Loss of Faith as modelled in Lord of the Rings
Faith – how do you lose yours?
We all try to sustain our existing beliefs. We assess our experiences and new evidence through the lens of what we currently believe, and if we feel that our beliefs are threatened in some way, we find ways to defend or reinforce them. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact – we all do it, in all sorts of situations.
I’ve seen and heard plenty of cases of what could be described as people losing their faith. I’m not entirely comfortable with that phrase, as it implies that the faith was a valuable thing (which is up for debate), and also conjures up a strange mental picture of people turning their houses upside down looking for this faith that they lost, but it’s probably the best phrase to describe what I’m talking about.
Anyway, when I was a conservative Christian, I used to think that people lost their faith by stages, slipping ever further towards damnation down the slippery slope of liberalism. Then, as my views became more liberal because my conservative beliefs fell at the first hurdle of scientific investigation, I started to doubt that. I saw my growing liberalism as correcting errors and being faithful to the truth, not a step towards atheism. Given my current position, it’s fair to say that my later assessment may not have been entirely accurate.
There seems to be a well-worn trajectory from orthodox conservative belief, through liberal belief, to unbelief, with doctrines being abandoned, one by one, as they become untenable. But I’ve also known people who went very suddenly from a strong, conservative belief to atheism, without appearing to pass through liberalism in any way. They viewed their beliefs as more of an all-or-nothing package, so after an internal struggle, they changed their positions almost overnight.
I think these two ways of losing faith are described quite neatly in Lord of the Rings. No, seriously.
The steady slide away from conservative belief by rejecting doctrines for a more liberal or figurative alternative is similar to the defences of Helm’s Deep. Within the outer wall, there were a succession of inner walls. Whenever one wall was breached, the defenders could fall back to the next wall and regroup. They were conceding ground, and their territory shrank with every retreat, but each stage could be defended and would hold for some time.
Those who changed suddenly from orthodoxy to unbelief had a faith whose defences were more like Mount Doom. There were huge armies surrounding it in every direction, preventing anyone getting close enough to pose a threat, but if a single hobbit somehow evaded those defences and reached Mount Doom itself, it would spell disaster. Substitute terms associated with theology and faith as appropriate.
So there’s a split between people who discard their more extreme beliefs as they become unsustainable, and those who take the all-or-nothing approach of defending their whole belief system, and reject it completely if they conclude that any aspect of their belief is flawed or unsustainable.
In reality, I think everyone falls on a spectrum between the two extremes – some beliefs can be abandoned, but everyone has a bottom line sooner or later. I’m definitely more of a Helm’s Deep type, and I retreated further and further, but in the end, what finished me off was a line I just couldn’t cross.
So what about you? Are your beliefs more like Helm’s Deep or Mount Doom?