Friday 4 November 2016

Faith Journey (part 10 and final)

This will be the final post recounting my journey from believing pastor to where I am now (secular, humanist, agnostic-yet-mindful of the mystery of life and existence, etc.). So here goes…

During the early months of 2015 I started pulling together a number of posts and reflections I had written, either for myself, my ALC colleagues, or for The Clergy Project forum. These would eventually constitute a pack of materials, addressed to the LCA leadership, outlining how my beliefs and worldview had changed over the last few years – summarized in a few pages but running in total length to over 60 pages. Having done this, I securely filed it and got on with the duties of seminary lecturer, dean of chapel, church theologian, etc. But all the time I knew my little pack of surprises was sitting there for a purpose, ticking away like a time bomb. After all, this is what I wrote to those who would eventually read it:

Over the last few years, I have tried to visualize various ways that I could authentically hold my views while continuing in my current, or similar, employment. These are some of the options that offer themselves, and they all present difficulties of one kind or another.

- Grin and bear it – just suppress my personal opinions and play the game
- Continue to hold the public line, but have a regular outlet to share with like-minded people
- Nudge the church in a progressive direction which, while coming nowhere close to my own views, would at least initiate some conversations
- Be open about my personal views, but promise to teach and work within the doctrinal parameters of the church
- Seek some other work within the institution of the church 
- Seek employment in a more liberal church

I’ve considered all of these options, and for a while I really did imagine I could function as a closet heretic within the LCA. However, I’ve recently come to feel that I should probably bow out from ordained ministry altogether.

By May of 2015 I came to the realization that for all my efforts, I was no more reconciled to my calling than before, and knew that nothing was going to change now. The prospect of a double existence was as unpalatable as it had ever been. And so it was, that in one of the more reckless decisions of my life, I threw caution to the wind and posted the pack to the national and local bishop.

When we eventually met on June 2, things moved very quickly. While I had personally (and probably naively) hoped for a lengthier period to transition out of ministry, this was not considered feasible. The upshot was that I had no choice but to resign from the ordained ministry within the next two days, which I did the very next day. After that I had till the end of the month to wrap up my seminary duties…and that would be that. Needless to say, the next days and weeks were traumatic, both for myself and my family, and I’m not going to rehash that here. I don’t even like thinking about it. However, I can say that the ALC leadership and community offered wonderful support during this difficult time, and for that I remain deeply grateful.

But despite the grief (self-imposed, but real all the same), what would occupy me over the coming months would be the practicalities of surviving now that unemployment loomed ahead. Since this blog is really about charting my changing beliefs and worldviews, I won’t give a tedious narrative of all that happened next. The following sums up some of the main challenges, decisions, achievements and milestones since leaving the ministry, some of which continue up to the present:

 * Communicate and try and explain my decision to unsuspecting (and bewildered) family members
 * Begin this blog, which I did on July 30, 2015, as a way of communicating with interested church members, and anyone else for that matter.
 * Start looking for alternative accommodation, as we were currently in an ALC owned house. As it turned out, we kept renting there till the end of the year, after which we moved into another unoccupied manse very nearby. Most fortunate!
 * Decide whether to continue my doctoral studies or not. The decision was to place the PhD on hold for a year. This gave me an opportunity to reshape the thesis direction. But as new employment and professional prospects emerged in late 2016 it became apparent that this was no longer viable. I am now in the process of withdrawing from the program. A little sad, but that’s life. (But don’t worry, Ricoeur and I, we’re still friends you know.)

But the most urgent task was to find new employment. Without income, nothing much else was going to happen. Except for bad things, of course.

Thankfully, I was in time to (successfully) apply for a research contract through ALITE (Australian Lutheran Institute of Theology and Ethics), an arm of my previous employer, Australian Lutheran College. Some LCA readers will know about this, and may even have participated in it. In short, it involved completing a research project (surveys, focus groups, literature reviews) providing a current snapshot of the LCA clergy – their wellbeing, the nature of their work and ministry, their training and professional needs. This entailed extensive consultation across the church and resulted in a series of reports with recommendations for LCA leadership. Most unusual given my recent exit – but all in all a fulfilling and valuable experience, providing part time employment for a good part of a year.

During this time, I was also offered a small amount work with Adelaide College of Divinity, writing a VET unit (Cert IV in Christian Life and Ministry) and marking papers for a Biblical Hermeneutics course. The latter was a satisfying academic experience.

But when these income streams eventually dried up the time came to seriously engage with the job market out there in the ‘world’. This was something I had never needed to do, being employed by the church since my early 20s. Things were not helped by South Australia having the highest unemployment and underemployment levels in the nation.

Nor were things helped by suffering a heart attack, which not only meant several weeks’ recovery, but quite reduced energy levels due to the medication I was now popping every morning and evening. This is a factor I’m only just getting on top of 6 months on. Thankfully, I didn’t go down the bypass surgery route, with 3 stents sufficing to keep my coronary arteries open instead.  

After putting in scores of job applications, I felt I had no choice but accept an agency cleaning job to earn some extra cash. These were an exhausting 10 weeks, and further drained me of energy that might be better put into job hunting. Still, it was the closest thing to a free gym membership you can get (those lost kilos are now creeping back, as they do!)

During this time, I also enrolled in a Diploma of Counselling to improve my job prospects. This was not something I would have anticipated doing some months earlier, but the process of job hunting and writing applications very much served to sort out the kind of things I could see myself doing – and not doing. As it turns out, I’m glad I made this investment – the whole field of counselling can be envisaged as a secular version of pastoral ministry. So far, I’m enjoying the study, as well attending the Australian Counselling Association National Conference in Adelaide recently.

BUT…the best news of all was to finally receive full-time work with the recently renamed Department for Child Protection. So I have now entered the public service, engaging on yet another significant learning journey. Furthermore, I feel there is a good deal of cross-fertilization between this employment and the counselling studies, not to mention the induction I’m currently undergoing.

So to sum it up, and to bring this personal journey to a close, I do feel I’m in the best place I’ve been for quite some years, at least since my doubts began gathering momentum around 2011. Of course, we never know what challenges life will throw at us next, but at least for now I can say that I’m no longer caught between an inauthentic religious role or financial impoverishment. Whether I continue to engage in theology or religious reflection remains to be seen. Perhaps it can be a hobby of sorts. It’s certainly not irrelevant to the field of counselling. In any case, I hope to blog some more about how I see the nature and role of religious/Christian faith, as time permits.

I hope you’ve found this an interesting read. And if perchance your situation resembles mine in any way, that you’ve found it helpful.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Faith Journey (part 9)

The following section is probably unnecessary if you have read, meditated upon, and inwardly digested my previous posts. However, there are a number of conclusions believers may prematurely arrive at when first encountering my heretical and apostate views. I try to answer them here.

Are you angry at the church? Have you been hurt in some way? I can honestly say that my critique of Christian faith has not been fueled by anger at the institution, or particular Christians, or by some personal hurt or misfortune. Personally, I have been treated very well by the church; I will always owe a debt of gratitude for the support of the LCA and all the wonderful people within it. Some aspects of what happened after I shared my views with church leadership were disappointing, but at the same time I also received unexpected support from within the church. But the main point is this: my critique of Christian belief did not stem from personal injury or offense.  

Are you more generally offended by the church’s moral track record? I don't deny that the churches have been culpable in many ways over the centuries and the cause of considerable evil; but I also recognize that churches and Christians have been the source of immense good. Once again, this has not been the primary reason for arriving at my conclusions.

Are you trying to intellectualize what is basically a spiritual problem? Is my unbelief the result of hardness of heart, of proud insubordination and unwillingness to submit to God and his word? Obviously, the word 'unbelief' has for many Christians this tone of 'refusal', 'rejection' or 'hostility', and so is naturally regarded as a moral or spiritual failure. But such a conclusion only makes sense within the thought-world of faith, so if one thinks that of me, so be it. But I don’t see it that way.

Do you want to break free from the constraints of Christian morality? Once again, this is not the case. There are many motivations and rewards for resisting selfishness and striving to look to the interests of others. Not only is there the continuing influence of the ethical framework that has formed me, there are also simple human reasons for wishing to live with personal integrity and mutual goodwill. And when it comes to the inner struggle, which is not just the preserve of Christian experience, I suspect that our evolutionary heritage and cultural/linguistic formation provides a better foundation for understanding it than the myth of original perfection, original sin, or the temptations of Satan.

Are you having trouble accepting grace and forgiveness? That is, in being unable to accept Christ's free and undeserved mercy, have I shut my heart to God altogether? Even if this was the case, it's entirely irrelevant to the reasons I've been discussing. Even if I do have a 'spiritual problem', it in no way changes what I regard as the implausibility of traditional claims about Jesus, the bible, history, and so on. It's interesting to note that of the various de-conversion accounts I've read, you get the full range of human experience – those whose loss of faith was tied up with moral failure and personal animus, and the very opposite, those whose integrity and dignity remained steadfast even as their faith slowly unravelled.

Were you converted by New Atheists, which you wrote about in The Lutheran? Simple answer again is no. Most of my ideas were coming together by the time I got to writing that series. Furthermore, many New Atheist arguments were of quite poor quality. The truth is, most of my conclusions were arrived at by reading books on biblical scholarship and contemporary Christian theology in our own ALC library.

Do you think that you are smarter than everyone else? Are you accusing Christians of stupidity? Not at all. For a start, the willingness to subject our beliefs to scrutiny, and the forces claiming our loyalty, are often quite independent of our intellectual abilities (this is a prime example of where the New Atheists are mistaken, imagining believers to be bereft of intelligence). But while I don’t claim to be cleverer than others, I can say that I have informed myself to a degree that many believers would not be willing to do. I have read, researched, and wrestled with these issues, alone and with others, as much as is humanly possible. And it also seems to be the case that some believers will resist, misrepresent or caricature anything they fear may threaten their faith – a defensive action that speaks volumes, it seems.

Is it now your mission to convert others to unbelief? Once again, the answer is no. I respect the faith and worldviews of believers, and do not wish to belittle anyone for their views and practices. As I discussed above, I believe that (even as a human phenomenon) faith and church have formed the people I know, and usually for the better. Besides, having been an insider to faith for many years (most of my life, actually) I recognize the sense it makes when you are inside that world of faith. At the same time, I will welcome honest and frank discussion with anyone who wants to understand my position.

Are your current views due to burnout?  I would not say that my views and conclusions were due to burnout. For most of my time at ALC, I was motivated and energetic. However, it’s probably true that I definitely was heading for burnout, due to the extra pressure of having to live with, or somehow trying to resolve, all these things. In effect, I had to juggle three balls: one was my ALC and LCA work, another was my doctorate, and the third was my conflict of beliefs. The first two were manageable – but the third ball was really doing me in.

In conclusion
No doubt there are many other ways my change of thinking and commitments could be construed and interpreted, and that’s OK. Everyone has to interpret the world around them in terms of their own sense of reality, and that means you might interpret what I’m saying in terms of Christian faith and Lutheran spiritual dynamics – how could you do otherwise? On the other hand, what I’ve described might make perfect sense to you, given the ‘world’ you live in.

Anyway, I can honestly say that I am comfortable with letting go of confessions and dogmas that I can no longer make myself believe, including the realization that I don’t have anything quite so comprehensive or venerable to replace it with. That in itself is amazing, because I remember a time when I regarded ‘losing the faith’ as the worst possible thing that could happen to a Christian – which is a fear the faith itself inculcates. But in truth, there is immense freedom in finally owning up to what you do and don’t believe, and knowing that although you might be quite mistaken about some things, at least you are being real.

All the same, the practical implications of all this were not at all easy. In fact, the next 15 months or so were some of the more challenging I’ve ever faced, and I’ll wrap my faith journey up in my last post by briefly recounting them.

Faith Journey (Part 8)

As this personal journey draws near to the present, or at least to where it started with A Short Statement of ‘Belief’(Blog post 4/10/15), I provide a snapshot of where I was in early 2015 and what I ended up sharing with the leadership of the LCA. Since it’s not unlike where I’m at now in my worldview, I’ve let some sections remain in present tense…

What do I believe?

So what have I turned into, if my worldview is no longer informed and sustained by Christian beliefs? Although I agree with atheism on many points, I’m not comfortable with the definitive label ‘atheist’ – it seems a little too doctrinaire in its own way, it reduces the element of cosmic mystery to materialist naturalism, and on a personal level, many people I know and love react quite adversely to the ‘A’ word. In any case, I think that ‘agnostic’ approximates my current position, and ‘free thinker’ comes close to describing my ideal – although I recognize that none of us are ‘free’ in any absolute sense, but products of our time, place and circumstance. The point is that I have not submitted to another ‘system’ of belief, nor have I embraced another ‘gospel’. For it’s not just my beliefs that have changed, but my very approach to believing. My manner of engaging with reality has a far greater degree of hesitancy, contingency, and willingness to revise (including what I write here). Obviously there is a broad worldview and consensus of opinions that I find persuasive, but one thing I do not wish to be or become is unbendingly dogmatic. 

In fact, I am learning that it is absolutely OK not to know, and that the deepest mysteries of life will most likely always elude us. I’m not saying we should give up trying to understand – just that we continually reassess what we believe, no matter how sacred that inherited wisdom is. And because there are many sources of knowledge and guidance to help us assess what is real and good, I for one cannot commit myself to scriptures and saviours claiming to be (or considered to be) definitive, universal and eternal. 

Hopefully you can see that this is not some knee jerk reaction to our overly dogmatic past (like when the fundamentalist Christian overnight becomes a fundamentalist atheist). For my journey has included periods of engagement with catholic and ecumenical kinds of orthodoxy, and more recently, post-critical and progressive/liberal constructions of Christian faith. But as I have also discovered, it takes a particular kind of personality to commit your life to a set of symbols when you know full well that’s all they are (See blog post 10/7/16). Some can live and move and have their being in such a Christian world, although I suspect that family ties, traditional loyalties, and economic realities probably play a larger role than admitted. But my temperament doesn’t seem to work that way, and I feel unable to fully enter into the ‘as if’ mode of hypothetical belief for the sake of belonging to a community.

But even if I don’t engage with the faith personally, might not Christianity continue to play an important role in the broader local and global community? I believe this is the case. As I see it, Christianity will continue to be immensely successful and self-validating, at least in the foreseeable future. This is especially as it opens up to the global south, where intellectual culture has not passed through same travails as in the west. Christian faith, I imagine, will continue to meet personal needs, give meaning, and provide a stable pattern for negotiating what can be a scary and chaotic world. Prayer and spirituality will continue to anchor personal lives, and public worship will continue to be the backbone of believing communities. Against Christopher Hitchens, I agree with Tony Blair that religion will be, or at least can be, a force for good, despite its role in various conflicts around the world. I for one know that the Christian matrix of beliefs and practices can provide a powerful motivator to strive against our ingrained selfishness – although I no longer believe that only Christianity can effectively do this. Sadly, many who don’t belong to a religious tradition may well live aimless and self-destructive lives, and yes, much contemporary life is extremely shallow, based as it is on consumerism and entertainment (i.e., bread and circus). By contrast, many will discover that Christianity can supply an exceedingly comprehensive, holistic and road tested framework for life – one that works at many levels.

[By the way, if reports are true that many Muslims in Europe are converting to Christianity – and I’m not sure if this is anything more than anecdotal – then I think that this too can be understood as a purely human phenomenon, and not some special work of providence. After all, individuals and communities do change, sometimes gradually, sometimes dramatically. It’s what happens.]

Who knows, Christianity might even continue to be a vibrant intellectual tradition, but if so, I suspect this will be to the degree that it appropriates contemporary scientific, psychological and philosophical insights. That is, while Christianity will absorb or adapt to new forms of secular knowledge, will these branches of knowledge in turn be enriched by specifically Christian beliefs? Somehow, I doubt it. But coming back to the local scene, whether or not LCA membership will catch up with even commonly accepted mainstream biblical scholarship remains to be seen. For the present, it seems that our clergy are doing a fine job in protecting them from uncomfortable truths the academic community has known for decades.

Anyway, the point of sharing all this was (and still is) to show that the path I was taking (and the pastures I was leaving) did not stem from simplistic idealism. I knew then, as I do now, that the existential grass is not greener on the other side. I also recognize that in practical terms, Christianity has resources for social and individual wellbeing that secularism often cannot match. Many thoughtful non-believers recognize this to be the case, without thereby subscribing to such religious beliefs.

And yet, strangely enough, it felt that the decisions I was then making were more ‘religious’ (that is, existentially significant) than if I opted for a life of ecclesial and academic routine. It was in leaving, rather than submitting and staying, that I came to experience such biblical images of leaving one’s tribal and familial loyalties, of taking up one’s cross, and of risking the loss of all that had made me who I am.

In the next post I’ll answer some possible misunderstandings that might have arisen in people’s minds as to why I left the ministry; and then a final post will rapidly bring the stages of my journey up to the present. 

Sunday 7 August 2016

Faith Journey (theological and philosophical companions)

Here’s a snapshot of some reading that I’ve resonated with over the past few years, part of my winding path of faith and thought.

Radical, progressive or disaffected Christian scholars and authors, many of whom have abandoned traditional dogma altogether:

Richard Holloway
   Doubts and Loves: what is left of Christianity
   Godless Morality: keeping religion out of ethics
Don Cupitt 
   Taking Leave of God
   Emptiness & Brightness
   The Way to Happiness: a theory of religion
Lloyd Geering 
   Re-imagining God: the faith journey of a modern heretic
   Christianity without God
   Tomorrow’s God: how we create our worlds
Thom Stark
    The Human Faces of God: what Scripture reveals when it gets God wrong, and why inerrancy tries to hide     it
John Spong
   Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
Harvey Cox
   The Future of Faith
John McQuiston 
   Christianity without Superstition

Critical biblical scholars, some who have remained in the church while others have left:

Dale Allison Jr
   The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus   
   Jesus of Nazareth: millenarian prophet
   Constructing Jesus: meaning, imagination, and history
   Resurrecting Jesus: the earliest Christian tradition and its interpreters
Marcus Borg 
   Putting Away Childish Things: a tale of modern faith
   The First Christmas; The Meaning of Jesus: two visions (together with N.T.Wright)
   The Heart of Christianity: rediscovering a life of faith
   Jesus: uncovering the life, teachings, and relevance of a religious revolutionary
Bart Ehrman
   How Jesus Became God: the exaltation of a Jewish preacher from Galilee
   Jesus: apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium
   Did Jesus Exist? The historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth
   Forged: writing in the name of God-why the bible’s authors are not who we think they are
Peter Enns
   The Evolution of Adam: what the bible does and doesn’t say about human origins
   The Bible Tells Me So: why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it

Contemporary 20th century theologians:

Paul Tillich 
   Systematic Theology, Vols. 1-3
   Dynamics of Faith
John Macquarrie 
   Principles of Christian Theology
Maurice Wiles 
   Faith and the Mystery of God
   A Shared Search: doing theology with one’s friends
Garrett Green 
   Theology, Hermeneutics and Imagination
   Imagining God: theology and the religious imagination
Roger Haight 
   Dynamics of Theology
   The Future of Christology
   Jesus: symbol of God)
Ted Peters 
   God: the world’s future

Scholars and philosophers of religion:

Wilfred Cantwell Smith 
   What is Scripture? A comparative approach
   Towards a World Theology; Faith and Belief
John Hick 
   The Fifth Dimension: an exploration of the spiritual realm
   The Metaphor of God incarnate: Christology in a pluralistic age
Karen Armstrong 
   The Case for God
   A History of God
Loyal Rue 
   Religion is Not about God: how spiritual traditions nurture biological nature and what to expect when they      fail
   Nature is Enough: religious naturalism and the meaning of life
   Everybody’s Story: wising up to the story of evolution
Robert Bellah
   Religion in Human Evolution: from the Paleolithic to the axial age
Daphne Hampson 
   After Christianity
Terry Eagleton
   Culture and the Death of God
   Hope without Optimism


John Loftus 
   Why I Became an Atheist: a former preacher rejects Christianity
   The Christian Delusion: why faith fails
Kenneth W. Daniels
   Why I Believed: reflections of a former missionary
Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola 
   Caught in the Pulpit: leaving belief behind

Atheists – some popular or notorious, others thoughtful and generous:

Friedrich Nietzsche 
   Human, All Too Human
Robert Price 
   The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man
   The Reason Driven Life
Walter Kaufmann 
   The Faith of a Heretic
   Critique of Religion and Philosophy
Andre Comte-Sponville 
   The Book of Atheist Spirituality
   A Little Treatise on the Great Virtues
Thomas Nagel 
   Mind & Cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false
Eric Maisel 
   The Atheist’s Way: living well without gods

And of course, many works by Ricoeur and about Ricoeur, of which I’ll only mention a few:

Paul Ricoeur 
   The Symbolism of Evil
   The Conflict of Interpretations
   Freud & Philosophy: an essay on interpretation
   From Text to Action
   Time and Narrative, Vol.1-3
   Oneself as Another
   Interpretation Theory: discourse and the surplus of meaning
   Figuring the Sacred: religion, narrative and the imagination)
Dan Stivers 
   Theology after Ricoeur: new directions in hermeneutical theology
   Ricoeur and Theology
Richard Kearney 
   Anatheism: returning to God after God
Kevin J. Vanhoozer 
   Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: a study in hermeneutics and theology

Sunday 10 July 2016

Faith journey (part 7)

Having taken the step of sharing something of my own faith-orientation, the question I now had to ask myself was this: while maintaining the respect and acceptance of my colleagues (despite my heretical views) did I really believe what I wrote and presented? Did I really intend to make that wager, to entrust myself to the universe of Christian symbols, even while I understood that that’s all they are? Was I capable of embracing a ‘second naiveté,’ that is, a deliberately willed innocence, which says ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the same breath (or with different brain hemispheres)? Or had I simply found another creative way of tailoring my views to the audience? I came to realize that was probably what happened, and so I found myself in a position not too different from where I was some 12 months before.  

On the one hand, my carefully controlled coming out did reduce cognitive dissonance (a bit like spiritual trepanning), even though it was still something I could only talk about in hushed tones in the stairwell.  But on the other hand, it meant that I ended up arguing for the least disagreeable position available to me, rather than a position I actually agreed with. For on reflection, I really doubted that what I wrote about Christianity as a non-dogmatic pattern of life, rather than a belief system, would hold water, at least in my case.

Let me explain, and I’ll switch to present tense here.

I don’t deny that some individuals can use Christian symbols, narratives and rituals as a scaffold to engage in a personally meaningful and socially generous pattern of life, while also knowing that none of its metaphysical claims are literally true; and furthermore, recognizing that the very tradition that claims to be universal and absolute is in fact contingent and relative. Good for them! But despite advocating for this very position, I find it very hard to engage in Christian practices when I know they are ‘only’ symbolic (I put ‘only’ in quote marks because more generally I think symbols are very important). In the final analysis, it seems to me, that Christianity is incurably dogmatic. Here I find Walter Kaufmann’s critique of Christianity quite to the point (The Faith of a Heretic):

“Christianity defined itself less as a way of life than as a faith, which right from the beginning, involved assent to various propositions” (142). “In the end, a Christian may choose to reject theology...But in that case he gives up Christianity...” (143) “Christianity is inescapably a theological religion, and those who give up the ancient formulations of alleged knowledge about ‘God, his nature and attributes, and his relations with man and the universe’ break with Christianity” (144).

(I would have also quoted Daphne Hampson’s After Christianity here, except that I’ve returned it to the library.)

So the practices arise out of the beliefs, and for the vast majority of people, precisely because these beliefs are taken to be true in some objective sense. In terms of numbers, I don’t know how many believers actually do happily and freely practice the faith without also believing it. Quite likely, those who advocate the ‘willed naiveté’ approach are those who have already invested a lot of themselves in the Christian tradition, and feel bound to it for traditional, family, community or economic reasons. Only someone trying to justify their continued existence in a faith tradition they no longer believe in would develop such an approach. That’s why it seems that conservative, orthodox and fundamentalist churches make the converts, and liberal and progressive churches appeal to those who have lost their beliefs. Of course, there may be exceptions, but they might often be authors, poets, or intellectuals, drawn to the tradition for various aesthetic reasons. 

But the real test of whether or not I believed my own words about a non-dogmatic, praxis oriented Christianity, is how I myself freely and willingly practice it. How do I measure up to (in my own words) “reading and interpreting Scripture, cultivating an inner life, participating in communal worship, practicing reconciliation, listening to others, receiving strangers, engaging in charity, re-imagining a world, accepting discipline, cultivating virtue, avoiding vices, and so on”?

Many I still hold to, or at least seek to enact, feeble as my attempts are. Practices like “cultivating an inner life, practicing reconciliation, listening to others, receiving strangers, engaging in charity, re-imagining a world, accepting discipline, cultivating virtue, avoiding vice”… these are, without a doubt, things to strive for as best we humanly can. But not because they are Christian, but because they’re worthwhile in themselves, having their own intrinsic reward or the well-being of others. And it seems to me that such qualities can all be pursued (if not fully realized) by the light of reason or common decency, or through the resources of other philosophical or religious traditions. Or Christianity, of course.

But there are particular Christian practices that I had long abandoned, dependent as they are on specific underlying beliefs. For example, for some time I had been reading the bible only when I had to, for teaching, preaching or research purposes. Quite apart from dismissing the church’s claim to the bible’s inerrancy (its factual, historical or literal truth), I didn’t find myself hungering to read it, even in a symbolic, imaginative or non-realist way. If it was a matter of personal guidance and meaning, practical help or wisdom, insight into human nature or a realistic accounting of the human story, or just a good story, I was going elsewhere. When I did resolve to meditate on the scripture, it was often out of a kind of loyalty to my vocation, but not because I believe God was speaking to me through it. At best, I found myself approaching the biblical passage as a pretext for bringing out what we already value – much like you can do with a passage from Shakespeare or any other rich and multilayered text. To be honest, I think that’s what most Christians and preachers do anyway…

What about participating in communal worship? With all honestly, this was the worst. Not only because I, the liturgy lecturer, should of all people be actively engaged and involved in this central act of the church, but because in communal worship the disjunction between personal faith and the public confession is intensified. Personal beliefs/faith (or lack thereof) must give way before the assembly reciting with one voice “We believe…” Furthermore, I was finding it almost impossible to sing the hymns of the church which in effect asked you to climb into someone else’s love affair with Jesus. No thanks.  Teaching worship, however, was not so bad, as I focused a lot on the historical development of the liturgy, which is a fascinating subject – and should remind us that all the things theologians and liturgists wrangle over are historically and culturally contingent.

Prayer, I’d agree with one of my former teachers, is the litmus test of belief. If you believe there is a heavenly Father who hears our prayers, or a Jesus who is present where two or three are gathered, then yes, you will pray, or try to. But it becomes a different proposition if you don’t hold these beliefs: prayer than becomes a kind of meditation, which of course may have its own benefit. Here is something I wrote about prayer in a post elsewhere:

Prayer is possibly one of the basic litmus tests for the presence of faith or not. So the fact that personal prayer has become almost non-existent for me is significant, although my job frequently requires me too pray in group or liturgical settings. In fact, I ceased believing a long time ago that prayer has any objective effect on the wider world of nature or humans. Prayer seems largely something we do for ourselves, or more likely, to ourselves. By prayer we reinforce the beliefs we hold, especially if we feel anxious about losing them (“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”). It is a form of self-indoctrination, which explains why Lutheran spirituality is always going on about the connection between the word of God and prayer (as in Luther’s classic statement on oratio, meditatio, tentatio). Psychologically, I suppose prayer can be seen as a form of processing our thoughts, perhaps by positing God as a silent conversation partner. Prayer in group settings is an interesting case. I think it’s an effective way of binding a community together, precisely by its indirection. That is, by praying to God, rather than addressing each other directly, we can say things via a third party (God) more easily than saying it face to face. Prayer is an effective, yet safe, verbal community binding agent!

More examples could be given. But the point is that having shared and argued for a ‘progressive’ understanding of Christianity with my ALC colleagues, in the following months I would end up critiquing and revising my own position, effectively calling into question the very thing I argued for. At that time, it led me to the conclusion that rather than describe myself as a ‘post-critical’ or ‘non-realist’ Christian, it would be better to not call myself a Christian believer at all.

In my next post I’ll give a snapshot then of where I was in early-mid 2015, and the events that then culminated in my exit (Lexit?) from the ordained ministry. 

Faith journey (part 6)

OK, so it’s been over 4 months since I last entered a post. Being unemployed has actually been far busier than expected, and once you throw in the odd heart attack, time gets away on you. So let’s see if I can finish off this personal faith journey that led me out of ordained ministry to where I am now. Since I’m not going to recap, you may need to re-read the last post to pick up the thread…

Later in 2014, after I had spent time exploring some so-called ‘progressive’ approaches to faith, I shared a confidential 20-page faith statement with four ALC colleagues. It was, in effect, an effort to re-cast my departure from belief as a non-realist faith: I no longer believed, but I could still live by ‘faith’ in and through Christian symbolism, to embed my literal ‘no’ within a symbolic ‘yes’. Drinking deeply from post-critical theology and progressive Christian authors, I decided that this is how I could be honest about my unbelief while at the same time justify my continued employment within the institution.

So, for example, I didn’t hang back in stating what I no longer believed. Expressing my ‘no’ to literal belief, I wrote:

For it seems to me that the Jesus of history, who lived and died in 1st century Palestine, was only human, like the rest of us. I do not believe in any literal sense that he was (or is) divine, born of a virgin, or physically raised from the dead. Nor do I believe that this same Jesus now reigns in glory, is interceding for us sinners, or that he will return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. While I’m persuaded that he was a gifted and charismatic religious teacher of his time, it was within the movement that followed him that he progressively became the fully divine Son of God. In short, already for the first Christians, Jesus was the symbol of God, but a symbol that would soon become completely identified and indistinguishable from God’s own self.

But on the other hand, I also made the case for a symbolic and practical ‘yes’ to Christianity: 

Christianity is not about intellectually holding a set of beliefs or signing up to certain propositions. But it is about a particular way of being human and engaging in a particular set of practices which order one’s life: reading and interpreting Scripture, cultivating an inner life, participating in communal worship, practicing reconciliation and forgiveness, listening to and receiving others hospitably, engaging in charity, re-imagining a world, being reflective about life, truth and meaning, accepting a form of discipline, striving to cultivate certain virtues and avoid certain vices, and so on. Taken together, this is what it means to 'live by faith' — faith that this is a better way to live, that this is a way that one can live meaningfully, productively and honestly before God, in the world, and for others. And the medium for generating and sustaining this kind of faith are the Scriptural, doctrinal, and liturgical symbols of the Christian tradition.

Well, after much fear and trembling, I submitted this statement to four trusted colleagues, ranging in theology from more traditional to more liberal.  Without necessarily agreeing with me, none of them condemned me or threatened to ‘out’ me. All this was immensely gratifying, even though I felt I had just formed a kind of secret society. But furthermore, none of this could have a flow-on effect to my teaching (and life in general) unless I enjoyed the freedom to voice these opinions more widely. So the next step was to share some of these views at a regular forum where teaching faculty are given a chance to present their latest work or research. My four confidants became a little more uneasy here, and in the end counselled me to present it, not as my own personal view, but as a view ‘out there’, as something current in the world of thought and theology. So I presented my topic: What is the Second Naiveté? Engaging with Paul Ricoeur, Post-Critical Theology, and Progressive Christianity. As suggested, it was more academic, and less personally committed. I ended with the words by Lutheran theologian, Ted Peters:

A wager is a risk, a bet. In this case…we are betting that a hermeneutic of belief in the Christian gospel will be more fruitful for living in the world than the sceptical conclusions produced by a hermeneutic of suspicion. We will not forget our doubts. But we will press on, trying to understand ourselves and the world around us in light of the symbols of divine revelation. The wager is a form of hypothetical belief, a self-entrustment to the world of meaning created by Christian language (for full paper see my Academia site).

Of course, this wider audience was not fooled, and I think they got a fair idea that to some degree I identified (note the past tense) with this stuff. Most of the feedback was from retired professors, and most asked questions which betrayed the categories in which they’ve thought and taught for decades. One emeritus (probably more) in particular was definitely not happy, but interestingly, has not pursued things further with me. But in the end, I was thanked for taking people into ‘uncomfortable places’, and then life went back to normal.

Good place to stop. Next post won’t be so long in coming. 

Saturday 5 March 2016

Faith Journey (part 5)

As I said in my last post (quite a while ago now) from 2011 onward I became aware of a growing body of literature recounting the stories and struggles of theologians and ordinary pastors who had left the faith and church altogether, or felt increasingly torn between their own intellectual integrity and the doctrinal position of their church (often their employer). A few examples are Richard Holloway’s Doubts and Loves, John Loftus’s Why I Became an Atheist,  Kenneth Daniel W. Daniels’ Why I Believed: reflections of a former missionary , and the fascinating Caught in the Pulpit: leaving belief behind, edited by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola (Lutheran pastors might be interested in this one). Reading these I immediately felt that there was a community of people around the world whose experiences were often similar to mine.

But despite resonating with the accounts of clergy who had abandoned their Christian beliefs, I was hardly ready to envisage myself as a non-Christian. Obviously there was the small matter of being a seminary lecturer, but besides this, I also wanted to learn from those Christian thinkers who fully recognized the challenges to orthodox belief, but chose to wrestle with them inside the believing community. And so I immersed myself in the works of ‘progressive’ and post-critical Christian theology, as well as the works of pluralist theologians. The idea that one could still have faith without subscribing to specific dogmatic beliefs was one that I found quite appealing, as was the notion that Christianity could have some unique practical and human value. In my next post I’ll share a list of some of the books I was or am continuing to read. 

Another stream feeding into my thinking at this time was provided by my doctoral studies. For a start, my choice of PhD topic was a kind of compromise between a traditional focus of our church (Luther’s commentary on Genesis 3) and a field of contemporary thought (Paul Ricoeur’s theory of symbol and narrative) which I felt would give me room to further explore some of these issues both within and beyond our ecclesial boundaries. For a nice video introduction to Paul Ricoeur see here. Indeed, it was very heartening to discover a whole field of literature and thought that I found intellectually critical on the one hand, but open to faith and the transcendent on the other. It was through Ricoeur and others that a ‘post-critical’ faith, often termed a ‘second naiveté,’ began to present itself as a real option.

2012 was entirely given over to advancing my PhD, and since I would be returning to full time work the following year, I worked as I hard as possible to make good progress. My proposal was accepted, and I began to develop the shape and content of my thesis. The weeks and months oscillated between Ricoeur’s world of contemporary hermeneutics and Luther’s 16th century Reformation world, the common element being the human experience and understanding of evil. But I also worked hard for another reason. During this time I continued to draw a full salary, and so benefited from the church’s belief that I was a long-term investment. With all honesty, I wanted to honour that trust placed in me. So as well as straddling the worlds of Luther and Ricoeur, I also resolved to find a way of negotiating my own two parallel universes of confessional subscription and personal integrity. At the very least, I had to find a way of bracketing or managing my personal convictions so they would not fundamentally interfere with my calling and profession.

In 2013 I returned to full time ALC service (and part time study) reinvigorated and ready to go. But it was not long before I realized how hard it was to live in two worlds. While personally I found it liberating to think and believe authentically, what daunted me was the inability to share these views with anyone in the church – and that included a lot of people: colleagues, students, friends and family. Of course, I could share my PhD journey with anyone who cared to listen, or allude more indirectly to the issues this raised for theology. But as a lecturer in pastoral theology entrusted with the task of forming and educating candidates for the ministry, I could hardly say to my students, “Well this is what the church teaches, but as for myself, I find it completely untenable”. Even sharing too much with my colleagues was risky, not due to any intolerance on their part, but because everyone knew that in this particular vocation, personal faith is one of the first job requirements!

To give a sense of how I felt, here is how I described my feelings of the time on a private forum I would join some time later (I’ll get to that):

The question is, should I just try and focus on my list of responsibilities, and refuse to look the bigger picture, year after year after year? I would, except there is a sense in which this is almost impossible. For, by definition, the work of theology (like philosophy) centres on those bigger picture issues: the meaning of life, our origins and ends, the nature of humans, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. It’s not at all that ‘I hate my job’ in the way most people understand it – far from it. While a common complaint is ‘my work is meaningless’, in my case, it’s the actual reverse: my work is saturated with meaning, but a meaning I no longer own. This congestion of meaning is particularly intense in my position of training pastors. It’s not good enough simply to ‘respect the ethos’ of the Lutheran tradition in this place, as is the case for administrative staff, for example. Nor is it good enough to know, understand, and teach the faith, as might be the case with a religious studies lecturer. No, I have to show, before others, that I personally own and live this faith, when I don’t. I have to pray, lead liturgy, and say ‘This is the word of the Lord’, not just competently or even proficiently, but genuinely and authentically. The best I can do at times is to conceal my reticence.

On the family front this lack of authenticity was also taking its toll on me personally. I’m not going to share much about this, except to say that my predicament led me to become increasingly withdrawn and non-communicative about my work and faith (even though by this stage I had begun to admit to Jeanette where I was at). But as my children grew into inquiring teenagers, I felt it was pretty poor going to either avoid discussions about faith and life, or tow a line I myself didn’t hold. It was especially difficult when asked questions like “Why did you become a pastor, Dad?” or “Do you like being a pastor?”! 

So while 2013 had started out positively, by the end of the year I felt more constrained by these pressures than ever before. And being the kind of introvert that I am, the more burdened I felt, the less willing and able I was to talk about it. Depression and anxiety were setting in. I knew, however, that I could not continue like this indefinitely. At the beginning of 2014, therefore, I resolved to do several things: first, to start writing down what had, up to now, simply been swirling around in my mind; second, to find a support network; and third, to start exploring other career options. As it turned out, I did all of these things, and even more, which would be a first (and probably the last) as far as New Year’s resolutions go!
  • In a private and confidential way, I began to open up to two of my ALC colleagues, both of whom listened without judgment and offered their support.
  • I began sharing more of my internal changes with my wife, Jeanette, something she was well aware of by this stage. But now she would begin to realize that my ministry probably had a use-by date on it.
  • I developed friendships with two non-Lutheran clergy, one who was very progressive, the other more rationalist. These guys were a great help, and we stay in regular contact.
  • Probably the most radical move took place in January 2014, when I applied to and joined The Clergy Project, an anonymous online forum for clergy who no longer hold to supernatural beliefs, and are trying to move out of ministry. This meant I was now in contact with hundreds of clergy (or ex-clergy) in a similar situation to me.

In mid-2014 I had several appointments with a career counselor, as by now I felt I had no options but to leave my current calling. My meeting with her confirmed that I enjoyed the kind of work I do – it’s just that my beliefs were completely out of sync with the church! 

So in the end, I once again decided I wasn’t ready or able to seek other employment, but would somehow try to ameliorate and manage the cognitive dissonance I had now lived with for several years. My main strategy here was to share my journey with a few trusted colleagues, and hope that this would make things more tolerable. More on that soon!