Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On "Life as a Leaver"

In Anna Scott's Life as a Leaver, she articulates the painful effort needed to withstand doubt and judgment. Her husband divorced her, and this suffering led her to doubt. She has been, and is, pursuing a career in ministry, and as someone concerned with being theologically orthodox, she faces the belief on the part of a lot of her fellow church members that, because she is a woman, she isn't fit to serve in the capacity she feels called to. Life as a Leaver is ostensibly in response to The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church by Drew Dyck, but her article stands on its own.

Although Scott will likely remain a believer, as a doubter she certainly has my sympathies. She describes the pat answers she gets, and the frustration of realizing that the intellectual understanding she had of God's love through suffering, that understanding was not as solid as she expected. I recommend reading her article for its frankness and the all-too-rare "I don't know" from a thoughtful religionist:

Surely, I am not the only person to have “crashed” on these “rocks” of sin and suffering, sovereignty and certainty. And I no longer think that it is a sign of immaturity or ignorance that these rocks give birth to doubt; in fact, I think it is immature and ignorant to deny these very real questions: about rape, about mental illness, about earthquakes, about affairs, about divorce, about children born into extreme poverty. Where does sovereignty end and sin begin? And what does that say about God? Shouldn’t this be relevant to any discussion of disbelief?

In Dyck's article, he says:

Over the past year, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Christians. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures. Many experienced intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality.

Moral compromise was not a factor in my departure from belief in God, and, if Dyck were to interview me, it would be dishonest of me to cite it as a reason for leaving. The part of Scott's response that was the most relatable for me was:

I want to end this litany of criticisms [of Dyck's article] by acknowledging a point that I found both offensive and mildly insightful, but for different reasons than Dyck identifies: I do think that moral compromise plays a role in a person’s decision to leave Christianity, but I think that the negative influence is actually exerted on the developing doubter, rather than on the moral transgressor. Having attended youth group religiously (yes, I am going with this idiom despite the pun) and a prominent Christian college, followed by years in communities, churches, faith-based organizations and Christian graduate school, I can easily attest to the willingness—even eagerness—of young evangelicals to compromise biblical standards and call it doubt or rebellion. But, sooner or later, these people will find a nice Christian husband or wife and return to the church of their childhood, because doubt is not their real issue. It is those of us who are trying to build a thoughtful, substantive, deep faith who observe this behavior in young people raised in the church and wonder what has gone wrong. What the hell is going on here? I often asked myself, observing this profound lack of authenticity. Why do these people—and, in all honestly, I became one of them in college—bother retaining the trappings of Christianity at all?

As I was doubting, I became more scrupulous in my moral behavior. Knowing that good works could not save me, and that my good behavior might be some vain attempt to pacify God, I tried to find the right spiritual muscles to flex, the ones involving humility and submission and resignation. I was afraid to sin, or even, to have a wrong spiritual inclination, because that would be an indicator that my doubts were inauthentic: perhaps I was doubting my way out of my moral obligations or the challenge of relating to God. I didn't want my honest doubts to be dismissible by others or myself as mere moral compromise. Scott is right in noting that others' moral failings are as likely to lead to doubt as one's own foibles, and right in noting the wrongness of looking to blame doubters. If there were a badge to give to Christians for being relatable to nonbelievers, she gets it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alex - it's Kelly. We haven't spoken in years, but I saw your Facebook hope thread with Matthew (which I loved, not least because that's one of my favorite "heavy" xkcd comics), which led me to this post. I'm so glad you left a post on a topic that is so relevant for me just yesterday, so that I can respond beyond, "oh hey, remember me, from CrossRoads?"
    I love the theme of your blog, as a fellow church expat, and I can especially sympathize with this article. I was practically ascetic in the time that I was questioning my faith, constantly afraid that someone would point out to me that my faith was slipping, and it was evident in my behavior. But honestly, the moment I decided that I couldn't honestly say that I believed a word of the theology I was raised to believe was the first moment I questioned the behavioral directives that accompanied that theology. At that point, it was no longer doubt, but rejection.
    So my point is, I guess, that I get it. I very much appreciate your perspective as a Christian agnostic, although I do not share your identification (I would consider myself an inductive agnostic, or on my more open-minded days, Buddhist).
    I'd love to hear more from you - it's clear that I've lost out by not keeping in touch. Shoot me an email, if you're not put off by my run-on sentences.