I read with interest the other day the story of Theresa McBain, who was recently hired by Harvard's Humanist Community to be a kind of "church planter" for atheist communities. At the time I thought the story was interesting, and I certainly agreed with the idea that atheists, as any other group of believers, need community, and community is something that churches tend to do well. So the idea of an "atheist church" while slightly strange to the ear perhaps, did not strike me as anything problematic.
I was struck, however, by the story of McBain's journey away from faith. As the article in Religion Dispatches reports it:
I was raised in the Deep South where my dad was a Baptist pastor. I always felt my calling was to be in ministry but the Baptist church didn’t allow women pastors. As I moved through my young adulthood, my theology became more liberal leading me into the Methodist church where I became a pastor. I’d always been a thinker so when questions relating to my faith began to pop up, I ignored them at first. You see, questioning and doubts were sinful in my faith tradition.
But the questions wouldn’t remain silent. So five to eight years ago, I began doing research on these questions. My thoughts were that when people came to me with questions as a pastor, I'd have answers I could share with them about their doubts. But the answers led to more questions that led to more research. I even called myself a progressive Christian for a while, but slowly realized I couldn't hide from the answers any longer. In the summer of 2011, I knew the faith I held to for all my life was gone.
This, of course, is a very common story, one that I've heard a lot, and one that always seems to have the same basic elements: A childhood spent in a conservative religious culture, a refusal to deal with the hard questions of doubt, and an eventual embrace of a form of anti-religion which in some ways mirrors the certainty of the previous religious faith. In both cases, doubt is the unacceptable state which needs to be replaced with some form of certainty -- either that God must or that God must not exist.
The story took an interesting turn over the last several days when it was revealed that McBain had never actually attended Divinity School as she had claimed in her resume. That revelation led to her dismissal from the Harvard Humanist Community, which makes me genuinely sad on her behalf.
Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist makes a very good point about the case:
The hard truth appears to be that MacBain has no theological degree.
The softer truth, however, may be that it doesn’t really matter. MacBain really was religious. She really did lose her faith. She really did work as a volunteer or paid staffer for a number of atheist groups over the past year and a half. She really did help people transition from religious to godless.
To this point I want to add a hearty "yes, but ..." Yes but, to a degree her status within the atheist community appears to have been shored up by the fact that she was a trained pastor who, having received a theological education at one of the top Divinity Schools in the United States, decided that none of what she had learned there could answer the compelling arguments in favor of unbelief. That in itself is a fairly substantial bit of misrepresentation. Also, yes, but it does seem to me that the experience of having actually attended a fairly rigorous theological school, grappled with her doubts there, done the hard work of debating those doubts with her professors, her fellow students, and with herself, might have actually helped her to resolve them.
Of course, as I see it, doubt is an essential component of faith, so I would suggest that by "resolve them" I mean not "replaced that doubt with certainty in the existence of God," but rather "learned that this doubt is compatible with a faithful trust in that which is beyond our capacity to fully comprehend." Of course, it might not have, and she might have decided much earlier in her life that she didn't believe, and would then not have suffered years of crisis as she worked through her doubts and came out an atheist on the other side.
Of course, since she didn't actually follow through with her theological education, it's impossible to say just what might have happened, but it is worth noting that to struggle with one's faith is not a contradiction of that faith. One can never say with certainty where one will end up in that struggle, but the struggle itself is not only valuable, but essential. For my part, I worry for those people who don't struggle with questions of faith, who have replaced their doubt with certainty of one kind or another, and therefore stopped asking questions.
A follow up article at Religion Dispatches makes a connection between McBain's faith struggles and those of Nadia Bolz-Weber, who I've recently come to learn of through Tony Jones and other emergent folks. I was particularly struck by Bolz-Weber's analogy between coming to believe, and the experience of Mary's meeting with Jesus in the Garden:
I love that text in John 20 where she doesn't recognize him. She thinks he's the gardener—which I suspect she never lived down. I'm sure her friends, for the rest of her life, when they'd be drinking, they'd be like, "Hey, Mary, remember when you thought Jesus was a gardener?" I absolutely love the fact that she didn't recognize him until he spoke her name. I relate to that. I don't think I recognized Jesus until it seemed like he was speaking my name. When that happens, we turn at the sound of the voice.
There is of course, a sense in which Jesus is always speaking our names, and whether we turn in response to that voice or not is a question of whether we can let go, not of our doubts, but of our need for certainty. The life of faith is a life of doubt. Faith is a struggle, not a refuge, or at least not only a refuge. The sadness that I experience when I read stories like McBain's is rooted both in my recognition of her suffering, and the fact that the church has done such a poor job serving and welcoming those who come bearing their doubts, and allowing them and their doubts a home within the community of Jesus Christ and his followers.