You don’t lose your faith all at once. You lose it as a series of small concessions and releases, a string of low-casualty surrenders. With each piece of belief you give up, you believe you’ve arrived at your final destination. You assume each step is the last one, that your faith has morphed into what it will be going forward, that you won’t lose anything else. You feel freed from the latest thing you’ve abandoned, and it’s impossible to imagine losing any of the tenets that remain. The less you believe the more sure you get you’ll never believe any less. And I suppose with something as personal as faith I should abandon the general you and assume the specific I. This is what was true for me.
After a childhood in small Bible churches as a preacher’s brat and an adolescence as a youth group all star, I entered adulthood pretty sure I would do great things for God. I spent most of my twenties refining and size-checking various versions of Evangelical theology before deconstructing and discarding pretty much all of it by the time I turned thirty. I led Bible studies, youth group, a young adults ministry, more Bible studies. I thought about starting a church that wouldn’t be like the others. I came out on the other side of belief with a woman who’d lived the same story and a library of books full of things I no longer believe.
About five years ago I was in the middle of losing beliefs I hadn’t intended to lose and believed I had lost all the ones I was ever going to. I was wrong, but there’s no telling someone that in the middle. In church you hear a lot about the “slippery slope,” a mythical and dangerous process in which a person of faith might start believing things they shouldn’t or not believing things they should, or maybe start making life choices they shouldn’t or stop making ones they should (all of these shoulds and shouldn’ts defined by the particular concerned advisor of the moment), and sooner or later they’ll find themselves tumbling toward apostasy. Sometimes this happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. The thing it’s nearly impossible to understand when you still believe is that a person who no longer believes does not see their loss as such. That when belief evaporates, so does the consequence of that evaporation. I digress. In 2010, I was still mid-deconversion, and there was a book that was comforting to me that year, a book by a woman my age who’d grown up similarly and was also struggling with doubt and with maintaining intellectual integrity when her childhood beliefs no longer seemed to stand up under basic rigor. The book was Evolving in Monkey Town, and the woman was Rachel Held Evans.
She wrote another book a couple years later and ended up on CNN and Good Morning America and the New York Times bestsellers list, as well as the heretic lists of most of the red-blooded evangelical conservatives in America. Her third book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (248 Evans), is out now from Nelson Books.
Searching for Sunday chronicles Evans’s shaky relationship with church during her adult life, and her inability to shake this institution, however frustrated she might often feel with it. She talks about her childhood and teenage years in a conservative southern church, her transition in college from zealous evangelist to questioning doubter, the decade of her twenties in which she wrestled with questions, wrote a book, fought with Christians, loved Christians, helped start a church, grieved the loss of that church, and was deposited on the doorstep of her thirties without a clear path forward. She no longer had a church, but she still had faith. I can relate to all but that final phrase.
This is really at the heart of my internal process when I read a book like this. I feel kinship in the stories of bizarre church upbringings, the stories of young adult enthusiasm and arrogance, the stories of adult questioning and doubt and guilt and struggle. I am lost at the part where the writer still believes. I want to ask How? For me, no longer believing seems to have been inevitable from that first lonely question while I stared at the ceiling at 25. It’s hard to imagine the progression of deconversion having been arrested at any point along the way. For Evans, my first paragraph above was only true to a point. There did come a time at which she stopped believing less.
I said earlier you don’t see your loss of belief as such once it’s gone, but that’s not entirely true. You can see your new state of unbelief as the right place for you and still grieve for the years you lived before, the years that held certainty, comfort, community, years of memories, church basements that smelled like damp concrete and warm casserole, games of freeze tag on the church lawn with all the other kids on Sunday evenings while parents solved the world’s problems inside, the nights as an adult when it really did feel like a Spirit was there among you and your friends, Sunday mornings kneeling at the communion rail in a church so beautiful it broke your heart. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. Amen. When it’s all gone there are stretches of wanting it back, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.
“There are recovery programs for people grieving the loss of a parent, sibling, or spouse. You can buy books on how to cope with the death of a beloved pet or work through the anguish of a miscarriage. We speak openly with one another about the bereavement that can accompany a layoff, a move, a diagnosis, or a dream deferred. But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that.” – Searching for Sunday, page 48
Searching for Sunday isn’t a perfect book. The structure of Searching (like Evolving) can feel disjointed at times, with orphaned chapters and stories that feel like stand-alone essays without a clear role to play in the book, but these are minor issues. Evans is a good writer, and her stories are true and recognizable. For those who have struggled with doubt or disillusionment but are still in a place of belief, this is a book you’ll want to read. If you’re the parent of an adult child whose faith has evolved or dwindled, this is a good book to read to understand where your child is coming from and what they’ve gone through. For those of you who, like me, have lived the book’s events but came out on the other side no longer a believer, it will depend on your disposition whether you like this book or not. It’s bittersweet. I relived a lot while reading it, but the nostalgia is not without frustration. The Jesus Evans still clings to disappeared into the clouds for me like he’s purported to have done near Bethany two millennia ago. I spent years searching for Sunday. All I came away with are the stories of the ones who found it, or hope to. I’ve let go of that search. I’m keeping the stories instead.
Searching for Sunday is available now at Greenville Public Library.