Note: This piece was co-authored with my good friend Belle Alvarez, a fellow Philly artist who’s been sharing the journey with me since our college days. Check out Belle’s work at bellealvarez.com!
You never quite know where a coffee conversation can take you.
A few years back, Belle and I met at the Barnes and Noble coffeehouse at Temple University to talk about something she’d been struggling with. As artists and leaders at a Christian organization on campus, we had gained a level of trust at that point where it was pretty comfortable to talk about what was on our minds. However, I’m not quite sure I expected what she had to say.
Belle told me that she had been building a new friendship with someone who, though not a Christian, was open to a conversation about faith. However, in the process of evangelizing as she knew it, she found herself having to face intimidating but honest questions; questions like: why is there so much suspicion about exploring ideas outside of the Christian subculture? How can we have true faith when we only know God in part? What does it actually mean to say “Jesus is the only way”? She had gotten to the point where she was examining why she believed anything at all. It was as though the anchor of faith that she had felt throughout her life no longer felt so steadfast, and she wasn’t sure what to do.
If she had had this conversation with me a few years prior, I would have had a lot of great advice for her – verses about the assurance of salvation in Christ, theology blogs, and an intimidating array of podcasts. The problem was, I had been quietly been going through a faith struggle myself.
I had realized by my junior year that my expectations for what faith was supposed to do in college were not being met. Instead, I was seeing a lot of weird parallels between the church world and the theater world, and the answers to life’s problems that I had been taught in Bible school somehow didn’t feel adequate to solve the problems I was observing in the diverse metropolis where I now lived. More often than not, I found that when I went to church, I would just want to journal angrily about all the problems I saw. This is why, a month prior to our coffee meeting, I secretly word-vomited into a journal every doubt and complaint about Christianity that I had previously been unwilling to face. Unexpectedly, instead of my head exploding, I actually felt a lot of peace, like “the peace that goes beyond understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
I still hadn’t shared this experience with any Christians up till that point, but Belle’s honesty about her own struggle gave me the opportunity to share a bit of my own. Having come to the shocking realization that neither of us apparently had it figured out, we didn’t reach any hard conclusions about Belle’s immediate set of questions. However, we left that coffee shop having experienced something that felt like new territory for both of us: community that was ok with “not knowing”.
As we’ve continued to grow and learn about what exactly this all means, it’s been fascinating to discover that the narrative we’ve experienced is far more common than we had realized. We’ve met many who grew up in church, went to college, then got hit with big questions they couldn’t answer, now feel spiritually homeless. We even started a group that met weekly to discuss spirituality in a non-exclusive way. Of course, the group was kept on the downlow; we know that there can be a lot of fear associated with asking big questions without having the answers at hand.
If you also grew up Evangelical, you might know what we’re talking about. Many of us have been taught that expressing doubt or asking questions about things we’ve been taught is a sign that we aren’t truly dependent on God. We’ve learned to be suspicious of exploring other religions or even other denominations, and throughout history we’ve seen Protestantism fractured by theological disagreements. Celebrity pastors denounce one another’s credibility in toxic, divisive ways over social media, and people use Twitter and Facebook to argue about what is most Biblical in order to persuade your convictions to land a certain way.
It’s because of all this, in fact, that we wanted to write this article. This is not a diatribe against Christianity or a complaint from angsty millennials about why life is hard. In fact, both of us are currently part of a church, and our lives are pretty good.
We just wanted to encourage people who are on their authentic journey. We don’t believe that God is waiting with a lightning bolt for the Doubting Thomas, and we don’t have fear about where that journey might lead, whether “inside the church” or “out”. We think a more accurate representation of Divine Love is one that would rather have people express what they’re actually thinking, doubts and all – even if if’s not the whole picture – than going through the motions because they’re afraid of punishment or rejection. In fact, Jesus was actually a lot harder on the Pharisees because they claimed to see – “If you were blind you would not be guilty of sin, but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41).
We understand that the formative period of doubt can be a scary thing at first, but we now feel like our spiritual expressions are more faithful than they’ve ever been. Since we realize that God is bigger than what our own human understandings can hold, we have seen a shift in the emphases of our faith journeys. For us, it’s less about doctrinal statements on eternal salvation, and more about a sense of belonging to the family of God and participating in a movement where all things are being reconciled to the original good intentions of the Creator (Colossians 1:20).
Having shed new light on our faith journeys, we’ve been able to show up in Christian, interfaith, and secular spaces and feel like we can truly live out our faith in practice. Belle feels most complete in this expression when she shows up for justice and advocacy work and when she puts her creativity in practice as an artist; I feel most complete in this when I make music, films, and theater work that tells authentic, inspiring stories.
We hope that by being more open about our journeys, we can cultivate communities where people have permission to ask questions and share thoughts without fear of being labeled “blasphemous” or “syncretistic”; where people don’t get emotionally excommunicated for openly exploring other religions or worldviews; and where there aren’t lifestyle expectations that prevent people from discovering who they are. We think Jesus is ok with dialogue.
Like Belle and I realized about each other at that Barnes and Noble, maybe answers to life’s deep questions aren’t a prerequisite for community. Maybe, in some ways, community can become our answer. Could this be part of what Jesus spoke of when he talked about creating the kingdom of God on earth? We’re not sure, but we think that by encouraging more of this open dialogue, we can find out together.