Stop me, being a christian.

23 03 2010

Every day someone finds their way to this blog because they’ve searched in Google or elsewhere for how to stop being a christian. I think it’s because of a post where I wrote about how I prefer the pre-Antioch language of ‘followers of the way’ to the epithet, first applied to ‘the believers’ in that city: ‘christian’. The former allows for growth and an ongoing journey, the latter speaks of arrival and a binary distinction between people what is and people what ain’t. I don’t know if that’s been helpful to anyone feeling that the well of faith has run dry for them. In this post I want to address those people directly.

Lots of people experience growth in their spirituality and their spiritual search that takes them away from their christian roots into new spiritual territory. Some manage to come to terms with their previous experience and integrate it within a holistic spirituality that can encompass a range of faith traditions. Others find the Christian heritage offers inadequate resources for their ongoing search. For still others their increasingly holistic or more often materialist understanding provokes a crisis of faith and they want to get out and breathe the fresh air.

It’s this last group particularly that I want to address. Because what I think I have picked up from reading other people’s blogs and comments online is that people are often emerging from conservative, narrow or literalist versions of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly they find themselves experiencing ‘cognitive dissonance’ as their certainty looks decreasingly, well, certain, in the face of their real, lived experience and the world of ideas. There comes a point where that snaps. In that moment, people can become hostile to their previous position and christian faith in general. What interests me is that often previously certain fundamentalist christians often become equally certain fundamentalist atheists. That’s not quite the same phenomenon as the spiritual growth I was referring to above (perhaps best described by Fowler and his ‘stages of faith’) but I do wonder whether the people looking to stop being a christian and so finding their way to my blog aren’t more often reacting to a narrow and conservative faith they’ve previously held or been formed by. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to tell me? (Comments welcome!)

The reason I ask is because I wonder whether you’ve considered that there may be other options than simply stopping being a christian. I experienced a similar crisis, where I thought I was losing or wanting to reject my previous faith in my early twenties. It just so happened that in the midst of that I went to an SPCK bookshop and found Dave Tomlinson’s book the Post-Evangelical. I discovered that maybe I wasn’t losing faith after all but instead just growing up a bit and coming to terms with uncertainty, doubt, mystery and complexity.

I wonder how many people of a more open understanding of the christian faith would make such a search (for how to stop being a christian). Not many, I suspect, because maybe there’s more scope for both mystery and reason in less fundamentalist Christianities.

So if you are looking for a way to stop being a christian, may I, being a christian, humbly invite you to stop; and explore the possibility that you’re not losing your faith, but just moving on in the development of a more mature faith. And if you’re drawn to leave Christianity to become a committed atheist, first let me commend you for taking these issues so seriously and second, might I respectfully ask if you really want to exchange one fundamentalism for another?

I’d be interested to hear from you…

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14 responses

24 03 2010
Abi

Discovering the post-modernists, Merton and more especially Etty Hillesum, threw me into confusion…and then as I worked out what I thought of it all I believe my faith became both deeper and broader. Now instead of being a person trying to fit into a christian-shaped box I feel that I can be completely me AND be a Christian.

We were talking about this last night, at the end of term summing up of a course I have been doing. Then this morning I read this post which expresses the same idea!

24 03 2010
Sharon

I quite like the analogy Rob Bell uses about our theology being like the springs on a trampoline: they have flexibility. As a child we learn simplistic facts about the world around us. These facts are deliberately simplified because we have neither the experience nor emotional maturity to process anything more complex. As we grow, those simple facts are expanded on…deepened…broadened, until as adults we have (hopefully) gained the capacity to weigh up and evaluate the myriad of information on any given subject, and then draw robust conclusions.

I think faith and the growth of spirituality is the same – except that the ‘simplified facts’ bit can start at any age, as a child or as an adult. It happens from the point at which we come to faith.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he explains that when he was young he thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. ‘Now,’ he says ‘I have put childish ways behind me’. Not because those childish ways were wrong, but because he had outgrown them. That way of thinking and processing and responding to things was no longer appropriate for an adult.

We can find the process of questioning unnerving and unsettling – those crises of faith…but in truth, I think that’s a healthy part of the process of becoming mature in faith. In the same way that adolescents go through a period of challenging and questioning all that they once assumed as children, so in the process of spiritual growth, I think the same thing occurs.
And with that in mind, perhaps its not quite so scary. Not an utter un-doing of all that was right and good. But instead part of the process of growing up.

My friend, Craig, when writing his doctorate on theology observed that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s apathy. Doubt implies questions – and a desire to find answers. Someone who doubts is still engaged in the debate (perhaps more so?). But someone who doesn’t really care either way…someone who is apathetic about it all – here is someone who will slowly drift away without even really noticing, and then find, to their bemusement that they’ve missed something, or lost something, but they can’t quite work out what they’ve lost….

24 03 2010
pompeypioneer

I have come across, and several times made, statements that begin: ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s…’. Most frequently in recent years I have completed that with the word ‘certainty’. I like apathy too though!

I wonder though whether faith and doubt are even closer than I had previously allowed myself to imagine. Maybe faith isn’t in the search for answers (any I find seem only to provoke deeper questions) but in the act of question itself. This is especially true if we get beyond the ‘personal’ that dominates evangelicalism (as I have experienced it) and recognise that justice lies at the heart of the Biblical tradition.

Question then is an act of faith. Doubting the ideology and discourse of power, questioning our own and society’s affirmations and the power-plays concealed within them, this is faith.

So faith always questions and always distrusts answers. Discuss.

26 04 2010
ThinkingMan

“The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s apathy” – well, perhaps not! I wouldn’t describe Dawkins as apathetic, and he’s certainly not a ‘man of faith’! The trouble with labelling the things you don’t like is that those labels tend to be negative. There are a very large number of apathetic Christians – sure, they go to church, they tithe, the are ‘engaged’, but are they really free? Do they really know what it means to be free in mind and spirit? But we don’t call them ‘apathetic’ – we label them as ‘the silent majority’ or something else equally innocuous.

I’m not sure that there is an opposite of faith. Just because you don’t claim to have faith doesn’t mean you have to have, or not have, something else.

For those who can be bothered, an attempt to understand Jung’s discussion about the church and it’s part in 1930s politics is worth the effort, underlining the issues about fanaticism and lack of rational thought and hinting at the freedom that was felt by those enslaved by it.

Similarly, for those who can be bothered in wider reading, Nietzsche (don’t just dismiss him based on what someone who hasn’t read him tells you, read him and form an opinion yourself) IMHO isn’t trying to knock faith when he says ‘God is dead’, but is perhaps opening up a chink of light in the darkness to help us throw off the shackles and chains we’ve put on ourselves to always look for approval, measurement, acceptance.

As Popeye says, “I yam what I yam” – to find self acceptance and happiness with oneself is perhaps counterintuitive for Christians but I reckon it’s a good start. Anyone want to borrow my bolt-cutters?

26 04 2010
ThinkingMan

Interesting blog. I may not be alone in thinking that the result of seeking answers is rather dependent on what are considered acceptable answers; I struggle to have any deep dialogue with ‘Christians’ who tell me dinosaurs didnt exist and that everything in the Bible is literal truth, from a 20th century perspective (of course the funny thing here is that these apologists are using the scientific method, the results of which they are attempting to disprove, to prove their point…).

Similarly, I struggle with those pastors and preachers who are so sure and certain that they, and only they, have the right ‘answers’ (like, two thousand years of wonderfully brilliant thinking can be treated as naught).

I wonder sometimes if Evangelical Christianity is something that sets people free or something that enslaves them – to behave in certain ways, to be harsh when gentleness would do, abrasive when silence would suffice. To condemn rather than spend that time in service or prayer, to convince each other that because there are many of them they must be right.

We need to think about the fruits of what we do. We might claim that God wants us to spend huge amounts of time in worship and Bible study – nothing wrong with those things. But we might want to think about our service to those who aren’t of our persuasion – not evangelism, not ‘getting people along’, but service. Looking out for the old bloke up the road. Helping people when we can. Giving up what we have. Quietly and without any fanfare doing what Jesus would do – not wearing some bracelet as a moniker that says ‘ask me and I’ll invite you to church’ but instead performing acts of kindness and grace that allow others to see past their old agendas and begin to feel the freedom they have.

We should act as we believe. To discount science (the no-dinosaur, Bible is factually accurate brigade, “I’m not descended from a fish”) and then rely on it’s outcomes (medicine, electricity, computing, communications, food, – the endless list) is, to me, counterintuitive – setting up cognitive dissonance, upsetting the homeo stasis, and bluntly two-faced.

My plea then is for honesty. I’m not an apologist for science but rather someone who looks for consistency between behaviour and speech.

We should do what we say. What we speak should be backed up by what we do, retaining a degree of rationalism, logic, honesty, openness and acceptance.

28 06 2010
Someone who googled the above statment

I am someone that got to this blog by Googling how to stop being a Christian (in retrospect it was a dumb search, but did bring me to this blog)
I had no idea what cognitive dissonance was, but after a read of the Wikipedia article I came back and read this page again. It was a very thought provoking article with that knowledge.

I have almost, kinda sorta, pretty much decided I am no longer a Christian, but really it was no decision. I have been researching the reasons for and against christianity, as well as the reasons for and against other religions, atheism, and evolution. After lots and lots of online reading and even reading a tree book called The Case for Christ, when I look inside my heart, there is no belief in Christianity left there. I could choose right now to become a Christian, but it would be of no use because it would only be actions. On the inside there is nothing I can do about what my heart believes. The decision I made was that now that i feel that way, there is nothing to but go a head and quit.

Correct me if I am wrong but this is what I understood from this blog. (Somehow your writing feels hard to comprehend for me. I have to restate it to fully understand it myself.) You are saying that I have believed in very strict and very literal Christianity my whole life, and that these beliefs did not match with what I observed in real life, so I solved this issue by throwing it all off? That I should look for other options than shoving the whole thing off such as a less literal meaning to Christianity. This experience is a time when I will mature in my faith instead of losing it?

This is very interesting. Will require some more thought. It is very possible. I have been always strict and literally raised. How do you know what to believe if you don’t literally believe everything in the Bible? I am willing to take a look at anything at least once.

15 07 2010
pompeypioneer

Hi Someone. You’ve been very much on my mind, despite my inability to actually craft a reply before now. Sorry about that, by the way. This week and the week before, I have involved in a pretty intensive project in the local secondary school. And the week before that, I had a week’s leave while my brother visited from the States.

I’m sorry that my writing style is sometimes a little obscure. But your summary of what I am trying to say to people thinking of abandoning Christian faith is right on the money. I am essentially saying that people from a conservative or literalist brand of Christianity often do experience a crisis of faith. That’s what happened to me.

[By the way, I am writing this in little moments when I have the chance so please do come back to it to get my fullest response. I will indicate when this is finished.]

In a period where a much prayed for friend of my wife’s had died, I had been introduced to different modes of critical thinking through my fine art degree course and when I worked with an articulate, atheist colleague (now friend), I found my certainties impossible to sustain. They collapsed under the weight of my experience and intellectual awakening. I thought I was losing my faith. Instead, I now think, I was finding it. Of enourmous help to me at this point was Dave Tomlinson’s book The post-evangelical.

Christian faith is not certainty. I have come to see it instead as the very act and process of question and doubt. It is a way of being in the world that calls into question assertions about what it is to be in the world.

Oh dear, I’m getting all woolly and incomprehensible again, aren’t I?! And perhaps a little disingenuous. When I talk to people about ‘my faith’ I am not just talking about ‘my doubt’. But I don’t think faith and belief are the same thing. So I don’t worry so much as I once did about what I’m supposed to believe. More about the manner of my believing.

I stole that. From Peter Rollins. It’s pretty much what he says in his excellent book How [not] to speak of God. I would highly recommend it to anyone in your position. I think you might find it stimulating and expanding, if a little obscure at times.

It is a little confusing and scary to be in a place where we don’t know what to believe any more. But I think in time, you might come to regard it as a good and creative place to be. Embracing non-belief or atheism is perhaps for some a retreat into a new kind of certainty. Faith viewed as a journey, as a struggling with God is, I think, a more authentic expression of the faith that finds its roots in the nation that is named for an ancestor who ‘contends with God’: Israel. In the end, if we’re honest, I think we’re all agnostic to varying degrees on the mystery we call God. That’s not so much an assertion that I don’t know (which I don’t) but actually that I can’t know. However we understand the mystery we call God, we must ultimately accept, mustn’t we, that any ultimate being/ground of existence must be beyond our human capacity to understand or appreciate.

I do affirm the unique revelation of that mystery in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the Church’s continually re-enacted memory of him as the Christ. I am a follower of the Way. Being gives way to becoming.

So far, so woolly. But what are you to do next in your own quest? Well of course it’s up to you. Personally, if you’re in a very literal or conservative church, I’d get out. You’ll find it stifling and frustrating. Look for a group near to home that is exploring questions of faith and doubt with a bit more authenticity, not just through discussion (important as this is) but in sacrament and liturgy so that your whole being is engaged in the quest.

I’d read Rollins or Tomlinson and decide. Decide whether there might be enough now to sustain you in the embers of your faith to pursue it further. It’s the question really, isn’t it? It’s got to be worth investing your time and emotions in it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to think/believe, engage with the deep and ancient resources of the Christian spiritual tradition and see where they take you. Be honest with yourself and one or two trusted friends/spiritual guides.

And let me know how it’s going. I’d love to know… [That’s the end of this reply, now ;-)]

26 09 2010
Someone who googled the above statment

I read your reply soon after you posted it, and forgot to every reply to it. I was having a lazy day today so I searched out your blog to reply to your comment.

Here’s where I am. I want to know what is true. God is (a) real (b) a lie. It is a simple question. I do not want to hear the “God is beyond our understanding so you can’t prove it” stuff. If you look at religion with an open mind, you have to have some sort of reasoning for choosing Christianity over Islam and every other religion out there. Look at the statistics. The vast majority of people born to Christian parents are Christians. The same is true for Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and every other religion. They aren’t thinking for themselves to see if their God is real or not, they just aren’t intelligent enough or open minded enough to question what was set into their subconscious as a child and continue doing what is normal for them.

Some people say they trust the Bible and this is why they believe in God, but you don’t believe everything in the Bible literally (and I certainly don’t any more) so you can’t use this as the basis for your belief. If some things in it aren’t true then the whole thing could be untrue and you need some other source for validating that your God is real.

God is the most important thing in your life if religion is true and you speak to him every day, but your best friend doesn’t take the time to talk back to you? That is pretty cold. He took the time to speak to Saul/Paul the atheist to convert him, but whether or not I am saved isn’t significant enough for a visit? Does God plays favorites? You think he answered that insignificant prayer for you, yet he forgot about the prayer for the 16,000 children that died of starvation today? Something isn’t adding up. Don’t tell me the God works in mysterious ways excuse. A five year old could think of a better mysterious plan.

God isn’t real. I don’t want faith as a creative journey. The truth is out there and doesn’t need to be created. Your occupation is communicating with God and preaching to others what he reveals to you and you admit that you doubt at times. If God had ever actually spoken to you, then you wouldn’t have doubts. If that isn’t a testament to the fact that God is a joke, then I don’t know what is.

PS I have spoken to several other people about religion. My mother is absolutely rock solid and has no doubt what so ever. I asked a very religious friend who is exactly the same way. These are the last two people on planet earth that are this way, everyone else shares your opinion that everyone doubts.

27 09 2010
pompeypioneer

Thanks someone for taking the time to send me your thoughts. It sounds like you’re making progress! You’re shuffling off a straightjacket. You’re feeling free and liberated (and not a little cross about what feels like wasted time). This experience might be a doorway to a more mature faith in the future or a more mature disbelief.

I’m not going to respond to your whole post now, but perhaps pick up a point at a time and respond in the coming days — not in an attempt to persuade you — but as part of an ongoing conversation between your disbelief and my doubting faith.

You don’t want to hear: God is beyond our understanding. But I think the options are a bit wider than your a) and b). It is a simple question in the way you frame it. But I really don’t think it’s that simple. What is ‘real’? — a question that philosophers have struggled with for as long as there’s been a human capacity for reflection. If by real you mean an object in the world whose existence can be scientifically determined, then God is not real. On your scheme that only leaves b) a lie. But who is lying? Not me. No-one in fact who has faith. It would only be a lie if I set out to deceive people into believing something that I knew to be untrue. Much more plausible is Richard Dawkins’ idea that belief in God is a delusion. But I think the truth has to be that any human conception of God has to be false to some degree. What we call ‘God’ is surely unfathomable mystery. Our ideas of God are metaphors or models for understanding our personal experiences of connection with some sort of transcendent reality as well as a way of interpreting stories of people and events that faith traditions have sought to preserve and hand down. Whether there is ultimately anything ‘real’ underlying those experiences is a question that I think is simply beyond our capacity to know with certainty. It comes down to our sense of whether the faith tradition of which we are a part helps us make sense of those experiences and creates the spaces within which we can continue to have them.

What I have found is that there is a coherence and integrity to both my experience and the tradition with which I (not always comfortably) am aligned that leads me to live in some sort of relationship with this profound mystery and to treat with some seriousness the particular language that tradition gives me for speaking about that mystery.

29 09 2010
pompeypioneer

I think your point about people sticking to whatever faith they’re born into is well made. There must be myriad ways of interpreting that fact. But here are two that occur to me:

  1. All religions are culture specific and therefore false in their claims to represent ultimate reality, or;
  2. All religions are a cultural expression of deeper truth that is not wholly contained in any one of them.

Clearly I favour the second option, not least because a good number of religious traditions actually do not claim to represent ultimate truth but explicitly express something more like the second. These would include, as far as I understand them: Hinduism, Sikhism and Baha’i. Clearly the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a history of taking a more exclusive stance (though not exclusively, if you’ll forgive the pun).

BTW. I grew up in a non-believing family.

6 10 2010
pompeypioneer

How do we read the Bible if not literally?
And what use is it if it’s not ‘literally true’.

That’s quite a recent problem, speaking historically. For the Christians in first centuries of the Christian era, the Bible was to be read allegorically. It was actually the evangelicalism of the 19th century that responded to Christianity’s sacred texts in a sort of pseudo-scientific way – as a sort of perverse reaction to the findings of science. I don’t think that’s how any of the original writers intended that they be read.

It all comes down to what we mean by ‘true’.

Can we say that Macbeth is ‘true’? Did the succession of Scottish kings from Duncan to Macbeth take place in the way that Shakespeare depicts it? No. Clearly not. Is it a malicious falsehood? No. Is it true? I would say it is. It conveys a profound truth, not in a direct fashion. But it immerses us in a drama of ambition and its consequences and has the ring of authenticity, even if it is not part of our lived experience. We can know what it is like to be overwhelmed by ambition, even if we never have been.

The Bible is true in lots of different ways. But not, I think, if we interrogate it for accurate and impartial history — a record of real events. For so much of its purported history, we just can’t know. It’s true in that deeper, more profound and more mysterious sense. It is authentic in conveying the range of experience of interacting with the deep mystery of being, with the idea and possibility of God, for good or ill.

It is meant to resonate with our spirit, not tell us what happened.

8 12 2010
omeone who googled the above statment

“It comes down to our sense of whether the faith tradition of which we are a part helps us make sense of those experiences and creates the spaces within which we can continue to have them.”
I like that statement. You are rare in viewing things that way.

Christianity doesn’t help me understand anything or make sense of anything. The absolute truths provided by literalists are incorrect. If you look at the Bible as an allegory then you don’t have any absolute truths and you have to use your common sense to figure out what those are. The Bible doesn’t even seem to play a part in that. You might as well just discard it and use common sense separately with out the bible to hinder you.

17 12 2010
pompeypioneer

How can the collected religious imaginings of an iron-age middle eastern tribe have anything positive to contribute to a 21st century European individual’s attempts to make sense of the world?

That’s the nub of the question we’re exploring. Why should anyone pay any attention to the Bible? Why indeed? Some days I wonder. But I am also very grateful that I am not dependent on my common sense alone.

Those who support ‘free thought’ claim that religion tells you what to think. In previous eras perhaps that was true. But I do not accept that I am in the camp of implied ‘limited’ thinkers because I am part of a living and evolving religious tradition and community. In fact I would say that engaging regularly with such an alien and yet familiar tradition offers me resources for thought and reflection that would otherwise be unavailable to me. It constantly bowls me intellectual googlies (a cricketing reference – sorry if that’s lost on you) or to put it another way, it throws me left-field ideas that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own. That is hugely stimulating intellectually and spiritually.

A lot of the time it is the grit in the oyster – an irritant that forces me to leave my comfortable and self-contained notions of common sense and consider a different point of view. I think that is because my reading of it now is fresher than 20 years ago when I was reading the Bible in terms of what others told me. Of course, there is no unmediated reading, I am always influenced by others – contemporaries and those who have gone before. But I think the range of voices I hear is much broader, and so, I hope, my reading much richer.

There’s a sense that the Bible reads me as much as I read it. It challenges me and questions my notions as much as I challenge and question it. I would not want to be without that ongoing conversation. I think it enriches my life in the world rather than diminishing it. Of course, one’s reason or common sense is part of that conversation but so is experience, the tradition of which I am a part and the sacred text itself.

To imagine that we can get by with reason alone sounds like a brave human leap, but history and experience suggest to me that it’s hubris to think we have all the resources we need in our own heads or our own time. The wisdom of the ancients is pretty weird at times but if we are prepared to wrestle with it, it can enrich our search.

But why this particular wisdom? Why the Bible? Why not Confucius? Aristotle? Buddha? Zoroaster? The Mahabharata? Well indeed, why not? I have no problem with looking at these other sources, but in the end, as someone who is committed to following Jesus Christ, it is the tradition that shaped him and which he shaped that is the most important for me.

2 01 2011
2010 in review « the Pompey Pioneer

[…] Stop me, being a christian. March 201013 comments 5
[…]

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