Skeptic in the House of God

Original Price: $29.95

Kelley believes that there are far more people like himself outside of the Church than in it: men and women who find modern urban life a “sterile, isolating experience,” but who have a questioning approach to all religious issues, and a struggle with how to maintain intellectual integrity in the face of dogma. An ideal basis for a discussion group that includes the skeptical friends and spouses of active church goers.

Review & Commentary

2 thoughts on “Skeptic in the House of God

  1. Review

    A reflective, interesting, and enjoyable account of James Kelley’s 15 years as both active parishioner of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C., and continuing unrepentant skeptic with regard to the existence of God, this book will be welcomed by some and seen as one more example of the insidious advance of liberal, secular humanism into the church by others. On the last page, the author summarizes what the book is about:

    “St. Mark’s has been my spiritual home and most important community for 15 years. I’m lucky to have found such a church. It isn’t always a comfortable place to be. My skeptical views put me in a minority, and I sometimes feel like an outsider. But my fear that I would feel hypocritical went away early, because, from the beginning, I’ve been open about my beliefs. I’ve been a full participant in the life of the church. Gospel [the parish paper] editor, elected Vestry member, Sunday School teacher.”

    Successive chapters document that statement with accounts of life in the parish in terms of racial integration (actually lack thereof), liturgy, a survey of parishioners’ beliefs, parish governance and community life, Christian education, women, gays and lesbians, spirituality, outreach, and the realities of divorce and aging in the lives of both parish and author. St. Mark’s is seen as an “open parish,” in contrast to parishes less open in terms of doctrine and inclusiveness, and an afterword discusses examples of such parishes and where and how to find them in mainline denominations. The author’s interesting conclusion is that they are most likely to be Episcopal or United Church of Christ.

    Pervasive in American culture is a confessional, doctrinal understanding of Christianity, probably Reformed in origin via Cotton Mather et al. Its roots lie more in Greek and Enlightenment philosophy than in the Bible and early Christianity. Contemporary skeptics, agnostics and atheists – including Kelley – share that understanding with believers. Doctrine, or reaction to doctrine, takes priority over the history and experience and life which doctrine seeks to interpret. Theoretical belief in the concept “God,” or rejection of such belief, rather than a trusting belief in the Central Character in the life of the People of God, is taken to be the primary issue.

    But it was not so in ancient Israel or the early church. The present-tense part of the classic creeds’ statement of belief in God has to do with “the holy, catholic Church, the communion of saints” – that is, with the community out of whose life and experience faith is being professed. The past-tense parts summarize the story of that reality, but are not a doctrine which must be accepted as a prerequisite to becoming part of that community. The creeds originated as summaries of the story of the community into which one is incorporated in baptism – the story which becomes the story of the one baptized.

    That is what Kelley is learning existentially through participation in the community at St. Mark’s. And that is what St. Mark’s is letting happen, even if the confirmation class, seduced by the concerns of our culture’s doctrine-first orientation, details what the creeds are not rather than what they really are.

    Kelley’s rector at St. Mark’s, Jim Adams, has it right in explaining why there is no common doctrinal core at St. Mark’s or in the Episcopal Church: “What you have instead is a common core of practice. You can form a church around orthopraxy as easily as you can form a church around orthodoxy . . . Our practice is very conservative – in our services from The Book of Common Prayer, in our organization… The Episcopal Church, going back for centuries, is more interested in orthopraxy than in orthodoxy. Anglicans have never been able to agree with each other on doctrine. And that’s why I feel at home in the Anglican tradition.”

    In spite of our cultural captivity to the other approach, and in spite of current efforts to make the other approach normative for Anglicanism, that is the way it is. James Kelley is discovering the freedom and grace of it in his own way, and they rub off onto the reader.

  2. Review

    Recently an insightful, long-time member of St. Mark’s remarked: “I didn’t expect to, but I did like Jim Kelley’s book.”. Why hadn’t she expected to like the book, I thought, but didn’t ask the question because I realized that I had felt the same way. For me the initial distancing dated back to the questionnaire Jim sent out to all of us a couple of years ago. The moment I scanned his “Voluntary Survey of Religious Beliefs” I concluded that this was a misguided venture; we were being asked to respond in an overly simplistic way to religious questions stated in a stiff and sophomoric manner. I wrote essentially that in as polite a way as I could manage, and sent it back to Jim.

    When the title Skeptic in the House of God caught my eye as I perused the religious section of Politics and Prose bookstore last Spring, I was stunned. There was St. Mark’s on the cover along with the name “Kelley”. I bought it on the spot, possibly to assure myself that my prejudice against it was justified. I began a reading it that afternoon, finishing – moved and excited – about an hour past midnight.

    To my surprise and relief, the survey was the subject of only one of nineteen chapters. The real subject of the book is the community of St. Mark’s – as experienced by an admiring member, and described by an admirable writer. The book is part autobiography which is, I believe, its special distinction. The portrait of the church consistently comes through as true because it doesn’t pretend to be objective. And, for that same reason, St. Mark’s is always portrayed as an alive presence, a community that palpably affects people.

    I’ve just read the book through – slowly – a second time and my respect for Jim’s writing is undiminished. He describes just about every aspect of St. Mark’s one can imagine – including functional education-with thoroughness and, I believe, accuracy. Because Jim has been involved with so many aspects of our parish – the Gospel, the vestry, teacher of children and adults, participant in numerous classes, Honduras team member – he speaks from experience. But he can also give a convincing and sympathetic account of the somewhat unusual role of clergy here, the achieved equality of women, and the establishment and contribution of gay and lesbian members.

    What really surprised and delighted me was the discovery of Jim’s humor and his affection for so many in this community of ours. Don’t let the Crab of the Year award fool you; Jim Kelley has wit and he has heart.

    And he remains a religious skeptic. As he openly says: “As far as I’m concerned, if I can’t see it, hear it, or touch it, it doesn’t exist”. And so God in any form is something he does not knowingly connect with. Because I felt the same way for over a dozen years (well after being ordained), and because so many I know and love outside of St. Mark’s share this view, I don’t think Jim is being coy, or that he’s actually a believer who doesn’t realize it. When, though, in the chapter on Spirituality, he recounts an experience of being drawn out of depression by the clearly undepressed spirit of a young girl in a wheelchair, he does open himself to wonder. I for one hope that his wonder will continue to focus less on labeling such an experience as a godly set-up or an encounter with an angel, and more on treasuring it as something that – surprisingly – touched his spirit. That is the way I felt about my encounter with Skeptic in the House of God.

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