Monday, 6 October 2014

Bob Ripley's experience with faith is his own

If anyone reds this space on a regular basis, they will know that on Saturdays it is occupied by Rev. Bob Ripley, a retired United Church minister. Bob is a former minister of what was one of the largest United Church congregations in Canada, Metropolitan United in London.

Last week, in the process of promoting his new book, he announced that "...adherence to my former beliefs was no longer possible." In other words, he has walked away from any faith in God he ever might have had. Bob used the word "deconversion" to describe what happened to him.

I know Bob’s announcement has caused discomfort among some readers. You have spoken to me about it. And while I cannot disagree with Bob’s decision, as it is entirely his, there are a few things which may help put this in perspective.

First, one of the risks we all take, no matter what part of the Christian church we are a part of, nor even what religious faith we follow, is that we are not immune to asking questions and seeking new answers. Questions are part of our human nature. That Bob would be asking questions and thinking carefully through the responses is a good thing.

Where I would disagree with Bob is in his use of the word "deconversion". Strictly defined, it is the loss of faith in a given religion and return to a previously held religion or non-religion.

That presumes, at some point, that you have been converted.

But faith experience is broad and varied. I am a Christian, but I would not say that at any point I was "converted". I was born into the United Church, nurtured as a child there, distanced myself in my teenage years and eventually felt a call to ministry. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Christian. I would suggest that I never had a conversion experience. I had a growth experience. I think my experience was more like Charles Wesley’s "My heart was strangely warmed".

Second, it is absurd to conclude that all Christians and all Christian ministers, retired or otherwise, are going through this "deconversion" experience. Asking questions about faith can have many different results. In this case, Bob Ripley has chosen to walk away from his Christian faith and place his confidence in trust in reason. That makes me sad, but it is his choice. And Bob Ripley’s experience is not mine nor anyone else’s experience.

I think of my own father, who retired more than twenty years ago and still leads a weekly bible study in the congregation he attends. He has also published a weekly scripture commentary on the internet. He is asking more questions now than he ever did, but at 88, he has the right to do so.

Then there is my late uncle, another United Church minister, who was an unabashed conservative evangelical. With a broad range of interests, he was a noted author of Canadian church history as well as a pioneer in counselling by telephone. Yet until his death he was a person of deep faith and an asker of serious questions.

I wish Bob Ripley well. I am sure he will continue to ask his questions, as will I. But unlike Bob, I do not presume the answers offered in his column. I have a strong sense of God’s presence in all of life. That is my belief.

I hope that no matter what you read you will continue your own spiritual journey. Big questions are always worth asking and pondering. But another person’s experience is not yours and even though what you read of others’ journeys may disturb you, listen to and trust your own heart and seek the counsel of trusted others as you travel. It that, I believe, we will all find peace.