Pastor Ryan Bell’s “Year Without God” experiment gained him national attention for simply daring to question out loud.
Pastor Ryan Bell sparked a firestorm. It wasn’t the coveted revival that most pastors dream of bringing to their congregations and communities. In fact, it wasn’t supernatural at all. Nor was it intended. When Bell quietly resigned from Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church to find out what life might look like as a non-believer, his private journey took on a public life of its own.
I have often said in my own writings and speeches that certainty is about religion, while uncertainty is about faith. Bell describes that place as “that amazing moment in music when the chord hasn’t really resolved and you’re like, wow, what’s the music going to do next! It’s a creative space.” Uncertainty opens the door to possibilities, removes the barriers of judgment, and lifts the veil of fear. Ironically, it is the faithful who have the most difficult time living in that place of uncertainty, according to researcher Brene Brown.
“Social conformity is a powerful thing and it’s hard to stay in the question,” Bell said. “People asked, why a year? And I said I wanted to force myself to stay in the question for at least that long. I think in that middle space is when we’re at attention.” For that reason, Bell shed the faith label.
In addition to his 19 years as a pastor, Bell holds a doctorate of ministry from Fullerton Theological Seminary, and a masters of divinity from Andrews University. He was also an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University. Yet, in spite of his education, life-long personal commitment to his faith and experience, he is frequently dismissed by other Christians.
“I call this ‘moving the goal post,’” he said. He learned early on that no matter how he explains his experiences, there is always someone to tell him he just doesn’t understand what a personal relationship with Christ means. He is frequently told that he never really knew what Christianity was about, he wasn’t the right kind of Christian, “or the worst one is,” Bell said, “Well, you were never a Christian in the first place.”
“I’m glad that you have that vantage point and you can let us all know that,” he said he would like to say to his naysayers. “I don’t know how [they] get to that vantage point that [they] can weigh in on my entire life without even knowing me, but you know, that’s amazing.”
Nevertheless, Bell refuses to engage with his critics, noting, “I used to say to my congregation that we need to be Christians not defined by what we’re against, but by what we’re for. In general, when defending myself, I want to be defined by what I care about and I find that’s useful to have the conversation I want to have.” He went on to say, “I find the thing that makes people think the most, and by people I mean Christians, is that I’m not what they expect me to be, which is angry, hostile, and lashing out.”
When asked what brought about the questioning of his faith, he calls it “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Like so many of us effected by the 9/11 attacks, Bell said he first noticed how many signs went up around the country saying, “God bless America,” which on one hand he understood, but on the other hand said, “I thought this was no different than the attackers saying, ‘Allah told us to fly planes into buildings.’ It’s sort of like saying, ‘God’s on our side! No! God’s on our side.'” This left him wondering which side God was really on. “This is crazy,” he went on to say. “It was like praying that God will help the Eagles win the football game. So I really took a step back and started looking at the way the church had become enmeshed in a national agenda that really had nothing to do with the Gospel.”
Bell realized he had been doing a lot of work to accommodate his faith. He noticed he was constantly realigning his theology to match his life. “I don’t even know if I was conscious of it at first,” he said. “I’d say things like, ‘Well, God didn’t answer my prayers why didn’t this thing happen?’ And the response or adjustment to [my] theology might be, ‘Well, that’s not how God works. It’s up to God’s agenda and not my agenda. In the bigger picture God had a reason.’ Then [I’d ] press it a little later and realize, really prayer is about me conforming myself to God, not about changing God’s mind.” This left him wondering what relationship, if any, he had with God. “God is just receding into the horizon until you think maybe there’s no God at all.”
Unlike many of his more well-known evangelical counterparts, Bell is driven toward social justice. Pulling up to the church driveway one Sunday morning he saw a homeless man in front of the church gate. Ironically, Bell had prepared to preach the story of Peter and John who, in Acts Chapter 3, came upon a similar situation at the temple gate. Peter’s response to the beggar in the Bible was, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6, NIV).
Bell said he realized, “I can’t do that. What am I going to say to [the congregation]? It just brought me up short. I went up to my church that morning and said, ‘I have no idea what this means. I know the text says I’m supposed to say to this man get up and walk, but we’re going to have to figure this out together.”
Agnosticism, atheism and non-denominationalism are on the rise. According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), since 1990 the number of those who identify as having no religious affiliation has grown by 19.8 million, exceeding the number of all others affiliating with religious organizations. Additionally, a 2012 Pew Research study found, “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” Additionally, the study showed that those who were unaffiliated with any religion identified themselves as spiritual or in some way religious; 30% believed either in God, or a “universal spirit” with certainty, while 38% believed with less certainty. 12% identified as atheist and 17% identified as agnostics.
Bell said, “More importantly than answering the question of God’s existence academically is what do I do with my life when I can’t manage to believe.” He went on to say, “I think that’s a more important question than whether or not there is an actual God, which nobody can verify one way or the other.” It’s that life between the lines of belief and faith that many people find themselves these days.
Bell hopes to use his experience to establish some way to help people process their questions in a safe environment. While church-goers and atheists have a place to talk, those whose beliefs fall somewhere in the middle often find themselves alone with their own thoughts. “I probably have 300 emails,” Bell said, that say, “thank you so much for doing this in public. Your experience mirrors mine so closely.” Whatever the outcome of Ryan Bell’s personal experience, he’s opened the door to a national conversation on living dichotomously between real life and faith.
Look for the upcoming documentary about Ryan Bell’s Journey, A Year Without God.
Photo-Courtesy of Ryan Bell