Nuance, Doubt and Metaphor for "Can't Believers": Old First E-pistle 10.02.12

Nuance, Doubt and Metaphor for "Can't Believers": Old First E-pistle 10.02.12

One of you sent me a newsletter this week, from Tony Campolo’s son Bart, who was announcing that he is becoming the first Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California.

He explains, my wife “Marty and I have gradually become what some folks call humanists. That doesn’t mean we’re discouraged or angry with the Church, but only that we’re committed to pursuing goodness for its own sake now, instead of because we believe in God. While it might make some of you sad that we’re no longer Christians, the good news is that our values, which we mostly learned through the stories of Jesus, haven’t changed a bit. We understand and deeply respect why so many smart, thoughtful people trust the Christian narrative; we just can’t do it ourselves anymore. What we still can do, however, is bring people —especially ‘can’t-believers’ like us —together to love one another and care for our neighbors in need.”

The member who forwarded this newsletter to me sent it with a note which included:
“…I think it’s the direction church is going to have to go if church wants to grow.”

To which I responded:
“Hmm, I am impressed with the ‘outness’ of their leaving the church and declaring what they believe, even if in the negative. You and I have discussed how we think that perhaps ‘the umbrella under which we can gather varieties of beliefs’ needs to enlarge, for instance wondering if the baptism ritual is the only possible entrance to our church community.

(Interestingly, the Protestant church in what was formerly East Germany, faced with a population conditioned against the vows of baptism by their years under the anti-Christian prejudices of communism, has explored other ways for newcomers to make Christian commitments and become part of the church.)

That said, we at Old First find so much richness in the Bible stories: they really do define who we are. In that sense, I can’t imagine how we could be more humanist or less Christian than we are (albeit humanist Christians, if there is such a thing!)? But I will keep thinking about it, and we can keep discussing.”

To which I received a reply:
“I totally agree with you (and disagree strongly with Campolo). The narrative not only matters, but is beautiful and generative. I think that’s the problem with Evangelicals: when they fall out of faith, it’s all or nothing for them. There’s no room for nuance, or doubt, or a sophisticated understanding of metaphor.”

“So.” my correspondent continued, “I’m not so much suggesting that we should become less Christian and more humanist, but that maybe we need to find ways to talk about our narrative that allow non-believers to see its power nonetheless…”

This member and I have had an on-going conversation about how “believing” is often experienced as too high a bar to belonging for many people these days. Though Jesus reassures us that we need only faith the size of a mustard seed, people often doubt they believe enough to be welcome at… much less participate in… church. Or they judge the faith they have as insufficient in the eyes of the church. It’s like we’re harder on ourselves than the church is — in a secular world, we’ve serve as the church’s and our own Grand Inquisitor!

When people share such concerns with me I always reassure them that there are people in the pews all around them that they see as “committed” Christians and members of Old First in good standing whose faith and doubts are more similar to their own than they imagine.

Yet people persist in letting the perceived negative judgments of the church inhibit them — block their openness to church and how belonging might be a part of… and, in fact, add to… their lives.

But if the church could help us find new ways to talk about our faith that explicitly articulated and made generous room for nuance, doubt and a sophisticated sense of metaphor (and the people who rely on them!), perhaps “can’t-believers” might find a new power in the tradition and in the church? They might even come to recognize some faith they DO have…

As C. S. Lewis once wrote: Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

See you in church,

Michael