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Pastors Who No Longer Believe

My conservative friend included me in an email referencing this blog entry about this academic paper examining five Protestant pastors who now identify as non-believers.

My comments to my friend:

This reminds me very much of my father’s experience. He left the pulpit, but he kept up the façade of being a Christian believer until he and my mother moved from our home town, even though he continued to hold Christian ethics and value the church.

This, to me, is the key and the tragedy: “What unites these ministers is their isolation from the believers in their pews, their awareness that they cannot honestly discuss their doubts and evolving beliefs.”

How very sad that doubt and questions are not part of religious culture. If they were, I might have stayed a Christian. Instead, I “knew” that my questions and doubts put me beyond the pale, outside of fellowship. The older I got, the more sure I became that I was not alone in my questions -- but by then it was far too late for me to recover the sense of fellowship I'd had as a child and young woman.

Utter loss of faith is a different thing, of course. . . . I can’t imagine maintaining a sense of integrity while being a pastor who has utterly lost faith. But where is the reverence for a God so great that questions are welcomed as the mark of a mature person?

Obviously I write this as someone who left the Church, and who would never be happy within a strongly orthodox (note the small “o”) congregation, so there’s a limit to what I can offer to this discussion. But having been raised in the church and denied my own spiritual vocation because of my questions, I think I have some perspective.

* * * * * * * *

I think that monotheistic belief, based as it is on a paradigm of One God Who Is The Only Truth, lends itself to a binary attitude of right/wrong, true/false. I am not not not saying that all monotheists are this way, only that I see it as a tendency.

Where is the respect for the one who questions with a heart and mind full of agony? Who longs for answers but who can not -- will not -- settle for the tradional answers?

Perhaps such people do not belong in pulpits. . . or perhaps they belong in the pulpits of congregations of questioners.

I am not a Christian anymore, however much I reverence Yeshua the Christ. My part in such discussions is necessarily limited. But I was once a very reverent daughter of the church who ended up unable to stay because -- rightly or wrongly -- I did not believe the fellowship of faith was stronger than my questions.

This article hits very close to home, and it breaks my heart.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 11th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC)
I also left the church. But I'm happy to say it was not because I felt I could not belong if I questioned.

My father told me, when I was in elementary school and came home confused about how genesis and the science textbook could both be truth, (after he explained how there was no discrepancy there) that any religion, any institution, any person, much less any God, who could not stand up to questions, did not deserve my loyalty or respect. God, he said, was much too strong for my questions to topple him, and anyone who told me differently was clearly not as sure in their own faith as I wanted to be.

One of those moments I treasure, since not often did Dad really excel at parenting me. :P

I'm sad to hear of your grief regarding this issue, but I feel privileged to be given a further glimpse into you. Thank you.
May. 11th, 2010 03:17 am (UTC)
I actually left the church when I had an existential crisis that left me an atheist for a while. . . but part of what led up to that was my perception that the church did not allow the kinds of questions that troubled me.

The irony is that my father was a former pastor who left because of his questions, and yet I didn't realize that he was a reverent agnostic, not a Christian. I don't know if that would have kept me in the church, but it sure would have reduced my angst when I realized that I no longer believed in anything and was sure I would break my parents' heart as a result.

I don't think of it as a grief that I carry. As you know, I have a very rich spiritual life now -- one that includes all kinds of things that simply can not fit within any institutional Christianity I am aware of. In fact: I can't stay within the boundaries of any set tradition anymore. The best I can do is find a path that works for me and do my work within it as best I can.
May. 11th, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)
I, too, wish that questions and doubts were more readily welcomed in various Christian congregation settings. It frustrates me when I hear, "It's not our place to question." After all, shortly before his crucifixion, even Jesus spent hours in prayer to God, questioning what was to come and searching for the answer of whether or not this was right! Not to mention the other stories in the Bible of God asking tough things of his believers and their prayers and struggles with what was being asked of them. I think the most important thing to note is that God did not strike any of these individuals down in anger because they dared to question his word. Instead, I imagine that he quietly, respectfully, listened to their questions.
May. 11th, 2010 07:58 am (UTC)
Well said indeed. One of the many problems with religion in the US is how brittle many people's faith is. I sometimes wonder how many of the more obnoxious zealots actually have strong faith and how many either wish or pretend they do, but wish to seem like they do (perhaps also to themselves).
May. 14th, 2010 01:37 am (UTC)
I've come to believe that ambiguity terrifies a very large percentage of humanity -- especially around the basic assumptions of life. For those whose assumptions are based on their religious beliefs (and religious belief involves answering -- or at least addressing -- those fundamental issues), questioning religious beliefs means questioning their entire understanding of life and their place in the world, and they are unwilling and/or unable to grapple with those issues.

Or at least that's my hypothesis.
May. 11th, 2010 09:48 am (UTC)
Story of my life.

There used to be- probably still is- an organisation called Sea of Faith, which provided support and encouragement to unbelieving clergy in Britain. I attended one of their conferences back in the late 80s.

May. 11th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
The thing that struck me is that all five of the people interviewed (and a number of others I've known personally) felt that because they could not subscribe to all tenets of Christian doctrine, or because they could not subscribe to belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god, they therefore could not believe in any religion or deity at all.

There are so many more options than just those two! What happened to these people that they can only see Christianity or atheism, and not any of the other possibilities? What makes them different from those people who, when faced with a crisis of faith, have been able to see and accept other possibilities? It makes me very curious.
May. 11th, 2010 06:14 pm (UTC)
What happened to these people that they can only see Christianity or atheism, and not any of the other possibilities?

One of the things I heard ad nauseam while in the evangelical Christian movement was, "God/The Bible/Christianity is not a buffet, where you can pick and choose what to accept or believe. It is either all or nothing." Those people probably internalized that message. I internalized it, too, and I challenge it every day that I choose (with more than a little bit of angst, some days) to find wisdom in various philosophies and religious traditions.
May. 11th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you, I appreciate your response.

I've wondered if perhaps that's it. I got that message too, growing up Catholic, but I somehow didn't internalize it. It just never made sense to me that there was only one God, that all other deities were demons or something, and that Christianity had a corner on the truth. It didn't and doesn't compute. When I was a kid I used to wonder what piece of my brain was missing, because it made sense to so many other people. :-/ But when I encounter a situation like this one, I still ponder what it is that causes people, including some prominent theologians, to see Christianity or monotheism and atheism and nothing else in the religious world.

*goes away to think some more*
May. 14th, 2010 01:41 am (UTC)
because they could not subscribe to belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god, they therefore could not believe in any religion or deity at all.

Indeed! And it's not just pastors who are in this situation. A lot of my spiritual direction practice is aimed at ordinary people who were given a single religious paradigm growing up and taught to believe that it was that way or no way at all -- and they continued to accept that paradigm even after they rejected the religious beliefs.

I think that the different ways people react to loss of their beginning faith depends on why they left it behind. If they encountered a variety of spiritual options being presented by people they trusted and respected then they would -- I suspect -- be more open to pluralism. If they grew up with monotheistic/dualistic/binary thinking and simply "lost their faith" they don't have a different paradigm to embrace.

Or so my own thinking goes. . . .
May. 14th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
*nods* I may have been able to see things in a wider light because my dad was pretty open about the validity of other spiritual paths, instead of being a hard-line Catholic. Or maybe it was some other factor; I don't know.
May. 11th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
My understanding of Kabbalah is spotty at best and is entirely gleaned from my slow progress over the past few years through "God Is A Verb", by David A. Cooper. But Rabbi Cooper contends that within that Jewish mystical tradition, questioning is encouraged, even celebrated by God. So that is one monotheistic religious tradition that doesn't shut down questioners.

My experience with monotheism is similar to yours, though. In fact, the binary way of thinking was so ingrained in me from early childhood, that my internalizing of it has caused me problems in other areas of my life having nothing to do with religion.
May. 12th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)
Thinking about the connection between religious faith and community, I was struck by the contrast between Christianity and Judaism. More-or-less open atheism is not uncommon in Jewish congregations (particularly in Reform Judaism, of course) and isn't particularly anathematized. A "secular Jew" is a perfectly reasonable and respectable thing to be, since Judaism regards itself as a cultural tradition and an ethnicity (sort of) as well as as a religion.

But -- precisely because Christianity aspires to universalism -- there is no way to be a "secular Christian." Without the religious faith, there is, in theory anyway, no common bond between Christians, so exiting the faith means exiting the community and abandoning the tradition.

In fact, the three ministers in the paper who became unbelievers prior to entering the ministry actually seem to be wrestling with exactly this: they're trying to work out how to be "secular Christians," how to be "in the church" without being "in the faith."

And I suspect that a lot of Christians are looking for something along those lines -- they don't really believe the Nicean Creed or the Westminster Confession or what have you, but they don't want to walk away from the cultural tradition and the community.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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