May 5th, 2012
10:00 PM ET
My Faith: Returning to church, despite my doubts
Editor's note: Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of “Faith and Other Flat Tires.”
By Andrea Palpant Dilley, Special to CNN
During my junior year in college, I took a butter knife from my mother’s kitchen and scraped the Christian fish decal off the back bumper of the Plymouth hatchback I’d inherited from my older brother. Stripping off that sticker foreshadowed the day, a few years later, that I would walk out of church.
The reasons for my discontent were complicated. By most standards, I had a healthy childhood. I grew up the daughter of Quaker missionaries in a rural Kenyan community that laid the foundation for my faith. I spent the rest of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, raised in a stable Presbyterian church that gave me hymns and mission trips and potluck dinners.
I was surrounded by smart, conscientious Christians, the kind of people who read 19th century Russian novels and took meatloaf to firefighters when much of eastern Washington state went up in flames in the fall of 1991.
When I started into my skeptic phase, my Christian community gave me space to struggle. They listened to my doubts about faith. They took my questions seriously.
And yet when I turned 23 I left the church.
Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.
More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?
These questions didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d spent time in high school volunteering in refugee camps in Kenya and in college working with families on welfare in central Washington. I saw hungry babies. I walked into homes that were piled with garbage and dirty laundry.
In an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, I held AIDS babies and worked with disabled kids who’d been left at the front gates of the orphanage by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them. I saw things that I couldn’t make sense of as a Christian.
Walking out of church was a way of saying “To hell with it; I’m done.”
For two years, I skipped church. My Bible gathered dust on the shelf. The local bars became my temples. I indulged in the cliché rebellions of a Christian girl, smoking cigarettes and drinking hard alcohol. I got involved with men twice my age without thinking twice about it. I wanted a break from being “good.”
And then, strangely, I woke up one morning at age 25, climbed into my car, and drove downtown to attend a 10 a.m. church service. I won’t relate here the whole story of how I came back to the church. But if I had to follow the standard testimonial narrative for Christians, the script for my life story would go something like this:
Step 1: Grow up in a Christian church.
Step 2: Go off to college away from said church.
Step 3: Be exposed to the enticements of secular life.
Step 4: Try drugs and cigarettes and Pearl Jam.
Step 5: Leave the church because of aforementioned enticements.
Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of secular enticements.
Step 7: Return to church with penitent heart.
Step 8: Reestablish faith, discover good living.
In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.
And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.
Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.
First: My doubt belonged in church.
People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.
With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.
Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.
In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.
I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.
Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrea Palpant Dilley.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
All Conservative Churches are having a "Special" next week. The first 100 who re-join won't ever have to put anything into the collecting plate for life!
Just proof, that brainwashing is nearly impossible to cure. Like any drug, people fall off.
This editorial speaks volumes about the author's personal issues... and really nothing about the typical non-believer. Good for you, Andrea, that you figured out that you can't lead a "good life" without going to church and feeling like some invisible god is talking to you. Nonetheless, most of us non-believers live great lives (including those of us who have never even "tried cigarettes", and who have always thought that Pearl Jam was overrated).
What to say to an atheist when they sneeze? When you die nothing happens!
You could be more lame, but I can't imagine how.
Isn't the back death one of those bacteria that evolved to be come less virulent? Or we'd all be dying from flea bites every coupla years.
Are you so incredibly stupid and superstitious as to believe that saying something when someone sneezes actually does something supernatural and magical?
That is a world-class display of stupid, Matt.
What do you say to a Xtian who sneezes? If God existed, I would ask him to bless you. Oh, wait a minute... he already knew I was gonna say that... but I have freewill, so maybe he didn't... or, he knew you needed blessed, so I don't need to say bless you, oh that sneeze was part of his plan.. umm.. oh never mind!
I recommend "gesundheit", which means "good health to you" in German.
In fact, I recommend it for non-atheists as well.
What I say when an atheist sneezes is this, it's what I say, me, I say it to atheists –
"YOU'RE GONNA BURN IN HELL SLEAZY ATHEIST SCUMSUCKERS, BECAUSE JESUS LOVES YOU!!!
Okay, I don't really have the courage to do that, and I don't think of these things fast enough, but they come to me hours later and I fantasize about it as I sit in my basement room at my parents house.
Funny how liberals claim to bee free thinking. Yet their two main news sources are CNN and MSNBC both owned by the same liberals. Fox news isn't any better but at least I realized which news sites have certain agendas.
Actually, the true left hates the media as well, for far more intelligent reasons than your simple-simon "media bias" gibberish. There are larger issues at work.
Here is one variation:
Funny how Matt just makes wild assertions he knows nothing about.
There is a reason a bunch of college drop outs in Hollywood become liberals.
Matt's just jealous because he is a kindergarten drop-out.
"bee free thinking"?
Are you the same Matt who was claiming to be a physicist?
Sure you are, honey.
You're far too generous. Matt couldn't get INTO Kindergarten in the first place; his parents had to bribe the teacher to let him in.
Logical thinkers discount the existence of any god as unlikely based on the lack of any evidence so far. Ditto for Santa Claus and the tooth fairy being real. But there have been far more human reports of both the latter, which are probably recorded in several relatively ancient books.
Man, Dude – your latest iteration is really offensive. Congrats. I hope they're paying you extra for this one.
There is such a fine line between insightful and unintelligible.
May I suggest the reply button
It's only meaningful to the intended recipient, otherwise disregard it.
Well, fellow atheists, we finally have proof that there is a God, and things like the immaculate conception must be true, because one look at those two parents and I am absolutely convinced they never got past a handshake, and even that might have been with heavy gloves and a chaperone. God must have zapped her with his immaculate conception magic.
So it's time to admit our defeat and go join a big beard church. The jig is up.
All I read was, "Blah, blah blah intolerant blah blah blah hates Christians blah blah full of myself blah blah get all of my news from Rachel Maddow Blah Blah Blah."
Now that's so rude! And absolutely hilarious! bahahahhahaha
Do you feel better?
Matt, your reading skills are atrocious. But recognizing your problem is half of the solution.
So why are religious people so humorless?
James! Shame on you! Don't you know that Matt is THE HUMAN CALCULATOR? And a MATH WIZ to boot?
Have some respect!!
Why are they so humorless? My guess is that they're constipated.
But Tom Tom is never constipated seeing as how he's a gay 'bottom-boy'.
Aww, honey, that' so sweet. Too bad everyone knows you're completely ineffectual as a teacher.
America's God is money.
You may find transcendence and spirituality in art, nature, culture, your fellow human being, and most importantly yourself. Communicating with God is essentially communicating with your own psyche. We are constantly waging war within ourselves over decisions, direction, wants, needs, etc. By putting questions and decisions in God's hands, you are allowing your subconscious to make a decision for you. For guidance and morality I look to the great literature, thought, and philosophy mankind has produced over the last several thousand years; advice for the here and now, the world of the living.
Why live for something you know does not exist, such as heaven? Live for your fellow man, search for truth, and your life shall be a fulfilling one.
"Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God." Says it all. You just crave the smug superiority complex your playing make-believe gives you. It's almost cute how infantile you are.
@Matt. If you think there is a god with a plan, then you cannot also believe in free will. Otherwise any murderer can upset the great plan. So do condoms.
Tom – So you don't think God would know the choices you would make? Do you believe time is linear?
Why are you addressing me under a post from someone else, Human Calculator?
Tom – Do you pray to Stalin before you go to sleep at night?
No. Do you?
Time appears to be have been linear for the last 13 billion years or so. What a possible god might do outside of our space and time, doesn't have any effect on us.
Doesn't the "human calculator" who has a high-powered career need to focus on his job, Matt? Don't you have to be on your game tomorrow morning? Aren't you so valuable an employee that you're working on the most significant studies, which require your best effort and all your faculties?
Better get some shut-eye, honey.
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son
Oh, look. The "human calculator" can't even figure out how to spell "fascism" and doesn't own a computer with a spell-check that will tell him he's wrong. Gee, what a shock.
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son
Yup. See Matt's posts for more of the same piled higher an deeper.
May 6, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
Tom tom, didn't you mean "and" rather than "an"? Seems to me that it should be easier to spell 'and' than 'fascism'.
Hypocrite much tom?
Flattering that you follow me around like a dog in heat.
Andrea, thank you. Unlike apparently most of the others here, I completely understand where you're coming from – but it took me 30 years. A realization that certain key milestones and decisions that lead to my success could not have been made by me, let alone luck. Being able to deal with a couple issues of severe adversity I could not have done alone. And upon this realization it changes to an actual conversation with God – first on occasion, then daily. I once was skeptical – but then experienced the realization – a true OMG in the very literal sense. Until you do, you really have no idea. BUT... as far as churches themselves, I still remain skeptical and disillusioned with most of them – the bigotry, close-mindedness, and even thinly disguised hate. Sad. But God is within me and around me, not in a church.
It's your ego and conscience and survival instincts. All born from evolution.
I think any smart life form would want to survive regardless of whether it evolved or not.
If that were true, Matt, you'd have been extinct long ago.
You almost made it out, Andrea. Maybe next time. And there will be a next time, because the truth won't go away or be denied.
Used to be a christian, what makes you think you'll always be an atheist? You couldn't cut it as a Christian so next you become an atheist; next, what? Maybe EST, Scientology, or who knows, maybe even Mormonism?
Organized religion is delusional.
You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you are afraid of the death. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.
Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality. Lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning in your life.
Very simple, and very well said !
ALL religion is delusional.
If what Dr. Martin Luther King suffered from was a delusion it is one we should all wish to be afflicted with.
If all religious people are delusional what was the atheist thinker Stalin?
A leader who died peacefully of old age after a long, prosperous and successful bad life.
@Matt – Stalin's athiesm doesn't make him any more of a mad man, than being left handed. The idea that a Xtian is peaceful, loving, and never murders is bs. George W considers himself Xtian, he is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Hitler considered himself Xtian, and we all know what he did. Stop using someones athiesm as an excuse for their bad behavior. I'm an athiest, and I have no desire to kill anyone.
Identifying with Mary Magdalene is not necessarily a good thing for a young woman.
The prostitute thing was a much later invention, by a Pope no less. She was just a groupie. The Bible says very little about her.
It doesn't mention a husband does it? And Jesus was probably a "older man" to her.
Matt is a straw man.
and a very small man.
VERY small. In the most significant ways. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.
Sue – is really a Russian man.
Matt dances with the Bolshoi.
"God works in mysterious ways."
Correction: All powerful, all knowing and perfect beings do not need to work in mysterious ways. They get things right the 1st time and don't need to constantly reboot their religion with floods and New Testaments to account for their imperfect creations.
It's human beings that are imperfect. Would you prefer we were created zombies?
So, Matt, apparently your all-powerful all-knowing sky fairy makes design mistakes. Uh, right. Try again, stupid.
Matt, so you're saying a perfect, all powerful being cannot create perfection? That's a complete contradiction and shows a lack of faith on your part. As it is indisputable that a perfect, all powerful being could create perfection if they wanted to, one must ask why they would instead choose to work in these "mysterious ways" which require suffering for billions, even suffering for the good and faithful, as well as eternal damnation for so many. Is your god just arbitrary and cruel?
You make the assumption that I don't think God's design of human beings is imperfect. It's actually perfect in that we choose what we do. Right or wrong. I don't agree with your assessment of perfection. If human beings were born to choose belief in God without choice then we would be zombies. Which is more perfect of a creation?
You're certainly as flawed as they come, Matt.
A mistype in my last response. I believe God's creation of us was perfect even if some humans choose not to obey Him. He gave them liberty to choose in this life what choices they would make.
Matt, your argument is that any being with freewill is inherently perfect. Thus your argument is that perfect beings make mistakes. Do you even understand the meaning of the word perfect? Freewill and perfection are not synonymous.
Matt, you also argue that if we were created so that we would make only correct choices that we would be zombies. Does your God only make correct choices? Is he a zombie?
@Matt – if we have freewill, and we are created in his image, how come god never makes bad choices? How come his angels never make bad choices? The freewill argument is weak. A perfect being who creates other beings who make imperfect choices, is impossible.
Why does a perfect god need to be praised?
What is the difference between zombies and humans with free will when those humans are threatened with a hell of fire and eternal damnation if they do not comply? For anyone who honestly believes, how is that free will?
Tom- I believe you just figured out the point of Christianity.
"What is the difference between zombies and humans with free will when those humans are threatened with a hell of fire and eternal damnation if they do not comply?" How is this free will? In the same way that, when you come to a speed limit sign, you have free will whether or nor to obey it. even though you are threatened with fines and jail time if you do not comply.
You may need to go a little further with your definition of perfect before others can see past the line of perfect/imperfect.
The line between liberal/conservative works in the same manner
Libralism would work if we could just find me ol' pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!
Sadly, so called conservatives gave that pot of gold to giant oil companies for a 10% kickback.
What a stupid little troll are you!
James – no one gives to the government. They take our money. Obama gave 500 million to Solara which is a company that folded with no kickback to tax payers. He also used tax payer dollars to extend the Patriot Act and drop bombs on Libya over French oil.
Matt, you talk like Obama is the only president to ever screw up. And that only the Democratic party is the only one rife with corruption. Power corrupts. It also attracts the corrupt. The corrupt will also do whatever it takes to get power. Therefore, the odds are that most people high up in our power hierarchy are corrupt. Corruption is very bipartisan. It's those naive and ignorant enough to believe that there is a good and a bad party who keep these two corrupt parties in power. I'm pointing my finger at you, Matt.
author is a typical egotistical theist -"Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God." pious irrational BS
Yup. See Matt's posts for more of the same piled higher an deeper.
Neither egotistical nor irrational.
So, the wisdom in the saying, "Do unto others, as you would have them do to you" sounds right (the first time) to me.
We may try, and fail, and try again. Expect it, you won't be so disappointed.
Atheist liberalism starts out as social justice and ends up leading to facism. In the 20th century social justice has lead to putting some of the cruelest facist rulers into power because liberals prefer giving up liberties to a government they are fooled into thinking has good intentions.
The irony of how liberal borrows off of the word liberty but liberals are all about the government taking people's money in the false dream that the government will spend it wisely and morally.
Oh, look. The "human calculator" can't even figure out how to spell "fascism" and doesn't own a computer with a spell-check that will tell him he's wrong.
Gee, what a shock.
Tom, Tom Stalin's son.
Explain why all children are born as athiests, yet man was created in god's image.
Wow, Mattie, you are really desperate, aren't you?
Let's take back conservatism from idiots like Matt. I'm a fiscal conservative. Creationism is totally and obviously bogus. Matt, go crawl back under your rock, stupid.
SUE! SUE! SUE! Go SUE!
Matt, liberals don't buy into their party's tired rhetoric any more than conservatives do. Some people can only see from one perspective; the one they were taught. These people having the power to vote is a huge part of our country's problem. But that's liberty for you; blind.
Yeah because Hitler was such a liberal.
The US is a christian country, but what makes it work unlike any other country isn't religion or GOD, but commerce. Once you come into this system the goal is to make money, buy house, provide college for kids which take money. Everything is integrated directly and indirectly to commerce, and it has made all the difference. Hold on to your beliefs and get somewhere, though in the meantime, you've got to pay bills and getter better things; that's the focus that kept the country (and the west) intact and not rife with religious war
It is NOT a 'christian country". It never was. Do some research, robin.
I love living in a country filled with freedom of so many choices and liberties.
Very good observation robin538, and well-put i might add....
And really: 'getter better things'?
Bwagaggagggasggsgghahhahh. Figures that Matt the Dolt would see blind eye to blind eye with you, dimwit.
Tom – Some of our founding fathers were very Christian and others were Deists but even Thomas Jefferson who was a deist wrote the Declaration of Independence and indicate our rights come from a Creator. They certainly were in agreement that man's moral code came from the divine and didn't evolve on it's own.
How is it that a genius who's a "human calculator" still can't figure out how to use apostrophes, Matt?
Gosh, for such a genius, you certainly are stupid and ignorant. When you get an education, alert the media. I'd entertain your posts as worthy if you had the slightest amount of credibility, dear. You simply don't.
Tom- I see you dodged discussing the historical facts about the founding fathers by using a straw man debate and switching to grammar.
I beg to differ. It is the God-fearing people who recognized the fact that we were made in His image who make our system work. If commerce were the sole focus and reason for our prosperity, then why not include China or the UAE? Surely, they are in it for the money.
I see that you can't even figure out the simplest rules of grammar when you need to do so, Matt the Hopeless.
What's telling is that your fuckup was pointed out to you at least once, yet you couldn't manage to correct your behavior. What's that say about your ability to correct your sinful behavior, Matt? If God smacks you on the wrist, do you continue to be a sinful little sh!t? Based on your response to correction on minor grammatical errors, it appears so.
What a hypocrite you are.
Tom, Tom, the B!+ch, quit complaining on here and learn to listen, instead of flaunting off some kind of supposed "intelligence" or wisdom. Usually, there's no hope for proud fools like yourself, but maybe (just maybe), someday, after a stumbling block is thrown your way, you'll learn to respect and take heed to the Truth you've been shunning all your life.
Ahahhhahha. Yeah, thanks for the advice, nimrod. Get a clue, dimwit: you're dumber than a box of hair and even less attractive and useful. Just because you're a high school dropout doesn't mean everyone else is equally ignorant.
Your idiocy isn't enviable, honey. Keep it for yourself. No one else values your stupidity or your ignorance.
Oh, yeah, 'truth' isn't capitalized unless it's at the beginning of a sentence, dimwit.