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dark nightThe problem for most of us is that we don’t realize how united we are with God. Except in rare moments of mystical experince, most of us don’t generally feel such intimacy with the Divine. Even if we believe devoutly that God is present with us, our usual experience is that we are “here” and God is “there,” loving and gracious perhaps, but irrevocably separate. “We just don’t understand ourselves,” says Teresa [of Avila], “or know who we are.”

At worse, we give lip service to God’s presence, but then feel and act as it we were completely on our own. I think of church committee meetings, pastoral counseling sessions, or even spiritual direction meetings I have attended. They often begin with a sincere prayer, “God, be with us (as if God might be in attendance at another meeting) and guide our decisions and our actions.” Then at the end comes, “Amen,” and the door crashes shut on God-attentiveness. Now we have said our prayers and it is time to get down to business. The modern educator Parker Palmer calls this “functional atheism . . . the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.”

Gerald G. May
The Dark Night of the Soul:
A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection
Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth

p. 44

Gerald May was one of many who helped guide me years ago through some unexplored theological territory, which eventually led to The Sin of Certainty.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

31 Comments

  • Northwest Photography says:

    In the last few post you have mentioned 4 of some of the biggest spiritual influences in my life. John of the Cross, Parker Palmer, Gerald May, and Teresa of Avila. I knew there was something I liked about you. I like this path of Mysticism you seem to be headed down.

  • Northwest Photography says:

    In the last few post you have mentioned 4 of some of the biggest spiritual influences in my life. John of the Cross, Parker Palmer, Gerald May, and Teresa of Avila. I knew there was something I liked about you. I like this path of Mysticism you seem to be headed down.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    In no small measure I owe Gerald May my life. His book Addiction and Grace was just what I needed when it was put in my hands. And he is first to help me understand the role of brain chemistry in any addictive cycle. Not to mention the spiritual insights he provided. Thanks for sharing this resource as well Pete.

    • Pete E. says:

      Wow, that’s something, Hill.

      • Hill Roberts says:

        Yes. And this also illustrates for me the practical aspect of God’s incarnational providence – i.e., that God works (exclusively, IMO) through people. In this case, through Gerald May, through all the human interactions that led Gerald to write his books, through the hands of the one who put the particular book in my hands, and now through you, Pete, sharing another work of Gerald that has moved you to share with us in TSOC, and via this blog through others moved to share other ways they have been touched by Gerald’s thoughts, and maybe even through me. Certainly by all the humanity that developed and supplies the technology for all this to be shared so easily now in cyberspace, and … on and on it goes. God moves in mysterious ways. Quiet ways.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    In no small measure I owe Gerald May my life. His book Addiction and Grace was just what I needed when it was put in my hands. And he is first to help me understand the role of brain chemistry in any addictive cycle. Not to mention the spiritual insights he provided. Thanks for sharing this resource as well Pete.

    • Pete E. says:

      Wow, that’s something, Hill.

      • Hill Roberts says:

        Yes. And this also illustrates for me the practical aspect of God’s incarnational providence – i.e., that God works (exclusively, IMO) through people. In this case, through Gerald May, through all the human interactions that led Gerald to write his books, through the hands of the one who put the particular book in my hands, and now through you, Pete, sharing another work of Gerald that has moved you to share with us in TSOC, and via this blog through others moved to share other ways they have been touched by Gerald’s thoughts, and maybe even through me. Certainly by all the humanity that developed and supplies the technology for all this to be shared so easily now in cyberspace, and … on and on it goes. God moves in mysterious ways. Quiet ways.

  • Gary says:

    At shipoffools.com, they have “mystery worshippers” visit churches to chronicle their visits. They’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. It seems the Internet is now starting to get up there in years.

    The mystery worshipper presents answers to various questions in recording the church-going experience. The questions are ones such as, “Did anyone welcome you personally?” and “Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?”

    My favorite question–and perhaps related to functional atheism–is this one: “What were the exact opening words of the service?” Sometimes, the responses are such as, “Welcome, welcome.” Sometimes, they’re as bad as a mic check. They’re really quite varied.

    Sometimes, I like to imagine there is indeed a deity and that the deity attended each of these services. By analogy, what if the Queen came to your church and was seated in the first pew? Who would be greeted first and how would they be greeted. Treated. I even sometimes like to imagine that the deity might instead show up in the back pew. (“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”)

    Sometimes a service will begin boldly such as this: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”

    Most services nowadays seem to be 100% “versus populum” and 0% “ad orientem.”

    I don’t think it’s just “church committee meetings, pastoral counseling sessions, or even spiritual direction meetings” that can offer insight into functional atheism. I think in some churches it’s the central services themselves.

    Related, I recall one church service years ago. I was listening close to the lyrics of the P&W band. They could have been sung, really, to any deity. There wasn’t really any identifying terminology or doctrinal content or even allusion that designated the worship service as Christian. Here, I think it was less a matter of being functionally atheistic and more a matter of being functionally deistic. The service was 40 minutes in before there was anything distinctively designating the service as Christian.

    During those years of close listening, I recall listening to talk, lyrics, prayers, sermon anecdotes and more to try to understand whether each was functionally atheistic, functionally deistic, functionally theistic, functionally monotheistic, or distinctively Christian in its contours.

    In the time that I paid attention to these distinctive tags, I found that very little of the content was actually Christocentric, cruciform, or otherwise Christologically informed.

    I came to wonder if many people accept religion that happens to be Christian and understand the distinctives at best only in very heady kinds of ways and that what most deeply believe and let influence their subconscious actions seems to be a much less transformed Incarnational way, only unambiguously mapping to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

    All of these experiences helped me feel less alone in my own non-theism while sitting silently in the pew. But they also changed what I thought about Jesus too.

  • charlesburchfield says:

    I love Parker Palmer! Parker Palmer has been suffering from periods of depressive psychosis all his life apparently. according to what I’ve read of his and heard from him & in his interview with Krista Tippett he attributes his recovery to being helped by a relationship to a God who is here: a felt present always willing to help in times of trouble and never leaves or forsakes one. yes! Parker Palmer’s witness and testimony of God’s help and the help of others who know God was a strong influence that helped me process and move through a psychotic depressive stage of grief and loss into more acceptance of myself experiencing recovery from alcoholism, mental illness & childhood trauma. for one who suffers deeply God seems to be willing to put into one’s hands the things one needs in the moment one is humble enough to ask. for me that was when I was willing to admit I could no longer assume that I merited success by my own efforts. only when the the fantasy that I Could Be an Effective agent for myself: manipulating and controlling things so that outcomes came out the way perfectionistic self wanted them to was completely shattered did I understand, as Parker Palmer said, that depression could be seen as a friend who help me find my feet on the ground where I could find traction rather than inflation.
    2nd Corinthians 1:4
    He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

  • I love Parker Palmer! Parker Palmer has been suffering from periods of depressive psychosis all his life apparently. according to what I’ve read of his and heard from him & in his interview with Krista Tippett he attributes his recovery to being helped by a relationship to a God who is here: a felt present always willing to help in times of trouble and never leaves or forsakes one. yes! Parker Palmer’s witness and testimony of God’s help and the help of others who know God was a strong influence that helped me process and move through a psychotic depressive stage of grief and loss into more acceptance of myself experiencing recovery from alcoholism, mental illness & childhood trauma. for one who suffers deeply God seems to be willing to put into one’s hands the things one needs in the moment one is humble enough to ask. for me that was when I was willing to admit I could no longer assume that I merited success by my own efforts. only when the the fantasy that I Could Be an Effective agent for myself: manipulating and controlling things so that outcomes came out the way perfectionistic self wanted them to was completely shattered did I understand, as Parker Palmer said, that depression could be seen as a friend who help me find my feet on the ground where I could find traction rather than inflation.
    2nd Corinthians 1:4
    He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

  • Mike H says:

    Love Gerald May’s work. My favorite quote from The Dark Night of the Soul:

    “Then I reflect back over my own life, in which it seems I can identify many experiences of both night and morning, and I ask, “Am I really more loving now than I used to be?” Sometimes I think I am; other times I’m not at all so sure. And then, finally, I remember how vast and incomprehensible real love is, and how terribly limited is my capacity to judge it for myself, let alone for anyone else. My ideas of love have to do with emotional feelings and acts of kindness, and I know these bear as much similarity to divine love as Teresa’s silkworm does to the butterfly. And I am reminded of how attached I am to the idea of progress; I am looking for objective evidence that I am making headway in this spiritual journey. Yet the truth of the journey admits of no such evidence, and it completely transcends my petty notions of progress.

    So in the end I am left only with hope. I hope the nights really are transformative. I hope every dawn brings deeper love, for each of us individually and for the world as a whole. I hope that John of the Cross was right when he said the intellect is transformed into faith, and the will into love, and the memory into…hope.”

  • Mike H says:

    Love Gerald May’s work. My favorite quote from The Dark Night of the Soul:

    “Then I reflect back over my own life, in which it seems I can identify many experiences of both night and morning, and I ask, “Am I really more loving now than I used to be?” Sometimes I think I am; other times I’m not at all so sure. And then, finally, I remember how vast and incomprehensible real love is, and how terribly limited is my capacity to judge it for myself, let alone for anyone else. My ideas of love have to do with emotional feelings and acts of kindness, and I know these bear as much similarity to divine love as Teresa’s silkworm does to the butterfly. And I am reminded of how attached I am to the idea of progress; I am looking for objective evidence that I am making headway in this spiritual journey. Yet the truth of the journey admits of no such evidence, and it completely transcends my petty notions of progress.

    So in the end I am left only with hope. I hope the nights really are transformative. I hope every dawn brings deeper love, for each of us individually and for the world as a whole. I hope that John of the Cross was right when he said the intellect is transformed into faith, and the will into love, and the memory into…hope.”

  • Derek says:

    I don’t know, I’ve always took it for granted that God designed the nature of our existence to be, well, natural for the most part. He is an ever-present reality to me, but he gives us natural tools to live in the natural world. Just envision yourself in a survival situation…you better get down to business.

  • Derek says:

    I don’t know, I’ve always took it for granted that God designed the nature of our existence to be, well, natural for the most part. He is an ever-present reality to me, but he gives us natural tools to live in the natural world. Just envision yourself in a survival situation…you better get down to business.

  • Ian Panth says:

    Regent College’s (not Regent University) Craig M. Gay’s book The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live as If God Doesn’t Exist is a great book on this topic.
    http://amzn.to/27ztFTz

  • Ian Panth says:

    Regent College’s (not Regent University) Craig M. Gay’s book The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live as If God Doesn’t Exist is a great book on this topic.
    http://amzn.to/27ztFTz

  • young and rested says:

    During the opening prayer of the last church meeting I attended, I was struck (as I often am) by the paradox of asking the omnipresent One to be with us. As I thought about it, an image grew before my closed eyes that I believe gave me a better understanding. In the vision, I was looking from a first-person perspective through a wedding veil. There was some light coming through the layers of fabric, but I could not make out the face of whoever was on the other side. They then began to peel away the layers of the veil, revealing more and more light until all I could see was that light.
    God is always with us (we would cease to exist otherwise), but since we only see dimly through the veil, we still have reason, in a sense, to request his presence. We ask for more of what is already coming through. How sad it is that after asking our bridegroom to remove the veil, we proceed to put it back on again.

  • young and rested says:

    During the opening prayer of the last church meeting I attended, I was struck (as I often am) by the paradox of asking the omnipresent One to be with us. As I thought about it, an image grew before my closed eyes that I believe gave me a better understanding. In the vision, I was looking from a first-person perspective through a wedding veil. There was some light coming through the layers of fabric, but I could not make out the face of whoever was on the other side. They then began to peel away the layers of the veil, revealing more and more light until all I could see was that light.
    God is always with us (we would cease to exist otherwise), but since we only see dimly through the veil, we still have reason, in a sense, to request his presence. We ask for more of what is already coming through. How sad it is that after asking our bridegroom to remove the veil, we proceed to put it back on again.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    As a functional atheist I would just like to say that I do not believe “that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.” There many things that I am not responsible for: the past, the actions of those with whom I have never had contact or influence, and inevitables such as death, sickness, and natural disasters. However I am responsible for my own choices, and like many humanists, I choose to take on responsibility for humanity to the extent that I am able to help.

    Far from feeling and acting as though we are “completely on our own”, I feel and act as though I share this planet with billions of other people who live and love in community as I do.

    • Pete E. says:

      Beau. Dude. You’re an atheist. Not a functional atheist.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        Pete. Dude. I get it! You and Palmer are just using the phrase “functional atheist” to describe Christians who “behave as though they believed what atheists believe.”

        It would be like saying, “you are a functional Muslim … you behave as though you believe that all Westerners are enemies to Allah”. A real Muslim shouldn’t take issue with this … after all, you’re not talking about Muslims, you’re talking about “functional Muslims”.

  • gingoro says:

    Pete maybe you could do a post about being a functional Liberal where by Liberal I refer to liberal Christians of the 19th and 20th centuries. I would like to know how you differ from them, Somehow your writing seems very similar with a Bible that contains essentially not any historical truth but rather maybe uplifting stories that help one psychologically. Maybe I misunderstand you but that is how I read you.

  • gingoro says:

    Pete maybe you could do a post about being a functional Liberal where by Liberal I refer to liberal Christians of the 19th and 20th centuries. I would like to know how you differ from them, Somehow your writing seems very similar with a Bible that contains essentially not any historical truth but rather maybe uplifting stories that help one psychologically. Maybe I misunderstand you but that is how I read you.

  • michael silver says:

    I think the term functional atheist is from reinhold niehbur

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