Edited by Julie Riddle, '92
Andrea Palpant Dilley was raised in a Christian home, grew up in a Christian community, and attended a Christian college. The daughter of Quaker medical missionaries, she lived in Kenya until age 7, then moved with her family to Spokane, where she was active in the youth program at Knox Presbyterian Church. Dilley double-majored in Spanish and English at Whitworth and graduated summa cum laude in 2000. Yet at age 23, Dilley says, "I stepped over the threshold of the church and walked away. I had no idea if I would come back."
In her spiritual memoir, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt (Zondervan, 2012), Dilley explores encountering a crisis of faith. The book's foreword is by Whitworth Professor of Theology Jerry Sittser, who writes, "though I began the book thinking about [Andrea's] story, I ended it thinking about my own...I found myself reflecting on what faith means in ordinary life, how faith is forged, why it comes so hard for so many of us."
In the following Q&A, Dilley discusses her faith journey and new memoir.
Q. What motivated you to write Faith and Other Flat Tires?
A. My experience of struggling with faith is a fairly common one. For those of us who struggle, we sometimes hide and stigmatize our own doubt. But all we have to do is look at Job, Lamentations, and the Psalms to find that doubt can be a healthy part of faith. After coming back to the church, I felt a clear calling to write about my spiritual crisis. I wanted to normalize that experience and tell a story that brought doubt back inside the space of the sanctuary.
Q. What was the most challenging part of the writing/production process?
A. Far and away the biggest challenge was trying to balance two separate lives as a writer and a mother. I landed the contract with Zondervan months after giving birth to my first child, and I had to spend hours locked away in my study. While writing, I felt guilty for not being with my daughter. While spending time with my daughter, I felt guilty for not writing. Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband [Steven Dilley, '97], who is committed to co-parenting. He -- along with others -- made this project possible.
Q. The summer you spent in Kenya in 2000 as a nanny for Jerry Sittser's children seems pivotal in your spiritual pilgrimage. How did that trip affect you?
A. While Jerry taught at Daystar University, the Sittser kids and I volunteered each week in an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, where we took care of AIDS babies and played with orphans. That summer I witnessed what I call "the theological paradox of Christian compassion": on one hand, children who seemed forsaken by God, and, on the other hand, Catholic nuns acting out God's call to bless the forsaken. At the time, I was in a really fragile place spiritually, and so the dark part of that paradox -- the feeling of abandonment by God -- took over my heart. I came home from that experience and, because of that and other factors, walked away from the church for two years.
Andrea Palpant Dilley, '00, with, l-r, David, '07, John and Catherine, '05, Sittser, in England, 2000.
Q. What doubts do you explore in your memoir? In your search for God, what new questions did you encounter?
A. My faith crisis was driven in part by the problem of evil. Why does a good God allow suffering? Why does the world seem so unjust and messed up? After leaving the church, though, I found myself asking a different question: What does the alternative to theistic faith look like? I didn't like the answer. In a naturalistic worldview, life is just a cosmic accident. We're animals fighting to survive in a godless world. The notions of justice and injustice don't mean anything. As I wrestled with faith, that vision didn't sit right with me. I couldn't talk about justice at all without anchoring my morality in a theistic worldview. I realized that my questions belonged inside of faith rather than outside of it.
Q. In what ways did Whitworth inform or influence your spiritual pilgrimage?
A. My faith crisis started to gain momentum during college. People might assume that my entire college experience somehow caused my faith crisis. On the contrary, I spent four years in the presence of learned Christian professors who walked with me inside and outside of the classroom. I remember sitting in a seminar with Laura Bloxham, studying Flannery O'Connor's take on faith; standing in Jerry Sittser's kitchen (as his nanny), talking about the institutional church; listening to Vic Bobb over coffee tell the story of his spiritual journey; and taking notes in a Core 250 lecture on faith and reason. In the years after college, I carried those classes and conversations with me.
Q. Who is this book written for?
A. As I correspond with readers, I've been surprised by the diversity of people who seem to resonate with the story: college students trying to figure out faith, retirees reflecting back on their own stories, and people in life stages in between. Even readers with no religious affiliation have connected with the book. Recently, a young woman sent me a letter in which she described herself as a "worn-out theist" who felt like the book "offer[ed] solidarity in the ongoing struggle of the human condition." This book is written for her, and for anyone who's ever wrestled with questions of doubt, faith and belief in God.
Q. In what ways do you hope your book touches others?
A. I hope readers come away carrying one simple but livable insight: that doubt has a place inside faith and inside the church. In my own journey, I left the church burdened by questions, but eventually realized that those same questions actually belonged in the sanctuary. They only made sense inside of a theistic framework. Sitting in church one day after years of struggle, I thought, "Okay, I'll call this place home. I'll bring my doubt. I'll wait for God in this space." Even now, this idea of "bringing my demons to church" -- as I call it in the book -- challenges me to stick it out in Christian community. It also gives me comfort, knowing that I don't have to find all the answers before I can lay claim to a church pew.
Q. What can the church do to make room for people struggling with their faith?
A. Active doubt (as opposed to passive skepticism) can be a vital, soul-searching part of faith. In Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed child says to Jesus, "I believe, help my unbelief." Flannery O'Connor calls this the foundation prayer of faith. During my own faith crisis, people gave me space to pray that "prayer of unbelief." My dad sat on the couch and talked with me about my doubts. Whitworth professors took me out to coffee. Friends listened to my questions without giving cheap, easy answers. They modeled the church at its best -- as a place of stark honesty and shared pilgrimage.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is a documentary producer whose work has aired nationally on American Public Television. She is the recipient of Whitworth's 2009 Young Alumni Award and has collaborated with Whitworth to produce the documentaries In Time of War, Art in Me, and A Portrait of Leonard Oakland. For more information on Dilley and her upcoming readings, including a Sept. 21 reading at Whitworth, visit www.andreapalpantdilley.com. Faith and Other Flat Tires is available at amazon.com, zondervan.com, Barnes & Noble, and local bookstores.