How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
“Don’t you folks ever read your Bibles?” reads the bronze plaque right outside the John G. Mitchell library. It’s a quote from the founder of the College I went to—the small, nondescript Multnomah School of the Bible. Trudging past that quote every day on the way to classes or our thrice-weekly mandatory chapels, it felt like a cruel hoax. Don’t we ever? It felt like that was all we did. Yet, the message remained, drilled into our soft skulls from an ever-increasing array of arsenal: Whatever we are doing, it isn’t enough. We can always learn more, do more, read more. And once we have done it—gotten our degrees, read the Bible enough—we will be validated. We will have attained something tangible, something that makes us different from those who did not attend here. We will be able to teach others.
I majored, like everyone else at my school, in Bible and Theology. I took copious notes. I read the entire Bible, multiple times. I slunk around the rain-smeared campus and memorized were my go-to commentaries where on the shelves of the library. A professor of mine, near the end of my time there, assigned us a simple assignment that turned out to be my undoing. “Write a one page document explaining why you believe the Bible.” That one page tormented me. Of all the logical, irrefutable, proofs for the Bible—none struck me as deserving of that one single page. Instead, I wrote sentence after sentence about faith. I wrote about how I had no clue why I believed it all. But still, I did.
In 2012, N+1 published an editorial called “Death by Degrees.”In it, the editors highlighted the somewhat seedy history of accreditation in our world, leading up to our current crisis in regard to higher education, astronomical student debt, and a proliferation of liberal arts degrees. The article makes clear that “our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly —and very dimly —a system for imparting knowledge.”
No amount of study can prepare you for what the Bible actually is: it is alive, it is real, and it will slice your heart to shreds.I know a prominent community counselor who believes degrees are merely pieces of paper intended to bolster one’s confidence enough to go out and start bluffing (and actually learning) in the real world. This is true for not only secular universities, but for Christian institutions as well. Responding to threats of anti-intellectualism (and overcorrecting from the sins of their fundamentalist fathers) conservative Christian colleges have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of degrees as a symbol of worth and status. The practicalities of an economy supporting a crash of debt-laden Bible college graduates, however, was never once mentioned in my presence.
From early on in my academic life, I was confused. I knew that a Bible college would prepare you to do the work of the Lord; I knew I wanted to be a missionary in post-communist Russia. I was prepared to be poor for the rest of my life, but I didn’t understand that one could live in deficit, that dreams could be deferred by the crushing realities of student debt. When the financial aid office of my Bible college draped their offers of loans in front of me, I confronted them. Do you really think you should be pushing debt onto missionaries and pastors? I asked them. They did not have an answer for me and seemed surprised when I declined all loans.
I was lucky; I worked 30-plus hours a week doing retail sales while going to school full time, and I lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and moved back in with my parents. I graduated magna cum laude, with no financial debt. I was the minority, however. As of 2014, the average amount of debt a student leaves college with is $28,000. While this might be a workable financial constraint for many, it can prove crippling to the very students that Bible colleges cater to—those who want to minister, either as pastors or teachers or overseas missionaries. Without more marketable skills, the vast majority of my classmates (including myself), made lattes with our bachelor’s degrees, treading water until our real life of paid ministry could begin. We had read our Bibles; we were ready to go out and change the world.
Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials. (N+1)
It has been eight years since I got my degree in Bible and Theology, with a minor in Inter-Cultural Studies. I am living in the most diverse neighborhood in all of America, in the inner-city of a large Midwestern state. I am in a Bible study with a woman who was born and raised in the city. We are so different, her and I. She is my elder in so many ways, gray-haired and more than a decade sober. She was born into generational poverty, inherited a history of oppressive colonialism and cultural decimation. She did not go to Bible college and to my knowledge she never received any higher education. And every week when we come together, journals and Bibles in hand, I am being educated. I am brought to my knees by this terrible, beautiful Book. I am humbled beyond belief to read with someone who expects God to speak and who then decides to obey what she reads and hears.
We have three questions we ask when we read the Bible: What does this passage teach us about God? What does it teach us about humankind? And—this is the one that has changed my life—if I believe it is all true, what must I do to obey? There is no talk of hermeneutics, exegesis, no commentaries consulted. We read, we pray, we talk, we respond. Oh, how we respond. How we struggle with all of the unbelievable things that the Bible asks us to believe and walk forward in. That God uses terrible, messed-up, broken people. That we are forgiven, and that we are called to forgive others. That God is not okay with oppression, that He loves justice and mercy, that He says we cannot live with just ourselves in mind.
In the beginning, I felt a little awkward. I knew coming into this study that I wanted to pursue an equitable partnership. Would I have to pretend that I didn’t go to Bible college? That I didn’t already know loads of theology and history and context? As it turns out, my fears were quite mislaid. No amount of study can prepare you for what the Bible actually is: it is alive, it is real, and it will slice your heart to shreds. Every week I would come nervous, afraid of what I would find, afraid of what would be asked of me. And together, my neighbor and I, two opposites on the extreme poles of privilege in America, together we let the Bible read us.
In many ways, I am unlearning much of what was taught to me in higher education. Here, in the actual land of immigrants and poor and tired and huddled masses, neither tests scores nor pitch-perfect doctrines matter much at all. I was trained to believe that those who were more educated had a civic duty to go out and teach those who were not. Stratification as a result of education ensued; hierarchy was not merely encouraged, but considered biblical.
As the editors of N+1 say, “Americans have been affluent enough for long enough that it’s difficult to remember there was once a time when solidarity trumped the compulsion to rank.” We go to churches where the pastors all have impeccable credentials from the denominational college of choice. We read books by famous theologians, swap our favorite doctrines and debates. We strive to be knowledgeable, to be good stewards of our minds. And in the end, perhaps without realizing it, we have invalidated the majority of the world which does not have such a luxury.
This is no anti-intellectual screed; heaven knows that is the last thing that Christendom needs. But it is a call for us to look critically at how our perceptions in regard to validity and knowledge affect our ability to be little Christs in the world. Mutuality, long a buzzword in fringe Christian circles, might be the most overlooked virtue in Religious Education in America today. At Bible college, you are trained to read the Bible correctly; not once, in all of my years there, was I taught that someone who had no access to education, who could not even read, perhaps, could ever teach me something about the Word of God. And this, this discrediting of the vast majority of the world, those millions without access to these luxuries we so take for granted, this is the real tragedy. We have created a stratification system for who can and cannot understand God. We have decided that hierarchy is the best system for translating truth, possibly since we tend to be at the top of the pyramid. We have studied the Spirit right out of the Word; we are missing out on all the messy miracles that Christ is performing on the edges of the Empire. We read the Bible, and we did not understand the central scandal that it contained: that the Spirit of God is for everybody, regardless of how qualified you are for it.
Dignity must be restored to labor, and power and ecumenicism to labor unions. On the other side the reverse must happen: dignity must be drained from the credential. Otherwise, the accreditation arms race will become more fearsome. Yesterday’s medals will become tomorrow’s baubles, and the prizes that remain precious will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. (N+1)
I appreciate what Walter Brueggemann has to say about the Scriptures. In its infinite wisdom and complexity, the Bible is available for all. For the uneducated, the first-time readers, the lazy laity—there is so much to gain from the Bible. With a contrite heart and a mind willing to be humbled by obedience, everyone can read the Bible and be transformed. But this radical book is also served well by constant scholarly study; one can spend an entire life trying to understand the Scriptures and continually find new revelations. It is the Word of God, after all; it transcends all boundaries of class and education and background.
When I look back at my Bible college education, I am grateful for the kind hearts and the luxury of being surrounded by so many ideas, books, and students. But I am constantly astonished at how much I have had to unlearn, of realizing how much I don’t know, of admitting that I am possibly not the expert that I thought I was.
I am not quite ready to burn my Bible college degree, but I do view it as a limited, privileged resource. My real education, the one that has grown and stretched me, has happened outside the confines of my Western-centric, mostly white, mostly male college education. I have started to learn from the people who the Bible was written for and by: the oppressed of the world. And just like Jesus said, I have been blessed by the people who our religious institutes exclude: the poor, the sick, the sad, the meek. And in order for institutions like Bible colleges to remain viable spiritually and culturally, they must start integrating the perspectives of those without credentials. We must strive to tear down the dividing walls of hierarchy and work toward equity and mutuality, a church where we truly learn from one another. We must believe, like we are so often taught by our pastors and teachers, that God is alive and that His Spirit speaks through His Word, to anyone who believes. No Bible college degree required.
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