Dr. Kevin Brown said he was cleaning the church he attended -- a job he'd been given to help him make a little money -- when it became clear he'd completely lost his faith.
God, Christianity, the church, the whole thing -- all of it gone.
"I realized I don't believe this at all," Brown said. "It terrified me. I thought, 'I have no idea how to live anymore.' I'd lived my entire life with Christianity as a model. My moral compass was lost at that point."
That was more than 15 years ago.
Today, Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., and the author of "Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding it Again" (available at most online retailers).
In looking for books to share with students who were questioning their faith, the Johnson City, Tenn., native couldn't find any that fit. But he realized the students' struggles were similar to his, so he turned a paper he'd written into a memoir of his faith journey.
That journey, Brown said, led from a small Southern Presbyterian church during his childhood to a conservative Christian Church/churches of Christ congregation during high school and college.
"[I thought] to be a Christian meant I had to have the answer to every single question [of faith]."
College, even at Milligan, a Christian Church/churches of Christ denominational school, changed that.
"My professors, not with any intention, were simply asking questions I didn't have answers for," Brown said. "At the end of college, I was almost ready to leave the church. I realized what I had been taught might not be quite right, might not be the only answer."
His conservative church no longer fit. "I had changed rather dramatically," Brown said. "I wanted to take a more intellectual approach to faith. They didn't."
The last straw, he said, was when a youth pastor, in response to his questions, opened his Bible and pointed to a citation that referred to questioning. The intimation was, he said, that he was asking too many questions.
Later, after Brown felt he'd lost his faith, a professor referred him to some readings in Buddhism, which he devoured. He also continued to argue the con side of his former Christian faith with friends.
"I kept the conversation going. As long as I was still asking the questions, I was still engaged. I was still considering it," he said.
Then he had a couple of experiences he could not explain. "I had been trying to put my faith in rationality," he said, "but rationality didn't have all the answers, either."
Brown said he ultimately realized he may not have the answers to all his questions but perhaps that didn't matter in the Christian faith.
His next job, at a private boarding school, gave him a way to ease back into the faith.
"I could go [to chapel services], sit, listen, then get up and leave," Brown said.
Eventually, he began to attend the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and later the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination of his childhood.
"I still question everything," Brown said. "But I know now I'm taking a leap of faith. I come at the same questions with much more recognition and much more fallibility."
The Lee instructor said he'll always be on a faith journey, realizes he doesn't need to have all the answers and is "not sure I want a God I can understand completely."
In the meantime, Brown figures he's in a position to assist students with stories similar to his, who are "much more progressive in every sense than I was at that age," students who are on the verge of leaving their faith.
"My job," he said, "is to stand on the fringes and catch them, [to tell them that] just because the one [approach to faith] you've always known doesn't stand up, there are other ways. There are more intellectual approaches. They're out there."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...