Adventures in Church Attendance: On Not Being a Believer

As I have related in previous posts, I have recently been immersed in my own “religious turn.” Regular church attendance (at a local United Church of Christ congregation) has turned into participating in lay leadership, which has turned into teaching opportunities, which has turned into being a delegate to my local conference, which may eventually turn into me seeking ordination. It has all happened rather quickly, and suffice it to say I’m still trying to make sense of it all. A while back I promised a more lengthy post about this, but put it off to the point of completely forgetting to do so. Adam’s most recent post below has compelled me finally to do so, as I think some of my experience speaks to the division in question there.

Let’s start by being perfectly clear: I have a very touch-and-go relationship with the Church, whether it be liberal, conservative, catholic or protestant, or anything that says it’s none of the above. Perhaps more clear still: I am not a “believer,” at all or per se. Nevertheless, for now anyway, I’ve decided that the political and social power of the community that calls itself a Church is such that my belief and/or disbelief doesn’t really matter (provided this belief/disbelief isn’t hurting or causing injustice to somebody/some thing). In short, what I am suggesting is that it is not about me. I have incorporated, you might say, a kind of Buddhist sensibility into my Christian practice in, in that I’m more inclined to be identified as a Christian who does not believe than a Buddhist who is identified as such.

Does that make sense?  Just case, let’s back up and then slow down. By “Christian who does not believe,” I mean a Christian who does not subscribe to the underlying dualism of the whole Christian system, in most of its various incarnations, which includes the installation of and adherence to an orthodoxy that is dependent on a transcendent divinity.

I am of the mind that what the Church believes about itself is of far less consequence than what it actually does. I could, of course, invest lots of energy in rationalizing and articulating a conception of the kingdom of God as a fully immanent reality that is not dependent in the first or final sense on a transcendent divinity. (Or, alternatively, I could recommend Thomas Altizer’s Genesis and Apocalypse or Dorothee Soelle’s Christ the Representative, and let them do my work for me.) There is surely some value to such rationalizing and articulating, and it will inevitably arise; but of more value, I suspect, is how one “fleshes out,” by way of activity, one’s conception of the kingdom of God. The conception that relies on dualism, I feel, is informed more by its suppressed immanence than it is its avowed allegiance to transcendence; and it is toward the former that I try to direct my energies. (This is to say, to echo our own Dan Barber’s phenomenal work, the “avowal” is always performed via a tangible, immanent fiction–it is what one tells oneself & others–and as such is always subject to the ebbs and flows of immanence before the power and place of transcendence is installed. Thus, the priority I place on the immanence of “doing” over the transcendence of “believing,” even if the two cannot be altogether sundered.) The real power of the church, such as it is, then, is in what it does, rather than what it believes about itself and what it does.

Now, I confess I sometimes inappropriate devalue belief to an extent that some find a little troubling. When “the orthodox” scream “heretic,” I find myself looking for a better, third term. Even when it is not that dramatic, and it seldom is, it certainly sets me at awkward odds with those within my particular community. The most interesting critique is that inasmuch as I am cloaking myself in the guise of a Christian without actually believing Christian things, I’m engaging in an overly pragmatic, fairly deceptive practice, and justifying it all in the name of social justice, activism, etc. I’m still working through this critique, as I am through all this, but this in particular on a fairly intensive, meditative level. The obvious key to it all is thinking through the issue of deception.

If the immanence of activity has a certain priority, a shared commitment to acts of justice and virtue should obviously be in place. But need the belief about those acts? Surely a leader should not be in the business of dissimulation, but what is the nature of this dissimulation? — If integrity requires an absolute accord, where the community and its leaders share both in the activity and the beliefs informed by said activity, I should think suggest we’re probably setting up an unrealizable ideal. The vagaries of a prioritized activity result (in addition to a corporate movement and action) in a shared recitation of a narrative or confession; but what one does “internally” (i.e., as a belief in the so-called proper sense) with that recitation is important to the community, I suspect, only if it changes the activity.

The issue of deception arises would seem to arise most when talking about one’s belief, whether it is prioritized or not. Ideally, if one is having this conversation, it will be within a community with which shares a commitment to all the “activity” described above (including the recitation part). Integrity and honesty would behoove one then to articulate one’s theological disposition in the language of the recitation, and to articulate it such in a way that matches what one does in fact believe (in the proper sense described above). Self- deception arises if one’s articulation has no relationship to the recitation of faith (such a deception is, of course, hard to identify, and often is only realized in hindsight); deception of others arises when one’s articulation to others does not match one’s articulation to oneself (this can occur via an active, intentional cynicism, but not always, as one often only realizes one is deceiving others upon realizing one is deceiving oneself, which as noted above typically occurs in hindsight).

Where does this leave me? I haven’t the foggiest. It’s where I’m at right now, and I fully reserve the right to reverse course and confess self-deception all along. But at least there is public record (until I delete this post) that at some point I was in fact honest in my dishonesty.

24 Responses to “Adventures in Church Attendance: On Not Being a Believer”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’m rejecting a comment just now sent in, but only the basis that it was made anonymously and w/ a bogus email. But the comment itself is perhaps valid. The comment is:

    Uh, you should not be ordained in a Christian church? How about starting there?

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    To which I say, that may be the case. But only because people haven’t read Soelle.

  3. Michael Says:

    Wonderful post. You articulate many things I’ve thought/felt for quite sometime now. I hope you keep writing post like this.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks for writing this. I have similar ambivalent feelings towards the church I attend. I’m about to start teaching a class and sometimes have a fantasy that I will be “found out”. But I think at the end of the day nobody really cares except me.

    Soelle’s work is spectacular. I read it a year and a half ago, and I still remember quite vividly where I was sitting on the DC metro as I completed it.

    I’m in agreement with Michael. I’d love to hear more about this.

  5. Bruce Says:

    Thank you for this post. I am a Catholic priest who no longer ‘believes’ in God – as my parishioners would put it. I would say that the question of God’s existence has simply lost relevance for me. But I don’t feel the need, right now at least, to leave the church or my parish. And lately I have begun thinking that I am probably not alone.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That was my experience with belief in God — one day, I just quit caring about the question.

  7. AJ Says:

    This is an excellent post, and courageous in many ways. It also serves to highlight, at the risk of making indefensible generalizations, the extent to which Christianity is uniquely centered on the idea that belief is intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions. It would be interesting to speculate on the origins of this type of religiosity: is it from the Greek concern for the clarity of truth? Is it because of the political pressure to unify the Roman Empire through doctrinal orthodoxy?
    This obsession with doctrinal clarity distinguishes Christianity even from Judaism. Faith is not about belief, and one does not have to go outside of the tradition to find that idea, as the post states.

  8. Jordan Peacock Says:

    I’m fully “out” to the congregation I’m part of, and was just invited to be part of their community action committee. I also have been putting together a class, that will not be an “official” church event, but will involve folks from the congregation. I personally don’t use the terms Christian or God or what have you, simply because I’d rather deal with some of the misconceptions head on than have folks feel like I’m trying to slip something by them. I’ve got friends who are more in line with what you’re doing, and I respect their reasons although I haven’t found it effective, myself.

    Best of luck, I hope it goes well for you.

  9. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I like Tillich’s vision of the church in his little book The Irrelevance and Relevance of the Christian Message, where he points toward a dialectical, self-negating institution that is unafraid of risking its own institutional boundaries and institution itself to remain relevant.

    Now what is meant by “relevant” can mean different things, and we forget that above all things church communities, or at least small ones are circles of empathy, and in our UCC polity, as long as the language game intrasystemically has meaning within the particular circle, hopefully spilling outside of the ecclesia, the ministry is valid and “called.”

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    I actually intended to blog more about my “adventures,” but the occasion just never really arose. Church remains, I’ve discovered, frightfully dull. I am encouraged by the response to the posts I have written so far, though. For the others, see the “Adventures in Church Attendance” link in the left column.

    Chris, I’m afraid I can’t tell whether you’re being critical or supportive of UCC polity in your second paragraph.

  11. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    To make a long story short, it’s positive. In the UCC the congregation calls a minister and the denomination may or may not fully “authorize” the minister. If a church wishes to be your audience, you can be called to the church.

    You should have seen my Ecclesiastical Council paper. It took some guts for them to authorize me to be ordained. It took me a little while to find a church, but I think that actually had more to do with my academic credentials and lack of connections than anything else. But so far it has worked out.

  12. Kampen Says:

    I realized the other day that part of the reason I’m still active in a church is because all the reasons for leaving I can think of are terrible, terrible in the sense that they’re pathetic, not good enough. But people who actually leave the church don’t come up with reasons to justify their decision, they just leave. Even within the church, we have this idea that propositional belief statements are what primarily guide and inform our activity. I have a much harder time articulating what I believe than I do participating in the church. To affirm what you’ve already said, activity is immanent. (Though often the case, a practice like reciting the Creeds, ought also to be thought of as an activity and not a list of beliefs somehow abstract from what the church does).

  13. dbarber Says:

    from _Mama Lola_ (p.277): “I asked her [M.L.] how she felt about the Catholic priest’s repeated insistence that those who serve the Vodou spirits would go to hell. She laughed at my question: ‘Oh, didn’t you know, Karen? That’s the way priests talk!’ … On a deeper level, I heard [this] as a claim that words, especially ideological ones, can appear frivolous and even expendable when compared to the complex comment on the world that goes on in a full ritual context … In other words, the mass continued to be effective for her, regardless of what was said during it.”

  14. tom altizer Says:

    Is this not a Christian confession speaking for a contemporary Body of Christ going far beyond any individual and doing so by decisively recognizing the impossibility today of anything that we once knew as belief? A recognition of that impossibility not only ends what we commonly know as deception but opens us to a Christ beyond all possible belief who precisely thereby is that universal Body which is life and energy itself as shared by all.

  15. Andrew Brower Latz Says:

    This is an excellent post. Thanks, Brad. Best of luck!

  16. Drew Jaegle Says:

    This really is a great post, Brad. Thanks for sharing. As a former Christian, I generally feel like I’m among fellow travelers when I read AUFS (and certainly more so than ever at a physical church). Hearing about your experiences really makes that feeling concrete.

    Especially with respect to the exhortation to do things. One of the most frustrating things I encountered repeatedly while still attending church was the way that all outreach was inevitably reduced to a vector for passing on belief in Christ, as it was narrowly defined. So even though we were actually helping people in a direct way, it only mattered insofar as the demonstration of love might lead to an explicit conversion. That sort of attitude always seemed more practically nihilistic to me than even the most trivial sorts of explaining away of doing good deeds (e.g. helping people because it makes me feel good).

  17. Stormface Says:

    Apologies for being cynical, but what social and political power actually exists in a non-evangelical or perhaps non-Roman Catholic church?

  18. Brad Johnson Says:

    Well, you’ll note that I added “power, such as it is,” in anticipation of this observation. We could debate various programs and such that non-evangelicals, etc. conduct, but for now I will simply suggest there is a certain qualified power in religious intentionality–which I think of as the union of mind/will and action–that goes beyond merely measurable effects. Having said that, it’s also not a form of power that is for everybody, to be sure.

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Why this constant assumption that only evangelicals and Catholics can be relevant? People go to liberal churches every Sunday. They have programs, buildings, endowments, seminaries — all that is power, even if it isn’t the awesome power of Rick Warren. I’m so sick of this attitude that something is either dominant or totally irrelevant.

    And I’d also question the extent to which any church organization has “direct” power over political events, for instance. There are plenty of Democratic politicians who are Catholic and yet pro-choice, and I’m pretty sure that much of the political influence of evangelicals amounts to them being patronized in exchange for their votes.

  20. jonathan Says:

    Thanks Brad. This certainly hits home for me too. I’m reminded of Althusser’s discussion of religious belief, summarized by Zizek in the following way: “kneel down and you shall believe that you knelt down because of your belief–that is, your following the ritual is an expression/effect of your inner belief; in short, the ‘external’ ritual performatively generates its own ideological foundation.”

    As someone who’s relocated recently, I’ve had to come to terms with the reasons that I go to church. The question of belief doesn’t really factor in (and when it did, it was more out of my own will to self-satisfaction than anything else). Rather than some shared unity of belief among congregants or the expression of our own particular views (I’ve taken it as a given that I’ll disagree with much of the sermon and won’t be of like mind with most of the congregants), it’s the church’s particular embodiment of its own contradictions that I find compelling … cynically, hopefully, whatever.

  21. Stormface Says:

    Brad, I should also add that I infrequently attend an Episcopalian church, an do so with thoughts similar to yours.

    Adam, perhaps right wing politicians patronizing evangelicals is the most castrating thing anyone does. It reminds me of the final scene in the There Will Be Blood, “bow down to us and we’ll give you nothing we promise and more!” being the message.

  22. JP Says:

    excellent post. just wondering if the well-read group here has encountered any fictional (or film) depictions of the predicament described here? also, any advice on where to buy a copy ‘Christ the Representative’?

    thank you, JP

  23. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’ve seen it on occasion at a few used bookstores, so I would imagine you might find it online via Amazon or Abebooks. I would not expect it to be dirt cheap, though.

  24. skholiast Says:

    I bought my copy of Soelle online, years ago. You’re unlikely to just stumble upon it used unless you live near a seminary, I would think.

    Really great post.


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