Recently, I was talking to my friend Jennifer. Among other things, we started talking about religion. Jennifer grew up in one Christian tradition and is married to a man who grew up in another. A few years ago, they started a family, and like many couples, decided to get more serious about church. Jennifer grew up Roman Catholic and her husband grew up Protestant, so they’ve found a local Episcopal congregation in which they feel comfortable. I’m not sure how we got onto it, our conversation wandered to our beliefs, and questions, about God. As long as I’ve known her, Jennifer has displayed an inquiring, questioning mind. She thinks deeply about things. The domain of religion and spirituality is no exception. When it comes to God, she has lots of questions. So, in the course of our conversation, she asked me an interesting questions: “Is it right for a person who is not sure what she believes about God, or even who is pretty sure she does not accept a standard Christian view of God, to say the creeds during worship?” A very interesting question.
Jennifer’s question took my mind back to a chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. In chapter 14, Taylor recalls her experiences in the months following her decision to leave the parish ministry and become a professor of religion. For her entire life to that point she had lived and breathed in the world of church. As she stepped into her new life, she discovered a different side of reality, a side she not paid attention to before. She also began to explore her beliefs more honestly. Suddenly, things she had preached about and taught became objects of questioning and sometimes doubt. “Freed from defending the faith,” she writes, “I began to revisit what faith really meant to me and found that much of the old center did not hold.” Her view of faith changed. “I had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty. I trusted God to be God, even if I could not say who God was for sure.”
Taylor found herself wandering off her “old spiritual map.” But in the process she discovered something else. She discovered “people at the edge” of “the spiritual landscape.” I love the way she describes these pioneers. She writes,
“ . . . All we had to do was step outside the Church and walk to where the lights of the sanctuary did not pierce the darkness anymore. All we had to do was lay down the books we could no longer read and listen to the howling that our favorite hymns no longer covered up. There were no slate roofs or signs to the restrooms out there, no printed programs or friendly ushers. There was just the unscripted encounter with the undomesticated God whose name was unpronounceable – that, and a bunch of flimsy tents lit up by lanterns inside, pitched by those who were either seeking such an encounter or huddling in their sleeping bags while they recovered from one. These people at the edge kept the map from becoming redundant.”
Taylor’s words express my own wandering and wondering thoughts as a Christian. Sometimes publicly, but sometimes just in my mind and heart, I wonder whether I can accept all of the doctrines and formulations of the church. Sometimes I feel like one who is exploring the edges; sometimes I feel like one who is just plain lost. Taylor’s honesty about her own exploration frees me and affirms me. “According to the Bible,” she writes, “both the center and the edge are essential to the spiritual landscape. . . “ And a few pages later, “If my time in the wilderness taught me anything, it is that faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul’s health.”
I don’t know whether I helped Jennifer answer her question. I suggested that when the congregation recites the creed, it is affirming the faith of the gathered church as a whole. It is not so much a claim by each individual that he or she holds unwaveringly to the dogma of the creed, as an opportunity for God’s people as a community to affirm the “center” of their faith, the story that forms them as a community. And so I encouraged her, as a part of the body of Christ, to recite the creeds with all of us, some of us at the center and others at the edge, in whom and through whom the Spirit is at work. As Barbara Brown Taylor would remind us, the church needs the center, but it needs the edge as well. In today’s world, I am convinced that the need to be open to the edges, to the explorers, is desperate. It is as we welcome those at the edge that the church will survive into the future.
Leaving Church is a great book. If you find yourself exploring, read it. Since writing Leaving Church, Taylor has also published An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Although I have not read it yet, Taylor’s brand new title, Learning to Walk in the Dark has got to be good. What a perfect title for explorers. Check out the Barbara Brown Taylor website at: http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/.