Editor’s Note: This is a question I wish more people would ask themselves. As a former liberal Christian reading through this, I see that I have a lot in common with the writer, New Testament Scholar and Clergy Project member Bart Ehrman. The main difference is that when I learned the facts about religion, I couldn’t stand going through the motions every Sunday, even though I enjoyed some of those motions and really enjoyed being among people, including clergy, who could hold and openly express a range of beliefs. Like Bart, there was one little thing that pushed me away. Read on.
By Bart Ehrman (originally posted here)
Some people have asked me, and I have asked myself, why, as a liberal Christian, did I continue to “believe,” or at least to act as if I believed? I didn’t think Jesus was literally born of a virgin and I wasn’t sure if he was physically raised from the dead. I didn’t think that he existed before he came into the world, let alone that he had been God from eternity past. I didn’t think there was a hell and I didn’t know about heaven. I believed in the Big Bang and evolution, not in creation. I thought the Bible was filled with mistakes, historical inaccuracies, contradictions, and discrepancies, that its authors were fully human and were (simply) providing their views of this that or the other thing. So why did I go to church every week, say the creed, sing the hymns, say my prayers, confess my sins, take communion, teach adult education, and all the rest?
I’m not sure I’ve ever explained this to anyone before, though I certainly explained it to myself. The first thing to say is that I did not think – and still do not think – that I was being a hypocrite. I wasn’t pretending to believe things I didn’t believe. That wasn’t it at all. It was more complicated than that, which is probably why I have never explained it.
I should say by way of preface that the church I was going to at the time I am now thinking of was an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, and my sense was that there was an enormous range of “believers” going there – some who were devout and others not so much, some who believed every word in the creed and others who took it with a massive grain of salt, some who were rather simply in their faith (not too many of those, actually) and a lot who were filled with doubts and uncertainties, but found in the church a place to root themselves. There were agnostics in their midst.
So most anything I personally believed would have been fine in that context. But why did I continue to go and participate in Christian worship?
It would help to point out that I was not at all missionary about my views. I had gotten beyond trying to convince anyone to think or believe what I did. To me it didn’t much matter what others believed or found useful to think. I didn’t think that I was so right about everything that everyone else needed to agree with me (as I had thought when I was a fundamentalist years before). I didn’t actually think that there *was* only one right thing to think or believe. What I thought and believed was for me, not for others.
But why continue to live as a Christian? For me it worked like this. I had come to think that there was no such thing as a person who existed in a vacuum, in a mental world of neutrality, where there were no assumptions made, no unprovable assertions affirmed, no completely novel ways of thinking and relating to the world around them.
All of us participate in the broader world – not just the broader physical and social world, but also in the world of thought, belief, world view, perspective, and assumption. Of course each of us is unique, but in another sense none of us is. We all share things that we agree on, many of which cannot be established or proved – or at least that we ourselves are incapable of establishing or proving (think: theory of general relativity).
Everyone has mental/personal/emotional roots somewhere. And I chose my roots to be in the Christian church. That was the tradition I was raised in. That was the tradition I resonated with. That was the tradition I was comfortable in. That was the tradition I could relate to. That was the tradition that made sense to me. That was the tradition I understood. So that was the tradition I was in.
Yes, I could have left. But this is the key point: if I left I would have to go SOMEWHERE ELSE. And that somewhere else, in my view, was no better than the place I was leaving. You can’t go from something to nothing. You go from one thing to another thing. And why do that? Only because you can no longer stay where you are.
And so it made better sense to me to try to reinterpret the tradition I was standing within than to adopt an entirely new tradition. That’s why I never was (very) tempted to become Jewish. And not at all tempted to become Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or anything else.But why be *anything*? The reality is that deciding to become *nothing* doesn’t work. We are all something or other. Someone may think that she or he is bold and brazen and a real pioneer to become an atheist. Really? That is bold, brazen, and pioneering??? As if no one else has done that? As if being an atheist doesn’t involve assumptions about the world, beliefs about where we came from, ideas about what it means to lead a good and fulfilling life? Really?
At the time I thought my tradition – when taken literally – was highly flawed. But so was every other tradition. Rather than adopt a new highly flawed tradition, it made better sense to me to stay within my own tradition and reconstrue it in ways that allowed me to see its deep and rich value while accepting it in a way that can appeal to a modern person who understands more about science, history, philosophy, ethics, and everything else that we as highly educated modern people understand.
And so rather than jettison my tradition, I had, gradually over time, decided to reinterpret my tradition. I wasn’t missionary about it. I didn’t insist that others do likewise. But it is what I did for myself. The Christian tradition is incredibly sophisticate and capacious. I grabbed on to what I thought was at the very heart of it and developed my views about it in ways that could coincide with what it all really meant. I didn’t think I was being dishonest in doing so – secretly altering the faith while pretending to hold on to it. As a scholar of the Bible and early Christianity, I knew that *everyone* in *every situation* reinterprets their tradition in light of their own lives and circumstances. That had always been the case for every single person in the Christian tradition, and always will be. I was simply being more self-conscious and intentional about it.
I believed that yes there was a God. But he was not going to send billions of people to be tortured for eternity. Belief in God, for me at the time, was a belief that ultimately there was a good divine being and that there is good in the world and that we have a place in it. Christ was a manifestation of God in that he was the one who showed us what God was really like, one who more than anything else loved others with all his being to the point of willing to die for the sake of others. Confessing sins meant realizing how far short I fall from those ideals in my everyday life. Prayer meant aligning myself with the purposes of God, the God of love. Taking communion meant committing myself to giving myself to others. The Bible was a collection of deeply moving spiritual reflections by people who had keen insights into the world and our place in it. This was my tradition, and I embraced it.
Until I could not do so any more. I eventually had to stop because the very basis of the entire tradition – the existence of a loving God – itself came under threat for me. I’ll explain that in subsequent posts. [Editor’s message: Those posts can be found on Bart’s blog.]
Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.
Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given Rational Doubt permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog
>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400