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 well…it 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.