It’s Okay If You Never Land Anywhere
Several years ago, I got really into behavioral psychology. I devoured books such as Predictably Irrational, The Invisible Gorilla, and Thinking Fast and Slow—becoming obsessed with the many cognitive biases we human beings demonstrate in our everyday experiences. One of these foibles of the human mind that stuck with me the most was, quite ironically, the “anchor effect.”
Here’s how it goes. Suppose I ask a group of people how many jelly beans are in a jar and then, once I have enough guesses, decide to average the results. Typically, the average of all guesses will be pretty close to the actual number of jelly beans in the jar.
Now, suppose I ask another group the same question but, with this group, I ask a different question first. Before taking down their guesses, I ask them, “Do you think there are more or less than 100 jelly beans in this jar?” What inevitably ends up happening with this group is that the “anchor” of 100 jelly beans ends up pulling the average guess toward that number.
If the actual number of jelly beans in the jar is 237, the average of the first group might be 260 while the average of the second group is dragged down to 198. If the second group had been given a “high anchor,” the average guess would have likely been much higher than the actual number. For example, if the question had been, “Do you think there are more or less than 400 jelly beans in this jar?” The average answer from the second group may have been something like 304.
When people are given a context for their beliefs, it is really hard—sometimes not even possible—to escape it.
Christianity Just Won’t Let Go
As an ex-Evangelical, I’ve been thinking a lot about the anchor effect within a religious context. Something I’ve noticed within this community of disenfranchised fundamentalists is that, no matter how clean a break we try to make with our spiritual roots, we remain anchored to the language and symbols of Christianity.
I often find myself wondering what it would be like if I hadn’t been raised in the church, if I had never been taught that religion was important at all. How would I frame my understanding of ultimate reality? How would I structure my personal system ethics? How would I attempt to find meaning in my life? The truth is that I’ll never know. Christianity has its hooks in me, and it doesn't seem to be letting go any time soon.
Of course, I’ve been able to reinterpret the language and symbols of the faith to mean something more liberative. I don’t believe in God as a cosmic autocrat who casts whimsical judgments on people when the mood arises; I see God more has an energy that pervades the universe and brings out the beauty in it. I don’t see salvation as redemption from my personal sins but, rather, as liberation of oppressed people from the sins of their oppressors. I don’t see heaven and hell as literal places we go when we die, but rather as potential metaphorical destinations for the whole of humanity depending on the direction in which we move.
I could go on and on. I’ve shaken off nearly all of the fundamentalist interpretations of the Christian faith, but I can’t seem to let go of the faith entirely. I just can’t recognize awe, wonder, and mystery in the universe and not call it God. I can’t think about the call to liberate the oppressed without thinking about Jesus. I can’t talk about societal progress without framing it in terms of eschatology. For better or for worse, I’m anchored.
I know not every exvangelical is like me. Not all of us are creatively reinterpreting the fundamentalist Christian language to construct a faith we’re able to live with. But I do think the symbols and language still do have their claws in most of us. Otherwise, I don’t think that the community would be so vibrant. If we aren't reinterpreting the symbols, we are at the very least constantly reliving them as we evaluate all the ways in which they’re still prevalent in society.
In May, Samantha Field wrote an excellent post on the parallel between the Thanos character from The Avengers: Infinity War and the Christian God of substitutionary atonement. It wasn’t one of my imaginative life-giving reinterpretations of the Christian God; it was simply a criticism of the same old Evangelical God. I see this kind of thing all the time in our community. If we’re not reinterpreting the symbols into something we can love, it seems that we can’t escape the need to continue castigating the symbols that we hate.
The anchor holds.
Our Lady of Perpetual Deconstruction
In her recent book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans describes this spiritual place of constantly unraveling old Evangelical paradigms as joining a church called, “Our Lady of Perpetual Deconstruction.” I laughed out loud when I heard it framed in that way, because it’s kind of true. At least for me, it seems like this process never completely ends. It seems like I can’t completely leave the faith, and yet I’m always in the process of leaving the faith.
I’ve sensed this frustration a lot among my fellow exvangelicals. We want to leave the church and start over new, but we need to something solid to replace it with. If we’re going to shake off the anchor, we need to get a new anchor, we need to be bound to something. We just can’t bear the thought of simply being aimlessly adrift on the open sea. We need a harbor.
But do we? Do we, really?
I think that of all the things we’ve had drilled into us in the Evangelical Church, perhaps one of the most damaging is the notion that we need to “find our identity in Christ.” This mantra has really driven home the idea that, without the particular conception of Jesus that we were taught to believe, our lives cannot possibly have meaning.
This line of reasoning has been particularly devastating for those among us who come to identify as queer, but it has been harmful in some way for every single one of us. We find it so hard to let go of fundamentalist Christianity, because we feel we’ll have no identity without it. Without Jesus, we just don’t know who we are.
I can’t remember where I heard it, but I was listening to a podcast and someone mentioned Pando—a really famous 80,000 year old Aspen tree found in Utah. Now, if you haven’t heard of it, I want you to picture it in your head. Do you got it? Okay, good. Now, prepare to have your mind blown. Because Pando isn’t just a tree—it’s actually an entire forest…
Pando is a colony of 40,000 trunks covering over 100 acres—all growing from the same root system. Although it looks on the surface like it’s a cluster of individual trees, it is actually the product of one single tree spreading out its roots and growing new life in the process.
That’s us, y’all. We are Pando. We are forests growing from a single tree.
The great lie of Evangelical Christianity is that we have to find our identity in one thing. We don’t. We can find our identity in friends, family, art, work, faith, research, sport, music, literature, and nature all at the same time. We can be rooted to multiple things. We don’t have to be bound to a single harbor.
So, let’s just try to keep that in mind. All that anxiety we’re feeling about not knowing what do believe or how to live once we’ve smashed those old idols—that’s natural. It’s okay to feel that tension. It’s okay to feel lost.
But it’s also okay not to feel it. It’s also okay to accept the uncertainty. It’s also okay to surrender to the reality that you may never find that one thing to replace the “blessed assurance” of fundamentalist Christianity, because it’s likely that the one thing does not exist. It’s okay to let it go. It’s okay if deconstruction lasts forever.
Defying gravity can be disorienting and scary, but don’t worry too much if you aren't able to find your way back down. It’s okay if you never land anywhere. And who knows? Maybe it simply means that you were born to fly.