My single-parent mother was not excessively religious, but she sometimes told me Bible stories with the assumption that they were true. She also sent me to a fundamentalist Sunday School because it was the nearest church. She attended church for a while but then stopped going. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was turned off because the congregation leaders canned the pastor in a very dirty way—gave him a pair of airline tickets to visit his home in Scotland, but when he came back to Canada, his job was gone. Mom kept sending me to Sunday School, until at the age of 11, I announced that I didn’t want to go anymore, and she didn’t put up a fight about it. I remember that when a census was taken in my teens, I insisted on being designated an agnostic. However, that didn’t last.
At university I read a number of Christian apologists and I was probably most influenced by C.S. Lewis and Soren Kierkegaard. For me it was Lewis’ argument that our sense of the beauty and majesty of the universe points to a God behind it. Then Kierkegaard cautions us that we cannot attain certain knowledge, so we have to make a leap of faith, and not leaping is just choosing the opposite.
I began attending the Anglican Church regularly, and the traditional liturgy gave me a sense of being in touch with Christians down through the ages. I still believed that evolution is a true theory, but I was becoming increasingly conservative: the conservative critique of liberal Christianity made a lot of sense to me, namely that there was no objective standard in liberal Christianity, the liberals just picked and chose whatever subjectively appealed to them. In my last year of university I became engaged to a girl who happened to be Lutheran, and as the Lutherans had a high liturgical tradition like the Anglicans, I opted to be confirmed in her church. I got married right after graduation. At the time I knew nothing of the divisions between Lutherans, but her church happened to be in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the most conservative of the big synods, upholding strict adherence to the Lutheran Confessions and the inerrancy of the Bible.
My career goal was to be a university teacher in English Lit. I went on to an M.A. immediately after the B.A. but then I wanted a break from studies and taught as a junior instructor for 4 years. Bad move. But what did we know about demographics back then? I had been riding the crest of a wave of academic hiring to get instructors for all those up-and-coming baby boomers. However, the wave broke in the 4 years that I was not moving forward with my studies. By the time I finished my Ph.D. course work at University of Southern California in 1971, entry level assistant professorships were few and far between. I eventually got a job teaching English as a second language to Francophone recruits in the Canadian Armed Forces. The pay was good, but after 3 or 4 years, the content became mind-numbing: prompting your students to run through inane dialogues in your native tongue.
I was getting restless. I was still very religious, very active in my local Lutheran congregation, often conducting the service and composing my own sermon when the pastor had to be away. Everyone said I was great at it and that I should have been a pastor. Then my denomination opened a new seminary in my old home town of St. Catharines, Ontario, and I began to seriously explore studying for the ministry.I was 36 when I left my job in 1977 to attend the new seminary.
I suspect that even in liberal denominations it comes as a shock to seminarians to find how they are hedged in by the traditional dogmas of their denomination. And mine was a conservative denomination. I think by the end of my first year I was beginning to have some misgivings, but what do you do when you’ve burned your career bridges behind you and uprooted your family? I hung in there, hoping things would get better. They didn’t.
I had much more trouble with the passages in the Bible where God commands evil than I did with the inconsistencies. I didn’t talk with anybody about it, but more and more Old Testament passages were haunting me, the ones I had once skimmed over, reading with glazed eye and numbed mind. I began to mutter to myself that the ancient Israelites appeared to have invented the concept of genocide, and that the Bible seemed to be a book written by barbarians, for barbarians, about barbarians. Of course you can always tell yourself it’s a trial of faith and that you’ll get through it. I was pulling down straight A’s, and everyone told me I was one of the most compelling preachers in the seminary. So I ploughed through it all to my ordination.
Three more factors came together to drive me into a deep depression in very short order.
My marriage was deteriorating. My wife had been very active in our church before I went to seminary and had encouraged me to go into the ministry, but she discovered that she hated the role of pastor’s wife. Quarrels became more and more frequent. I am sure most of you understand that it is harder for a clergy person to feel his marriage is in trouble. After all, we are expected to be modeling the ideal family life.
I had some thoughts of returning for advanced theological studies and becoming a seminary professor after I had spent some years in the ministry. However, there was a problem with that new seminary. It had been represented as a satellite campus of our denomination’s large seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. However, when the campus was inspected by the American Association of Theological Schools, it was refused accreditation, and the Fort Wayne school was told that it would lose its accreditation if it granted an M.Div. to any of our students at the Canadian campus. The result was that we received no degrees, only a diploma from the seminary, and it appeared that graduate studies at a major school might be barred to us. The church and seminary administration went on stonewalling any inquiries from the students. I felt very much betrayed.
Finally, I had been sent to a “difficult” church, a tribute I suppose to my maturity. However, with all these other problems my shoulders were not broad enough to support an ailing church. The congregation had been in a tailspin losing members for at least 10 years before I came. Normal Sunday attendance was about 30 people, obviously not enough to support the expenses of a congregation. Almost as soon as I arrived, district headquarters was warning me that they could not provide a subsidy much longer for this congregation. Canada is a much more secular country than the USA, and frankly evangelism (aka selling the product) is not my strong suit.
After two years the cognitive dissonance between what I was doing and how I felt about it together with the marital stress became too much for me. I became profoundly depressed with suicidal thoughts. Not much more than two years after my arrival my doctor said that I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and I absolutely must resign.
I stayed on the clergy roster of my denomination for a few more years and sometimes filled in for meager pay when a local church was in between pastors. I was increasingly doubtful about all that I had formerly believed. At the end of my time in the ministry before conducting a service I would pray in the vestry, “Oh God, if you exist, help me to bring a good message to these people.”
In 1986 I asked to be taken off the clergy roster and for a while I toyed with the idea of transferring to a liberal denomination like the Anglicans. However, that was clearly not going to work out.
I mentioned that in my younger days I had accepted the conservative critique of theological liberals, that they just subjectively pick and choose the tenets of their religion. I still thought that true, but I now also accepted the liberal critique of the conservatives, namely large chunks of the Bible are too self-contradictory, too incompatible with our modern knowledge of scientific fact, and too repugnant to our moral standards for this book to be considered the inspired Word of God. The liberals seemed to be satisfied with hanging on to a few inspiring snippets, but it made no sense to me. That left only one position for me at that time, agnosticism.
Around the time that I left the Lutheran Church, my wife indicated that she would like a “trial separation” which eventually turned into a divorce. I remain on relatively cordial terms with her a quarter century later.
When I left the church, there were two liberating moments for me. I knew I could now call Biblical passages what they truly were, in many cases, bloody-handed genocide. And there was no longer any need to do intellectual headstands to deny the overwhelming evidence for evolution.
There’s not much more to my story. I left the church during a major recession. There wasn’t much of a job market for 40-something ex-clergy. After a long time I gave up looking for professional work. I walked onto a construction site and told the foreman in my best proletarian tones: “I never done construction work for a living, but I done lots of renovation on two of my own homes. He hired me and was very satisfied with my work. After a year I began to get tired of the frequent layoffs in construction, and I took a job as a janitor at a factory. I was soon promoted to truck driver and a bit later to shipper. After a few years I began a long-distance relationship with a friend who dated back to the days when I started teaching English as a second language. I took a factory job in the Barrie area to move in with her and her horses and her Irish Setter, and I’ve been here ever since, twenty-five years now. My wife operated a small riding stable with lessons and board. So I also worked around the stable where I looked after the website, did the bookkeeping and tax preparation, cooked most of the meals, repaired things around the barn, and naturally I did some of the feeding and mucking out of stalls. At the end of 2012 my wife sold the riding business to her long-time assistant coach Sara who has been almost like a daughter to both of us. I still look after the website and feed the horses three evenings a week.
For many years after leaving Christianity I clung to one belief. I would describe myself then as “sort of a pantheist.” I still wanted to smuggle in the idea that some force—I used Tillich’s phrase “ground of being”—lay behind the beauty and majesty of the world. However, the more I read about evolution, the less likely it seemed that there was any intelligence guiding the universe. It’s been said that an engineer responsible for the design of the human eye as it is would be fired. There are so many incidences of poor design in organisms, or rather non-design, that it is hard to credit there is any plan to it.
I consider myself a humanist. The ancient philosopher Protagoras said that “humanity is the measure of all things.” To me that means that all our knowledge and all our moral behavior stem from our humanity without the mediation of any God.
Well, I am an old guy now, 72 years, with the storm and stress far behind me. So the reason I am a member of the Clergy Project mainly is to let younger clergy people know there is light at the end of the tunnel even though it may not feel like it while they are passing through the fiery trial of shedding their religious faith.