June 29, 2018

Can Faith and Doubt Coexist? (Part One)

Inside This Episode

Nearly everyone doubts the existence or the goodness of God at some point in life, but what happens when you're a pastor who no longer believes? On this episode, we follow Maybe God host and pastor Eric Huffman as he retraces his steps of the journey from Bible Belt religion to atheism. Eric visits his childhood home and his college campus to speak directly with some of the people who helped shape - and wreck - his faith.

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Teresa MacBain: I'm currently an active pastor and I'm also an atheist. I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday when Sunday's right around the corner, I start having stomachaches, headaches just knowing that I gotta stand up and say things that I no longer believe in.

Julie Mirlicourtois: In 2012, NPR told the story of Florida pastor, Teresa MacBain, a preacher's daughter, she was raised conservative Southern Baptist. She remembers having questions about God and the Bible as a child. But she sent those concerns aside and eventually became a pastor herself.

During her nine years ministering to a Methodist community, Teresa stopped ignoring her doubts and hoped to deepen her faith by looking for answers to questions like: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? And is there any evidence of God at all? That's when her faith really started to unravel.

Teresa MacBain: Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions, and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow, not know the truth. It'd be so much easier. But I can't do that. I know it's a lie, I know it's false.

Julie Mirlicourtois: This is Teresa at the American Atheist Convention in 2012, speaking to a crowd of 1,500 non-believers.

Teresa MacBain: I'm a pastor currently serving at Methodist Church, at least up to this point, and I am an atheist. I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were gonna burn in hell. And I'm happy to say as I stand before you right now, I'm gonna burn with you.

Julie Mirlicourtois: Teresa became a well-known atheist, but during a deep depression, a few years later, her story took another turn. At her lowest point, she says she found God right beside her and realized the true meaning of grace.

Teresa MacBain: The best real-life example for me of grace is my dad. In 2012, I told him that I didn't believe anymore. He was crying, I was crying. I just blurted out, "I'm sorry, dad, I didn't mean to be such a disappointment." He shocked me by saying with a strong voice, "You are not a disappointment. You're my daughter, and nothing you do will ever change that." See, that's grace. Grace is God's saying to us, to me, "You are my daughter and nothing you do will ever change that."

Julie Mirlicourtois: It's human nature to have doubts, especially about things we learned when we were kids and about things that can't be proven or seen, like God. But what happens when it's a pastor whose job is teaching people about God who stops believing?

Today you'll hear part one of the story of how Maybe God host and Pastor Eric Huffman lost his religion, what brought him back, and why today he believes doubt is the fuel of faith.


Eric Huffman: Hello. Sounds rough. Maybe I'll go with the televangelists. This is me in 2006. I was in my 20s and leading a new church called Revolution near downtown Kansas City.

[clip - Eric preaching at Revolution]

The idea of God hating or despising religion is one that strikes at the heart of all we are about at Revolution. Many of you know the mission of Revolution, hopefully. The mission of Revolution, if you know it, say it with me, is to create a Christ-like culture, in which ordinary people are empowered to do extraordinary things by rethinking societal norms, removing the dividing barriers, and reshaping the future of the world.

Eric Huffman: If you've listened to Maybe God or to any of my recent sermons at the story, Houston, you're probably asking yourself, what's with that accent? I don't really have a good explanation for that. It was the 2000s and everywhere you looked from The Daily Show to Saturday Night Live, everyone was making fun of George W. Bush's Texan accent, and I wanted to lose mine and Kansas City was the first place I'd ever lived that wasn't Deep South. So I think that accent was some subconscious attempt at not sounding like a Texan.

[clip - Eric preaching at Revolution]

"Religion, once it is tainted by human hands, teaches us to adhere to a certain set of norms. In order to fit into this religious box, we have to adhere to these norms. And then religion also teaches us to idly sit back and allow the future of the world to come to us, instead of doing all that we can to impact or to change the future of the world."

Eric Huffman: What strikes me more than the accent is the anger in my voice, especially my anger toward Christians. That's just not what you normally hear on a Sunday morning in a Methodist Church. Methodists aren't known for raging against the machine. But I was a fifth-generation Methodist pastor who didn't believe Jesus was truly the Son of God or that the Bible was divinely inspired. And that kind of cognitive dissonance is enough to frustrate anyone. And every Sunday I would stand up to speak and the frustration would boil over.

[clip - Eric preaching at Revolution]

"Some religious Christians go so far as to put bumper stickers on their cars to show the rest of the world just how religious and Christian that they are, right? My favorite Christian bumper sticker is "Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb". And I've always wondered what people who are not familiar with Christianity think about a bumper sticker like that." Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

Then if you want to earn doubly divine brownie points for being religious, you might even put one of those metal fish on the back of your car, with a regular fish, meaning you're moderately religious, and the fish with Jesus in the middle of it, meaning you're quite religious, but the fish with the Greek word for Jesus, meaning you're super religious.

Eric Huffman: My church was struggling to survive. Apparently preaching about how most Christians are evil and then saying, "Hey, you should become a Christian" isn't a winning strategy. As if that wasn't stressful enough, my marriage was also in trouble. My wife was begging me to leave it all behind and go to law school instead. But this world, the church, it was all I knew.


Eric Huffman: I grew up in a tiny Bible Belt town called Red Lick, Texas. Church had been my life since the day I was born. Just ask my parents, Chuck and Kathy. Most important question for our listeners and maybe for me, too, what kind of a kid was I?

Chuck Huffman: Well, I mean, a great kid, outgoing, always fun to be around, magnetic personality, drew people to you, loved sports of all kinds, and loved being in the church.

Eric Huffman: What about any downsides to my character as a kid? Mom's reaching for the mic.

Kathy Huffman: School was not the priority, doing homework on the bus on the way to school. Luckily, you were a really good test taker. So you didn't have to do a lot of prep, but you could ace the test.

Eric Huffman: When I was a kid, Red Lick was made up of dirt roads and old dairy farms. That was about as ideal childhood as I can imagine. I rode my bike to school almost every day. And when school was out for summer, I spent the whole day with my friends playing football, waiting in the creek, digging for crawdads, going to Boy Scouts and Vacation Bible School at the church. I only had one thing to worry about, and that was being home in time for supper.

When I turned 14, I took my first paying job at the Red Lick Cemetery. And for 10 hours a week and $4 an hour, I cut the grass around the graves, dug up sunken headstones, and spruced up flowers and American flags left behind by grieving loved ones.

When I was a teenager, do you think that if somebody had told you that I would become a pastor that you would have believed them then?

Chuck Huffman: I would have, yeah.

Eric Huffman: Mom?

Kathy Huffman: Yes. I always, whether it was jokingly or not, I've always thought you would be a preacher or a politician. And I'd say that they're very much the same.

Eric Huffman: Oh God. When they were growing up, my parents' lives revolved around their churches too. Their first date was on a church hayride. Things escalated quickly from there.

Chuck Huffman: I let my relationship with your mom take first priority in my life, even over my relationship with God, always a recipe for disaster on some level. What comes out of that is in our junior year of high school, we realize we were expecting a child and so-

Eric Huffman: Immaculate conception because you guys never had sex.

Chuck Huffman: Yeah, right. Right, exactly. But just to be clear, that was your sister, not you.

Eric Huffman: She's the accident.

Chuck Huffman: She's the one immaculately conceived.

Eric Huffman: Okay, I got it. They decided to stay together and keep the baby, which meant they had to tell their families starting with my mom's mom, Virgie, who had a bit of a temper. What do you remember feeling sitting at that table?

Kathy Huffman: Scared mostly I think, and just a lot of unknowns, embarrassment, disappointment, fear.

Eric Huffman: School officials forced my mom to go to a separate High School just for pregnant girls, you know to keep her from being a bad influence on her friends. She was six months pregnant with my sister on her wedding day. I came along four years later. My teenage parents struggled to support our family of four. Our first home was on wheels.

Before he became a pastor, my dad spent 15 years working at the local paper mill. I still remember the awful smell of sulfur dioxide that followed him home every day. Mom ran a beauty shop in a portable building next to our house. And through it all, Red Lick Methodist Church was the center of our lives.

Gosh, this looks exactly the same. I bet that my name is on some of those trophies. Maybe. So we're walking down the hall, fellowship hall at Red Lick Methodist.

Dudley Childs: There he is. There he is.

Eric Huffman: There is Brother Dud. Dudley Childs is a riddle. At first glance with his buttoned-down white shirt tucked neatly inside his slacks and his pitch-perfect southern draw, he looks and sounds like a typical small-town pastor. But there's more to his story. Before he found God, Dudley used to be a heavy drinker and something of a womanizer. And even after he became the preacher of my childhood church, he still had an edge. I remember him being the first pastor I ever saw smoking a cigarette.

This place looks very familiar.

Dudley Childs: Yes, I'm sure it does. I'm sure it does.

Eric Huffman: You know, it's funny how when you're a kid, you remember things they're so much bigger. Because this choir loft is tiny but in the back in the day, it seemed huge.

Dudley Childs: Yeah, I preacher behind that plain glass 20 years.

Eric Huffman: Sometimes people think of small Bible Belt churches as seedbeds of bigotry and hate, but that was never the case for me. Back in the 80s in rural East Texas, Dudley taught me and my friends to love everybody the same.

Dudley Childs: I just always loved the people, no matter what, you know? I would have a mom and dad come up to me and say, you know, "I'm just very worried my child's gay and... how do you handle that?" And I'd say, "Do you love them? They're your kids, you keep loving them. They're still God's children. They are still of God."


Eric Huffman: When I was 18, I left Red Lick behind and went to college where I decided to major in psychology. I always knew I was destined to help people, and becoming a therapist seemed like the best way to do that outside of becoming a pastor, which I didn't want to do because when I was in middle school my dad became a pastor. And like any rebellious young man, I wanted to step out of my father's shadow.

So this is scenario here. Where should I park? Maybe I'll get some... I never did pay for a parking pass my whole time I was in college. So I became an expert at finding free parking around here.

It was the first day of freshman year, I was sitting in my very first college classroom, Intro to Choral Singing. It was the easiest elective course that I could find. And the choir directors Dr. Brooks, and Dr. Rich asked all of us to introduce ourselves. So we went around the room saying our names and where we're from. I was sitting in the front row and so I said, I'm Eric Huffman and I'm from Red Lick, Texas, and then all the other students sounded pretty much the same after that. Chris from Dallas, Trisha from New Orleans, Jeff from Atlanta, and so on. But then for the first time, from the back row of the class, I heard the voice that changed my life forever. And she said, "My name is Geovanna Chavez and I am from Quito, Ecuador.

Geovanna Huffman: ...and I am from Quito, Ecuador. I thought you were fun. You were always surrounded by a lot of people and you seemed to be like the life of the party in a lot of ways. And I don't know if it was actually the life of the party or maybe the class clown. I don't know. I can't decide really.

Eric Huffman: What's the difference?

Geovanna Huffman: I don't know.

Eric Huffman: But in the very beginning, you were a little weirded out by me.

Geovanna Huffman: The way in which you flirted with me was strange. You used to hit me from the back row of choir rehearsal, fist bump me or something like that. I don't know.

Eric Huffman: It was just kind of-

Geovanna Huffman: It was just kind of-

Eric Huffman: I think I just wanted to touch you, and it's not good.

Geovanna Huffman: You were not an experienced flirter.

Eric Huffman: No, I was not. I mean, truly, from the moment I laid eyes on you or heard your voice, I was pretty head over heels-

Geovanna Huffman: That's sweet.

Eric Huffman: I had written in a journal that I kept at the time, which was my prayer journal, I'm not sure why I wrote this in my prayer journal, but I wrote that you're the one for me, we're gonna get married. And that was August the 21st. We met on August the 17th. So-

Geovanna Huffman: You've always known what you wanted. That's something about you that I also like.

Eric Huffman: It feel a little bit longer on the other hand.

Geovanna Huffman: It did.

Eric Huffman: But eventually my good looks won you over.

Geovanna Huffman: No, no, it wasn't your good looks. You looked kind of sick. I'm sorry.

Eric Huffman: Sick how? I was perfectly healthy.

Geovanna Huffman: You had shaved your head, you had mild acne, and I just felt that there was something wrong with you. Actually, when I went to complain to your music teacher that you kept fist-bumping me, I asked her, "Is he sick? I mean, I want to be merciful." You looked sick.

Eric Huffman: I didn't know it then but Geovanna was being cautious and protective for a reason. She didn't have the same sheltered life as me. She left Ecuador against her parents' wishes when she was just 16 years old and she moved to Houston, where she was pretty much on her own.

Geovanna Huffman: I was 14 when I discerned that God was calling me to be a pastor. I actually knew it was not a possibility in my home church and in my home country. Female leadership wasn't something that was widely accepted.

Eric Huffman: Geovanna's calling to be a pastor precipitated her move to Houston, where she found work helping out at a church. A year later, she met a pastor named Martha. Martha and her congregation basically adopted Geovanna and raised enough money to send her to college. Geovanna always knew that she wanted to marry a pastor. And she showed no interest at all in me until we teamed up to start a new ministry on our college campus called Stepping Stones, which was a student-led worship service that we held on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. At our very first Stepping Stones, more than 1/4 of our campus showed up to check it out.

Geovanna Huffman: That night, after the music was over and after the prayer time was over, you come up and delivered the sermon. You shared the story about you getting arrested and how your dad reacted. I mean, I already was crying. At that moment, I realized that you were obviously called to some kind of ministry and you would be a great partner. I said that night, I am definitely marrying this guy. And since you were already kind of in love with me, it kind of worked out easily.

Eric Huffman: I guess you could say that was the first new church we ever worked on together. Just eight months after we met while driving back to campus from a night at the Olive Garden, we decided to get engaged. And a year later during the summer between our sophomore and junior years, we were married in the church that adopted Geovanna back in Houston. Of course, everybody thought she was pregnant or maybe she was using me for a green card.

Geovanna Huffman: I think when we said we're going to get married so soon, you know it always startles people because I think most people wait to marry until later. You and I have always been very determined. And I think that we just got this idea in our heads that we have to get married, and we did.

Eric Huffman: So there we were barely 20 years old living in Shreveport, Louisiana, about to start our junior year of college and totally broke. I took the Maybe God team on a little road trip to see where it all started. We are in Shreveport, Louisiana, the first towns Geo and I lived in as husband and wife. And coming up on our first townhouse right here on the corner... This is not a townhouse. What do you call these apartments? What do you call them, Julie? 1102. That was us.

Julie Mirlicourtois: I've never seen anything like this. I don't know. I don't know what I call it.

Eric Huffman: And I think our neighbor was like a nymphomaniac or something because she didn't get as much sleep as we did. She was an active person.


Eric Huffman: Just after we got married, we started a Christian band that played at all the Stepping Stones services. And like any new band, we needed a cool name, but we couldn't come up with one. We just weren't all on the same page. Our bassist was a hopeless romantic who wore a lot of flannel. Our backup singer wore cut-off jean shorts and multiple pieces of Christian jewelry every day. She was basically a walking advertisement for evangelical church camp. And Geo and I were the lead singers and our guitarist and songwriter was a preppy, frat guy named David who was in school on a golf scholarship. Our band lacked a certain identity or definition and so we decided to call it Continental Breakfast because we had something for everyone.

David Ham: This is David.

Eric Huffman: I'm actually calling for the David Ham of Continental Breakfast fame. Do you know him?

David Ham: Yes, I have heard rumors and echoes of the name but he's elusive. I haven't been able to find any recordings by the way, much to my chagrin. I haven't given up.

Eric Huffman: All right, there's got to be a recording.

David Ham: Yeah. I mean, if there is any justice or equity in the world, man, there has to be.

Eric Huffman: Geo actually found a recording in our attic a few weeks ago. So this is Geo and me singing one of our most popular songs. You guys, hold on to your seats.

[clip - Eric and Geo singing]

Eric Huffman: Continental Breakfast actually went on tour at least twice. We even recorded an album with the bass player from the band Sixpence None The Richer.

David Ham: Studio was in the back of this charismatic preacher's house.

Eric Huffman: That's right.

David: And I remember he came in one time to listen to us lay down the track and he just like walked out. I'm like, "Oh, my word." I thought this was a band. It was hurtful. But you know, counseling has helped.

Eric Huffman: You know, our music was way ahead of its time, and no one was ready for it.

Julie Mirlicourtois: So what did you and Geo do for fun around here?

Eric Huffman: This is gonna sound super boring, but I was a full-time student and then I was also working full-time. So I don't have great memories of this place. All I remember is feeling like I was behind on my work and I was behind on my school and marriage wasn't easy. So my memory is just kind of a struggle, you know? Geo remembers it the same way.

We worked at a mall that was about a block from the house I showed you. You know, I worked at the jewelry place selling diamonds and she worked at Victoria's Secret next door.

During my junior year of college, and my first year of marriage, I was failing my statistics and calculus classes. Math and I just never really got along and I had fallen so far behind with my job and my marriage and everything else. So I decided to drop those classes and to drop my psychology major that required those classes and to become a religion major instead.

I still didn't want to become a pastor but religion was the easiest path to graduation that I could take. And so I took it. And I look back on that time, Geo, and I think this poor girl fell for a guy who was in love with God and wanted to spend his life sharing God with the world and just being all in for the gospel with you. That it always been your vision ever since you were a little girl. And you sort of hitched your wagon to mine and then everything began to change because that faith that you saw in me, that spark that you loved quickly disappeared.


My decision to major in religion ended up leading to one of the deepest and darkest struggles of my life. It was one professor in particular who started me down a path that derailed my faith for over 10 years. His name was Dr. David Otto. He was a living legend on my college campus. Dr. Otto was known widely for his irreverent style and his crass sense of humor, and all his students idolized him.

This building we're looking at right now is religious studies department, and this is where I walked into my first class of Dr. Otto. I really thought Religious Studies at a Methodist-affiliated school meant let's sit around and learn more about the Bible and Jesus and like church camp sort of, but there was something completely different in store for me.

This will be the first time I've seen David Otto since I graduated 17 years ago, and I felt shaky with nerves but also with resentment, I guess, and even rage. Because to me, this man had become a villain. He was the reason I lost my faith in God. He sent me on a course that led me and my wife through so much disappointment and despair even to the brink of divorce multiple times.

As I walked into his office that day I realized, even though I eventually found my faith again, I was still carrying this bitterness about what he had done to me and what he had done to who knows how many other students like me over the years. I'm looking for David Otto.

David Otto: I'm afraid he's dead.

Eric Huffman: I'm not surprised. The way that guy lives! How you doing, man?

David Otto: Fine. How are you?

Eric Huffman: It's good to see you. It's been too long.

David Otto: Yeah, it's been a long time.

Eric Huffman: How have you been?

David Otto: Fine.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. You're a married man now.

David Otto: I'm married man. Honest.

Eric Huffman: Honest man. Seventeen years later, his office looked virtually unchanged by time. His desk was still a disaster. I saw the same stacks of the same books on the floor. The only things missing were the posters of drag queens that he used to have on full display for all to see. The most obvious change was not the office but the man himself. His speech once quick and sharp was now slow and slurred and he had scars on his head from recent brain surgeries. I wondered if Dr. Otto was suffering with Parkinson's?

How much time do you have?

David Otto: How much do you want?

Eric Huffman: I started the interview by telling Dr. Otto how grateful I am for him. And it's true I am. Even though I'm still bitter about some things, and resentful, I'm also grateful for the ways that he's made me the man that I am today. And then we picked up right where we left off 17 years ago.

David Otto: I remember a very young man who seemed to, initially, think he had all figured out in terms of faith. You had what I'd call a pie-crust faith, which was something easily made but easily broken. And when the pieces started falling apart, I noticed you scrambling. The scrambling is what I remember; you looking for a way to put it back together again.

Eric Huffman: You see that a lot with students?

David Otto: Oh, yeah. It's an occupational hazard. It just happens. I mean, my area is the academic study of religion, and in particular, Biblical Studies. And if you're raised in church, you don't learn how to look at the Bible from a scholastic point of view. So that's learning put on new sets of lenses, looking at texts in new ways, learning about modern biblical scholarship and why it should be important. If you've never looked at the text that way, it's just mind-blowing.

Eric Huffman: It really did blow my 20-year-old mind. Like most Christian kids, I was taught never to question anything about the Bible ever. And now Dr. Otto, the most brilliant man I've ever known to that point in my life, was pressing me to question everything about the Bible. He convinced me that Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-academic, and that's not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be more like David Otto, the smartest guy in the room.

Now I know he's not the only David Otto. In fact, there are David Ottos all over the country encouraging students to dissect and dismantle their preconceived ideas, including their faith in God, but not in ways that are always objective or even honest.

David Otto: I think I've only seen extreme because of where I'm located, which is Shreveport is a sparkle on the Bible Belt. Right? It's dead center. So what I do, in terms of what my peers do, is pretty middle-of-the-road. It's just because I'm in Shreveport doing it that it seems so incredibly, at times outrageous.

Eric Huffman: Definitely had encountered intellectual critique of the Bible before. To me, like God just wrote it. Right? You don't mess with it. And you started messing with it from day one.


Eric Huffman: One of the first classes I took with Dr. Otto was world religions. There were about 12 students in that class and I was the only one who was at that point outspokenly Christian. One morning, Dr. Otto walked into the classroom wearing a black T-shirt with a bunch of tiny white words on it. It was a meme that read, Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever in his cloud kingdom if you telepathically accept Him as your master and symbolically devour his flesh, so that he can remove an evil force from your soul which is there because a rib woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree makes perfect sense."

When all the students read the shirt, they all laughed and Dr. Otto laughed and was very proud of himself. I pretended to laugh too even though I was conflicted deep down. I was smart enough to realize that I was basically the butt of that joke. It was just 12 students and an internet meme. But that was the day I decided you can either be smart or you can be Christian, but you can't be both. So I decided to leave Christianity behind.


I don't know, David. Tell me if I'm wrong but it seems like we got away at times from a sincere or honest intellectual approach to really kind of a more sensational, like, we need to rattle these kids cages so that they'll leave the assumptions of the door.

David Otto: Yes, rattle cage, but not for the sake of just rattling, which is... [Kircher Guard?], for instance, discusses a difference between reason A and reason B. And reason A is all the doctrine you learn and grow up within the church. But you have to push it. And you begin to see that if you look at it, it's absurd. So you start to really learn the absurdity of the Christian faith, that you can make a leap to a different form of understanding that's informed. It's critical thinking. It's not taking things blindly and it's wrestling with the absurdity. Because it is absurd. You know, I mean-

Eric Huffman: Say more. What do you mean about that?

David Otto: Well, you think about a Jewish peasant over 2,000 years ago, pissed off some Romans, was crucified and rose from the dead three days later, continued teaching, and eventually ascended to heaven. Well, that doesn't happen very often. And it's rather absurd to make that claim unless you have something that you can rely upon to back it up.

Eric Huffman: I do remember just feeling simultaneously invigorated and shaken to the core after every class of yours. There was a time, I think it was a gospel of John class, you paired us off in pairs two, usually boy-girl pairs, and we read the woman at the well narrative. You know what I'm talking about? 

David Otto: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: In erotic voice. What the heck was that about?

David Otto: That was when queer theory was just catching on. And the idea is you can clear a text to get the sense of was the writer attempting to sexualize characters. And if the writer was, how can you find that out? So what I had to do was a reader's response exercise to see if you could sexualize these characters.

Eric Huffman: Well, but if you read just about anything in the voices we were reading them in, I mean, at least when you're 20 years old, like I was, you know, it get your vote go on. You know what I mean?

David Otto: I know. But the idea is, had you ever read that text like that before? Have you ever thought of-

Eric Huffman: No. And now I can't seem to read it any other way, thanks to you.

David Otto: Right.

Eric Huffman: The trauma of second year religion class.

David Otto: There's a 12-step program for that somewhere. But the idea is, you know, it's meant to raise questions about not only what the writers were thinking, but how do we as readers bring stuff to the table when we read text?

Eric Huffman: But you don't really think Jesus was coming on to this woman or vice versa sexually?

David Otto: I don't believe any of that happened.

Eric Huffman: There's also that mysterious character in Mark, who's occasionally naked, I think.

David Otto: Yes.

Eric Huffman: And whereas I think in my Bible Belt church they would have just skipped that verse, you know, to keep the naked guy out of it, I felt like in your class it was a swing in the total opposite direction, which suddenly this guy is Jesus' secret lover or something. And I felt like it was going from one fundamentalism to another where it seemed like to be Christian was to be intellectually deficient. I mean, I remember you describing Christians as ignorant on more than one occasion.

David Otto: Yes, but not unredeemably. I think all people of all religions are called to have some degree of intellectual rigor.

Eric Huffman: Sure, I agree.

David Otto: And not to have intellectual rigor is, in many ways, to renege on your responsibilities as a believer.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, I agree. I think that churches, in particular, must do a better job of introducing intellectual reasoning for believing in the stuff we believe, and especially the young people as they find their way to classes like yours, to be able to make sense of the stuff you're teaching, not to dismiss it, to make sense of it and also to be able to know where to go to counterbalance them what they're hearing here.

David Otto: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: I want to push a little further on this because I think there was some anger then. I don't know if it's still there, but there was some legitimate anger in you about organized Christianity that really manifested itself at times in your teaching.

David Otto: Yes. As an openly gay man, I have been used by the church when it was convenient by them and then dismissed and belittled by the church when I wasn't of use. I just got to a point where that type of ecclesiastical abuse was not acceptable. When they needed somebody to be a keynote speaker or a Bible leader at National Convention, I was the man. I could always draw a crowd. But then when I wouldn't shut up about being gay, that causes a backlash.

Eric Huffman: There was a rumor back in the day that there was a time when you wanted to be clergy.

David Otto: I was. I went up for ordination. And before the border ordained ministry, they decided, "Now David, we have to ask you a question. Are you self-avowed practicing homosexual?" I thought for a minute, I thought about these people, I said, "Well, no, I'm not." And they leaned forward, looked at me and I said, "I think I got it down pact, I don't need to practice it at all.

Eric Huffman: I'm professional. So no ordination for you.

David Otto: No ordination. But that was a time when a lot of us, just getting out of seminary, were throwing ourselves on our swords thinking that we'd make a point, and that, of course, they would see that God can call whoever God wants to call to professional ministry. The church has no way to make a discernment based on someone's sexual identity. The church didn't seem to understand that; it still doesn't.

Eric Huffman: So it would be impossible for you to keep that out of your teaching, out of your classroom in its entirety?

David Otto: Unless I didn't want to be authentic, of course.

Eric Huffman: And there it was, the missing link in my understanding of Dr. Otto's anger toward Christianity. By his own account, he felt used and judged by the church his whole life, and his anger and pain came through in his teaching naturally. When you're a naive 20-year-old kid idolizing your favorite professor, it's easy to internalize his anger toward Christians until you're angry at Christians, too. I realize now that's what happened to me.

These days, as a pastor, I deal with people all the time who've been hurt and broken by those who should have loved and protected them the most. And if you feel like the people who hurt you the most did it in the name of God, maybe that's motivation enough to spend the rest of your life leading others away from Christianity.


Eric Huffman: What do you believe about God to be true?

David Otto: I'm indifferent to the existence of God. I don't have proof that God exists, and I can't prove a negative, so I can't prove God does not exist. I'm more attuned to the questions of human suffering and why humans suffer. Why do we have political systems that we do? Why do we have the current social issues that we do? What can I do to effect change? What can I do as an educator to help others affect change? And if I can use biblical discourse in an academic way to push those questions, I'm doing my job. In many ways, I would consider that a ministry.

Eric Huffman: I used to sing for 35 bucks a week at the First Methodist Church, the choir, and there was a time you were there. I think you had been teaching like a Sunday school class or something, and you got up in the middle of a sermon. Do you remember this?

David Otto: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: And what you said in the middle of his sermon?

David Otto: Oh, shit.

Eric Huffman: I think it was, "This is shit."

David Otto: I think that was right.

Eric Huffman: And you stormed out.

David Otto: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: I don't think that had ever been said before in the sanctuary at First Methodist.

David Otto: I had never heard such outrageous crap in my life from a pulpit.

Eric Huffman: Do you remember what it was that he said?

David Otto: Yes. He said that he thought he heard a burglar, and so naturally, he reached into the nightstand, to pull up the gun. And I thought, On so many levels, this is so wrong. I mean, you're supposed to be an ordained clergyperson who understands the doctrine and dogma in church. You should be advocating non-violence; you shouldn't be posturing your manlihood. I said all things I wanted to [inaudible 00:39:48] at once. So that was the only response I could muster at the time. And I've never been back since.

Eric Huffman: Have you ever wondered how your life would have been different had they granted you ordination and all your dreams and your friends' dreams came true about the church changing its ways?

David Otto: Not anymore. I used to. I used to have this idea that somebody would come knocking on my office door and say, "David, we've made a grave error. We'd like to ordain you immediately." Now I think, what would I do? But that obviously didn't happen. I gave up that years ago.

Eric Huffman: How much of your actual belief system is intellectual premise versus experiential disappointment?

David Otto: It's not that the disappointment didn't affect me but I've always been a creature of my mind. I mean, it's the world I live in. I'm an academic. So ideas, thinking critically has always been part of me.

Eric Huffman: After talking to Dr. Otto for over an hour, I began to see him differently, my heart began to change. In my mind, I had painted him as a dangerous and dishonest villain. But toward the end of our talk, I could only feel compassion. I still don't agree with his worldview or his approach in the classroom but I also can't really understand everything that he's been through, all of the struggles that made him who he is today.


Eric Huffman: After two years under Dr. Otto, I was done with Christianity altogether. I used to keep a journal and in an entry from April 2001, I wrote, "The Bible, the Torah, the Koran, they're all the same. All religions are a ruse, including the church. Jesus might have been great, but it was men like Paul who made him their God." And like Dr. Otto, I became indifferent to the existence of God.

Before leaving my old college campus, I stopped by to see Betsy Ives, who was the chaplain back when I was in school and I wanted her thoughts on what happens when naive students like me walk into Dr. Otto's classroom.


Eric Huffman: I felt like in the religion department, at the time, there was like a concerted effort to rock kids like me.

Betsy Ives: I think there was.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. You agree with that?

Betsy Ives: Yeah, I do.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, yeah. You know, I don't think it was hateful. I just think it was a reaction to the context. You know, I think, in their eyes, the majority of the kids that were coming to religion classes at Centenary in Shreveport, Louisiana, were probably Bible Belt kids that needed their cage rat a little bit and need to learn to doubt and question and explore. But man, that was a hard season for me. It felt like you there was definitely an agenda there, and it did feel like it wasn't a productive one. It felt like it was just deconstructive.

Betsy Ives: Sometimes that happens unintentionally when someone is teaching and they don't recognize their own agenda, they don't recognize their own struggle with the institution.

Eric Huffman: Do you think it's productive that kind of approach?

Betsy Ives: I think it's productive to teach people to think critically, and to ask hard questions so that you can know what you believe and be able to answer why you believe what you believe. I don't think it's productive to try to tear down their faith. I think part of this struggle is that perhaps it goes beyond the critical thinking plan, and unintentionally creates an attack that the students not ready for that feels like an attack on the mentors and the people they cherished and loved and trusted. That's not the same thing. And if you go too hard at anybody who thinks that-

Eric Huffman: Yeah, you create a different kind of fundamentalism.

Betsy Ives: That's exactly right. And you create division, and then a student has to choose who to trust.


Eric Huffman: Betsy was spot on. I remember the resentment building in my heart toward the people who raised me to be a Christian, Pastor Dudley, my Sunday school teachers, and even my own parents. How could they brainwash me with their backward worldview and not expect me to learn the truth about other religions and evolution, sexuality, and all the discrepancies in the Bible?

My dad and I started talking less and less because every time we spoke, one of us picked a fight, usually me. My relationship with Geovanna grew even worse. Remember why she fell in love with me in the first place. She saw a man who loved God and wanted to preach the gospel. I wasn't that man anymore. We both wondered how our marriage would survive my deconversion from Christianity.

Geovanna Huffman: You doubted basically everything. I mean, you doubted God, Jesus. I used to feel like you definitely just lost your way altogether. And the issue that I found in that belief system, there is no grounding in God as being the author, our maker and our ideal of who we should follow. I just think that is full of human theories that the heroes of those worldviews are just uninspiring and something that lead anybody to despair. And that's kind of how I felt that your life was going. It was going into this despair.

Eric Huffman: It was. And man, we would fight. Like we would knock down, drag out, not physically. But we would just weep and scream and just what... you could not believe the things I was doubting. And I was so sure in my doubt. That's what's funny is that I lost faith in my certainty but I was certain of my doubts.

Geovanna Huffman: Yeah.


Eric Huffman: I used to pick fights with Geovanna all the time. I'd criticize her for having blind faith instead of common sense. I said her Bible was full of flaws. I made fun of her for believing in hell. I mocked some of her favorite preachers and I even judged her for being judgmental, which is the height of irony. She fought back with some valid arguments of her own. She said I was being arrogant and self-centered. She said I had no respect for the Bible and no fear of God. And she was right. I didn't.

I'm sure that many of our Maybe God listeners have dealt with doubts like these before. Maybe doubts have defined part of your journey too. I know there is such a thing as honest and healthy skepticism. But I also know that the line between healthy skepticism and dark cynicism is incredibly thin. And during that particular season of my life, I crossed that line. I wish I could say that Geovanna's emotional appeals and her patient prayers were enough to warm my cold, dying heart. But I'm nothing if not stubborn. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my pride was about to lead us down some very dark paths. Part two of my story is coming up on the next episode of Maybe God.


Julie Mirlicourtois: Maybe God is produced by Eric Huffman, Brandon Duke, and me, Julie Mirlicourtois. Our sound engineers are Pat Laughrey and Aubrey Schneider. Our editor is Brittany Holland, music is by Nathan Bonus, and our intern is Caroline Love. If you have questions or doubts that you'd like us to address in upcoming episodes of Maybe God, email us at [email protected] or start a discussion with us on our Facebook page, Maybe God Podcast. And don't forget to subscribe now on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app.