In the most recent episode of her excellent WNYC podcast, Death, Sex & Money, host Anna Sale has a conversation with Diane Gill Morris. Morris is the mother of two teenaged boys with autism. Sale and Morris talk about the challenges and joys of being the parent of children with extraordinary needs, the toll that those needs have taken on Morris' life, and her attempts to deal with the internal fatigue that comes with all of it. At one time, Morris tells Sale, she tried to find peace by going to church.
DGM: ... I found that being in service and just kind of having that quiet time, having this quiet hour and a half was so something I needed. But people were asking for prayers about all kinds of things and I would be like, "Okay, if this is how this works, let me do this." You know, and I would pray and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and pray, and I'd just be like, "Just tell me what I'm supposed to do." And at some point I realized that I was - I was beating myself up in an effort to impress God. I was making myself feel worse. And over the years, I have found that I have become not just like fully atheist but like devoutly atheist.
DGM: Because if I have to accept the idea that somebody chose this for me, that's - I can't accept that. I can't get there. That's too hard. But if I can just accept that it's just, you know, a accident of biology, I can do that.
AS: Did anyone at church ever tell you, "This is - this is God's plan, everything happens for a reason"?
DGM: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, everybody says that. Everybody says, you know, "God only gives special children to special people." To which I say, "Well then God can go f--- himself." (Laughs) I - I - I - you know, I mean like - not. No. No. That's not a thing.*
Indeed, Ms. Morris. That's not a thing. Or, rather, it certainly is one thing: it is bad theology.
Bad theology like this is one of the reasons that people are leaving our churches in droves. It's certainly not the only one. But for those of us who are worried in a rather self-interested way about the survival of our churches, this is not an insignificant factor to consider. Just ask your average "None" (as in, "no religious affiliation") or "Done" (as in "done with church") whether their views are shaped even in part by the kind of theology Diane Gill Morris had inflicted upon her. Many (most?) of them have. And we wonder why they don't stick around?
Even more importantly, since in the end the church is not a numbers game, this way of thinking about God is simply not true. While preachers and pastors do it all the time, there is no scriptural reason to claim that the trials and tribulations of life are inflicted upon us by a God eager to see how we're going to swing at this or that particular existential curve ball. Life is not a game. Relationship with God is not a game. It is serious, serious stuff.
One can find something in the Bible to "prove" just about anything one wants to find in it, even that "God only gives special children to special people." But taken as a whole, solid biblical faith does not have as its object a God who causes everything that happens to us to happen. Just read the scriptural books of Job or Lamentations. There, among so many other places, it is clear that God is not the author of the difficulties we face. What God does do is give us the strength to stand up under the weight of them. This is what the healing miracles of Jesus of Nazareth are meant to demonstrate for us. If we follow Jesus' command to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, we are turned toward the ultimate source of our lives in love, and turned toward the relationships that nourish us, and we learn to build one another up in love not despite but in and through the challenges we face -- the hardships and tragedies of life -- together. That's where God is at work in us, soothing our troubled hearts, creating new life among us in stronger, healthier, life-giving relationships that can bring healing into the broken world.
People need to hear this. They need to hear it from the church. They need to hear it from their pastors, from their pulpits. And they need to experience it in their lived lives.
Theology matters. And Morris, in writing that "if I can just accept that it's just, you know, a accident of biology, I can do that," is closer to a better understanding of God than the one she received in her church. I write this to our shame and to her deep, deep credit.
When it comes to bad theology, the answer is not for people to go to church less. Sorry, my spiritual-but-not-religious friends! ☺ The answer is for the leaders of our churches to go back and do some real, deep, soul-shattering theological work. It is for them to get to know God better and the full sweep of the Bible better so they can preach God's Good News better. It is for them to listen to their people, to discover how God is really moving in the world and in human hearts and to preach to that. And it is also for people to keep looking for places where the life-giving message of God can truly be heard. Places where human lives can be transformed, and where the world can be changed in beautiful ways on account of it.
While I am so very sad that Ms. Morris found herself in a church that piled sorrow upon her sorrow rather lifting that burden, instead of in a Christian community that preaches and actively follows the God of Life, I promise that they do still very much exist. It's up to us -- pastors, theologians, Christians of all kinds -- to make sure there are many more like them.
* Transcription available at the URL linked to above.