Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Did You Lose Your Faith?

In the last ten years, if I get into a deep theological conversation with people who have known me a long time, some version of the question "did you lose your faith?" comes up. It takes on many forms, like "do you still believe in the Resurrection?" or "do you even believe God exists?" or "do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?" Even people who don't know me well, upon learning I used to be a pastor, ask some version of these questions.

Sadly, because it's rare anyone asks that question directly, I never get to give my answer: "no, I did not lose my faith. I know exactly where it is." A question like, "do you still believe in the Resurrection?" isn't really asking if I've lost my faith. It's asking if I no longer subscribe to a particular faith as expressed in a particular time and place. It's asking if I'm still an Evangelical Christian, and the answer is, "No, I'm not." But if I'm not an Evangelical Christian, then in many Evangelical Christians' eyes I'm no Christian at all. I've lost the Faith. But again, I'd respond that I haven't lost my faith. I just lost theirs.

An old friend sent me an email asking if I still believed in God. When I responded that I didn't know for sure, that I probably best identify as an agnostic, he replied that I might be an atheist, but wasn't yet comfortable with that idea. That was a few years ago, and I'm no more comfortable identifying as an atheist than I was then. I might not believe that Jesus is God, but I can't go to the point of saying there is no God at all. That doesn't make sense to me. I don't know who God is, but I feel confident in the idea of a design behind the Universe. And in the end, I think it's the certainty of atheism, mirroring the certainty of Belief, that puts me off.

But I can't go on saying, "I'm a Christian" without some qualification. One of the churches I ministered at still calls me up to come speak occasionally, to fill in for the current pastor while he's on vacation. I've started saying no, because, inasmuch as I love to talk and teach about faith, Christianity, the Bible, I'm no longer doing so from a position of Belief. It's one thing entirely to have a difference of opinion over whether Christians should drink alcohol or be pacifists, and another to have a difference of belief over whether Jesus rose from the dead. I've known I was exiting the Christian faith for years now, since the Easter Sunday morning over a decade ago when I walked up to the pulpit to give a sermon and found myself with the same problem as Mary Magdalene: "they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him."

It's taken a lot longer than ten years for me to arrive at this moment of "coming out" about my loss of faith, or as I have come to think of it, erosion. I did not "lose my faith" overnight. I did not have a single moment of dark doubt to mirror the bright illumination of conversion. But then again, I didn't really have a Pauline conversion experience, where one moment I was a terrible, terrible person, and the next, I was someone else.

My "conversion" experience mirrors my journey to agnosticism. While I told people I became a Christian on July 5, 1985 at summer camp, that was just one of many micro-conversions I'd had over a life growing up in the church. I remember one very significant moment when I was eight, also at summer camp, sitting in the chapel and listening to one woman tell a story from scripture while another illustrated that moment on a canvas with pastels. I was enchanted by how swiftly the artist worked. I was also quite taken by the bible of the man I sat beside, one of the camp staff: it was filled with notes and highlighting, and would inform my ideas of what a good bible looked like years later when I had that teenage micro-conversion. I had many moments in Sunday School and youth group where I affirmed an affinity with my parents' faith, making it my own over time. Consequently, in a decade that demanded dynamic conversion stories, mine was terribly boring: unlike the Christian celebrities of the 1980s, I did not turn away from Satanism or drugs (the best conversion stories of the '80s went something like "I was a high priest of the Satanic church, and was doing coke off a naked acolyte when an angel descended..."). I got good grades, (mostly) followed the rules, was a good kid. I didn't drink before I was 18 (unless the liqueur my best friend and I put on ice cream that one time when his parents were out counts), didn't really smoke, and was (as I would learn in later years), by comparison to many of my peers a pretty pure guy when it came to sexual hi-jinks. So when I made a commitment to Jesus in 1985 at summer camp, I was just reaffirming the life I'd been raised to. I grew up in a Christian home, and as I grew older, adopted Christianity as my own.

And up until another conversion moment at a Christian rock concert in 1987, it really was mine. It was interwoven with other mythic tales such as Superman, Star Wars, and fantasy novels. I was as interested in being like Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Conan the Barbarian as I was in being like Jesus. I had yet to discover that those things were incompatible: it's hard to "love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you" when the best things in life are ostensibly to "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women." But somehow, it worked for me: I think it was likely that, up until that rock concert, my faith was more of the Old Testament kind, which was more compatible with the hypermasculine heroism of Conan and acted as inspiration for, at the very least, the origin story of Superman. But after that concert, I struggled to maintain my faith while trying to fit into the homogeneity of North American Evangelicalism. It would be a struggle my faith would ultimately win.

See, when many Christians ask me if I've lost my faith, they want to know if I still believe in Jesus as my personal saviour. And the answer is, "No." I haven't believed in that for many years. I'm not sure how many, because, like my journey toward Evangelical Christianity, my journey away from it took place over years, maybe decades. I looked up possible antonyms for "conversion," and found "enlargement." I like that, because that's certainly what happened to me. Evangelical Christianity shrunk my belief, demanded that it look just like whatever James Dobson of Focus on the Family or some other Christian celebrity with a platform said it should be. I resisted that regularly, and was labeled a "loose cannon," because I kept trying to make my Christian practice my own.

Working for the Mennonites at the end of my professional career as a minister gave me the space to get outside the Evangelical bubble. I found myself in conversation with people who regularly attended church and identified as Christians, but didn't believe in the total inerrancy of Scripture, who debated the nature of the Second Coming, and in some cases, only held the Beatitudes to be worthy of governing one's life. At the same time, I was involved in a church community called The Gathering, which was "church for people who don't like church." It was a good place to rest a while and rediscover what I really believed.

But faith isn't just what you believe. It's a matter of what you don't believe. And the etymological root of faith is the Latin word fides, as in "fidelity." Being faithful to something. I have known, nay have even been, the Christian who believed the right things as concepts, but was unfaithful to them in practice. Could say that Jesus was love, but act in narrow, unloving ways. One of the many erosion points for me was the issue of homosexuality. I could not square the command to love the least of these with the institutional homophobia of North American Evangelical Christianity. Increasingly, as my faith eroded, I had to ask, what am I being faithful to? What should my fidelity be towards?

Erosion isn't just destruction, though. It's transformation. River erosion also involves transport and deposition of the material which has been eroded. Things get moved around. The landscape changes, but the pieces remain. You can't grow up in a Christian home, live as a believing, practicing Christian, and then just turn it off like a light or a faucet. It's all still there, part of what made you. Parts of what made me.

I looked at how Jesus transformed the Hebrew shema, which in the Tanakh says to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength. But the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all add mind. According to Jesus's words in those Gospels, you need to love God with your mind too. And my mind was telling me that the way the church was treating LGBTQ individuals was wrong. And I also understood that, no matter how many good arguments I came up with for what the Bible really said about homosexuals, modern Christianity still had a major problem with them, and that, at some level of reality, that is what Christianity is in the world today. So I made a decision to disagree with that particular God. I made a decision to de-convert. It was a moment of micro-enlargement, one of many on the opposite side of the journey of micro-conversions.

I've made many micro-enlargements since then, and cannot say with integrity that I am still a Christian. It would be disingenuous to say so. It leads to too many moments of correction and clarification in conversation. It's easier to just say, "I'm an agnostic." But, as Terry Pratchett wrote in Feet of Clay, atheism is a religious position, and so therefore, agnosticism must be as well. So when people ask if I've lost my faith, I'm at a bit of a loss to reply. No, I haven't. I know exactly where it is, and what it is. I still think about matters of faith a great deal. But I am not a Christian by North American Evangelical standards. At this point, I don't always really fit inside the label of liberal Christian. But that doesn't mean I've lost my faith. I know what I'm faithful to--I'm faithful to many of the things I learned from the Christian scriptures and Tanakh: I believe in the importance of grace and compassion, as well as covenant and community. But I am also faithful to the stories of my childhood, of heroism as exemplified by Superman and Luke Skywalker, as well as the existentialism of Conan and Han Solo. I didn't lose my faith - I found it again, the faith of my teenage years, transformed through years of erosion into something new. The faith you might say I lost? That one was never truly mine.

This is the final post of my Gotthammer blog. It is likely going to also be the first of a brand new space for me to wrestle out my faith through a series of memoir meditations. I wondered about keeping this blog active, but in the end, decided it represented a different phase of my life. I want to write these memoirs in their own online space, as a new "book" you might say. I'll link to that space as soon as I have it active. Perhaps, in the hubbub of life, that will never happen. But I wanted to close the book here, at the very least, and do so with a post that is the most honest thing about my faith that I've said or written publicly in a very long time. 


  1. Anonymous2:10 PM

    I have so many thoughts after reading this. They are too complicated to summarize as a comment, right now. Perhaps I will get back to you another day. Anyway. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great topic here! I have a lot of thoughts also, but let's begin with this: Atheism is simply the lack of belief, and makes no other statement about a person or their position on any other issue. A lot of people have difficulty with the label when the "enlarging" has proceeded to a critical point due to the nature of how society reacts to it. After we find if we are convinced or not, any time we are not convinced that a god or gods exist, then that lack of belief in can be further sub-divided according to the nature of the specific case at hand. In many cases, we will be justified in calling out that a particular god can be demonstrated to NOT exist! And herein lies the point- most people who do not believe the claims made that Zeus is responsible for lightening are “strong atheists” regarding Zeus. This is because the claim that is made conflicts with reality AND as understood, the existence of Zeus is generally contingent his generation of lightening. Turning closer to your topic, modern gods have evolved as the needs and desires of modern societies, as those that did not (e.g., the Zeus example above) have fallen out of active worship (dare I say “gone extinct?”). For the Christian examples that you give, I think it is clear that you do not believe that a god exists which desires or commands punishments of homosexuals the way it is outlined in the Bible. Thus, I would argue you are also a “strong atheist” from a definitional perspective regarding the existence of this specific version of the Christian god. Unless, that is, you are actually convinced that such a god does indeed exist….. doesn’t sound like it to me!

    Where agnosticism comes in is for knowledge claims; are you convinced that we can ever know that a god does or does not exist? If some cases, this may mean that you are an “agnostic atheist” (remember that an atheist is first and foremost simply not convinced of the existence of a particular god!). What has happened in many modern religions is that the nature of the claims they make have become less contingent on anything that can be tested in the real world. For example, if you have a claim of a pantheistic god that started the universe, but then no longer interacted with it in any detectable way, you have an un-falsifiable god claim. For such claims, the only reasonable position to take is one where you say “I am not convinced (after all, there is no evidence!) that we can determine if such an entity exists,” and this means you are an “agnostic atheist,” also sometimes called a “weak atheist.” It does not mean you can say such an entity does NOT exist, because there is no way to even evaluate the claim. And how much would we need to worry about such a deity anyway?

    But perhaps I digress. What is more important than the labels we use is the reasons we have for becoming convinced of something. Being able to articulate those reasons and defend them for things that are important and meaningful is what makes life fun (at least to me!). And for me, this is why I gladly “lost my faith.” I no longer use faith as a justification for anything. This is because I could justify anything using “faith” and therefore it is not a reliable path to truth. Instead, I may develop “trust” in something based on preliminary data and information, but that is always subject to refinement and needs to be a tentative position. As new information comes in, we can update our models of reality to reflect this, but what has always bugged me about religious ideas is that they often CLAIM to have the answers, and the price we pay to access those answers is “faith.” Not worth the price of admission, since nothing can be demonstrated….. thus, I reject faith and rely on ways of knowing that have firm foundations. Great Topic!