Doubt and Faith: An Interview with Author Andrea Palpant Dilley
The great part about living in the town where I completed my undergraduate studies is that I get e-mails from the university about cultural and academic events. When I heard about the chance to sit again in the auditorium where I once learned about Aristotle and Descartes to listen to an author read from her new book Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, I jumped at the opportunity.
Author Andrea Palpant Dilley read several passages from her book that evening and answered audience questions in the same engaging, personable style that marks her book. Andrea’s book chronicles her struggles with doubt that led her to both leave and return to the church. I had a chance to ask Andrea questions about her journey of faith and how her experience can help churches and individuals lovingly guide fellow Christians who are also struggling with doubt.
NOTE: Check back on Tuesday, October 16 for Andrea’s advice to churches and Christian individuals about dealing with doubt.
Elizabeth: For those who haven’t read your book, give a little background to the narrative. What were the main questions you were asking of God and the other Christians around you?
Andrea: In the book, I tell a story about walking into an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco one Sunday morning while I was in the middle of my faith crisis. I didn’t know a soul. I sat at the back of the church. When communion started, I went forward, knelt at the altar, took the sacrament, and then watched the priest stretch out his hand to bless me on my head. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of longing for God at the very same time that I felt frustrated with church and ambivalent about faith. I was struggling with a number of questions:
- The problem of God’s hiddenness. Why isn’t God more accessible?
- The problem of evil. Why would a good God allow suffering?
- The problem of imperfect community. Why does the church seem so dysfunctional?
Those questions really motivated my struggle and led me to leave faith and faith community for a period of time. This book tells the story of my crisis of faith, my departure from church, and my eventual return.
Elizabeth: Why, eventually, did these doubts cause you to leave the church?
Andrea: The problem of evil was the question (or doubt) that most profoundly impacted my faith. After I graduated from college, I spent the summer nannying for a Whitworth professor, Jerry Sittser, while he was teaching at Daystar University. The Sittser kids and I volunteered each week in an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, where we took care of AIDS babies and played with orphans. That summer I witnessed what I call “the theological paradox of Christian compassion”: on one hand, children who seemed forsaken by God, and, on the other hand, Catholic nuns acting out God’s call to bless the forsaken. At the time, I was in a really fragile place spiritually and so the dark part of that paradox – the feeling of abandonment by God – took over my heart. I came home from that experience and, in combination with other causal factors, walked away from the church for two years.
Elizabeth: As you look back on your time outside the church, what were the ways in which God was nudging you back towards faith?
Andrea: My faith crisis was driven in part by the problem of evil. Why does a good God allow suffering? Why does the world seem so unjust and messed up? After leaving the church, though, I found myself asking a different question: What does the alternative to theistic faith look like? I didn’t like the answer. In a naturalistic worldview, life is just a cosmic accident. We’re animals fighting to survive in a godless world. The notions of justice and injustice don’t mean anything. As I wrestled with faith, that vision didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t talk about justice at all without anchoring my morality in a theistic worldview. I realized that my questions belonged inside of faith rather than outside of it.
That might sound like a really nerdy answer to your question, but it’s true. These philosophical quandaries were part of what prompted me to leave the church and eventually, part of what “nudged” me back inside the sanctuary.
Elizabeth: What continues to make you stay in the church?
Andrea: I feel more at peace with my questions and more settled with faith. If my beliefs weaken on any given day, that’s okay. I still lay claim to the Christian faith and put myself in a position to ever so slowly, haltingly make my way deeper into the Christian pilgrimage. I’ve also learned how to relax and not fight so hard against faith. In simple terms, I would say I’ve learned how to lean into God’s grace. My beliefs and questions—although they matter a great deal—are not the epicenter of my faith or faith at large. God is. And ultimately, I have to believe in a God who’s humored by my confusion and loves me not in spite of but because of my honest doubts. The poet Milosz says, “The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions.” I rest in that knowledge.
I attend a church in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Now that I’m back at church, the high church liturgy really draws out my longing in the same way that some pop music did when I was a young adult. Maybe I’m getting old and boring, or maybe I’m moving deeper into the reflective spaces of art. Art will always play a part in my faith life. I’m a very tactile person, so I find myself compelled by the ceremonial aspects of faith in practice—the liturgy, the sacraments, the music, all those embodied experiences that speak to the senses. Some people might call it false religion, focusing on icons instead of ideas. But I believe that God engages us through our bodies and through visceral experiences that draw us closer to goodness and beauty and truth.
Thanks for your great answers, Andrea!
Andrea Palpant Dilley grew up in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries and spent the rest of her childhood in the Pacific Northwest. Her work as a documentary producer has aired nationally on American Public Television. Her work as a writer has been published in Geez, Utne Reader and the anthology Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, as well as online with CNN, The Huffington Post, and Christianity Today. Her memoir, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, tells the story of her faith journey. Andrea lives with her husband and their two daughters in Austin, Texas. For more about Andrea, visit http://andreapalpantdilley.com or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Andrea-Palpant-Dilley/159447840841841