During a lockdown tidy up, my husband came across some DVDs of old photos. Looking through them was like entering a portal back to the early 2000s: babies, bootcut jeans and, for my husband, a full head of hair. And there on the TV screen were people I hadn’t seen in years – mostly friends from the conservative evangelical church we attended back when we lived in another part of the country, miles away from where we are now.
Watching the slide show of photos stirred up a tangle of emotions which has manifested often in me recently: affection for people with whom I once spent a lot of time mingled with the rawness of the realisation that this evangelical culture in which I was so steeped affected me in some negative ways. The people in those old photos were good, well-meaning folks. They worked hard to put on events, give money and provide support to people who needed it, and the sense of community was strong. When our first baby was born, we were provided with delicious meals and generous gifts. There was always someone to turn to.
But there was the less than healthy leadership structure I accepted, the pressure to show up to everything and the guilt I felt when I hadn’t managed to engineer a single evangelism opportunity in the week between Sunday services. In spite of this, I was all in, surrounded by people who were similarly convinced. I was careful to do and say what I thought would please God, and I was constantly afraid of being ‘led astray’. I cringe now remembering how I viewed everyone I met outside of church as conversion fodder. I realise that I didn’t listen to those people because I was really interested in their lives, but because I hoped that opportunities might arise to shoehorn Jesus into the conversation – however clumsily. As I write this, I realise that my church friends were my only friends. In spite of my evangelistic fervour, I had few meaningful relationships with anybody who wasn’t a Christian. I’m sure my conviction that we were the only ones with a valid worldview, and that everyone else was spiritually impoverished was no small hindrance when it came to forging genuine friendships with anyone ‘out there’.
When we moved elsewhere, we found ourselves at another evangelical church, albeit one with a healthier outlook and a focus on missional communities. Once again, we got involved in church life. Over time, however, the wheels grew wobbly on my theological wagon, and a few years ago they fell off completely. I can’t pinpoint exactly what triggered it, but I wasn’t expecting it. All my life I had been told that we evangelicals had it right: the right doctrines, the right interpretation of the Bible, and the right way to behave. That certainty was what had carried me. Now, through podcasts, blogs and books, I was discovering that not only was it OK to pay attention to that niggling disquiet which dogged me on Sunday mornings, but that I wasn’t alone in feeling it. There were Christians who saw things differently. They didn’t seem afraid to ask what if? and why? They turned my world upside down, which was both shattering and liberating.
As the dust of deconstruction has begun to settle, and my once unassailable certainty has diminished, so I have found that my openness to others and my willingness to learn from them has grown correspondingly. I no longer feel anxious about entertaining questions; instead, I feel curious. I am beginning to see how changes to my outlook are bringing new benefits. When my faith first began to shift, I started to grieve the opportunities for friendship and learning I had missed over the years because my convictions – and, I realise, fears – wouldn’t allow me to engage. This grief is slowly being healed by the new connections I am making as I unlearn old habits. Since I stopped seeing people as projects, I am seeing them as people. I have learned to appreciate them as beautifully made image-bearers of God. It occurs to me that being less certain means that maybe these days, I am able to perceive people with more Christlike eyes. I have learned that they are not spiritual vacuums. I have seen the beauty and truth in other faith traditions which I wish I had been able to find whilst I was at university, where RE was part of my degree.
The ongoing impact of this still new, more expansive way of living is simultaneously unsettling and delightful. Loss of certainty has been uncomfortable, yes, but it has also freed me to explore and receive in many ways. This newfound freedom catches me unawares. I might be reading something, watching a film or chatting with a parent or child at work. I find myself fully entering into whatever I am doing, catching glimpses of the Kingdom of God in whatever or whoever it is I am encountering, and then marvelling at this flash of divine beauty I have witnessed, at this holy gift presented to me. I also find myself acknowledging that once, I would probably have thrown that gift away.
Looking back at the person I was in those photos, I have a difficult time reconciling who I was then with who I am now. If I had met future me back then, I would have been very concerned about my dodgy ideas! I am growing more comfortable with unanswered questions, with just not knowing. There is a beautiful song by The Brilliance, called Give Me Doubt. The first line has become a sort of prayer for me of late: give me doubt, so I can see my neighbour as myself. This is so completely the opposite of what I would once have asked of God and yet it seems just the right kind of request now, so I shall keep on asking. I am looking forward to seeing where doubt leads me next.
– Kim Eames