Faith, Discernment and Doubt

National Public Radio published a piece titled From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Teresa MacBain, 44, had been raised conservative Southern Baptist, but had found the United Methodist Church where she spent nine years as an ordained minister leading a congregation near Tallahassee, FL. The NPR piece describes her experience of coming out as atheist, describing the process of beginning to ask difficult questions following her ordination. Eight years later, she recognized that she had become an atheist. She spent the next year slowly coming out to others.

The piece focuses a great deal on MacBain discussing accepting atheism, attending an American Atheists support group, and her experience losing relationships with the people she formerly pastored. I’m not sure what she expected when she began the process of speaking about her atheism. Much of the backlash she has experienced should have been expected — people are people, and when someone publicly announces they’ve lost their faith, people with weak faith themselves will recoil and retreat rather than engage in any meaningful way.

Many comments on the article that I’ve read have focused on how un-christian they feel the people of MacBain’s church behaved toward her following her leaving the ministry and church. I had a different reaction. I wanted to know more about how she came to the United Methodist Church, and what made her think she had a calling to become ordained clergy?

MacBain would have been in her mid-thirties when she became ordained, and that seems really late both in her life, as well as late in the process, to begin asking questions like:

  • Is Jesus the only way to God?
  • Would a loving God torment people for eternity?
  • Is there any evidence of God at all?

Why, I want to know, didn’t her discernment process lead her to ask some of these questions? There must have been something flawed in how her discernment process was managed.

Why, as a person of faith, wasn’t she already asking these types of questions? The article lacked any discussion about what she believed before she expressed a desire to enter the clergy. And it failed to provide any insight other than to say that MacBain began to ask hard questions after her ordination.

My experience is similar to hers in that I was raised in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist church. About four years ago, I relocated to Los Angeles and began attending worship services with Episcopal churches near where I live. I’m not called to ordained ministry at this point, but we — Episcopalians — do discuss ministry and discernment in terms of our daily life. We’re all priests and ministers to our fellow human beings, and each person is encouraged to discern in their own life where they are called to serve.

When I decided that the tradition I was raised in wasn’t dealing honestly with issues that I considered important to the integrity of my faith, a faith they had instilled in me, I had to walk away. I could have looked at the hypocrisy and dishonest approaches I was raised in, and let the bad behavior of some people — including members of my immediate family — lead me to conclude that all religion is false and look to secular humanism to find meaning in life. But I wasn’t ready to give up on God. And I recognized that just because  a majority of people believe something, or that a set of doctrine is traditionally believed, that doesn’t make either the majority or their doctrines right and true.

I faced a choice, and I chose to believe, but I had to search for a different way to believe… When I grapple with the consequences of letting go of Biblical literalism in favor of a metaphoric, inclusive faith, I find myself less and less certain that there is an afterlife even while wondering if I’d really mind so much if I did bump into Hitler in Heaven. But I haven’t yet let go of the idea that following the teaching (and example) of Jesus would make life on Earth better for everyone, or that the effort would be pleasing to God.

I sympathize with MacBain, though. I ask myself tough questions about my faith. I try to listen to that still, small voice of God speaking to me against the roaring noise of my own desires and aspirations. And I know I will always have more questions than I will have answers in this life.

What about you? Where do you feel called to serve? Do you wonder where God is? Does he hear and care?

Or maybe you can’t believe in Heaven if Hilter will be there, too.

Let me know what you think.

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