The doubt that breathes beside you

March 10th, 2018

People move into and out of faith. Probably most of us stay with the religious beliefs we form in our late teens, but a fair number change their basic belief somewhat later.

These changes in belief can be difficult to make and to carry through. But probably nothing is more difficult than when one partner in a close relationship changes their previously deeply held belief and the other does not.

Blogger, author, wife and christian, Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, has given us in The Doubt that Breathes Beside You a beautifully written and heart-breaking story of her experience when her formerly zealous christian husband decided he could no longer believe.

Whether you are a believer or a non-believer, I think you will find her reflections memorable and touching.

Thinking personally …..

We live in an age where tolerance is seen as an important virtue. And so we may think that beliefs are personal and our friendships, even our intimate relationships, can easily cope with differences in religious and other beliefs.

I guess it depends on how you see christian belief.

For some, their religious belief is more like a cultural habit that they don’t think about all that much. And for others, disbelief is a benign agnosticism that doesn’t really mind what their friends believe as long as they don’t harm others. These people can probably live with someone with a similar level of tolerance and a weak commitment to their religious opinions.

But if you are a believer and think you are living in relationship with the God of the universe who has promised to love you no matter what, and who calls you to a life of sacrificial service to the poor, the broken and the disadvantaged, that belief cannot be anything but the foundation of your whole life. To live with someone who doesn’t share that belief means you are not sharing the most fundamental part of yourself.

Likewise, if you think christianity is a serious delusion that is harmful to the human race, it won’t help your relationship if you think the person you love is foolish, delusional and supporting a movement that is doing great harm. It will be hard to respect that person.

So for some perhaps many people, it is not surprising that a change of viewpoint by their partner can feel like a serious threat to closeness in the relationship.

That was how it was

Stina certainly felt the loss. Her husband is not now an atheist, apparently, but an agnostic tolerant and supportive of her belief, but his loss of faith had deep effects.

It affected her when she went to church. Either he goes to a coffee shop while she’s in church (“I sit alone and search for my own thoughts, my own faith. ….. I often sit down in an empty pew toward the back and stare at the words in the bulletin, my mind not registering the announcements”) or sometimes he accompanies her, and she’s so conscious of his unbelief (“I sing the hymn. Though the congregation’s voices surround us, all I hear is my husband’s doubt breathing beside me.”).

And it affected her in their family life together. They still love, appreciate and respect each other, but they had married as a committed christian couple, and now they couldn’t live and be parents with the same shared beliefs. “I wonder at how my daughter will never know the beauty of being raised in a family where both parents scramble to get ready for church on Sundays, where we all hold hands to pray before road trips or summer camp.”

His change of heart and mind certainly affected her deeply and personally, and while she doesn’t say explicitly, it must surely have affected their relationship.

It’s like I’ve been waltzing around while my partner slowly backs away and then finds a seat along the edges of the dance floor. I keep dancing, not acknowledging that he’s gone, just assuming that he has taken a little rest and will be back to join me soon. But when he declared himself no longer Christian, I realized that I’m truly alone in the middle of the dance floor, with people moving all around me, and that I will probably be alone here for the rest of my life. Now I am standing still, and I don’t know whether to start dancing alone or if I should find my own seat along the sidelines. How can I possibly bear to dance alone?

The loss is like a phantom limb that you now realize, with a jolt, has been gone for a long time.

The effect on Stina’s faith

It isn’t surprising to see that her husband’s loss of faith affected Stina too.

“As time passed I grew afraid of examining my own beliefs. …. I am avoiding writing and I am avoiding myself and I am avoiding God. …. I want to remember what attracted me to Christianity in the first place.”

But, she says:

It would be easy to make this all about my husband’s faith crisis, but my own spiritual shift started several years back. I stopped reading my Bible …. My prayer life, once a raging river, petered into occasional drips. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in God. The scandalous beauty of the incarnation, the upside-down kingdom, all of these things still captured my imagination. I still loved God, yet my spiritual disciplines fell away.

Her essay ends with her find strength and consolation in faith, but with few answers.

Thinking theoretically …..

This is a small but eloquent case study of changes that are occurring all the time in people’s thoughts and beliefs. In the traditional christian countries, the most common move is out of faith, but in what we may call non-christian countries, the movement is likely to be the opposite.

In some places, for example, some “Bible belt” states in the US, those leaving christianity can (I am told) feel socially isolated and stigmatised. Sometimes this can be deliberate, but more often it is simply a reduction in the social contacts that are part of church membership in a majority christian culture.

In some countries, especially in some parts of the Middle East and Asia, conversion to christianity can lead to severe persecution or even death. But even in western countries, christian converts can feel stigmatised too. I know of an American academic who only posted online with an assumed name because he was not confident he could keep his scientific position in a university if he was known as a christian.

And I know of a number of families where one partner “deconverts”, and one or two where one converts, and this has required some adjustment to accommodate the differences.

Surveys show ….

Some surveys suggest that the main causes of people changing their beliefs are personal rather than intellectual. Many leave christian faith because of what they see as the bad or intolerant behaviour of christians (e.g. pedophile priests, hypocritical christians and attitudes to gays, women or non-believers).

And many people convert because of crises in their lives that they find God resolves for them – e.g. via healing, guidance,or motivation to change away from destructive patterns.

But intellectual reasons are also important for many. Deconverts find some doctrines impossible to believe (e.g. hell, the behaviour attributed to God in the Old Testament, the atonement) or some ideas incoherent (e.g. the hiddenness of God, the existence of suffering in a world created by a loving God).

Converts, on the other hand, often find that theism answers intellectual questions that atheism cannot, for example, many have strong humanist ethical beliefs that they find atheism cannot explain or justify.

And that was how it was

For Stina’s husband, it seems that it was intellectual rather than personal factors that catalysed his loss of faith. There came a time when “He no longer believed in the exclusivity of salvation through Christ; he described the theory of atonement as absurd.”

And giving up the pretence of belief was liberating. “I finally feel free now that I’m done with Christianity. I can stop being guilty. I’m no longer pretending to be better than I am. I am done with trying to make something that isn’t. I just feel free.”

But Stina, a writer, editor and social activist, seems to be more of an intuitive christian, and didn’t share the intellectual doubts of her husband. She had, and has, doubts a-plenty, but they seem to be more emotional.

A story bereft of an ending?

We don’t know how Stina’s story will end. She has hopes of her husband converting and her own faith being re-invigorated, but three years after his deconversion, things are apparently the same. But she has hope either way. As she told him once: “Even if you lose your faith entirely, we will figure this out.”

This post doesn’t really have an ending, or a punchline, either. I just think it is worth raising this matter.

Best of all, I recommend you read her account.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

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