Stephanie Williams O'Brien '01 Chooses to Stay Curious
You’ve just completed your first book, Stay Curious: How Questions and Doubts Can Save Your Faith. What led you to write this?
Thousands of conversations. In part my own story, and seeing the value of deconstructing and reconstructing my faith; in part the experience I had with being a ministry kid. And then being in the academic environment, of course, people are asking theological questions and developing critical thinking.
But it’s really hard for critical thinking not to become cynicism. I think for me, it’s been that process of coming through cynicism and back into critical thinking, and now I have the opportunity to come alongside that for other people; I wrote down my stories and the stories of others and the processes that helped people.
I hope it will help people who feel like they need that permission to wrestle with or question their faith...I hope that people read the book and realize that doubting is normal.
What was your own struggle with doubt like?
I felt frustrated. I also felt anxious because I was still leading people. I was still in seminary. I was a resident director, I had six students who I was supposed to be discipling, and I couldn’t even pray. I thought, how am I supposed to lead these people?
I remember people saying things like, “We believe in believing,” and I thought, but I don’t feel that way. I wondered, what if the God I thought I believed in doesn’t exist? I think that the responses I got to my questions fueled the fear that my questions were somehow dangerous.
What do you think sparked your doubt?
Some of it had to do with my dad’s death as I began my senior year at MA. I never felt an anger towards God, but it was more of a confusion.
I saw Billy Graham, who my dad worked for, come into a hospital room and pray for my dad. It didn't change the situation and I had to struggle to understand why things happen or don’t happen, and now I felt confused about prayer being effective. Because, scripture says, “the prayer of the righteous is effective.” And Billy Graham’s is not good enough?
It was then that I discovered that prayer is not that simple.
Some of it was also wanting control of my life and realizing just what Jesus meant when he said “in order to save your life you have to lose it."
Is there anything that you feel prepared you to face this journey?
The way that my parents raised me, and the experience I had in my Covenant church and at MA created a person who was willing to engage with instead of run from questions.
Dr. Crafton would push us to ask these questions and not just settle for lame answers. I didn’t go to college more prepared to defend my faith but to engage with faith questions. And that was really crucial—because you don’t want to train an 18-year-old to think they’ve got it figured out. You want them to be able to think critically and to ask good questions and not settle for weak answers. And to be willing to see that as their lifestyle.
And then at Bethel, where I went to college and seminary, there is a distinct value of critical thinking.
That shaped me in a way that didn’t mean it was easy for me to go through this struggle, but I see why I was able to do it without getting stuck.
I’m also glad I didn’t drop out of leading, because I think that pushed me; I think that’s why a lot of people drop out of the struggle, because they don’t have anything to push them.
Do you ever worry that this process will cause people to lose their faith?
I became convinced by my experience and because of the research that’s been done by Barna (a leading researcher of spiritual indicators in the U.S.) and others that most people who actually press into the questions and doubts about their faith system will, in the long run, say that they have a more vibrant experience with their faith walk.
Going through this journey means that people could shift in their faith. They could end up choosing a different stream of Christianity, but I’m ok with that. It’s a really low number—12%—of those who wrestle with their faith that end up becoming atheist or agnostic.
So when people come to me and ask, "are you afraid that people in your church are going to doubt that God exists," I’m more afraid that they won’t. Because the people that do are the ones who really end up engaging in their faith.
It doesn’t mean they’re easy to lead—don’t get me wrong! But they are the people who eventually say: I'm giving Jesus all of my life. They make this their identity, not just their activities.
Do these people ultimately feel that their questions have been answered?
The people who go all the way to, what if this isn’t real? Or, what if I can’t reconcile the problem of evil? The people who get to—I love Oliver Wendell Holme's phrase—”the far side of complexity,” it’s not like it’s simple. But you do come to a place of peace with it. You have expanded as a person.
For example, the far side of complexity about prayer is that I think it does matter. And I’ve seen it change things. It doesn’t always change everything because it’s not a transaction.
Expanding is hard. Think about the winter in Minnesota, where the snow is melting but it freezes again...water expands, and that’s what busts up the road. I think that’s what it feels like: it feels like things around you are going to blow up. There are potholes, like the process impacting your relationships, or moving you to explore different faith communities.
I would rather wrestle through all of that with people and see them come to a place of truly vibrant and engaged faith, even if they wrestle with some questions for the rest of their lives.
With all of this questioning, do people still need to “decide to follow Christ”?
I definitely think you need to make a decision to surrender your life to Jesus as your savior and leader, but sometimes the way to understanding that relationship is not a straight line and more of a process.
Look at the Bible: There's always a wilderness experience. And every time there is a wilderness experience it says that God led the people into the wilderness. So it must be something that God thinks is actually good for us, even if it is hard.
What is your primary hope for the people who read your book?
I want this book to help people who feel stuck and lost. I also want people who feel fine to realize that you actually do need to push into this: Maybe you are missing a huge aspect of who God is, because God is not only found in the answers, but also in our questions.
I think it’s about having a general sense of wondering. There is a difference between wondering and wandering: When people are in the wilderness they start off with the wandering, but at some point you start to wonder: wait, what is God actually doing?
And that’s where you end up with people like Joshua who are willing to step out of the wandering and into a brand new space in life because they started to wonder if there is something better.