Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Prayers for an atheist pastor

I was so sad to read about the atheist pastor, Teresa MacBain, interviewed on NPR (, but maybe not sad for the reasons others were sad.

My immediate reaction was astonishment that MacBain, as a pastor and one who would have spent some years studying faith, had so late encountered her disbelief. Is there really a thoughtful Christian who hasn't had moments, days, weeks, even years of doubt? Then there was the sadness of her broken relationships with colleagues and congregation (but fortunately not with her husband, bless him, who remains a believer.)

I suspect that for many, it is such earthly relationships--rather than belief in an admittedly unknowable God--that sustain the practice of religion. If she couldn't believe in God, could MacBain at least believe in the value of loving her congregation? Couldn't she at least go through the motions of following Jesus in his very human actions? Binding up wounds, listening to people, helping people find their ways through the valleys...

The part of Jonathan Haidt's book (see previous post) I am reading now is about human "groupishness" -- not our selfishness, but our inbred propensity to form and fortify groups, then to work to gain resources for them, punish traitors, reward cooperation.... The way MacBain flamed out of her faith seemed to reflect several aspects of Haidt's thesis. It sounded like MacBain's departure from her faith was driven by emotion and instinctive groupishness, rather than logical deductions about God.

Rather than discussing her doubts with others from her (Methodist) faith, MacBain just popped up at an atheist convention in Bethesda and gave her testimony of instant conversion to atheism. She describes how good it felt to be so warmly received by the atheists.

I can certainly imagine MacBain's old group (the Methodists) would feel this as a slap in the face, a betrayal. She didn't trust their Chritian love (agape) for her as she encountered doubt. She didn't give them any help in understanding what was happening. She seemed to do everything to assure that her conversion came as a sharp, sudden blow.

I pray MacBain's old group back in her home town can forgive her and embrace her again, despite her disbelief. This is one of the wonderfully counterintuitive,  nonsensical, completely unnatural things Jesus asked us to do -- embrace those who aren't part of your group, even when they're face-slappers. Try to understand. Love anyway. Equipoise.

I love this quote from Thomas Jefferson:

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.
MacBain's move, though bold, seems to be more the homage of emotion rather than reason. 

A silver lining post script for me was that in the process of trying to find a link to the NPR story about MacBain, I found this wonderful blog from a Mennonite pastor. This writing IS a magnificent homage of reason:
Who knew? I can't say I know much about the Mennonite faith, but this makes me want to hear more, and it's expanded my suspicion that there are more people out there living in equipoisse.

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