I’m a Believer – or Not

Teresa MacBain is, or at least, was, a Methodist minister in Tallahassee, Florida, at Lake Jackson United Methodist Church.  At some point she began questioning her faith in God.  She wondered how to reconcile the existence of God and evil. The stories of divine intervention and resurrection confused her. “She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.  For years, MacBain set her concerns aside. But when she became a Methodist minister nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they’d make her faith stronger.” [NPR, April 30]

Her questions did not lead her to faith-restoring insight.  In fact, as her questions grew more systemic, her faith shrank.  Last month on the way to Sunday services she realized that she had crossed a line: MacBain decided that she was an atheist.  She actually didn’t let anyone else know her decision – it was her secret for a while, until she attended an Atheist convention – yes, there are atheist conventions.  At that convention she publicly declared that she was an atheist too.

The news story: minister comes out as atheist, was prominent in Tallahassee media. MacBain never imagined the response.  Lots of hate mail came her way. Her congregation literally locked her out of the church. Her husband, a police officer, had to go in and pick up her things, which were already packed into boxes.

A crisis of faith, a dark night of the soul, can be shattering.  To lose faith in God can feel profoundly alienating; it can change the warp and woof of the universe.  Sometimes it’s a permanent condition.  Other times it’s indicative of a continual dialectical tension.

For Jews, the God question is enormous.  It is part of our faith to question our faith.  In fact the more questions we ask the more we enter into a deep and thoughtful relationship to the idea of God.  Our relationship to the idea may lead us into a personal relationship with God.  Or it may lead us to reject God.  The point is not to believe for believing’s sake.  The point is to think about God, to challenge ourselves to dig deep and face what we define as the truth of our faith.

I wondered after I heard Teresa MacBain interviewed on NPR; what would happen if I went to an atheist convention somewhere in Boston and then spoke to a local reporter about how I had decided that I was an atheist?  How would my life change?  I imagined coming to the temple on Monday morning.  Would my stuff be in boxes on the curb?  Would the lock be changed on my office door?  Would I receive hate mail?

In fact, I think if I’d been on tv declaring that I was an atheist, when I came in the next morning, folks would say good morning. “Hey!” they’d continue, “I saw you on tv!”  And that would be the extent of the furor.  Sure, some folks would be upset.  A few folks would write angry emails to the Jewish Advocate, no doubt.  But truthfully, for Jews, the whole atheist-agnostic-believer continuum is a matter of private choice, even for Orthodox Jews.  If you live a life of being a mensch, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of giving tzedakah, your theology is of secondary importance.

What we believe and how we believe is an ongoing complex of age and health and experience.  The point is to be involved in the discussion.  It is not following some script – it is following one’s heart.  How lucky to be Jewish, to be able to speak out loud of one’s doubt and not get castigated for it.  To believe or not to believe in God is not simply a statement.  It’s an ongoing struggle for truth.  It’s a living dynamic filled with tears and pain and exaltation and celebration.  No one’s getting locked out the temple for that.

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