Passing, part 2: A conversation with Rob Burns

Jacob Wrestling the Angel, by Edward Knippers, oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012

Jacob Wrestling the Angel, by Edward Knippers, oil on panel – 12’x8′ – 2012

Over the past few months, I’ve been talking with an old friend, Rob Burns, about his departure from Evangelicalism. The first part of our conversation is here.

Rob Burns: One of the reasons why I have been committed to social justice is because the gospels and Isaiah taught me to have empathy for those who are socially excluded or mistreated, and taught me to be concerned for their social well-being. For this very reason, the exclusion of women from leadership and gay individuals from membership in evangelical communities has always bothered me. For a long time I accepted the teaching of the church, but I felt the tension. Biblical injunctions about headship seemed to fly in the face of my experiences of women in leadership, while injunctions about heterosexuality flew in the face of what friendship and empathy had taught me about the struggle of gay celibacy. The kind of empathy and compassion I had learned in practicing kingdom ethics nurtured a reluctance to deny my own lived experience when it came to applying the somewhat colder “natural law” ethics required by the church’s teaching on headship and human sexuality.

In some historical contexts or perhaps for certain kinds of people, these two strains of biblical teaching appear compatible. However, for me they always sat uneasily. It took repeated experience over time for me to finally decide that I needed to rethink the compromise I had made with my moral intuition for the sake of maintaining the evangelical view of biblical authority. But the point in this case is that it was not, or at least not exclusively, an outside foreign idea that pushed me away from Evangelicalism. It was a way of living that had been fostered by Evangelicalism, a concern for the empathetic embrace of the marginalized. This stood in tension with the way certain other groups were treated by evangelicals. I think most evangelicals love certain aspects of what particular scriptures teach and are deeply troubled by other aspects. They hear diverse voices and themes in what is sometimes referred to monolithically as “the canon.” Refusing to acknowledge the unitary idea of “scripture” and allowing experience, say of women in leadership or of gay individuals, to challenge some of the voices in Scripture, may not be a turning away from the idea of God or Christian theology as such. But it is certainly a rejection of the evangelical idea of scripture. Of that I am painfully aware. At this point at least, it is unclear to me how you go about returning to the faith after breaking with this idea. But I think I understand what I am doing as a rejection that arises from an embrace of elements I cherished in teachings about the kingdom. To the extent that evangelicals close to me can recognize the continuity in the midst of change, I think it helps them to appreciate why I am doing what I am doing.

How is your faith though?

Jonathan Frey: More complicated than it was when we were kids, certainly. But sound anyway. Many of your objections resonate with me, and I think you raise many good questions—questions for which I don’t pretend to offer any answers. I’m not a scholar. Academia is a day job for me. But, though it makes me sad to see you leave the faith, I don’t feel like it really shakes the whole project. I admire you and your thinking very much, but… I don’t know. You know that passage we evangelicals love to cite where Jesus pisses a bunch of people off and then turns to the disciples and says, “Are you leaving too?” And Peter basically says, “Where would we go? You have the words of life.” That’s how I feel.

I’m increasingly comfortable these days with the idea that I might never be able to answer some of the questions. But I trust God in the space where my reason fails. Maybe that sounds like evangelical boilerplate, but I do. I have trusted him a long time, and I have found him trustworthy. A hell of a lot more trustworthy than me anyway—than my own ability to grapple with hard questions.

I think that sometimes Academia wants us to have this kind of perfect trust in the human ability to parse out difficult questions, and if any faith is lost to me it’s that one: faith in the empirical reliability human reason. We’re so damn messy and self-contradictory. I am anyway.

RB: Leaving a system that teaches you to doubt how your reason relates to science, that hardens your moral intuition against the cries of women and non-heterosexual individuals for social standing in church (and society), that counsels you to embrace the truth of Scripture no matter what the cost to reason and moral intuition seems necessary to me, though you are right to warn about the risk of making reason an idol. I do wonder, however, whether this means the end of faith as such. It is difficult to tell because the overwhelming habits of this tradition continue to remain with you even after you’ve left it, in spite of yourself, as much as you want them to end, like some kind of phantom limb. Habits of all or nothing thinking, of setting authority “over against” affect, or reason, or inquiry. So once you’ve left you still have the habits, and sadly, they make it hard to transition into other kinds of faith traditions without feeling like you’ve compromised (or like they’ve compromised). “If what I was taught isn’t the truth, then all religion must be false.”  I know it’s a false dilemma, but the old habits die hard. So the black-and-white thinking reproduces itself in an equal and opposite reaction. I am struggling back from that reaction to try and find faith again, but I have to confess I’m agnostic at this point. An agnostic who wants to find a way of making sense of Jesus and the kingdom of God without all the ballast that goes with it in evangelical circles. But who has been taught that if you get rid of the ballast, the whole enterprise of Christianity goes with it. So Evangelicalism haunts my attempts to move towards faith of another kind, its habits and its patterns of behavior linger long after its theological ideas have left the building.

JF: How has it changed your parenting to leave Evangelicalism? For me, maybe even more than marriage, the idea of parenting post-faith seems daunting. Faith is all wound up in how I try to be a father to our girls. Everything I understand about fatherhood, and everything I know to hope for their future is shaped by faith. So how do you navigate that?

RB: This is a really difficult question. I was discussing with a friend the other day how there is no such thing as an actually existing “mere Christianity.” Mere Christianity refers to an idea, but it has no actual reality except as a thought. In reality, there are only particular Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc. Even non-denominational Christians come down one way or another on particular questions of faith and doctrine. No one teaches their children to be “mere Christians.” From when they are baptized to how they are taught to treat enemies, children grow up in a particular kind of Christian fellowship.

Similarly, my agnosticism does not regard the whole of Christianity, but rather the way I learned to be Christian. I am rejecting a certain view about sexual morality, a certain way of relating faith and the sciences, a particular view of hell, a view of other religions. All of these are problems for me, but none of them has to do with Christianity as such, only with what I have learned. Complicating this further, I am still drawn to parts of what I was taught: the Hebrew prophets, parts of the wisdom literature like Job and Ecclesiastes, Jesus and his teachings about the kingdom. I am also drawn to modern saints, and in particular to Dorothy Day. I would like to find a way to embrace these parts of the Christian tradition, and somehow explain the other elements that are contrary to moral intuition or reason in light of the truth I see in these.

All of this, however, risks the profane, constructing God in my own image. Which is another way of saying, how can you pick and choose with something like the religion you were taught? Then it seems what you are teaching your children is actually, “When God agrees with me, I’m happy to oblige. When God doesn’t, I take the Scriptures just like any other human advice.” That seems to drain religion of all its transcendence. A god that cannot speak to you in any voice but your own is no god at all. Or so the evangelical voice in my head tells me. To whatever extent what I was taught is “divine,” it’s supposed to stand over the vicissitudes of my own judgment.

JF: I’m inclined to respond this way. If I’m being honest.

RB: There is, however, another voice. The truth of the matter, so far as this voice understands it, is that there are, in fact, multiple conflicting voices in Scripture. This marks the divine as, also (or only) human, all too human. This may also be a realization that comes with careful study as opposed to from some outside source.

These voices in Scripture certainly do contradict each other, much as the human realities they bear witness to contradict. Some voices I think are beautiful and appeal to what makes life worth living. Others, like the imprecatory Psalms, Paul’s teachings about women and gay sexuality, God’s commanding of genocide in the Old Testament, etc., appeal to the uglier side of being human and, in the worst cases, baptize it.

I hope that there is some way to reconcile my doubts about the latter set of ideas with my love for the former. I haven’t found it yet. But I continue to attend church with my children so that they can see faith, hear the words of the Hebrew prophets, and see and touch the story of Jesus. If my children ask, as they have, what I think about women being pastors, or gay people getting married, I am honest with them. I am no longer a theologian, so I can afford to tell them openly that there is much in Scripture that bothers me, much about what I was taught that troubles my conscience, but that the life of Jesus and some examples of his followers also continue to attract me. I do my children no service to deny that both voices exist for me, or, worse, wait for them to internalize a message that baptizes misogyny or ignores violence done in the name of God.

I suppose this leads back to the issue of mere Christianity. There may not be a single “mere Christianity,” but there is a broader tradition, a headwater from which Evangelicalism at some point rushed. No matter how agnostic I feel myself to be, I suppose I continue to stay within the broader Christian tradition precisely insofar as my doubts and struggles react against a narrow stream of Christianity by relying on some of the resources of the broader headwater itself to lodge the complaint. At this stage, however, there is no synthesis that I have found that would allow me to be in the tradition in the same way I once was, or that justifies the embrace of those ideas that I find so problematic.

I am searching for the way back in, in part because I want my children to see that there is a way of loving Jesus that does not simply bow to the problematic element, but that also refuses to stop clinging to his garment. But it is a genuine search, and I haven’t discovered that way.

JF: I see why Emma is hopeful that your doubt will eventually lead to a deeper faith. You seem to be expressing this sense of arriving at the end of your efforts at faith, and to my mind that is where faith begins, when we’ve spent all of our religious capital and yet cannot walk away from God. So much of how I believe anymore comes out of that place of stillness and of incompleteness. I hope it’s not presumptuous to say that—or glib. I know that the struggles are real, and I know that the doctrinal complications you point out demand a more cogent intellectual response than I can muster, but faith—to my understanding—is not fundamentally propositional. I do not have faith in a doctrine or set of doctrines. I have faith in God, and in the end I fall on him.

It really is clinging to his garment, as you say. Or like that other great image: Jacob, having lost the wrestling match with God, his hip out of joint, hanging onto to God and saying, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” That alongside the very Reformed idea that when I am clinging to him, he is the one holding me up. If you don’t mind my saying so, I hear you saying some of that too.

RB: My hope is that this journey into doubt might lead towards a renewed faith of some kind. Our daughter is named Dorothy, after Day, and I often ask Dorothy to pray for me here. I guess that is strange for an agnostic, so hopefully that inconsistency will work itself out.



  • Jaime Wood says:

    This conversation is enthralling. It’s so refreshing to witness two friends explore faith from different perspectives without defensiveness or disregard for each other’s thoughts. Whether a person can have faith in a God or religion or prophet is one of the biggest personal questions of many people’s lives (mine, for sure). And the continued questioning shapes everything about how I see the world and my place in it. Thanks for such a thoughtful reflection.

  • Nicole says:

    Ditto what Jaime said. Also, I love that the intimacy of this conversation seems to invite all readers in as silent participants; we have the opportunity to revisit and process our own thinking about faith in the safe, calm space of this conversation.

  • Jonathan Frey says:

    Thanks to both of you for reading. The question of tone was one of my primary concerns. It is so easy for these conversations to become polemical, and I wanted to avoid that. These conversations are too important for that.

  • Nicole says:

    The conversation I had with a nice man on the beach this morning about whether my dog should have been there or not may have been more polemical. :-)

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