Let me be brutally honest with you for a second: I’m mad at Brandon Withrow.
I know I shouldn’t be mad at him. I know I have no right to be mad at him. I know it is wrong and petty and incredibly unfair for me to be mad at him.
But I still am. Here’s why.
Brandon Withrow is an author, academic and blogger who specializes in early Christian history and literature. Also, he was once a regular contributor to the BioLogos Forum and is, or was, active in the creation-evolution debate.
The verb tense gets a little messy, because Withrow has recently gone public with his deconversion from Christianity to secular humanism. In so doing, he also made the decision to leave his non-tenured faculty position as an assistant professor of historical and theological studies at Winebrenner Theological Seminary.
So, because of that, and because he has always been a writer and commentator on a far-reaching variety of subjects, it’s not entirely clear at this point what conversations he will remain active in, and which ones he might add to his repertoire.
Let me say up front that I don’t know Brandon Withrow, except from his writing. We’ve had no real interaction other than a few Tweets here and there (which, actually, I think means we’re best friends. So never mind).
But there is only a handful of smart, well-educated theological types who write unapologetically against the Hamites and their ilk, and there is an even smaller handful of those who do it well, and there is only, like, I don’t know, zero-ish of those who are — how do I put this delicately? — not, um, a lot older than the young people who desperately need to hear this message.
Of that select group, Brandon Withrow, was
the only one one of the best, and one of my favorites. He was a good writer, down to earth and clearly passionate about the intellectual pursuits in which he was engaged.
To hear him tell it, it was that last bit that was his faith’s undoing.
On his blog, which was once known by the now-ironic title The Discarded Image and is now called The Curious Ape (with a much cooler logo), and in a couple opinion pieces, Withrow has offered some crumbs, but few specifics, as to what caused him to reject the faith he once adhered to.
Like many of the unaffiliated in America, my problems with religion included biblical, social, personal, and scientific issues, the fine details of which are beyond this short article. I can say, however, that my path to faithlessness began by putting my religion under the academic microscope. (I recognize that many religious academics would not see my disbelief as a necessary conclusion of this process.)
The more my approach to my field became academic, the less I stayed an adherent. Why? As K.L. Noll describes it in “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” the “religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab.” The theologian defends and propagates a religious perspective, but the religion researcher will “select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside,” which “tends to ‘kill’ the religion.”
I became both researcher and frog. By poking around in my religion, I discovered what made it tick and found a creative but entirely human faith. I also dissected my nonexistent soul and its motivations and concluded that the faith I was handed as a child was not one I could embrace as an adult.
All right. So, why do I care? And, more to the point, why am I mad at Brandon Withrow?
The inescapable fact of the young-earth movement is that it, at its core, is not driven by a faithfulness to God, nor Christ, nor truth, nor even the very text it claims to uphold above everything else. No, if you peel away everything else, you will find that the one thing that animates young-earthism, that unifies its proponents’ messages and that ultimately drives believers into its fold is this: fear.
That’s why their arguments don’t make any sense. They don’t need to, when fear is their ace in the hole. Reason is in many ways the enemy of fear, and fear has no use for it.
So, whereas a well-laid critique of the literal view of the Genesis creation accounts, demonstrating, for example, the bizarre contortions it requires of the text and traditional Christian theology, might otherwise be effective in loosening the stranglehold young-earthism has on the modern American church, a fallacious but nevertheless rhetorically powerful counter-punch is, “Don’t become a theistic evolutionist because it will make you and your children atheists.”
And against that message, Brandon Withrow was once not only an ally, but a valuable counter-example. Now, Withrow is, as he eloquently puts it, “many statistics.” But the most troubling for me is that he is now a weapon the young-earth charlatans will use to attack everything this site represents and to draw more people into their shallow, reality-denying bubble: “See? Evolution and Christianity don’t mix. Theistic evolution is just one step on the road to atheism. Told you so.”
I don’t know how much evolution really played a role in Withrow’s deconversion, or if it did at all. Based on what I know about his writing and fields of study, I suspect his loss of faith probably had more to do with higher criticism of the Bible, but that’s just my guess.
At any rate, his story plays right into the overall narrative that smart people don’t become — or in this case, stay — Christians, and good Christians don’t look too closely or too intellectually at their own faith. And evolution or not, that narrative is at the heart of what we at GOE fight and stand against.
Let me be clear here. This is not a public shaming. (Unlike this.)
No, I’m not actually mad at Brandon Withrow. He made a very courageous and intellectually honest decision, and there is much to admire in that. And I also appreciate the terms in which he has couched his decision. As the above quote shows, he has sought to explain why he came to the conclusions he did, while simultaneously acknowledging that other valid conclusions may be drawn, and that other smart, reasonable people whom he respects have drawn them.
I am upset, but if I’m being honest — and I’m trying to be — the reasons I’m upset have nothing to do with Brandon Withrow and everything to do with me.
Simply put, this makes me mad because I do not understand it. I just don’t get it.
Do I have doubts? Absolutely. I have doubts about my theology, my understanding of scripture, my views of the Christian faith and its doctrines.
At times, I have serious doubts about parts of the Bible that seem to defy any efforts to understand them or make them comport with the huge, loving, merciful and imminently rational father I believe God to be. Perhaps Brandon Withrow struggled with some of these same passages.
But these aren’t doubts about God. These are doubts, ultimately, about whether a feeble, easily distracted mind such as my own could ever be capable of grasping things that are wholly beyond me, that are cosmically enormous and unfathomably mysterious.
I do not doubt God. I know him. He is real to me. And I do not doubt I’m a sinner, in desperate need of his grace.
I doubt me. That is my trouble, but also his gift. Because it is in this self-doubt that I believe I know what it truly means to be human, and it is also in that place that I feel closer to God than I ever have.
And who knows? Maybe, someday, Brandon Withrow will come around again. And maybe he won’t. But I do believe he will keep exploring, keep thinking and keep being honest, both with himself and his readers.
And, in the end, that’s really all any of us have the right to ask of him.