Someone decides they cannot embrace anything other than the material realm, and declares a transition to ‘Christian atheism’…
Someone is hanging on to a remnant of belief by their figurative fingernails, sometimes screaming out at night if God is there or not…
Someone grows weary of having to defend their religious belief from interrogation and examination by acquaintances who question every aspect of this person’s being (You’re white? Defend the racist heritage of your ethnicity! You’re male? Defend your advantages over women! You’re a Christian? Defend your belief in fairy tales and unreality!)
And I ask myself, ‘Am I abnormal for not having experienced these things in the psyche of my faith?’
Now, I do not write as someone who has always felt snugly warm in the bosom of Mother Church. In fact, I left organized Christianity for seventeen years, firmly convinced that it had nothing left to offer me.
I saw an ordained leadership rank with those who had just as many psychological hang-ups as I did. I went to theological college with many of them. With some, I shuddered at the idea that they had permission to subject parishioners to their foibles, just as they subjected me, our classmates, and even our professors to them!
I saw leaders who were from those groups who were seen as ‘less powerful’ than the typical white males who dominated church leadership at the time, but who, once they entered leadership of the larger church, were quite willing to play church politics to ensure the survival of the institution, as well as their access to jobs & pension funds. I can say without reservation concerning some of them, ‘They have received their reward’.
I’ve never really had a real ‘crisis of faith’. I didn’t pray or meditate during my time away, but I always knew when I was experiencing something of ultimate reality or a numinous nature. This happened when I was in nature, or, curiously enough, during the periods when I worked out regularly – I often said that working out was ‘the closest I get to prayer’!
I didn’t study Scripture, but I already said a little ‘Hooray’ whenever I heard someone like John Shelby Spong talk about the Bible in liberating ways – and my back always got up when I heard fundamentalists put forward their views, which I view as being unsustainable in the (post-) modern world.
And I always looked for a Christmas Eve or Day service that was broadcast online, or a sermon I could listen to. Easter was difficult to keep track of since it’s not a public holiday in South Korea, but Christmas was, so I always knew when to look for a service or sermon. It was a Christmas Eve sermon that started the process of my coming back.
I look at the turmoil in other people’s religious lives, whether it be outgrowing old beliefs or abandoning certain worldviews entirely, and I ask, ‘Why? Why have I been spared this existential angst? Why has the religious turmoil so many have gone through concerning the existence of God, the nature of Jesus, or the status of the Bible not been my experience? Am I screwed up or something??’
Well, as I’ve done before (see Learnings – About Myself, or ‘Who? Me? An Activist?’ (Part Two), June 4), I’ve looked back to my past. As I look back, I think of a Sunday School lesson I attended when I was very young – I couldn’t have been any more than 7 years old. It was about the creation stories in Genesis. The only thing I remember about the lesson itself is how precocious I was in providing answers to the teacher’s questions. I’m sure many of my classmates thought, ‘What a smartass!’
However, I also remember thumbing through the teacher’s guide (I think it was) for the lesson that day. Although I can’t quote it exactly, I remember the sentiment quite well. It was along the lines of the following:
‘If we were to take the stories of Genesis literally, we would be expected to accept the following:
- That the earth was created in six days of twenty-four hours each.
- That the universe is around six thousand years old.
- That the entire human race came from two people.
- That all animal species were created exactly as they are now.
‘Now we know that if we gave these as answers to questions on a science exam, they would be marked wrong. Then, what do these stories mean?’
Looking back, I now realize a seed was planted – a seed that germinated, took root, and grew.
This is the only way I can explain my openness to the ideas I was introduced to later on in life, and which I willingly embraced.
Listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in Sunday school class? I was up for it!
The Genesis stories are myth, the narrative embodiment of ideas? Of course they were!
The ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ) – the Reign of God – has political as well as religious ideas? Of course it does – bring on liberation theology!
Gays and lesbians (and later, the other members of LGBT+) should be welcomed into, and affirmed as, a full part of the church community (including its ministry)? Absolutely – and we need to renew our understanding of those ‘clobber passages’!
Much of what we find in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) is as much an inspired creation of the writers as it is rooted in history, or more so? No offense to me, and it doesn’t cause me to believe less!
The Jesus Seminar? Excellent work!
Conversely, when the Sunday School at my church wanted me to teach from a so-called ‘Bible-based’ curriculum, which had stuff like ‘there are scientific reasons for believing in Creation’? You’d better believe it wasn’t long before I made sure that curriculum was turfed!
And this is the thing that amazes me. This seed should have died. After the couple of liberal ministers my home church had, it hired someone during my teenage years who was more ‘old school’, who preached something a bit more ‘traditional’. I wouldn’t say he was conservative, but he sounded more like something that was more palatable to the traditionalists (and the former Pentecostals and Salvationists) in my congregation. When it came to ‘the issue’, I found myself in disagreement with my minister and my congregation. By then, I conclude, my faith nucleus was ‘formed’.
Since then, there have been those who have openly questioned whether I have faith. I’ve had the label ‘secular humanist’ thrown at me more than once – to which I respond, ‘I’ve been called worse!’ What I now understand is that I received the formation in what I now call a ‘progressive faith’. It is a faith which does not shirk from the insights of the modern world, but seeks to learn from them. It is a faith in which what we do is ultimately more important than what we say we believe – I think it’s a manifestation of ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. It’s a faith which is not dependent on supernaturalism, but which is open to ‘the surprise of God’ (Matthew Fox) – I’d probably say, ‘The surprise which is God’.
Am I bereft of doubt? No. For example, I’m an agnostic when it comes to the afterlife. I’m not completely convinced by, but take seriously, the scientific investigations that suggest that ‘out of body’ or ‘near death experiences’ have biological explanations. It doesn’t extinguish my hope, though, that somehow, my existence will continue in some form after this one. If it doesn’t happen, though, I won’t be any worse for the wear.
More importantly, I hope that, when my time of dying does come, I can die with peace knowing that I used the gifts and abilities I have to contribute to other people and to the world at large, thereby helping the ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ) to become a bit more real in the world.
So, I’m hardly perfect – on some days, I’d be hard pressed to call myself ‘good’ – but I believe I have an open, engaged, not unquestioning, but trusting faith in the realm of ultimate reality I call God, made manifest in Jesus, whom I call Messiah, Christ. So, take heart, writers of the New Curriculum and of the United Church of Canada Sunday School materials of the 1970s. I am one of your children, and I am proud to say so. Well done, Hazel Hamlyn, Rev Dave White, and Rev Mel Butler, good and faithful servants. You helped make me who I am.
Thanks to the work of all of you, and the work of others whom I probably don’t realize, I have a faith I am proud to call ‘progressive’.
 See Matthew 6:5.
 Empire, Commonwealth, Kingdom – insert whatever word makes sense to you.
 The idea that Mark’s Gospel was likely written first.
 The theories that Mark and Luke had access to Mark, another source which has been named ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, ‘source’), and (possibly) their own independent sources (‘M’ and ‘L’) when composing their Gospels.
 The euphemism that was used to address the sexuality and ministry debates of the United Church of Canada in the 1970s to 90s.
 Matthew 6:21.
 For example, see Choi, C Q (2011, 12 September) Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations. The Scientific American [online]. Accessed 13 October 2015 at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/peace-of-mind-near-death/.
 See Note 2.