Where Does Faith Go When It Is Lost?

strange-landWhat happens when one day a rabbi discovers that he has lost his faith? Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist and researcher asked himself that question – which turned into to a fascinating study.

Seven rabbis agreed to “talk about it” – three Conservative community rabbis in the United States, and four strictly Orthodox rabbis who live in Israel and have a double identity: Secretly atheists, and rabbis and believers openly.

-Tali Farkash
“Atheists in closet: Rabbis who lost God”
Published 07.28.13, 11:13, ynetnews.com

Over a year ago, I published a blog post on a very similar topic called When We’re Left Behind. It was based on an article written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty for NPR.org called “From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”.

How crushing would it be to love your Pastor or Rabbi, having attended his (or her) congregation for years and growing close to him (or her) as a model of faith, and then to discover that this “Holy person” has no faith in God at all and in fact is an atheist? What would that do you your faith (or mine)?

I don’t want to recycle something I’ve written before, but this brings up some new questions about the nature of religion (as opposed to faith) and how we live it out in our lives. While I certainly can’t deny the social role of church for Christians, we lack (in most cases) the connection to our religious community based on ethnicity, culture, and sometimes race. It is true there are churches that have such a basis, such as African-American churches and Korean churches, but for the most part, the Church as a social entity is just a group of people who (in theory) share the same theology and doctrine about God but who otherwise come from a wide spectrum of social, economic, educational, and employment backgrounds (this probably isn’t true in an absolute sense, but I’ll use it as a general principle for the sake of this essay).

Jewish synagogue life is a different thing because what is being shared is a lot of cultural, ethnic, traditional, religious, and even national and DNA components. It goes back to the difference between “What is a Jew?” and “What is a Christian?” You can’t just say people who have different religions. Being Jewish is enormously more complicated and in some ways, elusive in definition.

So I can see a Rabbi who becomes an atheist having a tougher time in leaving his/her community than a Pastor in the same situation (not that it wouldn’t be really hard on the Pastor as well). From a Rabbi’s point of view, if you are leading a shul in a small community, leaving the synagogue would be leaving behind your entire social, friendship, and possibly family circles. Your entire life, or most of it, probably flows through synagogue life. I suppose something similar could be said of a Pastor as well, but perhaps not quite to the same depth.

How about extending the topic beyond Rabbis and Pastors? My wife says that at our local Reform/Conservative synagogue, the Friday night service is aimed at more secular Jews who connect socially and through traditions, while the Saturday Shabbat service is more for “religious Jews.” The missus even says that some of the synagogue members wish that the current Rabbi would retire/move on (he’s still in his 40s, so is nowhere near retirement age) because he’s “too religious.”

At the opposite religious extreme are the Ultra-Orthodox or the Haredim, who seem to take the slightest infraction of the mitzvot, even among those Jewish people who are not Haredi, so, so seriously, to the point of being abusive and assaultive. It seems like something has gone horribly wrong in certain corners religious Judaism where, on the one extreme, God is all but ignored, and on the other, God is exceptionally tightfisted and punitive, and adherents experience no problem in actually attacking other human beings.

I don’t know if you get that exactly in Christianity, although to be sure, we have churches that are so extremely liberal that God seems like an afterthought and Biblical standards are as fluid as quicksand. We also have churches and groups so hyper-conservative that they too don’t care who they hurt or what damage they do to other human beings, even desecrating the funerals of military men and women for the sake of their distorted theology and need to push their weight around. I’d call that going horribly wrong, too.

It’s enough to make me lose my faith in religious people.

Waiting to danceBut what makes a person lose their faith in God? Of some of the folks and groups I’ve just mentioned, they probably didn’t have faith as such to begin with. Their religious venues are more a tradition-based, cultural, and social outlet, as opposed to a gathering where an encounter with God is sought. At the opposite extreme, it may not be God that anyone is looking for, but the need to impose internal punitive, restrictive, and ultra-conservative standards on the entire environment of human beings. As far as I can tell, God’s chosen method of operation isn’t to either ignore His standards or massively exaggerate them and then force them on others without so much as a by your leave.

I know my Pastor will disagree with me, but I believe we have a choice. I believe we have lots of choices in life, the first or at least the most important being whether or not we are going to have a relationship with God. After that, other choices follow. I believe God is like a Father or teacher (sometimes the roles overlap). Certainly if we act foolishly, we should fear Him, but fear isn’t the primary foundation upon which our relationship is built. Neither is hate. Neither is casualness and pandering to social agendas.

Once we have faith in God, and more importantly, trust, how can we lose that? Some folks say you can’t unless you never had it in the first place:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:27-30 (NASB)

That creates a problem because here we see people, Pastors and Rabbis, who have lost their faith (although Jews, because they are born into covenant, are accountable whether they have faith or not). Did they have it in the first place or did something else happen? What if they actually have faith somewhere at their core, faith in God that is, but lost something else instead? What if they lost their faith in religious people or the mechanics of religion?

I don’t think I could lose faith in God but there are days I’d throw religion and religious people out the window, slam it shut, lock it, and never look out again. A life in community, whether in person or online, can be really frustrating at times. We have all of these high ideals about love, companionship, worship, and holiness, but our real lives are so messy by comparison. We don’t always treat each other well, even when we intend to.

Some people are cranky by their nature or because they have adopted a victim stance and out of that, are perpetually defensive (I know bloggers who write out of that position pretty much all the time). Some people are generally OK until you hit one of their “hot button topics,” and then watch out (I wonder if that’s how I’m going to be next week in Sunday school?). Being in community with religious people is like walking through a mine field or living in an alcoholic family. You never know when the peace will be shattered by an abrupt and devastating explosion.

If I ever lost my faith, it wouldn’t be in God, it would be in human beings.

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

There are times when I think it’s the ocean that’s dirty and only a few drops are clean.

Until you can see the good within a person, you are incapable of helping him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

desert-islandAnd sometimes that’s an amazingly difficult thing to do. Reading quotes from Gandhi and Rabbi Freeman present a very pleasant picture, but life in the trenches of religion is anything but, at least for those folks who are struggling with faith (and don’t we all at some point).

I know why a Rabbi and Pastor (or probably just ordinary people) would stay in their religious communities after they’d lost faith in God…because of the continued social rewards. Most people who lose faith in people but not God would just leave the community and either try to find another or bail on community life entirely. But what if community life fails you but you still find God is present within the synagogue or church? What do you do then? Are you even aware that it’s God who’s holding you there? Maybe what feels like losing faith in God is just a protracted silence? God doesn’t always talk. But we’re supposed to have faith in the desert too.

I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I don’t even know the right questions to ask. I just know that this religious life that is supposed to bring us closer to God isn’t pain-free, and it seems for some folks that the pain increases exponentially as we strive to approach Holiness. Maybe that’s why most religious people hit a comfortable plateau and just stay there, neither being too hot or too cold in their spirituality, but only lukewarm. Maybe that’s why some people quit completely, because being numb is better than being set on fire and writhing in the flames.

Where are the Gandhis and the Freemans with their soothing, supportive words? Where is the so called “community of faith?” Where is God?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…

-William Shakespeare
“Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)”

13 thoughts on “Where Does Faith Go When It Is Lost?”

  1. I read an article on a skeptic site about ministers who “lose their faith,” but continue in their position because it is the only way they are able to make a living, and perhaps there are social constraints too. They struggle with the hypocrisy, vs. the need to pay their bills. This skeptic group proposed funding these people, who as leaders and gifted communicators, could then be spokespersons for their movement.

    I don’t understand the idea of losing all faith in God. I understand feeling angry that things didn’t go according to my desires, and feeling perhaps God didn’t love me or wish good things for me. I know of people who have had tragic experiences in their lives, and some draw closer to God as a result, and some draw away. I am assuming that with these people, it is not a matter of a temporary difficulty that can be worked through. And there is a difference between being disgusted with religion, religious persons or the “system,” and denying God.

    Many people who are involved in communities of faith have little or no faith in God or in the particular theology of their group, but perhaps believe in the morals and values of the community, an enjoy the social connection.

    Judaism is somewhat different, as being a part of the Jewish community is based upon a shared heritage more than current beliefs and/or practices, although this varies according to camp. In general, Jewish people are more concerned about what someone does, as opposed to what they believe. And to me, how you behave is your real statement of faith anyway. I would assume that a rabbi who no longer believes in God, still believes in the continuity of the Jewish people and the rituals that keep us together, that we pass on to the next generation. He must have some belief in a system of moral values that he would like to see in his children and in the community around him.

    Perhaps the reason some at your wife’s synagogue want to get rid of, “the religious guy,” is not that he is too religious, but that his religion is dull and legalistic. If his faith walk was full of life and meaning, perhaps he would engage them, rather than irritate them. Jewish Lights Publications has lots of funky, eclectic stuff for liberal/Reform type Jews. Take a look at this: http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-624-9 I also recall reading something by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, where he said that Jewish believers in Yeshua should be accepted as Jews in the Jewish community, and he would have no problem with having such persons join him in worship.

  2. I can’t really speak for the Reform Rabbi and whether or not his religion is dull since I haven’t been in the same room with him for about a decade now. I can only report what the missus tells me.

    I’ve read some books, like the one written by Rabbi Shapiro, that focus on inspiring spirituality and grace into traditional Jewish practice. Interestingly enough, this is something I think certain groups in Messianic Judaism are also returning to. The Shavuot conference I attended last May had a strong spirituality emphasis.

    I’m encouraged that Rabbi Zalman Schachter is accepting of Messianic Jews as part of the larger Jewish community, which I believe they are.

    You make a good case (and I’m sorry that I didn’t remember this) that it’s less about what you believe in Judaism and more about what you do, so even a Jewish atheist could behave in a moral and ethical manner that would be accepted in the synagogue. In church, there’s no way that would ever work.

    1. James, it is true that the Jewish community would be more concerned about someone who publicly ate on Yom Kippur, than one who claimed they didn’t believe in God. Ghandi said, “I like your Christ; I don’t like your Christians.” Christians probably bundle God with religion, or with particular religious practices and beliefs, as well as political and other beliefs more than Jewish people do, although we also do that to some extent. (I call this, “God-bundling,” sort of like how my computer comes bundled with software installed; perhaps we need to do some uninstalling) I always wondered why MessyWorld has needed or still needs to feel that they must either follow the church model or the synagogue model, as if these are the only choices.

      I also see that Yeshua is bringing grace, light and truth into the Jewish world, even if they do not recognize its source. Perhaps this is the fullness of the gentiles. Perhaps the time has come that the hardening is being reversed, and the things of the Holy One are being poured into Jewish vessels that are willing to receive. And that is how ten men will take hold of the tzitzit of one Jew and say, “Let us go with you for we know God is with you.” When darkness covers the earth, and deep darkness the peoples, the Holy One will rise upon you and his glory will be seen upon you.

  3. My christian experience, in observing people that leave Christianity, is that they begin by being hurt and do not find any good response from others to encourage them to fellowship. This often leads to more and more distance between the person and God until they give up on God. Their faith appears to people based and not God based. Perhaps similar to what Ghandi experienced. This problem of faith is not so much God oriented but due to how they are introduced to God. Being made aware or trained that one’s Christian experience should be oriented to God is what I have seen missing. We are told to attend church regularly, pay tithe and be there when the doors are open. We are not discipled, but left to drift in an organization that thinks discipleship is attending its meetings.


  4. James, I forgot to add that Zalman Schachter’s admonition to accept Yeshua following Jews into his community has nothing to do with the idea that these Jews are proving themselves “good Jews,” via torah observance or adherence to any standards of the various branches. He simply opens his arms and says, “Accept your fellow Jews, accept all who desire to come to us.” He wants to see the Jewish community as a house of prayer for all nations.

  5. I like what you said Tom about being God focused. In religion, we are often diverted into the mechanics of Christianity, Judaism, or whatever without being taught what it is to focus upon and relate to God. Technically, our practice (praying, studying, and so forth) is designed to facilitate drawing nearer to God, but usually the activities take on a life of their own and we lose the connection to their real purpose.

    Chaya, I think the answer to the “MessyWorld” and all of the messiness in any religious form it to remember that God is the focus, not the “stuff” we get wound up about.

    James, I forgot to add that Zalman Schachter’s admonition to accept Yeshua following Jews into his community has nothing to do with the idea that these Jews are proving themselves “good Jews,” via torah observance or adherence to any standards of the various branches. He simply opens his arms and says, “Accept your fellow Jews, accept all who desire to come to us.” He wants to see the Jewish community as a house of prayer for all nations.

    That’s a start.

  6. Hi James,
    You pose an interesting and tough situation. I can only speak from my own experience, which is slightly different than what you are discussing, but the main point being that faith in God is lost.

    Several years ago I was leading a single’s ministry for 45+. There were over 300 people involved. It was a growing, thriving ministry filled with love and community. We were affiliated with a mega church, so the sense of community was much needed. In addition, there is not much out there (in Christendom) for singles between 45 and 65. The interesting thing is that we were so filled with community, that even younger people and married couples were attracted to the group.

    Without going into all the details, let me just say that this ministry was ripped away, given to someone else, and it died in less than 4 weeks. It felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest. And I kept wondering where was God in all this? Why did He abandon me? For almost 2 years, what started out as a small home group blossomed into a fruitful ministry…and then was gone.

    I was angry and hurt. But it was not with man, but with God. And of course the thoughts came, ‘you shouldn’t be angry with God.’ But the truth is – I was. That’s when thoughts started bombarding me that maybe God didn’t really exist. Maybe we are all just fooling ourselves and it was my organizational and promotional skills, coupled with people’s need to connect, which caused the ministry to grow so quickly and effectively.

    That’s when a precious sister stepped in, prompted by God, to come alongside me. She prayed with me and for me continuously. She called on me every day for over a year. After a few months, I finally came to a place where I saw the love of God through this precious sister that I hardly knew before this happened. And I’ve got to admit that it took several years before I could be involved with people again.

    If I learned nothing else it was this: we must take seriously the act of praying for our spiritual leaders. They come under attack in all areas of their life – spiritually, emotionally and physically. We need to pray for them without ceasing. If HaSatan can take them down, the rest of us are vulnerable. God placed our leaders for our protection. We must pray for theirs.

    Make sense?

  7. I believe so, Rosemarie. When people experience losing faith, it might be more correctly defined as a “dry spell” of faith. Sort of like what happens in some marriages when the passion goes away and the relationship seems to have withered. The love (or faith) isn’t gone, it has just hit an empty spot that needs refilling and revitalizing. Sometimes we have to spend a period in the desert before God returns us to lush gardens. Then we see Him in a whole new way.

    It isn’t faith, or love, unless it can stand emptiness and wilderness for a time.

  8. A couple thoughts: Westboro Baptist Church is made up of about 50 people who are almost all members of the same cultish family, controlled by the wife and child-abusing Fred Phelps, so it could hardly be blamed on Christian doctrine. It would be very interesting to listen to the interviews or see the transcripts involved in this research. Just from people I have spoken with: Some never had their own relationship with God; they had their parent’s relationship, indoctrinated into them or seeking to please them. Some, if they held to a theology that God would keep them from suffering and difficulty, or act according to their standards of right and wrong, good and evil, then they have a problem when God is a bad boy, in their eyes. Just as some leave a marriage during a dry or conflict filled spell; some leave, permanently, their relationship with God due to dryness, conflictedness or something else. I thought it was telling, in Lee Strobel’s, “The Case for Christ,” he interviews Templeton, a former rising evangelist turned atheist, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimers. My mother has Alzheimers, and one thing I know about the disease is that the filtering/gatekeeper part of the brain doesn’t work, so a person’s emotions and thoughts spill out without barrier. When Strobel told Templeton about his investigation, as a journalist, into the case for the truth about the claims of Jesus, Templeton burst into tears and cried, “I miss him.” Perhaps, under all the anger, skepticism and faithlessness, he remembered the beauty and closeness of his former relationship with God. There’s so much we don’t know, but there is one to whom we are fully known.

  9. When Strobel told Templeton about his investigation, as a journalist, into the case for the truth about the claims of Jesus, Templeton burst into tears and cried, “I miss him.”

    That’s about the most heart breaking thing I’ve ever heard. Missing God when He’s right there.

  10. I don’t know if there was ever a reconciliation between Templeton and his maker prior to his death. But that emotional outburst was something positive, that in his unguarded state with the pride and defenses down, he admitted that the rational, naturalism he had chosen to replace his faith with, brought him no joy. My mother, with Alzheimers, says, “I love you,” when she talks to me. She didn’t use to say this often. It appears, that in her mental deterioration, she is left unguarded by fears that I was somehow a threat or a competitor to her. She used to be jealous of her brother, (and now they have shared great affection for each other) who was favored by the parents and gifted in areas she wasn’t. Her brother earned a Ph.D, held high level corporate positions, became a millionaire several times over, and was an honored figure in the community. My mother never finished college and was a homemaker. Now they both have Alzheimers, and what does all this matter anymore?

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