pilgrim wandering in a rocky underworld

Curiosity, Courage, and Compassion in the Underworld

There are two significant things about me that are older than my memory: Christianity, and sense-making. When I woke up into self-consciousness, these were already fully functioning. I didn’t make them; they made me. I’ve always been making a mental map of the world, and it’s always been a distinctly Christian map. Every bit of knowledge I gain, each new experience, is another puzzle piece I have to fit in to contribute to the overall picture. Occasionally I’d come across a piece that just wouldn’t fit. Rather than sacrifice the integrity of the familiar picture I was building, I’d set the misfit piece aside. Over time those pieces accumulated, becoming a noticeable pile of anomalies. I pushed them off of the table with an optimistic God knows best, and kept working with the pieces that fit well and shored up the original pattern. I kept doing this because my map of the world worked: life made sense to me and felt meaningful.

When The Map Gets Blown to Pieces

A few years ago, suffering and death (witnessed up-close) took a sledgehammer to my neat little map of reality. A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer, suffered greatly, and died. Theoretically, this had a place in my understanding of the world, and I had plenty of Christian theology about suffering firmly tucked away for just such a time as this. The reality of death was a monster beyond my reckoning, however. Because my friend was precious to me, I absolutely had to fit her experience of dying into my map. I couldn’t ignore it, but I also couldn’t fit it in

For the first time in my life, the faith that I had always known, and my ceaseless sense-making that buttressed it, couldn’t coordinate; the gears ground to a halt. The familiar habit of prayer became nearly impossible. Scripture began to sound like a foreign language I couldn’t recognize. Sermons became unintelligible; Christian books sounded strange and shallow. I was constantly disappointed that no one seemed to dig deep enough into the questions that troubled me. I kept wondering, What the hell is happening to me? Where am I?  Most of my life continues on the same as it has always been, and yet I feel utterly lost, as if the bottom has dropped out from beneath me.

Until that point, I didn’t have a place for crisis within my picture of the Christian life. I’d assumed that the life of faith was one seamless whole of unbroken meaning; that trusting in Christ for salvation and embracing the Bible as God’s true guidance would function like a vaccine against existential chaos. I conceded that shock and disintegration could be features of a pre-Christian life, but once you believe, aren’t you immune? And if you’ve always been a Christian in conscious memory, then isn’t chaos an impossibility? My hidden assumptions were revealed: Christians can’t fall apart, because Christianity provides a perfect and comprehensive “map” of reality. If Christians fall apart, that must mean Christianity isn’t true, because it isn’t working.

I was in this state of disorientation when I encountered psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s book Maps of Meaning: An Architecture of Belief, and his corresponding University of Toronto lectures on YouTube, that address this very issue of what it means to fall apart, and how one goes about rebuilding in the aftermath. Grief had jarred my vision and made Scripture opaque to me, but Peterson spoke of familiar things (including Biblical stories) with a different vocabulary and perspective, enabling me to listen and see afresh. At a time when I felt estranged from Scripture, Peterson drew me back in through his astonished fascination with the Bible’s wisdom. In the vein of natural theology, he was building truths from the ground up, using ancient mythology, evolutionary biology, Jungian psychology, and neuroscience, in conversation with the biblical tradition. By trying on his perspective, I renewed my appreciation for the faith that had long been my home, while gaining the capacity to update and repair my “map of meaning.” Peterson described my inner personal anguish in his lectures with an undercurrent of compassion that felt pastoral. 

“You inhabit a map… and if it’s working, it’s got the archetypal structure of paradise, so to speak, because its axioms are correct and it’s functional. And every now and then, something comes along, and that’s what the snake is (the eternal snake in the garden), that pops up inside a structure and it turns out that the things that you weren’t attending to are the most important things rather than the least important things. And what does that do? It blows the map into pieces. And that can happen at different levels of severity. But at the ultimate level of severity it’s apocalyptic: everything goes, and that’s a traumatic intrusion.”

For the first time I turned my attention away from the content of what I believed (my map of the world and the Christian doctrines that were foundational to it), and I looked directly at the process of sense-making itself. If one unbearable fact could wreck the entire picture, what about all of those other anomalies I’d been ignoring for years? I already felt unmoored: might as well sort through the whole pile of potentially disruptive questions I’d been avoiding. Peterson’s work gave me not only permission to attend to the misfit pieces, but a moral injunction to do so. I couldn’t control the circumstances that led to my map being shattered, but I was still responsible for how I dealt with those pieces. I needed to become a wiser, more honest, and more skillful map-maker.

How We Make Our Maps

Peterson says we experience the world primarily as a place in which we act, a drama through which we live out our values, rather than a scientifically objective world of things. Our behavior and stories have an unavoidably value-laden substructure. This storied world is made up of three elements: 

  1. The Known: familiar, mapped territory; the domain of order.
  2. The Unknown: unfamiliar, uncharted territory; this could be dangerous chaos or hopeful potential—it’s essentially ambiguous.
  3. The Knower: the conscious process which navigates between known and unknown, i.e. you and me.  

People are goal-oriented, always moving from Point A to Point B, from the “unbearable present” to our “ideal future,” following planned sequences of behavior that align with our desires. These goal-driven plans of ours are nested in hierarchies like Russian dolls, from the most minute and particular to the most broad and abstract. For example, drive to work is nested within be a dutiful employee, which is nested within take responsibility for my family, which is nested within live with integrity, which is nested within honor God.

We continue moving toward our goals, large and small, as long as everything seems to be working out well. Surprises make us pause. For minor obstacles, we adjust our strategy, but we don’t question the goal (Traffic is slow? Re-route.). If a surprise is massive, our original goal disappears; anxiety and confusion engulf us as we attempt to reformulate a new ideal future. To Peterson, the unknown appears as an “emissary of chaos” that effectively ruins our stories and disrupts our emotional stability. “As long as everything is proceeding according to plan, we remain on familiar ground—but when we err, we enter unexplored territory.”  

Peterson gave me a paradigm for crisis: if the unknown suddenly disturbs my plans, and if such a breach is a serious one interfering with an abstract goal near the top of my hierarchy (say, in my religious axioms) in which so many other goals are nested, then I am pulled down to the “underworld” in a traumatic moment. This can happen to anyone. We miscalculate and get broadsided by the unknown, especially if we’ve made a habit of ignoring smaller anomalies along the way (as I had been doing). Regardless of our culpability, the unknown inevitably breaks into our ordered maps, to one degree or another. This may be merely inconvenient; it may be catastrophic. Recognizing this universal human limitation need not destroy one’s faith, but it should change it into something more adaptable, humble, and open. I was wrong to think that Christian doctrine and faith in God would immunize me from the ravages of chaos in this life. I agree with Dr. Peterson that we all live on a tiny island of knowledge surrounded by an endless sea of the unknown: no matter how big our island gets, the sea never shrinks.

Because the unknown is so much bigger than we are, we structure our lives to make most of it irrelevant, so that life feels manageable. It’s common to engage with the unknown only when it threatens the integrity of our stories, when the “serpent of chaos” disrupts our paradisal peace. This threatening aspect of the unknown can manifest itself from without in the form of a pandemic, natural disasters, bereavement, betrayal, or a new perspective upending all we knew—anything that makes us question, What kind of world am I living in? Because we are complex and mysterious to ourselves, the threatening unknown can also surprise us from within in the form of a new addiction, sudden outbursts of rage, bingeing on food or Netflix, broken promises, shocking dreams or behaviors—any number of things that cause us to wonder, Is that really me? Did I just do that? 

The Courageous Exploratory Spirit

In light of how threatening the unknown seems, it makes sense we’d try to avoid it and stick to the familiar territory of our unquestioned habits and beliefs; but cutting ourselves off from the unknown is just as dangerous as drowning in it. The unknown is the place where threats emerge; it’s also the source of all creativity and new knowledge. Familiarity, just like novelty, is both positive and negative. When the right amount of order flourishes, we feel secure, balanced, and strong; but an excess of order leads to stagnation, and to the arrogance of assuming that we already know everything we need to know. If we refuse to update our model of reality, it will steadily degenerate like a house which is never repaired. Avoidance makes the unfamiliar look more like an enemy than a friend when it eventually shows up. 

According to Peterson, the archetypal role of The Hero is the individual who voluntarily encounters the unknown, explores it, extracts “treasure” from the experience, and then returns to the community to “share the gold” and bring the necessary changes that the ordered domain needs to keep it up-to-date, adaptable, and strong. Successful encounters with anomaly require a level of wisdom and ingenuity that we may not yet have on board. By identifying with and imitating The Hero, we learn “that the courageous exploratory spirit can eternally prevail over threat… Everything unknown is simultaneously horrifying and promising; it is courage and genius (and the grace of God) that determines which aspect dominates.”

The root of the heroic attitude is faith in the goodness of God and in the gift of life, along with a refusal to turn to bitterness, passivity, and despair when immersed in the darkness. We see this in Christ’s Gethsemane prayer of submission to the will of the Father, and in the way He commits His spirit to the God who appears to have forsaken Him on the cross. He faces horror with the presumption that, all appearances to the contrary, God is good, and that after death there is resurrection.

When I was in a period of darkness and confusion, Peterson reminded me in his own idiosyncratic way that, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Some parts of me and my “map” will become compost in which other parts will survive and grow. Death and resurrection are not only the pattern of the life of Christ, they are also the pattern of an adaptive faith—taking shattered pieces and rebuilding them into something better that includes that which shattered me. To admit my map needs repair isn’t to accuse the Bible of lying or to call Christianity false. It means that all theology is map-making, and I need to be careful not to confuse my map of reality with reality itself

While I used to think that crisis was always evidence of moral and spiritual failure, I now see chaos as a common part of the human experience, something to expect and bravely face. When I began the work of befriending the unknown instead of avoiding it, I found my bearings. By ceasing to view myself as a crushed victim of circumstance, and instead adopting a “courageous exploratory spirit,” I was able to pray again, and to encounter the Scriptures with renewed interest. I’m beginning to rebuild and engage honestly with the misfit pieces. 

Compassion for the Deconstructed

At the time my map was first shattered, when I had fallen into the metaphorical underworld, I felt extremely isolated. I hesitated to talk with others because I didn’t want to be seen as a threat or a disappointment, and I didn’t want to accidentally trigger a faith crisis in anyone else. I was fortunate to have family, close friends, and a pastor who were steadfast in loving me, and I shared as much as I could with them, but I also began looking around to see if there were other Christians who were down in the depths where I was. I discovered, it’s actually quite crowded down here; not everybody makes their way back out, and those who do are profoundly changed.

There is a growing body of former evangelical Christians who have undergone some kind of “deconstruction” or “faith transition.” Some reconstruct their faith, but it doesn’t look the same; they can’t go back to the way things were before. Some are (currently) in the no-man’s land of agnosticism, with varying degrees of bitterness. Some reject the faith entirely. Online communities have emerged around this experience (such as The Liturgists and The Bible for Normal People podcasts). Common themes crop up if you listen long enough: a reckoning with science, and coming to terms with biological evolution; an encounter with suffering, grief, or trauma; the collapse of a significant relationship; betrayal or harm perpetrated by Christians; an inescapable feeling of hypocrisy; the sense they’re viewed as “too complicated” to be successfully helped; frustration that questions were discouraged by the church or given lame answers (this drove Jordan Peterson out of the church at the age of 12). 

For many, deconstruction is more like an ordeal to be endured, rather than a willful rebellion; something that happens to you, not something you choose. From all I’ve seen, the deconstructed express a desire to know what is real and true. I see in others and in myself an appetite for a Christianity undaunted by profound complexity, capable of addressing the misfit pieces without oversimplifying—and not with an eye to apologetic debate, drawing tribal lines, and winning the culture war—but with genuine curiosity. We can lean into hope instead of fear, for “one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth… If one turns aside from [Christ] to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (Simone Weil).
Deconstructed Christians (whether they are currently “reconstructing” or not) need compassion: their stories of “falling into the underworld” or falling out of the church are invariably full of anguish. Christ identified Himself with the misfit pieces. He is the Good Shepherd who goes to the dark edges in search of lost sheep to restore; He is also “the stone that the builders rejected,” the surprising anomaly who became the cornerstone and foundation (Matt. 21:42-44). Christ shatters inadequate maps of meaning; He also mends broken hearts and broken maps. When I look back on my experience, I see that Christ was down in the darkness with me all the time, even though I couldn’t see Him. He is still in the business of harrowing hell, and bringing dear ones back up with Him into the light… as often as we need it.

Author: Alisa Ruddell

Alisa Ruddell is an associate editor and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. She is a homeschooling mother of four who lives in Charlottesville, VA with her husband Steve. She loves classic literature, reading aloud to her children on the couch, listening to theology podcasts, and watching science fiction movies.

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