What do you do when it seems like your whole world has fallen apart? Everything you once thought to be true now seems to be a built on faulty logic, lies, or by people with control-issues. All of the core beliefs that you built your life upon now seem to be crumbling underneath you...This can be a terrifying experience for many people...I’d like to use this post to provide a visual guide for understanding this process and offering possible ways to navigate it.
"My first experience of feeling the cracks in the foundation of my worldview happened in college. I grew up in a loving home, as a pastor’s kid, in the Evangelical imagination of the 70s and 80s. It was a wonderful world, truly. Everything made sense. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I knew who was in and who was out. And, I knew that it was my job to lovingly help all those people who were on the outside to find their way to the inside, where they can share in all the love of God that I experienced. Sounds nice, right? It was for me.
Two things happened to me right after high school. The first was that I went to work with an art company and was surrounded by people from radically different worldviews…and they weren’t “bad” people. I actually liked them a lot and their various perspectives made sense.
Second, I went to Wheaton College in the late 1980s. It was supposed to be the safe choice to get a solid liberal arts education within the confines of “good theology.” Then I met Dr. Lake for my first course in Systematic Theology. I was so excited, because I have always been a bible/theology nerd.
Dr. Lake assigned a book on Liberal Protestant Theology…and didn’t tell us it was wrong! Almost every word in that book challenged my core beliefs about the Bible, God, salvation, etc. The core of my inherited worldview was so dependent upon one unified theory that even reading one little book and seeing one little crack in the foundation of my faith sent me spinning.
I never lost my faith in God, or my trust in Jesus. However, the shaking I experienced in that class produced two outcomes in me. First, it led me to drop my double major in Biblical Studies and Art and focus all my energy in pursuing an art career. “God doesn’t need another pastor,” I told myself, “God needs an artist that is ‘sold out’ for Jesus.” Second, it sparked a curiosity in me that led me across multiple theological landscapes and ultimately to a Ph.D. in Missional Leadership from Luther Seminary (completed in 2015).
My faith was deconstructed.
Then it was reconstructed.
Then deconstructed again, and reconstructed.
This process has been happening throughout my life…praise God!"
- Steve Thomason
After the Fall: Help, Thanks, Wow
Falling into Love
The images above are creations of Steve Thomason: an artist, pastor, and teacher with a mission to use art to create resources that help people deepen their connection with God's love. He is the Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation and Discipleship at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and former associate pastor at Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan, MN. He writes and draws about Spiritual Formation, Biblical Studies, Theology, and Art. In an interview with the Cobb Institute he writes: "Two passions have guided my life. The first is art, the second is theology. These passions have sometimes seemed in competition with one another, like two wild stallions unwillingly yoked together. They have learned to find each other’s stride as I have matured and, when they are synchronized, life is rich and fulfilling…and very visual." Thomason grew up in a warm and loving evangelical church. He is a post-evangelical, but he is not angry about his upbringing, as are so many. Nevertheless, during his college years, he experienced a healthy deconstruction of his theological foundations. He realized that the Bible could not be read as the inerrant word of God, observed that there are many good people in the world who are not Christian, and came to question the credibility of the God he once believed controlled every aspect of the world. This led him on a journey to discover a new form of post-foundational faith, one that, to my mind, is in the process spirit.
In his post-foundational faith, Thomason places trust in a God of fresh possibilities who does not exercise control over events in the world. Instead, this God is continuously felt through inwardly experienced possibilities for responding to the call of the moment. Moreover, again in the spirit of process theology, he sees this divine presence, not as an aloof figure in the sky, but as a continuous and everlasting companion, one who shares in the sufferings and joys of all living beings. For Thomason, this is the God revealed in, but not confined to, the Christ of faith whom we knew as an evangelical. It is the Abba of Jesus. This is a God who can be addressed (thanks to Anne Lamott) in prayers of "help," "thanks," and "awe," and whose presence can be practiced in daily life through deep listening; through love for other people, animals, and the Earth; through artistic creativity, mindful drawing, for example; and through continuous reconstruction.
Thomason's images may be particularly helpful to individuals facing circumstances similar to those he encountered—evangelicals exploring their faith and post-evangelicals navigating their own spiritual transformations. But his work can also benefit people from diverse backgrounds, including those who identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or spiritual but not religious. The foundations that crumble may or may not be Christian, but the feeling of the world falling apart can be a universal experience.
Indeed, a feeling that the world is falling apart need not be related to religion as commonly understood. It can be related to life. It can occur with the death of a loved one, a disease, a personal failure, disappointment in a group with which you've identified, the failings of your nation, or violence in the world.
Most of us know this kind of falling apart. Somehow, what we've counted on - a kind of security or confidence that things make sense, or that there is a "rightness" in the world - falls away, and the seemingly solid foundation on which we've rested crumbles. There is nowhere to stand except in the abyss of contingency and interrelatedness. This is the place, suggests Thomason, from which a different kind of faith can emerge. It is not a faith that everything will work out as it should, but a faith that no matter whatever happens, there is a spirit at work in the world, and beyond the world as well, that doesn't give up on life, that is itself "faithful" to life.
The oceanic images below invite us to think of life in terms of floating in water. To be sure, we need ships of security. But we can find ourselves falling off those ships into the wild oceans of contingency, wondering if there is anything to hold onto. In point of fact, there may be nothing to grasp as an object among objects, but there may be something to trust as a guide and companion - something more like a womb-like sky than a ship.
As we grow in trust, our growth is nurtured by the womb-like sky itself. There occurs a realization that we've always been falling in way: falling out of a familiar past into an unfamiliar future, out of a ship of certainty into an ocean of questions, and out of clinging to what has been into an openness to what can be. Faith is not freedom from falling, it is trust in the presence of something new and loving even in the falling. This trust includes a strength and courage. It is combined with a capacity to get up again, time and again, and sense that, embracing the whole of things, there is a sky-like something that hears the three prayers: help and thanks and wow. Thomason calls it God's love.
In fact, as we fall, we are falling into love. The love we experience is not about certainty or absolutes or isolation. It is about being together with others and being touched by a Spirit what is wilder, freer, and more loving than we can readily grasp with our minds or with our theologies. The "help" we seek is not that everything will happen as we wish or even as the Spirit wishes, but that there will be fresh possibilities for responding, no matter what happens,. The "thanks" we experience is a recognition that already, sometimes in very small moments, we have received not only the gift of new life, and not we alone but others, too. Resurrection happens even amid death. And the "wow" is the fact that the universe itself, and we within it, is filled with remarkable beauty, both ordinary and sublime, which itself is the nourishing of life. God's love takes the form of beauty, of harmony amid intensity, of rebirth after death, Thomason often speaks of this Spirit and its beauty as overflowing. It overflows from a place of grace, not fear.
- Jay McDaniel
Guided Into Truth
Process Theologian in Spirit
Steve Thomason is a process theologian in spirit, This does not mean that he can or should claim the title. For too many people, the word "process theology" suggests an allegiance to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Steve is not this kind of process theologian. He is not preoccupied with technical niceties. Still, his theology is, to my mind, process in spirit in four ways.
First, his understanding of God closely resembles the understanding of God advocated by process theologians, even as he does not mention many by name. He sees God as an encompassing love who gives to the world and receives from the world, who affects and is affected by all that happens.
Second, he sees the universe itself, and human life within it, as filled with contingency, interconnectedness, and mutual becoming. The world does not consist of isolated units of "being" that preexist their relations with other things, but rather momentary events that happen in the here-and-now. Our own lives, moment by moment, are illustrations of such events.
Third, and equally important, he sees his own theology as always in process, which means that even his view of God and the universe can evolve and change over time. This is most challenging when you've found a perspective that does indeed "make sense" to you, even if it's a process perspective. But even these perspectives are not chiseled in stone. They evolve over time, as do we. In these three senses, it seems to me, Steve Thomason is a process theologian in spirit.
There is still a fourth way in which he embodies the spirit of process thought. He believes in, and practices, art, in his case drawing, as a way of developing and communicating theology. In this, he embodies an idea in process theology too often overlooked: that there are multiple ways of knowing and that cognitive content (in Whitehead's words, "lures for feeling") can be communicated through images, sounds, gestures, smells, tastes, symbols, and feelings, as well as written and spoken words. Theology need not be restricted to theo-logos; it can also be theo-poetics.