My life has become a long quest to resolve a crisis of faith.
It’s not just about religion or theology, though. It’s about all of life. I didn’t even recognize what was going on when it started. At one point, everything made sense. I had a coherent worldview. That’s what I thought anyway — until the foundations of my life broke down, one by one.
When I was young, everything made sense to me. I had what seemed to be a coherent “theory of everything.” I knew The Truth, not because I had found something, but simply because I had grown up being taught exactly how things ought to be.
My understanding of The Truth wasn’t just about theology or God or anything so narrow. I had an integrated set of beliefs about reality. About everything. They all fit together — like the parts of a beautiful building.
My “theory of everything” was a work of great art which had been designed with mathematical precision — by an architect who was also a great engineer.
The central pillar of that structure of beliefs was my father. Even though I now understand that my family was deeply dysfunctional, I believed that everything my father taught me was right and good. I got angry with him at times and I pushed back in small ways, but I was ultimately too afraid to rebel against this god-like father who ruled my life.
From my mainstream conservative Christian church, I learned a systematic theology which was internally consistent. I wasn’t told that others were wrong (or even much about what they believed). But what I was taught was obviously right.
I believed America was great and virtuous. I even believed in presidents and other politicians. I believed in the civic myths I found in textbooks and in patriotic propaganda. I believed it was my role to continue the good in that great society and to oppose its enemies.
I saw a world in which progress was never-ending. I expected a world of smart and morally upright people who created a cross between the Jetsons and Star Trek. A lot of that could be summed up in a line I remember from an Up With People song: “Gee, I’m looking forward to the future, ’cause in the distance I can see, a great new day is dawning — in the 21st century.”
And then the little gods of this world — those who formed the foundation of my system of belief — started dying. My coherent worldview started falling apart. I didn’t consciously understand this at the time. I just knew something started changing.
The first god to die was my all-perfect father. This did irreparable damage to the foundation of my worldview. Everything had to change.
It was my younger sister who first suggested that my father had been the central problem in our family. I was incensed at this suggestion at first and I reacted angrily to her. Although she and I are very different people and see the world very differently today, I have to give her credit for seeing him for what he was long before I did.
Seeing my father as a fallible human being changed my relationship to him. Although I was about 30 years old before this happened, he couldn’t give up the sort of dysfunctional relationship we had always had. This ultimately left me estranged from him after he refused — for many years — to deal with the issues.
The other gods of my life started falling apart as well. I never questioned God — the Creator — because it was too clear to me that he existed in some form. But I slowly questioned everything else.
My political views went through a long evolution. At this point, I’m no more interested in trying to control the evil of politics than I am in trying to control the weather. I’ve given up the delusion that the land of my birth has any special virtue. I’ve even come to see the absurdity of political boundary lines entirely.
I had served on a church staff — as a youth minister — while I was in college, so I had already had to revise my views about what the institutional church had become. I still had hopes for what it could be, but I saw that it was a very worldly institution which mostly just reflected the dysfunctional culture in which it existed.
For years, I was still hoping to find salvation for my worldview through business success. I had unbounded faith in my ability to build a business and become wealthy and successful. But then my business failed — for reasons I’ve discussed before — and I gave up on the dream of finding my meaning there.
When I started working as a political consultant, I began with some of the old idealism — a belief that I could somehow help reform government to “restore” what I had once believed it to be. My time inside the system forced me to see that it had never been what I had thought it had been. I had to conclude that the system could never be what I had wanted — and then I came to understand that it wouldn’t be right even if it could be.
I made more money in politics than I’d ever made in business. Depending on the year, I was eventually making $100,000 to $150,000 a year. But the financial success was empty, because it meant nothing as I worked in something cynical and meaningless. By this time, all of the little gods of my world were dead or dying. I had no coherent worldview left.
About 20 years ago, Terry Scott Taylor wrote a song for Daniel Amos (a group, not a person) which I’ve come to see as emblematic of what was going on — for me and for the world. In “The Staggering Gods,” he cast all of the things we believe in as gods who were losing their apparent power:
The gods are staggering
Across the earth in their chains
The gods are dying
Clutching at lost fortune and fame
The feel-good god
And the lord of science
Democracy’s blind and
The hammer and the sickle
And the modern appliance
All the staggering gods
The staggering gods
When I first heard the song, I didn’t understand how much it applied to me. I hadn’t fully understood that my worldview was no longer coherent. I still had bits and pieces of my old views that were still around, but I hadn’t even started trying to find a coherent system to take its place.
The gods of my youth were dying — one by one — and I was blind to the fact that I was going through a long-running and profound crisis of faith about what was important in this life.
I see a similar crisis of faith for the vast majority of people I know, but very few people would see it in those terms. I see people with no coherent worldview. I see people who have put their faith in success or money or ideology or politics or good works — but none of these gives a complete and coherent meaning to life.
Almost all of us start out with faith in something, even if we don’t call it that. For some, it’s religious faith built on human beings. For others, it’s a faith in their place in popular culture. Still others have faith in their ability to be financially successful. There are plenty of others, but they all tend to fail.
We have a society full of people who have lost faith in whatever they once believed in. Millions of people are adrift and lost in feeling that life has no meaning other than the pursuit of immediate pleasures. And then we wonder why there are so many suicides and why so many others feel badly alienated.
I’m having to rebuild my worldview. I want an integrated life which makes sense in a coherent and holistic way.
I am struggling to find a way to have love and security and companionship and family and community, but in a way that they are all integrated. This world pushes us to do things in ways that ignore some of our needs, but I don’t want to do that anymore.
I want friends and family who understand what I’m looking for. I want a community which has the same values I do. I want all of these things to make sense in the way they fit together. And I’m still struggling to find this.
For me, coming to understand that it’s a crisis of faith — in the widest sense of the word — was a huge step forward. But as I realize just how much my picture of life differs from that of those around me, it leaves me wondering how I can build what I want and need.
I don’t feel as though I have a complete picture yet of the integrated whole life that I’m trying to build. But seeing it dimly — through a glass darkly, so to speak — is better than still hoping for my old gods to still provide meaning.
Those gods are all dead now. But something far more loving and meaningful is coming together to take their place. I still have faith in that much.