I’m reading some stuff on Losing Faith and Keeping Faith, and specifically this book by Phil Zuckerman, Faith No More: why people reject religion which I’m to review and may blog about.
Gladys Ganiel and Claire Mitchell have a chapter on ‘Leaving Evangelicalism’ in their analysis of Northern Ireland Evangelical Journeys. This is the first of two posts on their chapter. I spoke at the book launch of this book which is well written and researched.
Some of their observations include:
Faith is not somehow ‘lost’, as if it is misplaced or suddenly disappears. Rather it is a gradual process with a high degree of choice being exercised. Those who ‘left’ thought about it over time and there were a number of layered reasons underpinning the decision to ‘move on’.
- Intellectual doubts: the existence and character of God; suffering; faith and science, pluralism.
- Negative church experience: hyper-spirituality, division, unanswered prayer, hypocrisy, legalism, guilt, excessive control.
- Social relationships: pressure to believe for parents, loss of friendships and close relationships after leaving.
- New cultural experiences and increasing independence: moving physically to a new culture and context
Leaving is not the end of a journey. Most of their sample is now agnostic; some may return to some form of religion, some have a modified vague sort of faith, some have become atheists.
As I’ve reflected on this chapter a bit more, I’ve hesitated posting because it’s hard to share my thoughts about the stories told in this chapter without sounding either patronising, judgemental or both! So please hear that this is not my intention – these stories are important to listen to and learn from and that’s my main aim.
First, a quibble with the terminology used:
The stories are really of people leaving Christianity not evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is an expression of Christianity. If they are living up to their name, evangelicals don’t, for example, believe in ‘evangelicalism’, they believe in and seek to follow Jesus Christ. Their primary identity is Christian, so when they lose their faith, it is a loss of faith in the person of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rather than simply a system or cultural expression of religious belief (evangelicalism).
And this is why I was really struck by how the leavers in this chapter described their leaving – the reasons for leaving mostly had little to do with issues core to Christianity itself, had quite a lot to do with negative experiences of evangelical sub-culture, and lots to do with the very particular political and social sub-culture of Northern Irish evangelicalism.
Now the authors know their stuff and do have this important caveat – they are summarising long open-ended discussions in which there was often a fair degree of hesitancy and angst in the telling personal stories. So what is captured does not tell the full story(s). The interviewees were being asked about their personal faith journeys, not offering papers of self-reflective theological assessment!
But it was striking (to me anyway) that there was pretty well no mention by anyone of words like ‘Jesus’, ‘Spirit’, ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace’, ‘service’, ‘joy’, ‘hope’. Nothing about the Christian faith being about the good news of Jesus and his compelling, attractive, self-giving, life and what it has felt like to ‘leave’ this behind. Nothing about the Christian life being a call to love the triune God and live a kingdom-shaped life. Nothing about a hope-filled future and an experience of the Spirit. Nothing about the call to serve and love others.
And nothing much about (older modernist?) issues of the historical reliability of the Bible, the historical veracity of the resurrection and such like.
Most of the reasons for leaving appeared highly subjective and experiential rather than offering a compelling critique of the intellectual or theological integrity of Christianity itself. For the most part, the picture of Christianity that was ‘left behind’ is one I’d have little interest being part of either (guilt, control, super-spirituality, boring church, etc).
Reasons for leaving included: realising that other religions made competing faith claims; struggling with the reality that people die; being unable to deal with difficult questions about faith; being undermined by someone’s supposed ‘prophecy’ not being fulfilled; finding being prayed for an empty experience; being disappointed that God did not answer prayer the way the person expected; excessive control and legalism within the church (which I’ll post about next).
These are hardly revolutionary new challenges to orthodox Christianity. Nor do they engage with the heart of what it means to be an evangelical Christian and what it means and feels like to leave ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’ behind.
This all suggests a couple of interesting things:
The first one is obvious enough when you think about it, but is often overlooked in preaching, teaching, theological education and evangelism – and the authors bring this out really well.
People do not ‘believe’ in nice neat categories. Faith is not (for most people anyway?) a detached, rational, set of propositions that are intellectually grasped and then rigorously worked through in a nice linear way. Faith is multi-layered and intensely personal and messy and complex and emotional and relational and instinctive and heart-felt as well as having a cognitive theological basis.
The second is connected to the first – from reading these stories of leaving I have to wonder if the intensely personal / messy / complex / emotional / relational / instinctive / heart-felt aspects of faith have so overwhelmed the cognitive theological basis within contemporary evangelicalism that even those (like the interview sample in this chapter) who are described as (former) ‘evangelicals’ seem to demonstrate scant theological or historical awareness of the actual content and depth of Christian orthodoxy.
So I wonder if this chapter on ‘leaving evangelicalism’ offers profound and deeply uncomfortable challenges to evangelicals, NOT so much because of its devastating exposure of the intellectual foolishness of believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, but because it appears much of contemporary evangelicalism is nurturing an ad-hoc individualist spirituality that is so thin and subjective that it cannot withstand much questioning or God not fitting into preconceived notions of what he should do, or the reality that Christians are imperfect sinners who mess up all the time.
Many have written on the ‘emptying out’ of (Western) contemporary evangelicalism, perhaps most famously Mark Noll. It seems to me that this chapter adds weight to ‘the scandal of the evangelical mind’.
Comments, as ever, welcome.