Two recent conversations raise questions in my mind about the integrity and strength of our beliefs. A pair of incredibly intelligent, deeply spiritual Christians shared with me heart-breaking realizations that there is no longer any place for them in the church — all because they are reasonable, rational people trying to cope with unreasonable, irrational systems of belief.
Megan is a thirty-something geneticist working on stem-cell research. Born and raised Baptist, Megan loves God and cannot fathom making sense of life apart from her belief in a loving, creative God. The more she learns about the human organism, the more in awe she is of all creation — a creation she firmly believes finds its initial cause in God. She believes that God has graciously and generously gifted her with above-average intelligence and an insatiable curiosity about the way things work. She believes that her faith and her vocation are intrinsically related, allowing her to faithfully serve the will of God. A few months ago, Megan’s pastor asked her for a meeting. She was very excited because she thought she was being asked to teach a class on science and religion to the high school group. She was shocked and disappointed when she realized that the pastor was advising her that it might be a good idea if she found another church. The pastor kindly informed her that members of her church family were offended by her profession. He reminded her that stem-cell research was sinful, and that science, in general, was playing God. He told her that a person of “true” faith could not possibly do the work she did. He offered her the option of leaving the church or seeking a new profession, though he observed that anyone who thought that playing God was acceptable needed a lot more than just to change jobs. Megan left the meeting an emotional wreck. She tried a couple more churches, but met with similar reactions. Megan doesn’t know anyone who loves God more than she does, and she believes that God loves her. What she can’t figure out is why her church is convinced that she is nothing but an unrepentant sinner.
Greg is a professor with doctorates in both world history and philosophy. The past few years have been difficult personally for Greg — losing his father and his wife to different diseases and recovering himself from a near fatal boating accident. Greg’s life journey brought him to explore the Christian faith in a new, deeply personal way. He gave his life to Christ, applied his appreciable academic skills to studying theology, the Bible, and church history and decided to involve himself in a community of faith. For months, Greg visited church after church, denomination after denomination, Bible study after Bible study, looking for a place to belong. Unfortunately, Greg is generally the most intelligent person in the room, often knowing more than the small group leaders, and even when he doesn’t know more, he asks incredibly insightful, incredibly difficult questions. He challenges simplistic thinking, points out flaws in logic, identifies historic inaccuracies, and highlights philosophical inconsistencies. In short, Greg drives his teachers crazy and threatens the security and beliefs of the other students. Greg has been “kicked out” of over a dozen small groups. Greg is no longer looking for a church.
I know there are churches out there that are not afraid of smart people. I know that the anti-intellectualism so rampant in much of the Christian church doesn’t reign supreme everywhere. I know that many pastors and congregational leaders do not impose an artificial division between science and religion. But I also know that those oases of rationality, reason, and openness are few and far between. Our “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors” only open so far, before slamming shut in the face of any and all who pose a threat to blissful, blind, comfortable ignorance. Our churches, for the most part, are not comfortable dealing with the intellectual elite. Somehow, faith and reason have become antithetical. But what does it say about our faith if it cannot stand up to the critical light of reason? What if the questions of the intellectual elite actually have the power to destroy what we believe? Is that what we’re really afraid of?
A common lament of seminarians entering the pastoral ministry is that they can’t teach what they learned at seminary in the local church. Sound theological reflection and critical Biblical interpretation is simply not acceptable to too many parishioners. The intellectual level of the whole congregation settles back to the lowest common denominator. This is one reason why many churches never evolve, and why the Christian faith is losing credibility with so many young, highly educated members of our society.
The tragedy in all of this is that our God has nothing to fear from honest questioning, intellectual analysis, and critical examination. Sadly, God’s people don’t share this confidence. If our faith can be destroyed by science, philosophy, logic, or the media, then it isn’t much of a faith to begin with. The only good explanation for our fear is that we haven’t done a very good job developing more than the most superficial belief systems in our churches. How wonderful it would be if our congregations not only welcomed the best and the brightest, but actually celebrated the God-given gifts of intelligence that they offer to strengthen and improve our understanding of God, God’s creation, and God’s will for the world.