Reflections on the Class That Ruined My Faith

Daniel Reffner is a first year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology and is from Wichita, Kansas. Daniel served as Student Pastor at Grace from 2015-2017. His goals include being ordained as an elder in the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He works as a Student Ambassador in the Admissions Office and in his free time likes to hike and make pottery. This is a reflection he wrote for the Candler blog.

Many well-intentioned people often caution young seminarians not to “lose their Jesus”. The sentiment is something akin to not letting seminary rob you of your faith. Retreats are devoted to it, small groups form around it, and professors joke about it. As egregious as this act may be considered by some, I think it happened to me and I’d like to share with you why I’m so glad it did.

One of the great things about the first-year curriculum at Candler is that it provides a common experience as you transition into the community and academic life. We all take basically the same thing first semester: Old Testament, Church History, Pastoral Care, MDIV 505, and…Psychology of Religion? Ok, that last one is not part of the required curriculum, but it ended up not only being the most important class I took last semester, it was also the class that ruined my faith.

Why did I choose to take this eclectic and somewhat obscure class? After spending four years studying theology and philosophy in undergrad I felt myself on the precipice of a new chapter in my spiritual and academic life. I was beginning to ask questions about the places where I may have confused positive psychology for spiritual experience; I began to realize that my journey with grace had been an extremely positive psychological force in my life and I wanted to know what was real and what was contrived. These questions were forming as I prepared to enroll for my first semester and for better or for worse I decided that I ought to face these questions head on. So, I jumped into the deep end and enrolled in RP 658: Psychology of Religion with Dr. John Snarey and hoped that I wouldn’t come out of it an atheist.

Psychology of Religion is not your typical first semester class. It is a reading and writing intensive upper level seminar that requires regular participation in class discussion. The intimacy of the twelve-person class if a far cry from the anonymity of the 100+ person Old Testament and Church History lectures which allow you to show up, listen, and leave without so much as uttering a word. I was the only first year MDiv in the class.

Just as there was no hiding in the class of twelve, there was no way to hide from the theological dilemmas I inevitably encountered. Following in the footsteps of I’m sure many who came before me, I found myself deeply embroiled in a battle with Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. In this book, Freud discusses his thoughts on the origin and purposes of religion and concludes that religion is essentially a construct of the psyche that helps mitigate the fears and uncertainties of our collective existence. In Freud’s view, we create God in our own image for the purposes of eliminating the terrors of nature, mitigating the fear we feel about fate (particularly about death), and reconciling the sufferings that society unjustly impose on us. His ideas were the exact articulation of what I feared the most and I found them surprisingly persuasive. As the class progressed, I felt myself succumbing to the mindset that all my dearly held beliefs – the beliefs that gave me a sense of identity and meaning to my life were false and not based in reality. I didn’t know what I believed in and that uncertainty made me call into question my entire career path. How in the world could I be a pastor when I wasn’t even sure if I believed God existed!

Luckily, the class did not end with Freud. We had many more weeks of learning and exploring yet to come. I was glad to encounter the work of James Fowler (a longtime Candler professor!) and his book Stages of Faith late in the semester. From Fowler, I learned that what felt like a spiritual crisis to me fit the criteria for what he describes as the transition from stage 3 to stage 4 faith. Fowler characterizes this transition as the time when a spiritual sojourner exchanges a tacitly held and community-promulgated belief system for a new system that is discerned and chosen via the person’s reinvigorated sense of autonomy and self. In other words, the person moves from relying on their community to tell them what to believe and how to make sense of the world to deciding for themselves what kind of person they want to be. This individuation from long-held conventional beliefs allows the person to critically evaluate their belief system and discover on their own terms who they really are and what they believe to be true. Fowler thought that “leaving home” was just the kind of scenario that could ignite the self-examination and reflection required for this transition.

These two stages resonated deeply with me. I studied theology and philosophy for four years in undergrad so can hardly say that I simply assumed all my belief system. However, an honest reflection of myself reveals that I have subscribed to the ideas of my mentors, professors, and religious leaders seldom out of critical reflection and often out of a desire for a system of belief that gave me personal and communal meaning. My move to Atlanta, then, was perhaps the distance I needed to individuate myself just enough to begin questioning and analyzing my beliefs in a way I never gave myself permission to before.

I don’t think this means I will cease being a Christian or even a United Methodist, at least I hope it doesn’t. Instead, I hold a hope that this season of wrestling will lead me to pick up my faith with my own two hands, perhaps for the first time; to claim it and cherish it in a new way that would be impossible had I not gone through the journey of individuation. I’m still on the journey, as we all are, but I am beginning to see a way forward.

I knew that seminary would be challenging, but I wasn’t expecting to be rocked as hard as I was. I felt a lot of despair last semester, but now I am beginning to feel hope. I may have lost my stage 3 faith that was content with the conventional belief system of my community but I’m beginning to gain a faith that is real and sustainable. I may have “lost my Jesus” but I’m starting to find Him again, just at my own pace. Maybe Psychology of Religion was the class that ruined my faith, but maybe it also saved it.

 

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