September 2, 2014 / Praxis
The tangles of anxiety are knotted from generation to generation, rooted in place, and may just be the ties that bind.
March 15, 2018
Last summer, the pastor of the Mennonite church I’ve attended for the last two years invited me to become an official member of the congregation. I wasn’t sure how to respond to her email. What was I supposed to say—that I’m not sure whether I belong in church at all? That I feel incredibly uncertain about the things I’m supposed to believe as a Christian? That what I do believe would have gotten me excommunicated or burned at the stake for much of church history?
The thing is, I like and trust this pastor, despite my instinctive skepticism of people in positions of power. On Sundays, she preaches impassioned sermons about bridging cultural, economic, and political divides. She’s not afraid to grapple with the Bible’s contradictions, with its misogyny or its brutality. She doesn’t wear makeup or own a car. Like me, she’s in a profession historically occupied (and still dominated) by men. Like me, she’s a woman over the age of thirty without children. I suspect she knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider or a misfit, to defy expectations simply by being what she is. So I decided to take a risk and asked her if we could discuss church membership in person.
We met at a local coffee shop where I told her, “I may be a bit of a strange case.”
I explained that I grew up in the church, that as a teenager and young adult, I had a strong faith, a devout practice, and what I perceived as a personal relationship with Jesus. But over the last decade, I told her, I’ve become increasingly less certain. Many days, I think it probable that there is no God, no divine presence, no grand design—that any meaning in life is meaning I make. But then sometimes when I’m in the woods or staring into the starry depths of the night sky or singing a hymn in church, I feel this warmth, this sense of communion with everything in existence, and I think, “Maybe there is something out there.”
My pastor asked if I knew what had prompted this change.
I mentioned a handful of events: In my early twenties, I caught a Christian in a position of authority stealing, and then I endured his threats and verbal abuse for more than a year. The husband I supported through divinity school divorced me and left the faith. I watched my father die an excruciating death, but religion did little to alleviate his physical agony or existential dread. And the deeper I got into my education, the more intellectual hang-ups I developed. I came to see Christianity and its holy book as products of particular historical, political, and social contexts. I developed a nuanced morality and conception of justice that sometimes clash with church doctrines. And my fascination with science has made it hard to believe in a spiritual realm for which there is no empirical evidence.
But I also told my pastor why I still to show up to church on Sundays: Because I find the stories of the Bible powerful and revelatory, even if they’re just stories. Because I think it’s valuable to set aside a couple of hours every week to consider how to bring justice, love, and healing into our world. Because I want to be part of a community of people who sing together and eat together and share each other’s joys and burdens. Because if there’s any possibility that a divine consciousness exists, I want to inhabit spaces where I might encounter it.
“So do you feel a yearning to have your faith restored?” my pastor asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. I explained that I don’t really want to be the person I was when I unquestioningly believed, but that I do miss the sense of control that prayer gave me, as well as that feeling of being intimately known and unconditionally loved by God. I added that, mostly, I try to accept not knowing. “Maybe I’m more Buddhist than Christian, these days,” I joked.
She nodded, and something in her expression—a glimmer of recognition?—made me think she might tell me I was not alone, that there are others like me in our congregation. Instead, she praised my lack of anger, remarking that many people feel angry when they lose their faith or retreat from God because they’re angry. She added that my willingness to show up struck her as an act of faith, and she said she believed God had a responsibility to show up too.
Neither of us revived the topic of church membership. I wouldn’t be able to make the public profession of belief required for official membership—that much was clear. We exchanged warm goodbyes, expressions of gratitude for an honest conversation. But I felt familiar questions hovering in the pauses between our words: Are there others like me? Is there a name for what I am? Why am I this way?
The old stories tell us that we were made in the image of a God who delineated light from darkness, earth from sky, sea from land, woman from man—a God who granted people the privilege of naming all living things. The new stories tell us that we descend from creatures who could find patterns in disorder, a trait that enabled them to predict outcomes, distinguish threats, and live long enough to produce offspring with the same ability to impose order on chaos. Both narratives remind me that it’s human nature to categorize, to define, to name.
So what do we call a person whose religious experience is characterized by profound uncertainty? Believer or unbeliever? Saint or sinner? Saved or lost? Agnostic? Quasi-spiritual? Confused?
What concerns me is not restoring my faith to its former luster (or even protecting what’s left of it) but discerning whether my abiding uncertainty indicates some kind of pathology. Despite my attempts to accept my current spiritual state, I sometimes worry that my inability to embrace belief or disbelief indicates psychological weakness or willful self-deception. I could be clinging to religion, against all reason, because I don’t want to face the alternative: That none of this really matters. That love and kindness and cruelty and pain don’t have any broader significance. That oblivion awaits us all.
Or what if God is real, and some kind of spiritual infirmity prevents me from seeing this? It’s possible that I’m blind as the ancient Israelites, who according to Hebrew Scripture, stubbornly refused to trust God and believe his prophets, even after navigating the parted waters of the Red Sea in their flight from Egypt, even after dining on manna from heaven, even after receiving divine retribution for their disobedience via exile, enslavement, and death. In general, the Bible looks unfavorably upon the uncertain. The Epistle of James warned the early Christians: “The one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6–8 NRSV). And though I avoid the evangelical circles I inhabited as a teenager, words uttered in that time still haunt me: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).Over and over again, I heard preachers invoke this verse to discourage doubt and questioning, to suggest that the territory between belief and unbelief is an unholy wilderness.
Yet here I am, a body suspended between two planets. And despite feeling pressure to choose—to join the inhabitants of one or the other—I just can’t. Although I long for the belonging and stability that choice would provide, part of me likes it here in the middle, where I am free to observe both spheres, to skim both skies as I feel inclined. But is it possible to build a home here? Can I find the meaning, community, and identity I seek in this space between worlds?
It only recently occurred to me to look to science for answers to my questions—an astonishing lapse, given that I teach college students how to plan and propose scientific inquiry projects. Perhaps this oversight is a consequence of my history. During the last decade, as my religious convictions faltered, my interests in evolutionary theory, ecology, and cosmology intensified—and naturally (albeit unscientifically), I assumed a causal relationship between these trends. It didn’t help that graduate school threw me into a sea of intelligent, accomplished people, many of whom thought that science and religion offer incompatible ways of interpreting reality. More than once, I saw classmates berated for bringing up their religious beliefs, and I quickly learned to compartmentalize my religious and academic identities.
But last summer, I encountered an interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, on the relationship between scientific and indigenous ways of knowing. She suggested that disparate knowledge systems have the potential to illuminate and inform each other. The point is not blending, she said, but symbiosis, which leaves both systems intact as they work toward common purposes.1
I began wondering how the part of me that values scientific, empirical knowledge might converse with the part of me that is drawn to church on Sundays, the part that senses sacredness in the universe. Could they work toward the common purpose of helping me come to terms with what I am? Was symbiosis even possible? I decided to delve into my questions the same way I instruct my students to delve into theirs: Go to the literature. Get lost in scientific texts and journals. Search for threads and themes and gaps and contradictions. Discover whether your questions have been answered, or how they might be answered, or whether they’re worth asking at all.
Are There Others Like Me?
In my late teens and early twenties, my Christian friends routinely talked about their religious questions and doubts. All around me, young people were interrogating the beliefs they’d been brought up with, attempting to define their own values and identities. But over the years, I’ve seen my peers veer in one direction or the other, either becoming more confident in their beliefs or abandoning organized religion altogether (a growing trend in America, especially among my generation).2 I can count on one hand the number of older adults I’ve encountered who admit profound religious uncertainty and still actively participate in religious communities.
Data from large-scale, long-term sociological studies confirms my impression that Americans tend to become surer of their religious beliefs as they age. And notably, the majority of adults in every age group (even young adults) express absolute certainty in the existence of God or a universal spirit—63 percent of Americans, overall, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study (RLS). While uncertainty is far less common, it is a documented phenomenon. About 2 percent of 2014 RLS respondents said they don’t know if they believe in God or a universal spirit, and another 5 percent said they believe but are “not too certain” or “not at all certain.”3
If the RLS accurately represents America, then among people who attend religious services weekly, about 2 percent are unsure about the existence of God. So in my church, on any given Sunday, there might be four or five of us in the congregation—though I suspect more, given my church’s openness to people like me. I’m also far more likely to encounter my kind at work than I previously suspected. According to a study published in 2009, about one in five professors identifies as believing in God some of the time or believing in God with doubts.4
These studies have revealed to me that wherever I am, there are likely kindred spirits nearby, people who are seeking the divine despite intense uncertainty. Maybe our shadows have overlapped as we’ve passed each other on campus. Maybe we’ve retreated to the same mountain trails, immersed in thought. Maybe our alto and soprano have intertwined at the back of our church. Maybe the same books or articles or scientific studies have set our synapses ablaze. I take comfort in knowing this: the middle is not a void.
Is There a Name for What I Am?
Yes, it turns out that there is name for those of us who dwell in this middle space. Social psychologist Daniel Batson coined a term for my spiritual state seven years before I was born. In 1976, he published an article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that introduced a “quest orientation” toward religion. Batson’s predecessors had theorized that churchgoers’ attitudes toward religion fall on an intrinsic-to-extrinsic continuum. For those with intrinsic orientations, religion was a “master-motive” and an ultimate source of significance, whereas for those with extrinsic orientations, religion was utilitarian—a means to solace, security, status, or community. But Batson found a group of people who didn’t fit this continuum, a group of people who “view religion as an endless process of probing and questioning generated by the tensions, contradictions, and tragedies in their own lives and in society.”5 For these people, religion was not necessarily a means or an end but a quest.
When surveyed, individuals with quest orientations tend to affirm the following claims, among others: (a) I have been driven to ask religious questions out of a growing awareness of the tensions in my world and in my relation to my world; (b) my life experiences have led me to rethink my religious convictions; (c) as I grow and change, I expect my religion also to grow and change; (d) I am constantly questioning my religious beliefs; and (e) it might be said that I value my religious doubts and uncertainties.6 Together, those declarations form a brief spiritual biography of the last decade of my life.
I like the term quest orientation. The word quest evokes the archetypal journeys that populate classic literature. As a human on a quest, I join the ranks of Odysseus, Beowulf, Jane Eyre, and Jesus. And the word orientation implies legitimacy—it suggests a perspective or direction rather than a disorder or diagnosis.
Indeed, much of the research on quest orientation over the last three decades has revealed its merits. Studies have shown that questers display more complexity of thought about existential concerns than their intrinsic and extrinsic counterparts. In other words, they’re better at integrating alternative perspectives into their worldviews and at critically evaluating their own beliefs. They tend to have low levels of prejudice and high regard for equality and fairness. One study of Christian college students found that quest orientation coincides with a triad of personality traits. First, questers are highly empathetic. Second, they exhibit “androgynous social sensitivity,” which means that they don’t confine themselves to stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine” behaviors and are comfortable being “assertive, emotionally expressive, competitive, yielding, affectionate, and independent.” And third, questers show disregard for making a good impression. They prefer “real and genuine” conversations and resist social conventions that might incline them to conceal their opinions or misrepresent themselves.7
These findings come as a huge relief. Not only do they give me a name, but they also assure me that there is goodness in this wilderness. It would seem that the fruits of questing are self-awareness, compassion, and authenticity—and as Jesus says in the Gospels, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). I am reassured, too, by research that has distinguished quest orientation from agnosticism, the belief that nothing can be known about the nature or existence of God.8 Over the last couple of years, I’ve identified as agnostic on multiple occasions, for lack of a better descriptor. But the term never felt quite right. It seems to suggest passive resignation, a shrug, a lack of interest in religion and spirituality. I prefer quest orientation because it suggests action and intention.
It’s fitting that the word quest derives from the Latin verb quaerere, which means to seek, to inquire. I think I’ve been wrong about my uncertainty. Many times, I’ve thought of myself as an exile, relegated to an outer darkness where the voice of God cannot be heard and the face of God cannot be seen. But I now recognize that I haven’t been cast out of certainty; rather, I’ve been drawn into mystery.
Why Am I This Way?
People are complex. We are shaped by our genetics, social contexts, personal experiences, natural environments, and desires. I have no illusions that I could trace the labyrinthine lineage of my quest orientation, but I want to understand its roots to whatever extent I’m able.
If social scientists are right, the part of me that gravitates to religion may be attributable, in some measure, to gender and geography. Women are more likely than men to believe in God, and they pray, read Scripture, and attend religious services more often than men. As a southerner, I come from the most religious region of the country—in my experience, southerners assume you’re a Christian until you prove otherwise. Scientific evidence also confirms my suspicion that my education and profession have contributed to my religious doubts. Although the majority of my fellow academics profess belief in God or a higher power, higher levels of education are associated with a more critical view of religion, and atheism and agnosticism occur at significantly higher rates among college and university professors than in the general population.9
It’s probable that my personal tragedies have also precipitated doubt and uncertainty. Sociologist Darren Sherkat has argued that experiences of “struggle, torment, and suffering” may promote doubt in divine beings, causing people to “question the existence of a God that would allow human suffering.”10 He’s right. The “voice of God” that I heard (or imagined hearing) in my younger years went silent the night my husband left me. And as cancer slowly consumed my father’s organs and bones, I watched angrily as visiting clergy prayed for a miraculous healing. In the darkness, I made a humbler plea: Take him. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. And to think, those hardships are but a drop in the sea of suffering that covers this planet and inundates human and natural history! I’ve yet to encounter a theology that adequately accounts for all of this anguish.
Psychologists have posited that certain personality traits and cognitive styles drive belief and disbelief. What research has revealed about these characteristics underscores my sense of in-between-ness. Although believers tend to value tradition, security, and conformity, nonbelievers generally value skepticism, individualism, and nonconformity. I inhabit both ends of that spectrum, sometimes finding meaning and comfort in religious traditions and sometimes feeling deeply skeptical of them. On self-reported personality measures, I receive high scores for extraversion and agreeability, qualities that correlate with religiousness, but like most atheists, I receive high scores for openness to experience. I consider myself both empathetic (an attribute that is correlated with belief in God, as well as quest orientation) and a rational thinker (a common characteristic in agnostics and atheists).11
Interestingly, neuroimaging studies have provided evidence that empathy and analytic thinking involve two different brain networks, one activated by social and emotional tasks, and the other activated by cognitively demanding tasks involving calculations, physical problem solving, or logical reasoning. These networks operate in opposition to each other; when one activates, the other deactivates. The scientists who conducted this study concluded that differences in “moral concern” (a construct that includes empathy and interpersonal connection) likely explain why some people believe in God and why others don’t.12 As a person who has worked hard to cultivate both compassion and reason, I’m curious how this tension has contributed to my way of being. Perhaps pursuing excellence in both domains means that I will never find a straight path to belief or disbelief. Perhaps I am destined to orbit them both, to feel the tug and release of gravity as I fly in endless figure eights.
Does God exist? What is the nature of reality? Is there a universal moral law? I doubt I’ll ever find the answers to the ontological questions that preoccupy me. But certainty isn’t the point. I see that now. After all, quests aren’t really about accomplishing what you set out to do (at least the good ones aren’t). Slaying the dragon, finding the oracle, rescuing the damsel in distress—those are just outposts along the road to actualization. Ultimately, quests are about becoming.
According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, the final stage of a hero’s journey is “freedom to live.”13 Having mastered spiritual and material realms, the hero is free to be whatever the journey has made her, unimpeded by regret or fear. And that’s what this quest has really been about. Using science to investigate my religious experience has helped me embrace what I have become. It has convinced me that uncertainty is a gift, not a defect or an illness. Also, allowing my scientific and religious identities to work symbiotically has given me a more integrated sense of self.
Last Sunday began the Christian season of Advent, four weeks of anticipation and preparation leading up to Christmas. For the occasion, my pastor preached on agnosticism—at least, that’s the word she used, though I think she meant the kind of engaged “not knowing” that characterizes quest orientation. In the sermon, my pastor explained that she’d recently had a conversation with one of my fellow churchgoers (another quester, I suspect). The woman shared a secret: that she doesn’t believe everything Christians are supposed to believe, but she never mentions this to anyone. So my pastor responded with these words for our congregation:
What if this Advent we let ourselves be agnostic, not knowing, and experience the gap between our knowledge and God? Perhaps that gap, that Advent womb of unknowing, is where God’s presence is made known, like the quickening of a child in her mother’s body. Perhaps God prefers a bit of uncluttered space, a mind not yet resolved. . . . This Advent, if you find yourself not knowing whether and how to believe in God, remember that you’re not alone. The saints who have gone before us didn’t register as agnostics, but they described a lot of unknowing, wondering, questions, and spiritual struggles. Throughout the Bible, God often works through people who are uncertain, who have no idea who God really is. And throughout the Bible, those who are overly confident in their knowledge of God . . . are the ones who are spiritually stuck. . . . Not knowing is not a bad thing. So let’s enter Advent quietly, without knowing when or how God’s desire to be with us will be fulfilled.14
I felt grateful for her words, which I received as confirmation of what this quest has taught me: I am free to live, to be what I am, to make uncertainty my home. What will I do with this newfound freedom? Explore. Expand my orbit. Seek out my fellow travelers so that we can share the weight and wonder of everything we do not know.
Lucy Bryan lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where she teaches science and research writing at James Madison University. She earned her MFA in creative writing at Penn State University. Her articles, essays, reviews, and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Earth Island Journal, Quarterly West, Fourth River, Georgia Review, and Sojourners magazine, among others. She is currently working on an essay collection that uses landscape, ecology, and natural history as lenses for examining experiences of loss and discovery.