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Returning to the Fold: Disbelief Within the Community of Faith

by Donald E. Miller

Dr. Miller is assistant professor of sociology of religion at the University of Southern California. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 21, 1977, p. 810. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Increasingly I sense in myself, and in many individuals I encounter, an emerging new basis for commitment to the church and the Christian heritage. By any orthodox standard this basis is heretical. But then, that is exactly where many of us find ourselves today: in a state of disbelief, struggling for some constructive way to make sense of our experience.

The syndrome is well known: active religious upbringing, postadolescent crisis of faith, dubious commitment to the church -- and then? What happens to those of us who go through a genuine intellectual crisis with respect to the primary articles of the Christian faith? Need we drop out of the church?

Pursuing the Journey of Faith

I strongly suspect that few persons experience a crisis of belief only to revert to their prior faith, experiencing it again in basically the same way as before. Consciousness is progressive and cumulative; as our stock of experience increases, the filter through which we view the world changes. Although some may be able to strip away those layers of the filter associated with a waning faith, most of us have no choke but to press forward, placing new transparencies on the prism, hoping that the light (the Spirit?) can still filter through. In short, from my perspective, the only way back to faith is to continue the journey forward, bringing new frames of reference to bear on our experience.

That statement may sound like a truism. It is born in part, however, out of my own futile attempt to “recover” a lost faith by willing that it reappear. This exercise of will included reading the Bible, praying, and immersing myself in apologetic defenses of the faith. I had to conclude finally that one’s convictions about anything lie largely outside the realm of rational or willful control. One either trusts a person, or believes in an aspect of the creed, or one does not. Intellectual arguments are pursued most often after the fact, to bolster and rationalize what one has already come to feel and believe on more emotive and intuitive grounds. Stated theologically, faith is a gift of God.

My failure to return to the place where I had been before convinced me of the futility of a purely rational approach to the enterprise of attaining faith. It appeared that short of hypnotic regression there was no way to block off my intellectual and experiential journeys of the past ten years. The only direction was forward. Significantly, part of my emergent experience, despite my questioning of the literal character of many theological affirmations, was a growing conviction that there is indispensable value in being a part of the Christian community and in regularly participating in the life of the church.

Though I gave up on mandating my feelings and coercing myself into certain beliefs, there was one measure of willful behavior which I maintained. That was the decision to continue regularly to participate in the sacrament of holy communion and the liturgical forms that surround it. I suppose that this “beliefless obedience” sprang from the realization that though I could not control my feelings of belief, I could at least exercise some control over my behavior: regular attendance at worship services was a highly tangible way of indicating to myself that I was continuing to pursue the journey of faith.

Affirming the Community

Presently I find myself increasingly committed to the Christian community and its heritage. In the past few years, however, there has been a significant change in the way I approach my tradition. The issue no longer is what “really happened” some 2,000 years ago. I have given up on settling the question of the resurrection, whether Jesus was born of a virgin, whether he made blind men see and the lame walk. The first century community asserted that these events took place, but to me they remain an enigma. Unlike Rudolf Bultmann, I possess no magic telescope to look back and say what really did not happen. I remain agnostic on these issues of faith, but open. In fact, I am more intolerant of those who from some limited 19th century view of science preclude the supernatural than I am of those who say that on the basis of their experience in the Christian community they affirm the miraculous.

I now feel comfortable reciting the creed without editing it or feeling a pang of conscience if I affirm something that I do not literally believe -- an act that once would have struck me as incongruous. Questions of historical interpretation, such as the resurrection of Jesus, no longer seem to me to be the watershed issues in Christianity. It is one thing for the Apostle Paul to say that either Christ rose from the dead or all is in vain. For me to make the same affirmation, 20 centuries and several world views removed from the event, is quite another. And yet it seems important for me regularly to recite that statement in the Creed:

He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father . . .

This is a statement of my history, of the tradition that has united the Christian community for 20 centuries; wanting to be a part of that community of faith, I recite the creed, thereby affirming my tie to the community.

I have learned in the past few years that meaning can function on more than one level. My postadolescent crisis of faith was the result of learning to read on only one level. Through 16 years of schooling I was indoctrinated to believe that things were either true or false; they either happened or did not happen. When this type of reasoning is applied to a sacred text, one is placed in the awkward position of either affirming the whole thing or selectively denying it on very tenuous grounds, such as one’s present world view.

Reflecting on Our Roots

To try to ascertain what “really happened” in those events we celebrate as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas seems a futile endeavor. The only thing we will ever know with some certitude is what the early church understood as the basis for its community. Reality is always a social construction -- in the fifth century B.C., the first century A.D., or the 20th century. Furthermore, reality is always a personal construction -- which is to say that meaning is constituted retrospectively as we direct our attention back to events that have elapsed in the stream of history. Meaning is a matter of interpretation, of bringing one’s present frame of reference to bear on the events of the past.

In the present, what events do we have to reflect upon? Only those that we have experienced in our own community of faith and those presented to us by our predecessors as they reflected on their experience in the community. The Synoptic Gospels were not written until some 30 years after Jesus’ death: the first century Christian community had a number of years before they were written to mull over the meaning of Christ’s life.

What, then, are the creeds -- or for that matter, the Scriptures? These documents represent landmarks in how those within the community of faith have reflected on the meaning of Christ for them and how they have struggled through the issues of community in their own time. They are statements of our past, of our forebears, of our roots. To recite the creed is to affirm one’s tradition! Regularly reading the Scriptures reminds us from whence we have come. These acts serve to keep alive the tradition. Why? Because it is in the tradition that we find the symbolic forms, the collective sentiments, which bind us together as a distinctive community that offers one a unique identity.

In my changed understanding of the church’s central affirmations, Scripture and creeds need not be viewed as metaphysical statements; rather, they are affirmations of the Christian community at a particular moment in time. The various creeds represent milestones in the history of my tradition. Likewise, the writings of the New Testament are historical documents reflecting the spirit of the Christian community at the time they were written. By taking a sociological frame of reference to one’s understanding of the Bible and the creedal formulations of the church, one avoids getting into the divisive and irresolvable difficulties of deciding what is true in some ultimate, uncontaminated, pristine sense.

Ritual Acts

In the past few years I have finally outgrown my sophomoric, perhaps even “freshmanic,” notion of truth as something that resembles Plato’s image of the unbound caveman. I have not lost my vision that a pure and ultimate truth may exist. In fact, it would be nice if it did; at least I would like to tell my two children that such a truth exists. What I have come to realize, however, is that my personal vision of the Truth is always going to be adulterated. Whatever else the Bible is, it is at least, as William James expressed it, the record of “great souled individuals wrestling with their fate.” Surely the creeds are the same thing. As for me, I am trying in some small measure to follow in the footsteps of those individuals, however imperfectly, and struggling to know the meaning of birth, death, suffering, success, failure and purpose.

The creeds have taken on a new significance for me -- not so much as statements of what really happened, or what will happen, but as sociological statements about the integrity of my tradition. To recite the creed is to recall my heritage, my roots. To take holy communion is to rehearse a significant event in the life of my community -- one whose celebration historically has been absolutely central to the life of the community. To recite a creed, to participate in the Eucharist, to read Scripture, to sing songs -- all of these are ritual acts. The new day that is dawning for me and, I suspect, for many others -- despite our Protestant suspicion of rituals -- is the realization that truth is somehow embodied in ritual and the other collective acts of the community. The ritual is not sacred in itself -- this much we have gained from our Protestant heritage -- but rite and ritual are the carriers of truth. And in the collective acts of the community is to be found “new life.”

The agnostic 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim said that ritual provides the moment for “moral remaking.” It is the time to celebrate, in his terms, the “collective sentiments” -- those commonly held beliefs that describe the basis of community. For Durkheim, it is only in collective celebration that individuals become fully conscious of their commitment to the corporate group and to the “spirit” that energizes it. And regarding “the Spirit”: I am not precluding its presence for the Christian, but I suspect that the Holy Spirit was given more to the community than to individuals.

A Point of Stability

The great thing about losing one’s faith for a while is that it gives one a chance to look around at alternative meaning systems, their corresponding moral communities and the options they pose to Christianity. My conclusion, after trying a little therapy, a little Erich Fromm, a little “nothing,” is that the Christian community’s competition is not bereft of difficulties. The central insight for me in reassociating myself with the Christian community was the realization that what I was looking for was not just a belief system, but an identity -- or more broadly stated, a tradition in which I could locate myself. I was looking for an identity that had more permanence than the titles associated with my job, nationality and familial roles. I wanted (almost desperately) a transcendent identity -- not “transcendent” so much in a metaphysical sense as in a psychosocial sense, with metaphysical overtones.

In retrospect, my return to the church was, I think, an attempt to find a community in whose membership I could find a point of stability and permanence. The whole movement back to a commitment to the church started to make more sense when I reread Erik Erikson’s discussion of identity as being tied to the discovery of an ideology, a belief system, which gives one a transcendent fix on the meaning and purpose for existence. Also illuminating is Erikson’s observation that the problem of identity is solved often only after a “moratorium period” during which time one may do considerable wandering, sampling various possibilities before settling on the one which then serves to unify one’s life style.

Durkheim also was important to me in clarifying the point that ideologies are born in community and maintained there through regularly rehearsing those events that provide the symbolic paradigms through which members of the community understand themselves and their collective purpose. To claim identity as a “Christian” is to align oneself with a community whose symbolic forms have enabled it to deal creatively with the social, psychological and ethical dilemmas of many generations. To disavow my identity as a Christian would be to raise the precarious question: “Who am I -- morally, psychologically, spiritually?”

One thing that brought me back to the church was asking simply: What are the alternatives to the church? Where are the communities that sanction the pursuit of meaning and truth as a legitimate enterprise? that have material and personal resources to assist in this search? that provide regular occasions for confession of failures? that renew and inspire? that provide a setting where children are nurtured? where family members can be buried? where births can be celebrated? where social issues can be debated? There are a number of institutions that deal with one or several of these questions, but historically the church has demonstrated its ability to energize all of these activities.

Finding Fulfillment in Community

I foresee an emerging membership in Christian churches of those for whom theological issues are important but not the sole essence. These will be persons who recognize the ultimate emptiness of individualism, who seek membership in a community united by a common symbolic paradigm. They will be those who want “roots” that can be celebrated collectively. They will not have given up the search for truth but will have concluded that perhaps it is embodied only in community and is to be realized in the collectively celebrated rituals, rites and acts of the community.

There is, admittedly, something heretical in minimizing the importance of the historical facticity of the foundation on which the Christian community stands. On the other hand, to celebrate the integrity of the tradition, its documents and declarations, to give impetus to the continued reflection of the church on issues of contemporary meaning and value, is to experience the renewing power of being a part of a community of faith, of having an identity which transcends the anomic character of “doing your own thing” and going it alone.

To select a community freely and then to submit to its authority and discipline, pledging to reform and renew it, is not a step backward to a medieval pattern of religious authority but a recognition that personal fulfillment is to be found in community, in contributing to the maintenance and life of a collectivity of individuals for whom “new life” is to be found in commitment to a common symbolic form. What is behind that “form” is the Mystery of the universe. The fact that this symbolic form is a communal product, however, is not nearly so mysterious -- at least from a social-psychological perspective.


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