Integration of Story and Experience

October 24, 2016

Categories: Integrity,Story

This blog post is Part 4 in a 4-part blog series on Integrated Faith. (If you missed the first blog post, you can find it here.) In this blog series, we are taking a look at aspects of our spiritual lives that might be out of step or disconnected with the rest of our person.

In the previous post on integrating the shadow, I shared how the work of integrating your shadow can involve adjusting the framework you were taught from your family, culture, and religion to make more space for the shadow part of yourself. In this post, I want to follow up on that idea by discussing a fourth type of disintegration—when the story of how you view the world does not line up with your experience.

We each have stories about our lives, the world, and our place in it. Our stories come from a variety of sources, such as our cultural background, the educational system, and our family of origin. If faith is important to us, religion likely provides one of the most powerful organizing stories of our life. This was certainly true for me growing up. I grew up in a Christian home, and the Christian story was the most powerful organizing story of my life. It influenced all my decisions, including how I spent my free time, the friends I chose to associate with, where I went to college, the career I chose, and the decisions I made about dating and sex.

It is important that our organizing stories tell the full truth about our lives and experiences. If they don’t, we might find ourselves trying to convince ourselves of a story that isn’t true or authentic. As author Daniel Taylor put it in his book Tell Me a Story, “Inadequate stories require constant stretching, patching, deflecting, and suppression.”

Taylor tells the story of Procrustes, a character from Greek mythology. Procrustes would invite travelers who passed by his home to sleep on his bed. However, he insisted that his guests fit the bed perfectly. If a guest was too short to fit perfectly, he was stretched in order to fit. If a guest was too tall to fit perfectly, his excess length was amputated. How many of us live by ‘Procrustean stories’ that force us to stretch or chop our own experiences to fit the story?

I had this experience with the Christian story as I grew older and became an adult. I struggled to fit some of what I was taught growing up with my new experiences as a psychologist, researcher, and counselor. For example, when I was growing up, I was taught that evangelism was very important, because anyone who didn’t become a Christian would suffer in hell for eternity. As I grew older, this story didn’t fit my full experience, and I felt a disconnect. If I was honest with myself, a large determinant of my Christian faith was probably the fact that I grew up in a Christian family in a country where Christianity was the dominant religion. Why would my eternal destiny be so closely linked with the ‘luck of the draw’ and growing up in a nation that was friendly toward Christianity? Also, I started to learn about an unsettling history that linked Christian missions with violence and colonization. How did that fit in with the life and teachings of Jesus?

For me to retain a sense of integrity between my story and my experience, I could do one of three things. First, I could deny the parts of my experience that didn’t fit the Christian story I grew up with. Second, I could abandon the Christian story altogether, because it didn’t fit my experience. Third, I could think about adjusting the Christian story to be more integrated with my experience. This third option is what I have been working toward over the past several years. I didn’t abandon the Christian story, but I did shift or change some of my faith story to be congruent with what I was experiencing.

One of my favorite stories from the Bible about a person changing their faith story to be more integrated with their experiences comes from the life of Peter. As a religious Jew, Peter had very strong convictions about following the Jewish law. These convictions included rules such as avoiding contact with unclean foods and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). God, however, had a different plan. God wanted to broaden the scope of his message beyond the Jews, to the whole world.

First, God sent an angel to a man named Cornelius, who was a Gentile Christian. The angel instructed Cornelius to send some men to Joppa to bring back Peter to his house.

As Cornelius sets these plans in motion, Peter has a vision of several unclean animals, along with a voice telling him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter says no way. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:9-15).

As Peter was wondering about the vision, the men sent by Cornelius find him and invite Peter to come with them. When Peter gets to the house of Cornelius, he faces a crisis. His story (i.e., following the rules and customs about not eating anything unclean or associating with Gentiles) is not lining up with his experience (i.e., his vision, Cornelius’ vision, and Peter’s friendship with Cornelius). What would Peter do?

In a critical turn of events, Peter adjusts his faith story to accommodate his experiences. He says to Cornelius: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Ultimately, Peter concludes: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34).

This work by Peter wasn’t a simple or easy process. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul writes that although Peter did eat with the Gentiles for a time, later he was influenced by some of the more legalistic Jews and he ended up separating himself from the Gentiles, causing Paul to oppose him to his face (Galatians 2:11-13). Like Peter, it can be difficult for us to adjust our faith stories, even when we believe God is leading us in a particular direction. Sometimes it might feel like we are taking two steps forward and one step back. Ultimately, however, this difficult work by Peter to adjust his faith story was a key move in the early Christian church, opening the Christian church and the message of Jesus to all people, irrespective of their ethnic or religious heritage.

Discussion: How about you? How does your faith story fit with your life experiences? Do your experiences closely fit the foundational faith story of your life? Do you feel a sense of congruence between your faith story and your experience of the world? What do you do when your experiences don’t seem to fit with your faith story? Do you try to stretch or chop your experiences like Proscutes to make them fit? When you stretch and chop your experiences, do you feel as if you lose something? How do you decide when it is okay to change or shift your faith stories?


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