When Your Favorite Theology Professor Becomes an Atheist

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

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.”

 

When 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, whowrote, “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!”

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