In the 2021 spring semester my friend Ann Pederson, professor of religion at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, taught a class called “Exploring Christian Faith.” My Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God, was on the syllabus, along with Lenny Duncan’s Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.; Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others; and Keith Ward’s God: A Guide for the Perplexed.
At the end of the semester I joined the class, via Zoom, for its final two sessions. I had the opportunity to read papers students had written, some in response to all the books, some in response to mine alone. What they wrote, in a variety of formats and genres, reassured me that my book had done what I say (p. 264) I hope it will: “broadens perspectives and enlarges territory—even explores strange new worlds—and loosens stiff spiritual joints so that movement can be free and spontaneous.”
One response in particular is as perceptive and encouraging a review as the book will ever get. Here it is, slightly edited, and offered with Professor Pederson’s permission.
While thinking on the works we have read this semester, I have come to realize just how much I really don’t know about God and my faith—but in a good way. I believe that my faith has come alive.
Henry points out that God’s house has so many different family rooms. There is a room that everyone can fit into. This metaphor inspires me to describe my faith as “homey.” I find comfort in what I believe, but have also realized that though it is comforting, my home is where I am pushed to dig deeper, work a little harder, and continue to wonder. Tough conversations and realizations happen often in a house that allows growth, comfort, and relaxation.
In a house there is room for additions and remodeling. With time, all spaces need tidying up or fixing up. Before this class, I thought I had a pretty good idea of God and my faith; well, that was an absolute lie. This came as sort of a shock.
Every discussion that each writer brought to the table encouraged me to be a revisor rather than a definer. My current idea of God and my faith are more open to changing and revising than they have ever been before, and I am getting to be okay with that. The idea that remains stuck in my head is that of negative space, and how the negative space is where we can shape our understanding of God. It’s going to change with each new experience, and I am finally able to say that I am open to that change.
Henry says, “Uncertainties, mysteries, doubts abound, but for me they are room to move around in, not a pit to try to scramble out of” (p. 47). This calls out what my tendency is when it comes to tough ideas. I want to get out of them instead of waiting to experience how I can open up my understanding and knowledge, or doubt and fear, because of them. Being open leaves room for failure and wrongdoing, but that is where I have found that I grow the most in the end.
I wish I was as open and curious to exploring the unknown now as I was when I was a child. With the theologians we studied, I believe that my child curiosity and wonder may have sparked a little more, and that excites me.
I would say that I am a pretty impatient person, and let me just say that the idea of waiting is quite irksome. I have a difficult time waiting to see what will come of my understanding of faith because, as Henry puts it, I often contemplate “What for?” Throughout reading the works in this class, I have realized just how much I think this very thought. While it is not terrible in every situation, I believe that in my faith I want to be better about the desire to know everything. I have given myself the challenge to be okay with waiting, contemplating, and wondering.
I also find my faith to be irksome when I see threats, wrongdoings, and despair within it. I, like many others, find many ways in which I disagree with my church or traditions that remain in the church. As I attempt to navigate my way in my faith, I find that I get easily off-track because I get distracted and caught up in the little things that I can’t get over. These are frustrating times that I want to sometimes give up on and just let be. I have learned and experienced that it is perseverance that I must attempt to live out in order to work through and learn from the irksome encounters in my faith.
Henry’s discussion of the tentative grace of God stood out to me as I have navigated through my idea of the dimensions of God. He discusses the ideas of tradition, exploration, and community. For me, tradition remains important, but I also recognize that it must adapt as the world changes. Traditions provide opportunities for exploration in and beyond their meaning. When I have explored my faith I have found more meanings while also facing the challenge that I really don’t know much about God. And communities start to get torn apart when everyone wants to be correct, have the power, and do all the talking. It takes humility to let others partake in opportunities so that together you can explore and learn from each other as one, as a community.
The works we have read this semester have come together for me like a tapestry. Every life aspect and experience can somehow be intertwined with my faith in a scary yet beautiful way to make it seem more alive now than it ever was before. This, which Henry quotes from Matthew Arnold, has stuck with me in navigating to find my truth in faith: “We are not beaten from our old opinion by logic, we are not driven off our ground; our ground itself changes with us.” As this class concludes, I am as prepared as ever to let my ground change with me in order for my faith to become alive.