In the introduction of Lee Strobel’s bestseller, The Case for Faith, he tells the story of his interview with Charles Templeton.
Templeton was, if you don’t know, a famous evangelist around the same time as Billy Graham. Templeton was absolutely on fire for Christ. Until one day, Templeton shocked the world by leaving both his profession and his faith. When Strobel interviewed the aging ex-preacher, Templeton made a startling confession about his former relationship with Jesus, the very Jesus he had ceased believing in as God: “I…miss…him!”
That’s an experience I’ve heard many times now: people who have left the church and left the faith, but still sincerely miss the connection with the divine, even the divine they later argue never existed in the first place. It’s perplexing and painful and curious.
And, in many ways, it’s is the story of Jenny Ferragut.
I’ve known Jenny for almost five years. We first met through a mutual friend because of a mutual hobby (the best hobby of all time). We became far more than co-adventurers, though; we became real friends. In one of the most trying periods of my life, Jenny was a person I could rely on to have a clear head and a welcoming heart.
She learned that from church.
“[Growing up], I was never not in a Catholic environment. It was just part of everyday life. Not necessarily in the religious sense. But in the values sense, it permeated every part of my life as far back as I can remember.”
For Jenny’s formative years, chief among these values was sincerity. She honestly believed, honestly cared, and honestly enjoyed. Like nearly all Catholics I’ve met, Jenny went through a series of steps on her spiritual path that were organized by the church. These events formed her earliest memories of personal faith.
Jenny tells a fascinating and telling story about preparing for her first communion. The teacher brought her class into a special area of the sanctuary where the sanctified bread and wine was stored. She had heard from her teacher that the elements were the living presence of Christ.
While her child’s mind might have already been inclined to believe that, it was Jenny’s experience in this special area that changed her spiritual life.
“I very distinctly remember kneeling in front of the altar with the rest of my class and feeling a sense of purpose, of connection. [I had] this overwhelming sense that there was a purpose for me.”
That’s when everything changed for Jenny. She shaped her whole life around being a highly engaged, highly evangelistic Catholic. After all, she had personally felt the divine. How could she not to invest in that? How could she not want to share that?
Jenny recalls with some amusement her middle-school exuberance and how many people, she thinks, would have preferred she had simply left them alone about religion. But she was so convinced and so joyous that her high level of engagement is only understandable. Like any child, and like any person, she wanted to share what had made her so happy.
Jenny had sporadic repetitions of that divine connection for quite a few years. She recalls that it always occurred within the context of church, particularly when she felt connected with other like-souled people.
This went on, joyously, for years. Then something happened as Jenny went through confirmation.
She stopped experiencing that divine connection. God, it seemed, was gone.
“I really struggled for a year before I finally settled on the answer that I was being tested.”
Jenny reasoned that she had been given evidence early on specifically so that she would have something to fall back on during such a time as this. She felt she had to learn to confess her faith even when that evidence was removed.
Jenny says that she didn’t feel any pressure to go through with confirmation. Even though her parents taught her confirmation class, she still felt that there was room for doubt and room for questions. “Better a sincere atheist than a hypocritical Catholic,” they said. It was by accessing her sincerity that Jenny was able, in all faith, to complete her confirmation rite.
But that didn’t fix the problem. Jenny went all through the rest of high school without any more divine experiences. Right as she started preparing for college, her family moved out of state and she attended university in still another state. Her sense of loneliness was overwhelming, compounded by the sudden and drastic moves.
Jenny then made a choice that might have seemed obvious to some, but in retrospect was a turning point: she chose to attend a Catholic college.
“I knew that I wanted to be Catholic; I also knew that I was struggling. I wanted to be surrounded by the kind of positive reinforcement I had gotten my entire life.”
It was this need for like-spirited community, vague at first but increasingly clear and even shrill, that set Jenny on her path away from that very community.
Every freshman at Jenny’s school was required to take a basic theology course. This in itself is unsurprising; many other Christian colleges does the same. But oddly enough, this class, specifically designed to study God and confirm Jenny’s belief in him, brought division to Jenny’s mind. As she says it, the arguments she heard in that class “gave [her] an off-ramp.”
“Specifically, it was the difference between the historical Jesus and the theological Jesus.”
This may sound like a debate over abstractions, but it’s at the very core of Jenny’s (and others’) story. Jenny was, at this point, begging for her connection with the divine back. It had moved her, shaped her, in essence created her. But if its prolonged absence had become uncomfortable, the notion of separating the historical Christ from his divinity was unbearable. If Christ could have been just a man in history, if on any level he wasn’t the deity with whom Jenny had so intimately connected…
Jenny had reached the precipice. A thought entered her mind that had never crossed it before:
“This was the first time that it even occurred to me that leaving the Catholic church was an option.”
But for a long while, that’s all it was: an option.
Jenny didn’t act on this choice for some time. She still went to church. She still participated. She still gleefully invited people to come along. She admits, with quiet tears I detect in her tone of voice, that some of her drive to bring people along was because she was hoping to experience God again, even if only vicariously.
But, alas, God was still out of reach for her. At church, anyway.
Shortly afterward, Jenny’s coursework required her to attend religious services of two other faiths. At both of these services (one Buddhist, one Jewish), Jenny again felt what she had been missing for years: a connection with the divine. It shocked Jenny into a realization that what she had been missing this whole time could be pursued outside the confines of her childhood faith.
The decision was made there: Jenny’s Christian faith was done. After all, if God could be accessed outside the church, what was the need for the church?
But even with this revelation, Jenny still departed the church very slowly, over the course of two years. She remembers well the moment she was done for good:
“One day, I was in the choir…and I realized that I was sitting there shaking my head throughout the entire homily…I realized that I couldn’t call myself Christian anymore.”
That’s not to say that Jenny didn’t still go to church sometimes. Due to her intense loyalty, she at least still tried church occasionally. Even Protestant churches, just to see what she might experience. I was actually (unknowingly at the time) in attendance the last time Jenny went to a Christian church service.
Spirituality is still a big part of who Jenny is today. It’s just not formalized into any particular religious practice. And Jenny still seeks divine connections, even though they continue to be fleeting.
I will end Jenny’s story on her last statement, profound in its finality and yet earnestly longing for that which she once knew:
“There are days I believe that every experience I’ve ever had of the divine has just been my own brain giving me something that I need. I’ve studied enough psychology to know that’s entirely possible. I’ve also decided it doesn’t matter. My being a good person is not dependent on my faith or lack thereof. The values I learned being raised by good, kind, devout Catholic people are still important to me.”