Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 59 seconds
It was at an emergent church conference in the early 2000s when I first heard Doug Pagitt use the term deconstructing religion. He convincingly talked in heady terms about actively disassociating from our roots in conservative, evangelical Christianity and “deconstructing” contemporary expressions of Christianity.
In an interview with PBS Pagitt eloquently described characteristics of the emergent movement in captivating terms. “To meet face to face, to create our own language, to create our own expression really matters to us. To have creativity and art and beauty matters. It’s more important for us to feel like we’re representing a beautiful expression of our life with God than it is to be right about everything.”
A decade later I watched as respected friends adopted the term Progressive and listened to them passionately explain what they believe the heart of Christianity is all about: to love God and neighbor, which means committing their lives for the liberation, inclusion, and dignity of all who are God’s beloved children.
Doug Rice calls himself a progressive as a way to disassociate from radically conservative and politically-motivated pundits like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, James Dobson, John Piper, and Robert Jeffress—who represent the broader Evangelical culture in which he (and yours truly) was raised.
In general, Rice compellingly defines a “progressive Christian” as a worshipper, believer, and/or follower of Jesus who believes that, rather than remaining exactly the same as Christians were in the past, she should make an effort to change in light of developments in technology, new evidence regarding the way the world works, and evolving sociocultural norms.
In the final years of a career as an evangelical mega-church minister and awash with growing questions and disillusionment about the faith of my fathers, I deconstructed, emerged, progressed, changed, and reconstructed. In 2006 I experienced a crisis in mid-life that lasted almost a decade. During the latter years of this devastating mid-life crisis—instead of returning to my homogenous Christian sub-culture in shame, repenting and starting some sort of lucrative ministry to “affair-proof your marriage”—I left the herd of society and carved out a wilderness home with my own hands deep in the Appalachian foothills.
The 54-acres of Kalien became a sacred place to regroup and rediscover my inner child. In the words of Nietzsche, “to become who I am. Do what only I can do. And be the master and the sculptor of myself.” This has proven to be a monumental and daunting task.
But somehow Father Time and Mother Nature began to do their work, and the mindless and aimless wandering of forest trails gradually became mindful and attentive meditation hikes, seasonal rituals, and learning to live not on—but of—the land. This was supplemented by voracious reading and extended discussions and questions about the meaning of life with my wife, Gina. Guests would occasionally find their way to our version of Shangri-La and were communal highlights during these four years of utter solitude.
It was during this pivotal time of healing that the white evangelical church to which I had sacrificed my soul and most of my life—the church that ironically had condemned and shunned me for moral failings—embraced and elected Donald Trump as President, an amoral thug, self-proclaimed pervert, and pathological liar. To this day, they inexplicably champion his ruthless and systematic destruction of America’s constitution and moral values.
This unforgivable hypocrisy combined with the deep wounds caused by a lifetime enmeshed in the exclusivity, judgment and authoritarianism of Christian evangelicals has resulted in a vast disconnect—a separation and distance from all that is human. A disconnection (a fragmentation) from my self, from my friends and family, and from the world.
And so theology could not provide the path for this weary survivor to reconnect with me as a human being. Religious movements were useless in helping me find a new (and better) tribe, living in the present time and place, and learning to enjoy the experiences of this world. For me, healing could not be found in connection to an emerging or progressive movement involving God or spirituality.
The big question that emerged for me was, “What is it to become who I am?”
As I embarked upon the quest for meaning, it was the writings of psychologist Carl Jung and philosopher Jean-Claude Sartre that initiated my passage to wholeness. They guided me to the profound truth that I daily create the quality of my existence, and they challenged me to live with much greater awareness. I determined to see and create a different reality.
Their writings provided me with the ability to apply the balm of forgiveness to all things past and to live life in the present. They taught me not to live in the future by working to earn a nebulous reward or hope I’ve said the right words to get a home in heaven. It was books such as “Nausea,” “Modern Man In Search of A Soul,” “At the Existentialist Café,” “Irrational Man,” and “The Red Book.”
These books inevitably led to a school of thought called phenomenology. It’s a big word, but at the risk of oversimplifying, phenomenology can be summed up in three essential statements.
- Disregard intellectual clutter.
- Pay attention to things.
- Let them reveal themselves to you.
Sartre applied phenomenology to people’s lives in an exciting, personal way and thus became the founding father of modern existentialism. A movement worth believing. It reconnected me with normal, lived experience—it helped me remember what I had forgotten after five decades of brainwashing and dogma. It recaptured the magic and wonder in my life that had been spanked, combed, preached, and educated out of my soul.
In words that quicken my heart, I paraphrase writer Sarah Bakewell, “The brilliance of Sartre’s invention lay in the fact that he did indeed turn existentialism into a philosophy of expectation, tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, a walk up a hill, the passion for a desired lover, the revulsion from an unwanted one, Tennessee mountains, the warm autumn seashore at Dunedin, the feeling of sitting on overstuffed upholstery, the way a woman’s breasts pool as she lies on her back, the thrill of a horse race, a film, a jazz song, a glimpse of two strangers meeting under a street lamp. He made philosophy out of vertigo, shame, revolution, music, and sex. Lots of sex.
Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it means to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of objects.”
I must now decide what kind of world I want, and make it happen. If I want to survive, I have to choose to live. Whatever new world will arise out of my old one, it needs to be built without influence from sources of authority such as politicians, religious leaders, educators, and society.
Each day forward, I choose the path of existentialism: to observe my experiences, to express astonishment at being alive, to pay attention to the present, to ask questions, to listen carefully and encourage people, and to indulge my appetite for everything I encounter. I’m convinced that if I dare to live, I will find my way.
More soon in my new book: “The Loss of Belonging: How To Find A New (and Better) Tribe” and in my first novel, “The Purging Room.”