California pastor Ryan Bell has a novel New Year’s resolution. For one year, he proclaimed, he will “live without God.”
It’s an odd resolution for an ordained minister, former church pastor, teacher at two highly regarded Christian universities and church consultant. Yet for the next 12 months, Bell, 42, plans to refrain from praying, reading the Bible and thinking about God at all.
Instead, he will read atheist authors, attend atheist gatherings and seek out conversation and companionship with unbelievers. He wants to “do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist.”
Still, his resolution is only an experiment — he is not, he said, an atheist. “At least not yet,” he wrote in an essay for The Huffington Post, where, on New Year’s Eve, he announced his plan and a new blog to document it.
“I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.”
But so far, it has also been about loss. Since announcing his plans, Bell has been asked to resign from both of his teaching positions and lost a consulting job. In the months before his decision to, as he put it, “try on” atheism, his health and his family relationships suffered too.
But even this early in his experiment, Bell feels he has gained something. Among the 20,000-plus people who have visited his new blog are many who have written to say that they, too, dance with doubt, but feel they cannot do so publicly because of the cost.
“In a way, it is like being gay and not being able to come out to your family,” Bell said in a conversation from his home in the Los Angeles area. “There have just been so many people who said they have wanted to ask questions too and didn’t feel that they could. So they are living vicariously through my spiritual journey.”
“Which,” he added, “in a way, is a lot like being a pastor.”
Indeed, Bell’s path has been marked by controversy before. Born to Methodist parents who converted to Seventh-day Adventism, he eventually led Hollywood Adventist Church, a Los Angeles congregation known as a liberal outpost in a mostly conservative denomination.
Over the years, Bell’s once-fundamentalist views became more progressive, he said. He advocated for women’s ordination and the full recognition and inclusion of gays and lesbians, both prohibited by current church doctrine. He also took issue with the church’s literal interpretation of a six-day period of creation and its end-times teachings.
Last March, after eight years at Hollywood Adventist, he was asked by denominational leaders to resign. And that, he said, in part led him to his yearlong experiment with atheism.
“Not being a pastor for nine months has given me the freedom to not have to believe in something for other people’s sake,” he said.
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SOURCE: Religion News Service