Teresa McBain, a former pastor in Florida, recently “came out” as an atheist. As a result of this coming out she lost her job, felt shunned by the church she had led, and was received with cheers by the American Atheists convention. You can read and listen to her story on NPR, From Minister to Atheist a Story of Losing Faith.
Atheism seems to be on the rise. If book sales, talk shows, and news reports are any indication (and I’m not entirely sure that they are) it is a burgeoning movement led by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Each of these individuals are impressive rhetoricians and apologists for skepticism. Perhaps the Rev. McBain will join their ranks.
As a pastor I find McBain’s story troubling. But what disturbs me may not be what you think. I’m not glad that she identifies as an atheist but I don’t think her struggles with faith are an insurmountable problem. Nor am I troubled that this story is considered newsworthy. I’m grateful that there is some coverage of stories like this. I do find the lack of nuance in conversations about atheism a problem, especially when those who now claim atheism as their perspective are Christians. In addition, and most important, I wonder if atheism isn’t an expression of spiritual impatience.
The ministry is an unusual vocation with difficulties that are unique to its character. Much is made of the difficulty of the ministry. While leading a flock the pastor has to simultaneously care for people with problems but she must also care for herself and frequently a spouse and children. Ministry is tough. It grows tougher, however, as McBain herself pointed out, when your own views of God are under revision. I’m not suggesting that there are a lot of atheists filling the pulpits of churches around the country. McBain’s story is considered newsworthy because it is considered unusual for a pastor to struggle with atheism.
However, there are innumerable pastors who preach from their pulpit each week coping with their own struggles. This may be a problem for the individual pastor but its not wrong. This could be a challenge for the person in the pew but what pastor doesn’t want to occasionally trouble her congregation?
It is just this experience in the life of the person in the pulpit that is of most value to the people in the pew. If asked, I suspect the majority of Christians participating in church would like to hear about the spiritual journey of the people who lead them. Could it be that Teresa McBain, in exit from Christianity, could have been a resource of discovery for the other people in her congregation? Could that kind of openness and vulnerability with the congregation who is both the flock you are to lay your life down for and your employer even work? Further, what if, in the midst of her own questioning McBain, as a resource to others, found that she herself was being ministered to? I know that this is almost unheard of. But one of the things that separates the vocation of ministry from all others is that the minister’s self, their person, is their workplace. What they do within themselves, and how they do it, becomes the ministry they provide.
I have no idea how Reverend McBain may have maintained her faith. Perhaps she is yet to return to the fold of Christianity. Yet I wonder, how would it be different for her and her congregation today, if she had exercised more patience? What if she were more patient with herself in the manner in which she was patient with her parishioners? What if, in the long run, her congregation could have been the means of her attaining confidence in a faith that was both human and vulnerable.
Tomáš Halík is a former atheist, a Roman Catholic priest, and a public intellectual from the Czech Republic. He was trained secretly as a priest and served the Church in the midst of the Communist domination of his country. He has enjoyed a unique position of observer in the post-Communist age in the former Czechoslovakia. As religious freedom burst upon the scene the state sanctioned atheism came under scrutiny.
Reflecting on both his experience as an atheist and on a vast number of conversations with atheists Halík came to the following conclusion which I think demonstrates a genuine respect for people on both sides of the issue.
In today’s bustling marketplace of religious wares of every kind, I sometimes feel closer with my Christian faith to the skeptics or to the atheist or agnostic critics of religion. With certain kinds of atheists I share a sense of God’s absence from the world. However, I regard their interpretation of this feeling as too hasty, as an expression of impatience. I am also often oppressed by God’s silence and the sense of God’s remoteness. I realize that the ambivalent nature of the world and life’s many paradoxes can give rise to phrases such as “God is dead” to explain God’s hiddenness. But I can also find other possible interpretations of the same experience and another possible attitude to the “absent God.” I know of three (mutually and profoundly interconnected) forms of patience for confronting the absence of God. They are called faith, hope and love.
Yes, patience is what I consider to be the main difference between faith and atheism. What atheism, religious fundamentalism, and the enthusiasm of a too-facile faith have in common is how quickly they can ride roughshod over the mystery we call God–and that is why I find all three approaches unacceptable. One must never consider mystery “over and done with.” Mystery, unlike a mere dilemma, cannot be overcome; one must wait patiently at its threshold and persevere in it–must carry it in one’s heart–just as Jesus’s mother did according to the Gospel, and allow it to mature there and lead one in turn to maturity. – from Tomáš Halík’s book, Patience with God
May those of us who have been challenged to care for souls be patient with those who disbelieve and ourselves as well.