Passing, part 1: A conversation with Rob Burns

I have known Rob Burns for about as long as I can remember. We were kids together, awkward adolescents, teenagers. We spent many a sleepover contemplating the great mysteries: God, eternity, and—most urgently—girls. I can neither confirm nor deny a spate of late-night prank calls in the early 1990s that seemed to have originated from my bedroom.

But there was also real substance. I remember sitting with him late one night in Waffle House when we were both home from college. Both of us with our long hair, our patchy stubble and eyeglasses. I remember this event in particular because this was the first time we talked about Isaiah chapter fifty-eight. He talked about it with the fervor of an acolyte, newly charged by emersion into the radical fringe material of our Scriptures. This was the first time I heard him talk about something that would become a kind of intellectual refrain for him: the “true fast,” which is Isaiah’s term for a ministry of social justice and reconciliation, which the prophet sets over against the empty religion of the corrupt religious leaders of his own day. This conversation started me in a new direction, too, and I remain grateful to Rob for it.

Rob is someone for whom I have deep respect and affection, someone who has challenged me to be better at faith. He has been a friend of the sort that you secretly envy because he is better than you at everything that matters: at loving his neighbor, at intellectual rigor, at faith. Which is why it came as such a sad shock to me to learn, recently, that he had left the faith.

Rob Burns holds an MA in theology from Westminster Seminary and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh, where he specialized in the philosophy of religion. He taught theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and then at Covenant Theological Seminary, a position he left when he could no longer, in good conscience, affirm that institution’s statement of faith. He now teaches history and debate at a charter high school in Newark, New Jersey. Over the past months, we’ve talked about his move away from Evangelicalism in a series of emails.

Jonathan Frey: For the sake of context, it might make sense to start at the very beginning, before you began to move away from Evangelicalism. How would you characterize your faith in that period?

Rob Burns: I felt like Reformed Evangelicalism had a coherent worldview during my time in college and seminary. I worked with evangelicals in the inner-city and wrote arguments that were published that won awards from evangelicals defending their faith and social commitments. So I felt honestly and authentically within the community at that point, and went on to do PhD work in philosophy hoping I could teach at an evangelical institution.

JF: When did that change?

RB: I vacillate between being very private about my struggle with Evangelicalism and expressing occasional ideas publicly. I didn’t want to “come out” as an agnostic, or push people towards my perspective. Leaving Evangelicalism, Reformed churches, and the faith itself for me was like breaking an unhealthy relationship—it was painful, it lingers with me, breaks me anew, makes it hard to love again. It’s not something I would wish on anybody or try to precipitate in someone who believes. That way of being an atheist or agnostic has always bothered me. It seems some of the de-converted take a perverse pleasure in poking the faithful like an immature middle school kid. If Evangelicalism is false, if Reformed theology is false, if Christianity is false, really false, the sign of this will be that sensitive people will walk away in pain. They will know the beauty of it and still walk away from what is ugly or dishonest in it. But they will not be happy about this, they will just try to survive the fallout, not push others into the crisis. They will try to reconstruct what little bits of that beauty they can keep hold of honestly without violating their own conscience. They will be more like those who grieve than triumphalists.

JF: Can you identify the moment when you went from being inside to being outside Evangelicalism?

RB: My relationship with Evangelicalism changed gradually. Even when I was inside the community, I had some significant doubts about the way the faith viewed the relationship of its scripture to human experience and reason. My doctoral work pushed me to read and think through the objections to faith of a series of Jewish atheists who fled Nazi Germany. They criticized many aspects of the Christian culture that I held dear: its view of authority, its ethical ambiguities, its account of meaning and evil. I spent time, a lot of time, reading Reformed and evangelical philosophers—Plantinga and Wolterstoff chiefly—but wasn’t satisfied intellectually with their replies.

What really precipitated my break though was not this intellectual discussion. It was rather noting well the way evangelical institutions treated those who asked difficult questions. My father taught me that Reformed Christians like Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til were worthy of respect because they asked the difficult questions. But I noticed that the evangelicals who were not philosophers but whom I respected as raising difficult questions from science and the social sciences were shut out of evangelical institutions for asking those questions. During my time in seminary, I thought these institutions were courageously standing for truth. When I began to agree with the dissenters, though, I assumed the institutions were simply afraid to ask the difficult questions, but this is actually not entirely fair to many of the genuine people who are part of these institutions. Now I believe that it’s not so much that they don’t ask the difficult questions, it’s that their epistemological commitments determine from the outset that the only items they will see as “questions” at all, will, by definition, not be difficult because they understand their axioms as properly basic. Which they aren’t. So after watching this happen repeatedly at a few institutions, I decided that the general attitude of Evangelicalism towards the imperviousness of its axioms to questions from the sciences was becoming a real and growing issue for me.

I do not think that the way Reformed and evangelical communities understand their confessions in relation to modern thought is either healthy or rational. My low point was leaving teaching at a seminary and trying to find employment elsewhere because I could not sign the confession of faith and be intellectually honest with myself. It was a low point because I knew that my intellectual commitments were going to lead to social pain.

JF: Can you elaborate on this a little? Your intellectual commitments causing social pain? 

RB: As I’ve said, I dislike when people who leave a tradition basically make their living off convincing others to leave, or when the life of the converted (or de-converted as the case may be) becomes fixated on the narrative of why they did what they did. It feels narcissistic. And kind of selfish—I don’t want other people to go through the kind of questioning that leads them into pain. If life disturbs their faith, then maybe we can talk. Or if they want to engage in honest free thinking, I’m happy to walk that path with them. But if they can live with themselves in their faith tradition, and don’t want to ask difficult questions, that’s a delicate balance I don’t want to disrupt. I’m not a proselytizer.

However much I feel like the ideas of Evangelicalism are morally and intellectually bankrupt, I also recognize that it’s not just a set of ideas, it’s a culture with people I care about deeply and love.  I appreciate those people and do not want to go on a crusade that might hurt them. On the other hand, I have to make some kind of public statement occasionally to friends and family because my identity is changing and I have to find a way to express this to people I care about, hopefully without hurting them. What a shame it is for a father to see his son walk away from a tradition or from his faith. Would that I wasn’t a social creature and could just keep doubts and struggles to myself. For a time, I tried talking about them with others in the third person. “What do you think of this argument or that argument?” ”I have this friend who reads Nietzsche.” But ultimately that’s not how life works. I have to explain myself to others to have a relationship with them and have to figure out how to love my own family and children. My relationship with Evangelicalism is my relationship with people. It’s difficult when ideas and relationships intertwine so closely. I am married to an evangelical and love her. I have an evangelical father and love him deeply. The lowest part of all of this is knowing my doubt and struggles cause them pain.

JF: How have they responded? Your dad? Emma? Maybe you don’t want to go into that.

RB: My wife has been supportive of the questions I am asking and has made it clear that, however much she may disagree with conclusions I draw, her love for me as a person is strong. She believes that doubt is a precursor to a deeper faith. I am not as sure that this is so, but it is comforting to see that she thinks of my reflections as a constructive gift rather than a curse. Nevertheless, I know this is hard for her. Loving a person is being willing to walk with them as their identity changes, and she has been willing to walk alongside me. But neither of us anticipated the direction this would take. Her grace in the midst of this is a credit to her faith.

Can I ask you a question?

JF: Sure.

RB: What are your goals in writing about this?

JF: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m honestly not sure. When I first read your blog—the post about trying to talk to your family about losing faith—I just felt really sad. You and I probably hadn’t talked in years at that point beyond the odd Facebook interaction, so it’s not as if I have any personal stake beyond our long-ago shared history, but it just sat with me. I tried to talk to my wife about it, but I didn’t do a terribly good job expressing why I found it so sad.

Is that obnoxious? That I found your loss of faith sad?

RB: No. I think your empathy is a testament to your faith. I hope I can approach people with the same empathy even when I disagree with their conclusions.

JF: I have so much respect for you and your ideas. I remember sitting with you at Waffle House once somewhere in the suburbs of Atlanta. We were probably both in college then. What I still remember from that conversation—years later—is you talking about that passage from Isaiah, the passage where he talks about the idea of the “true fast.” At that point in my life, I was already growing frustrated with the generally conservative politics of Evangelicalism, but talking with you about it, it was like you’d found a way to distill those budding objections I had into this perfectly clear commentary that was at once insightful and deeply faithful. You talked about participating in some sit-in and getting arrested, about giving a bunch of your possessions away. You talked about Dorothy Day.

So maybe that’s more to the point: I have such respect for you, for your ideas, and for your faith. So when I saw you writing about losing faith—you, of all people—I felt a little dislocated. Because, if I’m honest, conversations like you and I had that night have been fairly influential in shaping how I apply my faith to difficult practical and intellectual questions. It was like a small piece of the foundation on which I’d built my own ideas and identity had crumbled. That makes it sound overdramatic, but I don’t think it would have felt quite the same to learn that any of a number of our other friends from those years had lost faith.

But your question was what I hope to gain from writing and talking with you about your loss of faith. Maybe I hope to reconcile some of that? I don’t feel like talking with you about this is in any real way evangelistic. I’m sure you’ve been re-evangelized by some folks, and that’s not my goal. And I certainly don’t expect to respond to your objections. I think I just want to talk to you about it. And to you particularly because in your writing about losing your faith, you write with such sadness and longing, and with such humanity.

RB: This raises an interesting question. In what sense am I the same person who met with you years ago to talk about Isaiah and Dorothy Day? In what sense am I the same person I was thirteen years ago when Emma and I married? Is there an identity underlying these changes? I think one of the reasons my wife still loves me, besides her commitment and grace, is that the questions I am asking arise from commitments and concerns we both had when we met. Part of passing out of a tradition is trying to narrate both the discontinuity and the continuity between what you once believed and what you believe now. To explain to those you love how it really is you after all beneath the change. Emma would be the one to ask about this, but she has expressed that she feels the struggle I am having is a consequence of commitments I have always had. So leaving is a negation of some commitments we shared in common once, but it is also the fulfillment of other commitments we continue to share and their translation into a new form in the midst of changing circumstances. The Germans have a word for this odd experience, aufgehoben. It can mean “to negate,” but also “to fulfill” and “to transcend.” The German language, how odd! Using a single word to tie together such wildly different outcomes. But it makes more sense of this experience than any word I can think of in English.

Next month, I’ll continue this conversation with Rob, and we’ll talk about how his departure from Evangelicalism has affected his thinking about social justice, parenting, and the possibility of finding faith again after leaving it.

9 Comments

  • Dani (Pelletier) Taylor says:

    Thank you both for having this discussion and sharing it. I, like Jonathan, am deeply saddened by the struggle and suffering Rob has gone through. My talks with Jesus are more fervent after reading this.

    • Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks for reading, Dani. Prayer is an apt response, I think. And based on our interactions, I think Rob would agree. (He has said as much, in fact).

  • Nicole says:

    Minus the serious religious education and the degree of dedication, as well as, to some extent, loss of community in the aftermath, RB’s story is so familiar to me, and I’m sure, to many: I was raised in a tradition. I believed. I stopped believing. I admire the lack of defensiveness and careful empathy for others with which RB is able to discuss his leaving the faith, as well as both his and your lyrical prose and heartfelt questions.Thanks for this.

    • Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks, Nicole. It’s just that warmth and empathy in Rob that draws me into the conversation with him.

  • Katy says:

    I look forward to reading the continuation of this conversation. I have struggled with my own issues of faith since the formative years of college, and (selfishly enough) it’s nice to know that I’m not the only person that has ever experienced this, who has been frustrated by “party line” questions and answers. It’s difficult to put into words, but there is also almost a feeling of shame that I’ve experirnced with these struggles. And it’s true, the identity thing…I am still me, just an older me with different experiences that have shaped me versus who I was 15 years ago. Thank you for writing about this.

  • Britt says:

    My earliest memories go back to 1957, when my mother, despite all her vast shortcomings, explained to me the cross. I was three years of age. I grew up in a sleepy little Southern Baptist church in the mountains of North Carolina. I carried a Living Bible to class in high school with my others books as a habit, telling peers about Christ if they asked. No one has to tell me about the Jesus Movement, I was there! Inter-Varsity became, for me, a home in college where I found answer upon answer, satisfying my spiritual thirsts, and causing even more. I went on to work for every major Christian publisher in America, designing covers and illustrating over 200 works.

    I think, therefore, I can speak when it comes to the church. NOW, whether I remain in Christianity does not depend on how I am treated by other Christians, Christian businesses, or churches. It depends on whether I am in Christ….. or better yet, whether He is in me.

    I have been mistreated by the church. Big deal. I have mistreated the church, I have mistreated people, I have mistreated my parents, my friends, my wife, and my boys. But I have never been mistreated by Christ. I should be in hell right now, skip the middle man of death. I deserve nothing but shame, and guilt, and punishment. But what great freedom there is in this confession. My heart soars as I recount the blessings of being loved, and forgiven, and made to feel a meaning, a purpose, and an answer for felt guilt.

    Christianity is still basically about a person, Christ. His name was not so much as mentioned in the words above. And for me, I am not about to let the rusty edge of an ISIS knife keep me from Christ. Much less would I ever let the church keep me from Christ. Whether the church listens to me well, or treats me as I would wish, or does anything one way or the other, the bottom line is this, simply this…..do I still believe in Jesus or not?

    I believe in Christ.

    • Jonathan Frey says:

      I think you have a good point that faith is ultimately in a person rather than a doctrine, a point Rob and I delve into a little in the second part of this. I hope you’ll read on.

  • Clearisabella says:

    Wonderful interview. I’d love to know Rob’s response to a talk given by Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros called “The River of Fire”, the premise of which is that it is precisely the errors of what we know as Reformed Theology that has led to such a surge of atheism. A transcription of the talk is easily found on the Internet .

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