One of the most surreal days of my adult life was spent sitting in a Presbyterian church in San Antonio, listening to several hundred church officials discuss the state of my soul.
Throughout my childhood I attended a Presbyterian church, trudging off to Sunday school as a youngster, then to church services when I got older. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but this early experience with church was life-threatening—I was bored, nearly to death. My participation in this social ritual was decidedly not voluntary; I was told to do all this by my parents, which was not unusual in the world in which I grew up. Not surprisingly, I fled from church as soon as possible, intending never to look back.
Three decades later I decided to take another look, with an eye on the future, not the past. After meeting Jim Rigby, the radical minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, I started to think about the possibilities of a Christian theology that left behind supernatural claims about a supreme being. After recognizing there was a way to explore the stories within that tradition that could be politically and spiritually enriching, I joined that congregation in December 2005, making a profession about the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit that clearly rejected Christian orthodoxy. I also wrote about the experience, on the hunch that others might find their own struggles reflected in mine. Given the tradition of Christian atheists (for example, Thomas J.J. Altizer, famous for his role in the “death of God” theology in the 1960s) and Christian existentialists (such as the influential German-American philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich), I didn’t think that my writing would stir up any trouble.
But I underestimated the fervor with which traditional forces in the denomination would feel a need to police the boundaries of faith. Before too long, conservative Presbyterian websites and bloggers had picked up on what I had written and were making noise about how St. Andrew’s had gone too far in admitting an atheist. And so the theological battle was on, enlarged from just St. Andrew’s to the presbytery, which is the first level of bureaucracy in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The Committee on Ministry of Mission Presbytery, responsible for setting policy for 157 churches in south and central Texas, dispatched a “listening team” to meet with St. Andrew’s members. The report of that team—which seemed to do more talking than listening—resulted in censure motions about my case that the full presbytery took up at the next scheduled meeting a few months later.
The meeting finally came in June of 2006. I had never pondered what a modern-day heresy trial might look like, but this collection of presbytery delegates—mostly middle-class and informally dressed, without any visible trappings of an Inquisition proceeding—didn’t look too threatening. As I sat down in the pews open to non-delegates, I really couldn’t believe this gathering could find my meandering thoughts about religion interesting enough to debate.
After representatives of the Committee on Ministry presented the “evidence” of St. Andrew’s errors and my heresy, Rigby was given fifteen minutes to respond and then delegates to the meeting—ordained ministers in the presbytery and lay representatives—were allowed to speak from the floor. Weeks before the meeting, presbytery officials had made it clear to Rigby that I would not be allowed to speak, either from the podium or from the floor, though no clear reason was offered. My membership was the subject of the debate, but presbytery officials decided I must remain mute during others’ assessment of my faith, which ranged from angry denunciations (not just of me, but also of Rigby and St. Andrew’s) to loving support (not just of me, but of all who doubt and seek). Some people concluded I was no way, no how, any kind of Christian, while others described me as struggling to find faith. One woman, near tears, said she believed that I had already been born again.
As I sat with a dozen St. Andrew’s members and listened, it became increasingly clear the whole charade had nothing to do with me. It was an assertion of dominance by those who wanted—or needed—clear answers to inherently perplexing questions about the meaning of the label “Christian.” I assume the reason I was not allowed to speak was that those in charge of policing the boundaries of acceptable answers to those questions did not want delegates to see me as real person; better to keep me out of sight so that I could remain an abstraction in people’s minds.
Whatever the motivations guided the defenders of orthodoxy, they carried the day. By a vote of 155-114, the presbytery instructed St. Andrew’s to review their membership practices and:
- a. Declare that the reception of Robert Jensen into active membership was “irregular” and thus void.
- b. Direct St. Andrew’s session to move Robert Jensen to the “Baptized” Role [a status typically reserved for children awaiting confirmation].
I can’t say that I put much stock in the presbytery’s opinion of me, but the discussion that day and the vote did have an effect. When the presbytery vote was announced, many of the St. Andrew’s members I was sitting with were angry and frustrated. At that moment I was calm, reassuring people who reached out to support me that I was fine and they need not worry. But as we filed out of the church, I slipped away from the group to look for a place to be alone for a moment, to sort through my reactions and start crafting my response. Behind the building I leaned up against a stone wall and slid down to the ground to sit and catch my breath. And there, after just a few seconds of being alone, I began to cry. At first I assumed it was an understandable release of emotional energy after a long and intense day, but the tears didn’t stop. It wasn’t just that I had been rejected, though rejection of any kind can hurt, even when it’s political or philosophical and not personal. I don’t think my tears were about me. I was crying for something that I think had to do with a fallen world—something that I didn’t quite grasp in that moment and still don’t fully understand.
After the dust settled from the presbytery meeting, St. Andrew’s filed an appeal with the synod, the next level up in the bureaucracy. That appeal was denied on technical grounds, but in the meantime, a variety of people in the presbytery realized that it might be in everyone’s best interest to find a way to resolve the dispute without forcing a full-scale doctrinal showdown. Because I had been confirmed in a Presbyterian church as a youth, the presbytery could recognize the transfer of my membership from one congregation to another, conveniently removing the issue of my status. So, on that technicality, I remain a member in good standing of St. Andrew’s, for the time being.
None of this should have been surprising, for my membership and profession of faith highlighted two basic aspects of Protestantism that are inherently in conflict. Unlike the Catholic Church, no hierarchy exists in Protestant churches to threaten excommunication and impose orthodoxy of belief. The notion of a “priesthood of all believers” has meant that Protestants define their faith in an individual relationship with God, in the context of local community; congregational autonomy is highly valued. But it’s also obvious that any group (religious or otherwise) that is to remain a recognizable group has to have some standards for membership, or else membership becomes meaningless. This tension forces questions that many would prefer not to face: What does it mean to claim to be a Presbyterian, or a Protestant, or a Christian? Does it require one to believe the term “God” describes an identifiable force, entity, or being in the world? Does it require one to believe the resurrection of Jesus was a historical fact? Or can one be a Presbyterian, a Protestant, or a Christian and believe, for example, that God is simply a term for the energy that gives rise to life and that the resurrection should be understood symbolically?
What if we were to walk through the Protestant churches of the United States today, especially the centrist-to-liberal churches, and ask such questions of every member? How many would be left in the pews if all had to profess a belief in the supernatural claims about God and Jesus? I won’t venture an estimate, but my hunch is that the collection plates would be considerably lighter if churches were to expel all the skeptics and all who held non-orthodox views. I can only speculate, but my guess is that these observations are commonplace, which is why the boundary police from the Committee on Ministry initially felt it was important to punish a congregation that acknowledged the more complex reality of the contemporary church. Only when it appeared that their plan would backfire did they step back, recognizing the danger of raising such questions. But even with that danger, orthodox forces couldn’t let it rest.
My basic beliefs about the concept of God haven’t changed much since I joined St. Andrew’s, though I no longer use the terms “atheist” or “agnostic” to describe myself. That’s in part because the terms have been so much associated with “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, who strike me as smug and leave me unsatisfied. So, for now, I’ve settled on label “radical Christian.”
What keeps me going to St. Andrew’s most of all, though, has simply been my positive experience there. I continue to read, think, and discuss these issues with my pastor, fellow church members, and a wider public. I am fascinated by Rigby’s ongoing efforts to return periodically to these ancient texts to struggle with translation and interpretation. In the adult Sunday class, I love the debates we have over the application of these ideas to modern life. Is capitalism consistent with Christian ideals? I vigorously argue it is not; some of the business owners in the class defend the system. I have had engaging discussions with a number of progressive thinkers from other faiths that have deepened my identification as a member of a Christian church. My conversations with progressive Muslims, for example, not only expand my understanding of Islam but help me push the boundaries of Christianity. In short, my core beliefs haven’t changed much, but I don’t feel like an atheist or agnostic.
At the same time that my understanding of theology has deepened, so has my understanding of the nature of the crises we face in this world and my awareness of their magnitude. Those political and ecological concerns have made me even more interested in theology, out of the belief that we humans face problems that will severely test our capacities in the coming decades. No one person or tradition has the answers we will need to cope with what’s coming. I’ll take any insights I can get.
This essay is adapted from Robert Jensen’s new book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, from Soft Skull Press.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Reach him by email, and read more of his articles online.