I might have become an atheist
‘Emerging’ Christian Commentary
Beginning toward the end of college and continuing through grad school into my years as a youth pastor, I went through a radical rethinking of all my conservative evangelical beliefs. I had grown up thoroughly immersed in the evangelical subculture, and as a teenager was an on-fire, committed Christian eager to serve God and share my faith with others. I attended Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical liberal arts school, where ironically, I was introduced to ideas that led me to start questioning key aspects of my conservative faith – from the nature and reality of God, to the inerrancy of scripture, to the existence of “absolute truth” or even “universal morality” free from cultural influence, to the inherent rightness of the Republican party, to the nature of salvation as merely a “get into heaven free” card.
Thanks to postmodern philosophy, as well as friends and professors who led me to look at scripture itself in a different light, by the time I finished undergrad and graduate school at Wheaton I as thoroughly cynical and disillusioned with the faith with which I had been raised. I had learned that doubt and uncertainty were an unavoidable part of the human condition, and that questioning my faith was actually a good thing.
At this point you might expect me to say that I continued on in a path away from Christianity and became an atheist or an agnostic. And the truth is that could have very well have happened. What I knew when I left grad school was that if being a Christian meant I had to be a conservative evangelical, then I didn’t want to be one at all.
However, it was right around this time that someone recommended to me the book “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren. That book launched me on a journey into what is now known as the “emerging church”, which is best described as a conversation among people who are asking similar kinds of questions about their faith and who are discovering a way to follow Jesus that avoids much of the crap that has turned us (and many others) off about Christianity in the past.
Since it is primarily a conversation, not an institution or denomination, emerging church folk tend to be wildly diverse in their beliefs and opinions. But that diversity, that freedom to question and disagree and explore, is really what it is all about in the first place. Emerging Christians view their faith not as a set of once-and-for all right answers about every question under the sun, but rather as a journey of mystery and discovery, where we admit that we don’t have all the answers and commit to seek the truth together in community – welcoming insights from a wide diversity of sources, regardless of whether those sources wear the label “Christian” or some other label entirely (e.g. humanism, Buddhism, psychology, science, pop culture, etc.).
Emerging church folks also tend to care at least as much about “orthopraxy” (right practice) as they do about “orthodoxy” (right beliefs). That is, we don’t just want to believe the right stuff, we want to actually live differently – more justly, more lovingly, more compassionately, etc. This typically translates into a concern for social justice and making the world a better place in the here and now, not just waiting to be taken away to heaven when we die. We tend to think that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is just as central to the gospel as the belief that he died on the cross for our sins.
Anyway, to make a long story short (and leaving out all kinds of other relevant details about the emerging church), what I discovered is that there was another way to be a Christian than what I had previously known. In a sense I guess you could say that I did de-convert. I de-converted from the faith of my youth, from the kind of faith that was locked into one narrow set of answers – that didn’t allow room for questions and doubts – and from the kind of faith that said the most important thing was believing exactly the right set of doctrines rather than how we actually lived in the world. But what I discovered in my process of de-conversion was that “no faith” was not the only alternative to “bad faith”; that there was the possibility of “good faith” instead.
And the interesting thing is that this new kind of faith has me just as “on fire” for serving God and others as I ever was in my conservative evangelical days. Even though I hold my beliefs more loosely and with less dogmatic certainty these days, I am still just as passionate for following what I call “the way of Christ”, the way of justice, compassion, generosity, reconciliation, and self-sacrificial love that I believe Jesus taught and modeled for us. I guess in the end I didn’t just de-convert away from something. I converted to something as well – to a new way of looking at and living in the world. And that, for me, has made all the difference.
- Mike Clawson, Guest Contributor