Editor’s Note: I’m so glad to hear from this former Methodist Clergy Project member. He addresses the kinds of issues I’ve been thinking about since the worldwide United Methodist Church voted to exclude openly LGBTQ members. This post makes a case for why liberal Christianity won’t survive unless its proponents drastically change their thinking – and their expectations of “God.” I hope they are paying attention. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Paul Adams
I used to work for a number of United Methodist churches before making a total break from church life over five years ago.
While my religious identity and work are far behind me, I still quietly read the writings of some former colleagues online, as well as notable authors in the broader religious world that used to influence me. I do this primarily as a personal exercise in order to learn how my transition away from religion affects the way I take in and interpret information.
Therefore, I was in an interesting position to note the reactions to the United Methodist Church’s decision to reinforce its conservative position on sexuality. The church’s fight isn’t my fight anymore, and their decision one way or the other doesn’t matter that much to my current life.
But as I applied my new skeptical lens on life to the perspectives of those I used to work and serve with, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of sadness. My sadness isn’t about the church’s decision per se, but by the tools (or lack of them) used to deal with the decision by those affected by it.
What I’m seeing over and over again among the religious liberals are people making passionate claims about what God is going to do very soon in order to:
- Bring about a new era of prosperity for liberal churches
- Bring about a new era of suffering for conservative churches
- Magically make everything better by somehow reversing the decision, or rendering it powerless
- Magically [insert liberal religion friendly wish here]
I’m also seeing endless complaining from the liberals on how the conservatives dared to use political tactics to outmaneuver them in the decision making process. Instead, the liberals imply the conservatives should have just (somehow) avoided politics altogether and dutifully listened to their liberal sermons about theology instead until enough of them converted and the liberals won. As if that wouldn’t be politics!
What I’m seeing is that every single claim these writers ultimately rest upon a claim about who God is and what God does.
It seems to be the only tool in their box.
But let’s try a thought exercise here. What if God doesn’t exist? What if atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are right?
What are the consequences of that in this situation?
Here are some of my hypotheses:
- All the claims about who God is, and how that matters to the issue at hand, are a pointless waste of time and energy. No truth will be discerned from such claims.
- All the claims about what God is going to do are crap. None of those things will happen. This will frighten the few Christians that choose to pay attention and consider this evidence. Most will be too scared to think about it.
- This conflict is nothing more than what is appears to be from the outside. It is a proxy war using sexuality as the pretext for the true fight, which is about gaining power over people, having control over money and pensions and (particularly in the United Methodist system) having control over the ownership of buildings and property.
- Christians, whether conservative or liberal, won’t have a single religious justification for their beliefs about sexuality that most non-religious people will buy for a second. That means that it is unlikely that any Christians will find lasting allies outside of their own ranks on this topic. Non-religious people have nothing to gain by trying to add dubious religious claims to their arguments.
- Liberal Christians don’t seem to have any non-religious basis they are willing to draw upon to support their beliefs about sexuality. This means that it is very likely that as God continues to fail to act in restoring them to power in their church, the liberals will lose an increasing percentage of their membership to the ranks of atheists and agnostics, whose arguments are more likely to be based on actual evidence instead of fairytales.
One of the most prominent Methodist leaders of recent history lets on that he strongly suspects that God didn’t do anything throughout the process. In the Christian Century magazine on February 27th, 2019, retired Methodist bishop William H. Willimon writes:
“Before the United Methodist Special General Conference opened on Saturday, we prayed. Perhaps God would miraculously grant a fruitful discussion among 800 disputants who have very little in common except for our cross-and-flame nametags. We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirit. It didn’t work…The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere.”
But instead of actually trusting his accurate read of the overwhelming evidence that God did nothing, and drawing the correct conclusion that his all-powerful God effectively didn’t exist at the most critical moment in the last 50 years of the United Methodist Church, he falls right back into the trap of magical thinking. He explains away the utterly neglectful behavior, callous inaction, and uncaring apathy of his God by claiming that God will just magically show up in a different way later. He doesn’t even try to offer any evidence for his bizarre conclusion that:
“… the Holy Spirit doesn’t work from the top down. The Spirit does good from the bottom up, through God’s hijinks in the local church…by God’s grace, this train wreck may give us the opportunity to rediscover the power of the local and congregational.”
If a congregation began to target gays and used Willimon’s justification that it was the Holy Spirit working through “hijinks in their local church”, Willimon almost certainly wouldn’t accept it. Assuming he did not accept it, this would reveal the desperate posturing at the heart of his argument, where he is looking for another way for God to truly “come out” and be revealed as a liberal. Willimon is waiting and hoping for some kind of action by that liberal God to justify this, and since (by his own admission) God hasn’t shown up in the larger church bodies, the local churches are all he has left. Alas, God has yet to do anything, as Willimon himself concedes. Could it simply be that God doesn’t exist? That would explain – well, everything.
What I want to tell my former colleagues is that there is no magical supernatural being in the sky that is going to save them from the mess they are in. They will have to find their own way forward and discover a sense of secular ethics grounded in actual reality, and not the blind wishful thinking that has brought them to this point.
For most of them, this will be too painful of an admission to make, and too difficult of a transition to consider. As a member of the Clergy Project who has made this transition myself, I know firsthand how admitting that religion is a fantasy – when you feel like your life depends upon it – utterly tears you apart. It destroys relationships, families, and entire social networks and means of support. For those of us in the professional ranks, it destroys careers and leaves us scrambling for options to feed our families and ourselves. It makes us feel ashamed about what we had decided to do with our lives and afraid to admit that to anyone – even those we are closest to.
And as someone who has come out the other side of that transition, I can tell you that no matter how painful it was, the sense of freedom and the ability to make my own path (without depending on a non-existent magical being who does absolutely nothing) has been completely worth it. It hurt like hell – and I would do it again in a second.
I hope that if the recent events in the United Methodist church have left you lost, confused, angry or questioning what is really true, then I want to tell you that following those questions to their logical conclusion could be the best decision you ever made.
If honestly following those questions means that you need support along the way, then help is there if you need it: www.clergyproject.org
Bio: Paul Adams converted to Christianity as an adult as a way to seek truth in the universe before finally coming to the conclusion that he was looking in the wrong place. He is a seminary graduate who worked in a number of church leadership roles for many years. Today, he happily works in non-profit leadership, and gratefully applies the lessons of his past to his current work.
>>>>>>>Photo Credits: By The original uploader was Pollicitus at English Wikipedia. http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1563, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8675123 ; “Creation of the Sun and Moon face detail” by Michelangelo – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail.jpg#/media/File:Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail.jpg; “Four Horsemen” by DIREKTOR, based on works by listed authors. – Richard Dawkins, File:Richard Dawkins Cooper Union Shankbone.jpg. Author: User:David Shankbone.Christopher Hitchens, File:Christopher Hitchens crop 2.jpg. Author: ensceptico.Daniel Dennett, File:Daniel dennett Oct2008.JPG. Author: User:Mathias Schindler.Sam Harris, File:Sam Harris 01.jpg. Author: unknown. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Four_Horsemen.jpg#/media/File:Four_Horsemen.jpg