A curious lyric caught my attention as I was listening to “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a song by The National, a melancholic indie rock band: “I have faith but don’t believe it.”
What a strange concept: faith without beliefs. It sounds like nonsense on the surface, but could there be such a thing as faith beyond belief? I realize this type of postmodern “drivel” can be tiresome, even infuriating, for modern-minded believers. Yet, as the 21st century unfolds, I meet more and more people who share this kind of paradoxical faith unfettered by beliefs.
Why is this happening and what does it mean?
There is evidence that the decline of Christianity and church attendance in Canada is directly related to the rise in education levels over the past half-century. Education is one of the highest values of our society, and naturally this has affected how we view matters of faith and spirituality. We’ve been acculturated to question what we’ve been taught to believe, and this has clearly been a factor in the exodus of young people from the church. However, the people who most rigorously study church history, theology and the Bible struggle with their Christian beliefs as much as inquisitive teenagers.
Bart Ehrman, one of the leading New Testament scholars in the world, has been sharing his reasons for leaving the evangelical faith and becoming an atheist in most of his best-selling books over the past 15 years.
Another Bart made news recently by revealing he is no longer a Christian. The former pastor and son of Tony Campolo, the famous preacher, now serves as a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. His reasons for leaving Christianity were familiar; namely, the obstacles to belief increased exponentially the more he studied the evidence.
Bob Ripley, a retired United Church minister and faith columnist, came out as an atheist a few weeks ago. You can read all about it in his upcoming book, Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion.
The list goes on, but not all post-Christians lose their faith entirely. Some describe their “new” faith as an evolution beyond the conventional Christian belief system.
One of my friends left the ministry more than 10 years ago for a number of reasons, including his struggle with the narrowness of Christian doctrine. He told me if he had to wear a label now, it would be “agnostic mystic.” He explained, “I’m mystic because I’ve experienced the ‘divine presence’ so deeply it remains the greatest truth in my life. But I’m agnostic because I don’t know. I don’t who or what this presence is—because I can’t know. ‘G-d’ is infinite, mysterious, beyond human comprehension. None of us can know.”
John Suk, a former Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastor, recently retired as editor of The Banner, the official magazine of the CRC, in the wake of publishing a book in 2011 entitled Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey From Faith to Doubt. In it, he chronicles his long transition from answers and certainty to a “faith that wavers, faith that questions, faith that is not sure.”
For years, Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, the famous 20th-century theologian, has been promoting a faith that simultaneously believes and doesn’t believe. The title of his most recent book says it all: Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God.
Two summers ago, I ran into a colleague and we decided to catch up over a coffee. When I asked him about his faith journey, he responded, “I’m in total free-fall.” He had read a few books that knocked the theological ground out from under his feet. Since then, he has opted out of ministry. I was disturbed by this news. He was a fantastic pastor whom I looked up to and admired. I can’t help but wonder if doubting pastors like my colleague might have an important place and voice in the 21st-century church.
I’m no longer surprised when I hear about a mature Christian struggling with or abandoning certain Christian beliefs. What I find interesting and inspiring is that so many of them still have faith.
This growing reality has caused me to ponder certain questions:
- Can people have faith without knowing what they believe?
- How can believers engage in mutual faith exploration with people who have “faith beyond belief”?
- How can we “believ-ers” be hospitable and give voice to the “faith-ers” in our churches?
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.
--Posted Oct. 22, 2014
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