Ian Harber grew up in an evangelical home, but as he grew into adulthood he found it increasingly shallow. So he lost his faith but then moved to liberal Christianity. He eventually found that even more shallow. Finally, he started studying theology and came back to faith, thanks to his discovery of a deep Christianity.
He tells his story at The Gospel Coalition website in an essay entitled ‘Progressive’ Christianity: Even Shallower Than the Evangelical Faith I Left. I think his experience tracks what we will be seeing more and more, as I discuss in my new book Post-Christian.
The Christian tradition I grew up in—for all the wonderful things it gave me—was not prepared for a generation of kids with access to high-speed internet. Not that the critiques of the Bible we discovered online were new, but they were now at the fingertips of curious folks who grew up in evangelical bubbles. Like me. The answers given in church seemed shallow compared to the legitimate critiques that were a Google search or YouTube video away. . . .I couldn’t help but think it had to be more complicated than the story I was being told. So eventually, I left the faith completely. I wanted nothing to do with Jesus or the church.
The death of his mother somehow led him back to God. “But my evangelical environment lacked a substantial theology of suffering. Suffering was something to avoid or suppress, not a means of God’s transforming grace in our lives.” So he got involved with Progressive Christianity. He was exhilarated to learn that he could have both Christianity and science, mysticism without dogmas, social activism without right wing politics.
But then he noticed that his new religious circle was as obsessed with politics as the church he grew up with, only for left wing politics. His old beliefs were being “deconstructed,” but no one was giving him any guidance in “constructing” anything better.
I’d heard about the dangers of moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD), the default American religion where God simply wants you to live a decent life and not be sad, and doesn’t intrude on your life. I originally ran to progressive Christianity to counter that kind of shallow belief. But what I found was just more of the same, only with new definitions.
Wokeness was the new morality. Therapy was the new path to happiness. Cancel culture was the new church discipline. And like MTD, there was, conveniently, no personal God to place demands on your life in any meaningful way. In this “progressive” MTD, Elizabeth Gilbert’s trope is the only thing left: “God dwells within you, as you.” There’s no way to distinguish between ourselves and God. In this paradigm, we are God.
He decided he needed to rebuild his faith. He started studying theology, formally, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. About the same time, he had to suffer through another death in his family, that of his grandfather who had raised him. “This death plunged me into another season of intense suffering, but this time in a theologically rigorous environment.
One of my teachers said, “We do theology in the light so we can stand on it in the dark.” I was doing theology and standing on it in the dark. For the first time I really learned the doctrines of the Trinity and of Scripture as a unified story, and how to read it as inspired literature. I was taught how doctrines that I assumed were contradictory—like penal substitution and Christus Victor—actually need each other to form the full, beautiful, biblical picture. I learned about union with Christ and all the blessings it brings. I learned about spiritual disciplines and the life-giving freedom that flows from a disciplined pursuit of God. From there, the wide and rich world of historic Christian orthodoxy swung open for me to explore.
Harber says that he is not alone in this kind of spiritual pilgrimage. It may become the norm for the growing number of people who are leaving the faith, though many might not ever encounter the deeper Christianity that he found.
In my book Post-Christian, I show how the church itself has been contributing to the secularization of the culture. This is certainly the case in Western Europe, where the dominant state churches embraced a theology so liberal that it was largely indistinguishable from unbelief. America’s mainline churches have gone down that same road and have had their effect, though their vacuous theology has left them, as in Europe, increasingly empty on Sunday mornings. Liberal theology, by its nature, teaches that Christianity must be revised so as to conform to the current thought and culture. And yet, many conservative churches are also preoccupied with cultural conformity when it comes to worship, music, style, and also–increasingly–content.
I argue that the recovery of Christianity will mean the “de-secularization of the church.”
Very few of the “Nones” are atheists or materialists. One study found that 78% of Nones believe in some tenets of New Age spirituality (reincarnation, astrology, sacred objects, etc.). Reaching those who are “spiritual but not religious” will require bringing back authentic Christian spirituality (prayer, meditation, sacraments, worship, etc.), and a supernatural, deep theology that engages suffering, is rich and complex, and opens up–rather than trying to explain them away–the mysteries of life, existence, and God.
This is not another advertisement for Lutheranism, in accord with my experience. Ian Harber shows that one can find that deeper Christianity in the Baptist tradition, as well.
As he says, “We need more theology, nuance, grace, compassion, and understanding in our churches, not less. But these things are made possible by orthodox doctrine, not in spite of it.”
Image from PickPik, Royalty Free photos.