Changing Religious Loyalties: A Seeker’s Journey

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At the core of the triangle model (see figures below) is the idea that some individuals who are considering the process of changing fellowship groups, churches, or even denominations are involved in the dynamic process of growth, where growth represents seeking completeness or balance within a more diverse world. The conceptual model is illustrated as a large triangle that is made up of three smaller triangles held together by a dynamic pull from each other. Each of the smaller triangles in this model represents different religious dogmas upon which its doctrine is founded. Within these smaller triangles emphasis is placed on various themes that are consistent with that doctrine. For example, Triangle A, in the model illustrated below and labeled pietism, places emphasis on pietistic behaviors and thoughts such as heart-felt relationship, participation in small groups and compassion. Triangles B and C represent different, but not necessarily opposite points of view. Moreover, the doctrine in Triangle B may be in partial agreement in principle with certain points of importance in Triangle A, but not necessarily of primary importance. At the same time, there might be strong points of disagreement. For example, Triangle B, labeled creedal/orthodoxy, places strong emphasis on doctrine, prayer life, daily reading of the Bible and so on whereas Triangle C, labeled charismatic, places the majority of its emphasis on divine inspiration through intense prayer, a more demonstrative style of worship, intuitive communication including visions, speaking in tongues, and miracles.9 Assuming that no single individual or single perspective can be all things to all people, when pulled together these three smaller triangles make up a more holistic or complete expression of the body of Christ.

Religious theology as a dynamic force.

Most commonly an individual becomes a Christian through a particular doctrinal or denominational perspective represented by one of the triangles. The particular perspective one finds available when becoming a Christian is typically not thought through logically ahead of time, as one might select a specific university to attend or geographical location in which to live. The selection is most likely the one that was available during a personal crisis, or other point of need, or even that one was born into.

Taking the model a step further, we can think of the triangles as representing religious behaviors and actions rather than general theological perspectives. For example, in the model below, triangle A emphasizes evangelism with strong emphasis on recruitment, triangle B represents a strong emphasis on intellectual and deep understanding of scripture, and triangle C emphasizes the importance of attending to the social needs of individuals and families such as food banks, housing, financial aid, family counseling, and the like.

Religious theology as a dynamic force.

The idea here is that the pattern of combined geometric figures represents a holistic religious picture. Each of the small triangles contributes a critical component to the larger whole and are, by necessity, related to, or dependent on the other triangles. Since all three aspects are various expressions of the nature of God and the triangles pull together to form a single large triangle, a synergistic strength is created and can be considered a more compete and balanced shape. Thus, strength is created analogous to that of the various muscle groups in the human body, which constantly contract and relax to produce balance and movement.

Some denomination changers may very well be seeking a more holistic or broader experience. While the attraction of one of the triangles over another may be partially dependent on the personality of the seeker, this should also be considered a form of seeking, looking for a better fit between one’s inherent and developed sense of self and the setting in which they connect more completely with God. For instance, Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, (2003) cite studies that suggest questioning and doubting religious issues seem to be linked with personality characteristics such as being more open to experience, lower right-winged authoritarianism, less dogmatism, some level of social activism, increased complexity of thought, and some aspects of ego identity development.10 And, depending on the cultural setting and perceived needs at a particular point in development, the beliefs and practices associated with one triangle may just fit better than it does in other cultures and places in an individual’s history. For example, the strength of a particular religious culture seems to influence the level of complexity a person uses to think about religion in general. Batson and Raynor-Prince found that the more orthodox an individual’s religious background, the more simply one tends to think about religious issues.11 This may well be a bit of a vicious cycle, since the more orthodox one’s roots are, the more likely it is that they have invested more into the belief system, and the more they would stand to loose if they began to question some of the core beliefs. Thus, there is an internal reward system of avoiding discomfort by avoiding thinking critically about certain issues.

That cultural environment is a powerful mediator is illustrated further in work done by Hilgard.12 One third of study participants that were from religious cultures described as being high in right-wing authoritarianism admitted to having secret doubts about God’s existence, but had never shared [those doubts] with anyone else.13 Given that dialogue is an important tool in learning how to think more complex and abstract thoughts, it could be assumed that these individuals may not have developed the necessary skills to think critically about their culture or their personally held systems of beliefs. Within the context of James Marcia’s identity achievement literature, individuals who have made strong commitments to a set of beliefs and ideals primarily because of particular family and culture forces in which they live would be described as being in a state of foreclosure.14

Considering the triangle model, if an individual’s spiritual seeking and growth has included leaving one religious perspective to join another, it is possible that continued growth might include at least considering other leavings and joinings in the future. The doctrine represented by the small triangle that eventually pulls the person to the new system of beliefs initially feels like they have found a home because it is satisfying a need or filling a long felt void. However, over time living in the newer camp may well begin to feel too lopsided—lacking the balance from the previous perspective. (That is unless one finds a religious community that views things broadly enough to permit growth and stretching within its parameters.) Since finding the perfectly balanced environment is unlikely, Fowler’s contention that growth in faith requires the ability to tolerate certain levels of ambiguity, [and inconsistency] seems appropriate.15 It also seems logical from a God-centered perspective that no human system is able to meet all of human needs.

Given that perfectly balanced religious environments do not really exist, seekers who are being pulled by the perceived Godly characteristics they see in other points of view might consider the following. First, if one is already searching it seems worth hoping and praying for a context that permits and encourages a broader and more comfortable view. That is, holding at least two of the broader perspectives in balance. Oswald Chambers proposes that living in the true presence of God should be like living on a broad plateau with lots of room to move around, not on a narrow cliff that requires an anxious hyper-vigilance always worrying about this and that.16 Secondly, for those who are living in a context that fits with relative comfort they can watch for opportunities to facilitate a broad God-centered environment that allows and encourages various expressions of the Kingdom of God. Thirdly, we need to accept the reality that balance is not a static state, but is the ability to hold competing tensions in place so that neither one becomes over-powering.

C. S. Lewis in The Business of Heaven cites Luther as saying that a problem with humanity is that [we] are often like a drunkard, who after falling off his horse on the right, falls off the next time on the left.17 Physical therapists learn early in their training that the physical activity of walking initially includes learning how to sequence and control a series of imbalances. When an individual begins to walk they shift their weight forward just a bit and then put one foot under them to keep from falling on their face. Then they shift their weight forward again and move their other foot under them and so on. So walking is learning how to control the necessary imbalance that is created in motion. The desired place to be in the triangle model proposed above is some distance from the outward side toward the middle where we are able to benefit from the influence of other perspectives and a broader world-view. Understanding that balance is not static, it should be expected that we will at times be pulled one way then the other, and even value other perspectives that we are unable to accept in total, and yet value that perspective’s contribution to the larger whole. Lastly, for those religious traditions that are more single-sided, while they can expect more unity of ideas and single-mindedness among their membership, they may well lack some of the desired checks and balances, and find it difficult to benefit from a broader world view.