The theological hairball

Jonas Ellison
3 min readMar 11, 2021

I always get a bit nervous when someone asks me what I’m doing these days…

“I’m a seminarian preparing for ordained ministry in the church,” I’ll say.

As nerve-wracking as this moment is, it’s also exciting. It’s exciting because there’s now an opportunity to talk about something at the root of life — the relationship between the human and the divine.

However… I notice that, more often than not, we don’t quite get there. Instead, the conversation screeches to a halt until, eventually, the conversation shifts to something more — shall I say — agreeable.

I get it. The Christian church has hurt a lot of folks over the last millennium or two. So when I bring up that I’m working to be a minister of this organization, a LOT of assumptions can be drawn about me and what I’m up to.

Episcopal priest/DJ (yes, you read that right — treat yourself to this video), John Zahl, mentioned on a podcast the other day the following nugget of wisdom that I’m putting into my pocket for the future. He said something like this (I paraphrase):

As much as I’d like to tell them (people at, say, a cocktail party that he goes to wearing his clergy collar) how I’m not “that kind of Christian,” I’ve come to realize that everyone has a “theological hairball” that they need to cough up before they can hear anything from me as a minister of the church.

Yes… The theological hairball.
I’d say that we all have one.

I had to cough up a sizeable one myself that snowballed over a couple of decades before I could come back to the Christian faith. It was only when I coughed it up and put words to my deeply held animosity towards the church that I could hear something new.

A lot of times, our grief and pain must be expressed through our mouths before our ears open.

I took this into a discussion with an old friend just yesterday. We hadn’t seen each other in probably 6 or 7 years, so when he said that he heard I was going to seminary and asked what prompted that decision in my life, instead of going too deeply into my stuff first, I handed the question back to him. I could tell that there was a lot he had to say because the expression on his face was literally like he had a hairball in his throat that he needed to cough up. After giving him a brief rundown of my situation, I said, “So we all have a theological hairball of sorts to cough up about faith. I know I had one when I left the church of my youth. What’s yours, in particular, if you don’t mind sharing?”

He then proceeded to share his intricate history — both sordid and beautiful — with the church and the spiritual journey he’s now on. Then, he relaxed. And that was it. The hairball was out on the table, I wasn’t in the least bit offended, and we had a great discussion about God, consciousness, quantum theory, and a lot of other things I don’t understand.

This post was published first in The Jonasletter. To get my essayettes in your handy dandy email inbox as soon as they’re published, click here to subscribe.



Jonas Ellison

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