On Monday, NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty reported on the loss of faith of Teresa MacBain, a former minister in the United Methodist Church who recently “came out” as an Atheist. “I live a double life,” MacBain said, “. . . when Sunday’s right around the corner – I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.” After a nine years in ordained ministry, she arrived at doubt because she started asking questions. She says, “In reality . . . as I worked through [the questions] I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn’t believe it.”
I say good for her. Good for her honesty. Spoken or unspoken, the Church should never require anyone — clergy or otherwise — to act against their conscience. If she doesn’t believe anymore, then more power to her to step down and become an Atheist. Frankly, I wish other clergy would follow her lead.
I am troubled, though, that it took a lifetime of faith and nine years in the ordained ministry to realize finally that religion has “so many holes in it.” Seriously, she’s been a Christian for this long and she just realized that faith doesn’t add up? She believed in God since she was a girl and she’s just starting to put this together? Did they not make her read Kierkegaard in College? Did she not read any philosophers or theologians in seminary? Was her faith never challenged?
Her story is indicative of everything that troubles me about American Christianity: we can go a lifetime without asking serious questions about our faith. So, we think faith is something where everything adds up. Where everything has a meaning, a godly purpose. Our presentation of faith is so very nice, but it never challenges. It should shock us that Teresa MacBain could spend nine years in ordained ministry without asking “sharp questions”. So, when she finally did, she lost it.
We should be asking questions, because faith is struggle. Faith is nothing more than a confusing paradox. Faith is supposed to be full of anguish and despair. Faith is completely illogical and doesn’t add up. What if faith is meaningless? Just because Atheists might agree with all of this doesn’t mean you have to quit believing in God; on the contrary, just realize that the suffocating blandness of a tidy and understandable faith gets you nowhere. And let it go.
Faith doesn’t make sense: two loaves and five fishes doesn’t add up; the faith of the mustard seed doesn’t add up; 98.5% of the Old Testament doesn’t add up; the Virgin Birth doesn’t add up; and frankly, I don’t want the book of Revelation to add up. The faith doesn’t add up because the resurrection of Christ doesn’t add up! Faith doesn’t make a damn bit of sense because the Divine is the ineffable mystery beyond all knowing, who can only be approached in darkness under the cover of smoke. Even true doubt never claims certainty nor dismisses absurdity.
Which is why true faith and true doubt are eerily indistinguishable from one another. Both start in struggle, continue in humility, and end with caressing fingers on the wounded side from which sorrow and love flowed mingled down. They both end immersed in the love beyond love. They both end in mystery, because doubt and faith are birthed in mystery.
I wish someone had told you this when you were growing up, when you were preparing for ministry. Several years from now, when the applause ends and doubt about your doubt sets in, we’ll leave the light on and the back door unlocked. Because even doubt will bear the child of God home.