Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Taking the long way back to Jesus

By Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

I continue to negotiate the doubt that I carry deep within me about the “big things” in life: God, Jesus, Christianity, natural disasters, and so forth.
This doubt began as an undergraduate student studying theology at a Texas Baptist University.
The doubt continued when I moved to Chicago for graduate school in Theological Ethics, and continues today as a doctoral student studying Ethics near the majestic Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorado.
Although several years ago I stepped into the black hole* of doubt and questioning that is elucidated in agnosticism, I continue to be compelled by the person, story, and complicated history of Jesus.
I call it a black hole because there is no clear course in doubt. Doubt is just that: the sometimes agonizing internal process of doubting and questioning. There’s even a prototype of a doubter in Christianity, which is recorded in the Bible. He is known as the Apostle Thomas and more commonly called: “Doubting Thomas.”
He is just Thomas to me, full of humanity and questions! The stories we have of Thomas that are most prominent for me are the stories of when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples. Thomas, as the story records, needed proof. Jesus said: “Touch me!”
What could touching a dead, yet resurrected, Jesus teach us? What could this touch, this embrace of a tangible reality do for our deep-seated doubts and questions? Is it in our bodies that we know? Does the human touch quench our doubts? Or, does it further perpetuate our questions?
I don’t have answers for these questions, how ever rhetorical they are.
This is the Long Way Around.
When I moved to Denver to begin my doctoral program in 2009, I was comfortably situated in patterns of doubt and questioning. I was happily self-identified as an agnostic. But, not just any generic agnostic, I called myself a Christian agnostic.
I could not deny the tradition of Christianity nor the ways in which this religion has shaped me, but I also could not, and still cannot, claim to be a believer in what many call Christianity. I would often qualify both my agnosticism and Christianity with the phrase: “I’m compelled by Jesus!”
The more I talked about my agnosticism, the more I queried my doubt.
Yet, I was not compelled to find a cathedral to reclaim any sort of traditional Christian faith. I was in search of a space and place for my doubt to exist, for my questions to be honored, and for my body to engage in what it knows best: community. I was in need of an “unchurch church.”
And so, I took the long way around and began a different journey of allowing the real questions I had about religion, faith, and God, and made intentional efforts to stand on the bridge with both my doubts and compulsion I have for the stories and history of Jesus.
Everything changed for me upon moving to Denver. I can’t tell you what I believe today. I cannot confirm the historicity of Jesus or the validity of the existence of God. I certainly cannot invoke ontological categories. What I know is that I have been on a path where I’ve been told religion is a lie, and so I have questioned the very premise of my own belief.
I packed up my religious texts, because I no longer found them compelling or (and more accurately) I moved into the internal space of saying: “this is just a load of shit!” I no longer could recite the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed, which begins: “I believe in God...”
I lost the patience to listen to another’s religious experiences and when I heard these stories, it was frustrating. And, though I had stepped into this black hole of doubt and questioning, hich I called Agnosticism, I was compelled to be in a religious community. I needed to be in conversation with folks who could hold my story of finding both life and death in Christianity and life and death in church.
I needed to find an “unchurch church.”
Late in the fall of 2009, in my first year of doctoral work, I discovered a community that was not the ordinary religious community or church. It is a liberated community in so many ways. It is a space and place for my doubts and questions to be--to be unanswered, to be challenged, to be held, and to be noticed. I found a homeplace in this “unchurch church.”
I sat next to folks who did not speak English, who knew the battles that I was fighting and who were compelled to keep walking “by faith.” I sat next to folks who know civil war and poverty in a way that I only “read” about in school. I sat next to migrants who struggled across many borders, men and women who bring light and life to the conversation table.
My doubts and questions were met by this small group of people. Together, we take small steps toward one another to access the fullness of life.
And, together, we flourish as a liberated community who take the teachings of Jesus seriously. Together, we listen to one another in a radical way and allow hospitality to be our primary practice. Together, we hold one another’s doubts and questions and frustrations, and I, in turn, learn to live out my agnosticism in a way that is rooted in the radical and revolutionary manner of following Jesus.
I wonder still about the black hole into which I stepped several years ago. Like, for example, do we even have a choice as to whether or not we take that step, or is the step we take a compulsion? Sure, we all have agency, but Who or What compels us to touch the black hole, the space and place of nothingness and perhaps, everthingness? By our touch, how ever literal or metaphorical it is, we come to know; and we come to doubt; and we come to believe again in that which is different - that which is shifting and transformative.
Like the Apostle Thomas, we disrupt the traditional patterns of knowing, and we celebrate the epistemological tear. We often do not know what to do with this space that is created in the epistemological rupture, but we step into this space negotiating hope and hopelessness, desire to be known and the desire to know the other.
I am in this for life, that ongoing stepping back and forth into this black hole that is also putting one step into the Jesus community because, for me, it is the space and place where life begins, and it begins again as spring draws nigh.
The long way around is the space and place that feels most alive as this winter leaves room for spring.

  • A black hole is an astronomical term for a place in space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Around a black hole is an undetectable surface called an event horizon that marks the point of no return. It absorbs all the light that hits the horizon and reflects nothing, similar to a perfect black body in thermodynamics.
** Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a Ph.D. Student at The University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado.


  1. Awesome Robyn - thanks for sharing this part of your story, it was a pleasure reading it. I love the boundary space in which you live out your faith. Look forward to seeing you soon! :)

  2. I know that black hole. I have danced that dance of in and out with it. But at one point there came a time for 'surrender' to that God I could not quite believe for that God to become real.

    This notion is not generally a part of western Christian thinking especially in US/Anglican thinking. The Muslims do understand it though.

    For those of us who have a hard time submitting to that which we can't quite believe but cannot deny either, it is the act of surrendering that confirms that faith. It is the walking on water of post modern faith. We do not do it easily; we fight to maintain our 'hermenutic of skepticism'. But it is the cutting edge of faith and calls forth from us the surrender to a relationship.

    Do not fear this skepticism but enjoy the depths of relationship that it will bring to you.

  3. thanks for sharing and writing about your dance with God, Jesus and community. I celebrate your courage to embrace doubt and explore possibilities.