responsibility that churches have in light of this belief.