Unlearning God: How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe
Reviewed by William Shetter
By Philip Gulley. Convergent Books, 2018. 224 pages. $22.99/hardcover; $11.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
The words “unlearning” and “unbelieving” make it plain that this is going to be a journey of letting go of inherited certainties. Phil Gulley’s mother was a “One True Church” Catholic and his father a small-town Baptist, two churches he early in life began perceiving as extremes of closed-minded rigidity. This book is the chronicle of his journey—some of which has been the subject of his various books—of learning about God by jettisoning all he had been taught that no longer made sense.
The 16 chapters have titles like “We Revered Women Too Much to Let Them Lead”; “I Was Pleased to Discover God and I Hated the Same Things”; and “God Is Everywhere, but Mostly in America.” Each chapter takes up one aspect of God that he found he had to abandon. Some he discovered to be absurdities to be cast aside easily and early in life; others involved long and painful struggle. “God’s will” can never replace personal responsibility; religious certainty and infallibility are called “a cancer”; churches always assume power and control, middlemen between us and God; being “saved” permanently in an identifiable moment is an illusion; the poisonous alliance of God and country is to be avoided, as are all boundaries and identity groups since they imply the exclusion of all others. “Holiness codes are used to signal a ‘separateness’ from the world”; many of them involve attire or hairstyle, but they might consist of words. These “codes” are agreed-upon group badges of identity, having little function other than creating a distinct sense of “us.” (Could he have perhaps included here our “Fourth Day, Seventh Month”?)
The reader can hardly fail to note Gulley’s trademark blend of humor and bluntness; the back cover summary rightly juxtaposes the words “charm” and “provoke.” Some Catholics will indeed feel their belief in the veneration of Mary is being too easily dismissed when he writes “they idolized [her] because of her rare ability to bear children without ever having sex.” For some others, religion is a matter of fervent celebration: The neighbor family was “hollering and praying and singing . . . and drinking battery acid for all I knew.”
Gulley’s dismissal of the beliefs he abandons can seem unsparing at times, but it is regularly neutralized by his disarming playfulness (as I’ve experienced myself over the years, occasionally hearing him deliver a message or invited talk). In this book it frequently takes the form of a hilarious childhood reaction to the beliefs he was being taught. When he was told that the idea of the Trinity was similar to the way an egg consists of three inseparable parts, he reports: “I pointed out that my mom separated egg whites from yolks whenever she made a chocolate pie and suggested he needed a better analogy.” It is to his credit that he recognizes this and confesses, “I have noticed my own tendency to dismiss the spiritual experiences of others, and have had to tamp down that temptation when writing this book.”
If Gulley occasionally rides irreverently (but with a wink) over a cherished belief, this does not seriously distract from his core message, which he articulates forcefully in the final chapter called “The God Remaining.” The formative step in all this stripping away of the received God of our early years, the “unlearning,” is to be willing to question, doubt, and welcome change as the ground where the Spirit can enter. Then all the succeeding steps follow. What we are searching for, minus all the distraction, is the Divine Presence within us, any welling up of love which is a sign of God. What we call God’s love is “the power to stir and expand the human spirit.” Human self-transcendent love is “one’s commitment to the growth of the beloved,” so the key is the desire for all genuine relatedness, most powerfully in the fertile ground of the spiritual community. Ultimately, Gulley’s message in this book, the latest of his series of books on matters of faith, is a simple and unambiguous but challenging one: undertake a lifetime journey of exploration, retaining only what resonates with our experience.