Wishing Him Well But Withholding My Applause

09 January 2014 15 comments

       About a week ago, former pastor Ryan J Bell wrote a piece giving a brief history of his religious experience and announcing his plans to "try on" atheism for the year of 2014. (You can read that post on his just-for-the-project blog HERE and see a catalogue of his contributions to The Huffington Post, where the article was published, HERE.)  He says, "I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances." Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been varied. Some are supporting his experiment in living without God as an undertaking of intellectual virtue, moving beyond the answers of faith to seriously consider the atheistic alternative. Others are doubtful that one can play atheist and not let one's religious convictions, however troubled, get in the way. Many are endorsing Bell's efforts as a laudable act of refreshing honesty, finally admitting the doubts that many religious people keep hidden. 

       Some Christians are of the mind that his experiment in atheism is "courageous," "brave." They see this "journey into atheism" as a bold authenticity demonstrated in the face of the inevitable backlash (which has manifested itself, in part, in losing his adjunct teaching positions at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary; read Bell's own summary HERE). In this telling, Ryan Bell is the unpopular man standing for his convictions as an act of heroism, spiritual authenticity, and intellectual honesty. The cheers go up: "Courageous! Way to stand out on your own, Ryan! Way to do the unpopular thing!"

       It's easy to start nodding along to this cheerleading. After all, many of us still consider Ryan Bell a part of our religious community. Present circumstances and choices notwithstanding, he lived as a Seventh-day Adventist believer and pastor for decades and many of us were blessed by his words and example. At least on the emotional level, he's still one of "us." And for people both within and without the Adventist community, there's a righteous urge to stand with the guy catching trouble for being "true to himself" and to protect him from bad things that might look like persecution (usually labeled as "hate" by the fifth post in a comments section). Further, many of us religious people DO have unanswered questions about a lot of things and if we've ever felt that the church was an unsafe place to share our sincere questions, there's something about Ryan's experiment that sounds so . . . exhilarating. 

But, having no ill will toward Ryan Bell or any of his supporters, I submit that people who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be applauding this experiment in atheism and should instead see it for what it is: an abandonment of Jesus and His gospel. 

So let's talk a little bit about courage.

       Having questions about the reality of God's existence is not inherently courageous nor inherently cowardly. Sometimes atheists wonder if maybe there is a god out there after all. Sometimes theists wonder if "God" is just a figment of the collective human imagination. Also, sometimes I wonder if there are mice in my apartment or if I'm just imagining those sounds. Wondering isn't necessarily brave or courageous; it is a reflex, sometimes nurtured into a habit, of the mind.

       Yet what one does with those questions, those wonderings, those doubts may be cowardly or courageous. And the evaluation one makes on this point––commendably courageous or unforgivably cowardly?––is a moral one, it rests on a certain construal of reality and so of morality. Those with a Christian construal of reality have no grounds to consider this experiment an act of moral virtue.

       Perhaps observers from all sides could agree that an experiment like Ryan Bell's is "dangerous," in that it is endangering the convictions and lifestyle that he has maintained up till now. Depending on your philosophical leanings, this danger could be the worst thing in the world or the best––is he moving closer to or further away from truth? Is he moving further toward or further away from actual reality? Your answer depends on what you think is true and what you think is right. 

         A citizen who gives intelligence to an enemy power is doing something really quite dangerous: he is in danger of being discovered and convicted and executed for treason. High-risk! Most his fellow citizens will condemn his dangerous behavior as treacherous still, helping the "wrong" people; most with interests in the foreign power will commend his dangerous behavior as courageous, displaying a self-sacrificial willingness to aid the "right" cause. 

        Shall we call Ryan Bell's experiment courageous? I speak here to my fellow Christian believers, the saints who are in Christ Jesus. Shall we commend Ryan Bell for bravery, applaud his gumption, shield him from any Christian critique? Though some have, none of us should.

Why not? 

It is not because I wish to uncritically silence every doubt knocking about in the heads of thoughtful people. 
It is not because I think doubting God's existence is a sin. 
It is not because I'd like to see atheists (or doubters) dehumanized or treated without respect. 

It is because my commitment to the person of Jesus Christ will not allow me to applaud the move of someone who is, in his own words, living "as if" God doesn't exist. It doesn't allow me to think that "God is big enough to handle my questions" means "It's acceptable to turn my back to Him and look to profit from writing about it." 

        I know a little something about Christian faith and Christian doubt. Several years after my spiritual conversion I spent quite a while in the land of This Might All Be A Weird And Time-Consuming Sham. And what my sojourn there taught me was that a Christian can have legitimate doubts and explore their real possibility from a place of faith. To atheists, this may sound like hopeless intellectual hypocrisy, but everybody has questions and everybody has got to explore those questions from some place. In consideration of all He has done on my behalf, I'd like to literally give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.

       ––Which is what I wish Ryan Bell would do. He has his reasons, perhaps not all shared publicly. He has a personal history unique to him and a relationship with God that I can't pretend to give a reliable judgment about. I'm not looking to offer any judgment on issues of his salvation or conscience or motivations. 

        I wish rather to speak to the well-meaning Christian faithful in my Facebook feed, my Twitter timeline, and my RSS feed: side with faith, side with Jesus. If you're a person who has embraced the "Jesus. All." ethic, recognize that what Ryan's doing isn't that. It's anti-Jesus, taking off his personal faith to live in skepticism. Wish Ryan well, greet him warmly if you meet him, pray for him, but don't offer applause for his 365-day renunciation of the gospel and of God. 

         Maybe at the end of 2014 he'll find theism is an intellectually and experientially viable option, maybe he'll even return to Christian faith and to the Church. That's what I'm rooting for, but in the meantime, I'll hold my applause. 


  • Don Keele Jr. said...

    Once again Kessia, I am humbled by the wisdom and articulation that you are able to combine in a solid, Christo-centric way in the stead of all who are applauding. I agree with your thoughts and want to affirm you in your ability to, not only articulate and communicate such a clear message in the midst of all of the other voices, but your courage to do so as well.

  • Kris Bryant said...

    Thank you for this thoughtful and confident response. I can relate to his quest for truth in freedom. Why not play agnostic for a year? Seems like atheism would lead to surprisingly similar problems (narrow worldview, judgmentalism). Also makes me wonder if he ever had a communal connection with God. I can see abandoning God as a philosophical construct for a year, but not as a relationship. Open marriages are doomed to fail.

  • Anonymous said...

    Does anyone wonder if Ryan is in danger of a psychological melt-down, or worse? He lost his job as pastor. His marriage is breaking up. He's choosing to let go of his faith. He's lost his two remaining jobs. And he is blogging about it like its all a diverting game of some sort. Frankly, I'm concerned for his emotional and even physical safety. I hope those close to him are giving him the support he seems to be in desperate need of. Nick Miller

  • Matthew Smith said...

    What a fantastic piece you have written here, Kessia! I was so saddened to read about Ryan's journey. While I'm glad he is searching, I don't know if this is the best route to travel. Thank you for putting together your thoughts in such a beautiful way. I'm rooting too, and holding my applause...

  • Douglas M Smith said...

    This is a typical Christian perspective, ie the inability to see doubt and skepticism as a virtue in itself. These virtues are generally missing from the Christian pantheon (except when applied to *other* religions).

    "Having questions about the reality of God's existence is not inherently courageous nor inherently cowardly."

    Of COURSE it can be courageous to do this, *especially* if you are brought up not to question your religious assumptions, peers, and authority figures. Courage is facing your personal fears. An obvious source of fear are questions about assumptions of what you hold most dear.

  • Unknown said...

    Thank you - so well said.

    I've thought about trying to live without someone I know well, love dearly, and am dearly loved by. Could I choose not to acknowledge or speak to my spouse or my child for a year? Choose to see how life is without interacting with him/her? If I truly know and love them, know that they truly know and love me, if I'm in daily relationship with them, how could I possibly do it? It would be cruel, self-destructive and destructive of our love for each other. And that's a small comparison...

    My heart and prayers go out to Ryan Bell. This has to be a severe crisis of faith and relationship for him. I believe God is there for him, whether he acknowledges Him or not, and loves him deeply, "not willing that any should perish..."

  • Jennifer Schwirzer said...

    Kessia, Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Like you, I'm withholding applause and a bit exasperated by those describing this as "courageous." Courage rests on a foundation of timeless moral and spiritual principles, and doubt is not one of them. Guts he may have, but so did the unibomber. Courage is too holy a word to use for what is, at its core, just good, old fashioned skepticism. I've been a little nauseated by the whole thing and have tried not to say much except to point out in tweet the bias of the media. I don't want more attention drawn to this brazen rejection of the Jesus who laid down His life for us all.

  • Anonymous said...

    I think he's more than anything detoxing from decades in the business of church, and has entered into a sort of religious anthropology experiment. I believe he has the presence of mind and the presence of friends old and new to help see him through. His journey has certainly captured the attention of many. I read someone refer to him as an "Everyman". I like that and think it apt. He is easy for many to identify with because it is natural for us to wonder about the validity or utility of our own beliefs, assumptions, and fears. I think if he continues with the honesty, humility, and integrity expressed so far, many will benefit by traveling along with him via his writing this year.

  • Mr. Blunt said...

    Kessia, great piece of work here. I really appreciate the way you were able to clearly articulate the issues at hand here. I agree with what you said and I will be praying for Ryan. I'll share this on my FB as well, hopefully it will do some good. :) -Jonathan Davidson

  • Joseph Nally said...

    Giving up God for a day is disasterous for me. By that I mean, living a day unintentionally, unaware, and unopen makes for poor relational interactions, schisms, and lots of stress. And my whole life was like that until I went to God for the first time.

    Like most christians and most human beings, I have questions about life and God. But as stated in the post, "a Christian can have legitimate doubts and explore their real possibility from a place of faith."

    To leave the spiritual life, to drop the mystical elements of the world, to denounce everything as unsacred so that you can find what is "true" seems like wanting to know what broccoli is really supposed to taste like, so you refuse to eat anything else, only broccoli, until you find the true broccoli.

    You could still find the true broccoli while eating other foods. In fact, they may aid you in your exploration. You'll be better fit physically for the job.

    Questions and searching can be noble and pure. It just seems extreme to unecessarily starve yourself while looking for the true broccoli.

  • Anonymous said...

    I do believe he is very courageous to do this, write about it, and share his journey. Anyone who was brought up in an Adventist environment where questioning is particularly frowned upon as lacking faith and worse, backsliding, is courageous to make this decision. Perhaps that's why he has received such a negative backlash from those who know him--they, too are living in a community where questioning is framed as approaching sin.

  • Anonymous said...

    The reality is though (which I do not see that many are getting) is that he is not backlashing against the "church" or the "SDA church" but rather he is backlashing against God, against Jesus, against the gospel. People keep highlighting the fact of the church he left, or the pastorate, but that was not his reason. So how is it courageous to question the existence of the one who did absolutely nothing to him? What is even more scary (if you call his 365-hiatus "courageous), is that he went to seminary and became a pastor, having these exact doubts already in his head! That does not sound courageous to me? There is no courage in accepting a position of such authority and pretty much collecting a pay check until he was ready to share what was already in his mind with the world. I have read his blog, he shares how he started having doubt 9-10 years ago. That is not courageous at all, that is unfortunate and unfair to those who looked up to him. I only pray that his lovely family that is involved will use their freewill and go back to their forever Friend - the one who died for them. Thank you Kessia for this wonderful reflection on this recent occurrence and I join you in prayer for brother Ryan Bell - although he has received well more than $20,000 in support, may he realize that this world is not what he is looking for, and find peace again in his Savior - Jesus Christ

  • guitmartiman said...

    I'd just like to say, I wish he had not done this publicly. On some level I acknowledge his perspective, and hope that he finds his answer. Doing it the way he is, though, is making a publicity event out of it, which, to me, smacks of insincerity, if not outright dishonesty. However, I am not his judge, therefore, I too, will simply withhold my applause.

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