The Value of Exile

My intended blog for today, the second part of A Theory of Beauty, is being pushed back a day, due to lack of inspiration and more pressing interesting things from today.

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I was with a friend of mine tonight, Mike*, who is doing something brave.

Mike has been a Christian in some form for his entire life. Now in his early twenties, having finished school and moving into true independence, he is rethinking some beliefs he’s held for a long time. He is not positive that this God is really the kind of God he’s always been told about, and he just can’t force it or fake it anymore. He’s questioning his faith openly, and is reading some challenging books, and … he’s really going for it.

And I think this takes courage. It’s tough to decide to do something so drastic as this, when most of Mike’s friends are confessing Christians. How will they respond? Will they argue? Condemn? Judge? Will Mike be given the space by his peers that he needs in order to have an authentic run of this thing? So far, it seems likely.

Mike is doing this because he can’t tolerate the tension anymore. Something is un-right within him, which he knows will uncoil over time and spin out of control if it is not properly seated right now. His mind cannot continue to tread the tracks that he was raised on — he must journey on different paths for a time, and see where they lead. And I admire that in him. I think he is the kind of man that we should hope to see more of.

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Mike is embracing an exile of sorts. He is accepting the wilderness as teacher, which really means that he is clearing out the noise and edifice for a time, so as to more clearly hear his own heartbeat. He is assuming that out there, away from what is familiar, he will learn something that is more valuable than the comfort of what’s familiar.

This is an ancient and precious tradition, and I’m glad Mike’s instincts are sharp enough to recognize the need to do this. Exile is an amazing context for identity formation, self-realization, and breakthrough. Exile (of sorts) was how Bruce Wayne became Batman, how Ernesto Guevara became Che, and (arguably) how Jesus made sense of his identity and purpose, before coming back from the wilderness and beginning the work of his life.

There is just something unique in the cutting of ties with the familiar, and venturing into the unknown. It is honesty. Fear. Confrontation. At the end, I believe it might be ownership that makes exile such a transforming thing. Ownership of your purpose, your beliefs, your course, and your own life. It is initiation. It is freedom.

At least, at its best, exile can yield these things.

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In the Christian world, we don’t like people to take the risk of stepping into the unknown world outside of faith. We fear that our friends may skid over a slippery ledge, and never emerge from their pit. They may become permanently bogged down in depression, cynicism, or a morass of counter-apologetics. They may become too cool for church. They may not come around anymore.

But I still applaud Mike. I would rather every man who calls himself a Christian venture out into the fog of doubt, and spend some time off the Christian grid — especially those who grew up in the church (I did not). I would rather that we even have the courage to experience little exiles repeatedly, little dark night seasons of the soul that come seasonally, than for us to continue to press on with our doings, our rote worship songs, our prayers and programs and smiles. I would rather that we challenge our own shadows than be scared of them.

This is because, ultimately, I believe in a strong God. I believe in a God who will meet us out in the wilderness and bring us back from the place of exile. I believe He is good enough to make good on that promise. And my hope is that He makes good on that for Mike.

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