I’m not ready to say I am no longer Christian. But for the present at least, I’m past the conventional, church-every-Sunday, serve on a dozen committees, sing in the choir and center my life on the local branch of institutional religious participation that seems to be the expected norm, and into which I threw myself with great gusto when I first started regular attendance at an Episcopal church twenty-five years ago. Certainly, I’m past the kind of participation that the ‘congregational development’ experts were talking about when I was in seminary.
One of the most influential books (to me, anyway) I’ve read in terms of spiritual growth was James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. It should be noted that Fowler doesn’t equate ‘faith’ with ‘religion’, and asserts that the two can exist completely separately. In his view, faith–a general way of approaching life, relationships, and how we are to move through the universe–has six stages. Stage one is essentially the child’s self-centered way of seeing the world, and stage six is the kind of universalizing approach to life that we have seen in people like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela. Few people in any generation will achieve that sixth stage, but Fowler asserts that the human spirit is almost programmed to strive in that direction.
Fowler makes an observation that the churches have never taken seriously: most institutional religion is designed for people at the third stage, that of a ‘conventional-synthetic’ faith. It may be a very committed and fervent faith, but devotion and progress are not the same thing. There is little room for deep questioning, or tolerance for change in the institution.
Furthermore, Fowler claims that most religious institutions are heavily invested in selecting and training their ordained leaders from good, solid Stage 3 people. Institutions choose people for ministry who are unlikely to challenge church-as-it-is past acceptable limits (we could consider a new Sunday School curriculum, but we couldn’t broach the subject of perhaps not having Sunday School at all), who are willing and able to learn appropriate delivery of what-has-always-been-taught, but not to question whether it is helpful to continue teaching that in the very changed circumstances of 21st century Europe or North America. It does not matter whether it is an obviously conservative church in which women and people in same-sex relationships are not approved for ordination, or a ‘progressive’ one in which they are. Musical or worship style–whether it’s extempore prayer rather than by-the-book, or pipe organ vs. fake rock bands–is not important either. All of that is window-dressing. Institutional religions will still mainly seek and encourage people at that third stage for their ordained leadership.
And for the most part, that is fine. I know a lot of excellent priests (male and female) who give an intelligent if not ground-breaking explanation of the faith which is in them. They good leaders of liturgical worship, and the person you would want comforting you when your job goes down the tubes or your loved one is dying. (more at a later date on ‘job goes down the tubes’–from the standpoint of one whose job in the church has done, and then you probably don’t want a priest). They do their jobs, they serve their institutions well.
But what about the Christian who somehow does move to Fowler’s fourth stage, or beyond? That person usually runs into conflict with the institution, and the choice has to be made whether to stay or leave. If you stay, you have two options: you either swallow your questions and concerns and doubts (and stifle your creativity–and the church loses, even if it doesn’t see it), or you don’t, and experience the discomfort of always being in at least low-level conflict with your congregation and clergy. If you leave, it’s either for a time, or for good.
If it’s for good, you experience some kind of dislocation–religious participation probably was important to you, you gained comfort and strength, and likely had some positive relationships with the people you saw in your spiritual community. You have to reconcile yourself to that not being the case again.
And difficult as that sounds, it may be easier to make a clean break than to leave open the possibility of returning. There are people (mainly those who are deeply invested in church-as-it-is, which typifies Stage 3), who cannot imagine anything of spiritual importance happening in someone who is not a regular member of a worshipping community, and who does not put that community at the center of his or her life. But you know better, you know that something significant has been happening in your soul, and you might long to share and explore it in a community of meaning. The likelihood is that you will not be able to do so, at least not in the same congregation you once left, especially if you were well-known or particularly active. It is far more probable that you will be expected to pick up where you left off. That will be difficult for you, because you are different; it will be disappointing to the congregaton, because (even if there has been a large turnover) they are substantially unchanged.
So, for me, a Past Christian is someone who recognizes that church has been an important part of becoming who they are, is still trying to forge a spiritual path on which Jesus Christ is the guide and companion, but is no longer willing to be a part of church-as-it-is, because church-as-it-is isn’t adequate.