I’ll never forget that conversation: the moment Amy predicted I would walk away from my faith. I was 26 at the time. She, 36. We sat at a rustic seafood restaurant on the beach. I stabbed my blacked salmon salad and chewed long and hard on her words.
“You remind me of myself 10 years ago,” she said.
She had been raised in a deeply religious family, and had been a devout Jew her whole life. Then around her 20s, she gave it all up. By the time I met her in her 30s, she called herself a “lapsed Jew,” disillusioned with the rules, the expectations, the rigorous doctrines.
I was the daughter of missionaries, raised in the evangelical church, and deeply committed to my relationship with Jesus. Her words scared me. No, no, I prayed quietly. Jesus please don’t let me go.
Amy’s prediction did and didn’t come true. I never did abandon my faith entirely, although the shipwrecks of my 20s and early 30s were enough to send me into long journeys of self-searching, facing doubts, and sinking into unnerving questions about myself, the world, and God.
The difference was, I came back. I returned to my faith in deeper more nuanced ways.
While Amy’s prediction for me wasn’t entirely true, unfortunately she was right on for several of my friends, friends who had been spiritual giants in college. They hit their 20s, crashed into pain and disillusionment, and drifted away from faith like astronauts untethered, sinking into space.
Over the last several years, I have had many, many conversations with parents, pastors, and mentors who are devastated by the choices their loved ones make to leave faith behind.
But I have learned good news through my own writing, research, and experiences: sometimes, to truly find our faith, we have to walk away for a time.
William Perry writes about this strange paradox of loosing our moorings in order to find ourselves. In his research on ethical and intellectual development he discovered that a capacity for detachment is needed as we shape and discover our identities. He writes, “One must be able to stand back from oneself, have a look, and then go back in with a new sense of responsibility.”
In other words, we have to be able to question the foundations of what makes us who we are, before we can begin to make any claims to our sense of self. There is no exception when it comes to faith development.
The good — and possibly bad — news is that none of us can truly separate from our past. Not really. As Perry says, none of us are truly “self-created” as if we can choose our values and beliefs irregardless of our pasts. None of us can invent ourselves out of nothing. On the contrary, our “commitments seem always to be made in acceptance of [our] past. Even when [we are] breaking with the tradition of [our] upbringing, [we] seem first to have to accept the fact of it, that this happened to [us], that [we] lived in it.”
What is Perry saying here? Well, he’s laying out the bottom line: none of us who are negotiating the boundaries of our belief system will ever find true reconciliation until we own up to the values that have shaped us until that point.
Like grooves on a vinyl record, our past has left its mark. We can break with those grooves for sure, but we cannot pretend they never existed.
In the end, and I would say more often then not, if we are given the freedom to work through the questions about our faith with the support of community — people who do not try to soothe with platitudes or easy answers, but instead allow us to follow the questions and reflect honestly on those questions — then we will come back. We will return home.
As Robert Kegan writes, “What we separate from, we find anew.”
Just one word of advice to the parents, pastors, mentors, and teachers who wait for us: be prepared for one thing. When we make it through the dissonance of faith identity development, we may come back altered with fresh insights that might shake up the status quo and make you nervous.
Rather than focusing on the differences and the fear, try to celebrate. The family is home, and home has never been a stagnant, docile place. In order to truly be secure, the door must be kept open for us to come and go and come again.
Christin Taylor is an author and professor of writing at Gettysburg College. Her latest book, Crew: Finding Community When Your Dreams Crash was released in fall 2014. Her articles have appeared most recently in the HuffingtonPost Religion column and the NYTimes column Motherlode. Find more of her writing at www.christintaylor.com.