Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Called to Question

My Facebook and blogging friends have engaged in a conversation following the NPR interview with Theresa McBain which aired on Talk of Nation  with Neal Conan on Monday, May 7 (I tried to create a link to the transcipt but it won't work). McBain is the United Methodist minister who decided she was an atheist and left the ministry. Apparently there is a movement afoot, some 200 former clergy who have joined a cause called "The Clergy Project." Reading the transcript of the interview with McBain was a reminder that in this country we tend to think that Christianity looks a certain way, follows only certain dogmas and doctrines. The religion correspondent for NPR, Barbara Bradley Haggerty, perpetuates this idea, sadly. For me, the real issues that we ought to ponder here is not the shift to atheism, but the idea that people define themselves as atheists because the do not believe the limitations of Christianity as they know it. (And, I suppose this would also be true for those who leave Judaism and other institutions of religion).

Joan Chittister in her book, "Called to Question" writes about her own journey of questioning everything she knows about her religion. She writes, "It is God that religion must be about, not itself. When religion makes itself God, it ceases to be religion...But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility. It requires us to be everything we can possibly be: kind, generous, honest, loving, compassionate, just. It defines the standard of the human condition...religion at its worst is a sham...religion at its best anchors us to the best in ourselves as enables us to find meaning in life." (pg. 14-15)

I know something about this. I left Christianity when I was fifteen and did not return for sixteen years. I left intentionally because I could not believe in the God and the teachings of the church that were held out to me as absolutes for my salvation.

I did not, however leave God.

Maybe that's the difference? I did not leave God. Oh, I tried too. I worked hard at questioning and wondering. No doubt I had days or years when I told myself there could be no God. "God" didn't make sense. But ultimately I was trying to make sense of a God that was supposed to fit into something I could make sense of. When I realized that that was ridiculous I found myself on a path of returning to Church. It helps that I found myself in a church that embraces God as mystery, and doesn't try to have dogmatic answers or tenets of belief that I must adhere too - well, except that we are to love as God loves.

I read "Called to Question" several year ago, but I think I'll spend some time with it once again. Chittisters honest probing speaks to me, resonates with my experience, and offers me perspective. It's not certainty that I yearn for, it's nourishment that sustains me through the questions. I don't want to judge McBain, and others like her on their spiritual journey. I've been there. I will however pray for her, that she finds the courage to explore with depth, rather than reject God simply because she can't reconcile herself to a God defined by narrow human constructs.

Because the truth is, God has never left me. And I'm sure God has not left her.


Jan said...

Thank you, Terry. I am sending this on to some friends.

revhipchick said...

beautiful! i totally relate to your leaving church and returning to it.

i have all kinds of faith in God--knowing that i don't have to all the answers. the church, well that's something different altogether. it's messy and hard and beautiful all at once--it's just so dang human! ;)

Diane said...

yep. I'm going to post this.

The thing that disturbs me about "The Clergy Project" is the apparatus of a propaganda device in the guise of support for people who are struggling or leaving the faith. I am not questioning that they do receive support, but it also looks a lot like propaganda to me.

Robin said...

I just read the transcript and I can't say that it is one of Face the Nation's better efforts. I didn't get much of a sense of what she was leaving or why.

When my husband was a very young fast tracker, he was sent to an executive seminar and came home with a nugget that has stayed with me for 30 years: the most important quality for a leader to possess is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. I would say that that's especially true of a leader in faith.

But then to me faith is almost 100% about questions. If certainty were required I would not be a woman of faith.

Lisa :-] said...

What bothered me about this woman's story is that she felt she had only two avenues from which to choose: the judeo-christian personification of God, or no God at all. Why doesn't it occur to people that "God" can have as many faces, definitions, voices as there are colors in the rainbow? The Almighty created such infinite diversity...why should there be only the one way to describe/relate to/worship It? As you know, I don't subscribe to mainstream religion any more...I find that they preach a much too narrow definition of the Creator...

Terri said...

Revhipchick, yes, the human made church is very messy, sometimes cruel, and limiting. It is however one of the better ways we have of forming communitites of faith and nurturing people along the way.

Diane, I don't know enough about the Clergy Project to know if it is propoganda. But my impression is it is comprised of people who reject a narrowly defined God and therefor have come to the conclusion that there is no God. Which for me is just perpetuating more of the same limited, "certainty" based thinking.

Robin, yes! Your comment spurred my next reflection: tolerating ambiguity.

Lisa, I agree. I have been drawn to Native American spirituality all my life, as well as Buddhism. I find much to spur my spiritual life in an expansive way of experiencing God's presence.

Charles Raymond Miller said...

Terry: On first reading a phrase you used brought me up short. "..decided she was an atheist" seems to trivialize both Theresa's decision and Atheists. Having met Theresa and heard her "coming out" address I now this was not a trivial decision but a struggle of her reason against her faith.

Simply put, Atheists do not believe in any god. For those of us raised to believe and value faith and our community of belief, it is difficult to leave. For some it means leaving a career that they have spent most of their lives preparing for.

Theresa took the high road, when it would have simply been easier to go on as one of the thousands serving as clergy without faith.

Terri said...

Charles, I don't mean to trivilize Theresa's process. She describes it has a painful journey. I believe that to be true. However, as one who has travelled a similar path of discernment, in my experience, the conclusion she has drawn, seems to me to be the easy way out. Of course it isn't really. She will struggle with this even as she thinks she has found a new certainty in a paradigm in which there is no God. It's the certainty that I call to question, and the sense that living with ambiguity - is there a God? Or is there not a God? is too much wrestle with and so we settle on yes or no. I have chosen to live a little more in the yes paradigm, while recognizing that there are days when I live in the no. None of that makes me want to leave behind the faith that provides me with a compass to navigate the journey.

Robin said...

4 sivtigI'm back, because I'm finally going to start reading through your Called to Question posts, and I think this is the first one. So I'm announcing my presence.

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