Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

Orthodox No Longer: Interviews with Seven Nontraditional Believers

 

Last year a close friend gave me a book called For Small Creatures Such as We. The book was written by Sasha Sagan, daughter of Carl Sagan, the famous scientist (now deceased) who narrated and co-wrote the hugely popular public TV series, Cosmos.

Early in her book, Sasha tells a story about her grandfather Harry, who grew up in a devout Jewish family. During his college years, Harry made a momentous trip home. During the visit, he shared extremely difficult news with his father.

Harry told his dad that he would no longer keep Jewish kosher laws, no longer pray, and no longer attend Friday night synagogue worship. Why not? Because he didn’t believe anymore. Not in the teachings he was brought up with, not in the Torah, not even in God.

“The Only Sin Would Be to Pretend”

Harry braced for his father’s reaction. Given his dad’s deep devotion to Judaism, Harry expected him to lash out with anger, disappointment, and feelings of betrayal. But instead, Sasha recounts, “My great-grandfather looked up and smiled at his son and said the immortal words: ‘The only sin would be to pretend’” (Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, Putnam, 2019, p. 10).

As the creator and author of Doubter’s Parish, I engage in frequent communication with people who, like Sasha’s grandfather Harry, no longer believe in orthodox religion. Unlike Harry, few of them are atheists. However, like Harry, they no longer affirm traditional religious beliefs. And they are not willing to pretend they do.

In an effort to better understand this growing group of nontraditional believers, I recently interviewed seven of them (via emails and phone calls) and then summarized their comments into this article. The group consisted of both lay and clergy participants, although none of the clergy still serve congregations (they either retired or left ministry). While some of these seven persons still attend church, most don’t.

In order to protect their privacy, I’m not sharing details about who they are. But they represent diversity in gender, religious background, geographical location, and age. Although small in number, this group represents a much larger and rapidly growing group of people who no longer hold traditional Christian views. In my interviews, the following three trends emerged.

They No Longer Believe in Traditional Theology

Most traditional Christians believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing, loving heavenly father who supernaturally intervenes in the world, who can be experienced directly through prayer, and who performs miracles. My small group of seven unorthodox persons no longer believe in that kind of personal, supernatural, and interventionist God.

For example, they no longer believe in the doctrine of providence. Given the overwhelming suffering in the universe, both in the natural world and in human history, they have concluded that God does not providentially care for creation. In a world of cancer, dementia, hurricanes, floods, hunger, pandemics, genocide, and wars, they reject the idea that God directly intervenes.

This group also rejects belief in most orthodox Christological doctrines, including the virgin birth, healing miracles, a literal resurrection, and the ascension. Their Jesus is human, not divine. 

As you would expect, none of them believe in biblical literalism. Nor do they affirm divine inspiration of Scripture. For them, the Bible is a human document, with all the limitations of biblical times—from science to social issues to theological concepts. While they still see value in Scripture, they do not believe the Bible is “the Word of God for the people of God.”

This unorthodox group also rejects many other traditional doctrines including a literal hell, the second coming, substitutionary atonement, exclusive salvation, the efficacy of petitionary prayer, and the Trinity.

Members of this group made clear to me that they didn’t consciously choose to reject orthodox theology. Instead, over time, they simply lost their traditional religious beliefs. And, try as they might, they could not conger them back. Rather than one major break with orthodoxy, all of them told stories about losing traditional faith over many years, the death of a thousand cuts.

Several expressed significant feelings of grief over their loss of traditional faith. But integrity demanded that they honestly acknowledge (to themselves and others) that they no longer believe. In short, they all came to a point, like Sasha’s grandfather Harry in the opening story, where they “could not pretend” to affirm orthodox religion. On the other hand, each member of the group affirmed several nontraditional beliefs, which I will review later in this article.

They No Longer Believe in Institutional Religion

The seven people I interviewed have a complicated relationship with organized religion. At one point, all of them were active members in a local church, and several served as pastors. Today, two of them still attend church but for relational—not religious—reasons. The other five have left church, although they still experience Christian community in nontraditional venues.

Although all seven expressed some degree of disappointment and disillusionment with organized religion, none of them harbor overtly hostile feelings about the church. Most articulated gratitude for the gifts the church gave them, even as they have moved on. On the other hand, all of them have experienced some kind of ecclesiastical pain, especially the former pastors.

Most of the participants in this conversation articulated some kind of love-hate relationship with institutional religion. The majority of them believe that in spite of making some positive contributions, the church has mostly failed to follow the life, teachings, and example of Jesus. They provided legions of examples, both historic and current. As a result, they finally gave up on it. As noted, two of them still attend a traditional congregation. But they do so because of personal history, family, and congregational friendships, not because they believe the church’s theology or its institutional integrity.

What, if Anything, Do They Believe?

Although you might assume this group is full of unbelievers, that’s not the case. Not one of the seven participants self-identify as an agnostic or atheist. Although religious diversity exists among this group, they have much in common theologically.

For example, all of them affirm belief in some kind of mysterious life-force Spirit in the universe, ambiguous as that may be. They also believe in traditional Christian values like love, integrity, compassion, character, humility, and justice—although several of them spoke of these as human values rather than religious values.

In their own ways, they all affirm Christian community, although most of them find those relational connections outside of traditional church activities. They also affirm Christian practices like forgiveness, generosity, service, and gratitude.

Mostly they still believe in Jesus. Not the divine Christ who was born of a virgin, walked on water, healed the blind, rose from the dead, and ascended to the sky. Instead, they believe in the human Jesus who loved sinners, extended grace, welcomed outsiders, blessed children, exhibited compassion, engaged in acts of kindness, and demanded justice. All of them still consider themselves to be followers of Jesus and seek to emulate his teachings, example, and spirit. 

In short, while this group of nontraditional believers are post-orthodox and (mostly) post-church, they are definitely not post-Jesus. Regardless of their theology or church affiliation, each one of them expressed an abiding love for Jesus. All of which reminds me of a movie.

The Crucifix and the Priest

In 2016, Hollywood released a film called Silence. The movie tells the story of a seventeenth-century priest who did missionary work in Japan. For years he struggled with the silence of God in the midst of great suffering and persecution. He grew weary of trying to advance Christianity in Japan with little success. Finally—primarily to save his congregation from deadly torture by government persecution—he renounced his faith. He left the priesthood, married, and pressed on with a secular life, although you wondered if he still secretly held an affinity for Jesus.

At the end of the film, the ex-priest died. His body was placed in a large wooden casket. Before they took his body for cremation, his wife placed a small crucifix in the palm of his hand, one given to him when he first arrived as a missionary in Japan. As the cremation fire began to burn, the last image of the movie was the crucifix in the hand of the former priest.

Like that priest in the movie Silence, these seven unorthodox persons in my interview group have given up on traditional religion, orthodox theology, and the institutional church. However, in spite of that, they, like the priest, will no doubt take Jesus to the grave with them.

Whatever you may think about this group of unorthodox believers (good or bad), their numbers are rapidly growing, their views are taking hold among a large swath of people, and they are not going away.

~~~~~~~~~

 

Martin Thielen, retired UMC minister and author of eight books is the creator and author of Doubters Parish.

Review & Commentary