Charles Templeton. Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.
Charles Templeton was a Christian evangelist and a close friend to Billy Graham. Templeton left the Christian faith and became an agnostic. In this book, he explains why.
A lot of his reasons are not particularly new. They include the problem of how God can permit evil and suffering, the implausibilities within the Bible (i.e., the Flood story), biblical contradictions, the problem of how God can damn so many people in the world to hell for not being Christian, inconsistencies between the Bible and science, the reality that many people embrace the dominant religion of their surroundings, the deficiencies in character and temperament of the God of the Old Testament, and Old Testament laws that marginalize or are unfair towards women. I suppose that even someone who has already interacted with these issues can learn something new from Templeton’s discussion: I, for one, never thought about the problem of ventilation on Noah’s Ark!
The book is about more than Templeton poking holes in the Bible and Christianity, though. Templeton also reflects on the decline of Christianity (except for fundamentalist Christianity) in the West, the humble Christians he knew and admired, and technological advancement that is accompanied by emptiness and moral corruption. While Templeton does not believe that Jesus was God and thinks that the Sermon on the Mount is rather unrealistic, he admires Jesus for his moral insights and courage. He contrasts Jesus with mainline pastors whose messages do not rock the boat!
Templeton says that he is not an atheist but an agnostic. He believes that something started the universe but that it was an impersonal force rather than a personal being. For Templeton, the universe is indifferent to human beings. Templeton still maintains, however, that there are natural and moral laws, and that obeying them can result in positive consequences. Society works better when people are kind to each other. If people treat nature well, then nature will treat them well. (Templeton asks why God does not send rain to areas plagued by drought, yet he also blames drought on human beings.)
Does Templeton regret leaving Christianity? He acknowledges that church can bring people comfort, community, and solidarity, and he misses that. At the same time, he says that he was plagued by doubts when he was a Christian, as a result of what he was reading. Now, he is free to explore different things, without fear that what he learns might contradict Christian orthodoxy.
I enjoyed his telling of his own conversion story, how he became a Christian, perhaps because it is somewhat similar to my own. Templeton felt guilty and unclean but felt peace, warmth, and light after he asked God to come into his life. In my case, I felt guilty and aimless, and I was looking for comfort and a moral compass. I felt peaceful and grounded when I committed myself to Christ.
My favorite passage in Templeton’s book was what he said on page 233 about loving his neighbor: “I believe that you cannot love your neighbour as yourself but that you should care about your neighbour, whoever he is and wherever he lives, help him when you can and co-operate with him to make the world a better place.”
I myself question whether I am called to love my neighbor in the exact same proportion that I love myself, or to love my neighbor more than I love myself. I doubt that is possible or that even many evangelical Christians attain to that. I do believe, however, that I should love my neighbor, and that there are times when I may need to put others first for the sake of peace, or because it is the right thing to do.
In terms of criticisms of the book, I have three. First of all, Templeton did not really interact with Christian voices that were not fundamentalist. In a movie about Billy Graham’s early years, the Templeton character praised an academic for his dissertation on theologian Karl Barth. I wonder where Templeton would find Barth’s thought to be inadequate. My understanding is that Barth tended to dodge modernist criticisms of Christianity and the Bible by focusing on how God can use the Bible to challenge Christians in church. In my opinion, even if the Bible has problems, God can still use it to bring people into relationship with God, and to challenge them about their sin and need for redemption.
Second, Templeton did not have much of a critical methodology in determining what in the New Testament was historical and un-historical. He dismissed the Temptation story of Jesus because that sounded to him like a legend serving to highlight Jesus’ humanity. He rejected the stories of Jesus’ resurrection because they were contradictory. Yet, he largely accepted the parts of the Gospels about Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, even though he had just said that the Gospels were written after the time of Jesus by people who did not even know him, casting doubt on their historical reliability. Templeton seemed to accept those parts because he found them plausible and did not think that they contradicted each other, even though they arguably do. Interestingly, Templeton even found Jesus’ miracles to be plausible, but that was because he thought that Jesus may have been curing psychosomatic illnesses, or people’s symptoms manifested themselves again after Jesus left (as occurs with a number of faith healers). Templeton’s discussion of the historical Jesus was interesting, but he should have offered a better methodology of why he was deeming parts of the Gospels to be historical, especially after arguing that there is reason to doubt the Gospels’ historicity.
Third, Templeton should have explained how the stories about the resurrection of Jesus originated. He said that Jesus’ followers made them up because they were disappointed about Jesus’ death, but Christian apologists can then ask questions: Does that mean that Jesus’ disciples were lying? Would they be willing to suffer or even die for something they made up? Templeton should have interacted with such issues. I will say, though, that Templeton did raise an interesting consideration: If Jesus’ tomb was empty, would not Jesus’ disciples be able to point all of the Jews to the empty tomb, resulting in mass conversions to Jesus? The Gospel of Matthew has an answer to that, though: Many Jews believed that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the Roman guards were asleep.
This was a worthwhile book for me to read. It is important for me to read books like this so that I can clarify to myself what I believe, and why. I think that Templeton asks good questions and raises valid points. I personally do not dismiss the existence of God or a higher power, but I struggle with questions about God’s existence and activity (or lack thereof) in the world.