severing: some do, some don't.

Oh, how I want to spend the next month just unpacking Unraveling, but the truth is that is what the book is for! There are also all kinds of blog posts I’ve written here about deconstruction and unraveling over the years, starting in 2008.  The purpose of this series wasn’t to flesh these out, but to provide a way to share the widest, broadest strokes of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart in one place.

So far, we’ve touched on the certainty, conformity, and affiliation of Fusing, the rumbles of Shifting, some of the reasons for Returning, and losses of Unraveling as we move toward greater authenticity, autonomy, and uncertainty in our faith.

Today I want to share briefly about a tricky stage that not everyone who unravels experiences–Severing.

Some people sever from their former faith, some people don’t. Severing isn’t right or wrong, good or bad. It just is, and I’m grateful that my editors agreed on the importance of this stage, no matter how hard it is to talk about in so many Christian circles.

Whether we agree with Severing or not, it’s real for so many.

I feel passionately that it must be truly honored.

Trying to control people’s faith experiences will just not help; it always backfires. 

I also want to honor that not everyone cuts ties completely with their former faith. That’s my personal experience; I never completely severed, and that doesn’t make my unraveling less or more difficult or painful or valid. It just means that in my own personal experience, I tried to shake Jesus, I really did, but I just couldn’t. His upside down ways just kept drawing me in despite all of my issues with the systems built on his name. At the same time, I know that others have had completely different experiences and I completely respect that.

One thing I mention over and over in the material is letting go of looking at others and measuring our faith shifts against theirs or worrying about how others might be looking in on ours. I realize that’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s such a critical part of owning our own unique story.

There are four specific conclusions that I touch on in Faith Shift. They are fleshed out in more detail in the book, but these are places that some people arrive at after Unraveling, even if they are temporary, to find some peace. I realize that some of these are part of the doubts and questions that come into play during Unraveling, too, but when I’m talking about Severing, I mean more of a landing place (of all possible lengths) than a quick cycling through process.

See if any of these resonate for you, either now or in the past as part of your evolving faith.

“Maybe There Is No God”  / Atheism and losing belief in God all together, sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily, is where some people land after Unraveling.

“I Think Some Kind of God Exists, but…” /  Many people become agnostics or spiritual but not religious (SBNR) after Unraveling, holding onto a belief in God but without the specifics.

“I’m Done with Christianity, not God” / A lot of men and women don’t sever from God but rather from the conception of God expressed in their former faith systems. All ties with church systems are completely done.

“To Save My Soul, I Need to Let Go of My Faith” / Spiritual abuse is so real, and often severing completely is the best hope to find true healing. The toxicity is too great, and the tendency to end up “underneath” in another oppressive system is too risky (pp. 116-123).

From talking to a lot of people about Severing over time, one thing is clear–it can be really lonely. It’s hard when others are rebuilding or never left and we’ve cut all our ties.

At the same time, it can also feel very freeing for some people, too.

This particular chapter is filled with stories of people who have severed for all different reasons and intersect it with from all different places. My hope is that those who need it will find comfort in their stories.

I also know that although a lot of people sever, some do eventually feel a pull toward wanting something spiritually again in some shape or form. This is why I wrote the whole last section of the book on Rebuilding (and the blog series it was based on called Rebuilding After Deconstructing).  That’s tomorrow and the final post in this 6 part series.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Severing.  

If you’ve experienced it, what was or is it like of you? What do you wish people understood about it?

Tomorrow–Rebuilding: Finding Life Again.


ps: One of the things I care deeply about is creating places where shame can lose its grip.  My life is completely different because of that safe space many years ago and I have seen over and over what can happen when we have places to share the truth of our stories without fixing, scripturizing, or judgment. Tamara Buchan recently interviewed me for her blog about breaking shame through community and the post just went up. It’s called The Impact of Shame on Communities.

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Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • I went the sever route. But I’m not sure exactly when. There was a long lead-up period, during which I was still doing some church ministry work. But toward the “severing” point, it was not in areas involving the theology issues which were in the process of shifting for me.

    When I’d finished a ministry project it was just a bit later that I began skipping Sunday services and fairly soon quit entirely. After some months (or a couple years?… I can’t recall anymore, being 20 years ago) I attended services that were more philosophical and ecumenically “spiritual” than specifically Christian. But I soon returned to studying about Jesus and NT era Christianity (or “Christian origins”). This eventually led me to the decision to plug back in to “Christian faith” in a clearly progressive setting (a story I may share more about on the reconnecting segment upcoming).

    There was a lot of re-thinking, adjusting in relationships, etc. that was sometimes hard and challenging but I was fortunate that I had a lot of prior learning (psychology, theology, anthro, etc.) and access to resources assuring me that I was far from alone and that no dire consequences awaited me.

  • We severed from (institutional) church/organized religion, not from Jesus. There was this fear that maybe we would somehow drift away from Jesus, but quite the opposite was true. Jesus became more real in unexpected ways. We ran into him and his people in unexpected places. We threw out “church”, not Jesus. Since the terms church and Christian have in our opinion been hijacked by people who don’t share our values, often don’t look like Jesus and who have an agenda that seems to differ significantly from Jesus’ agenda, we rarely use those terms. We say we are “followers of Jesus”.

    Since I spent a weekend at The Refuge for your first Walking Wounded conference it is only right to note that The Refuge is probably the closest thing we’ve seen to real church. We’d drop by more often if we didn’t live in California.

  • What I learned in evangelicalism was that there is a deep, fundamental difference between “Christians” and “non-Christians,” “regenerate” and “unregenerate,” “redeemed” and “unredeemed.” I really thought that if I ever ceased to believe the same things, that I wouldn’t be “me” anymore, that somehow my spirit would be dead or my soul would disappear (I mean, I didn’t put those words around it, but that was the idea.) Turns out I’m still me, I still seem to have a soul and spirit, and a living, breathing (though damaged, struggling, and recovering) spiritual life– without believing the “right” things anymore.

    What I wish people knew is that everything you say about non-Christians or “backsliders” or “outsiders” of any kind when you think it’s only like-minded people listening–that’s all going to rattle around in the heads of people who begin to faith shift, and it does a whole lot of damage. And I wish people knew that there is a whole lot of beauty outside of the box, and it’s not a cheap imitation or a counterfeit like we were told. God is outside of Christianity too.

  • My biggest form of severing has been in the form of no longer believing in Western expressions of Christianity that we call “church.” I think that the Eastern Orthodox church has been completely disconnected from our Western forms of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox church was more mystical and had different views of the atonement that the West knows almost nothing about. The West has been into colonialism, patriarchy and power to its demise. I like the playing with the idea of a Christian atheist – one who no longer believes in Western forms of Christianity that we call “church” but embraces God not as an idea to believe in or a problem to be solved but a mystery to participate in. The Christian atheist doesn’t believe in the God of last year, yesterday, 5 years ago, 2 years ago, 10 years ago or 17 years ago but believes in the God of the present moment. This is where my experience of God is constantly evolving, changing and surprising me in many way so I don’t get locked in to my own perceptions of the past becoming a Pharisee with no love and compassion. It is about not being an atheist toward God exactly, but an atheist toward all the ways that God has been represented through colonialism, power, violence, control, manipulation, abuse, patriarchy, disembodied propositional statements, devaluing the marginalized, anything with a lack of love, compassion and community. I like that thought, but the words Christian atheist don’t fit together because they are a contradiction it seems, but maybe we should explore this paradox more. It could lead us to a healthier place and bring some reformation to the church in the West. Or I like what Peter Rollins says about Christianity. To embrace authentic Christianity you have to constantly betray everything you believe about it. He terms it the fidelity of betrayal. I love that. Maybe we should all sever through an expression of the fidelity of betrayal as a way of life in the world.

  • Kathy,
    I have tried to shake Jesus too. Really f*cking tried….(hey, there’s that swearing). LOL. However, I just can’t. My faith life went from being so intrigued with God at 8 years old (in a nominal Presbyterian home), to 19 and saved at a Billy Graham Crusade, to a 25 yr old creation-science/rapture bound fundamentalist (threw out all my rock records) Baptist, back to more reasoned conservative Evangelical Presbyterian at 30, to disillusioned with splintering Protestantism convert to Roman Catholicism at 38. Spent 5 years being a true blue believing apologist of Roman Catholicism to completely dropping into a black hole of doubt about 5 years ago. Now I spend my free time at the Patheos Progressive Christianity and Atheist channels (trying to figure out which one I am). I am 49 and have spent my 30 years of Christianity moving from what I thought was certainty to more certainty, (severing and re-severing) on a never ending quest for the ultimate and final TRUTH. Starting to feel like it doesn’t exist. Maybe the only truth is that LOVE exists. I really do love this guy, Jesus. He is just so compelling. Though somedays I feel like he is real and others that he is just some imaginary friend.

    I haven’t been to Mass in months. Can’t handle church. At. All. I have a homeschooled 15 yr old (my youngest of 3) who is in a Catholic homeschool drama group. Of course, I can’t admit that I haven’t been to Mass to the moms in that group (because: mortal sin!), so I just keep quiet and play along. It’s important to my daughter that she be in the group, so I am not gonna let my Faith Shifting screw it up for her. Yes, my whole family has discussions about all this stuff, so my daughter knows where I coming from and appreciates that I am willing to tow the line and keep my shifting to myself. (Plus, I have no interest in ruining the beliefs of anyone else. I just don’t want to be kicked out the the group because I am no longer a practicing Catholic. I guess it’s good that I am great at being all things to all people. h/t St. Paul)

    So, years ago, when I did the big severing and moved to Catholicism from Protestantism, I had all sorts of painful discussions with extended family who could not believe what I was doing. They thought I had well and truly lost my mind. It was a painful transition. Fast forward to 11 years being Catholic and all the really wonderful good friends I have, who will still be my friends, but who will be hurt and mad that I am leaving (and think I have lost my mind). So, I am looking at another painful transition…severing. Thus, I have not ‘outed’ my ‘severing’ self yet to my Catholic community. Heck, there are so many masses on Sunday that my friends don’t know if or when I have been to church. I may never say anything. I may keep this shift to myself. I am not interested in converting, or de-converting anyone, so I may just keep this between my husband and kids.

    I will stop rambling. Just wanted to say thanks, Kathy, for writing about this subject. It is such a hard process to go through. I really wish I weren’t. I really wish, somedays, I could go back to that blissful true believer, but that ship has sailed…and I am not on it. (However, I did get a Barnes and Noble gift card for my birthday, and I am going to buy your book.) So while I stand on this lonely shore watching that ship disappear on the horizon, I can sit and read and not feel alone.
    ~Rachel in Atlanta

    • Thanks for this, Rachel. I became s Christian as an adult, a fundamentalist. A few weeks ago I left my church silently. I resigned from working in the sound booth, then slipped my key under the office door. I won’t talk to anybody there because there’s nothing I can say that they will understand. Plus I barely have words for this process. Plus I an furious st their selfishness and willful ignorance about reality.
      And their making Jesus a Republican.

      I also dont want to be scripturalized or exorcised or lectured.


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