To my deconverted friend – A guest post by Collin Pae Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Pae Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

The story of your faith – and non-faith – is, of course, uniquely your own.

Yet some parts of your experience are widely shared. You were raised in the American South. Christianity, in all of its predictable Southern dimensions – hokey roadside signage, Sunday finery, hollering preachers, a buttery layer of civil religion – was, to you as to many, as familiar as family. You along with thousands of other evangelical children across the country – like me – opted to attend a Christian undergraduate. And as with many of us, much of your life after graduation has consisted, in one way or another, of making sense out of that decision and its legacy.

Other chapters of your life are less common. That you along with numerous high-school friends and acquaintances would simultaneously have renounced various addictions and “made a personal decision of faith” is surprising, unlikely. Some of your story is just thoroughly you. You were always fascinated by the workings of things. By the human body and mind. You thrilled at the anatomy classes you took in college, dreamt of the medical profession. You devoured neuroscience and majored in psychology. By the movement of stars, such that you became an avid amateur astronomer. You are an explorer and a scientist.

I’m not sure to what extent others would recognize themselves in your story of deconversion. There are many roads to that very gradual and very personal choice. I have friends who have left Christianity because they found it inhospitable to persons of their (minority) sexual orientation. I have friends who have left Christianity because real humans punctured the caricatures they had inherited – a sincerely believing, normal Muslim friend could not remain for them an unsaved and dangerous Other – and upset their coordinates for the world. I have friends who have left Christianity because it simply no longer compelled them; God and salvation and all the rest melted away into abstraction.

Your decision to leave arose out of a prolonged sense of suffocation. The Christianity you knew set taut boundaries for what was thinkable to a faithful person. Our undergraduate did not teach us how to open-endedly entertain questions, but how to answer them orthodoxly; how to face the world as a foe to be feared and outsmarted rather than as a resource to be listened to and learned from. This meant that your own person became a site of conflict. The fascinated explorer and the beleaguered orthodox believer competed for mastery, seesawed through several unsustainable truces. Wonder and curiosity motivated the explorer. Duty and fear – familiarity and friendship – motivated the believer.

The existence of God stands close to the core of the orthodox universe you strove to uphold. But as you explored, God became progressively less and less necessary. You were awed at the Big Bang, you were impressed by the elegance of evolutionary science, you saw the sensibility in psychoanalytic explanations of religion. Neither cosmology nor human origins nor even the phenomena of religion itself needed God anymore. God was superfluous for comprehending the workings of things.[1] So your belief in God hung only by the thread of obligation. You had to believe in God to stay Christian. But belief in God only retarded – cloyed – the joy of discovery. Eventually, understandably, the aliveness you felt in learning must outweigh and displace dutiful theism.

Deconverting was making peace for you. It left you clean, clear, free to engage the world with a wonderful sense of unbounded possibility. I told you honestly that I am happy for you in that. I, too, am an explorer. I, too, hate the kind of faith that makes people turn away from what is beautiful and compelling, for fear that it will taint them. I want you to get that out of your system.

But I am a Christian; and what does sadden me is that Jesus had to get pulled down too, sucked into the ruin of your theism.

Maybe that sounds odd. The idea that devotion to Jesus could survive the decomposition of God. As a matter of fact, I have found in my wanderings many a place where poignancy for Jesus subsists apart from subscription to his all-powerful sponsor. And sometimes the appreciation expressed in such quarters is the more perceptive, because unencumbered by a thousand years’ intellection reconciling an executed criminal with the creator and guarantor of cosmic order. I feel a kinship with those who recognize the disturbing allure of this crucified innocent – even if they should fail to connect him to almighty God. Because for me, Jesus is more ultimate. I take it that this is what it means to say “Jesus is Lord”: not that the contents of “Lord” (regnant, strong) fill up what “Jesus” means, but that the contents of “Jesus” (servile, weak) reshape what “Lord” entails.

If this is a true insight, then the path of your exploring that led away from God could just as well have taken you towards Golgotha. You realized, with sadness, that God is dispensable, and eventually dismissed him wholesale. But what if God had determined to be just that? Dispensable. Dismissible. Indeed laughable, to all passers-by outside the gates of Jerusalem.

In that case, your acknowledgement of God’s superfluity need not have been a concession to the scientific worldview, but a “genuinely theological discovery.”[2] The God whom you once called on to explain cosmology, human origins, or religion was a God of power: a God who acts effectually to accomplish his design. In other words, a Lord. To be sure, a more successful executor than the lords we know from human government or business, but nonetheless, cut from the same cloth. This God may be loving, but that quality is additional to his sheer potency.

By contrast, the Lord of the cross is not effectual, but weak, even to death. Loving is no addendum to his mission; it is its heart. He does not compensate for gaps in weak human knowledge with divine strength, but poses God’s helplessness to all human wisdom. Far from being necessary for understanding the workings of the world, he hangs – gratuitous.

I wish that this, the gratuity of God, might have been a start for you, even as it must be an end.



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion…for the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible, eliminated” (Letters and Papers from Prison [S.C.M. Press edition, Great Britain: Fontana Books, 1953], 164). See also Richard Bube, “Man Come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 14.4 (1971), 203-220.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism. Trans. Darrell Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983 [German orig. Gott als Geheimnis der Welt, pub. 1977]), 22, 23.

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Comments

Yes, indeed. Thank you Collin.

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