Ryan J. Bell, formerly the pastor of a Seventh Day Adventist church in Hollywood and formerly an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University, writes occasional columns for the “Religion” section of HuffingtonPost.com.
According to one of his latest pieces which the editor titled, “A Year Without God: A Former Pastor’s Journey Into Atheism,” Bell intends on living without God for a year.
And, Bell plans on telling us all about the experience. For a whole year.
If this “one year” pattern sounds familiar, it should. A publishing trend in the last five years is to have an author “flip” their normal course of life for a year — and then write about the experience. Sexually promiscuous folks turn celibate. Carnivores become vegetarians. Vegetarians eat Big Macs. Internet-junkies give up all online activity. You get the idea.
**From the start of reading Mr. Bell’s piece, I was determined to avoid even thinking about his motives. “This couldn’t be,” I assured myself, “merely a lame and lazy plan for getting a book published.” The article waited until the last paragraph to spoil the illusion. Bell writes: “My desire is, as always, to pursue the truth and do it in a sometimes serious, sometimes playful, way that might be insightful for others as well. During the year I will be blogging my experience at www.yearwithoutgod.com and working on a book. I invite you to follow along and share your thoughts.”**
The “do something different for a year” genre works best when the person is truly and without any mental reservation a person committed to the “other way” of living or thinking. Because then, their “flip” will involve personal angst and dramatic tension. We are to assume that this something represents an actually change — a revolution — in their actions or beliefs.
From whence did this rush of heroes suddenly emerge? As Anthony Esolen describes the democratization of heroism: “If everyone is a hero, no one is a hero; and genuine heroes will go unnoticed in all the mindless self-congratulation.”
Enter Ryan Bell.
In the Huffington Post article, Bell recounts for us his pilgrimage away from what he describes as fundamentalism (of the Seventh-day Adventist variety), eventually finding himself in streams of Evanglicalism (via adjunct professor jobs at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific Uniersity — though these institutions are not mentioned by name by Bell.)
According to a news story at ChristianPost.com, the turn toward experimental atheism came only after Bell was asked to resign as pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church “after questioning church teaching on homosexuality and the role of women.”
In the Huffington Post piece, Bell writes:
“… the day came when I really didn’t fit within the church anymore. I had been an outspoken critic of the church’s approach to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members … Since that time [Bell’s forced resignation from the pastorate] I have been a religious nomad. I have struggled to relate to the church and, if I’m honest, God. I haven’t attended church consistently; I struggle to relate to church people, preferring the company of skeptics and non-church-goers. I haven’t prayed much and, without sermons to write on a regular basis, I haven’t studied, or even read, the Bible.”
The forced resignation brought about a crises of vocational and religious importance. What would his next move be? Bell decided at that point to “try on atheism for a year.”
For the next 12 months I will live as though there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. … It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about. For this life-long Christian, and a pastor for nearly 20 years, this feels abnormal. Risky, even.”
Cue the applause track for “mindless self-congratulation.”
Actually, no. Rather, cue the applause track for Fuller and Asuza having the courage to strip Bell of his teaching responsibilities.
Since he announced his new spiritual journey on New Year’s Day, Bell has reportedly lost his two jobs, both related to Christian institutions requiring their employees to be committed Christians. As Bell writes in a blog post from Jan. 4, the first job he lost was working at Azusa Pacific University (APU) teaching intercultural communication to undergraduate students, and Fuller Theological Seminary as a coach to doctoral candidates composing their dissertation proposals.
Let’s think about all this for a moment
First, just because you deny God, God does not go away. Bell admits he is not actually an atheist — at least not yet. He claims to be at this moment a theist who is exploring atheism. But, what is the difference between Bell’s Christian faith from six months ago, and his new “I’m not really an atheist, but I’m also not a theist (for a year).”
There are plenty of folks who wear a Christian label but live lives of practical atheism — quietly disavowing God in every avenue of morality and belief. Bell is no different than these people, except that he intends on cashing in on the project.
To suggest, even for a fleeting passing fanciful moment that you can “wish” God away for a year in order to “try on” what life without Him is like, is utter foolishness. You’re not “free” of God, you are simply living with your back turned to Him. God is still going to continue being God whether you like it or not. He’s going to continue to do whatever He was planning to do for you, with you and even through you.
Second, what about the Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints? Whether it comes from the thoughtful pen of John Calvin or the more folksy “once saved, always saved” nomenclature, the Bible does in fact say that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, ESV). What do these doctrines of grace — indelible grace — have to say about Bell?
During this initial period of sin — and yes, the Bible defines Bell’s actions as sinful — James 5:19 says, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” So, a first step for us is to pray for Bell in this manner.
But, what if the yearlong process turns out to be a lifetime of atheism? Or, perhaps Bell may simply slide into a liberal form of Christianity which are more accommodating to his sexual-ethical beliefs about homosexuality (one of the initial stumbling blocks which diverted him away from Christ). Should we leap for joy if he renounces atheism but then moves into Christless Christianity?
No, what Bell (and all of us ) need the most is a full submission to the authority of the Word of God. Once it is decided that certain parts of divine revelation (i.e. sexual ethics) are out of date and irrelevant, then it is only a matter of time before any doctrine or commandment can be jettisoned.
From the news stories about Bell’s pilgrimage, the “year without God” was actually kick-started in previous years. It seems as though the seeds were sown and germinated previously, and that this “year” is simply the fruit.
An eternity apart from God is the fruit of a life lived in contradiction to or denial of God. And lifetimes are measured out in days, weeks, and years. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Let us each and all commit our moments, days and years to God and try out a year with God in 2014.