The Roots of Disillusionment


By way of a link in Mad Priest's blog, I discovered an article by William Lobdell, the LA Times religion writer, who describes how his job covering religious issues over the years contributed to his disillusionment with Christianity and his eventual loss of faith.

The article is rather long, and he goes into great detail describing his conversion to Christianity, his steps towards joining the Catholic Church, his later involvement with evangelical Christian broadcasters, and his growing disillusionment with the hypocrisy that he found in organized religion. I think his odyssey can serve as an object lesson on what happens when naive idealism is misdirected. Part of the problem, I think, was that he made the same mistake that many others who become disillusioned with religion make--they hold a certain set of limited assumptions about what the faith is about, and when their idealism and their thinking minds run smack up against reality, something has to give. Lobdell is an interesting case because his idealism was misplaced from the start, as evidenced by the fact that he was first converted to Christianity at the age of 28 by a conservative mega-church pastor, in a faith community where the Bible was described as "life's instruction manual."

Many progressive Christians, of course, know that the Bible is not "life's instruction manual", and in a way, the flaws in the Bible can serve as a reminder of the all-too-human nature of religious enterprises in general. I'm not sure that Lodbell ever understood that it was possible to be a Christian and yet consider the Bible a flawed document. He never seemed to wrap his mind around the diverse possibilities of Christian theology, and when the conservative Christianity that he knew best collided with reality, he underwent a crisis of faith. Aside from that, Lodbell suffered from an apparent naiveté about the human condition, in which he somehow expected that when human beings come together to form religious institutions, they would leave their human foibles behind simply because they believed in God. He expected Christians to somehow be better people than the rest of humanity.

He was attracted to the best of what Christianity had to offer, writing: "Part of what drew me to Christianity were the radical teachings of Jesus — to love your enemy, to protect the vulnerable and to lovingly bring lost sheep back into the fold." But when he saw how terribly human those who claimed to follow Jesus turned out to be, he became disillusioned. At first, he said that he "compartmentalized" these failings as an "aberration", "the result of sinful behavior that infects even the church." But why the need to compartmentalize at all? You only compartmentalize when you think there has to be a contradiction somewhere.

He complained about cover ups of sex scandals in the Catholic Church, exclusivist tribalism among Mormons, and the greed-infested prosperity gospel found in the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Certainly, many of these problems exist--and I think that exclusionary or intolerant theology, or institutions that are built around power at the expense of Jesus's message, tend to exacerbate the worst human follies. But what about the prophets of social justice? He makes no mention of those Christian saints who worked for peace, who helped the poor, who worked for justice. I can't help but think that he was often just traveling in the wrong circles, and then making sweeping generalizations based on that.

If he had had a more mature faith, he could have weathered the personal crisis that these negative discoveries engendered. But he was, in a sense, trapped in a medieval conception of the Divine. He was taught to believe in an omnipotent God who controlled the world, a Divine magician in the sky who could do miraculous things if believers asked "him" to, and when confronted with the problems of a cruel world, religious hypocrites, and a seemingly indifferent God, he had to know why. The person he turned to for his questions about theodicy, his former Presbyterian pastor, was no help whatsoever:

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

"My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don't know. And frankly, if I'm totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, 'You, God, are infinite; I'm human and finite.' "

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn't reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.
The non-answers that he got from that pastor were absolutely, devastatingly, inappropriate. It is hardly surprising that Lobdell left the faith after that. The pastor essentially just recited back to Lobdell the same non-answer that concludes the book of Job--that is to say, he asserted that God is all-powerful, his actions are a mystery, and who are we to question God's ways? Yet the notion that God is in control, or that God is omnipotent, is something that Lobdell and that pastor simply took for granted. Lobdell never expanded his horizons enough to understand where he went wrong.

It is a shame that it had to come to this. As a religion writer, Lobdell should have been better versed on the diversity of thinking within the Christian faith. But that was not to be. He admitted early in the article that he saw his role as religion writer as a way of carrying out what he thought was God's will. It seems almost as if he was effectively using the newspaper as a way of proselytizing the faith as he understood it, and so he always had a built-in bias towards a certain kind of theology. He was, in other words, operating out of a dogmatic mindset from the very beginning.

I can understand the process of disillusionment. I underwent this process myself, at a very young age. Brought up in a conservative Christian faith, and having been taught that there was only one way of conceiving of Christianity, I had a crisis of faith at age 16. It was only when I got to my late twenties that I came to understand that there were other ways of looking at God than what I had been taught. I discovered that it was not an either-or proposition, that there are progressive theologies that reject exclusion and intolerance, that explore new ways of conceiving of the sacred. When I see people rejecting religion altogether because their assumptions about God clash with reality, I know what they are going through, but I also feel frustrated, because I also know that they are working from the same set of assumptions about God that they had before they left the faith, assumptions that they need not have.