Making Space For Unbelief in our Churches

Justin Eisinga | Reporter

A Response to "Confronting Pluralism in Canada"

Over the past several years, I have had several friends confide in me about their journeys through doubt into agnosticism and atheism. These are friends that I had regarded as solid defenders of the faith, individuals who exemplified strong Christian character through involvement in church activities and commitments within the community. To say their confessions of unbelief startled me would be an understatement.

 Upon listening to them tell their stories, it became clear that their journeys towards agnosticism and atheism were characterized by deep struggles and one too many dark nights of the soul. Entering the scary territory of unbelief was never easy for any of my friends. In fact, it came after months, and in some cases years, of internal angst and genuine wrestling with difficult questions.

Yet, it wasn’t that the answers to these difficult questions did not suffice and it’s not as though this deep struggle did not have its moments of light and hope. What is really at the foundation of the disbelief chosen by some of my friends is not necessarily this internal struggle, but rather deep wounds inflicted by the one organism and institution that ought to have exuded love and grace to my friends: the body of Christ.

Instead of experiencing the freedom that should be found in Christian community, too many people in the world today have found the opposite to be true. Like my friends, many individuals have been deeply hurt by church communities who saw fit that they should exert control over others’ lives instead of modelling what it means to be a disciple of Christ. I do not have space to provide examples of such harmful occurrences, mainly because that would not do justice to these tender experiences, but also because these stories are personal.

 In a culture characterized by pluralism, it is right to say that the church ought not bend to the demands of the world it is planted in. The church should shine as a bastion of light, hope, and unwavering faith in a world ready and willing to lure people into its grips of consumerism and unending choice. In order to do so, however, the church needs also to refrain from antagonizing those who ask questions and find it difficult to fit in.

 My friends and the countless others who have chosen to rest in the religious space of agnosticism or atheism are not liars or fools. They have not chosen to live with illusionary ideas about reality. They have been deeply harmed by the church because of critical issues, such as their sexuality or racial division. These harms are not illusions; in fact, they are very real wounds that have cut deep into the core of these people’s beings. This harm has pushed them into dark corners, as if they were children who misbehaved and required a time-out.

 The crux of the matter is this: there are those who have grown up in toxic churches that perhaps really do require a time-out, not because they have done something wrong, but because they have not truly experienced the grace and peace of Christ. Sometimes the only way to experience this grace is to take a step back, ask hard questions, and prepare for the healing journey. Our churches ought to make space for those who are wrestling with their faith and who may fall into the category of agnostic or atheist. This space should not exist so we can push people back into our prescribed moulds for what it means to be a “good” Christian. No, this space should exist simply for people to find refuge and rest as they embark on or push through the road to healing.

 The beautiful thing is, these friends of mine haven’t left the church. They still show up on Sunday from time to time, and they enjoy the community found within our local church. The church I attend has made a conscious effort of creating safe space for those who are wrestling, and I’ve come to realize how important this really is.

 The truth is, Christians do need to stop being wimps. Instead of being wimps, my church chose to take the scary steps towards creating a sacred space where people with questions and doubts can lament the harm they have experienced themselves and the mayhem they have witnessed in the world around them. Instead of being wimps, the church at large must slow down and listen to the stories of those in our midst that have also been hurt by those in the church. Instead of being wimps, I hope and pray that the church may have the courage to welcome all those seeking understanding and healing, offering forgiveness and hospitality in the face of deep harm and real lament.