Finding my way back to church — and getting kicked out: The struggle over what it means to be Christian today
By Robert Jensen
Published in CounterPunch · September, 2006
This past year, after decades of steadfastly avoiding churches of all kinds, I returned to church. Ironically, and completely by coincidence, I returned to a Presbyterian church, the denomination in which I was raised and to which I swore — in both senses of the term — I would never return. But return I have, prodigally perhaps, depending on one’s position on various doctrinal issues, which we will get to tonight in due time.
I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but my early experience with church had been life-threatening: I was bored, nearly to death. For me, growing up in a middle-of-the-road Protestant church in the Midwest, religion seemed a bland and banal approach to life — literature, politics, and philosophy seemed far more fruitful paths to explore. As I have confessed to my pastor, in my entire life I have cheated on only one test — the exam to pass confirmation class so I could fulfill that requirement imposed by my parents and be done with the whole enterprise. For that sin, I have neither sought nor been granted absolution.
So, my friends and family were somewhat startled with I joined — of my own free will, being of sound mind and body — St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. Some friends gravely warned me to be careful getting mixed up with “the God crowd,” as one put it. Well, it turns out that this decision has gotten me in a bit of trouble, though not in the ways my skeptical friends could have predicted.
Because I do not hold conventional views about the nature of the divine, there’s been some debate about whether or not I am a “real” Christian, a controversy I did not expect when I stood before that congregation in December 2005. Whether I will be allowed to remain a member of St. Andrew’s is currently a subject of deliberation by various bodies within the denomination, another controversy that took me by surprise.
Whatever my regrets about the way in which this whole affair has gone forward, I am glad that the issues raised by my membership are being discussed. I think this question of what it means to be Christian is vital not just to the faithful but to the fate of the entire planet. The direction in which Christianity — the dominant religion of the empire, the contemporary United States — heads in the coming decade is crucial to the future of everyone. The United States, the most affluent and powerful country in the history of the world, has an unparalleled capacity to destroy the world through advanced weapons and/or its economic policies. About three-quarters of the U.S. public identifies as Christian, and increasingly in the United States people’s religious beliefs are a factor in the political process. Clearly, the struggle over the future of Christianity matters, everywhere and to everyone.
Still, the question remains: Why would a doubter and skeptic like me join a church? There are many reasons, but at the core of my decision is a simple motivation:
I came back to church because I am afraid.
Let me be clear: I’m not afraid of what is going to happen to me when I die. I assume that when my bodily functions cease in this material world, I will start the process of becoming food for other living things as I go back to the soil, one more chunk of matter returning to a more elemental state to play its role in creation. About this, I’m not only at peace but quite happy. I’m glad to do my part. For me, “dust to dust” is a comforting thought. If it turns out that I have a soul that is going to shuffle on from this earthly coil to another realm, that’s okay, too. But, whatever the case, I’m not fretting about it. We should keep in mind the insight from the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa: “Hope and fear cannot alter the seasons.” My life, like everyone’s, has its seasons, and my hopes and fears will not change “what lies in the great beyond,” as my favorite songwriter puts it. So, I tend to focus on this world, where there’s a fair amount of work to be done this season.
My fear attaches not to theological questions but to very material concerns: I believe the human species is on the verge of making life as we know it impossible. That is, I think we humans are living unsustainably, in ways that may well have dramatic consequences in the not-so-distant future. I fear not the apocalypse as it is imagined by end-time Christians — a dramatic finish with the saved being lifted up and the damned left with a heap of trouble — but rather a steady erosion of the conditions that make possible a minimally decent human existence in the context of respect for other forms of life.
I’m also afraid because most of the organic institutions that could help people confront the political, economic, cultural, and ecological crises we face have been destroyed, undermined, or co-opted by a sophisticated system of domination achieved through the unholy alliance of a powerful state and predatory corporate capitalism. The dominant political parties are impediments to progressive change; unions have been gutted and marginalized; and universities serve mostly as comfortable shelters for timid intellectuals working in duck-and-cover mode. The institutions in which people traditionally have come together to learn about the world and organize to change it have mostly checked out — except for, possibly, the church.
Whatever one thinks about theology, church is a place where people go to think about essential questions: What does it mean to be human? What are our obligations to other people and the non-human world? How do we create meaning in a world that appears to be playing a cosmic joke on us — a world that gives us consciousness, the capacity for complex thought, and language with which to express those thoughts, but then denies us any obvious answer to the question, “Who am I and how do I fit into the bigger picture?”
I think about those questions a lot. I ponder them in the abstract, and I struggle with the very concrete implications of them in a world saturated in so much suffering. I am always looking for help in that pondering and struggling, which is what led me to a new church in my old denomination. The folks at St. Andrew’s were pondering and struggling in similar fashion, a place where the minister was not only allowing but actually encouraging people not to accept meaning dictated by others but to create it themselves.
In short, I found a community in which I could be part of this crucial struggle over the direction of Christianity.
Am I an atheist?
I joined St. Andrew’s not only because it’s a liberal church in terms of the political leanings of the majority of the congregation, but because its pastor, Jim Rigby, and many members are engaged a fundamental rethinking of theology in the modern age. After a couple of years of being a regular visitor to the church for political events, I decided to ask about joining, though I still rejected traditional conceptions of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. When I wrote about that decision in an article published in the Houston Chronicle and circulated on the internet, I described myself as “a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.”
My use of the term “atheist” clearly pushed many people’s buttons and appears to have led to the challenge to my membership and, more generally, to St. Andrew’s theology. So, let’s start with why I chose that term.
After talking to people about what I believe, they quickly realize I’m not a dogmatic atheist, the kind who takes pleasure in ridiculing religion or faith. We’ve all met such folks, whom we might call them fundamentalist atheists. I enjoy their company about as much as I enjoy the company of fundamentalists of other stripes. So, people ask me, why don’t I call myself an agnostic or a seeker or a doubter or something that conveys more openness? Am I really so sure God doesn’t exist in the traditional form? How can I be so sure?
I can’t be sure, of course. It’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God. In that sense, I’m an agnostic, just as I’m an agnostic on the question of whether or not my life is controlled by tiny magic elves who live in my desk drawer at work. I can’t prove that I’m not under the influence of those alleged elves, and hence I can’t really be an atheist on the question. But what really counts is not what I can or can’t prove, but how I live. Do I go about my day as if elves are running the show? Do I sneak a peak into my drawer now and then to try to catch them plotting? Do I ever offer prayers to the elves to which I think they will respond? No, I don’t. In philosophical terms, I’m agnostic on the question. In practical terms, I live like an atheist, on the assumption they don’t exist.
In that sense, most people in this culture, no matter what their stated beliefs about God, live like atheists. Most of us accept the results of the Enlightenment and the application of the scientific method. We assume that actions in the world are governed by laws of physics that scientists have begun to identify, however incompletely. Whatever our views on the power of prayer, most of us also seek medical help when we are sick and trust in some worldly system of healing — whether Western medicine or alternative traditions — that is rooted in accumulated experience and/or scientific experimentation.
An important footnote: This atheism-in-practice that guides the lives of most of us shouldn’t be taken as a boast that we really have a clue about how the world works, where we come from, or what happens when we die. About most of these matters, I’m fundamentally ignorant — just like all of you. It’s healthy to remember that for all that modern science has revealed about the way the world works, we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable, a point being made in compelling fashion these days by Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and others in the sustainable agriculture and ecological movements. Human beings are very clever, and we tend to mistake cleverness for wisdom and deep understanding. That confusion has given us the ozone hole, global warming, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste contamination, the dead zone in the Gulf, and other ecological crises too long to list here. And those are just the ways we’ve messed up the non-human world. Add in war, poverty, rape, racism, and other human crises too long to list here and, well, you get the point. It might be amusing to hear people talk about how smart people are, if it weren’t so distressing.
It seems to me that we all — secular and religious alike — need a lot more humility, and the recognition of that simple fact is part of what led me to church. The older I get, the more I’m aware of the scope of what I don’t know, and the more scared I am of the people who claim great confidence in human knowledge, be it about science or religion.
This point is important because many people who have criticized my writing about this subject have accused me of being arrogant and disrespectful, of confronting traditional Christians in a fashion that seems insulting. Nothing could be further from the truth. After spending a lot of my life looking down on religious people as intellectually confused and emotionally weak, in recent years I had to come to terms with my own ignorance and recognize that I could learn and grow from being part of a congregation. When I went before the members of St. Andrew’s to ask to be accepted into the church, I did so acutely aware that I was letting go of some of my own sense of certainty and security, trusting that in this particular community I could ask my questions without pretending I had answers.
The personal is theological
I could stop there, and I suspect many would accept that explanation of my reasons for joining. It’s a nice, neat explanation. I like it. I think it makes me look smart but not cocky, thoughtful and self-confident. Yes, I like this explanation quite a bit. But it’s incomplete, for there was another fear behind my decision to join, one much more personal. It’s tempting to ignore this other motivation, in part because we live in a culture in which we all understand the acronym “TMI” — too much information. We’ve all been in some situation in which inappropriate personal revelations have made us uncomfortable. But I can’t honestly tell this story without talking a bit more about myself, with what I hope will be “NTMI” — not too much information. This is the story of another kind of fear I carry.
In the past year I have begun confronting some unresolved issues from my childhood involving abuse. The details are not relevant here, but I will say that it’s not a fun process. Those of you who have struggled with such things know what I mean, and I’m sure others can understand. I’ll stick to my pledge of not too much information, but to leave out this part of the story would be to ignore another important motivation that leads people to church: The need for acceptance and love in community when we are scared and lonely and weak and alone. And, of course, at some point we all are scared and lonely and weak and alone.
When struggling with any difficult problem in our lives, we tend to rely on those closest to us. If we are lucky, as I am, we have a supportive and loving partner. We may have good friends, as I am lucky to have. We may have the resources to hire a competent therapist when a problem goes beyond our friends’ ability to help. But what we need in addition to all that is a community in which we can just be. It need not be a church, but a church is one place where people seek that. In my experience, we humans tend to want to have a place where we know we can go without worrying about whether our hair looks good that day, a place we can find validation and connection without having to prove that we deserve it that moment. Church is not the only place that can happen, and there’s no guarantee it will happen in church; despite Christ’s admonition against self-serving judgment of others, such judgment happens all too often in Christian churches and, no doubt, other churches. But whatever our failures, church is one place we seek out such acceptance.
I didn’t have a conscious understanding of that when I joined St. Andrew’s, but I think I had an intuitive sense that I needed such a place and that St. Andrew’s was such a place for me. In our patriarchal culture, this need can be particularly difficult for us men to acknowledge, out of a fear it will be read as a sign of weakness. But is there anyone who doesn’t feel that need at times? And, if we turn away from this need that we feel, what are the consequences? What part of ourselves do we bury to ignore that need?
So, am I a Christian?
After I joined St. Andrew’s and wrote about my reasons, a complaint was filed with Mission Presbytery in central and south Texas, the first level of the bureaucracy of the Presbyterian Church USA, to which St. Andrew’s belongs. In June 2006, the delegates to the Presbytery heard a report from its Committee on Ministry recommending that St. Andrew’s be instructed on appropriate standards for accepting members and that I be removed from the active membership roll. The Presbytery delegates voted 156-114 to accept that recommendation, but they also allowed me to remain a member while St. Andrew’s appeals the decision in the Synod of the Sun, the next level of bureaucracy.
The meeting at which these matters were debated was, frankly, a bit surreal. After the presentation of the Committee’s report, Rigby cogently defended not only the decision to accept me into the church but the theology of St. Andrew’s. I sat quietly listening to others debate the state of my alleged soul, without a chance to respond. Some delegates were clear that they thought I was no kind of Christian no way, and the sooner I was dispatched the better. Many were conflicted; one person used the image of Christianity as a circle, saying that so long as people could put one toe in the circle — no matter what doubts they might have — that was enough for membership. To her, I passed the one-toe test. Another person said that she was convinced that I had already been born again. By the end of it, even I was a bit confused.
Before the meeting, Presbytery officials had told Rigby that I would not be allowed to speak at the meeting. My assumption is that those who wanted to bounce me didn’t want to risk letting the delegates see a real human being talk about his struggles with the complexity of the issue — better to keep me as a symbol of heresy, on the assumption that delegates would have an easier time voting against heresy in the abstract than voting against an actual heretic who looks like them and may even have some of the same questions as they do. But because so many people had been asking me for more specifics about what I believed, I did write a statement that was made available to delegates. This is what I said in that document:
“On God: I believe God is a name we give to the mystery of the world that is beyond our capacity to understand. I believe that the energy of the universe is ordered by forces I cannot comprehend.
On Jesus: I believe Christ offered a way into that mystery that still has meaning today.
On the Holy Ghost: There are moments in my life when I feel a connection to other people and to Creation that rides a spirit which flows through me yet is beyond me.
I believe that Holy Spirit can only be nurtured in real community, where people make commitments to each other. I have found that community in St. Andrew’s. I have tried to open myself up to our pastor’s teaching, to the members of the congregation, and to the church’s work in the world.”
That approach to the notion of God not only contests Biblical literalism but also challenges the conception of God for many Christians who would not see themselves as fundamentalists. For me, the key is whether we say (1) God is a mystery, or (2) God is mystery.
The difference between those two formulations is important. The first, with the indefinite article, implies that God is an entity, force, or being with some shape, but that his/her/its contours are beyond our capacity to fully chart. The thing that God is, is in the end a mystery to us. But God is, something.
The second suggests that God is simply the name we give to that which is beyond our capacity to understand. God is another name for mystery — for the vast, unexplainable mystery of the world around us and inside us.
I prefer the second, as I suspect do a fair number of theologically moderate and liberal Christians who might not share all my politics but have a similar sense about this question. I also suspect a lot of those folks don’t speak openly about their views, out of concern that it will create tension within a church or family. Part of the reason for the intensity of the reaction to my essay, I think, is simply that I said out loud what a lot of Christians think but rarely discuss.
So, am I a Christian? Am I a real Christian? I give up. But I’m sure someone will figure this out and get back to me.
We are all afraid of something
As I listened to the discussion on the floor of the Presbytery meeting, one question kept coming to my mind: What are these folks afraid of? The question was genuine. I thought it then — and I ask it now — not as a taunt or a subtle insult but because I really wanted to know, and I still want to know.
There seemed to me to be two different kinds of fear on the floor that day. One was easy to identify — the fear of some that this divisive issue would tear apart people of common faith. Many people who spoke wanted to find a resolution that would allow St. Andrew’s to follow its own path — honoring the denomination’s democratic tradition of local control and the larger Protestant notion of a “priesthood of all believers” — without endangering the unity and work of the larger church. That’s also easy to understand; people who had given part of their life to an institution that they believe does good work in the world would naturally want to see it continue that work.
The unstated fear that I sensed in the room came from the people who wanted me banished. Here, it was not the explicit words they spoke but the underlying hostility I felt from some of them. They seemed angry with me, as if I had committed a grave offense against them or against Scripture, maybe even against God. I sat there somewhat stunned, struggling with how people committed to a faith tradition that routinely invokes the phrase “God is love” could seem so unloving toward someone (me) for speaking honestly about my spiritual journey, toward a pastor (Rigby) who has given so much of himself to building a vibrant and loving church, and toward a congregation (St. Andrew’s) full of so many socially responsible and theologically engaged members.
I can hypothesize that those who were so angry at me were afraid either that (1) my understanding of God was reasonable and, therefore, a threat to the understanding with which they had grown comfortable, or (2) an open acceptance of church members with a similar theology would undermine their control and power in the denomination. I suspect that for some of the people who were angriest not only with me but with Rigby and St. Andrew’s, those explanations might be sound. But those explanations also seem too easy to me. Because I have a hard time getting those folks to talk to me about these issues, my hypotheses is based more on speculation than evidence.
Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for any of us to talk about our fears. I have spoken about mine because I think it’s only fair to be open if one asks others to do the same. If I really want to know what fears motivate those on the other side of this issue, I have an obligation to look inside myself and, to the best of my ability, report on what I have seen.
I’ve tried to do that in this talk. Because of the theological and political positions I have taken, many Christians are going to see me not as a brother in faith but as a threat to that faith. If in the end those people decide that I don’t even have one toe inside the circle, I can accept that. But it seems to me that such a conclusion can’t be reached until we share our fears in a space we enter not as combatants squaring off in a fight, but rather as people recognizing our mutual need. A place like a church where God — however we imagine the concept — is truly love.
For that work, I know that St. Andrew’s doors are open.
Christ said it was hard, and he was right
The statement about my beliefs that I submitted for the Mission Presbytery meeting ended with these words:
“Abe Osheroff, a friend of mine who just turned 90 years old, told me recently that he had come to see that in his life he had no destination, just a direction — toward ever-greater love and ever-expanding justice.
I believe that when we are truly open to the wonder of Creation, that direction becomes clear. I am trying to walk a path in that direction. I find that it is hard, as Jesus said it would be. In Matthew 7:12-14, he said, ‘Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’ I believe that is true.”
The older I get, the less I know and the less certain I am about what I believe. But I’m pretty sure about that one point — being human is hard sometimes, maybe most of the time, maybe all of the time. We are cursed with the capacity for critical self-reflection and a linguistic ability that allows us to express much — but never quite enough — of what we feel. That’s why we need poetry and art and music, to try to close that gap between what we feel and what we can rationally explain. But, in the end, it’s a gap that can never be bridged completely. Maybe that’s why we need religion. I’m not sure. I’m still chewing on that one.
But here’s what I’m reasonably sure about: If the powers that be — or, perhaps more accurately, the powers that wanna-be powerful — are to decide that I am insufficiently Christian to be a Presbyterian, and if they remove me from the membership roll of St. Andrew’s, I’m confident I will still be a member of St. Andrew’s in some form, in some fashion. I say that not out of arrogance, not because I believe I have any special value to the pastor and congregation. My confidence about that isn’t based on what I know.
I trust in that out of faith.
The Doxology, redux
Because my theme has been our limits — recognizing those things that we can’t know and that leave us in a state of perpetual confusion — I want to end with a simple story about that kind of confusion, about my experience of the singing of the Doxology in the St. Andrew’s service.
I don’t remember much about the rituals of the church I attended as a child, but I do remember the Doxology. The version we sang was different than the one St. Andrew’s uses. Both start with the same line: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Because St. Andrew’s is committed to not using patriarchal language, a policy I wholeheartedly endorse, in our service it continues:
Praise God, all creatures here below;
God does create, redeem, sustain.
All creatures, praise God’s holy name.
That’s a lovely version. But in the church of my childhood, those lines were:
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
I like the St. Andrew’s version better; I think gender-neutral language is important in a world where women still are so often denied their full humanity. But I also find that the old version still resonates for me. So, when I’m at St. Andrew’s, I sing along with the first line, and then I silently sing the old version to myself. I find it comforting, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. I have mostly negative memories of that church, and my politics are in line with the St. Andrew’s version. I don’t understand why I can’t just recalibrate to this new version. But something in me still wants to hear those words from my childhood. I don’t have to sing them out loud — for now, it works for me just to stand there, in a community where I feel loved, and repeat to myself words that bring me comfort. Maybe someday I’ll find myself singing the new version; maybe those words will find their way into me. But for now, I am praising Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
I asked my pastor about this, and Rigby said it was okay. That’s what I like about St. Andrew’s — it’s okay to struggle, to be uncertain, to doubt, to search. In short, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian is a church in which it’s okay to be a human being.
Am I a Christian? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure I’m a human being.