skeptics and believers

I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but one never knows.  I had a lot of conversations after my Easter morning sermon, and nearly all of them began with something along the lines of ‘thank you for speaking so honestly, for naming aloud and making space for my very real doubts…..’  Talking about the reality of both belief and doubt in an Easter morning sermon seems to have struck a chord with quite a number of people.

Later in the week, Larry Handwerk saw a book on my desk entitled So You Think You’re Not Religious and asked if my sermon had emerged after I had read it.  As it happens, I hadn’t yet read the book, but the title had caught my eye.  It was written in 1988 by James R. Adams.  He was rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill for thirty years; his book offers “…advice on how to be a practicing Christian without becoming a believer.”   The Episcopal Church is a perfect fit for the thinking person who yearns for a community with whom to explore and journey without forcing predetermined answers.

Adams challenges the assumptions people make about what clergy or faithful people believe, acknowledging his own journey: “having failed to become a believer, he still gets a lot out of church.”  Adams asserts:

For me, a “true believer” is one who holds to these opinions or propositions even in the face of contrary evidence, judging all those who hold opposing opinions to be in error.  A “skeptic” is quite a different sort of person, being one who instinctively doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions presented without verifiable evidence. A skeptic is simply unable to accept religious dogma.  It is a tragedy that many honest skeptics do not realize that they can find resources in the church to help them live more meaningful and effective lives without having to sacrifice their intellectual integrity.

Given that definition, many Christians, including myself, fall into the skeptic category, and our tradition energetically affirms that God can handle our doubts and questions, even as God is big enough to receive our anger and other ‘un-pretty’ emotions.  People inside the church appreciate the space to be honest and to have some cover to be wherever they are right now.  People outside the church are shocked and dumbfounded that we aren’t about forcing a set of beliefs.

Misconceptions abound. How might we make space?   Over and over people are surprised when they hear that the Episcopal Church doesn’t not require holding a set of beliefs to belong.  Initial disbelief ultimately shifts into relief when people realize we can practice Christianity without forcing anyone to believe something they cannot intellectually confirm.   Our society is filled with people who have this yearning.

While the book is not new, it is definitely worthwhile reading, especially if you are a skeptic or harbor your own doubts.  There are three sections: 1) Skepticism and Belief 2) Getting Past the Barriers and 3) Rituals for Transitions.  A good example is a section on the baptism liturgy, which can also be used for reaffirmation or renewal of one’s baptismal covenant.   He helps people see what is happening in a way that frees people from their intellectual straight-jackets, allowing them to unpack their assumptions of what is happening or being said and to connect with what they truly yearn for in the first place.

How do most people you know see or think about the Church?  What if the church was widely understood as a community committed to helping people live better lives, practice Christianity and provide a safe space to support one another in meaning-making?

If you would like some space to re-explore this sermon topic and others, I have good news.  In just a few weeks we’ll be able to post each Sunday’s sermon as well as others from our recent past.  Watch the St. Elisabeth’s website for this new function.