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A recovering Christian

Hi, my name is Bill; I’m a recovering Christian.

A non-questioning Christian is a lot like an alcoholic. You know, you just keep on drinking in the doctrine every Sunday and never stop to ask why. You keep going back for more and more because you like the taste of friends and fellowship and the warm feeling you get from faith, especially faith in the afterlife. Whatever the pastor says that morning you nod and swallow. Sometimes you don’t agree, but what the hell, who cares? And there’s nothing wrong with that until you wake up one morning with a terrible headache and ask yourself: “Wait a minute! Does this really make sense?”

At this point, you have two options: keep on drinking in the same old doctrine with no questions asked, or start your recovery.

A Christian recovery in one sense is just like an alcoholic recovery; it’s a long process that never ends; you can’t find a magic cure and just go back to the way it was. It’s different in this sense: with alcoholism, you have to stop drinking the booze altogether, but with Christianity you have to continue drinking the doctrine even more than before. However, this time you drink with questions. Lots of questions, more and more — just like I’m sure they did with Jesus.

Imagine walking down the dusty roads of Galilee with Jesus and Mary Magdalene. They stop as a large group of peasants approach him and he begins to teach them. He gets really worked up as he sees their agreement and eagerness to learn and he blurts out: “Hey! if you really want to follow me, you’ve got to hate your mother and father, your brothers and your sisters, and even your wife and children.” (Luke 14:25)

Whoa! Stop right there, fella. Luke doesn’t tell us about the explosion that must have taken place that minute because Luke wasn’t there to see it. But you know if you had been there, you would have waved your hand over the crowd and screamed: “What the hell are you talking about!?” There’s not a Jew alive, then or now, who could swallow that kind of talk without a fight. And there’s not a Christian alive today who should listen to a preacher gloss over these words with “well, what he meant to say…” without starting a lively discussion.

And how about Priscilla? She owned the home where Paul was living when he wrote his first epistle to the Christians at Corinth. Her home was his ecclesia, where he held his church meetings. What do you think she said to him that night when she heard what he had written: “It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church meeting?” (1 Cor. 14:35) What do you think Paul had for dinner that night?

Learning comes from listening and reading; education comes from questioning and discussing. When I was teaching college students I felt I was a failure if I was not bombarded with questions. They could learn the stuff by reading the book but they could never be educated unless they wrestled me to the floor with questions.

And that’s how I started my recovery. It was back in the ‘60s when I was a young Catholic priest, teaching Sacred Scripture in a Catholic College in Berkeley, California, to a group of irreverently questioning hippies. I encouraged them to ask whatever they wanted. Those were the days of free love and psychedelic drugs and you know these kids were full of questions. Quite often, our discussions would spill out after class onto the campus lawn and we’d be joined by a crowd of other students, eager to enter the fray.

And that’s when I learned that Christian recovery and alcoholic recovery can have similar consequences. An alcoholic in recovery can’t go back to the bars and pubs with his drinking buddies, and a Christian in recovery is not always received with love and understanding by his former non-questioning friends. My willingness to question Christian teaching and tradition, and to encourage my students to do likewise was not only frowned upon, but became the sole reason for my termination from the college. My students marched through the streets of Berkeley in protest, but in those days they were hardly noticed.

Today, I’m happy to see that many of my Christian friends are also in recovery with me — unafraid to ask questions and engage in lively discussions on topics like gay marriage and abortion, resurrection and atonement, mythology and midrash in the Bible, original sin, homosexuality, and any issue they’ve wondered about but never fully addressed.

The Christ I’ve come to know over the past 85 years must have been a “popular professor;” he made some outlandish statements and encouraged lots and lots of questions. I think he still does.