As a historian of American religion, I’ve always been fascinated by the ways religion has changed over time–how it’s shaped society and been shaped by society in return.
Increasingly, I find myself deeply interested in people’s personal histories of religion, and the ways religious belief changes and evolves over the course of people’s lives. Why do some people stick with the religion of their childhoods? Why do others reject it completely? Perhaps these questions have been spurred by my interest in the history of religion or by my own religious de- and reconstruction.
Earlier this summer, I read Michael Gungor’s latest book, which got me thinking about all of this again. Gungor, along with Mike “Science Mike” McHargue, is one of the original hosts of The Liturgists podcast. I’ve been an avid listener for the last 4 years. One of the recurring themes explored on the podcast has been Michael Gungor and Science Mike’s spiritual journeys. Both were raised in conservative evangelical churches, but eventually left the conservative evangelical faith, spending some time as atheists before returning to religion–albeit in two very different ways. The podcast is increasingly exploring the aftermath of religious deconstruction, where people end up, and how they cope.
Gungor’s story is particularly interesting. It’s been fascinating to watch his evolution over the last five years. Michael and his wife Lisa Gungor started their careers as worship leaders and then built a successful career in the Christian music industry. You might not be a Gungor fan but you probably know some of their music, such as the song “Friend of God” or their album Beautiful Things.
Michael Gungor eventually began questioning many of the beliefs he’d been raised with and spent several years secretly an atheist, all while still working as a Christian musician. Michael has been frank about this experience, the effect of living as an evangelical brand for so many years, and the ways his religious beliefs continue to change and evolve. I’ve enjoyed his openness about the experience and his willingness to explore new aspects of spirituality.
In an episode last year on Christianity, for example, he discussed why he had discarded the “Christian” label and explained his discomfort with it. And in his book, he lays out an expansive philosophy. Michael’s definition of God, for instance, is broad. He writes, “God, for me, is a name for the nonduality that is beyond such categories as existence or nonexistence, matter or nothingness, real or imagined. God is All in All, beginning and end as they are now.” As The Liturgists podcast has begun to explore where people end up after deconstruction, Gungor has provided a fascinating perspective among three other hosts who have all remained in more traditional Christian groups.
This week, I’ve been thinking about Gungor’s book in relation to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In “Religion for Adults Means Embracing Complexity,” Sarah Hurwitz ponders what it means to return to religion as an adult, see it with fresh eyes, and ask new questions. In her case, she went through her bat mitzvah but then didn’t think much of her Jewish faith until decades later. However, at 36-years-old she started attending classes again on Jewish history and culture. She was surprised to discover the richness of the traditions she’d been raised in—broad ideas about God and their relationship to humanity, theological complexity she’d been unaware of as a child and young adult.
In discovering this complexity as an adult, Hurwitz became recommitted to her faith. In her op-ed, she wonders what responsibility people have to revisit the religious beliefs and practices of their childhood as adults. In fact, she emphasizes the need for adults to put the work in to find communities and clergy that support this sort of spiritual work. She argues that failing to do so is “a real loss, because mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible answers, but push us to ask the right questions.”
To me, Gungor’s story is emblematic of what Hurwitz discusses in her piece–a return to some of the beliefs of one’s childhood but with fresh eyes, new questions, and maturity, and a boldness in reclaiming spirituality and religious traditions for oneself. In the years I’ve been listening to the Liturgists, Michael Gungor has been unafraid to ask these questions and be honest about where his spiritual journey is taking him.
In his new book, one of Gungor’s main assertions is that we should hold our stories and traditions loosely. Hurwitz’s is that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the complexity of religious belief and practice. But both point to the obligation and the privilege to think deeply about the traditions and stories we inherit and to derive new meaning and richness from these explorations.