The Irrationalization of Christianity

dunce-capTwo 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.  touchingthevoid460He 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.  creator1If 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.

12 replies

  1. I have experienced this issue in one of the bible studies I attend. A woman who has a heart for God, telling the good news, reaching out to people who are different than herself (white, middle class, Christian). The reaction she got was a gasp of disbelief, then many reasons why she shouldn’t have conversations with people of other faiths. And consequently, she has stopped attending Bible study and worship.

    I applauded her feelings and encouraged her to be in conversation, but it seemed these folks thought her soul was in danger if she spoke to the very people Christ called us to engage.

    I dispare for the UM church.

  2. Disturbing stories. Even myself believing Christianity can be 100% intellectually defendable. I am a very conservative evangelical Methodist and take many things in the Bible quite literally but for these pastors and leaders to ask others to leave without trying to intelligently correct them or challenge them is an incredible mistake. I will also say that the reason most seminary grads find a hard time applying it is because they do generate doubters. I know plenty of them. They have been taught a one side story that does destroy others faith. On the other hand because of the intimidation of ‘intellectuals’ to parishioners they shun any form of intellectual Christianity. It is a truly sad situation. I love apologetics.

    • We may never be able to resolve all differences, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could be the one shining example of a safe place to ask any question, to voice any doubt, or to explore any idea? I appreciate your honesty and your obvious openness to address issues — even those with which you might disagree. We need more of that.

  3. I wonder if Megan’s pastor would have a problem if the president of the bank in town that is the most aggressive in foreclosures was a member of the church.

    Would he tell Dick Cheney, “thanks, but no thanks?”

    Hypocrisy (and its brother, selective outrage) is right up there with narrow-mindedness as reasons it is harder to get people in the church.

    On the flip side, too many of our seminaries seem to pump out doubters rather than proclaimers. People are also looking for a church with a solid faith in the divine Trinity.

    That Venn diagram has a lot more area of intersection than we sometimes think. 🙂

  4. Megan’s story deeply troubled my heart. Wesley highlighted that our knowledge is enhanced by experience, and it seems these judgments on genetics and science come from lack of experience. I know this personally as my wife and I are going through in-vitro fertilization.

    Before this experience, I highly questioned this science, and would argue a fertilized egg is new life. After this experience, that is profoundly not true. Experience with this process has taught me that new life in pregnancy is lot more than sperm meets egg. If that was all there was to it, IVF would work 100% of the time, but a good rate of success is 50%. Most are around 20-30%.

    I am incredibly thankful for people like Megan who God has blessed with such tremendous intelligence to make possible procedures like IVF. She is a blessing, and please tell her that!

  5. “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.” “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.”

    Those are powerful statements that I greatly appreciate. I think we dive into faith, get somewhere that is comfortable, and settle in. I personally enjoy people who think out of the box and who ask challenging questions, it makes me personally grow in my faith. I pray that these two people find some peace and understand that God is bigger and more loving then the people who claim to be followers.

  6. These stories break my heart. Our churches- and congregations!- need to be challenged, need to think critically about their faith and beliefs. Blind acceptance of faith is, to me, no faith at all. Critical dialogue can only strengthen our relationship with the mystery of God. As a young adult on a spiritual journey that asks more questions than it answers, I am blessed to be part of a congregation that, so far, has been accepting of me and my often divergent opinions and asking tough questions. There are no easy answers. That’s not what faith is about.
    I enjoy reading your posts, they always make me think and they challenge me to continue on my spiritual journey.

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