In Medias Res: On Landing a Plane in a Narrow Canyon
And as it so happens, I'm not at a crossroads. Neither am I at a turning point, ending point, nor a new beginning. I am replete with religious doubts but not with a knife to my own throat. These doubts don't necessarily burden me – I sleep fairly well. If anything, they have caused me to drop my axe onto the floor of the smithy, scattering the metal dust that has collected below the workbench vice of my old grinding. Perhaps the dissolving of conviction amounts to apathy towards those theological spheres that once had a fairly high premium with me. Having now been axe-less for a while, I've had time to evaluate what's important to me, in religious and existential terms.
I seem to have lost the theological edge that I use to pride myself on, simply because I wandered away from intentionally reading theology about a year ago. Nevertheless, one cannot go a day without thinking theological thoughts, regardless of their present loyalties or convictions. But behind those theological thoughts I find myself presented with a fluttering curtain over a window that used to be nailed shut. The curtain moves like sheets in a wind, and I peek through the window's expanse (and yodel) into scenes which were previously off-limits. I stick my head through and inhale the incense of the electrifying air that precipitates a storm.
I have opened the window through which, as my former-fundy self might have warned (rightly or not, I'll leave that for you to judge), "leads to a slippery slope". I look upon the church thinking mystical, ecumenical thoughts. Yet these days I find myself at odds with something from every theological tradition and camp, and rest assured, my dissonance is forgivably human: It is emotional and rational; epistemological and existential; wrought of both love and fear. Like a few of you, I am a person of glaring contradictions. I am in a religious terra nullius, where I bump shoulders with other gropers-in-the-dark who, when our pupils adjust, apprehend each other with startled enthusiasm. Here I find a certain fraternity with these infrequent ghosts. I've been fortunate enough to be on the same road and speaking the same language with one brother (you know who you are), wherein we've found a vague classification for ourselves: "Contentedly Bewildered". Or maybe less euphemistically, "Vaguely Christian".
I have wanted to articulate this for some time, but couldn't think of the proper venue for my thoughts. If I could paint this, I think it would be more cathartic. Writing this out is painful. Not in an introspective sense, as though it is anguish to explain myself or that wherever "here" is embodies something melancholy. But rather, there are nuances that I want to get across to you which I find extremely difficult to unpack. It seems technically painful, to the point of being nearly insurmountable, to get it all down. As I write, I am going from sense to sense. I will sniff my way through this piece like a bloodhound, only knowing when I've arrived at the corpse by the overwhelming pungency of an obvious yet unexpected finality. I want to be surgical, but my mind is Lord of the Flies.
To offer some background, I've been a denominational drifter since the beginning (2007). In more cartoonish versions of Christianity, or perhaps one that is ecumenically shy, this is a tell-tale sign of a "[child]... carried about with every wind of doctrine" (KJV). I won't go through the list of low places, but I landed on my back a Lutheran, had the wind knocked out of me, and stayed there the longest. I truly believed I had escaped Protestantism, without having joined the Tiber Swim Team or crossing the Bosporus. Though some may differ on this opinion, I haven't escaped Protestantism. Though this may or may not be the problem, and "escaping Protestantism" may or may not be the answer.
I've read that the inability to settle in a church can be traced back to everything from divorce trauma growing up, to never having truly been converted. I view the latter opinion with a sardonic eye. The "true believer" pitchfork gives me a knee-jerk reaction. In some camps, if your pilgrims’ feet have wandered too far to the left then clearly you’re a heathen. But I digress. Whatever is to blame is inconsequential. Whatever you do though – don't blame the devil. I'm sure he's received too much credit for my life already.
I once wrote that I was sick of the "journey" trope that I hear a lot from the converted, and that it was a sign of weakness. I wrote it in the throes my initial love affair with Lutheranism. I wrote it with an unhealthy dose of pride, implying that I had arrived. The implication was that if you are on a journey, there's something wrong with you. In hindsight, I deeply regret that. It was unfair. It rings with that embarrassing certainty we detect in a teenager whose sudden introduction into punk rock renders all other music, as a matter of fact, just plain stupid. O, do loathe with me the inflexible world-view of the newly converted. Whether you've been raised in your tradition, rattled along like me, or came in late and stayed, we cannot deny that the trope fits.
Lutheranism certainly has a lot to offer the tired seeker. I'm honestly not the least bit surprised in the upsurge of Calvinists and others that you see these days joining the late-medieval ranks. It has the liturgical, historical, academic, and evangelical chutzpah that most other protestant branches are extremely deficient in. The law-gospel foundation of their hermeneutics is a balm to the tired soul. And there are many, many tired souls who feel that the spectrum of protestant evangelicalism is nothing but a hamster wheel of do more/be more. I don't think the migration is a bad thing, necessarily. But perhaps I'm overstating it. For me personally, it was a breath of fresh air. They are solid in their eschatology, and the liturgy was initially profound. But most of all, it was the introduction to the Eucharist that grabbed my heart and pulled it close. The Lord's Table and Holy Baptism fulfilled a deep longing I always had for something genuinely sacramental. I swore I would never leave. The idea of journey now seemed moot.
Yet here I am, not even hinting at the fact given my verb tenses, that I don't consider myself a Lutheran any more. At least, not completely Lutheran. What happened? Will I ever settle down? Do I need to? Is there something wrong with those of us who struggle in this way? Have we been conditioned to believe that one must be fully committed to a tradition, or our faith is in vain? Due to the constraints of the space-time continuum, I obviously cannot provide a good answer to each of those questions. However, I hope that by then end of the follow-up article to this one, I may have explored these questions in a way that is at least somewhat satisfying.
Perhaps it would be prudent to now offer something from a different perspective. I haven’t rejected Christianity. My confession is minimal (the three ecumenical creeds), which I believe are a fair treatment of the essentials. I do not feel entirely lost. My understanding of Baptism has imparted to me an ambiguous sense of refuge at the naked and bloody feet of the crucified God. To me, my baptism into Christ may be all I have right now. Can anyone even have more than that? There are things that resist quantification.
Moreover, my faith in God is weak. In the still of the night I have quietly doubted His existence. The ideas of inerrancy, Sola Scriptura, and the complete, internal cohesion of the Bible seem nearly preposterous. I struggle with the idea of Truth. My prayers are few and paltry. My church attendance is sporadic and varied. I’ve sat through Mass at several Roman Catholic churches and experienced everything from bewilderment and awe, to disappointment. I have rejected much of what I once held close (or maybe I have embraced the things I should have from the start?) I am too liberal for the conservatives, and too conservative for the liberals. I am acutely suspicious of Protestantism. I am unsettled, yet not unhinged. For what it’s worth, in trying to guide this plane between the craggy walls of some winding and narrow canyon, I am held captive by no tradition. Is there a place for me? For you? I do not have an answer.