The most recent NY Times Magazine features a story about Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal Holiness preacher-pastor, who is now one of the few ‘outed’ members of the Clergy Project, an organization for former and current clerics who no longer believe in God. The Clergy Project functions as a support group for such clergy as they undertake the often difficult task of extricating religion from the many parts of their lives. The group has several hundred members and is now branching out beyond their original support role. DeWitt, for example, has taken to ‘evangelizing’ his new found ‘faith’ in atheism.
What’s interesting to me about the article isn’t what the article’s author intended as the hook. I don’t think DeWitt, for example, is an example of a wave of clergy who no longer believe what they preach. The Clergy Project has only a couple hundred members; there are over a thousand Methodist clergy in Virginia alone. And, as Bishop Will Willimon, likes to point out most clergy don’t burnt out on Jesus. Most clergy burn out on Jesus’ friends, ie, church people.
Despite the illusion of novelty the article projects, most of the ‘problems with God’ that contemporary critics can lob at the faith are barbs the ancient Church has already suffered and reconciled. There’s nothing in DeWitt’s testimony, for instance, that even approaches the tortured faith or dark night of the soul of a Church Father like St. John of the Cross.
That’s not to say clergy don’t have dry patches of faith, periods of silence from God and self-doubt, but I’d argue that the deficiency groups like the Clergy Project really point out is the inadequacy of much evangelical Christianity, particularly it’s tendency to define Christianity purely in terms of the felt, emotional experience of the individual and to articulate the faith by means of universal reason.
Experience will always come and go for individuals and there are limits to how far reason can explain a God who is, at root, paradoxical. I wonder, in other words, if DeWitt would still be in the fold if he’d been raised in Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism where he would have learned that Christianity is as much about embodying the life of Christ with others in community, that it’s about cultivating habits and practices and relying on the faith of others when your own wanes.
But what interests me about DeWitt’s experience isn’t what it says about evangelical Christianity but what it says about Christianity in America, in the empire. After DeWitt ‘came out’ as an unbeliever in his little bible belt town, he immediately became an object of scorn and derision. DeWitt’s new ‘faith’ cost him relationships with friends and neighbors, strained his relationships within his family. He was now seen as odd, peculiar, dangerous. The town that used to adore him now hated him for his ‘faith.’
What’s interesting to me then is how it took leaving the faith of Jesus for DeWitt to experience what Jesus himself said it would be like for those who chose to follow him. That DeWitt had to give up God to get a taste of how Jesus described the cost of discipleship is but one indication, I think, of how much we’ve accommodated Jesus to our culture.