John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister and progressive Christian, has referenced in his blog an article by a man, Robert Jensen, who recently joined a Presbyterian church and has been persecuted by some members of his denomination after publishing his beliefs in a newspaper article.
Robert Jensen describes his belief not so much in a personal God but in God as another name for the deepest mysteries in our life. He writes of the way that he was drawn to participating in a church community to serve certain needs that are often best served by churches. He also describes how he had to face an inquisition within his church, no doubt largely because he had described himself in the aforementioned newspaper article as an "atheist".
I actually don't consider Robert Jensen an atheist, despite his self-description. But that word seems to have served as a huge red flag that set off the conservative element within his denomination. His theology was not acceptable to conservatives to begin with, but to go public with his theology and to use the word atheist was probably just too much. The church's intolerant right wing tried to get him expelled.
From what I can tell it wasn't his own congregation that was the problem--his church is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity. But within his broader denomination, it was another story. As I read Robert Jensen's account, I was struck with the horrible reality of him facing an inquisition like this--having to defend his very right to be a member of his own church.
I think his theology isn't much different from that of a lot of other people who are church members throughout mainline Protestantism--he just made the mistake of writing an article about it in a newspaper. Thus the lesson here seems to be this: you can be a dissident or free thinker, as long as you keep your mouth shut about what you think. What a terrible lesson that is. I am not a Presbyterian, but it seems to me a wonderful thing if a church will accept one who is an earnest seeker, if he wants to be a part of it and feels he has a role to play there.
During the inquisition process, some of those who reviewed his case defended him. Says Jensen, "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." I wonder how many members of mainline Christianity have little more than their own toe within the Christian circle, as defined by the creeds or doctrines of their particular church? There are probably more than one imagines. And there are many others whose toes would be within the circle, but who stepped away from organized religion altogether because they sensed the intolerance and rigidity and the recitation of creeds that made no sense to them--those who became members of what John Spong calls the "church alumni association"?
I mentioned that I disagreed with Jensen's self-characterization as an "atheist". One reason he calls himself an atheist is that he views himself as one who lives as an atheist. Jensen writes:
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.I will point out that I think Jensen is implying a dichotomy that really isn't there. He suggests that a belief in a personal God is incompatible with a belief in a world that is ordered and rational and that obeys the laws of physics, and since he accepts a modern scientific understanding of the world, he therefore believes that he cannot believe in any kind of personal Deity at all. Here he accepts implicitly that a personal God is necessarily a patriarchal figure who actively intervenes in the world, either according to His personal whim or maybe in response to our prayers if we pray hard enough or if enough of us pray. But I believe that God need not be reduced to this simple conception.
The point is, though, that he does devote his life towards a deeper, sacred reality, regardless of what he conceives God to be--and he does so within the context of a faith community rooted in Christian traditions. And for that reason, I do not consider him an atheist. Rather than believing in a personal God, he instead conceives of God as another name for Mystery. As long as he is seeking to probe the depths of that Mystery which he calls "God", then he is living the religious life. And if he is living the religious life, then I for one refuse to call him an atheist. It isn't about believing in miracles or divine intervention. It is about pointing one's life towards the depths of the deep, sacred Mystery that undergirds our reality.
And that's good enough for me.