Monday, February 25, 2013

Atheism for Lent, Stages of Faith, and Pastoral Matters

I have followed with great interest the online conversation about Peter Rollins’s Atheism for Lent project.  Micah Bales has offered a critique of this project, and there has been some back-and-forth between Bales and Rollins.  One of the sharpest points of Bales’s critique was the assertion that some people find themselves in such dire straits that they could not possibly continue if they gave up God for Lent.  Bales writes, "How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing!"

As a college chaplain, I encounter people all the time, faculty, staff, and students alike, who find themselves in a season of doubt.  Some, when they express this, are defiant toward me, expecting that I will condemn them for their doubt.  Others are apologetic, and still others fearful.  Some are suffering a dark night of the soul, and their experience of the profound absence of God leaves them with a sense of great loss.

I never condemn any of them, neither the defiant, nor the apologetic, not the fearful, nor the suffering.  Instead I tell them that questions, doubts, agnosticism, and even atheism are all perfectly legitimate stages of faith.  I then share with them a brief synopsis of James Fowler’s work on this subject.  As our cognitive abilities develop, our experience of faith develops along with our developing conceptions of God.

Very briefly, the faith experience of the infant is one of trust in whatever it is that meets the infant’s immediate needs; the infant trusts the nipple that feeds and the stroke that comforts.  The toddler has a magical faith that functions as wish fulfillment.  The older child moves to a mythic-literal faith in which maybe mountains don’t get moved today by faith, but they did “back then” in the time of the ancient stories.  The adolescent moves into a conventional faith and believes the things that the people important to him or her believe, people like parents, peers, and authority figures.

Most people stay in this stage of faith and never really reflect on their faith.  Some people, though, move into a new stage, which Fowler calls the Individuative-Reflective Stage, one in which the faith that has been bequeathed to them is critically examined.  Critical thinking itself becomes one’s mode of faith.  Most of the time, there is some form of demythologization that takes place.

It may be the case that someone critically examines the faith bequeathed to them and largely accepts it as their own, albeit in a new, demythologized form.  For these people, the process is simply part of their maturation process, one that is fostered by the people and institutions important to them.

A large number of people negotiating this new stage of faith, however, do not have persons and institutions in their lives that encourage questioning and doubting.  For some, it is not merely the case that questioning and doubting are discouraged, but it may be that persons who question and doubt may even be expelled from institutions and emotionally cut off by family and friends.  This is a double loss for those who find themselves in this situation.  Not only are they losing the way they once processed their faith, but they are losing the powerful dynamic of community and relationality.

So what I do is promise a safe environment, a community filled with relationships that can handle questioning, doubts, agnosticism, and even atheism.  Everyone is actively welcomed.  No one gets condemned.  This community includes people who haven’t yet begun to doubt and who are startled when the chaplain of the college gives them permission to do so.  It includes people who are actively doubting.  It includes people who have given up the notion of God and who make no claim to be religious in any way at all.

It also includes people who have gone through this stage of faith toward another stage that holds this critical questioning/doubting/unknowing in tension with a renewed sense of trust in the tradition that holds their symbols and stories of the divine, of the sacred, of God.  This is an attempt to retrieve the magical, the mythical, and the conventional but not in a literal fashion.  This is a stage of faith that focuses on the tension, one that honors the symbols and stories of faith but that declines to return to a pre-critical form of faith.

Atheism for Lent is a project decidedly in the critical, Individuative-Reflective stage of faith.  It cuts away the magical, the mythical, and the conventional.  Some have argued that Rollins should hold up whatever God may exist after this cutting-away in order to keep people from despairing at the loss of that which is being cut away.  He writes elsewhere that his project "starts from the affirmation (God as some-thing) enters the negation (God as no-thing) and unfolds a negation of negation (God as a some-no-thing or, in a Kierkegaardian sense, as radical subject found beyond the realm of thing-hood – in the affirmation of life)."

I don’t know his plans for writing, but I look forward to his books that explicate this last move.  I want to hear what he has to say when he is focused on God in this way, in addition to what he has to say when he is focused on the second move.  But I think he is saying right now that we shouldn't jump so quickly to the last move.  It seems to me that doing so would short-circuit his second move.

1 comment:

Craig L. Adams said...

Excellent thoughts. Thank you for posting this.