One of the problems with the usual model of spiritual or religious development we’ve inherited is that it too often places the ‘spiritual crisis’ only in the past – ‘I was lost, now I’m found’.
So we’re allowed the single pre-Christian spiritual crisis which catapulted us to conversion, but this is now safely behind us (hallelujah!). And we’re taught to view any post-conversion spiritual crises as dangerous, to be feared and avoided. We’re afraid they will lead us out of the security of faith into heresy and apostasy; will pluck us off the straight and narrow way where we’re safe and saved, and throw us into perdition.
But I think the truth is that for many of us there’s equally a spiritual or faith crisis to come after conversion – perhaps even an ongoing cycle of crises. And rather than being something we should fear or shun, I think we can embrace these as a normal and necessary part of the life-cycle of our faith. Indeed, these crises may even be one of the key means by which we grow and develop.
Yes, crises of faith are often difficult and can be destructive. But they are, I believe, inevitable and even vital, rather as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are a necessary feature of our living planet’s life-cycle. Without them, our faith stagnates and doesn’t fully develop; we stay stuck permanently at the baby stage of spiritual development. Only by going through these crises (and, yes, eventually coming out the other side) can we truly reach the mature fulfilment of our faith.
What do I mean by a spiritual (or faith) crisis? For me it’s a time when your faith, theology or beliefs are radically challenged, perhaps to the extent that you consider leaving church or even giving up your faith.
It may be that you can no longer accept some fundamental tenet of your faith (biblical inerrancy, say, or the church’s teaching on homosexuality or the ultimate fate of non-believers). Or you may have become disillusioned with church leadership or the behaviour of fellow Christians, or feel that God himself has let you down. Maybe you’ve been persuaded by the arguments for a different religion, or for atheism. Or perhaps some personal issue or struggle makes you feel you can’t call yourself Christian any longer.
Sometimes these things hit suddenly, precipitated by a particular event or realisation. Other times you may reach a ‘crisis’ point only after a long and gradual period of change.
Spiritual crises force us to rethink, to re-evaluate our beliefs and practices. What do we really believe? Are we really Christians any longer, and do we want to be?
It was a long, slow spiritual crisis that prompted me to start this blog 5 years ago, writing to explore my doubts and concerns about the faith that I’d grown up in, walked away from and re-converted to some 15 years previously. In some ways I’m still going through the same long crisis now, trying to work out what I really think and where I belong spiritually. Sometimes I yearn for the old certainties, but I can’t go back – only forward.
Disarming the ‘danger’
We often fear spiritual crises because we associate them with someone losing their way, or losing their faith. And of course this can be the case – but I don’t think it needs to be.
Unfortunately, we often don’t properly help people face their faith crises, and ironically this may be because we’re so frightened of them ‘falling away’. What people need at these times is not Christians quoting the Bible at them or warning them against the deadly perils of sin, apostasy and backsliding.
People honestly questioning their faith need support, care, understanding, acceptance. They need to be listened to, without judgement or condemnation or platitudes. If we could lay aside our panic about people losing their salvation and concentrate on just being there for them, I suspect that far fewer would ‘fall away’ (whatever exactly that means).
Liberated from rigid religion
But… even if people do fall away or walk away, I’m not sure that’s always as final or as terrible as we sometimes feel. Sometimes people need to walk away from their previous expressions and experiences of faith, which may have been overly simplistic, restrictive and even psychologically unhealthy.
Psychologist M. Scott Peck noted that many people who came to him for counselling changed their religious beliefs as a result of their emotional growth. Some came to him as confirmed atheists and many of these he encouraged to explore a more spiritual dimension to their lives.
Yet others came to him with strong but emotionally unhelpful religious convictions. These had often been brought up with a very rigid, fear-based and fundamentalist Christianity, and after counselling many became agnostics or even atheists. Scott Peck saw this as growth for them, because their former religion had been soul-destroying not life-affirming, spiritually stunting not liberating.
Breaking the container
I think this ties in with Franciscan Richard Rohr’s idea that our inner life is formed of two major phases.
The first phase is about forming our identity or forging our ego (Rohr calls it ‘the container’), and it requires exclusion and exclusivism. We set up rigid boundaries or container walls – deciding who’s in and out, who’s right and wrong, who’s good and bad, and defining ourselves accordingly. Our group is the ‘in’ group, the good and right group; others and outsiders who don’t belong to it are wrong or bad.
We have to go through this phase, but we then have to move on from it to become our full and free selves.
Christians often make two mistakes here. If our first-phase identity wasn’t Christian, we may try to rush on out of it too quickly, attempting to shortcut from ‘sinner’ to ‘saint’ by simply denying our dark side and trying to be perfect Christians, but without going through the long hard journey of inner transformation.
But if we were brought up as Christians, the equal and opposite mistake is to stay stuck in the first phase, clinging on too tightly to our old Christian identity when we need to let at least some aspects of it go.
To enter the second phase, Rohr suggests, we have to go through a crisis of ‘dying to self’ (that is, to the old ego self or ‘false’ self). Only then can we can start to discover our full, free, real self in Christ. We have to emerge from the rigid container with its divisions of in/out, either/or and goodies/baddies.
But unfortunately religion can too often become a way of keeping us stuck in the first phase – particularly for those who were brought up in the faith from the cradle, or who converted into a highly fundamentalist religion. There can be a lot of fear and resistance to moving on, to breaking out into a freer and more life-affirming form of belief.
So when people turn away from their former faith, that may not always be a bad thing spiritually, and it may not be the end of the journey. Some will later return to a better and more freeing form of faith. Others may not, but by God’s grace may still be growing spiritually outside the container walls of the church, its beliefs and teachings. I think God may be big enough for that.
…And whether by coincidence or not, this excellent and very relevant HuffPost article happened to drop into my inbox this morning – I promise I hadn’t read any of it when I wrote my piece: 6 Things Christians Should Stop Saying To People Who Doubt