Holy Ambiguity: A Deconstruction Story

by Kelley Weber
When I was 23 years old I had a significant spiritual ah-ha moment. I was reading a book by M. Scott Peck, the Christian psychologist, called The Different Drum: Community Building and Peace Making. In it, he outlines a path of spiritual development. Many authors have outlined similar patterns since including Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality and Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward where he outlines “order, disorder, reorder.”

In 1993 though, almost a full twenty years before these books came out, I stumbled upon Peck’s book in the school library. I remember vividly sitting in the parking lot reading the book and feeling an overwhelming sense that I had just read something that had at once put everything together for me and shattered it. This was the beginning of my deconstruction story.

Now I had been raised in a traditionally conservative family and church, and I knew I wasn’t buying everything they were selling. When I went to college I met Christians who were more invested in feeding people than converting them. I was drawn to the beauty of the liturgy. I was invited to ask questions rather than simply accept answers. But when I went home,I couldn’t reconcile the seeming disconnect. It was a painful time trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong. My mindset was attached to black and white thinking, and it was in this context that I’m sure God led me to Peck’s book.

Foundational

In the book Peck outlines that people first enter religious life to “flee the chaos.” In this stage we look for structure, for meaning, for community and above all we look for God. However, because we’re searching in order to find safety and certainty, rules and doctrine are fairly fixed and even the small things, that might seem inconsequential, feel big because they too could be the things that stand between us and existential collapse. People in the Foundational stage might fight over whether to change the organ out for a piano or whether or not to have a contemporary service, or even what color the pews are in the church. People in this stage are less likely to allow for the inspiration of the modern world to impact their reading of scripture. The foundation of doctrine is necessary for spiritual  growth and sometimes other less important things get conflated along the way. People at the foundational level are good people.

Deconstruction

In the next level, people grow and learn that morality, rules, and structure can be internalized and that most of us don’t need an institution to hold us accountable. People deconstructing often find themselves at odds with doctrines of their faith that fall outside modern understandings. These people may leave the church altogether or question their faith in substantial ways for months or maybe even years. In the meantime, they become terrific citizens, parents, and are often avid seekers. They live a secular life that is loving, civilly minded and filled with meaning. These people might still consider themselves Christian or perhaps not. They may claim the moniker, “Spiritual but not religious.” These are also good people.

Reconstruction

But here’s where Peck got me. When people keep searching, keep praying, keep living into the questions, they start seeing a picture of life very similar to that first stage that they left so long ago. They find meaning and community; and they find God - again. But this time, they enter religious practice not to flee the chaos but to embrace the Mystery. When it comes to who God is and what Jesus is calling us to do with our lives, the more pieces of the puzzle we find, Peck explains, the bigger we realize the picture is. We realize that faith is not certainty, but a Holy Ambiguity, at home in the Unknowing. These are good people, and no better than any other.

There is no right or best place to be. In fact we probably cycle through these stages multiple times in our life. That’s ok. No matter where you’re at in the cycle, you are good people.

Holy Ambiguity and the Mystery of God

So what does this “unknowing” Holy Ambiguity look like? It’s being able to hold two seemingly disparate things at once without having to negate one for the other. It’s Both/And. It’s a place where the question is just as, if not more, important than the answer.

And what does experiencing God as Mystery look like? It looks like humility in the presence of awe. It’s our smallness when standing at the foot of a mountain or in desert terrain. It’s the feeling that your chest will burst when listening to that piece of music. It’s the tears that you cry into your mask when swimming with a sea turtle, not knowing how but understanding that you are both part of God’s eternal Oneness.

Some people need the black and white thinking that keeps them safe and allows them to worship God and serve people from a place of confident knowing. Some of us are learning to be more at ease in Holy Ambiguity, in the Mystery of it all, understanding that God is not unknowable but endlessly knowable. This place of gray is not easy; it can be messy and takes discernment. It is a lifetime’s journey.

It is a place where we’re invited to co-create with a loving God to build Her Kingdom here on earth. A place where we are radically inclusive:  including people still fighting over gay marraige and female leadership, including Atheists and Agnostics; and finally including the Holy Ambiguity and the Mystery where we are finally released from the burden of a strictly binary mindset and invited at times to linger in shades of gray.

I mentioned at the beginning that I read this book when I was 23, but you should know  it took another 23 years to move through the first two stages. Part of the Holy Ambiguity, the gray, for me was that I was completely untethered. I was happily free and tragically unmoored. 23 years is a long time to wait to put the pieces back together. And yet when I reflect on that time, I see God holding space for me, protecting me, connecting me with people with whom I could build community and experience Grace. God held me in my deconstruction until I was ready, until I had enough support to dive back in.

The fact that we’re talking about this now means most people won’t have to wait 23 years to move through whatever deconstruction looks like for them.

God honors our journey whether we are fundamentalists, agnostics or mystics; or whether we are loath to claim any name, lest it fall far too short in capturing a simple and humble faith as a follower of Jesus.  

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