Thursday, 3 September 2015


Churches should be willing, able to engage hard questions

Bill Tammeus  |  Sep. 2, 2015 Printem

Jesus walks into a bar with Pope Francis and a Protestant. The barman asks: "What will it be today gentlemen"? Jesus winks at his companions and says: "Just three glasses - and keep the jugs of water coming :-)

As I'm browsing through the surprisingly eclectic selection of books in the library of the Ghost Ranch education and retreat center here, I notice a thick white and black volume.

It turns out to be a 1993 book called Voices from the Catholic Worker, compiled and edited by Rosalie Riegle Troester. It's full of interviews from people with many connections to the Catholic Worker movement and its first leaders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

One of those interviews is with Michael Harrington, perhaps best known for his influential book The Other America which was instrumental in inspiring the War on Poverty in the 1960s.
Harrington tells Troester about why he abandoned the Catholic church of his youth:
. . .the immediate issue that caused me to leave the church," he says, "was the existence of the devil and hell. Particularly the notion that a finite human act, however monstrous, could be the cause of an infinite punishment. And my feeling was that it was all right if Adolf Hitler burned in hell for two, three, four, five thousand years, but there should be an end to it. And so I rejected hell, but was still trying to hold for God and heaven.
Then I said to myself, 'But if there is no hell, and everybody's destined for heaven anyway, why was this earth created so miserably?'
Later, he says, he said this to his cousin, a nun: ". . .if I'm wrong, and I wake up and there is a God, I will say to Him, 'Why did you mumble so?'"
These are the questions that the church universal often has handled badly. It's time we do better. We? Well, "we" are the church.
One way the church has handled the questions of God's existence, heaven and hell is by using its authority to pronounce final answers. In a world of contingency, of mystery, ambiguity, finitude, that's foolish.

But that's what Harrington said he experienced.
"I've often wondered," he said, "if I had been brought up in the church going into Vatican II, would I have left? I don't know … But I was brought up in that rigid kind of Catholicism. All of my teachers drilled into me that if you messed with any one doctrine in this marvelously symmetric, integrated whole, the whole thing came tumbling down. You could not pick and choose."
Harrington's experiences paralleled those of many Protestants who grew up in churches that identify as fundamentalist or at least theologically conservative. I have friends who finally had their fill of their church's refusal to let them ask hard questions and its insistence that it had all the right answers about theological mysteries.
Some of them have found a home in Mainline Protestant (and some Catholic) churches that encourage hard questions and an appreciation for mystery. But some have abandoned the faith ship and navigate the often-harrowing shoals of theological enigma alone.
Such lonesome sailors have given up on most of the meta-narratives with which Christian Americans used to make sense of their lives, and they somehow exist without the social or religious affiliations that remind us of something larger than ourselves. We are becoming an increasingly unanchored (some would say freer) culture, one that can't point to a cohesive story that somehow embraces all of us and gives us meaning.
What today, after all, is "The American Dream"? At times we seem to be set adrift in a sea of meaninglessness that threatens to move us toward what existentialist Albert Camus said was the only "really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide."
Today the American religious scene is full of Michael Harringtons, people who have raised important questions about faith but who find that their faith communities are unwilling or unable to engage those questions.
That kind of failure — no doubt rooted in fear and insecurity — is how churches die.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]


  1. I well recall my own beginning to question the accepted handed down teachings of the Irish RC church in my second and third years in an Irish major seminary. So by the time sub diaconate approached I found it difficult to make much sense of the whole "god" thing. My then spiritual director's advice to "have faith" just didn't cut any ice.
    So with ordination on the imminent horizon, I had constant thoughts like: if I don't understand so much of this rigmarole not making sense, how can I be ordained and afterwards expect 'the faithful' to believe it? Not that I openly broadcast my doubts to seek answers. Such 'boat rocking', as the post states, was not welcomed.
    So I left. And I certainly have no regrets whatsoever.

    At its most basic for me then, as now, I think any intelligent person has to question, that if a supreme god exists, why make it so difficult to see or find any definite or concrete evidence?
    And this is but the beginning of all the subsequent questions posed by any belief in a supernatural creator with a personal interest in the human species inhaviting this insignificant planet, just one of millions in an expanding universe with countless other parallel universes elsewhere.

    I mean if the best this allegedly supreme god can give as guidance are ancient texts of an ambiguous nature to understand him/her and his/her wishes, then what kind of haphazard odd kind of god is (s)he, when even the supposed scholars of those texts can not agree on their meanings, or indeed which of them are significant and relevant.

    So the RC church is neither able or willing to invite hard questions, because frankly it has no answers other than the same lame responses of my spiritual director of 50 years ago.

    1. Well I've given this a full week waiting for someone to take me up on the penultimate paragraph: (If all god can do to help us understand him is to have us rely on ancient ambiguous disputed texts etc etc).
      Nobody has.
      Does that mean you all agree, and, like me, are amazed that any intelligent person actually believes all this religious mumbo jumbo?
      Not trying to be controversial for the sake of it. Provocative if you like, but just asking reasonable questions.