Thinking Our Way Out of Church

All I did was ask questions.  People would make broad statements and I would ask, “How do you know?”  People would claim supernatural and paranormal explanations and I would ask, “Is there another explanation?’  Attributes would be given to God that didn’t come from the Bible and I would ask, “Where do you get that from?”  I dropped in on a group reading a popular Christian book, and some people actually groaned.  I finally left, feeling judged and ridiculed because I am intelligent.”

I got asked to leave.  I went to two different Bible studies where I evidently knew more than the teachers.  I asked questions they couldn’t answer, and they got mad at me.  I really was just trying to learn — I mean, I was asking questions because I wanted to know — but it got turned into some kind of contest.  The person leading the group took me outside and told me that if all I wanted to do was make him look bad, I should just go home.  so I did, and I haven’t been back to church since.

I am a scientist, for God’s sake — and I mean that literally.  “For God’s sake” I went into science to try to make the world a better, safer, healthier place.  But I am college educated, and I refuse to check my brain at the door just so I can sit and listen to drivel.  If our faith is legitimate, it must stand up to the rigors of at least common sense.  I understand that some things are simply accepted on faith, but some things God wants us to figure out and apply the best reasoning and thinking possible.  “God only knows,” or “it must just be God’s will,” are answers given by fools and nincompoops.  I need a faith that can stand up to scrutiny and criticism — and I believe Christianity is that faith, were it not for the fearful lowlights preaching and teaching from a 15th century worldview.”

Three different people in three different places from three different decades (first quote, 1988; second quote, 1995, third quote, 2009), but all sharing a real pain at the rampant anti-intellectualism they encountered in our churches.  And these are just a few stories from a fairly large number of Christians frustrated by a lack of respect for keen intelligence, common sense and critical thinking.

When did intelligence and faith part company?  Once upon a time, pastors and theologians were among the most educated and highly respected thinkers in the world.  They were “men” (in chronological context) of letters — hobnobbing with academics, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and kings.  Pastors were often early adopters of the most rigorous standards of scientific method.  Nineteenth century theologians studied, discussed, and promoted the latest discoveries in astronomy, geology, and biology.  The leading voices of the Christian faith had nothing to fear from the natural sciences.  Physics held no threat to metaphysics.  But somewhere along the way our faith gave way to fear, our spirituality fell to superstition, and our reason succumbed to irrationality.

Today, a growing generation of the most educated feel that basic tenets of the Christian faith include credulity, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, irrationality, and downright stupidity.  Debates about stem-cell research, charting the human genome, evolution, astrophysics, and broader biomedical ethics begs the question that human intelligence is somehow against God, rather than a gift from God.  Various sciences find themselves at odds with religious faith — as if one displaces and disproves the other.  Perhaps science has disproven a white-haired Caucasian grandpa God in white robes floating in the clouds, but it has come nowhere close to disproving a “first cause” force from which all our beliefs about God emerged.  (Can’t prove a negative — only can display a lack of imagination…)  Has religion painted itself into a corner by anthropomorphizing that which is beyond human comprehension?  Sure!  Does that prove we’re idiots?  Not even close — just shows we’re limited (and not God…)

If the Christian faith is to have a meaningful future, we have to shuck off the mantle of fear and learn the lesson (again) taught repeatedly throughout history when religion bullied science and denied discovery and revelation.  If we believe we are in the least bit the image of God, then we must also believe that the height of intelligence is a reflection of God’s perfection.  Does it make any sense at all to believe that God isn’t smart?  Do we truly believe that we can learn anything that God does not already know?  Is there any true threat from science that is greater than God?  Real faith cannot be shaken by truth or facts, knowledge or intelligence.  Just the opposite.  We dishonor God and reject God’s gracious gift when we refuse to use our intelligence to its fullest extent.  Those who raise questions?  Those who challenge orthodoxy?  Those who fight against ignorance?  Those who demand rigorous critical thinking?  Perhaps they will be the ones who are first to hear, “well done, good and faithful stewards,” because they are the ones who truly value and manage wisely one of the greatest gifts God gives.

15 replies

  1. While I think you make good observations regarding faith and science not needing to be opposed to one another, I would also advise you to take a more serious, confessional look at how he is both living in and acting with a theology of grace. I see need for the agape that builds and lives in koinonia in his thoughts and actions in regards to the church people he is frustrated with as much as I see it in theirs.

    This quote says much to make my point: “I went to two different Bible studies where I evidently knew more than the teachers. I asked questions they couldn’t answer, and they got mad at me. I really was just trying to learn.”

    Were you really JUST trying to learn? If so, you missed out on an important component of Christ-centered fellowship. Humility, rather than quick judgment or arrogance. Is it possible that you purposely asked questions they didn’t know because you indeed thought you knew more than anyone there, and for some reason wanted to prove it? Moreover, I think you have a overly idealized view of how theologians used to interact with scientists. The interaction was pleasant until scientists challenged certain faith beliefs (evidence: see Galileo and the Catholic Church). Otherwise, and finally, if you truly want to use your science to assist the Church, maybe begin by living in, and with the Greatest Commandment that both science (reason) and religion (faith) must follow if healthy dialogue and creative collaboration might result in the Church:

    37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[b] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

    • I guess I come at this from another perspective. We cannot continue to claim we want new people — untested, uninitiated, incomplete, imperfect people — then reject them if they don’t play by our rules. The burden of patience, acceptance, and spiritual maturity must rest with us in the church. Demanding that people only come to us if they are more mature and better behaved than we are seriously limits the pool of people we might reach. In my experience, I have encountered just as much arrogance from those who teach in the church as from those who come to learn. (FYI: I was in the class where the second example was drawn from. At least in the one class we shared, he truly DID know more than the teacher, he was tactful and honest in his questions, but it was clear that the teacher had no clue what he was talking about. It was painful, but it is impossible — as much as we might like to — to blame the victim in this one.)

      • Dan,

        I simply don’t see “victim” language as helpful here. It only serves to further the divide without truly addressing that there are “victims” on both sides of this account. Those in the Sunday School class can’t equitably be labeled the “church” if that means they should be so skilled in interpersonal relations, science, Bible, tradition that they are to be solely accountable for not handling the encounter with the neighbor in the best way. And the neighbor is not off the hook either as he KNEW better from education, and experience and could have approached his neighbor more equitably as well.

        Prevenient grace was operant in all parties equipping them to choose a more grace-filled response. Again, resorting to “victim” language in this situation is neither fair nor helpful. We need more creative collaboration in these and many other church situations where difference pops up, and less zero-sum, “winners” and “losers” (“victors and victims”) language, procedures, analysis.

        A theology of grace was what was lacking in this situation, and just like in Jesus’ parables, the moment we try to identify ourselves as the ones who were “right” is the moment Jesus has us. The Sunday School class and the visitor failed to live by the Great Commandment even though both, as response-able adults, truly did know better.

  2. I wish the quotes came with some specifics about the conversations, questions, and exchanges that led to these departures.

    Some questions – for instance – do not have ready or easy answers. They knew this back in the day when the Old Testament was being written. That is not a reason not to discuss hard questions, but some people have less need to keep demanding answers from the darkness than others. Perhaps this is part of what is going on here.

    It is also possible to ask questions in ways that do make another person look bad. Sometimes highly intelligent and reason-dependent people do not have the highest emotional intelligence. They sometimes come across as arrogant and insensitive when all they mean to do is ask questions.

    I raise these points because it takes more than one person for a relationship to break down. The quotes above make it sound like the entire fault for the situations above is the no-nothing church people. I wonder, if we could see and observe the entire conversation, if it might look different. I wonder if there might be room for growth on all sides of this conversation.

    I am not trying to dispute the basic thrust of your post, Dan, but my experience is that we all fall short of the glory of God. Perhaps your intelligent commentators would benefit from trying to take a broader view of their own actions and motives just as the church could benefit from be more aware of the needs of “smart” people.

    • So, my real question: even if these people acted in arrogant and insensitive ways, is asking them to leave or making it clear they are unwelcome the best “Christian” way to engage them? (For my own part, I have never included any example where I believe the interviewee was the problem — unless I was using that person to illustrate the problem. In context, these are reasonable, intelligent, respectful, and authentic people. Could they have been out of line? By all means. Were these isolated examples? Sadly, not even close.)

      • Dan, here is where my reaction comes from. (Please note, I am trying to understand this situation, not trying to attack or dismiss anyone.)

        A great number of people – and therefore Christians – are not highly educated or in the upper half of the IQ curve. So, demanding all Christians take a highly critical and intellectual approach to faith seems counterproductive to me. Should we exclude such people. Of course, not. But neither should we set up brain power as superior to simple faith.

        Imagine a small group reading a popular Christian fiction book. If one member insisted on interrogating the intellectual foundations of every aspect of the book while the others were reading the book to more aesthetic and emotional experiences, then it is hard to balance these things. Either the broader group is going to feel that the rationalist is dominating the group or the rationalist is going to feel excluded.

        The first comment said he left because he was “intelligent.” That sounds to me like he or she believes the other people are not intelligent. If the only reason he felt ridiculed was because of this one trait, then it must be one that was unique to him.

        The third commenter said the people who did not deal with faith the same he or she did were fools or nincompoops.

        I do not mean to attack these people of defend intolerance by the church people, but the comments themselves sound to me like the people are not themselves terribly tolerant of less educated and less intelligent people. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but that is how it struck me.

        If they are sincere and humble in their efforts to learn, then, of course, they should never be asked to leave a study or a church. But to call people nincompoops because they accept “because God wills it” as an answer seems to me to be an unproductive mindset as well.

        So, I agree with your point. Church should be a place where people can use reason and intelligence to encounter faith. They should do all that. They should be welcome and encouraged to do that.

        No argument.

        But I know a lot of people with a very active and very sincere faith that do not have carefully thought out intellectual answers to questions that your commenters would likely raise. I do not consider them fools or nincompoops. That is why I reacted defensively.

      • Ah, now I went and got myself in trouble… I never said everyone has to take a highly critical and intellectual approach to faith. I just don’t think it’s fair to vilify people who are intelligent and make them unwelcome. This does not have to be the “either/or” issue that The United Methodist Church is creating for itself. But the reality is that our appeal to educated people is dropping precipitously. A person with a college education is 12X as likely to leave as a person with a high school education. A Ph.D. is almost 50X as likely. Is this because smart people suck? Is it because they lack “faith?” No, the majority of these people remain Christian after leaving the church — they simply refuse to accept the low standards offered by many modern-day churches. The first two people never attacked anyone — they criticized a credulous and simplistic faith. The third expresses his frustration with a simplistic faith by inadvisably projecting onto people. Still, his gripe is with an impoverished faith, not with simple people.

        As I have worked with college students across this country, the number one reason they give for not going to church is NOT that they don’t believe in God. The number one reason is that the faith offered to them in churches is superficial, defensive, non-rational, and often irrelevant. The desire to ask questions, explore meaning, gain historical and cultural insight into the authors and audiences of ancient texts, apply keen sociological, anthropolgical, philosophical, and semiotic methods, and to compare and contrast global belief systems are highly valued by younger spiritual seekers, but not affirmed and supported by the majority of our congregations. To many, an unexamined faith is not worth pursuing, so they turn elsewhere.

        I find it sad that in an age where the institutional church cries out for new members and younger and better educated spiritual seekers cry out for community, we can’t do a better job finding each other.

  3. It is fascinating to me how quickly people defend the church and fault the injured party when examples of bad behavior come up. An assumption is made that the people rejected by the church “were asking for it” by the way they spoke or acted. Where does this defensive posture come from? The inability to take criticism — to dismiss negative points of view as irrelevant — stands as one of the greatest threats to our ability to thrive into the next century. The idea that we are justified in turning people away who make us uncomfortable is just bizarre. Are we the church or not?

  4. I translated into Spanish for a few in this colonia by the garbage dump what so many of my friends say about being blessed, Pat Robertson’s statement about Haiti and Sean Penn’s comment that God has bullied Haiti in unimaginable ways. I asked my friends what it means to be blessed. The immediate response: They pointed to their hearts and said, “Paz.” Peace.

  5. Dan,

    I do not disagree with your overall sentiment.

    I am going to just chalk this up to reading things in the quotes that are not there. You say the people in your quotes were victims. Since I do not know the situation, I have no standing to dispute that.

    I do not see where the desire to have an “examined faith” becomes a license to ridicule anyone’s faith – simple or not. But I trust I am misreading the intent of your post and apologize for sending it down a rabbit trail.

    • No apology needed. Our conversation is part of the issue in microcosm. Anytime we (either one of us) ascribes intent, we cross a line. These three examples represent hundreds of people I interviewed in three different research studies (healthy congregations, science and theology, spiritual seekers) who say almost exactly the same thing — that their level of intelligence was not only NOT accepted, but in many cases outright rejected. I looked for (and found) a quote (that I hope is not a widely held opinion) from a pastor in Texas, who said, “Faith is a matter of the heart, not the brain. It does not matter what you know; only what you believe. When Jesus said that only children would enter the kingdom of God, he meant that being smart was irrelevant. In today’s world, he would probably say, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for an intelligent man to enter heaven. The simpler a person is, the closer to God. A high I.Q. is just a measure of how effectively Satan has taken over a person’s life. We don’t need a lot of college educated egg-heads pointing out all the faults they find with religion. We are a people of faith, not fact.”

  6. Great Post.

    I don’t personally believe that I have a higher average IQ than anyone else. However, I am highly educated in science, history, philosphy and medicine and I naturally gravitate towards skepticism. This makes me ask a lot of questions and simply accepting things purely on faith is hard.

    I did not grow up in a church and I only started to attend after my wife asked me to as part of our commitment to each other. I did not want to at first as I believed that I would be required to leave my brain at the door.

    Fortunatley, this did not happen at her UMC.

    Most of the people there want to ask questions and with the exception of one pastor (who did not stay long) asking questions is encouraged and modern biblical scholarship is used. Yet, we have a number of members who are not concerned with any of that and have a (for lack of a better term) a simple faith. We all co-exist quite fine as the pastor(s) is good about understanding where we come from.

    I consider myself as a Progressive Christian and so far I have not really had any problems. However, my wife did decide at one time in the past to attend another UMC and there the opposite was true. At this UMC you were supposed to leave your brain at the door, not ask questions and simply take what they say as the absolute truth. Needless to say I did not stay long there. After that we went to other churches and unfortunately the same was true in far too many of them.

    The future of the UMC (and all churches) is dependant on being open to many different types of people and many different types of Christians at different places in their journeys. If this does not change the church will continue on a downward spiral as more and more educated people leave. This is not the only reason as it is more complex than that but it is definitely part of the reason.

    We all must remember that the world we live in is filled with an amazing amount of information and the church must adapt to this.

  7. To Will Campbell, focusing on “victim” language instead of the larger point seems like a deflection, and as a devout Christian no longer going to church I will say that your attitude that you can’t hold Christians to account for their behaviors doesn’t make sense. Why don’t lifelong church members know how to treat people better? Why is it okay for them to hide behind their weaknesses? I have been to church after church where I witness appalling behavior that no one questions or challenges. Thanks for letting me know that’s how normal Christians behave and it’s my responsibility to forgive and excuse them. Excusing the violence that Christians do simply because they don’t know any better? Kind of makes Dan’s point really well.

    • Peter,

      I think you and maybe Dan would do well to exercise a closer reading of what I am saying. Nowhere was I stating, and I apologize if I was implying that the people at the church were “off the hook.” IN fact, I am saying that ZERO SUM analyses/solutions are not all that helpful solutions. Creative collaboration in dealing with difference/conflict is what is needed.

      Indeed, “victim” language in this case does not seem to help. It is no more fair to put people who go to church on a pedestal than it is to put people who do not go to church “under the table.” Whether someone goes to “church” or not, they can and are accountable for loving their neighbor.

      Again, in this situation, I do not excuse the people in the Sunday School class for not handling difference well, BUT I also do not excuse the visitor whose attitude FROM THE START seemed to be lacking or less than “grace-oriented” as would have been helpful. BOTH PARTIES need correction, yet both parties need instruction and understanding applied to their choices.

      To set up the equation whereby the people of the church are the oppressors and the visitor is the oppressed is WAY to simplistic to be helpful. To do so misses the complexity and human imperfection found in even the most well-intended people. To do so alienates ALL parties from the kind of reconciliation with the One who leads by love, and asks us all to examine the plank in our own eye before pointing out the speck in the “others” eye. This is a teaching for ALL people who would follow a more excellent way; it is for the long-standing church member as well as for the first-time visitor called by God to worship God while being the neighbor (ala the Good Samaritan) to ALL people no matter their faults.

      “What credit is it to love those who only love you? … Love your enemies (Luke 6: 27-36)” certainly applies to the church Sunday School class members as well to the visitor. Living into this standard with humility and grace, and yes, ACCOUNTABILITY – on all sides – is the ONLY way for creative collaboration, and “healthy” church to be realized.

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