Clergy Doubt #10: He Tried his Damnedest to Believe and Now Wants Out

Editor’s Note: This active minister and Clergy Project member shares his poignant story of sincere attempts to believe, mental anguish, his surrender to non-belief and his determination to get out of his predicament.

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By “Stan Bennett”

1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?

I think it was somewhere in my tenth year of being a minister that I started having doubts, but I was too scared to admit it, so I plunged myself deeper into ministry and became more adamant in my fundamentalist ways. I insisted that since the Bible was completely true, we must believe in miracles and supernatural spiritual gifts, and if we didn’t see those things occurring then there must be something lacking in our faith.

I prayed more fervently than ever but no one was ever listening on the other end. I longed to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit but I never did. I looked for some sign that there was a consciousness out there that cared for me deeply, but I have never seen it.

It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that I eventually became sick and depressed, at which point the realization that I no longer believed in Jesus hit me hard.

A friend said,

“This has been haunting you for a long time, hasn’t it?”

Like a child who was just a little too old to believe in Santa Claus, I had been clinging to my childhood convictions. I ultimately reached a point where I couldn’t believe what I told myself any more.

All this happened about fifteen years ago. It’s probably unfathomable to some that I went back to my faith at that point, choosing to believe even if I never saw any evidence of the things I said I believed in—isn’t that how Hebrews 11:1 defined faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

I decided to act as if I believed, hoping that my actions would eventually help me find truth in religion.

It has been said many times that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing constantly, expecting different results. Well, it has certainly made me crazy – and sick – and unhappy – and lonely.

I give up. Thirty-plus years of loyalty and service is enough.

2. How did you initially react to the doubts?  (e.g., discuss them with others, keep them to yourself, do religious or secular reading, something else?)

I remember the realization came crashing in on me one Sunday in spring. I was sitting on the backporch, taking in the sun, trying to prepare myself to preach, when it hit me:

I just don’t believe this stuff.

It scared me to death. I would lose everything–my family, my friends my livelihood. All I knew how to do was be a minister. And my children… what would I tell my children?

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All this happened an hour before I was to stand up and preach sweet Jesus to the church.

3.  What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?

I think my doubts became undeniable again last year once I had attained everything I set out to accomplish: education, full ordination in a liberal mainline denomination, job security and a retirement plan. Once I reached those goals, I found myself terribly unhappy and unable to stay with my choice to act as if I believed.

I got older, lonelier, and more tired, and have grown rather intolerant of bullshit. I have come to the place where I don’t want to waste my remaining years saying things I don’t believe and propping up the failing institution we call the church.

And one more thing: If there really is a God, I no longer want to serve him. If he is as awful as he is depicted in the Old Testament, then I will oppose him. In the New Testament, Jesus said God is loving, kind, and forgiving. He said that his Holy Spirit resides in us and guides us. I have loved that idea but I have never seen it or felt it and I’ve waited long enough. Time to move on.

4. How did the doubts affect your preaching/teaching/other responsibilities? Your interactions with your congregation and your family?

My church uses liturgical readings, and I rely on them as if they were a script, and I’m an actor reading a part.

I read in the book, Caught In the Pulpit, by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, about how unbelieving preachers gave coded messages to anybody in the audience who were having similar doubts and perhaps were ready to move to a new place in their thinking. I used to do that but I do things a little differently these days.

I think of myself as a chaplain, trying to help people within the context of their beliefs, rather than trying to change them.  I might say,

“If you believe in Jesus, then you need to embrace his idea that addressing your brother or sister’s needs is the path to true religion.”

Or

“If you are burdened with guilt, then take it to your Jesus to receive forgiveness.”

I’ve taught the Bible for years and I draw on my knowledge to teach about intent of the writer. Much of my preaching focuses on what the author was trying to say, which can make a pretty good sermon without having to lie too much. But I am a liar–which is why Sunday mornings begin with great anxiety complete with racing heart and pounding chest.

5. How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs; that you were no longer a believer?

I simply quit struggling to believe. It became too hard to insist to myself that I believed in something that I really didn’t–couldn’t. I became too tired to believe.

6. How did you think of yourself at that time (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual-but not-religious, non-believer, different-believer, something else?

At the moment I gave in, I simply went to the term atheist. But there are many degrees of nonbelief. There’s the atheist who adamantly refuses to consider the remote possibility of any kind of God or human spirituality. Intellectually, I can’t go there—it feels like the same extreme mentality of the believer who says he’s absolutely positive that God exists, and he knows exactly who and how God manifests himself/herself. I will still use the term atheist in referring to myself, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

I still entertain the possibility of spirituality, that there are aspects of persons, and perhaps animals, plants, and even “inanimate” things that might have a spiritual dimension. Most people have a “sense” or “awareness” that goes beyond physical science. I think of the ideas discussed in physics that entertain the thought that everything is connected, even overlapping and it sounds similar to spirituality. I want to think about more that.

Possibilities: I want to consider them. I want to wonder and ask questions and search for truth. I want to open doors to see what’s on the other side, not bolt them shut.

7. Anything else you would like to say that is not contained in these questions?

Is it weird that I still think of myself as a minister? I like caring for people. I want to see people get better and grow. I also believe that the world can change. Why not try for world peace? Why not work to make sure every person in the world has enough to eat? Why not try to rid the earth of grinding poverty? And human trafficking. These are complicated issue but so what? Let’s fix them anyway. I think the world can be a better place but religion is not the tool I want to use anymore.

Finally, I want to say that I feel like I must leave or I’m going to die. Every Sunday I wake up fighting to tamp the panic down, ignoring the pounding head and heart, and telling myself that I won’t really come apart. But I think I really might. I hope to make a graceful departure, but am not sure that will be possible.

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Bio: “Stan Bennett” is a closet agnostic, still working as a minister for a mainline denomination. He has been a pastor for over thirty years, but is searching for other employment so he can escape from under the clergy robes.  He has a blog called A Preacherman’s Secrets and is publishing a book in April by the same name.

 

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Photo Credit: Linda LaScola, 3/6/15.  The model is her husband, Art Siebens, wearing an academic robe and standing at a lectern that belonged to his grandfather, a Presbyterian minister.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Dave Gilmour

    Thanks for writing Stan…I can relate. I am a full time pastor in a major evangelical denomination. I’ve been losing my faith for probably 2 years now and it’s caught up to me. I am 4 days into a 2 month “sabbatical.” I’ve been a christian for 40+ years (met my wife in church).

    Like you, I’m a member of Clergy Project also. Bottom line: I just can not be a cheerleader for Jesus anymore…don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to have to figure it out pretty quick! Everything feels so phony to me…kind of in spiritual limbo of sorts (for lack of a better term)!

    • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

      Dave, I’m right there with you, bro! Thank you for doing your best and I wish you success as you find your way through the limbo. Surely, there’s a way through, and we can help each other find it.

    • John Haggerty

      I have sympathy with your plight, Mr Gilmour. I am sorry that you are under pressure to ‘figure it out pretty quick’. I remember reading of a senior seminary student during the post-war period. Modernist Biblical theology eroded what little faith he had. He was ready to abandon his plans for the ministry. Someone said to him, ‘Before you do, go and hear Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching at Westminster Church in London.’ The Doctor restored that man’s faith in doctrinal Biblical Christianity. You can read about this in Iain H Murray’s brilliant biography of Martin Lloyd-Jones. I also recommend Iain Murray’s new book, Evangelical Holiness, and Professor Donald Macleod’s recent publication, A Faith To Live By. (Macleod is an eminent systematic theologian and product of the great Free Church of Scotland.) I myself wasn’t converted from atheism until the age of 57. I return again and again to Augustine’s masterpiece, ‘City of God’. (Watch John Piper on YouTube preaching passionately on Augustine’s own conversion.) Last night on YouTube I watched Tricia McCannon the theosophist expounding her belief in New Age Christianity. She is a clever, charming and deluded woman who is persuading many lost souls that theosophy is the way to God. It is my strongest conviction that New Age Christianity, syncretism, universalism and Eastern mysticism will be the most powerful forces against which we evangelicals will have to contend. This is the fight of faith. We have the teaching of Augustine and the Puritans to help us in our spiritual battle. I recommend that you go to them and that you listen online to Dr Lloyd-Jones’s preaching. Listen also on YouTube to Arthur W Pink’s sermons, The Nature of Apostasy.

      • Dave Gilmour

        Thanks for the thoughts John. But do you really think I’m just missing Jones’ or Pink’s views? That’s funny to me (and a bit condescending). That’s the problem with so many given to credulity…they just can’t imagine a view other than theirs. I’m faced with it day in and day out in the church.

        Honestly, though, I am beyond that point. I’m a seminary grad, published author (major theological volume, several articles). I’ve preached and taught around the world. And it’s actually my studies of the bible and it’s varied interpreters (your favorites included) that convince me it’s bunk. Too many inconsistencies…sheesh…Pink’s Calvinism is enough to discount him and his god out of hand!

        • John Haggerty

          Dave, I had no thought in my head to condescend. I pay due honour to the fact that you are a seminary grad, and that you have preached and taught all over the world. If we ever met then I would be the one asking questions and listening. But a brilliant professor of literature can lose his faith in the humane arts. A good doctor can grow disenchanted with medicine. John Berger wrote a book about such a doctor, ‘An Honourable Man’. The physician Berger had so admired took his own life. The writer could never have foreseen the way his friend’s life would end. Who can ever know another’s exhaustion and disappointment? Who can know the other’s intellectual and emotional life? My point is that disenchantment can be followed by re-enchantment. Many a priest and minister has told me that the day-to-day pastoral work both tested their faith and changed it. One of these, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, told me you had to baptise a lot of babies and bury a lot of dead people before you have the right to attack the faith the way Don Cupitt did. Priests I know journey to Iona on annual pilgrimages. Teresa of Avila said her prayer life was dead for three years. Ignatius of Loyola wrote of the spirit of consolation and desolation that afflicts the soul. Karl Barth thought it was all up in 1918 before he wrote his great work on Romans. If you are convinced the faith is ‘bunk’ then I suppose there is no point in talking to those of us who believe in supernatural Christianity. If I thought the faith simplified or misrepresented sinful human nature then I would be the first to call it ‘bunk’ too. But in my own post-Christian country I see people lost and confused and desperate to get as much out of life before it’s all over. They too would call my doctrinal faith ‘bunk’, but if I expounded fashionable theosophic views they would say ‘fascinating’ or ‘I’m quite interested in spiritual things too’. They will go their graves without having read the Puritans or Robert Murray McCheyne, and I think that it is a colossal tragedy. Tacitus saw how happy the people of ancient Britain seemed to be as they took up Roman ways of life. ‘The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as civilization, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement,’ Tacitus wrote in a passage I am sure you are all too familiar with. I see enslavement everywhere I look, but people in the de-christened West call it freedom.

          • Dave Gilmour

            Thanks again John…the spirit of your post is well received. There is no honor due. We disagree, and I’m okay with that.

          • Jack Haggerty

            The ‘honor due’ is to the life of the mind which you diligently and honestly pursue even when there is a price to be paid. I admire that. Today I bought Simon Blackburn’s short study of David Hume in an Oxfam bookshop. I find myself thinking of your own intellectual struggles as I read the first pages. Incidentally, the Berger book I recommended is ‘A Fortunate Man’ and first appeared in 1967. It has been reissued with the same compelling photographs as before. There’s a good Guardian online essay on it. I hope you publish a book one day about your own doubts and struggles, Dave. The kind of book I like to read. I have just ordered a copy of the recent Stanley Hauerwas book. My next book is going to be Daphne Hampson’s study of Kierkegaard, ‘Exposition and Critique’. I will always be the bumbling dunce when it comes to real thought. My very best wishes for you and your family.

          • Dave Gilmour

            I like that you’re reading those from beyond the fold John. I hope you’re more open-minded than I was. Quite often throughout my 40+ years as one of the faithful I’d read the “godless heathen” as well, but I didn’t do it to understand…to learn or to grow. I read and studied only to defend the christian presuppositions I brought to the reading.

            I like Hume. His was the first (and best I think) handling of the teleological argument that I read. I wish the believers I know would honestly consider their “watch maker” arguments in light of Hume! Anyway…best to you as well.

          • Jack Haggerty

            I will lay ‘christian presuppositons’ aside as I read about Hume, good advice. Incidentally, on the subject of John Berger’s study of Dr John Sassall, I came across a most perceptive and troubling review. It is an online article called : ‘The Curse of a Fortunate Man: Bad Medicine’. Some very perceptive comments are appended to this review. It made me think of Ninian Smart’s critique of what I will now be calling ‘Bad Religion’. Or Bad Theology. You must have seen a lot of it in your time. Best.

  • 70happyatheist

    God can be tested for. The Bible claims that its “God” will do anything you ask even so much as to move a mountain.Ask God open a locked door or to move something across the room. I bet you none of these things will happen as many have tried. Conclusion is that the Christian God does not exist. I do not believe any God exists..

    • Elizabeth.

      Hi Happy! I’m not missing someOne who can move things across the room if I ask : ) (tho that could be handy) — what I miss is the idea of someOne wonderful to communicate with, who loves me and everything. A neat concept! So I am glad to have the thought that my expectations of the way that would be experienced may be anthropomorphic… intriguing to think about

      • 70happyatheist

        But fie=rst you, me and others should want evidence that that the Christian claim of a God actually exists. That is the reason for testing based on what the Bible claims. I attempts I know of and many others have been negative. The Christian God does not exist!

        • Elizabeth.

          Thanks again, Happy! — I’m not talking about the God of the Christian Bible — more along the lines of the Sufi experience of “being one with” overpowering Love…. http://www.seasons-of-peace.net/rumi/breath.htm

          • http://brmckay.wordpress.com/ brmckay

            Thank you for the link to Rumi. Well done.

        • http://brmckay.wordpress.com/ brmckay

          “God can be tested for”

          Yes, but what do you suppose that would ACTUALLY be like?

          A good starting point would be to “ask” for conditions, attitudes, sensibilities, understandings suitable to the conditions you are experiencing in the Here and Now.

          One suggestion I would make is to cultivate a humility and receptivity. Then pay CLOSE attention.

          Each day’s progress continues upon the previous day’s. BUT only if your intention and integrity remain intact.

          You are the captain of your own ship. Free to sail it to the horizon or crash it upon the rocks.

          How’s it going so far?

    • John Haggerty

      I am pleased to meet anyone who is happy with or without religious faith. A woman of my acquaintance told me she asked for something in her prayers for thirty years and it was not answered. I asked her how her faith in God recovered. She said, ‘My faith in God never waned. The Lord drew closer to me in his refusal of my petition.’ Christ said we have to take up our cross daily and follow him, denying ourselves. A Marist sister told me the day will come when each Christian will experience their own small Calvary. If this were the only life, Christian living would be absurd. John Wesley said, ‘Our people die well.’

  • Hans

    Christianity, as you know, has had a long history of agnostic clerics.
    For some it is a career field which satisfies their emotional needs.
    At least this man has physical symptoms that tear him apart, many apostate clergy do not. You are a person of worth. Advice: get your head together and get out of the fraudulent position you are in.

    • http://preachermansecrets.blogspot.com Stan Bennett

      Thank you so much, Hans.