By Olivia Wolfe
“I’m not sure I believe any of it anymore.”
My counsellor was probably the third person I had said those words to, yet it still felt wrong. It felt like sinning every single time. After some discussion, he said something like, “that must have shaken up your whole world.” I hadn’t thought about it like that. Up until that point, my doubt was something to swallow, something to push down very, very deep inside of me. Something to pretend didn’t exist.
I started going to a counsellor in 2020 to discuss why I was feeling depressed and anxious. I’d been breaking down quite a lot. I cried to my boyfriend (whom I’d only just started dating – poor guy). I cried sitting at the dining room table at four in the morning (thanks jetlag). Plus, I cried in the shower, letting the water and steam do their job (erasing any visible traces of my sadness).
With encouragement from my best friend, I booked an appointment with my doctor. She then referred me to a counsellor. He was a nice guy with a welcoming face. I felt safe. We probably had a few sessions together before he started to dig into why I was there. I told him I had recently started questioning my faith and that I hadn’t been to church in a long time.
The questioning began at the start of that year. I had always dreamed of living in England since visiting London with my family as a kid. St. Paul’s Cathedral, the delicious wide range of accents and never-ending poor weather (I have a love affair with the rain). It was a surface-level infatuation, yet I had fallen hard.
In 2019 I filled out an online expression of interest for an exchange program hosted by my university. I read the form and realised I didn’t qualify for some of the requirements and hadn’t prepared half the documents it asked me to attach. In defeat, I half-filled out the form but left it unsubmitted. About a month later, I received an email informing me that I’d been accepted into the exchange program. The form must have somehow submitted itself. This was a miracle. Surely this was God.
I chose to go to Manchester and attend classes at Manchester Metropolitan University. My dream was coming together. I had to pick a few classes to attend to fulfil the requirements for the exchange. I saw MMU had a few philosophy classes that looked interesting. I chose one called “Philosophy of Religion”. You might see where this is heading.
I talked with my Christian friends before I left. They assured me this was going to be good for me. My friends prayed over me and my journey. “You will grow, you will change,” was the resounding cheer. I thought, yes, yes, exactly! I was thrilled to see who I would be when I returned. Surely I would come back as someone strong, independent and fearless. Surely this was God.
Manchester was everything I hoped it would be. I didn’t know anyone in this new city. Instead of finding that horrifying, it invigorated me. I arrived at my accommodation and realised I needed to buy bedding from who-knows-where. I ventured out for the first time into the heart of the city. I took a sleepy stroll around the city to see its pubs, restaurants, museums and historic buildings. So much brick and academia. I made the right decision, I thought. I got settled into a new routine of sleeping and eating in my tiny dorm room (with the smell of weed seeping through my left wall) and trekking out each day across the city to my new university.
However, as I learned my way around the university and took my first classes, I found that one, in particular, was going to challenge me. My “Philosophy and Religion” unit. I had never been one to argue for Christianity in an academic setting.
You find that in most university classes a discourse about religion will be raised at some point. Whether it is a conversation about the connection between religion and literature, authorship or power, reproachful comments will be volleyed around the room and then put aside for next year’s recap on Samuel Beckett and existentialism. However, what was a fleeting topic in my other classes was now the main subject of debate. For a few hours every week, we threw rocks at the character of God to see what would happen. To see what would break and what would stay strong. To see which bits were made of glass.
Churches are great at introducing a morsel of doubt and then quickly refuting it. Preachers might say, “doubt is a part of faith”, but then present a tidy answer about God conquering our limited knowledge, and move on. Churches are the best places for raising a controversial idea without throwing everything into chaos.
I had never been bombarded with this much doubt. Instead of pointing out a small tear in my faith and nicely patching it up – like I was used to – now it felt like the well-spoken lecturer and the gifted scholars he was citing were taking a thread and yanking it. Centuries of sceptics unravelling rows and rows of my belief, until I was left with a scrap of my theology.
I often walked home from MMU with my black puffer jacket pulled over my head to protect me from the rain. My walks gave me a lot of time to think. Would a good God really allow suffering? I waved my bus pass to the driver and stood on the lower level of a packed double-decker. If he was really God, he could do anything. Right? I stepped off the bus and continued toward the curry mile, past the neighbourhood Tesco that always lit up like a Christmas tree. If God was real, why wouldn’t he achieve his goals without allowing heartbreak and pain? My image of God became fractured and splintered.
It’s easy to believe what the collective believes when you are the collective. I didn’t have any of my Christian friends with me to talk about these new ideas. I could have called them when the time difference matched up or I could have sent a text and woke up the next day to a flood of reassurances. Yet, I didn’t want that. I wanted to get rid of this doubt and entertain it at the same time. Christians weren’t meant to think these thoughts, right? If I truly loved Christ, I couldn’t stand in this rainy city and look up at the sky and believe that there was nothing there, I thought. If there was a God, he sent me here. All of the breaking that was happening inside of me. Surely this was God?
My trip was cut short due to COVID 19 and I was shipped back to my family home. Somehow, I felt more isolated, like a lion amongst tigers. I had become a different person. My friends were right, I had grown. I just hadn’t become the person I was expecting to become.
I have two big takeaways from this (if you are curious).
I may not know what I believe right now a year after that experience. I do know, however, that there is a power in speaking your doubt. Whether it be to a close friend or a counsellor, if you are struggling – talk to someone. I am grateful my best friend convinced me to speak to a counsellor. I am in a much better place now because of it.
I have also learnt that there is no shame in growing. I never felt condemned by God, only people. There is no shame in growing into someone that other people didn’t expect. If there is a God, I’m sure he understands that this faith thing is a journey. You don’t have to have everything figured out right now. I’m certain he is encouraging you, wherever you are on this journey. He’s probably cheering you on to find out more, to be honest with yourself and to explore your faith. Surely this is God.
Olivia Wolfe is a Passionate Writer, Copywriter, Poet and English Tutor. Currently in her honours year at the University of Newcastle for English & Writing. An explorer of faith and doubt. Lover of toast ft. unhealthy amounts of butter.