I’ve had doubts about my faith for as long as I can remember.
I didn’t sleep well as a baby and small child, and one of my earliest memories comes from around the age of three or four, when one of my late-night wanderings into my parents’ room was initiated by a terrible thought that had entered my small mind: what if we had everything backwards, and God was evil and the devil was good?
Going through severe panic episodes nightly when I was seven and eight led to many unanswered questions that created a lot of hesitancy regarding God’s existence and his goodness, which at least in part were motivations for me at about the age of 10 to begin reading the Bible straight through and to seek out what was a helpful book for me at the time, Lynn Anderson’s If I Really Believe, Why Do I Have These Doubts?
When I more fully made my faith my own in my teenage years, I didn’t shy away from hard questions, and thankfully I’ve never belonged to a Christian community that was afraid to talk about them (and it continues to surprise me that, evidently, the norm for most Christians is the opposite).
Doubt is normal. We all have doubts about all sorts of things through the course of life. It’s only when there is an abnormal obsession with and focus on our doubts that there is something unhealthy at play.
People do fairly regularly, of course, allow doubt for a variety of reasons to consume them regarding relationships, jobs, and matters of faith that result in things ending.
But I was really thrown earlier this week when I learned that one of my favorite Christian musicians, Derek Webb, became an atheist sometime in 2017.
While making my faith my own as a teenager, I was coming of age in a great era of Christian music (the 90s), with the emergence of such artists as Jars of Clay (which remain my favorite group – please come back), dc Talk, Sixpence None the Richer, Rich Mullins, and Caedmon’s Call.
Derek was one of the lead vocalists of Caedmon’s and is a gifted songwriter, very authentic and genuine in his lyrics to the point that you feel like you really know him as a person, which is something I try to express through my own writing.
He became a solo artist in 2003, and I continued to listen to his music and resonate with his bluntness, honesty and some of his faith experiences.
People leave the faith, but this marks a troubling small trend for higher profile Christians that I learned a lot from and respected leaving. I really liked Rob Bell’s earlier books such as Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith; Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality; and Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. Then over the matter of several years, he stepped down as pastor of his church and began writing increasingly non-orthodox books that crept further and further away from Christian teaching.
So what gives?
It’s of course different for different people.
I’m not actually sure if Rob has “officially” left the faith, meaning he may still identify as a Christian, but Derek definitely has, labeling himself an atheist.
I don’t actually know Derek Webb, so this is speculation built on facts I do know that – even if not completely true specifically for him – can definitely be true for a lot of us.
I’ve written extensively about how humans are emotional creatures whose reason and thoughts are driven by our passions and experiences: what the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies as stated in the theology of Anglican Thomas Cranmer. So whatever thoughts we are thinking are largely predetermined by what your heart wants, which in turn is often directed by what has happened to you in life (which is why I advocate actively seeking healing in the form of counseling and therapy).
Having listened to Derek on a podcast explaining why he left the faith, he talks about his own infidelity in marriage that led to a traumatic divorce that further resulted in his mind to his church family abandoning him.
That’s enough to potentially destroy any faith if it isn’t built on healthy, solid foundations (reference Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27).
At this juncture is where my speculation begins regarding Derek’s thoughts as based on what he’s shared and what he’s previously written.
How we view the character of God makes a world of difference in how we are going to relate to him.
Not many people fully understand that within Christianity itself, there are at the very least two traditions of viewing God that can result in very different ways of understanding who he is – both groups are indeed Christians, but what I’ve long worried as theoretically possible in one group appears to be largely responsible for Derek’s loss of faith.
The two traditions are known by different labels, one commonly referred to as either Calvinist, Reformed, or as believers in predestination, the other referred to as either Arminian or believers in free will.
Calvinism of course dates back to, as the name suggests, John Calvin, during the era of the Protestant Reformation, though the thought that Calvin very precisely articulated does have roots dating back at least to St. Augustine in the Fifth Century (and, as Calvinists would argue, with St. Paul in the New Testament). Arminianism dates specifically to Jacob Arminius, who was a near-contemporary of Calvin who was known for outlining a retort against the determinism of Calvinism that Arminians would argue is the largely unstated assumption throughout all of Church history.
In short (and this does no justice to either school of thought), Calvinists believe that God’s sovereignty and omnipotence means that all of existence (all moments of history) are predetermined by God and that God has predestined which people are going to be saved and which are going to be damned, while Arminians believe that God’s omnipotence means he knows already all that will happen in history but is not actively making (nor, importantly, wanting) all events to occur but allows for human choice to dictate many actions.
Derek seems to correspond very strongly with Calvinism, while I adhere to a form of Arminianism.
I think most atheists actually rail against a Calvinist type of God, really, because I’ve heard similar versions of the following story that Derek shared from comedian Patton Oswalt, who tragically lost his first wife to cancer and was very open about talking about his grieving process.
Basically, a strictly materialist mindset comes down strongly on determinism, too, because if there is no God and there is only the physical realm, then choice is truly a fantasy because all our actions are in a real sense determined by the mix of our genetics and our “programming” – we can’t help but do the things we do as a consequence of the things we are made of.
Patton Oswalt, per Derek, said that he came to the point where he realized either everything in life is utter chaos, or if there is a God, then he’s just a f***ing a**hole. Derek concurs.
And to be honest with you, I completely agree that the Calvinist depiction of God is indeed an a**hole God, which is a big reason I reject its thinking, because it can result in this type of despair for people. That’s not the kind of God I know; that doesn’t reflect his heart. And many good Calvinists I know would agree that isn’t his heart, but I can’t see how you can say that in the face of Calvinist teaching.
The other thing to note about a lot of Calvinists I know is that many have a strong sense of self-hatred (and I recognize it, because I do, too), so they find comfort in “resting” in the belief that they have absolutely nothing to do with their salvation – it’s all on God. Also because of this self-hatred, they resonate with another part of Calvinist teaching, total depravity, which believes that after the fall of humanity, there is absolutely zero left in humanity that was good as God originally made it (hence: totally depraved).
Derek wrote what may be considered an anthem for Calvinism in the incredibly catchy song “Thankful” off Caedmon’s sophomore album, 40 Acres, which includes some of the following lyrics:
I am thankful that I’m incapable
Of doing any good on my own
‘Cause we’re all stillborn and dead in our transgressions
We’re shackled up to the sin we hold so dear
So what part can I play in the work of redemption
I can’t refuse, I cannot add a thing…
And this line haunts me from “Table for Two” off the same album:
And You know the plans that You have for me, and You can’t plan the ends and not plan the means
And then there is this from his most recent album, Fingers Crossed, from the song “Goodbye For Now:”
So either you aren’t real
Or I am just not chosen
Maybe I’ll never know
Either way my heart is broken
As I say, goodbye for now
In lamenting his infidelity in a post to Facebook in 2016 (before his full switch to atheism), he also stated, “I have a hard time believing in a God that could make, let alone love a man who could do such things,” demonstrating the self-hatred he was and presumably is going through.
The Calvinist explanation for what has happened to Derek often is that he must have never been chosen (as he himself claims) to begin with, so he wasn’t “really” a believer all this time, which as an Arminian I call as shenanigans. The scripture Arminians often quote when Calvinists want to make this claim comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
“Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Tim. 1:18-19).
Paul wouldn’t be encouraging Timothy to hold on to faith unless it was indeed something that could be lost, as he affirms with the shipwreck reference to others: you can’t wreck something that wasn’t actually afloat.
Look, man, above all else, what God wants from us is love – he wants our hearts. And you can’t be programmed to love something; that’s not how love works. It has to be chosen. You can’t theologize around that.
So, no, God’s grace is not irresistible (another Calvinist teaching), because if we can’t resist it, then how can we choose it? And it’s not that God couldn’t be irresistible, in essence, because of how good and beautiful he is – he chooses not to be so that we do still have a choice in it.
But Arminians don’t believe that everything is thus dependent on humans to work out our salvation – far from it, we do still believe in depravity, just not the totality of it, in human nature. We believe there is still good in all of us, the image of God, which is why there are so many people who do good and beautiful things yet are not Christians.
We believe that God’s grace to us is prevenient, meaning it comes before each of us and guides us and keeps us going as we rest in it, to draw each of us to him.
And because God allows for free will to exist so that as many of us as can will choose to love him, the Fall happened – where there is choice, there can be mistakes. And scripture teaches that all of creation suffers as a result of that choice to sin.
So that is why there is sickness, death, destruction, horror, natural disasters, a world that is in tension and suffering.
Not because that is what God wants and does himself, but because it is a consequence of getting to the place God has in mind for all of humanity – a people who choose to love and trust him.
And it still does ultimately come down to trust, because even if we don’t lay all the horrible things that Derek and others are tempted to place at the feet of God, it is still true that, being all powerful, God could make it stop at any moment.
The trust comes this way – the Christian doesn’t believe in a God who has removed himself from suffering and evil, but who feels intimately all the pain we do, and more, the pain of all creation. That’s why the Incarnation is so vital – God becoming man and experiencing everything we do, and suffering grave injustices and a painful and humiliating death at the hands of a corrupt political system.
The Holy Spirit that afterwards inhabits every follower of Christ also now experiences everything each of us do daily, all the horror, all the joys, and everything in between.
And it’s not that God is thus masochistic, but that he deems whatever we are going through right now to ultimately be worth what he has in mind in the end – and that can definitely be a challenging thing to trust, when we know just how many terrible things occur every day.
So I pray that Derek finds that God, who is the same Christian God he once believed in, but looked at in a different light.
A God who desperately loves us and embraces our doubt, uncertainties and everything in us that is broken, and not one that uses those things as proof that we don’t belong to him.
The key to being able to see that God comes through healing of your self-hatred and your past traumas, not through crafting an elaborate theological system around your self-hatred.
You, yes even you, are loved.