Losing My Religion

Losing something can provide us with a broad range of emotions. Losing your fear of riding roller coasters can feel extremely joyful. Losing your wallet or keys can be infuriating. Losing a loved one can be deeply painful, and also perhaps with some relief if that person is now released from the pain and suffering of a lengthy illness. Losing sleep makes you tired. Losing directions makes you lost. 

Losing your religion… well that’s an entirely other thing. 

It dawned on me as an epiphany the other day. As I was walking through our campus I bumped into some street preachers and decided to talk to them. Since that moment I have been processing that indeed, I have lost my religion… at least I’ve lost a very specific kind of religion. 

To explain this story I have to go back to my high school self. You see, even though I grew up at a wonderful little Mennonite church in southern Ontario that taught me incredible values like the importance of belonging to a community, of working for peace, and of serving those in need, I also found some branches of a much more conservative theology during high school because of the way I experienced the world, and some interaction I had with friends from faith outside my own. I found a large youth group during high school where I felt like I belonged, but it was also a space that nudged me toward a faith that included some things that at the time I felt very excited by, including evangelizing in public spaces, young earth creationism, and a stronger emphasis on memorizing scripture. Even though I have no clear sense of who taught me this, I also picked up beliefs that marriage was only between one man and one woman, and that salvation and entry into heaven only belonged to those of us who fit a narrow definition of what it meant to be born again. 

But something shifted for me as I went off to college, moved away from home, had my worldview expanded dramatically, and gained a deeper understanding of who I was and was being called to be. During college at Eastern Mennonite University I found professors who re-introduced me to a biblical narrative that called for freedom from oppression, advocacy for the marginalized, righteous anger toward injustice, and a deeper kind of love for humanity. Slowly, and sometimes without fully realizing it, I became more convinced that religion was hurting itself with its exclusionary and isolating practices. I met friends and peers who shared stories about how the kind of exclusive Christian faith of my teenage years had been damaging enough to entirely push them away from church and eventually from a belief or relationship with God. Two study abroad trips – first to South Africa, then to Israel/Palestine – changed my understanding of how religion can be manipulated to make people feel like outsiders or worse. 

My choice to go to seminary in southern California was another pivotal moment that expanded my worldview and understanding of the spectrum and complexity of Christian faith. One of my very first classes was Intro to Christian Ethics with Dr. Glen Stassen. In the class we worked our way through ethical dilemmas facing the church and culture, and it was eye opening to see the many different ways my classmates disagreed with each other – sometimes to the point of storming out of class in anger. Those moments showed me just how vast a claim of Christian faith can be – even within the American context. 

It shouldn’t be surprising to me, eight years after graduating from seminary, with two different pastoral callings and all the angry discourse about the mixing of politics with American religion that I feel that I’ve lost something along the way. 

Those street preachers on our campus were shouting at the top of their lungs, three of them taking turns, literally pounding their Bibles with aggressive pointer fingers, demanding that the students who moved past them turned from their evil ways and turn to God. I walked up to one of them and was offered a religious pamphlet. After turning it down, I casually asked them if this approach to the Christian faith was working for them. I wondered if students were being drawn to God because of their angry shouting. While one of them continued his loud call to God, a second replied that Jesus probably shouted his sermon on the mount. I pointed out that; A) Jesus was preaching to people who wanted to hear his voice rather than people walking to class, and that B) He probably needed to shout given that it was in an era without modern sound amplification technology. Street Preacher #2 suggested that if students turned away from the Gospel message after hearing their shouting, they were making their own decision in rejecting God and embracing a future in Hell. 

Still, I was concerned about the way the message was being delivered, so I pushed on. I was curious if shouting was the best way to communicate with this generation of students. 

“Well, Jesus shouted at the Pharisees.”

I revealed at this point that I was a theologically trained campus pastor who did not believe that current college students were the same thing as Pharisees, and that I found their shouting to be incredibly problematic for those of us who work in faith spaces on campus. I told them that many of the students I work with are deeply bitter toward street preaching an aggressive faith, often seeing this posture as lacking love, empathy, and grace. It was at this point that the third came over, offering a second voice to validate their posture. He insisted that I needed to go home and read my Bible, and that I was the one in need of being born again. 

Sensing this was a losing battle, I again told them that I thought what they were doing was damaging the spread of God’s love on our campus, and that their angry street preaching was actually pushing people away from a spiritual relationship with God rather than inviting them toward one. I explained that our campus has 40 Christian organizations, who all dwell and walk with students, and though we struggle to agree theologically, at least we agree that shouting is not the way to connect with students. I got on my bicycle to ride away, as they shouted that they would be praying for my soul, and urging me to find Jesus. 

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Each pedal stroke away from there brought up a different kind of memory: of the struggle I had as a high school student to make sense of why a loving God would affirm aggressive tactics to spread a Gospel of peace; of the recent conversations with college students who experienced Christians who rejected them because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or understanding of God; about the ongoing insistence of so many Christians to prioritize righteousness over grace, humility, or kindness. 

Earlier this year I started a podcast with a friend in which we review an album from Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Recently we tackled U2’s The Joshua Tree, an album which contains the powerful ballad, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I’ve known and loved that song for most of my life. While I’m no longer in Bono’s headspace of endless searching, I do spend my days walking with students who are doing just that. I’ve never been uncomfortable being around people who are asking the big questions of their faith, and I believe in a God who is big enough to allow for questioning, doubt, and searching to be an active part of any healthy faith. 

I know that I still struggle with many aspects of what it means to authentically follow Jesus, and as far as I can see, that’s okay. I don’t need to turn toward any aggressive religious sales pitch to provide me with answers, because I believe that we are all walking a life-long journey of learning. I’m also deeply grateful I no longer strive for an aggressive faith that insists on always being aggressively right. I used to feel adamantly certain that faith was less about relationships and more about determining who is in and who is out, and I’m grateful that I have lost that kind of religion. It is a loss that I am better for, and my hope is that my conversation with those street preachers may introduce some thoughts that will allow them to feel just a bit of the freedom I found when I lost my religion.

Author: Ben Wideman

Ben is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a unique campus ministry alternative focused on peace, justice, and faith at Penn State.

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