Releasing the Helm: Letting Theory Critique My Faith (Scholar’s Compass)

Natural Bridge Releasing the Helm

We must listen with all our might, with all our will to discern, laying aside our very human desire to be right with a prayer that we may be faithful. – Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009


The air conditioner’s white noise makes my meeting with my dissertation advisor dreamlike, as if the discussion we are having isn’t real, as if my legs’ adherence to the sticky metal folding chair is a discomfort that I would vaguely remember when I wake up.

I’m telling him that to apply postmodern poststructuralist theories of my field to my dissertation entails a critique of my own faith. I am planning to study a migrant congregation, a group with which I share similar religious beliefs. To be frank, I fear my own spiritual destruction.

“It’s not much of a faith if you can’t critique it,” he says, and although not a confessing Christian, suggests I consider the language of “reconstruction” rather than “destruction.”

I had spent my first semester of my Ph.D. program affirming what I could of postmodern theory, along with my criticizing. I could appreciate the questioning of underlying assumptions as poststructuralist theories dictated. But there was something arrogant in that I critiqued these theories and yet remained untouchable by them.

After meeting with my advisor, I wrote in my prayer journal that I would maintain that God existed and that the Bible was His Word. I could identify nothing else to live for, but otherwise, I wanted to start over with my faith, to examine it afresh. I would allow postructuralist theory to critique my own understanding, letting me see in a new way.

What a painful couple years it would be as God carved a greater space for Himself inside of me. Here are a few things I gained.

1. God loves me whether or not I always exhibit “right thinking.” I had feared that if I attempted to see myself from secular perspectives, I would lose my faith. But my faith, then, was dependent on my own thought and not on God. Faith was asking that I was in His grip, and grace was that He loved me in this process.

2. I cannot contain God. During this time, I told a friend that my interpretation of Scripture felt more tangible to me than the person of Jesus Christ. As I did my research, I found myself grieving the historical infighting of groups within the Church who each believed that their interpretation of Scripture was correct. Rather than trying to contain God with theological explanations about why He would allow the Church to commit unethical acts, I simply prayed to trust God that He was good.

3. Christian community can bear reality for me. Friends and my church small group were the risen Christ to me. They gave me the freedom to ask hard questions without accusing me of losing my faith. They heard my sadness, reminded me of the good influences of the Church throughout history, and connected my internal suffering with the suffering of Jesus.

An examination of my faith with the tough queries of poststructuralist theories resulted in a respect for the complexity of convictions and a renewed sense of being loved by God even when I sin or make mistakes. The Holy Spirit has made more room within me, a quietness I didn’t possess before.


1. How do you reconcile conflicting assumptions of your field with your faith?

2. When you hear colleagues criticize your faith or other Christians, how do you respond? Do you feel threatened, or do you pray for a quiet within to listen well and respond gently? Do you release yourself from always having an apt answer?

3. What is the core of your sense of security in God? Is it that you think all the right things, or that the grace of Jesus Christ rescues you?


Father, Heavenly Potter,

your fingers strain my clay,


Jesus, Savior,

ease what does not yield,


Spirit, Water of Life,

fill me with your overflow.


Further Reading

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009

Image by matthew_hull via

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Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson has taught in the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern—St. Paul, contributes to the blog, and tweets @languageNfaith.

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