December 15, 2019

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Why People Get Upset that I’ve Changed (and Am Changing)

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
From 2008

I can now officially say I’ve written my most controversial sentence. It’s various versions of “I am rethinking what I believe about God.”

I know. I know. Somehow this has been translated into “I’m no longer a Christian,” “I’m abandoning Christianity,” and “I’m ordering anchovies on that pizza.”

Why has this idea been so upsetting to some of my readers? I’ve tried a few explanatory thoughts out. If you are interested, you can test drive them as well. (If you have to translate this post into my conversion to Buddhism, I’d recommend moving to a blog with more pictures.)

1) Ministers are supposed to have all the answers.

If you are Southern Baptist minister, you had an ordination council. I had mine 8 years after I became a Christian, seven years after I declared my intention to be a pastor, two years after college graduation and one year into seminary.

I was asked a few things about a few things, but to tell you the truth, there wasn’t enough theological content in my ordination questioning to fill up a good 4 X 6 card. And that’s fairly typical.

I have no idea where anyone in Southern Baptist life anyone gets the idea that it would be a bad idea to rethink what you knew when you were 15 or 23. Nothing about being called into ministry stops you from being ignorant. If you don’t know that, you aren’t listening very closely.

Of course, in my case, it was life, not theology, that challenged me to start over and reacquaint myself with the God and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ. And I can’t apologize for Life. It seems to have a syllabus that I don’t have access to. If you are one of those people who can say “Life has nothing left to teach me,” then God help you. I don’t want to sit next to you during a thunderstorm.

Read Job for more details.

A minister is set aside to proclaim the Gospel, but no one promises to not have a personal spiritual journey along the way.

2) They are misunderstanding what I mean. (Accidentally or on purpose.)

And that’s pretty likely in some cases, I’m sure.

I never meant that I was abandoning the Christian faith and only the most hostile selective reading could come up with that.

I’m not abandoning the confessional framework that I affirmed as a Christian and an ordained minister. I’m not renouncing the faith. I’ve clearly said so in every post.

Michael Bauman taught me years ago that theology is the wind in the sails, but the creeds are the anchors. I may have pulled up anchor and let down the sails for a journey, but I never abandoned the anchors. I need them and always will.

Imagine that you are a parent. You’ve been confident you know how to raise your child. You do everything “they” told you to do. You followed the book, you followed the seminars, you followed the advice of the experts.

Then, one day, your child comes home and says “I’m a gay atheist who plans to spend his life as an urban terrorist.”

Is it possible that you might say, “I’m going to rethink everything I believe about parenting?” Of course.

If you said that, would you be saying “I am renouncing my role as a parent and will never claim that child is mine”? No, of course not.

Second example. You are a baseball coach. You have a system. You believe in your basics, your methods and your experience. You are certain that if your team follows your system, they will win.

Your team does everything you ask. To a “T.” Week after week; game after game.

You lose every game.

Is it possible you might say “I am going to rethink everything I believe about baseball”? Of course.

Would you be resigning as coach? Renouncing baseball? No.

3) “When you say that, you make the rest of us feel wrong and condemned.”

If that has been the case, I sincerely apologize. I probably was thoughtless on this score at times, and I regret it.

There are several ways to approach the process of rethinking a faith journey.

One IS to blame everyone for misleading you.

I do believe I was misled early on in my life about what God is like, but I was misled by good people who took what they were saying very seriously as truth. They weren’t messing with my head or playing games. They were following what they’d heard preached and taught. They were trying to get it all right.

But I was the one who came back again and again to beliefs that were increasingly distant from Jesus as I would meet him in the Gospels. When I defended my theology, my agenda and my version of religion using those beliefs, it was entirely MY fault.

I hold myself responsible for what I’ve persisted in believing and what I’ve taught others. Like Luther, I think the only way to have integrity is to say, from time to time, that people can be (will be) wrong and our consciences have to be captive to the Word of God. I’m #1 on the list of people who can be wrong. Like Luther, it may not be comfortable to go back to the Word and start over, but “reformed, always reforming,” should mean exactly that.

The reason we have hundreds of false teachers misrepresenting Jesus with trash from the church’s theological trash can is we didn’t realize you have to return to the sources regularly or you lose credibility.

What we all believe about God personally exists on several levels at once. Sometimes those levels co-exist peacefully, even in the face of information and experiences that indicate something is very wrong somewhere. But at other times, we realize we can no longer hold all those levels together and still really believe.

At that point, our faith has to “go into the shop,” so to speak, for a re-calibration. Some things have to change for that faith to be healthy and continue. The faith we had as children or teenagers or in a particular stage of life has to grow to fit new realities. I’ve taught that for years as healthy faith development. Apparently living it is a bit more controversial.

The absolute wrong response is to take that experience of growth as an excuse to blame others, even if there is some degree of blame to be assessed. This is MY faith journey. It’s who I am. The only thing that needs to change is how I think of and experience God. It’s not a blame game, but a growth process.

4) People aren’t comfortable with change and new beliefs in those who are supposed to be mature, dependable Christians. It frightens people to think those who are supposed to really know Christ are asking serious and fundamental questions.

I’ll refer back to the “Jonah 4″ post and the absolutely unavoidable certainty that the Bible presents all kinds of people at all sorts of places in life doing fundamental reassessments of God, with good fruit resulting.

But let me use some non-Biblical illustrations.

What if white ministers in the south had’t questioned the God they’d been told approved of slavery and segregation?

Would anyone suggest to Jeremiah Wright that his ideas about a Black Liberation God could stand some re-examination?

Would anyone suggest that health and wealth preachers like Joel Osteen could benefit from comparing their God to the God of Jesus, especially as he’s seen and worshiped among the poor?

Does anyone thing that the nationalistic, flag-waving God of many culture war Christians could stand to be compared to the God of Jesus?

What ideas about God do I have that allow me to spend more on coffee than I do on relieving hunger or digging wells?

Most of us would be happy if someone would rethink God and come out where we think God actually is. Well…..how can you deny that, in the face of obvious personal pain and crisis, some persons who were formally quite sure they had God pinned down in the box have decided to look at God again, and to go to school with Jesus as their teacher?

5) If we rethink God, that could mean we’d also have to rethink…..other stuff!

The fact is that beliefs and rhetoric about God are usually propping up other things that we believe or really want to be true.

We want to believe that following the principles, steps and theology of our leaders will ensure great marriages, great kids, great lives. (If they are, then good for you.)

We want to believe that we are really experiencing the presence of God in church. Many of you are and many of you are not. No one is saying it’s the same for everyone, but those who are experiencing God in their church have no reason at all to be judgmental or angry that someone else isn’t having the same journey. But those who aren’t….aren’t bad people ignoring Jesus. They are hungry and thirsty, but right now they aren’t satisfied.

We want to believe there’s an answer to give to suffering people that makes perfect sense of the worst situation. (Of course, Dobson wrote “When God Doesn’t Make Sense,” so perhaps some people don’t have that answer yet.)

We want to believe that if people would just listen to our pastor or our denomination or read this book or listen to that DVD…..they’d see the truth right there in front of them.

We’d like to believe that everyone who believes what we believe is right, that what we’re doing is God’s will and that everyone who disagrees with us is wrong.

It’s all very comforting. And for some people and their journey, it all works.

But not for everyone. Some of those who know it’s not working go to bed and say “If I would just try a little harder and be more sincere and prayerful, it would work. I just don’t believe enough.” That’s sad, because it may not be their fault at all.

And if you find this blog by this strange guy who hangs out his personal spiritual laundry on a clothesline right there where everyone can see it, and he — a married Baptist minister who tells other people what the Bible says and what God is like- HE says that he’s going back to Jesus and he’s going to rethink what it means to believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…then what? Is everything suddenly unsure? Is it a bad thing that he reported his journey and let others talk about theirs?

Sometimes in the journey, it feels very scary and alone. But God still has hold of us. He’s just bringing us along a different road. His covenant love hasn’t failed. We just have a further to go to see the light on the trail.

Could it be that people sometimes realize that they need to get up in the night, go get on their face and say:

“God….I’m not sure I really know what you’ve been saying to me. I’ve been talking a lot, but I haven’t been a very good listener. I’ve been good at repeating what I was supposed to say, but not very good at taking Jesus honestly and completely. So would you please help me to start over; to read the Bible and open my eyes to Jesus in a fresh, life-changing way.”

Yes, it is scary. But would it be better to just turn over and say “I already know what I need to know?” And go back to sleep?

Well folks, I’m awake. And I’m going to read my Bible, look and listen. Maybe God will meet me and answer that prayer.

Comments

  1. Christiane says

    It might have been a great mercy that prompted Michael to set out on this new journey towards God before his last year. (?) Michael’s writings do reveal a sensitive and genuinely intuitive spirit.

    ” … come
    And re-create me. . . . .
    that new-fashioned, I may rise up from death before I’m dead. ”

    (from ‘A Litany’ by the poet John Donne)

  2. The absolute wrong response is to take that experience of growth as an excuse to blame others, even if there is some degree of blame to be assessed. This is MY faith journey. It’s who I am. The only thing that needs to change is how I think of and experience God. It’s not a blame game, but a growth process.
    This message from Michael is a sobering wake up for myself and others in the wilderness not to become bitter and jaded but to look at how I experience God without blaming others.

  3. The nimbleness of thought that Michael displays is indictable of his journey. That nimbleness is often summarily plunked into the “Liberal” bin and seen as threatening because rethinking is rebelling and tantamount to leaving the fold. The truth of the matter is often 180 degrees different. Michael is referring to someone, himself or like himself, who has held on devoutly, tooth and nail , for an extended era of his life only to find life continuing to push back. The kid is still coming home with an antithetical view. The team still cannot execute the double play or put runs on the board. Even after 10,000 hours. Getting the hell beat out of you by life is sometimes strong enough to overcome the fear associated with possibly running a little off the rails. Just as Michael said, not discounting the meaning but finding a deeper and more essential meaning that speaks to a real life with all of its pimples and not a hypothetical construct. That is a lonely journey because it can only ever be taken up by one person. Probably not everyone has to take it but for those who do there is no turning back. It’s almost not a conscious choice but rather one is propelled into it. Unceremoniously spit out of the belly of the whale to find out that God’s plan isn’t following script.

  4. Rick Ro. says

    Everyone who is a Christian should read this.

  5. Leaving fundamentalism was traumatic on family relationships. Now, my current journey on trying to abandon western philosophy since the Renaissance as well as reading on Eastern Orthodoxy as well as reading people like Richard Rohr’s thoughts on the Trinity and unity is private to me and an occasional conversation with my spouse. I realize any attempt to discuss it would be perceived at Elitist, new Age, Universalist, Liberal….whichever label they choose for me.

    • You’re alone and you’re not alone. Hold on to what really rings the bells. Sometimes, after awhile, you even come ‘round full circle but with a truer sound and better harmony.

      • Rick Ro. says

        –> “Sometimes, after awhile, you even come ‘round full circle but with a truer sound and better harmony.”

        I believe this too. One of the things I’ve concluded is that God is quite interested in our relationship with Him being HEALTHY. If that means leaving a church or denomination that’s turning that relationship into UN-healthy, then so be it.

        And sometimes we come back around to that same spot, but this time WE are healthier and our relationship with God is healthier, making it a much better fit and feel. And sometimes OUR health can be used to help others “trapped” in that system get healthier.

  6. Radagast says

    As a Catholic I am experiencing some forms of crisis as well. I spent some time in mystical Christianity (Saint John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Cloud of Unknowing stc) and this along with the Church and scripture grounded me. But lately the Church run by humans, with the Priest scandals and lack of accountability early on (that has changed for the better), the allowing of priests and Bishops around the Vatican to behave in ways that are morally corrupt, the majority of my children turning away because they can’t stomach it….. it is rough. I will keep praying.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Why has this idea been so upsetting to some of my readers?

    Because when The System (individual or group) is seen as Perfect in Every Way, any change is a movement away from that Perfection.

    Think of Utopian Future movements, from the French Revolution to the First Russian Revolution to the various Islamic Republics. What if they had achieved their goal of The Perfect Society? They would have to go into never-changing stasis to prevent any Imperfection, and enforce that stasis by any means necessary. Whether that static perfection is The Republique of Perfect Virtue or Year One of the Hegira.

    • Great point.

    • “So let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it – what are you gonna do with the people like you… the troublemakers? How’re you going to protect your glorious revolution… from the next one?”

      The Doctor, *The Zygon Inversion*

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “So me and mine have all got to lay down and die so you can have your perfect world?”
        — Captain Mal Reynolds, Free Trader Serenity

        • David Greene says

          “The last thing he learned was that death is the end of pain.”
          ? C. M. Kornbluth, Marching Morons

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Danerys Stormborn Targereyn at King’s Landing —
        the Dark Side of the Social Justice Warrior mindset.

  8. When I left the hard core fundamentalist church I was raised in I lost my ability to ever again accept a totalizing one size fits all approach. In one very important sense all these years of reading and thinking haven’t helped a bit. I’ve seen how time bound and culture bound it all is. I feel like Moses must have felt staring over into the promised land knowing he can never enter. How long until he got tired of staring and just wandered off? They said God took him but maybe that was just their way of being able to live with leaving him there on the side of a mountain? The difference now is that fewer and fewer are able to enter the promised land with a clear conscience.

    • anonymous says

      something beautifully sad about your comment, Stephen

      I think you couldn’t have stayed in any group that looked down on those they thought were ‘outsiders’ . . . that shows a compassion that doesn’t square with ‘hard core fundamentalism’ which is all too happy to condemn and judge those who don’t go their way

      poignant scene: Moses staring over into the Promised Land . . . . an arch-type of so many in our broken humankind

      I have a feeling you did not hear much about ‘the mercy of God’ in that fundamentalist up-bringing. I wish you had, but I understand that you have a journey ahead of you. Maybe all that ‘reading and thinking’ wasn’t what will help you, Stephen. Maybe something else, something of God’s mercy, will open itself to you in time and you will find peace. God cares for us, especially for those who have wandered far and want to come home again to a place that they can see from afar, but don’t know the way or if they will be allowed to enter. Don’t be afraid. Keep moving towards the light.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Fundamentalist upbringings are really not that much into Mercy.