Today’s guest post is from Simon C.
It was mid-March 2020 here in the UK when the message came through that in-person church meetings were being suspended, a week or so before the country headed into its first COVID lockdown. To paraphrase the conversation I had with a close friend at the time:
“When do you think we’ll be back at church?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the end of April or early May?”
“End of April?! Six weeks off church! This is crazy!!!”
We never went back.
Why? Everyone is different, of course. Some friends, stepping away, slowly had a change of perspective about the church and its truth claims, and about religion in general. The Mormon faith simply doesn’t offer much for them anymore. Others have landed as atheists after experiencing a painful faithcrisis which was heart-breaking for them and for those who witnessed their suffering. And me? I realised I just didn’t miss church. Not one bit. And it got me thinking: if I don’t miss it and I didn’t really enjoy it most of the time anyway, why should I go back?
To give some context: I was born and raised in the church, served a mission, went more-or-less consistently over 38 years. But having strong introvert tendencies, being part of such an involved institution and community never really sat right with me. I always felt more comfortable on the periphery. Being single also meant I was never as invested in the religious and social culture as perhaps others were. But at its core, I loved the basic principles of the gospel, the figure of Christ, and the scriptures. I was fascinated by the Restoration. I have always been inclined toward my own study (being a graduate of Ancient History helped with this), and a more nuanced take on my faith and my religion had been developing for a decade, in many ways running parallel to the church’s own tentative (and seemingly short-lived)progress in this area. But I never imagined I would end up where I am now.
Stepping away opened the space for new perspectives and to re-assess old assumptions. I have realised more than ever that faith is, largely, a choice. You choose to believe in certain things or you don’t. Once those choices are made, paradigms shift and the world suddenly reorganises itself into new patterns of understanding and ways of seeing. The more I thought about things, the crazier most of it sounded. Is there a God? Depends on which day of the week you ask me. Is this the only true and living church? Probably not. I don’t think God (if there is one) would work that way. Besides, the answer isn’t important to me anymore. Is the Restoration a real thing? I’m interested from a religious history perspective, but again the answer is not important.
And on it goes.
There are many things in flux right now, but one thing I feel strongly is that I am over institutional religion. Was this a faith crisis? No, not for me. It’s been a faith journey. Many in the church will insist I am going backwards right now or have ‘fallen away’. I disagree—we are only ever moving (sometimes falling) forwards in life, developing in certain ways and directions. I go where my mind and heart takes me. This isn’t a bad thing. This is just how it goes.I have developed a ‘freelance faith’ (I’m copyrighting that) and have landed for the time being as—how to describe it?—an agnostic, non-denominational Christian. Catchy, I know.
But still a Christian, you ask? Well, yes. Whether any of it is true or not (and what do you even mean by ‘true’ anyway?), I still feel that religion can contribute meaningfully to society, and faith and spirituality can contribute meaningfully to our lives. At least, I still feel they can contributemeaningfully to mine. I was raised Christian; it’s ingrained in my worldview and part of my identity. God and Christ still loom large in my though patterns. I am still comfortable speaking the language of Christianity and spirituality. I still pray—but whether someone is listening is anyone’s guess! The question, then, I wrestle with the most is what do I do with Jesus?
But which Jesus am I talking about?The historical Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew? Jesus the moral teacher? Jesus the Christ, the Redeemer, the Saviour? A bit of all of them? I don’t know where I land on the issue of who Jesus really was and is. I do know that the idea of Jesus is stunningly beautiful and moving. In recent years Easter had become by far the most important festival to me personally, as I take time to contemplate what it all means to me. It is always powerful. I’ve become indifferent to temple covenants and the ‘covenant path’ but I return often to baptism and the covenant we believe we make. Its symbolism is beautiful and its promises simple but deeply profound.
And then there is the New Testament. We will be studying it again next year in the correlated program; but I never left it from the last time and am still there. In the New Testament I met a Jesus in all his historical and religious complexity, encouraging his people to reinvigorate and renew their faith; to reorient themselves by re-emphasising the basics. A Jesus who kicked against binaries and highlighted contradictions and nuances in living faith. I also met a Paul who likewise sought to redefine faith in new, more expansive and inclusive terms. Scholars now largely agree that to think of Paul in terms of stark opposites of grace vs. works, faith vs. ‘the law’, Jew vs. Gentile, etc, etc, is to do the man a grave disservice. Paul was on a faith journey, a dramatic faith transition. It was complicated for him. Very complicated. What Paul really disliked were impermeable, set-in-stone boundaries being put round religious identity. I wonder what Paul would say today about the new era of church retrenchment we are seeing? Like Jesus, Paul shows us that the life of faith and its interplay with identity are not as straight forward as many want it to be. I doubt the church would promote Paulas an example of someone in ‘faith transition’ (or even crisis?) where those who struggle can go for answers or to witness the experience of a fellow traveller. But I believe he is. (I could write a whole post about Paul, if you’ll have me back.)
So where does this leave me? I cast my net far and wide now to read the religious experiences of others. Here are just two perspectives of those outside our faith tradition which have resonated with me:
“The whole aim of Paul and the early Church was not to tell men about Jesus Christ, but to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and his presence and his power. In the early days—as it should be now—Christianity was not an argument about a dead person, however great; it was an encounter with a living presence”–William Barclay, The Mind of St Paul (1958) p.87
“Maybe there never was any love behind the universe. No creative intelligence that brought it into being in order to love it and be loved by it. Maybe it all just happened because it happened. An effect without a cause. Nevertheless, in time love also happened. Another effect without a cause? Who cares? Wherever it came from, it is the most beautiful and revolutionary force in human history. And it asks each of us a question. Jesus posed it long before Auden, but Auden’s version will do: why can’t the more loving one be me? I am a Christian because this is the story I try to live by. I am not suggesting that this way of following Jesus should convince you or anyone else. I am no longer in the convincing business. It’s just that this is the story I now try feebly to live by. And that makes me a Christian. It’s just that I am a Christian without God. I follow Jesus etsi deus non daretur”–Richard Holloway, Stories We Tell Ourselves (2020) pp.225-6
Are these approaches at opposite ends of the Christian spectrum?Does it have to be one or the other? Can it be a bit of both and everything in between? Our religious lives ebb and flow and overlap. I know that Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Timehas been referenced in previous posts. I look forward to reading it and am excited to find out which Jesus I personally meet, whetherit’s the historical Jesus of Nazareth or the theological Jesus the Christ. Regardless, the ideas at the heart of the Christian message, ideas of love, forgiveness and redemption, healing and reconciliation, still resonate deeply for me. If God is just a projection of us and our relationships with one another, then these concepts still hold.
This post has been full of questions. And that isn’t by accident. I am a ‘more-questions-than-answers’ kind of person now. This has been good spiritual therapy for me. I’m beginning to realise that transitioning away from an institution and faith tradition after nearly 40 years will carry with it an awful lot of religious baggage: the question is, do I start unpacking some of my baggage now, at this waystation, as I rest for a time on my journey? Or do I wait until I feel more settled? But unpack I will need to do.
Here are some more questions to get you thinking. I would dearly love to read your thoughts:
- What have you done with Jesus in your own personal faith journey? Have your experiences brought you closer, taken you further away, or redefined your relationship in some other way?
- The core values of the message of Jesus are not unique to Christianity. But what does Christianity’sperspective on these things bring to the table? What damage does it do?
- Do you think that Jesus and religion in general has a positive role to play in society today? If so, why? If not, why not?
If virtually everything a person was taught about Jesus was from a church that person no longer believes in, it stands to reason that person will now have a very different view of Jesus.
I know the Church isn’t what it claims to be. So naturally I’m inclined to believe that Jesus isn’t exactly who they claim he was.
I believe Jesus was a historical figure from whom we can learn basic goodness. I bet we could say the same about Mohammed and Ghandi and many others. But I have ZERO interest in religion per say. Been there. Done that.
I feel deeply convicted that the purpose of personal spirituality and religion, is to learn to follow Christ. I find everything else to be irrelevant, even a distraction from what is important. That includes truth claims for me. I feel deeply that I can follow Christ and learn by that discipline and exercise, in any situation and regardless of uncertainty of testimony. Testimony feels irrelevant and I do feel like it’s a boring and shallow thing to evaluate it in this binary way. But I exercise my discipline to accept others where they are at in their journey.
Incidentally, “the only true and living” was an affectionate concept during Joseph Smith’s time, and didn’t mean what we use it to mean. For instance, Joseph used to sign letters to Emma as “your only true and living friend” . We know Joseph included concepts from other traditions, and valued them. Probably, “the only true and living church”
didn’t have the exclusive meaning we tend to think it does, even to Joseph.
My faith transition, though gentle compared to the accounts of others, was still scary. The comfort provided by all the “answers” from the institution drifted away to be replaced by innumerably more questions. Embrace the unknown. The mysteries of life are beautiful. I, too, tried to center my life around the concept of love. Jesus’ teachings continue to resonate with me decades after my transition. I still find value in my faith community, but I can understand why others might not.
“Many in the church will insist I am going backwards right now or have ‘fallen away’. I disagree—we are only ever moving (sometimes falling) forwards in life, developing in certain ways and directions. I go where my mind and heart takes me. This isn’t a bad thing. This is just how it goes.I have developed a ‘freelance faith’”
Well said. When I ceased being active LDS, I initially spent a year visiting other churches, over 30 of them as I remember it. In hindsight. I used Protestantism as a soft landing into agnosticism. Journeying this way has given me a lot of wonderful encounters but also left me far more alone than I intended to be. More recently, I’ve valued fellowship with the Community of Christ, which allows me to ponder Christ without the hangups of scriptural literalism and Biblical innerancy. It also reminds me I need to make efforts at participating in community and avoid overindulgence in solitary faith journeying. The bloggernacle has been a worthwhile place to stay connected, though it has all the risks and pitfalls of the internet.
I wish you well on your continuing faith journey.
Thoughtful navigation and reasonable position. One of the tragedies of so many good Latter-Day Saints stepping away, is that our wards are left with greater entrenchment and fundamentalism—our congregations are no longer balanced with the even-minded folks who once offered tempering to the whole. It is true that leaving the institution can be a breath of fresh air, and can be a healthy move for many of us. My response is that the Church needs you more than you need it. The congregation needs everybody—especially the unorthodox and the folks in the borderlands. The LDS Establishment has spent so much time managing behavior and attempting to control thought by employing dogmatic belief systems, that conscience has become oppressed and restricted. My response is that Joseph Smith predicted all of it. He predicted unrighteous dominion and corruption, and the visionary Book of Mormon expresses much the same. John’s Revelation identifies The Church as both Harlot and Bride (the Harlot is the institution and the Bride is the congregation). So all of this is to be expected. Those who have vested faith in belief systems, scrupulous attitudes, or expectations of purity in the-one-true-church, are bound to be disappointed. Even so, it doesn’t make exiting or staying any easier. Whatever your journey, after you have gained enough distance, consider returning from time to time. Even atheist Catholics go to church once or twice a year—consider it for the congregation, not for the institution. Those of us in the borderlands appreciate you, and you bring “balance to the force.”
I enjoy what The Backyard Professor has been doing lately. He stepped away, but instead of gravitating to existentialist or nihilistic impasse, he resolved to go deep. His recent lectures are next-level, and I encourage folks to give a listen—on the theme at hand, he just delivered “Why I Am Not An Atheist” on the YouTube.
As for our relationship with God, the Spirit, or Christ, to each their own. Communion with “The Other” is grounding, no matter the perception. When life is good, it’s easy to go without organized religion, but when things turn sour—even if the institution is a troubling mess—the congregation provides. Some of the most kind and gentle people on earth are among the congregation (not the institution); many are genuine and anchored in the hope of cultivating community for all.
This post resonates with me, although my faith transition hinges more on the roles of both Jesus and Heavenly Father vs the focus on Jesus as in this post. In summary I compare the current god of Mormonsism with the god that I would want to worship. The LDS version of God sometimes sounds not far from Jehovah of the Old Testament: jealous, arbitrary, vindictive. On the other hand, a loving Father and Older Brother would love us unconditionally. I think of my children, and I would welcome them back home no matter what they do or how they choose to live, perhaps an exception being only if they were truly reprehensible humans. I can’t reconcile the apparent LDS god and LDS Jesus with any god worth worshiping.
I am prolly 2 months from stepping away and relinquishing my temple recommend which is a shame, not only because of the vast energy I’ve devoted to the LDS church, but also because of the noble potential of many aspects of LDS doctrine.
Simon, you articulate ambiguity very well. I like calling it a faith journey instead of a crisis. That makes it easier to incorporate the side paths into the metaphor. Sometimes you go down a path and it eventually disappears so you return to the main path; other branch paths lead somewhere that causes a genuine insight.
“Is there a God? Depends on which day of the week you ask me.” My answers fluctuate too. I’ve had undeniable experiences, but then I also look around the world and think that if there is a God, he’s got a much different definition of right and wrong than I do and I’m not sure I want to trust his definition over mine.
“What have you done with Jesus in your own personal faith journey? Have your experiences brought you closer, taken you further away, or redefined your relationship in some other way?”
My answers differ depending on the day you ask me, but right now, I’m moving away from the idea that I need Jesus Christ as a personal savior. Not because I’m so great, but because I think the role of Christ is used by Christianity in a manipulative way. This is the message that I’m fleeing: “Look at Jesus! Do you see how much he loves you? Do you? Do you really? He shed blood of everything you’ve done wrong. Do you feel obligated to him for that? Do you? Do you really? Okay then, here’s a list of things you need to do to show that you love Jesus. And if you don’t do these things, then you don’t love Jesus. That’s so selfish of you!”
I love Jesus as a moral teacher. I’m totally fine with thinking of him as a member of the Godhead. But I don’t like how manipulative it feels to be told about how Jesus suffered and died for me, and therefore I should do all these things.
I meant “per se”. Sometimes spellcheck makes me look stupid
Toad, I agree it would be a shame
I don’t let the Church get between you and the Gospel.
Take what you can with a relationship with God, a Mother and Father in Heaven, and Jesus Christ and lean in where you find value and are uplifting.
Wish you well whatever you’re journey.
I’ve set aside the “Jesus is my personal savior” theology, along with the idea that his blood sacrifice on the cross either washes away or covers my own sins & failings. It’s as if nothing he ever said or did mattered at all until his painful death and resurrection. Where is the proclamation of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, the moral and ethical teachings arising from his parables, the confronting “powers and principalities” (yes, I know that’s more a Paul thing), and his intimate relationship with close disciples? I think Jesus of Nazareth would be appalled at what Christianity and institutional churches have done for the last 2,000 years. And yet I remain a part of a Christian community (albeit on its inner edge, for the most part), because I hang on to the possibilities and hope that the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ can lead to a better world.
Being a confirmed introvert I actually found the pandemic almost a welcome respite from normal church involvement. And yet Istill see value in face-to-face contact with others in my community. Maybe one great value of the past two years is that it’s shown folks the importance of following their own faith journey rather than one rigidly dictated by the/a church.
In my own faith journey, I have been thinking about about Jesus in terms of after seeing what Jesus has become. I am meaning that seeig what we as Christians have turned Jesus into, and I am beginning wonder about who Jesus really was. I see Jesus as one of the great teachers that humanity has managed to produce. I often ask my self when sitting church. Why am I here? Does the institutional church and its doctrines and policies really represent what the gospel is really supposed to mean. To me the gospel is intended to bring joy and beauty in to the world. But what I see is a reliance on rules and commandments whose purpose has been forgotten. I now no longer participate as much in the discussions because I get the feeling from others that my comments are not really appreciated and maybe not orthodox enough for them. I keep going to church because I still appreciate the social connections that I have.
I used to have that question: what do I do with Jesus? What’s interesting, I’ve noticed, is that dialogue among the different kinds of Mormons (believing, half-believing, and non-believing) mostly tends to focus on questions of Joseph Smith’s prophethood and morality. The CES Letter dwelled at length on those questions. Seldom, however, does this dialogue dwell on questions of the divinity of Jesus Christ. And I find this very interesting. For when you talk with atheists and agnostics who left Evangelical Christianity, their main issues are squarely with the Bible and questions related to Jesus. Evangelical identity is strongly rooted in believing Jesus to be a savior. Mormon identity is also rooted in Jesus, but a different Jesus than the one in whom Evangelicals believe. And belief in the Mormon Jesus is tied in with the teachings/revelations of Joseph Smith. So really, when Mormons talk about Jesus, what they’re really talking about is Jesus as brought to them by Joseph Smith, whose identity and nature is not simply derived from the Gospels, but all the supplementary Joseph Smith revelations. So for many Mormons who reject Book of Mormon historicity and Joseph Smith’s prophethood, what they tend to reject many times isn’t Jesus per se, but the Mormon version of Jesus. For many departers, it is almost a relief for them to conceptualize a more simplified New-Testament-only sort of Jesus. But the identity crisis was never rooted in Jesus for many ex-Mormons. It was all about Joseph Smith. The journey of questioning religion for them in this regard is drastically different from Evangelicals.
I began to question Jesus’s divinity because of interactions with religious Jews (well, conservative Jews, not orthodox). These were people who were religious, believing in the Torah and Tanakh to some degree (at the very least the Torah as containing valuable morals and metaphors for the modern day), but who completely rejected the idea that Jesus was divine let alone any kind of savior. These were American Jews, who were white, who looked Western, spoke English as a first language, and seemed, well, like me. They exemplified people who could be spiritual and religious and practice an Abrahamic faith who rejected Jesus. And so my journey began not just in rejecting Joseph Smith’s prophethood, but in retooling the idea and meaning of Jesus. I now revere Jesus as one of humankind’s great philosophers. But he was a philosopher who wrote down his thoughts, but whose ideas were only conveyed by a group of followers around him. In the end we are relying the memories and conceptualizations of these early followers whose words about Jesus would be passed onto later followers, who had never interacted directly with Jesus, and who would eventually write down these words decades after Jesus’s death. I believe Jesus really existed, but the sad truth is that he is lost to us. We only know of him because of communities of scribes who recorded a tradition about Jesus relying on other people’s memories and perhaps fragments of writings. The early followers of Jesus were no doubt a superstitious bunch who believed in all kinds of lore and magic. And what they said about Jesus was filled with all sorts of unbelievable tall tales. They wanted to make Jesus a magical figure, who in many ways fit preexisting notions of Greek and Jewish tradition that predated Jesus. Jesus is a cultural construct of a Judeo-Greek group of communities who dwelled in Roman Palestine.
But yes, I no longer believe in virgin birth or resurrection or in a whole host of things claimed of Jesus in the New Testament. But there is always the magnificent Sermon on the Mount speech and so many other gems that make me a believer in this vague concept of Jesus that survived in a select few Roman Jewish Greek people’s memories.
I love Christ the social activist, the antiestablishment rebel, the purveyor of love thy neighbor and thy enemy, etc. I don’t remember him preaching capitalism, the prosperity gospel, or work for the dead. Christ wouldn’t be accepting of today’s homelessness, refugee camps, poverty, and ignorance.
I don’t understand the need for an atonement. And the miracles seem like an invention. To me, it’s his life example that gives Christianity its vision.
This is a wonderful post and discussion.
Increasingly for myself I see the need of a Saviour. I see that as a normally developing human being I will and cannot ever be perfect in cosmic terms, but I may be sufficient and I am always nevertheless beloved. But I can see that corruption cannot dwell with incorruption, which doesn’t make me bad or wrong, but gives God space for His infinite redemption. I need the Saviour’s protection or covering in order to enter into God’s presence.
All of which is ineffable and impossible for the brain to express, only feel or intuit, and this is the supernatural part of this which does not conform to our natural state, of course. Then there is all the other beautiful stuff about Jesus which many of us are trying to work out on a case by case basis in our daily lives and which seems to still be an insufficiently developed narrative even in His church, which we might hope to be a repository of this narrative. However, as others have experienced, we need to take that beauty where we may and incorporate it into our walk with God.
I feel similar to Rich Brown and Roger Hansen.
I love the teachings of Christ and they are what I find most meaningful about Him. I try to emulate Him as much as possible, especially his treatment of the marginalized.
As for the resurrection and atonement, it’s a nice thought to think of someone loving me enough to sacrifice on my behalf. But the notion of a Savoir, for me personally, seems to signal that (1) God created me, an imperfect person; (2) God is not interested in having a relationship with me, an imperfect person; (3) God’s plan isn’t expansive enough for Him to figure out how to make me perfect without involving some horribly violent events against someone else; (4) That despite my best efforts, I’m not enough. This doesn’t resonate with me at all, both as a human being and as someone who is a parent. I don’t parent this way and never will.
So I guess I’m in the camp that Jesus was a radical thinker but I’m not so sure about the Savior part. And honestly the scriptures are so fraught I often wonder if we know the real Jesus anyway. I prefer to think of us all collectively as each others Saviors anyway.
“No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.“
“I have realised more than ever that faith is, largely, a choice. You choose to believe in certain things or you don’t.”
For me, faith doesn’t feel like a choice.
My faith transition began as a god crisis. It was unexpected, abrupt, and unwanted.
Your follow up commentary, however, rings very true for me, as well:
“Once those choices are made, paradigms shift and the world suddenly reorganises itself into new patterns of understanding and ways of seeing.”
I think that’s the transition part. : )
It was harder at the start. Now it feels more freeing, even more honest.