Today over at Old Piano blog, Sincere KIrabo published an interview he did with me a couple of weeks ago. I appreciated the questions he asked as they prompted me to think about a few issues I hadn’t expressed in quite this way.
SINCERE KIRABO: Many things are expected of a pastor of a church. He or she is the leader of the flock, a phrase which evokes allusions to lowly creatures, a congregated collective steeped in groupthink, seemingly oblivious to an existence beyond the insular implications of their fabricated worldview. Or am I the only one who thinks of this when contemplating this term?
Anyway – where was I? Oh, right. Pastors. Such individuals come in a wide assortment of flavors: dutiful, inspiring, robotic, imaginative, nurturing, solemn, professor, charismatic, catalytic, performer, visionary. Some are a cross-pollination of a few or more of these pious seasonings. I wonder though, out of the array specified, how many of these shepherds have genuine doubt? And, if such doubts do exist, to what degree does this ambiguity or demurral have to fester before it is in some way “problematic”?
A Christian science journalist once said, “Is it okay for a Christian to admit they have doubts? Real doubts? As a science journalist, I know that scientific conclusions can be expressed with varying degrees of uncertainty – seems to me religious people should be fine with expressing their ‘faith’ claims with degrees of uncertainty, too.”
This brings me to the subject of my inquiry, Ryan Bell. He is a man whose doubts were so suffocating that they eventually led to his break with his pastoral role and church altogether. Aptly named a “Year Without God”, how did the idea for your rather unique rendition of a rumspringa come about?
RYAN BELL: It’s interesting. You’re not the first person to equate my personal journey exploring atheism to the Amish practice of rumspringa. In the Amish community, teenagers, usually between the ages of 14-16, are free to explore the world and all its pleasures before deciding to commit to their faith and be baptized. In popular culture, it is known as a time for young people to sow their wild oats, so to speak—get it out of their system.
Equating my journey with rumspringa misses the mark on at least two accounts. First, it implies that I am throwing off the moral strictures of Christianity for a season. That isn’t at all what this is about. I am on a journey to explore the doubts about the existence of God that have been growing in my mind for the past several years. I am also exploring various theisms to see what, if anything, I can salvage from my faith and determine where I am headed next in my life.
Secondly, rumspringa is meant to be a precursor to solid faith. Without a doubt some kids never return, but studies show that due to social pressures, most do return. My journey is the opposite of this. It feels more like a precursor to no faith.
But all that aside, the idea came up rather casually over a bowl of Thai curry on a rainy day in Pasadena. I was having lunch with a friend and expressed my deep doubts and discouragement at both the behavior of the church and the insufficiency of theology. I was carrying the little book, Religion Without God, by Ronald Dworkin, and my friend asked about it. A few minutes later I said, “Maybe I’ll take this next year and be an atheist. Just leave aside faith altogether and see what the world looks like from that vantage point.” I had already left my religion and regular church attendance. It was only natural to take the next step.
SINCERE: Okay, now that I have addressed the cursory crux of your secular appeal, I would like to start at a more initial starting point. Did you grow up in a religious household and, if so, describe what it was like growing up in such an environment?
RYAN: I did grow up in a religious home. My parents were United Methodists when I was born. When their marriage hit hard times, they went to my maternal grandparents for support and counsel. In the end, we all joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church of my grandparents. I remember the day my mom and dad were baptized. I must have been about 7 years old when I began attending the Adventist Church.
My childhood experience of faith was very positive. I loved Sabbath School (Adventist equivalent of Sunday School) and from a young age enjoyed church services. I especially enjoyed the sermon. I lived with my grandparents when I was in High School and we frequently had the pastor or guest speaker over for lunch after church. I loved being a part of the theological conversation that always ensued.
Walks in nature on Sabbaths afternoons, family worship before school, Bible studies on Wednesday nights in our home, the fellowship of our church community—I loved it all. The few times I chaffed against the rules came during High School when I wasn’t allowed to go to football games on Friday nights after the Sabbath began. Dances were out of the question both because they were always on Friday nights and, well…they were dances. But even in these cases, I had a positive feeling about standing up for my convictions and not simply going along with the crowd.
SINCERE: I know some may not be privy, so please, in your own words, articulate what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist. What are the key theological distinctions of this denomination of Christianity?
RYAN: Books have been written about this, but let me try to be concise. The heart of Adventism is two things, both deeply connected to religious currents that were fomenting in the mid-19th century.
The first is millennialism. During what is known as the Second Great Awakening in the United States, many religious groups revived the notion that Jesus would return, visibly and physically, to the earth in that generation. William Miller came to the conclusion, through a very unsound method of Bible reading, that Jesus would come back to the earth in 1844. Later he narrowed it down to October 22, 1844. Obviously he was wrong and a fairly large group of earnest believers were deeply disappointed. In fact, in Adventist culture this day is known, without subtlety, as The Great Disappointment. To this day, the driving force behind Adventism, and the evangelistic impulse in particular, is the soon coming of Jesus. This is the “Adventist” part of the name, Seventh-day Adventist.
The second religious current that shaped the emerging Adventist consciousness was restorationism. Restorationism is essentially the belief that the pursuit of authentic Christianity requires believers to get back to—or restore—the purity of the ancient, apostolic faith. Energy was poured into discovering “lost truths” that needed to be restored in the modern age. For the proto-Adventists, this included Saturday Sabbath observance and other teachings from the Pentateuch like the Levitical dietary standards, teachings about the wilderness sanctuary, anthropological beliefs that lead to a more Jewish understanding of the nature of people in death (namely, dead, as opposed to immortal).
These two impulses—millennialism and restorationism—are, in my mind, the core of Adventist belief and practice. The Adventist mission is to restore lost truths in order to hasten the Second Advent.
SINCERE: At what point in your life did you decide to become a pastor?
RYAN: I decided to become a pastor during my Sophomore year in college. I began college as a math and physics double major. Then I moved to English, and then History/Pre-Med. So you could say I ran the gamut of majors before deciding to be a Pastor. It felt like the thing I was supposed to do. I guess I always equated that feeling to what Christians refer to a “calling.”
SINCERE: You eventually went to seminary. Please divulge your experiences during your time at Andrews University and Fuller Theological Seminary. What was it like? How did it mold you?
RYAN: While the two schools are very different, I enjoyed my time in both institutions. The Adventist Seminary at Andrews University is basically a pastor mill. The Master of Divinity program is not training biblical scholars. It is more like a vocational, technical school where you also have to learn Greek and Hebrew. It has actually become more this way since I left. I regret that I was never introduced to the writings of theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner, or the relatively recent currents in liberation and feminist theology.
My experience at Fuller Seminary was much more academic, but that is mainly because of the particular cohort I chose—Missional Leadership. My experience there was a complete paradigm shift, from pastor-driven, top-down, outcomes-focused church leadership to a neighborhood-driven, bottom-up, process-focused leadership. This transformation set our congregation apart not only from the other Adventist churches in the area but also from most of the other Christian churches as well. It probably also led to my eventual termination from Adventist employment.
RYAN: This is an interesting question and one that I am in the process of rethinking, especially in the aftermath of Brandais University’s handling of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary doctorate.
The focus of the final 10 years of my pastoral career was on issues of social justice. My interest was in helping people put their faith into action in the world that we all share, rather than preparing people to (possibly) go somewhere else, after death. Given what I said above about the core of Adventism, this made dealings with the denomination difficult. Part of that work involved developing meaningful ecumenical and interfaith relationships. Typically those relationships involved working together on service projects or defending the civil liberties of various groups that came under attack.
The utility of these relationships is an open question, in my mind. Without a doubt, on a personal level, I feel that cultivating relationships with those who see the world differently is increasingly essential in our pluralistic world. Everyone should know more about their Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist neighbors. Whether these relationships advance democracy, which is essential to thriving human community, is less clear to me. It really depends upon the details of the specific interfaith programs. I’m more inclined to reject the notion that religious ideas exist in a special category, deserving of uncritical respect, which we would not accord to political and philosophical ideas, for example.
SINCERE: Now, somewhere along the line, I imagine there grew a disconnect. Is that right, or no? On your website you state that you, after nineteen years of ministry, resigned your pastoral duties due to “theological and practical differences”. This may be a complex issue, but could you cite the motivations behind this transition from a seemingly secured, “righteous” path to a more nebulous state severed from the church’s dutiful responsibilities?
RYAN: The short way to explain this is that I gradually became less sectarian in my views and more Christian. At the same time, I was asking deeper questions about the nature of Christianity altogether. My evolution as a religious leader and thinker was like pulling on a loose thread and watching the sweater come unraveled. Some pieces of the Adventist Christian framework seem interchangeable. You can substitute an eternal burning hell for an annihilationist view of hell, for example, but you still have to deal with a God who is unable to completely save his creation. After swapping out these parts for the better part of a decade, trying to cobble together a faith that both made sense in our current context and was somehow authentically Adventist and Christian (all the while deeply suspicious that faith is not the sort of thing that can be cobbled together like this in the first place) I looked down at a pile of spare parts and had no choice but to walk away. Or, I looked out and saw that these traditions are exactly that: traditions. They can’t be taken apart and reassembled any way you like. You either enter the tradition or you don’t. In some sense we don’t get a choice, but now we’re wading into deeper water.
Simply put, my increasingly inclusive, ecumenical views became too much for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and they finally asked me to resign.
SINCERE: I think many speculate that it may have to do with you falling prey to the dark side (losing faith) – is that so?
RYAN: I’m not sure I can clearly place these developments on a linear timeline. My lived experience of the past year was that I was asked to leave my position as pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church and in the aftermath, lost my faith. But looking back, I can see that I had deep questions about the existence of God, for example, that I was trying to address while I was the pastor of the church. I think it is fair to say that those in the administration of the Adventist Church felt I had lost my faith—at least the Adventist part—and that it was best for me to leave. I don’t think they expected me to question my belief in God the way I did.
SINCERE: This past week, the American Atheists held their annual National Convention this year in Salt Lake City. You were there. What was the experience like for you?
RYAN: The convention was fun! I met so many wonderful people that I have had interactions with on the internet, podcasts and so forth. Putting faces to names is always an enjoyable thing for me. I was so busy having personal conversations and speaking to media that I didn’t get to as many of the sessions as I would have liked, but the ones I heard were fantastic.
There is a level of excitement and energy there about being atheist that was unfamiliar to me. I think I was prepared for it, but it still strikes me as a bit odd. I have a hard time getting my mind around being so worked up about something you’re not. In my time as a pastor I regularly encountered people whose primary way of being Christian was defined by what they were not. I suspect that this has to do with groups feeling they are being attacked from one or more sides. We tend to assert our identity in particular ways when we feel that identity is unacceptable in the wider culture or sense that our identity is more directly under attack. This is certainly true in the atheist community. Coming out as atheist is one of the most stigmatizing and isolating things a person can do. I learned this in a hurry when I announced my Year Without God.
SINCERE: Do you have any interesting projects you’re currently working on?
RYAN: I’m working on a book about my journey from faith to whatever it is I am at the end of this year. It’s still a long way from final form, but the outline is coming together. I’m also working with a small film company, producing a documentary with the working title, A Year Without God: The Film. You can see a short teaser at www.yearwithoutgodfilm.com. And of course I’m writing on the blog and doing as much traveling to skeptic/humanist/atheist events as I can manage.
SINCERE: What’s next for you after this “Year Without God”?
RYAN: I’m not sure. I haven’t really gotten that far in my thinking. What I do know is that I want to turn my attention to the positive side of the equation. Whether I end up as an atheist or some form of theist, I want to spend my creative energies on things that are beneficial to our shared human existence on this beautiful planet. Globally I’m concerned about climate change and the reality and threat of war, many of which are motivated by religion at some level. Domestically I am deeply concerned about the widening gap between the rich and poor, race, gender and LGBTQ equality, and immigration reform which, again, have deep religious currents on both sides of the equation.
I’ve thought about ways I could help others explore the deep questions they have in a safe context. I am also a college professor and I would very much like to get back to the classroom.
Ryan Bell is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheistic landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience at Year Without God.