We sat in the sunken courtyard of the United University Church at USC in Los Angeles yesterday, basking in the sun under a bough of carmine bougainvillea, noshing on a delicious lunch of kichari dosed with almond dressing served outdoors by our Good Karma Cafe. “Since giving up God, I enjoy things for themselves, in the moment, more than ever. Not thinking about the biblical past or about a future eschaton frees me up to enjoy this food, here and now,” said Ryan Bell. The Reverend Ryan Bell, that is. Almost exactly a year ago, he lost his job as the up-and-coming pastor of the up-and-coming Hollywood Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His support for gay marriage was just the tip of the denominational iceberg that smashed a hole in his career. In recent years, the formerly decentralized SDA has imposed a heavy-handed, biblical-literalist dogma on its pastors.
Was it courage that led him to speak truth to power in his denomination, or was he just worn out by trying so hard and long to maintain pretenses? If it was just weariness, I still admire Ryan Bell for succumbing to it, because he paid a stiff price for doing what he did.
Losing his pastorate also resulted in losing his teaching job at the fundamentalist Azusa Pacific University. The administrators told him they loved his teaching, and that his students adored him, but they demanded to know if he still would sign the university’s faith statement (which is the one I highlighted in my recent musing about such documents). Ryan told them that many APU students didn’t agree with the faith statement any more than he did – and that was one of the reasons the students enjoyed his class. The college administration showed him the door.
As soon as I heard that he made the break, I started networking for him to get another job. He wanted to keep on serving as a pastor, and he was eminently qualified. Here we had a brilliant young progressive church leader, a proven church-builder and an outstanding preacher. He had a family to support and he needed a job right away. But evangelical churches wouldn’t touch him. The liberal Protestant denominations move like molasses in January when it comes to the ministerial placement process – and that’s true even if a pastor is already vetted for “privilege of call”, which he was not. By the time my own United Church of Christ would be ready to put him into circulation for a job, he’d have endured a financial disaster or ended up working as a barista.
And that’s pretty much what happened to Rev. Ryan Bell. The progressive Christian world had nothing to offer this gifted pastor – at least not on any real-world, practical timeline. And so he went through what you’d expect him to go through: not just a financial and personal disaster, but also a crisis of faith. He was already questioning a lot of things about Christianity, but now he found himself tossing the whole thing up in the air to see what would blow away and what still had weight. “I thought, there are a lot of decisions we make in life that are reversible. Suicide isn’t one of them, but pretty much everything else is. So I decided to give up on God for a while. Not forever, necessarily, but at least for a year.”
I thought I’d pretty well covered the territory in a “musing” I wrote a few years ago called “The Varieties of God”, a listing of the many alternatives along the spectrum between traditional theism and atheism. But Ryan Bell has added a new one: provisional atheism. Godlessness for the time being. He’s gone public with this status, and I intend to follow his “Year Without God” blog to see how it goes for him.
Ryan Bell has notable company. Another religious leader rejected by his denomination, a rabbi by the name of Jesus, paid an even steeper price for his non-conformism. While being crucified he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Peter Rollins, an Irish theologian who is a leading thinker in the “emergent” Christian movement, speculates in his book “How (Not) to Speak of God” about a form of the faith based on this passage. He imagines a Christian community that remains faithful to the compassionate way of Jesus while assuming that God died with him on the cross. Rollins describes this fantastic atheistic Christian church in a way that ought to give all theists a case of holy jealousy.
Ryan Bell’s time-out from God is worth considering during Lent and Holy Week. In the sacred myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s worth remembering that his disciples had no idea that there was more to the story after his despairing cry at God’s absence on the cross. Did they become provisional atheists? Did they do three days without God? Whether or not God was real for her during the three days after the crucifixion, the love of Jesus was still warm in Mary Magdalene’s heart. She went to his tomb, keeping faith with compassion without any expectation of a resurrection.
My conversation with Ryan Bell convinced me that he is keeping the faith, too, in the absence of any basis he can find right now for belief in God. Clearly, he’s still on Jesus’ path of wider compassion and higher consciousness. Happily, in the midst of this time of personal crisis, he’s still able to enjoy good food, sunshine, and flowers, moment by moment. Isn’t there an admonition to do this in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?
I pray that a wonderful progressive church will meet Ryan exactly where he is today, and find a way to employ his gifts – very soon!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California