• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: Accidental Pilgrim

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 20, 2015

A Spirituality Notebook

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Accidental Pilgrim 1I made my way up a side aisle of Durham Cathedral to a chair near one of the tombs that stand between the great supporting columns. Looking around sheepishly, I knelt down and stumbled into prayer.

The day before, I had participated in a tour of the cathedral organized by the university. Among the crowd of "ruin bibbers," as poet Philip Larkin might have called this mixed group of pilgrims and liturgical tourists, I craned my neck peering up into the dim recesses of walls and rooflines trying to discern the difference between Romanesque and Gothic architectural details. I listened appreciatively to the guide's stories, historical and legendary. Along with everyone else, I marveled at the beauty of the building and the ethereal sounds of the choir as it rehearsed.

We visited, as both thorough tourists and faithful pilgrims must, the tomb of the Venerable Bede at one end of the cathedral and the shrine of St. Cuthbert behind the High Altar at the other. For months I had been pursuing textual rabbits through the tangled hedgerows of ancient English Christianity, and had spent a lot of time in the company of the Bede, reading his  Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the legends of Cuthbert and his contemporaries and other Christian writings from what we have often called "The Dark Ages." But, for whatever reasons, I had not connected these months of historical study with the fact that I would be spending extended time in a place sacred to the memory of these two British saints. But there I was, and being in that place, I had gradually begun to suspect that maybe I had been suckered into this ostensibly secular venture by a couple of long-dead monks.

I had not come to Durham as a pilgrim, at least not intentionally. Far from it. I had come to explore the possibility that I should "fess up" and leave the Christian ministry. I had come to take an interdisciplinary course on Shakespeare's dramatic cycle of Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V and their relationship to late Medieval English history. My academic interests had steadily but surely strayed from my original discipline of historical theology and philosophy of religion to the areas of history and literature. That was actually why I had begun to read the Bede and other early historians in the first place. I had come to Durham incognito, my clerical dog collar stowed in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I served a congregation and was engaged in research toward a Ph.D. in theology. I had come to Durham, if anything, to run away from just such a situation as the one in which I found myself.

As I took my seat in the nave of the cathedral and slipped slowly to my knees, I felt about as conflicted as you can imagine. I prayed: "God, I don't really believe you exist. But we really need to talk."

The past few days in Durham had only heightened my confusion, but the roots of my confusion extended back through months and years of doubt and uncertainty. They culminated in a conversation with my wife, Debbie, on a Sunday afternoon the previous spring. We had just returned to our home following church services at the historic Beechgrove Church, where I served as a pastoral assistant. Our children romped into the house ahead of us and clattered up the stairs to their rooms to change into play clothes. We walked into our bedroom. As Debbie slipped off her coat and hung it in the wardrobe, I took off my clerical collar, studied it in my hands for a moment and tossed it onto the duvet.

I looked at Debbie and said, "You know, I don't believe any of it anymore." She said, "I know." And so began our conversations about what I should do.

It is a painful thing for a minister to discover he doesn't believe in God. At least it was hard for me. I have come to believe that profound, even extended, doubt is but an aspect of faith, and an important aspect at that. Doubt, I have come to believe, is like a refiner's fire through which our faith can pass burning away the dross of superstition and sentimentality. I have come to treasure my experiences with doubt as a gift from God. I have even come to believe that the pain I felt during those months in Aberdeen was one of the surest signs of God's love. But, at that moment, all I could feel was sadness and anxiety and emptiness.

What, after all, is a minister to do if he or she no longer really believes in God? I could not proceed with business as usual, not if I had any integrity. And, so, we decided that I should quietly explore other vocational options. I was, after all, a teacher. I was doing post-graduate research in a university. If I wished, I could change disciplinary fields.

Therefore, when an opportunity came to take an intensive summer course at another university, a university where I was not known, I jumped at it. This was a perfect chance, I thought, to test other vocational options.

As it turned out, I was right, but I could not have foreseen the outcome.

Seldom in my experience does life turn on a dime. I am as doubtful of sudden conversions as I am of faith untested. I didn't "lose" my faith overnight, and it didn't "return" instantly either. I had drifted into unfaith, slowly and steadily, over the period of several years.

Accidental Pilgrim 2As a pastor, first in a busy suburban parish and later in a black-dirt farming community in Central Texas, I preached and studied and tended the needs of my people. Even more important, I reveled in marriage and the birth and early childhood of our children. After I finished a third degree, Debbie earned her master's degree. She taught school. We both served on professional committees, community councils and in civic clubs. We were deeply committed to the life of the communities in which we lived. We were busy with all of the things that young parents are busy doing, including having a lively social calendar with friends who had children the same age as ours. We loved it all. And I loved to preach, write and study. My intellectual curiosity was like a wonderful thirst that nothing could quench.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this busy living and all of this loving and all of this ministering to the needs of others, I just stopped believing. It was like my personal faith had been coasting down a long hill. At first, the hill was steep, and I coasted just fine. Then slowly, gradually, the way flattened out, until I realized one day there was just no more momentum. I still loved theology. I really enjoyed the study of historical theology, investigating the historical and social and political sources of beliefs as they emerged in faith communities. I was dead set on pursuing a Ph.D. in the subject. But it had become more of an intellectual enterprise than an affair of the heart, as though the ultimate reference point - the actual subject of the study - had gradually dimmed from my view. I had grown skeptical as to whether theology really was speaking of God at all or was just talking about human experiences, feelings, aspirations, compulsions and anxieties under the cloak of "God-talk." I don't know how it happens with others who experience crises of faith, but for me, it happened so gradually that I simply did not notice until, one day I looked up and realized that actually believing in God had slipped through my fingers like water.

Within the first few weeks of arriving at the University of Aberdeen, it became clear that the real gap was not between areas of research but between my theological interests and my personal faith. Busyness kept the awareness within bounds. I kept my lack of faith hidden. I was quietly miserable for a very long time, unwilling to talk to anyone about what was going on in my heart and in my head. Not surprisingly, I was also profoundly lonely. Longtime mentors and friends were thousands of miles away. Mail was slow. (This was well before the days of email and international phone calls were expensive.) So I held my peace - or what passed for peace. Until the God I didn't believe in sent me a friend.

Gary arrived late in that first academic year, a death holding up his family's move to Scotland. We almost immediately became friends, and, as our friendship developed, I eventually confessed to Gary that I no longer really believed in God. Gary didn't try to argue me into faith. He knew that would be futile. In fact, he agreed with my contention that you can't lay one proposition behind another and mount a convincing argument for God's existence. We were both students of philosophy and religion, and both saw this fact clearly.

One day, however, Gary took what I now realize was a considerable risk in our friendship to offer me an analogy regarding belief in God. He said he understood Christian faith more as a pair of spectacles through which we see and make sense of the world around us than as a set of propositions adding up to a convincing proof for God's existence. The pragmatism of his analogy appealed to me. He invited me to put on the spectacles again to see if the world came better into focus. I was intrigued. But really that was all. When summer came I left for Durham to test other options.

Arriving the day before the seminar began, I had moved my suitcases up to my small and Spartan dorm room in the residential college that would be my temporary home for a few weeks. I was unpacking when I heard weeping coming from the stairwell. Upon investigating, I found a young woman, perhaps in her late twenties, sitting alone on the stairs crying. She was one of the housekeepers for the college. I asked her if I could be of any help. She invited me to sit beside her and she poured out her heart. After listening to her tell her story, I asked her if she would like to pray. She said she would like that very much. And I prayed with her.

I went back to my room, and she went on about her business. As I stood beside my small dresser continuing to unpack, suddenly I asked myself, "Why did I ask her if she wanted to pray?" Force of habit? Social convention? I had sometimes found it awkward, even as a pastor, to ask a parishioner if they wanted to pray in the hospital. How was it that I (who didn't believe in God anymore!) offered to pray with someone I didn't even know? What was this tug of vocation in the heart of someone with such profound doubts? Or, to put it even more directly, how was it possible to be "called" when I didn't believe there was someone out there to do the calling?

As the days wore on, and I engaged in the course of study, I found myself further conflicted and self-stymied (if that is even a word). As the class worked through these wonderful Shakespearean dramas with our tutor, I kept resisting what one might call any "transcendent point of reference." The more I did this, the less real, engaging and interesting the world seemed. Without a transcendent point of reference, the less sense was I able to make of life.

I have often heard people talk about cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable struggle of the mind to hold together contradictory or conflicting ideas, to make sense of incongruities and ambiguities. Such dissonance can be very creative. Cognitive dissonance can also make you pretty miserable. And it was a miserable person who found himself on his knees one late afternoon in Durham Cathedral asking a deity he did not believe in for help.

Accidental Pilgrim 3Since that day in 1988, I have prayed in Durham Cathedral many times. If there's a picture by the definition of "Thin Places" in my personal dictionary, it would be J.M.W. Turner's interior painting of the cathedral. I believe it is the most beautiful cathedral in all of Europe. Even with crowds of uniformed school children being herded through its cloisters by their teachers, even with the dim rumble of chatter from tourist echoing through its hallowed aisles, the place whispers holiness, apartness. Its whispers pervade the space and prevail over any din, and it continues to invite prayer.

Kneeling there recently, I remembered clearly the conflict I felt as I knelt there some twenty-five years ago. I remembered the silence in which I knelt. I remembered also that when I stood up again to leave that spot, I had been given the gift of a glimpse of a promise of a beginning of faith again.

There was a great deal that lay in the future that day, twenty-five years ago, beyond that moment in the cathedral. Over time, I came to believe that God had been behind my loss of faith. In time, I began to suspect that maybe a couple of long-dead monks were somehow complicit in God's project to bring me back to faith - an idea I find both arrogant and humbling. I also gained a sense that my vocation as a pastor somehow did run deeper than my identity as a person.

This renewal of faith began so mustard-seed small that I could hardly have seen it if I had held it in my hand. But in time I even engaged in my friend Gary's thought experiment and came to believe that life does come into focus better through the spectacles of faith.

None of this happened overnight, and there was far more going on in this recovery of faith than I can possibly put on any page. There were ironic turns and roundabouts and long conversations with other friends. What did become clear, and very quickly, was how little control I really have over what I would call "my faith." This awareness has never left me. Whether I find myself in a stairwell, a classroom or a cathedral, faith seems more than ever a gift for which we cannot take credit when we have it. Nor do I think we should blame others when they do not. Wherever we find ourselves, the thinness of our own capacity to entrust life to God is yet another aspect of faith's givenness.

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary