Philosophers and their religious practices, part 3: The SCP is my Church
March 11, 2015 — 8:45

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 25

This is the third installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices (see here and here for previous installments). In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers  about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. I have interviewed (and am in the course of interviewing) agnostics, theists and atheists, hopefuls and skeptics. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited, except for some occasional shortenings (indicated by ellipses)

The third interview is with H.E. Baber, who is a full professor at the University of San Diego.

Could you briefly say something about your current academic position, and say something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification. Please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.

The religious affiliation of my university approaches the merely nominal and the overwhelming majority of faculty, like academics everywhere, are atheists. I myself am Episcopalian, though I am not currently a churchgoer.

I was brought up to believe that while religion might be understandable in the elderly facing death and in working class people who had been ‘conditioned’, it was not something that any normal, educated person would take seriously and moreover that an interest in religion was perverse, morbid and ‘sick’.

I was interested in religion—and in everything I thought of as ‘spooky’: ghost stores, magic, myth, superstition and anything to do with the supernatural. I read everything I could on mysticism (and used recreational drugs) looking for intense experience—in particular, the sort of experience I later described to myself as ‘metaphysical thrills’. I loved church buildings and church music, and was fascinated by ceremonies and by theology.

But I didn’t feel I was entitled to do theology, sing church music or visit church buildings unless I joined a church. And it wasn’t clear to me, that joining was possible or, if it was, how to do it. I had initially assumed that the only way to get into a religion was by being born into it or marrying into it.

Insiders don’t appreciate how remote churches are to outsiders or how difficult it is to get in. Churches don’t signal that they’re semi-public places, like supermarkets or movie theaters, where anyone can go no questions asked. As an outsider, I was too shy to visit any church—afraid that it would be going into a private space where I didn’t belong, afraid I’d be noticed as an intruder, or asked embarrassing questions. There was no easy way of applying to join a church. When I joined the Episcopal Church as an undergraduate I didn’t know any churchgoers: religion simply wasn’t done among people I knew. It took me months after deciding to join to get up the nerve to call the local church and ask to see a priest. I wondered why churches couldn’t make things easier—why, e.g. they didn’t put ads in the college newspaper or leave flyers with forms one could fill out to request information or apply for membership.

Even now I don’t know many religious believers. My colleagues are more or less accepting of my religious connection. The SCP has made a terrific difference within the profession in supporting Christian academics and work in philosophy of religion and philosophical theology! People I’ve met socially outside—on the ground and on the internet—are baffled when they discover I am religiously affiliated. One Facebook acquaintance, a New York radio journalist now unfriended, asked me whether I ‘believed in evolution’ when it came out that I was Episcopalian.

Somewhere, I understand, there are places where religion is part of the world taken for granted and atheists are regarded with suspicion. I have never lived there.

Can you tell me why you started to go to church? What aspects of worship in a church appealed to you in particular? You mention “metaphysical thrills”, I’d like to hear something more about that too.

As a child and in my teens I played in orchestras and sang in choirs. Probably what affected me most seriously was singing the Schubert Mass in G at music camp when I was 14. We learnt about the music, the meaning of the Latin words and some of the theology in musicianship class, and I was completely taken by it: I wanted it. I also liked working on theological puzzles, especially the doctrine of the Trinity. And I loved reading church history, particularly the history of the Patristic Period—the heresies, schisms and councils and the wild disputes over theological minutiae.

What aspects of worship in church appealed to me? Mainly the escape from the ordinariness of everyday life into a fantasy world where everything was flashier, fancier and more intense, sensual and exotic. I also liked the fact that church was formal and impersonal—a place where one could be alone in a crowd, surrounded by people without being noticed or making personal contact. Or at least so it used to be.

As far as ‘metaphysical thrills’ I mean experience that is (1) intense and (2) involves an escape from ordinariness. It comes from various sources—liturgy, the experience of nature and art, thinking about some metaphysical issues, e.g. skepticism about the external world. Once I got it in class explaining how all of a formal system in math was packed into the axioms—dense as a black hole, all there to be extracted.

What ultimately led you to no longer attend church?

I stopped going to church because I saw the Church screwing up, driving people away, and dying, and finally realized that there was nothing I could do about it.

I thought that I might have a voice in the Church when I’d graduated from college, or when I was married, or had a job, or had kids or was tenured. But it was never so, no matter what social or professional credentials I acquired. I finally realized that no layperson could ever have any influence on issues that mattered in the Church. We were just, as one priest put it, ‘pastoral care objects’. So I tried to get ordained.

I was told that to be ordained I had to get involved in church activities in order to be ‘called up from the congregation’. So I blew a hole in my career and neglected my family, doing time-consuming church work. It never seemed to occur to clergy that I had a life—a job, a husband, children, and things to do—with which these activities interfered. Clergy assumed they were doing laypeople a favor by giving us busywork to make us feel useful.

After years of trying, the bishop told me that I wasn’t to be ordained, that it ‘wouldn’t be fruitful’ to tell me why, and that I shouldn’t waste the time of the Commission on Ministry by applying again. The chair of the Commission on Ministry told me that she had known from the first time she had met me, 7 years earlier, that I would never be ordained. This hadn’t stopped her from telling me, after the second of two earlier rejections when I’d asked whether it was worthwhile for me to reapply, that I should of course apply again—and telling me go into therapy, at significant out-of-pocket cost, to improve my chances on the next round.

As I finally learnt, the Church would never say ‘no’ if they could help it. Instead they stalled applicants, tried to deflect them into lay ‘ministries’ and, failing that, set up baffles and barriers. I asked the ComChair, when we first met, whether I could study theology during my forthcoming sabbatical at my own expense, no strings, so that I’d have some credits to go towards academic preparation if accepted for ordination. She told me that if I wanted do theology on sabbatical, I should postpone my sabbatical until I was accepted. So I got my sabbatical postponed—with great effort. I only realized later that the ComChair never expected me to postpone my sabbatical or go to an expensive shrink: these were just barriers that she assumed I would be unwilling or unable to negotiate.

I am disheartened by the decline of the Church and frustrated because, as a layperson, I can’t do anything about it. In spite of the officially democratic structure of the Episcopal Church, and rhetoric about lay ‘ministry’, laypeople have no voice in matters of importance. The agenda is set from the top, laypeople are heard only when they echo the party line, and priests as well as laypeople are marginalized, beaten down or squeezed out if they don’t go with the program. This has driven some to join break-away groups. That isn’t an option for me because I have no sympathy with the conservative moral positions these groups take and, most especially, because the view that gender is in any way theologically significant is a deal-breaker for me.

I cannot bear to watch the Church die at close range—to see congregations decline, choirs disappear, church buildings close. That is why I left the Church.

Although you are no longer a current churchgoer, would you say that your experiences as a former practicing Christian influence your philosophical work (in philosophy of religion and other fields)? And if so, could you specify how, or are these two separate domains of engaging with religion.

Because I had no childhood religion I was never in the position of others who have had to choose between rejecting their pre-philosophical religious beliefs in favor of their current philosophically informed views, keeping them in separate compartments, or somehow reconciling them. All the religion I had when I joined the Church I got from college classes, and from my reading.

When I joined the Church I was put off by its way of ‘engaging with religion’. Faculty at school, none of them religious believers, treated theological doctrines as philosophical claims, which even if false, were worth serious consideration. At church, the curate who taught my adult Confirmation Class reinterpreted them as edifying sentimentalities or dismissed them. In philosophy class, we considered the possibility of post-mortem survival, in church, the curate glossed the article on the resurrection of the dead in the Creed as ‘not pie in the sky when we die, but life in depth and fullness here and now’.

While seeking ordination, priests occasionally ‘came out’ to me, making it clear that they assumed religious belief as ordinarily understood was naïve—assuming that, as a philosophy professor, I would approve. A number of priests I knew regarded their churches as community service facilities operating a range of programs, of which Sunday services were just one among many activities, and by no means the core business. They saw themselves as community organizers, members of a ‘helping profession’ and dry-land cruise directors organizing activities to keep church members occupied.

I was the wrong audience. The Church spoke to people who didn’t have a taste for metaphysics or enjoy liturgy, and who felt they ought to be religious but worried that they didn’t qualify because they couldn’t conjure up what they imagined were the requisite beliefs. Bishops assured them that belief in a God ‘out there’ was no more plausible than belief in a God ‘up there’ (J.A.T.Robinson) and that theism was dead (Spong). Priests marketed churches as social centers, suppliers of secular goods and services—schools and pre-schools, youth groups, community service projects, therapeutic programs—and occasionally as settings for music and the arts.

What went wrong? This is my guess. Once academic theology was done in the Church. When universities developed outside the Church, academic theology moved to university departments of philosophy, where we do theology as the Fathers and Scholastics did it. Meanwhile churches went off in a different direction. Clergy developed a different reading list and concerned themselves with different issues, drawn in large part from Continental philosophy and the social sciences. At the street level, this translated into the assumption that theology as we understand it is obsolete.

There is no way to fix this. The best we can do if we want to remain churchgoers is to ignore all attempts by churches to deliver intellectual content: avoid church-sponsored classes, discussion groups, Bible studies and workshops; ignore sermons. What’s left? Liturgy. And for those (unlike me) who want it, volunteer work and ‘community’.

When I became ‘involved in the church’ to pursue ordination, I saw more than I wanted to see—the formulaic political correctness, the interpretation of theology as pop-psychology, the waste of time and money and the patronizing attitudes of clergy.

The SCP is my church.

  • Brendan

    i have the impression that many C of E clergy are non-realist, post-ontotheological , God-within-us types. It comes out when they’re challenged about pointless suffering. And then I wonder whether they explain to their congregations that there isn’t really anyone up there.

    March 12, 2015 — 5:04
  • Brendan: I think this is the case, although there is now also an influence of more analytical, realist approaches, such as by Plantinga, and perhaps also historically grounded approaches, such as NT Wrights detailed account of the resurrection of Jesus. A few years ago, it would not have been intellectually respectable to argue that Jesus literally rose from the dead, but now it seems to me that vicars are moving toward realist positions. This may just be an impression, and perhaps it’s too much colored by my years in Oxford. But in any case, it seems not too far of the mark to say that non-realism is often (not always!) a position to which people retreat to salvage what they can of religious institutions in the light of attacks on the intellectual respectability of their theologies…

    March 12, 2015 — 8:12
    • This is why I’d expect more members of mainline churches in the US to be atheists. In the much of the US churchgoing is still a norm and people are expected to be, in some sense, religious. So, as the Sea of Faith ebbs, there are an increasing number of people, clergy and laity, who don’t believe in God but want or, if they’re politicians, need to be religiously affiliated and see. Elsewhere, where secularism is more socially acceptable—as in the UK where even politicians ‘don’t do God’ you have fewer atheists among churchgoers and clergy. So, ironically, the less religious a society is the more likely clergy and churchgoers, because they’re self-selected, are to be atheists.

      March 12, 2015 — 8:50
    • While not to make light of Wright, I don’t think what he said about the improbability of a crucified messiah was new. If vicars changed their mind from his arguments, its hard to imagine they read very deep into the question in the first place. The fact is, there’s really no way to know if Christ rose from the dead based on purely historical criteria (though things like his existence and ministry, as I have come to see from reading up on the case for Mythicism, is quite good, or at least far better than Mythicism, which is apparently the only other alternative explanation of why the Gospels and Epistles were written). It has to be accepted at least to some extent on faith.

      But anyway, after hearing about all these Anglican priests being crypto-atheists and still drawing a paycheck, I am mightily glad of the Catholic Church’s discipline of celibacy. I doubt many of them would stick around preaching in a God they didn’t believe in if it meant they had to keep on being celibate for no reason.

      March 12, 2015 — 19:21
  • Joseph Jedwab

    H.: Like you say, the article reports that nearly 90% of those ordained since 2011 are theists vs 72% of those ordained priests in the 1960s. It’s not clear to me, though, whether this is because they ordain more theists now or whether say about 90% of the priests from the 1960s started out as theists and have since ceased to be theists. Does the research say one way or the other, do you know?

    March 12, 2015 — 11:05
  • overseas

    @HEB- I’m surprised you’ve never considered Catholicism. Some prominent philosophers have gone that way while believing no more of the Catholic “distinctives” than you probably do. And it’s certainly liturgically heavy.

    March 13, 2015 — 6:43
    • Not as ‘liturgically heavy’ as the Anglican Church which is THE liturgical church! 🙂

      March 13, 2015 — 13:41
  • IT

    I will just say that your experience is not the same as mine, although I live in the same place as you.

    As a non-believer who goes to (an Episcopal) church, I feel very welcomed but also viewed as somewhat of a puzzle by my many church friends. I don’t notice any of them crossing their fingers during the creed and I assure you that my clergy friends aren’t pretending that they believe–they really do believe . I’m also part of a mixed marriage–, my wife is a woman of deep faith, formerly Catholic who found a home as an Episcopalian after Prop8. And it really has been an amazing home for her. i certainly don’t see a lack of liturgy or mystery, which is what draws me. You don’t need God to find a deep experience in the aching beauty of polyphony carried to the ceiling on a waft of incense. Moreover my experience at the church we attend, is that the laity is deeply involved. And while you may be cynical about the “intellectual content”, I find that quite stimulating.

    OTOH coming out as a churchgoer amongst my academic colleagues is viewed with much more suspicion, I’m with you there.. I enjoy making them think that their worldview is perhaps, a little narrow. 🙂

    March 16, 2015 — 12:13
    • I’d be interested in getting together if you are. You know how to reach me.

      March 22, 2015 — 12:46
  • Dogtooth

    Speaking as a Church of England clergyman who does believe in God (most of the time!). I think the issue is as much to do with personality type as with belief.
    As a extrovert working in a church largely led by introverts, I found some of my colleagues more ready to retreat to their books, to prayer, or on occasion to the river bank or the golf course, than actively engage with other people.
    When lectio divina take precedence over imago dei as a way of doing ministry, you have a church that’s not that interested in people.

    March 21, 2015 — 13:38
    • OK, I’ll buy that. But I wish the Church would be recognize individual as well as cultural diversity, and be less ready to valorize, or demonize, personality types. In my experience the people who run the church are extroverts and ‘people-persons’ who have a warmth that isn’t in me and who are naturally compassionate. And also, in my experience, they’re people who in some respects have an aversion to, how can I put it, organization and clarity.

      When the ComChair told me that she’d known as soon as she met me that I’d never be a priest the reason she gave was that I was ‘so full of timetables and schedules’—because I’d proposed a timeline and a plan: I’d do theology on my sabbatical, if accepted I’d do this that and the other thing, and didn’t want to do parish ministry but just wanted to continue in my academic job like two of my colleagues who were RC priests. Earlier on, when I approached the local curate to join the church I said that I’d taken classes in theology and church history and wanted to join the church: how do I get this done? He didn’t like this. Honestly, over the years I got the impression that in the church they expected you to be muddled and struggling, exploring, in need of guidance, and definitely didn’t like ‘I’ve got it figured out—here are my goals—here’s the timeline—here’s the plan’. In a post-mortem, after I’d been turned down a priest told me that maybe I’d have gotten it if I’d ‘worn softer colors’.

      As they used to say, ‘dirty old men need love too’, and I wish the Church were more congenial for people like me who, I suppose you could say, aren’t interested in people and just don’t have that warmth.

      March 21, 2015 — 16:16
  • Lyndon

    Thank you for your post. As an Episcopal priest, I’m not always confident that the two things we pride ourselves on,namely inclusion and intellectual seriousness in matters of faith, are actual habits we embody more than aspirations that we think might help the Church deal with decline. When it comes to ordination (it seems), the criteria seem to be moving targets that shift depending on the latest purpose statement from the Bishop or the latest trend within ‘leadership’ or ‘missional’ research. I know this is true a lot of the time, but it is not true all the time. There are some within the Church (inc. Bishops) who are looking to shift the imaginary for the Episcopal Church. Perhaps you’ll find in groups like the Society for Scholar-Priests ( some fellow wayfarers who are seeking and working for an alternative. Best wishes.

    March 21, 2015 — 17:09
    • I checked the website and it looks interesting. I was years ago in SEAD (Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine) based originally at VTS. It was initially supposed to be for people in philosophy as well as theology, both priests and laypeople, so there were high hopes and a number of philosophers were involved. But (long story omitted) it morphed into a group for conservative theologians and petered out. In theory it was a very good idea and one wishes there were something like this for academics in various fields, and others, who were interested in scholarly engagement with Anglican doctrine and, more broadly, issues in the Church.

      March 23, 2015 — 9:23
      • Lyndon

        Yes, the SEAD situation is unfortunate. What we in the SPI remain committed to is generosity in our theological commitments that allows for our work to be a source of growth for ourselves and others. We recognize our commitments have limits, but we try not to promote the limits over the task of ‘bringing theology home’. And know that we seek to support and encourage all people of faith and good will who are interested in revitalizing the life of theological discourse in the Episcopal/Anglican churches in the US and Canada.

        March 24, 2015 — 10:12
        • Pity it’s limited to priests. What was interesting about SEAD at the outset was that it was supposed to be for both clergy and laypeople, and was supposed to involve academics (and others with ‘scholarly’ interests) in a variety of disciplines–not just theology, or just theology and philosophy. It would be great to have something like this involving people in the social sciences too–given the current ‘Great Decline’ in religious participation, as the pundits are now calling it.

          March 25, 2015 — 10:23
          • Lyndon

            SPI is primarily, not exclusively, a society of ordained types, but the central values of the group address matters that pertain to lay and ordained. I am confident your involvement would be most welcome.

            March 26, 2015 — 18:23
        • I appreciate your invitation but if laypeople are welcome then maybe you should change the name of the organization.

          March 28, 2015 — 19:08
          • Lyndon

            What, no priesthood of all believers? Yes, the name does imply, as does SCP, truth be told. 😉

            March 30, 2015 — 9:49
        • ‘Scuse me for getting serious here. The SCP website states that ‘The Society is open to anyone interested in philosophy who considers himself or herself a Christian. Membership is not restricted to any particular “school” of philosophy or to any branch of Christianity, nor to professional philosophers’. That makes it very clear that everyone who is interested is invited. The Scholar-Priest Initiative website says that it is ‘open to any priest with a theological vocation in The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada’ which certainly does not send the message that laypeople, even in virtue of their participation in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ are invited. If there is a real interest in involving laypeople who have serious theological interests, they should change the name and the invitation.

          Let me mention that my last act for the Diocese of San Diego was to get academics to speak at an academic-style conference that I was helping to organize. I got a member of our religious studies dept. who had written several books and published innumerable scholarly articles. She was introduced as a ‘lay theologian’. Now granted, she was a lay person who was a (published, professional) theologian. But ‘lay theologian’ in common parlance is taken to mean ‘amateur theologian’. She was a good sport about it, but I was a little irritated.

          March 30, 2015 — 22:30
          • Lyndon

            I think we read the winking face icon differently. My last post was meant to convey (perhaps poorly) some self-scrutiny of SPI in terms of lay involvement per your previous remark on the organization’s name. But, no matter. Best wishes.

            March 30, 2015 — 22:48
  • JCF

    OK, we get it: Baber doesn’t think the (Episcopal) Church is giving her what it owes her. What does she owe the Church? Could not participating in regular church life be, per Christ’s mandate, her cross (or at least her “work”: liturgy)? [Full disclosure: I write as an Episcopal layperson who also “went through the process” (ordination discernment) only to be told that the Power-That-Be didn’t see the ordained vocation as mine. FWIW, I love TEC no less.]

    March 21, 2015 — 19:52
    • Of course the Church owes me, and all of us. Given its mission, it owes us what might crassly be called ‘religious goods and services’—just as other institutions, in virtue of their missions or contractual arrangements owe individuals. My university owes me a salary, an office, access to an academic library and other things I need to pursue my research, and I owe the university teaching, research and service—according to my contract. And the state owes me and other citizens public services and a social safety net in exchange for our taxes and good citizenship.

      The Church owes us liturgy that feeds our souls, church buildings as sacred spaces and, maybe above all, support for religious belief, in exchange for our financial support and good behavior. IMHO the Church is doing poorly in meeting its obligations to us.

      I never suggested that the owed me, or anyone else, ordination—any more than USD owed me a job. It’s the Church’s prerogative to choose who it ordains, for whatever reasons. I do think that common decency means that the Church should be straight with people and not jerk them around. While trying to get ordained I was in an online Wannabe’s Group and all of us got jerked around, including one member who eventually got ordained. I don’t even understand how the Church benefits from the lack of transparency and game-playing. When the member of our group who eventually got ordained first applied and got turned down, the Com sent her a letter addressed to ‘Ms. H—‘ in spite of the fact that that she’d worked with them for years, advising her to go into therapy before re-applying. Of course the idea was that they wanted to postpone her in order to clear the pipeline. This is what her contacts told her—and also that they always told candidates to go into therapy in the circumstances and that the ‘Dear Ms. H—‘ was just a form letter. C’mon! Why didn’t they just tell her that she was on queue and would be ordained when her turn came—which is what happened? Why do they behave this way?

      March 22, 2015 — 12:18
      • George Waite

        You know, or certainly have guessed, the answer; legal/political repercussions-they want to cover their a**es and pretend that they’re being impartial while not revealing to the peasants their real reasons for ordaining/not ordaining.
        They don’t want to be sued or have someone drag this before the court of public opinion and lose their reputation for “progressive” values like transparency, impartiality and fairness. They’re also so marinated in psychobabble that they probably use it unconsciously, even when it’s pointless or just sounds stupidly pretentious. But being so marginalized, in a small and shrinking church ghetto, they usually don’t get called on it and so it never gets corrected.

        March 25, 2015 — 12:58
        • ‘marinated in psychobabble’—I hope you haven’t copyrighted that phrase since I intend to use it 🙂
          The worst of it was that most of them, I believe, really meant well.

          March 28, 2015 — 19:06
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