Perhaps it was my first encounter with otherness as a Christian boy trying to find his way in a comprehensive school. Or perhaps it was earlier: a fear of otherness instilled within a small, culturally threatened, conservative subculture. At some point early on, however, I learned to hide who I was. And, especially, to hide my faith.
This protective script has remained a powerful, effective force, keeping me unexcluded and tolerable. But such a way of life makes belonging and becoming impossible.
I remember the year I moved into secondary school. Suddenly I had to find my place at ‘big school’ and prove myself worthy of belonging there. Yet, my acute, moralistic, almost puritanical Christian conscience condemned so much of the dominant culture into which I longed to fit. I felt that I had to hide. So, I spent my school life perfecting the art of gaining social esteem without giving much away. It was lonely, isolating and exhausting. And despite sporting friends and academic achievement, I never really felt I was wanted.
20 years later, starting up my own private counselling practice, I have needed to find my place in this big, therapeutic world. My faith has changed in that time, both away from fearful moralism and othering, and towards a sense of spirituality as something we all share. Yet, I felt the old expectations and fears again. Are you a Christian? Will you impose your views? Are you leading people astray? Will you judge? Will you evangelise? These were the critical, polarised voices of both the Christians and non-Christians I’ve both wanted to please and feared being judged by. Yet, ultimately, they are all asking the same, fundamental question: can we trust you?
For a long time, I believed the answer was to hide: to make myself unthreatening and acceptable through self-betrayal and self-silencing. I’ve realised that, if I really want to be trustworthy, I have to both trust myself and be myself to the world. Congruence, not being safe, or ‘correct’, is the real prerequisite for trustworthiness.
So, it was time to try something different; I had to come out with my faith. In the last year, I have ventured on two very public (at least for me) pursuits: to write a six-part blog, Faith and Fear1 and to have a weekly conversation about faith with a friend from my training, live, and then post it on social media.2 These have been terrifying, messy and full of ambivalence – yet also wonderful and rewarding. I’ve tried to prove myself by being overly intellectual; I've got angry at the wrong things because they were safer; I've got stuck and fed up and stopped to recover; I've had to just get stuff out of me; I've found inspiration again and started over.
Throughout, I’ve had to tolerate many scared voices bickering within: ‘What will they think of you?’, ‘Am I disowning my original faith?’, ‘How will this affect clients?’, ‘Don't be too much’. And I've also had a new one: my supervisor's. His was a voice not unlike an infuriating broken record, or stubbornly accurate mirror: ‘What are you still holding back?’, ‘Where are you pulling punches?’, ‘What do you really want to say?’.
Next in this issue
And so I've discovered that the call to congruence is also an invitation to potency.
So, what is it I really want to say? Well, I’m a man of faith. I hate my faith: it has locked me up in an empty, isolated prison of fear. I deeply love and cherish my faith: it is the part of me that still hears the whispers of another story – one of belonging, preciousness and possibility – that lets me hope and love the other. I am constantly running from my faith for it is always calling me to venture further out into the uncontrollable ocean of life – and I’m never quite convinced that I’ll survive there. But the dance between faith and fear is the dance at the core of my being.
I believe, too, that it is the dance at the core of all our lives. Faith is no-one’s and everyone’s domain. Faith is our precondition for hope and love. And so, we need to find ways to talk about it with one another. We need to come out with it.