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Losing their faith

Losing their faith

What happens when clergy lose their faith? It happens more often than most people might think. Most clergy have to struggle with un-belief at one point or another during seminary. Not all resolve the question before they are ordained. Often time the situation returns again and again; at least according to other clergy that I speak with informally.


Sam Harris, a well known atheist voice, interviews Tim Prowse, a former Methodist minister, about how he lost his faith and eventually left the ministry. It was a process that began in seminary.

[Sam Harris] It sounds like you lost your faith in the process of becoming a minister—or did you go back and forth for some years? How long did you serve as a minister, and how much of this time was spent riven by doubt?

[Tim Prowse] I didn’t lose faith entirely during the ministerial process, although a simmering struggle between faith and doubt was clearly evident.  This simmering would boil occasionally throughout my seventeen-year career, but any vacillations I experienced were easily suppressed, and faith would triumph, albeit, for non-religious reasons.  Besides the money, time, and energy I had invested during the process, familial responsibilities deterred any decisions to alter course.  These faithful triumphs were ephemeral and I found myself living in constant intellectual and emotional turmoil. By not repudiating my career, I could not escape the feeling I was living a lie. I continued to juggle this stressful dichotomy to the point of being totally miserable. Only recently have I succumbed to the doubt that has always undergirded my faith journey.

After I read your book, The End of Faith, I could no longer suppress my unbelief.  Since I’d never felt comfortable in clergy garb and refused to accept a first-century worldview, your book helped me see that religion could no longer be an instrument of meaning in my life. I’m sad to say, Sam, this conclusion did not result in an immediate career change.  I didn’t break from the church immediately, but rather feigned belief for two more years.”

Yesterday, in an informal conversation with a number of clergy we were talking about that cycle of faith, doubt and re-conversion. And how often it happens for some people. How have you heard about clergy finding their way back to faith? Was it through a different theological lens? Was it through recommitment to a part of ministry like service to the poor? Is this something you’ve experienced?

And more to the point I suppose, what sorts of things ought the larger church be providing to help in these personal struggles?

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A Facebook User

Dennis:

"people will follow the system that gives them real control over their environment and world: science"

in my reading of Genesis, this is indeed the illusion which created the human condition in the first place! Religion, in my humble opinion, is what reminds us that we are ultimately not in control; it gives us a framework for living in a world that is provided as a loving gift - that is a completely different paradigm than what you present.

How can church be a "conveyor of the sacred and the meaningful, of the mythic and the cultural expression of purpose and beauty and value and everything that matters" if a culture in possession of world-controlling science is the ultimate arbiter of meaning? Is it not great hubris to think that we can (or should even aspire to)controlling our environment?

Michael Carroccino

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James Pirrung-Mikolajczyk

Dennis,

John calls anyone who denies that Jesus Christ came to earth in human flesh and was sent by God in the Incarnation an "antichrist" (1Jn 2). Additionally, real Christians believe that Jesus physically resurrected from the dead on the third day (1Co 15). I am disturbed that all of say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, but many of us reject it in our thoughts and actions.

As far as irrelevance goes, the real Church is the one that believes that Christ Jesus is the unique Son of God and that only those who believe in him are saved (Jn 3). Whether the Church has 1,000 people across the whole world or 1,000,000, it doesn't matter. What matters is that what God says about himself is true and it is our place to accept it or to get out of the way. Real Christianity is not a consensus about religion, but faithful adherence to the teachings and life of Jesus Christ. Anything is else is "antichrist" IAW First John.

James Pirrung

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Dennis

Plenty of us in the pews have carried on past the loss of our beliefs. More than a few of us, I promise you, are Episcopalian AND atheist. A mere 20 years ago the Episcopal Church seemed comfortable with members who read Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as explanations of God as mythic archetype, who wanted sermons that acknowledged faith and the expanding knowledge of the universe beyond our planet, who wanted to think and worship. There was an opening for real thought and discussion. But that seems oddly unwelcome to many, now. (Someone utters the dread word of 'Spong" and all conversation is over and done.) Is there no room for those of us who find the work of the church to be important, for psychological and cultural reasons, for spiritual reasons, even though there is likely no personal god "out there" floating around in the heavens? Can we still be Christians even if we don't think that a certain Jesus came from a virgin birth, climbed out of the grave and floated off into the sky?

The real threat to religion is demanding that it be taken literally. We live in an age when even children are comfortable with the ideas of modern physics (the multiverse, relativity, the creation of the earth by the accumulation of dust from the solar cloud, etc.) modern biology (no special creation of humans, but a long and slow process of evolutionary development) and psychology and neurology (our thoughts are not from a soul or ghost in the machine, but the result of neural processes). This knowledge is too widespread in society now to go back. There will be no return to an earlier version of faith. Not one that is incompatible with the world as we know it. The cognitive dissonance is too great, and people will follow the system that gives them real control over their environment and world: science.

But religion CAN survive (and even thrive!) if it can revision itself as the conveyor of the sacred and the meaningful, of the mythic and the cultural expression of purpose and beauty and value and everything that matters.

Many of the laity are already doing this. Unfortunately the lack of welcome that they receive is all the encouragement that they need to leave. That has to stop, for both sides of the pulpit. If clergy could be free to express their questions and explore their doubts (without fear that they will be convicted in the online court of Standfirm and reported to a spineless and trouble-aversive bishop) then perhaps the incorporation of the truths of modern science with the ancient mythic narratives can be done without clergy or laypeople having to quit.

But this is up to the true believers. Can you stop insisting on the subscription to traditional theism and creeds? Will you allow the church to survive in a new age and within the context of a new and firmly established worldview, or will you nail the colors to the mast as the whole thing sinks beneath the waves of the past?

Dennis Roberts

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tgflux

Some doubt the reality of God. *

I doubt the disinterestedness of Sam Harris, to someone who says "After I read your book, The End of Faith, I could no longer suppress my unbelief."

I don't believe in Sam Harris.

JC Fisher

* That certainly includes me, from time to time.

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E B

It seems like this is the two-edged sword that clergy faces. On the one hand, the trust we place in clergy, and the love that we have for clergy, slides folks into a place where expectations, real or perceived, are impossibly high. On the other hand, it's this very same paradigm that is one of the best parts of being called to the ministry for many.

Of course, struggles with doubt and faith aren't unique to clergy. I wonder: If clergy were more open about these struggles would we, as laity, potentially learn from this situation, and perhaps vice versa? I hope so--our clergy face ample challenges in the best of times.

Eric Bonetti

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