(RNS) — Do you have “spiritual claustrophobia,” meaning the religion you belong to has begun to feel too small?
North Carolina pastor John Pavlovitz has been there. His new book, “If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk,” is for people who’ve longed for something more than the pocket-sized God and conditional love many churches seem to offer.
Pavlovitz grew up Roman Catholic, became a Protestant megachurch pastor and was fired in 2013 for being, as he put it, “outspoken in matters of inclusion.” Getting fired was a springboard to other things; he is now a popular blogger and author with more than 300,000 Twitter followers and has been called “a rising star of the religious left.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. – JKR
You say in the book that religious people’s claim to have all the answers and to know everything in advance is actually really damaging and that what happens when we reach out in vulnerability to other people can be beautiful.
When certainty becomes kind of a moral virtue, that’s a really dangerous thing, because we all live in this space where there’s a tension between the things we’re sure of and the things we’re not quite sure of. It’s been my journey that it’s a beautiful thing when you can actually verbalize all of that.
The heart of the book is if God is really God-sized, as we say God is, then God is OK with our vacillation and our doubt and our inconsistencies. So we should be, too.
You say many religious people are afraid and “terrified adults traditionally do not love very well.” When we are afraid, we want to keep our God small. Could you talk about the connection between fear and the small God?
I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and so from a very early age, I had this idea of a God who was massive, who made everything, and yet knew me intimately and loved me completely. And yet there was always a sense that I had to be really careful around this God, because if I did the wrong things or expressed my faith in the wrong way or didn’t follow every correct rule, that God was very punitive.
The worst parts of organized religion leverage those places of fear and leverage our need for belonging. So many times people don’t move into their most authentic spirituality because they’re afraid of being rejected from the community they love so dearly. The love of a spiritual community is fierce and it’s profound — until you do or say something that places you on the periphery of that community.
I have a lot of readers who are struggling with their faith — or rather, struggling to hold on to their faith when it seems like their religions are exclusive, legalistic and tribal. You call this “spiritual claustrophobia.” Could you just describe that?
I think what religion does at its best is give us a language for things that language really shouldn’t be able to capture. We try to find words that approximate these profound, expansive ideas. But often in the worst of religion, we begin to shrink God down into a few doctrinal statements or Scripture passages we feel comfortable with. And we stay away from the things that bring tension or where we have some uncertainty.
As a minister in the local church for 25 years, I was learning how to give people a condensed version of God — a sort of redacted, small deity — because that was easier. I needed a shorthand way to describe this massively beautiful thing. But we really should take the time to sit with the doubts and the questions and let them just do the work that only they can do. Because on the other side of that is the realization there is nothing to fear. There is a God who is always going to out-love us and out-forgive us and out-welcome us.
Speaking of fear, I’m sorry to hear you are having a tumor removed this week.
Yes, it’s a non-cancerous tumor. It’s in my pituitary at the base of the brain, and it’s the variety that’s causing a lot of problems with my body, and so it needs to be removed. That will happen on Friday. So it’s been a full time of life with the book coming out and with the surgery. I joke that I have a book and a tumor coming out in the same week.
For me it’s been an occasion to lean into community and to people’s love and support. It reminds me that not only the local community, but the virtual community, is really powerful. We think of social media, and we see all the problems. But social media has been a way for me to feel the connection I have with other people through the writing, that this is a reciprocal relationship. I’ve been open about my health from the day I found out surgery was necessary. And that has been the really beautiful part of this, because thousands upon thousands of people have been sharing their stories or different ailments and struggles they’re going through.
So, again, that’s been the pattern of what I do: invite people into my story in real time and hope they can take something into their story. And that’s exactly what’s happened.