When Your Favorite Theology Professor Becomes an Atheist

Radical Life

ThinkstockPhotos-452416345When Christian teachers, pastors or mentors leave the faith, many who sat under their ministry get caught in the confusing wake that follows.

Such was the experience of Matt Herndon, a pastor in St. Louis, who wrote, “My favorite theology professor became an atheist. Will I?” He recounts the journey of Bethel Seminary Professor F. LeRon Shutts, who changed his status from free-thinking Christian to free-thinking atheist. Shutts now believes that “evolution offers a much more compelling and probable explanation of religion.”

Christians love conversion stories, but tales of de-conversion are like a punch in the gut. This is not supposed to happen, particularly to those who make a career of teaching and ministry.

Yet today’s cultural milieu provides an easy path for those who choose to change their worldview. Thanks to social media and a laissez-faire approach to life choices, support comes for those who make “courageous” decisions to “go over to the other side”—particularly in the religious, political, and sexual environments.

Some de-converted evangelicals even take on a heroic status, like biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (hilarious on “The Colbert Report”), or anti-religion crusader, Dan Barker, co-head of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

I am not likening Professor Shutts to these headline grabbers; in fact, he is just the opposite. From all evidence, he quietly moved away from his former place of ministry when he changed his thinking and continues to serve in the academic world.

The Academic World

Ah, the academic world. There is nothing like it. Having been in that world myself for many years, I know the environment is immersed in research, ideas, and debates. We academics are called “Professors” for a reason; we are trained to profess our own thinking and conclusions on just about every topic, even those we know little about. The credibility that comes with advanced degrees is intoxicating at times.

Realistically, there can be a danger in having a curious mind with the time and resources to develop it. Academic pursuits can take on a life of their own and become disconnected from life. Moreover, the approval of other scholars is the currency of the academic community. Our arguments become ends in themselves. As C. S. Lewis reminds us in “The Great Divorce,” “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself. . . . as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!”

In a world where “objective” and “rational” are code words for “atheism” and “scientism,” anything that hints of faith in God is relegated to third-class stowage. But while the allure of scientific or philosophical reasoning has broad overtones of the increasing secularity of our culture, it is a secularity that brims with undertones of our religious nature. It reminds me of one of David Foster Wallace's characters, who finds that his atheism is really worship: “a kind of anti-religious religion, which worships reason, skepticism, intellect, empirical proof, human autonomy, and self-determination.”

We are indeed incurably religious. And those who deny even the possibility of God consistently overreach. Nobel Laureate biologist Sir Peter Medawar, quoted in the book “God’s Undertaker,” explains, "The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things—questions such as ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’”

There is a growing number of top scientists and philosophers who follow Christ, and they tell us that belief in God is rational and demonstrable, not merely an evolutionary remnant of superstitious fear. Removing the narrow lenses of scientism, they see the breadth of reality. They look at the same evidence Professor Shutts sees and come to a different position entirely.

I do not know Professor Shutts, nor will I speculate on any personal issues that may have led him to turn away from his faith. The religious positions he now embraces had been around for decades before he chose them. They did not get better or stronger. They have not changed; he did.

Faith Hammered Out in Life

That's why we should never be overly swayed by the arguments of those who have advanced degrees or claim expert status. Nor should we allow the meandering personal journeys of leaders to cause us to doubt or fear. They, like the rest of us, are imperfect and broken in mind, soul, and body.

God intended truth to frame our understanding and transform our lives. The biblical worldview is not only a view of the world; it is a view for the world. If we merely make it our reality template, we abuse it. And it is inescapable—we may not live what we profess, but we will live what we believe. When it comes to matters of faith, I am always less convinced by arguments from academics than from practitioners: people who have walked the walk in challenging circumstances.

Following Christ is deeply personal and, like any relationship, marked by times of joy and peace, as well as doubts, fears and darkness. And if it is true, it will make an immense difference not only in personal lives but in the world around us.

John Perkins, pastor and civil rights leader, experienced a worldview crisis. He had lived through a nightmare of encounters with "Christians," including corrupt law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. After one horrific night of torture in jail, John Perkins underwent a crisis of faith:

"It was time for me to decide if I really did believe what I'd so often professed, that only in the love of Christ, not in power of violence, is there any hope for me or the world. I began to see how hate could destroy me. In the end, I had to agree with Dr. King that God wanted us to return good for evil, not evil for evil. 'Love your enemy,' Jesus said. And I determined to do it. It's a profound, mysterious truth, Jesus's concept of love overpowering hate. I may not see it in my lifetime. But I know it's true. Because on that bed, full of bruises and stitches, God made it true to me. I got a transfusion of hope."

Image courtesy of moodboard at Thinkstock by Getty Images.

Dr. William Brown is the national director of the Colson Fellows Program and senior fellow of worldview at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. A respected leader in Christian higher education, he is former president of Bryan College and Cedarville University.

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