I listened to the full NPR story about Ryan Bell, but it really isn’t complete – at least not to me. My reactions to Pastor Bell’s declaration to “Spend A Year Without God” aren’t particularly philosophical, and (in truth) they’re basically personal gut feelings. Here’s a sampling – no special order – bullet point style:
- Bell explains how he has been a long time leader in his church and states that it’s an expectation of church leaders that they will have fewer questions about God and faith (but he doesn’t give any examples of what that looks like) as opposed to being a member of a church who supposedly comes to there seeking answers and the guidance that an intercessor might provide. Bell goes on to say that he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t “wrestling” with his faith.
For me, every single clergy person whom I have ever truly felt guided by or had any sort of spiritual trust in – was someone who was able to articulate that yes, they believe in God – and yes, they have many questions. I would be wary of anyone who blindly or overzealously or dogmatically claimed to be completely in the know when it comes to God. The God I believe in has space for my questions. The leaders of faith I want to listen to and learn from are those who are humble and continually seeking.
- Bell talks about going to church, and over time feeling as though it (church) was gradually no longer serving as a connecting point for him. He stopped going to church, and then eventually began to wonder about God in general.
This part simply got me thinking about my path. (Skip the next three paragraphs if you want something more meaty.) I both enjoyed and didn’t like attending church as a child. I adored standing next to my mother and singing our favorite hymns; I didn’t like getting up on Sunday morning and found Sunday school an abysmal waste of time. I appreciated sermons that taught me lessons that I could apply to present life and those that emphasized that timelessness of Christ’s teachings; I didn’t fancy hearing old testament stories that made me fearful and guilty. I was grateful for the community of people who looked out for me; I was angry when fellow church goers didn’t act that true Christians.
I grew up and eventually (physically) moved away from my childhood house of worship. When I later felt pulled to return to the place and all of its familiar trappings – to explore whether I wanted to bring and introduce my own children there, I found that I no longer wanted to express my faith in the same ways that my parents had raised me ie. a specific place, prayer books and hymnals, repetitive ceremonies lead by someone “in charge” (and yes, I know it’s much more than these things).
Let me be clear: I truly appreciate my religious foundation and what I learned in the first 18 years of my life as a baptized and very involved Episcopalian. Yet my relationship with a Higher Power grew most profoundly when I discovered that I had the belief and the ability to connect with God without books, specific venues or other people. I discovered that I needed to realize my own way of praying, and I did. For me, leaving behind the actual sanctuary enabled me to create an internal one that I am free to live in whenever I chose.
- Finally (and foremost), when I first read the NPR headline I wondered, “How exactly does someone live without God, especially one who has ever had a relationship with God? I mean, I sorta get it; I didn’t hear Ryan Bell say he doesn’t believe in God. He implies that he is taking a break from structure. I also didn’t hear him saying, “I’m atheist.” He’s taking a year off to read and explore. Maybe he’ll finish up with a book about his experience (like many comment-ors claim will occur). Maybe he’ll end up back in the church and reinstated as a teacher. Maybe he’ll depart religion altogether.
But for me, having taken many years off from thinking about God yet continuing to believe because of childhood conditioning, and then spending more years thinking very much about God while questioning passionately, sometimes angrily, and often wanting to (as I once wrote) “sit knee to knee with God to ask some very direct questions,” the idea of being without God doesn’t fit. Now that I have earned and learned Faith, I just don’t think it would be possible for me to kick God out. I don’t believe there’s an off switch that will silence the deeper questions. I think that Ryan Bell may still be interrupted by God in the middle of the night – when he can’t stop the thought (or the prayer?) that comes sneaking in from the outer boundaries between sleep and wakefulness. He can name it what he wants in the morning.
Whatever Pastor Bell calls it, I hope this year feeds his soul in positive ways. I hope it allows him to continue to do good in the world and supports his being a person who asks questions and digs deeper in the name of wholeness and love.