Somehow, despite expecting that I was keeping current with the zeitgeist at the confluence of belief and skepticism, it turns out that I was oblivious to a relatively prominent movement in progressive Christianity over the last few years in America. The Liturgists podcast, which started in July 2014, currently reports over a quarter million subscribers. The podcast was birthed out of the faith crises of Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor (who I recall seeing open for David Crowder about 10 years ago – when we were both unquestioningly abiding in the evangelical world of our youth). It deals openly and honestly with doubt as a central component of a healthy Christian faith and tests the limits of orthodoxy while embracing controversial figures like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans and Pete Enns. Participants in this community call themselves exvangelicals and talk about going through an ongoing process of deconstruction. Mike McHargue published the first episode of Ask Science Mike six months after the first Liturgists podcast and eventually garnered a large enough following that when his book was released in September 2016 he was able to schedule a whirlwind tour hosting live Q&A events across the country. That’s when I caught wind and started to tune in.
The Ask Science Mike podcast has been a regular member of my podcast rotation for several months now. It’s where I became familiar with Mike McHargue’s story and the not-so-orthodox brand of Christianity he endorses (if “endorse” if even the right word). His website labels him a “spiritual skeptic” but in his book he says he avoids self-labeling as much as he can. That’s probably a good choice because “empiricist, progressive, skeptical, non-theist, mystic Jesus follower” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Labels aside, I have come to respect Science Mike as I have listened to him discuss his journey, his regard for a scientific epistemology and his concern with much of what we find in evangelicalism. So, despite its title, “Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science” isn’t your typical apologetics book. Scratch that – this isn’t an apologetics book at all. It’s a story of one man’s journey and his faith perspective at the time of writing, a perspective that he suggests is no more justified than the perspective of a contented unbeliever.
The book is divided into two distinct halves. This post focuses on Part I – titled ‘Lost and Found’ – which is an autobiographical recounting of Mike’s journey, from growing up in the Southern Baptist church (and as a social pariah at school), to a spiritual renewal into a more progressive form of Christianity, to an unwilling transition into a closet atheist, to making peace with his loss of faith and finally to the experience that led him to, well, whatever he is now. You may have noticed that I just glossed over a whole bunch of details that you can enjoy if you read the book for yourself. My goal here isn’t to retell Mike’s story but rather to highlight the points of contact (and dissimilarities) with my own journey to see if I can provide some context for my response to the second half of the book, where he delves into the foundations of his current faith.
The Journey Begins
Many aspects of Mike’s story have no analog in my life, but there are still elements to which I could relate. We share a “1960’s sitcom” (his words) upbringing in a stable, loving family with a commitment to a biblical Christianity. Mine came complete with family devotions based on James Dobson’s ‘Focus on the Family’ materials and church engagement that extended well beyond Sunday morning. But that’s about the extent of the similarities. I was never bullied, never went through an apathetic rock-band stage, and haven’t experienced any earth-shattering family crises. My backstory is about as boring and untraumatic as it gets.
Fast-forward twenty or so years and I did find some familiarity in his description of the period where he began to honestly question, for the first time, the faith tradition that he had always taken for granted. For Mike this was spurred on by a conviction that the Bible was the key to reconciling his parents’ divorce. For me this was a matter of being in a position to lead small group studies and feeling an obligation to know how to “properly” guide the discussion in truth. Either way, we ended up on a similar course, discovering a whole new dimension of the Christian world and shedding the more fundamentalist aspects of our faith. I embraced the scientifically literate reconciliatory work of Biologos, the rationalism of C.S. Lewis and a view of the Bible that did not insist on inerrancy. I directed the group into a study based on Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ DVDs to share my newfound appreciation for apologetics (and because I knew that Keller was a “safe” figure in the evangelical world despite accepting the validity of theistic evolution). I distinctly remember the hesitancy and nervous deliberation before hitting send on what I considered to be a controversial email that responded to a small-group discussion by offering support for the potential legitimacy of universalism. So I feel like I can relate to this stage of Mike’s story. It’s invigorating to discover that faith and intellectual integrity can coexist. But of course, that wasn’t the end of either of our stories.
Don’t Stop Believin’
The thing about apologetics is that there are two sides to the argument. Once you dive in, its hard to miss the views that the apologetics are intended to rebut and eventually you’ll see the true depth of the argument rather than the strawmen that the apologetic often sets up. Mike entered willingly into that fray, confident that his newfound perspective could hold up to scrutiny. I’m not sure how I was drawn into a more deliberate review of the arguments from the other side; I think I just gradually stumbled into more and more encounters with the opposing views until suddenly one day I found myself with a big pile of unsatisfactory explanations for what was starting to look more and more like my own private brand of Christianity. It was time to test the quality of the truths I held. Books needed to be read.
Deconversion stories don’t always have a clear tipping point. Some people just gradually fall away from the faith while others can distinctly recall a gestalt switch moment. Mike encountered his gestalt switch while reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which led him to really question whether it made sense to impart a purpose behind the immense vastness of the universe. His prayer the next morning was simply “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real” and he was instantly struck with a sense of existential nihilism and profound grief.
My gestalt switch moment also came in response to a book. I was sitting in my truck after work and had just finished listening to the audiobook for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’. The primacy of humanity in the development of the Christian faith tradition was more apparent than ever and I found myself saying something like “Doesn’t this all* make more sense if there isn’t a God behind it?”. Like Mike, I experienced an instant reaction to that verbalization but it bore a vastly different quality. Rather than darkness and defeat I was struck by a sense of shock and wonder – shock at the fact that I had actually just assented to a reversal of a lifelong belief, and wonder at the prospect of a universe that could be understood on its own terms. As bizarre as it may sound, I distinctly remember helping my wife make the bed that evening and perceiving the billowing of the sheets as if it was this intricate dance between different forces of nature. It was as if I could finally see the world for what it really was. I was Neo and the veil over the matrix was gone.
*To be clear, when I say “this all”, the sentiment extends well beyond the Bible and includes all of the aforementioned unsatisfactory explanations. Ehrman’s book was simply the straw the broke the camel’s back.
The gestalt switch moment may be subjectively profound, but the novelty wanes and we eventually must contend with the a world that has carried on, oblivious to our revelation.
I find it difficult to express the incredible fear associated with the public disclosure of a loss of faith. In retrospect the extreme trepidation almost seems ridiculous, but the strong social dynamic and binary nature of the Christian identity combine to present a daunting hurdle for the apostate. Couple this with a family bond and the whole thing is absolutely terrifying. I guess that’s why Mike went on putting up a facade for two years; teaching classes, serving in ministries, playing worship songs and even leading his daughter through a confession of faith! I, on the other hand, wasn’t able to last more than a few months. The masquerade was more than I could bear.
Case in point – I distinctly remember the first time my newfound perspective started to leak out. It was probably only a few weeks after that moment in my truck and I was leading our small group through a study that for some reason included a reading of the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 – you know, the one where God kills Uzzah on the spot because he touched the ark to steady it after the ox had tripped. Seeing this story with fresh eyes, I found myself unable to resist asking the group whether they thought it extreme and callous for God to respond this way to a person’s instinctual reaction, to which one member of the group responded by saying that “rules are rules”. I was dumbstruck. After a brief period of uncomfortable silence, I somehow managed to make it through the rest of the night without incident and started this blog shortly thereafter.
Fast-forward a couple months and I had reached my threshold for pretending. I broke the news to my wife, shortly after Christmas, and subsequently excused myself from all roles in the church. The marital strain was almost certainly the most difficult part of the whole process. It created a distance between us that I had never felt before and have never felt since. Here I find agreement with Mike, who describes the night after revealing his unbelief to his wife:
“We went to bed, and for the first time in our marriage, an iron curtain ran down the center of the mattress. We were in bed together, but we weren’t together. A rift had opened up between us.”
As dramatic as that sounds, Mike and I had it good. Many marriages have disintegrated under these circumstances and though Mike’s wife followed up the next day with “I’m not sure we can be married anymore”, in the end it appears that we were both fortunate to have partners who were thoughtful enough to see past the marital apocalypse and believe in a relationship that could survive ideological boundaries. I sincerely echo Mike’s appreciation for a wife and family who are committed to unconditional love – it makes all the difference. But then our stories diverge again.
The closing chapter caps off the narrative portion of the book with a climactic event that offers the most dramatic contrast to my own journey. I’ll skimp on the details again and just say that Mike had a religious experience which involved hearing a voice and – several hours later – encountering an unexpected literal wave that was immediately followed by a metaphorical wave of transcendent, ineffable, mystical goodness. The tremendous impact this had is evident in both the retelling and the ongoing role it has played in shaping his journey since that time.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like this. Sure, I’ve had deeply emotional moments that were initiated through a religious context but, as far as I can tell from the description, they were nothing like this. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I have actually experienced circumstances similar to Mike’s but in which I failed to perceive the divine and so also failed to summon the kind of transcendent response in which it culminated. I suspect that most deconverts can relate to having questioned whether God was trying to get their attention through spontaneous thoughts, coincidences and other circumstances in which a message or purpose can be found. So I can’t help but find myself wondering whether the crescendo of the events leading up to Mike’s beach encounter, and his generally emotional disposition, set the stage for a strong and sudden flood of emotions (at 3AM, no less) that birthed an overwhelmingly ineffable experience. Maybe. Or maybe it was God. I have no way to know. And therein lies the difficulty.
Regardless, the narrative portion of the book was an engaging read that clearly isn’t trying to sell anything and appears to present an honest portrayal of his journey. I find no reason to question Science Mike’s sincerity and I respect the way he has integrated the full body of experiences into his current position – a position that I consider to be rational in spite of any differences we may have. In Part 2 I’ll move on to explore the second half of the book, where Mike expounds on the foundations of his reconstructed faith.