People choose to work in the Church because they love their faith and want to make it their life’s work. What they don’t necessarily understand going in is that people who work professionally in Church world, including lay people, are often viewed by others as the “face of the institution.” Parishioners and friends often assume that anything and everything that the Church professes, you also profess.
When I first started working in the Church and came across this phenomenon, I felt a responsibility to uphold the notion that I believed everything that the Church taught. I had doubts about a number of Church traditions and teachings, but I assumed that I needed to keep them to myself. I never felt completely right about it but, as they say in AA, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
My doubts and questions led me to reading people like Richard Rohr, Elizabeth Johnson, Marcus Borg, and Ron Rolheiser. I found myself struggling with the salvation story I had been taught since childhood. I even discovered that there were names for one doctrine I knew so well: the Satisfaction Theory, or the Substitutionary Atonement Theory.
In a nutshell, the theory states that Jesus, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of us sinners in order to satisfy God the Father’s need for atonement/justice, which allowed God the Father to forgive our sins. I got to the point where I could no longer balance the God of my experience with a God who, like a feudal lord, needed satisfaction to forgive humanity’s misbegotten ways. God was not an angry father, or a punishing cosmic ruler. God was Love
(1Jn 4:8). As Fr. Greg Boyle says, “God only knows the word love. Nothing is more consequential than knowing that truth. When you know the God of love, fire all the other gods.”
Firing the other gods, I needed a new interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Elizabeth Johnson helped me out. She argued that Jesus died as a result of the mission to which he stayed faithful – the mission of proclaiming and making present the Reign of God. Crucified under the title “the King of the Jews,” he met the fate of an enemy of the empire. He suffered for the way he loved God and neighbor, not because he needed to pay a debt to divine honor. For Johnson, it is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals God’s salvific work.
This shift in my belief system filled me with newfound faith, and it also coincided with a talk I was to give on Belief to a gathering of pastors and parish staffs. I was torn as to what to say. Was my job to be the face of the Church, or was it my job to be vulnerable and expose my changing beliefs to these Church professionals?
The professional side of me said “stay the course, your old talk is a solid, safe talk.” I prayed over it. I lost sleep over it. At the last minute I decided to go with my heart. I began by saying that in order for a disciple to develop and mature, one must first truly believe. We can teach religion, but true belief cannot be taught. True belief comes through a lifetime of diligent effort to dig deeply within and heal a lifetime of personal scars and spotty theology. You can’t teach it, email it, or tweet it. It has to be discerned within the depths of one’s own heart.
Dipping my toe in the icy water of honesty, I offered this question that day: Is the virgin birth of Jesus meant to be taken as an actual event, or as a great mythic story that points to a reality beyond itself - a myth that is about light coming into darkness; the perennial conflict between the powers that rule this world and God's passion for a different kind of world?
Suggesting to a room full of professional church folk that the virgin birth might be viewed as myth left me weak in the knees. Some Church doctrines and traditions are so deeply embedded in our Christian psyche that questioning them can seem like heresy. But Christianity is not for the faint of heart. Questioning is not rejection, doubting is not infidelity, and sincere searching opens us up to the possibility of a deeper, more authentic life of faith.
After the talk was over, a number of people pulled me aside privately to say that they had similar questions. One pastor said to me, “I have the same thoughts that you shared, but what you are saying is something I just cannot say.” I realized then how much more unyielding the face of the institution is for priests and religious than it is for the laity. He was right. Like Moses, leading a nation through the wilderness, his role is to lead a faith community that encompasses a variety of theologies and pieties. He leads people like me, all of whom are in various stages of belief and disbelief.
I want this blog to be one of those places where believers and doubters can come out of the shadows and into the light and express themselves. If you have questions that you would like to see discussed in this blog, please email me at email@example.com