Atheist Schmatheist


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.


John Shuck said...

Hi Seeker,

Very well stated. Thank you. Thanks also for linking to my blog. We are struggling in the PCUSA. I fear that we will have many more inquisitions before the dust settles.

I am heartened that I am not alone in this struggle. The more that we publicly state what we can and cannot affirm will give others the strength and courage to do the same.


Elmo said...

Well, I'm at a loss. Perhaps I'm among the unenlightened who can't see through the haze of my indoctrination to see how this guy - how anyone - could be a Christian without believing that Jesus is the Son of the almighty and eternal God. The God who has been and will be involved in the world and the lives of His people.

It sounds as the the Presbyterian Church is becoming a Unitarian Church. I admittedly don't know much about it, and I glanced at but haven't read the Center for Progressive Christianity's site. But it would seem to me that the church is not a place where if someone "could put one toe in the circle -- no matter what doubts they might have -- that was enough for membership". At least not in the Biblical sense. Jesus asked people to drop everything to follow him. He told them that he was the Son of God, human and eternal at once. He told them that he would rise after his execution. If you don't believe any of these things, then you can't be a Christian.

Yes, you can follow the social teachings of Christ, but that doesn't make you a Christian. It makes you a kind, caring, and moral person.

Of course, if you believe that everything in the Bible is figurative, even Jesus declaring himself the Christ, then you'll always be able to refute what I'm saying. But if you don't believe the Bible, believe the testimony of the men who died to spread the message.

I guess those of us who think you actually have to believe in Jesus' divinity to be a Christian will just have to come up with another name. Maybe we'll go back to being "followers of the Way". Who knows?

Gary said...

I've been thinking a bit lately about how much evangelicals make of "belief". Is it not just another idol? If you hold certain facts in your head to be true, then you are accepted by God. Now, I know at this point someone will throw a verse in my face, such as "If you confess Jesus and Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved." All I can say is that there is a lot more in that statement than meets the eye.

Mystical Seeker said...

Gary, I agree with your point. Marcus Borg makes the point that the word "faith" can mean many things, not just "right belief". It can mean things like trust or fidelity, for example. Those who focus on faith meaning having the "right" beliefs are, in my view, barking up the wrong tree and missing the point of what the religious life should be about.

Elmo said...
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Elmo said...

Gary and Seeker,

Your ideas about belief remind me of studying Skepticism in my philosophy class. It's very easy to poke holes in someone else's theory, without building one of your own.

In Greek "believe" is the verb form of the word "faith". Faith does mean trust, and fidelity is a tranliterated latin word that means "faithfulness". So you're right. But those meanings are not mutually exclusive. Jesus said in John 3 that if we believe in him we'll have eternal life, but if we don't, we'll be condemned (you have to go past v. 16 to find it).

You can say we've turned that into an idol, but that seems like a way to use reliegious terminology to stunt conversation. Because an idol is something you put before God, or worship in place of him. And it's at least very difficult to put belief in God before Him, or worship belief in place of Him. If you hold other belifs, such as whether communion is the real presence, or the real body and blood or, neither--above God, that's idolatry.

And it's an unfair phrase to say someone would be "throw[ing] a verse in your face" about believing. How can you have a doctrinal discussion of the Christian faith without using Scripture?

Those who believe that the task of a Christian is anything other than worshipping and glorifying God and Christ, they are barking up the wrong tree, and have missed the point of what a Godly life is all about. And if you think you can do that without professing that Jesus is exactly who he said he is, you are mistaken.

This has nothing to do with agreeing with anyone else on how church services should go, or how we should treat sin, or how we lead and are led by others to repentance...this has everything to do with the fact that Christ is all. He is God. If you don't believe that, you aren't a Christian. All through acts, even after they were called Christians in Antioch, and all through Paul's writings, they were called "believers". The followers of Christ were characterized by belief, which you so tritely equate to an idol. John, James, and Peter also refered to the body of Christ as believers. Because, in the end, what else binds all Christians together?