Finding a metaphor for faith shifting, specifically unravelling

Despite talking about faith shifting for a number of weeks, it is still not an easy concept to grasp. It is even less easy if you have not experienced the kind of faith shift that leads to unraveling, defined by Kathy Escobar as “a downward spiral of losing beliefs, structures, then relationships and often our identity.

Who of us, having grown up in or entered into a faith community, has not had doubts or questioned the faith system we’ve been part of? Who has not felt restless, like something is missing in our lives? Who has not wanted to experience God more or use his/her passions or gifts more to serve God and/or the church? If we have experienced any of these things, we have experienced what Escobar calls a faith shift. However, because the degree to which we experience this differs, we can be quite limited in our understanding of how others experience faith shifting (and, more so, unravelling).

A metaphor to explain: Imagine a person’s faith looks like a hill (or a large pile of dirt in a box, since one can actually demonstrate the metaphor that way). A faith shift can be understood as having a crack or faultline in the hill, as if a chunk of dirt was taken away or somebody poked at or dug into the pile of dirt. If one is able to fix the crack or faultline so that it resembles the hill again, you might say the person has returned to the same system of faith. This might even appear to be rebuilding, especially when the foundations of faith are being re-worked. As much as this sort of rebuilding is good, it is not quite the same kind of rebuilding necessary after unraveling. Rebuilding after unraveling is actually more like trying to rebuild without knowing what shape needs to be made and having had the dirt turn into broken shards of glass. This is because of the nature of unraveling. Unravelling is as if the cracks and fault lines put so much pressure on the hill that it implodes from inside – or, in the illustration of the pile of dirt in a box, as if the pressure is so great that it bursts the sides of the box. All that is left in unravelling is dirt and pieces of broken glass, leaving only chaos and no shape whatsoever.

Because it is possible to experience a bit of this chaos during our faith shifting, we can often assume that we understand what unravelling looks like and feels like it. However, believing we understand makes us less sensitive towards and even willing to listen to those who are experiencing the overwhelming chaos of having their entire lives dumped upside down. It is hard not to look down on someone who has not resolved his/her issues and rebuilt their faith hill, if we are unable to recognize how their life resembles pieces of broken glass – and any kind of building only brings more pain.