Monday, May 7, 2012

Did You Hear About the United Methodist Minister Who Is an Atheist?

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Psalm 137:7-11

Did you hear the joke about the United Methodist Minister who is an atheist? Actually, it’s not a joke, at least not intentionally.

On April 30, NPR (National Public Radio) published a story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty about Teresa MacBain, a United Methodist pastor in Tallahassee, Florida.

"I'm currently an active pastor and I'm also an atheist," MacBain says in the article. "I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday's right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false."

I understand doubt. And I am comfortable with doubt. Tennyson was right, but he didn’t go far enough when he declared, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” In his great book on ‘The Dynamics of Faith,” Paul Tillich argues that authentic faith is best understood as “ultimate concern,” and that doubt is an essential part of faith. Like Tillich, I believe there is more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds.

But there was little theological depth in the NPR article

We learn that she was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist family, that her dad was a pastor, and that she felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions about the role of women, and about conflicts in the Bible, and Hagerty reports that “she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.”

When she became a United Methodist pastor, she asked more questions. She hoped for answers that would strengthen her faith. "In reality," she says, "as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn't believe it."

Hagerty reports that the questions haunted her: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all?

I wonder why she thought she had to believe that Jesus was the only way to God, or that God would torment people for eternity. On the other hand, the last question matters. It would be very hard to be a pastor if you could not see “any evidence of God.”

As I write this I am sitting in my office on a beautiful spring day and down the hall I hear the happy sounds of children in the pre-school. Honestly, that is enough evidence for me.

I don’t mean to dismiss this lightly. But Christian faith is not about believing abstract doctrines or imagining a perfect heavenly being who exists outside of the world and humankind, and yet controls everything that happens. As Tillich wrote in his Systematic Theology, “The protest of atheism against such a highest person is correct. There is no evidence of his existence, nor is he a matter of ultimate concern.”

Today when people, like Teresa MacBain, speak of atheism, what they mean is that they reject the god of narrow biblical literalism. So do I. Christian theologians have given a clearly articulated rejection of that “god” for more than a century.

As a pastor, I find the Teresa MacBain story painful in two ways.

First, it must have been incredibly painful for her congregation. One Sunday when she wasn’t preaching, she went to the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, Maryland, and announced to a crowd of 1,500, that she was an atheist. They laughed when she said she was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church, “at least up to this point.” Hundreds of people stood and cheered. She apologized for having been what she called “a hater.” She told them that she used to believe that she was on the right track and they were going to burn in hell. Now, she said, “I'm happy to say as I stand before you right now, I'm going to burn with you."

That’s how her congregation found out. One week she preached a sermon and led worship as usual, and the next week she announced to a national convention that she was an atheist. They deserved better.

Second, it reveals that in the popular imagination, Christian faith is often understood in narrow and rigid ways that are totally lacking in theological depth. The great Methodist preacher, Henry Hitt Crane was a popular speaker on college campuses in the 1950’s. After his lectures he loved to meet with students in their dormitories to discuss the issues of the day. Invariably some brave soul would announce that he or she was an atheist. Dr. Crane would then ask, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in.” And then after listening to a description of this supernatural being who judged and punished, and directed and controlled everything in the world, he would say, “I don’t believe in that god, either. Let me tell you what I believe.”

That’s a conversation worth having.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done Bill. Heard this NPR story and it just felt off, in the ways you describe.