My favorite theology professor became an atheist. Will I?
At Bethel Seminary in the early aughts I was ruined by a brilliant young theology professor named F. LeRon Shults. (Or “Fleron,” as me and some classmates affectionately called him.) Shults introduced me to Christian theology in a way that mesmerized and perplexed me. I had grown up a nominal Methodist, flirted with fundamentalism in college, and finally settled happily into emergent-evangelicalism. Along the way, I concluded that I had figured it all out: God, Jesus, the Bible, the universe. I feigned humility but knew I was right.
Fleron put a stop to that. In Systematics 101 he introduced me to Christian theology in terms I had never heard. It was humiliating when I realized how ignorant I was. But it was also invigorating being exposed to the wonders of orthodoxy. I learned about the unappreciated centrality of the Trinity, the undiscovered brilliance of the Cappadocian Fathers, and the delicate balance of the immanence and transcendence of God. I had never been in a theology class before, and I loved every minute of it. Shults taught with passion, insight, humor, and creativity. I knew he would go on to write books and be important, so I was honored to sit in his lectures while I had the chance. I took Fleron for Systematics 201 and 301, and would have signed up for 401 through 801, if they had been offered.
It wasn’t all roses and sunshine, of course. The theological depths of Christianity that Shults revealed were sometimes too destabilizing for my anxious soul. On contemplating the infinite nature of God, I was left bewildered, unsure what it even meant to believe in this infinite, unknowable Being. And some of his material was so esoteric that I would have to pick my head off the ground at the end of class, it having spun off sometime during the lecture. I know that Professor Shults put a lot of work into his book, “The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality,” but I read that whole book without comprehending a single sentence.
Shults opened my eyes to Christian theology, and pointed out how much more there was to see. So it was an incredible shock to learn, as I did a few months ago, that my favorite Christian theology professor had become an atheist.
I discovered Shults’ atheism as I was randomly googling old professors to see what they were up to. I knew that LeRon had left Bethel and was teaching theology in Agder, Norway. But at some point in the intervening years his bio had changed from free-thinking Christian theologian to free-thinking atheist.
So what happened? I am trying to piece that together from snippets on the internet, but apparently atheism just turned out to be where his journey led. Even at Bethel, I could tell that Shults was a seeker. Traditional Christian answers didn’t satisfy him. He might have grown up fundamentalist, and Shults says he even went to seminary at Fuller and then Princeton to prove the existence of God. But along the way he, too, realized he didn’t know what he thought he knew. His theological interests broadened, and he developed a passion for interdisciplinary studies, integrating science and psychology into his theology. The boundaries between these disciplines eventually collapsed and theology became just another area of study—not a set of personal or metaphysical beliefs.
Essentially, Shults decided that Christianity—and theism in general—are too incoherent to be believed. Certain theological matters that believers claim to not understand because they are unknowable mysteries are, Shults concluded, unknowable because they don’t actually make sense. For example, the reason theologians have a difficult time explaining how God can be both infinite/impersonal and finite/personal is because the two ideas are, in fact, mutually exclusive. I’m guessing that Shults would say the same about other infamous theological mysteries, such as the humanity and divinity of Christ, or the notion of free will against divine sovereignty.
In the end, Shults decided that Christianity doesn’t make sense because it isn’t true. Furthermore, what does make sense is the evolutionary origins of our collective religious experience. In his book, “Theology after the Birth of God,” Shults lays out his case that evolution offers a much more compelling and probable explanation of religion than religion itself does. Social science studies demonstrate that, as evolved beings, humans have developed a tendency to sense non-existent supernatural agents in the world around us, for our own protection. (We are “hyperactive agency detectors.”) We evolved to believe in gods, God, demons, ghosts and leprechauns. As human communities became larger, our notions of gods/God grew more expansive and our systems of religion more organized—with priests and holy books and such. We also grew more protective of in-group orthodoxy, holding each other accountable to beliefs in these gods for the security of our local communities. Belief in gods/God held (and holds) our tribes together.
Religion, to Shults and others, has served its purpose. But with the rising tide of religious warfare and the prospect of ecological devastation (made worse by unenlightened religious types), we should abandon our evolved religious tendencies (if we can—an open question) so that we can chart a brighter future.
This is not a new theory, of course. Lots of critics explain religion away through evolution. The bio-cultural study of religion is becoming its own discipline. (With its own Institute, of which Dr. Shults is a part.) But this was all new to me. And it was coming from my favorite theology professor.
Shult’s de-conversion rattled me, to say the least. Over the years I have realized that Christianity is hard to believe. Virgin births, resurrections, divine books, chosen people…for skeptics like me, these can be hard to swallow. But I was reassured that if people as brilliant as Dr. Shults can believe in the truth of Christianity, then I can, too. What am I to do, now that I have lost one of my theological authority figures? If Dr. Shults became an atheist, am I next?
God I hope not. I love being a follower of Jesus. I can’t stand much about the church—the politics, the anti-intellectualism, the hypocrisy, the misogyny—and I have a growing list of doubts and questions regarding Christianity. (Read them here.) But I cherish my faith. It orients my entire life, gives me incentive to serve the world in radical ways, and gives me a reason to live and hope for the future.
Of course, the fact that I like being a Christian isn’t a very good reason to remain a Christian. And in this respect I’m grateful to have learned of Dr. Shults’ de-conversion. As he always did, he’s made me think and re-evaluate my most deeply-held convictions. This is not a bad thing, and it’s what good teachers do. The Bible tells us that searching for truth is a worthy and important pursuit. Jesus commended those who searched, and promised that they would find. Even in his atheism, Dr. Shults has given me plenty to think about. That’s good, right?
Besides which, maybe it’s also good that I lost such an important religious authority figure. Not that I celebrate LeRon’s departure from the fold, but my faith in Jesus cannot rest on the convictions of others. My faith must be my own. Just because Christianity can be hard to believe doesn’t mean that I’m excused from understanding it or determining its metaphysical veracity merely because my really smart theology professor thinks it’s true. (Or doesn’t, as the case may be.) Paul writes to the Romans that “each of us must give an account of ourselves to God.” Of ourselves. Yes, our individual religious faiths are inevitably informed by the teaching and credibility of others, but at a point that becomes laziness. I owe it to myself, to a disbelieving but curious world, and certainly to God, to determine what I believe because I, myself, actually believe it. So do you.
So am I next in the line of fallen theists? Anything’s possible, of course. I know that my Christian friends might march out once-saved-always-saved arguments at this point, reassuring me that if I’m truly saved I’m truly safe. But I don’t think those arguments apply. I mean, I knew LeRon as a Christian and he really was one. I’m sure not even he imagined that at one point he’d write a book detailing his newly-discovered atheist convictions. For Christians at least, his journey is a cautionary tale. (For new Dr. Shults, it’s a hero’s journey with a happy ending.) It would be arrogant of me to say that my faith is sound and secure and always will be. Who knows what the future holds for me…or for you? I might be penning my own atheist treatise in a decade or two, and you might be reading it, nodding your head in agreement.
But despite the challenge that LeRon’s de-conversion has been to my soul, and despite the power of his arguments, I’m not letting go. And so far, I see no reason to. Although LeRon and the atheist community reject the traditional arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity—they are “dead-ends” he says—I do not. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has failed to convince me that the universe really did come from nothing by itself. Historians have failed to persuade me that Jesus is not the most compelling and transformative figure in history, due in part to his divine claims. New Testament skeptics have failed to persuade me that there is a more compelling explanation for the early church’s experience of the resurrection other than the possibility that Jesus did actually rise from the dead. (On that and other matters, I see no convincing reason why miraculous explanations for ambiguous phenomena need to be ruled out prior to the discussion.) And Shults and others (like Pascal Boyer) might have a viable explanation for how religion evolved as a universal phenomenon amongst early human tribes, but I’ve yet to be persuaded that this explanation—true as it might be—actually rules out the existence of God.
But maybe the biggest reason I haven’t caved is that none of my atheist friends have convinced me that my personal, transformative, and even miraculous experience of the living God in my life is a strictly naturalistic phenomenon. I have experienced God (whatever we mean by “God”) in such a personal, life-changing, and powerful way that I can’t even imagine concluding that the Divine isn’t real. Deciding that God isn’t real would feel, in a way, like telling my wife that I don’t think she exists. (She does. Trust me.)
I know I might be wrong. I am not a theologian or philosopher and not as smart as many of my atheist friends. I’m just a busy pastor who tries to read a book here and there. And I also know that I might be telling myself what I want to believe to avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of having to change my mind. We all convince ourselves that what we want to believe is actually true—theists, atheists…everybody. I know this. That’s why, despite my faith and religious convictions, I’ve got to be open to the arguments of Dr. Shults and his new atheist community. LeRon impacted me too much for me to dismiss him now that he’s found a new home on the other side.
But so far, I remain as much a believer as I ever did. A different kind of believer, but a believer all the same. I am absolutely astonished and even slightly embarrassed to find myself disagreeing with Professor Shults on the matter of whether or not God even exists. But I do disagree. My favorite theology professor has become an atheist.
And I have not.
What about you? Have you ever lost a favorite religious authority figure? How did it challenge your faith, if it did? I am curious. Post below and remember, please be kind and respectful.
Matt Herndon is a pastor at Rooftop Church in St. Louis: http://www.rooftop.org. He also used to be a St. Louis Rams fan.