Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An Atheist in the Pulpit

The January-February issue of Psychology Today has a very provocative cover. But that's not what attracted me to it, and why I finally bought a copy, as we were headed home from vacation. No, it was the feature article titled above, "An Atheist in the Pulpit", which begins with a pseudonymous Lutheran minister struggling to write a sermon and realizing that he did not believe in God any more.

The Lutheran minister goes to his bishop (a woman, by the way), who does not take him seriously. Either she does not believe that he really lost his faith, or she doesn't care (as long as he puts asses in the pews, as he puts it). The article doesn't specify exactly what happens to this particular pastor, but goes on to tell the stories of other pastors and religious people who finally decide to quit the fiction and call themselves atheists. By the way, in case anyone is worried, most of them are not pastors any longer. There are a couple who are Unitarians, and continue to find some place for religious practice in their life, if not what they call "faith." Most (including one former Pentecostal minister) are now as zealous in their atheism as they once were in their faith.

The article references the current spate of books by zealous atheists. An interesting subconversation is the idea that the belief in God is replaced by a kind of a "belief" in science and an awe of the natural world. Another subconversation is about the "two leaps": one from literalism and fundamentalism to a more expansive faith, and the second to outright atheism.

The article makes it clear that this is not simply about losing faith in the church, or the church's policies. This isn't just about the problem of "organized religion." And one of the illustrations is about Mother Teresa's serious doubts: she is either, the article says, "a phony" or "her trials actually make her religious life more meaningful." Obviously, I would be on the side of the second interpretation. But it does make you think, doesn't it? About two things (at least.) First, what is faith? In my interpretation, Mother Teresa has faith because, despite her deep doubts, she keeps going, she keeps working, she keeps doing what she believes God has called her to. That's at least part of my definition of faith.

And the second: What is your definition of God? What kind of a God do you believe in (or not believe in)? I'm thinking of the story NT Wright tells, about when he counsels students who tell him they don't believe in God. He asks: "Well, what kind of God do you believe in?" If they say, "a being who lives up in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally intervening to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good peole to share...heaven", he would answer, "I don't believe in that god either."

What do you think? What are your doubts? Your faith? What God do you believe in?

And if you want to join in on a fascinating discussion of the Meaning of Jesus, go see Barb

image from here


CJWille said...

I believe in a God with a sense of humor who looks down on my personal doubts and struggles, and laughs. God laughs not because I rail against injustices or what I lack, but that I fail to see God's face in my neighbor.

I think the opposite of faith is not atheism (which you can fervently believe in as much as you do God), but apathy.

P.S. an after-thought said...

Interesting. I had a religion professor at one of our esteemed Lutheran colleges who admitted to students in private that he had been a pastor who lost his faith, so what to do, when you already have all that education? He got more education and became a religion professor. And he took gigs on Sundays as a rent-a-pastor.

On TV, I saw a piece about all the translations and copies through the ages of the Bible, how there were changes and mistakes made and/or these were made for political reasons. The expert shown knew all these languages in depth and all the copies in depth. He had grown up fundamentalist and learning all this stuff caused him to lose his faith.

So a corollary to your questions: What do we tell our children and teens it means (ie thoughts, beliefs, actions) to have faith or "a faith."

I find that as I am getting older, I have fewer struggles with what faith means and is. In some ways it seems lazier and in some ways I'm just more accepting. I don't feel like I have to "do things" to know that I have faith in a loving God.

Granted I haven't had stuff in my life lately that tested my faith.

That may come: I'm praying for a person who literally is responsible for supporting over 200 people who just found out that he has a serious illness.

Barbara B. said...

This is timely for me since I've just been blogging about the "big topics" of God and Jesus over at my place.

The flip side of this would be atheists who have recently "switched sides". In fact there is a new book out by Anthony Flew called "There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind".

I think the important thing is to keep an open mind, be willing to ask the hard questions, and keep searching/growing.

Presbyterian Gal said...

You ask the best questions!

I agree with cjwille. God laughs and that the opposite of faith is apathy. Because I have never ever met an atheist who was not angry. And usually angry at God.

For me, I find that as a species we have not grown much, if at all, from the days Jesus was crucified. Really. I believe that our minds are so arrogantly narrow that because our technology looks so shiny and sparkly we believe we know it all.

I constantly challenge myself to try to look outside the lines. For me, science and God work together. Especially since God invented the science. I believe we were created to evolve. I will often check the "all of the above" boxes on the tests.

The God that has been written about in the Bible and in books and stories is just little tiny pieces of the picture. We will not know the whole picture until we are no longer finite pieces of dense organic carbon walking an earth we are hell bent to destroy.

And that's just two cents from my penny bag. (sorry to go strident on y'all)

Diane said...

All of your comments/formulations/rants are appreciated! That's why I wrote what I did instead of an article that "explains everything."

maybe I'll do a more personal reflection as a part II...

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

sad state of the church - (in this case lutheran)but there are probably many faithless pastors preaching. not athiests - but faithless and i think there's a difference.

sometimes pastors become so busy 'doing' ministry they forget to tend to their own spirituality - they stop spiritually growing. and really you can only lead the people as much as you yourself have grown...

Cecilia said...

This is fascinating Diane.

Part of me feels I have known what those "atheist" pastors are going through... the days when I wake up and think, "Really? Really?"

I tend to go towards what Presbyterian Gal says... we have the tiniest fragments of truth. God does keep surprising me... sometimes, with a burst of faith I didn't even realize I had. Right in the middle of the liturgy.

Pax, C.

FranIAm said...

Diane - what a great post. As you might imagine, this topic is of great interest to me.

Many of my other blog friends, in fact a big bulk of my other circle of bloggers are agnostic or atheist, some very zealously so.

Overall we have made our peace, as I am very clear about my Catholic faith and how that gets lived out.

For me - God, Jesus... my constant companions, my support. Also I am always questioning, arguing, wondering, talking to this God.

Which in the eyes of some makes me a fool and in the eyes of others...

Anyway, this is great as is Barb's post. That one really blew me away.

To live with an open heart- that is, I think, the thing.

mompriest said...

I am so tired. I have my share of doubt...I've had my share of being certain that God has abandoned me...I've had my share of questioning faith and wondering where God is.

And yet.

And yet I continue to try...

(and even though I have a Masters in Social Work, and have been the recipient of much good therapy, I don't think I like that article in Psychology Today

Diane said...

mompriest, I know how you feel. They are really talking about the psychology of religious belief, I think. what makes people stop believing (or believe, for that matter). But of course the fact that they started with a Lutheran pastor kind of hooked me.

gartenfische said...

Great post, Diane.

I have been blessed with experiences of God, so I don't question the existence of God, but I do sometimes question the church.

What annoys me about some atheists is their pronouncements that God does not exist, as if they know this for a fact. I would not try to convince an atheist that God exists and it annoys me that they go around trying to "educate" people.

Marsha said...

Interesting Diane... thanks for opening up this topic on your blog. I certainly have enjoyed the discussion here and on Barb's blog.

cjwille and Presbyterian Gal, you spoke my thoughts better than I could.

Rowan The Dog said...

He would only be a fraud if he tried to continue on like he believed in something when he doesn't. It's when I see Christians who aren't struggling with God that I think, "What a fraud." We all do. I went through a period of I believe/I don't believe for several years. I'd been a Christian for decades when I suddenly started wondering if God existed. So what? That worked itself out. Now I just vacillate between several minor heresies... and maybe a few major ones. I struggle about things still. What's the big deal about doubt? I'd say it's a MUCH bigger deal to pretend you don't have any.

That's just me.


P.S. an after-thought said...

My impression of certain Christian groups is that one isn't supposed to question or doubt if one is a true believer. What happens when these natural doubts creep in then? Black/white thinking is fairly common in our society, I think.

What I like about Lutheranism is that we say it is OK to live in the tensions, in the questions.

In any case, we might pretend to not have doubts, but God knows our hearts and minds, so we are only pretending in front of humans, not in front of God.

Robin Edgar said...

Believe it or not the Unitarian*Universalist "church" has no problem with ordaining narrow-minded and intolerant fundamentalist atheists as U*U clergy. Not only do U*Us have "asses in the pews" they have fundamentalist atheist asses in their wayward pulpits. . . Gartenfische (and others reading this) might be more than a little bit annoyed to learn that some atheist U*U clergy make pronouncements that God does not exist, as if they know this for a fact. . . during Sunday sermons and even insult God believing people by preaching that belief in God "seems primitive". Imagine going to a U*U "church" one Sunday only to have the U*U minister preach that belief in God is an illusion aka delusion.

For the record I believe in the God that rather intelligently designed this "Sign in the Heavens" that serves as a recurring cosmic symbol of our Creator`s divine omniscience.