Losing Faith and the scandal of the evangelical mind?

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’.

  1. Intellectual doubts: the existence and character of God; suffering; faith and science, pluralism.
  2. Negative church experience: hyper-spirituality, division, unanswered prayer, hypocrisy, legalism, guilt, excessive control.
  3. Social relationships: pressure to believe for parents, loss of friendships and close relationships after leaving.
  4. 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.

Some observations:

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.

9 thoughts on “Losing Faith and the scandal of the evangelical mind?

  1. Begs the question, is it time to drop the word evangelical? It means little more than a certain cultural expression of Christianity. If your analysis is correct (and, I think it is), why pretend that people leaving evangelicalism are giving up on the gospel? Maybe they have never understood, lived, or believed the gospel.

    • While I’m not hung up on the word and wouldn’t tend to use it too much in an Irish context since it is either not known or is misunderstood – I don’t want to abandon it. It can mean little more than a cultural or sociological expression of Christianity but historically and theologically of course it means much more than that. It’s that latter content I’d want to hold on to. Not sure what word or description could replace it – any suggestions?

      • Perhaps not, Partick? If people/churches/organisations get the gospel wrong, can they be Christian? If we are quick to analysis and criticise evangelicalism, why are we so slow to do the same for other sections of what passes for Christianity. I’m not sure people are really up for being honest about the implications of putting the gospel first. All the groups and labels you name – Catholic, Orthodox, Mennonite, Pentecostal are open to the same gospel critque as evangelicalism… how true are they to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

      • Think we’re talking about this from different angles. I was more making the point that the word ‘Christian’ is so broad that it immediately needs defining – which is actually what you are doing. By applying a gospel lens to define the word Christian, you are bringing us back to ‘evangelical’ 🙂 We can’t escape our theological frameworks.

        That’s why, despite all the varieties (good and bad) within evangelicalism (broadly defined), I don’t want to give up on the word – it captures something important about core emphases of Christianity. As John Stott put it, Bible people and gospel people.

        I’d put it something like this (and this is a quick blog comment so I may have forgotten something vital!): the necessity of personal faith & repentance, a high view of Scripture, a focus on the saving significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, a transformed life by the empowering presence of the Spirit, a life of discipleship lived within the community of the church, participating fully in the mission of God to love, redeem and bring hope into this broken creation.

      • We are coming at things from the same place… if the things you list are not present, then there is no evangelicalism, no gospel, no Christianity. That’s the big implication that I think has been lost in all the recent discussions on what the gospel is among scholars like NT Wright, Scot McKnight, and all the more conservative folks, etc. We can’t easily read write and speak challenging words about the nature of Christianity, carefully defining emphases, etc, and then shrug our shoulders and admit practically that Christianity is really very very broad. Going back to your post and the research behind it… if people are walking away from an evangelicalism that is not reflecting in form and content your gospel emphases, then that’s a good thing! Why would we want people to be involved in a movement that is not inspired and shaped by Christian principles?

  2. A well written, thought provoking post. The four points above cover the reason for loss of faith very well. Can anyone say truthfully that they have never had any doubts? I don’t think I’ve ever met such a person. Belief in God was never ever going to be easy but having experienced a long time of non belief I am slow to judge others with little or no faith.

    • thanks Paul. One thing the book brings out is the ‘journey’ aspect of faith. What you say reinforces this – your journey didn’t ‘end’ with years of non belief, but led back to a deeper and more real faith.

      Other studies of faith journeys stress the importance of growing in faith. If there is not an environment for debate, questioning, wrestling with real issues of life – in other words a maturing and deepening of faith – then people can tend to ‘leave’ it behind as something not relevant to the questions real life throws up.

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