Jim Mulholland Finds It Hard to Believe

When one of Indy’s prominent religious leaders lost his faith, I lost something, too.

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Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Standing in the middle of a gym at a small college in Iowa, I prayed before a crowd of nearly 1,000 high-school students and church leaders from across North America. I prayed for a teacher I had clashed with and asked God to bless her life. I prayed that our relationship would be restored.

I could hear the “mmm-hmms” and “amens” from the teenagers in the bleachers who had come for a camp called Spectacular. But I didn’t stand alone in the center of the gym. By my side was a man who would become a religious leader and mentor to me, a man who would encourage me to think about my faith through the lens of forgiveness and love. His name is James Mulholland. Most folks who know him—as a pastor, an author of three bestselling books on theology, and a religious-thought leader in Indiana—call him Jim.

I was 17, new to so many parts of life: driving, dating, understanding God without the context of my parents. I leaned heavily on Jim’s words. Before he encouraged me to pray for my teacher in front of my peers, he had asked me to share with him, privately, about a person who troubled me. I told him about the teacher, who drove me so hard to become a writer and editor that I felt like nothing I did was good enough for her. She had even embarrassed me in front of other students, calling out my work for particular criticism. Jim asked me, “How would you respond with God’s love?” We discussed a plan of action that included first sharing the story with others—a thousand others. Then prayer. He read me a scripture from the sixth chapter of Luke.

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

There’s a release in bearing testimony and then forgiving publicly. I was grateful to Jim for encouraging me to deliver my story. I felt like a leader propped up by the wisdom of another leader. A leader who had been so successful in his field that he was invited to youth camps thousands-strong and had created ripples across the entire Christian community with his radical thoughts on theology.

A leader who now no longer believes any of the words he once taught me to pray.

 

Jim Mulholland seemed destined for the ministry. Born in the small town of Highland, Illinois, and raised in nearby Greenville in a Protestant family, he pondered deep theological questions as a small child in Sunday school. He wondered how the gracious, kind people who taught his classes could tell stories of a God who killed millions and kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden after they made just one mistake. A God meant to be feared.

Young Jim attended the local Christian Youth Crusaders meetings every Wednesday, wearing a uniform and bellowing a song: “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. I may never fly over the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army.” He armed himself for a lifelong crusade to spread the word about Christ. He learned about those with a lack of faith and those who disobeyed the Lord. He was taught to fear God and love Jesus. The two saved the world together but served quite opposite purposes. There was a rewards system in place—follow Jesus and be rewarded with God’s blessing.

He carried this idea about rewards into an early job as a youth minister. While running a Wednesday-night children’s program, he started a points system—earn points for bringing a Bible or memorizing verses, and bonus points for inviting another child. Earning points meant prizes, so naturally the program thrived. A dozen kids soon expanded to as many as 100. Jim even overheard a child invite a friend by saying, “If you come to our church, you can earn prizes.”

The words made him wince, but he was convinced that saving souls was saving souls, no matter the cost. He was just teaching what he had been taught—that a religious life is about embracing Christ to earn heaven and escape hell.

When he decided to attend seminary to represent the American Baptist church he was a part of, his religious family celebrated. That was in 1988. Before classes had started, he lined up to buy his books. He began to chat with the young man behind him in line, a student who would become a lifelong friend and a major influence on Jim’s religious thought—local Quaker pastor and IM columnist Philip Gulley. “We started talking, and it was just one of those things where something clicked right away,” Jim remembers. “We became fast friends and never looked back.”

Both Jim and Gulley were assigned to their first congregations that year. Jim was given the Fountain Square United Methodist parish, with three inner-city churches. He earned $100 per week and a place to live. He studied Biblical commentaries to make sense of scripture. Gulley and Jim sat next to each other in classes and edited each other’s sermons. Three years into seminary, they went on a camping trip. Around the campfire, the two talked about a crime that had recently covered the front pages of Indianapolis newspapers. Jim said, “Hell is too good for some people.” Gulley responded that he wasn’t sure he believed in hell at all. They spent the rest of the evening discussing the loving God that Gulley believed in, with Jim bringing up all the doubts and fears he had always paired with his faith. But Gulley had planted a seed.

Soon thereafter, Jim was asked to perform a funeral for a woman who had struggled with alcohol and had a dark personal history. Deep down, Jim knew that he judged this woman. But when one of her children looked up at Jim and asked, “Where is my mother?” Jim felt a wave of compassion rush over him. He said she was in the hands of God. Jim’s heart was changing.

Jim caught himself using that word, “they.” And that other one, “them.” He no longer saw himself as part of a “we” or “us.”

He graduated from seminary in 1992, and although ordained American Baptist, he continued to pastor Methodist congregations in need of a leader. Gulley pastored a Quaker congregation, and the two kept in frequent contact. As their views aligned, they started writing together in 2001. They published If Grace Is True in 2003, loudly announcing their belief in universal salvation in the first chapter: “I have a new formula. It is simple and clear. It is the most compelling truth I’ve ever known,” Jim wrote. “This truth is the best news I’ve ever heard, ever believed, and ever shared. I believe God will save every person.”

During this period, Jim made the transition from Methodism to Quakerism and began pastoring the Irvington Friends Meeting on Edmonson Avenue in 2001. He and Gulley continued to write together and co-authored a follow-up, If God Is Love. The two books were not only bestsellers but represented some of the most progressive thought in Christianity when they were released. Although dispensing with the concept of hell didn’t sit well with fundamentalists, the books exposed thousands to a kinder, gentler version of Christianity.

As Jim preached the message of Christian Universalism, his own understanding of God continued to change. Six years into his ministry, he wasn’t even sure Jesus was an important part of the construct anymore. Then in 2005, he and Gulley started working on another book, If the Church Were Christian. The pair had a signed contract, with a $25,000 cash advance pending for each. But Jim could only write a few hundred words.

“When I finished the first chapter, I went to Phil and said, ‘I can’t write this book. I can’t do it,’” he remembers, realizing an even more profound shift was taking place inside of him. “It wasn’t a book I could write with any integrity.”

 

More than a quarter of American adults have left the faith they were raised in for another religion or no religion at all, according to the Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey. Each year, more than 2 million adults in the United States stop identifying themselves with a specific religion. The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any faith (16.1 percent) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with a religion as children. Even in conservative Indiana, the numbers reflect the national trend.

According to Timothy O’Connor, a professor of philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington, the forces driving the exodus are often misunderstood. “People misread the current youngest generation, saying they are the reason atheism is growing,” he says. “That’s not true. People of all ages now like to describe themselves as being ‘spiritual.’ More people are rejecting organized religion of whatever form and prefer to have their own individualistic ideas to make up their faith.”

For Jim, the realization he was no longer a Christian began over a hotdog. In 2008, he attended a summer cookout and was chatting with neighbors when someone asked about his Quaker faith. He explained what Quakers believe as he had a hundred times—they value simplicity, integrity, and community. Only this time, Jim caught himself using that word, “they.” And that other one, “them.” He no longer saw himself as part of a “we” or “us.” As he became increasingly unhappy with his religious life, Jim noticed he was spending more time defending his faith than living it.

This was around the time that Jim couldn’t finish writing the book. It was also just after the time I met him. In 2008, he gave notice that he would be stepping down from his role as pastor, although he wasn’t sure he was ready to leave his faith entirely. Jim realized he had no anger toward God. He just didn’t want a life centered around theology. He sought meaning in other things—family, friendships, neighborhood community, rest. He stopped pastoring in the spring of 2009.

His public outing as a non-Christian came on November 7, 2013, at the Spirit & Place Festival, in the Athenaeum. In front of an audience of 400, he gave a talk entitled “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.” In the speech, Jim spoke of the shifting metaphor he used for religion. He once thought there were many paths up a mountain. Now, he has learned the many ways to walk away from it. “There is so much to explore,” he said that night, “when you follow the trail down the mountain and out into the vast expanse of unbelief.”

I asked Jim if he ever felt like he had betrayed those who believed in his words. I was being as authentic as I could, he said.

People took notice. One cousin sent him a long email trying to bring him back to the flock. A couple of good friends told him they were deeply disappointed in him. A close family member still doesn’t understand how he could leave—he’d already written so much about a loving God. Was he confused? How could he just abandon the community he had built for so many years?

He organized a new support group for people who have left their faiths. Noticing there was little reading material for those making that choice, he also wrote a book—Leaving Your Religion: A Practical Guide to Becoming Non-Religious. Jim still loves discussions about ideas and belief. And he still talks frequently with the man who might be closest to his faith struggle—Philip Gulley.

“In my estimation, Jim hasn’t changed,” Gulley says. “He’s motivated by the same thing, and that is an ongoing search for meaning and truth. Though that search has taken us in different directions, the object of the search remains the same.”

 

After that summer when Jim taught me to pray, I became one of his biggest advocates. I handed out his books to friends burned by religion or uninterested in pursuing a personal faith. There are other ways to be Christian, I explained. It’s not all about judgment. You can believe in a loving God. I emailed Jim announcing my excitement when I decided to enroll at Indiana University in 2007. With his encouragement, I attended the Bloomington Friends Meeting and learned that I, too, connected deeply with Quakerism.

The next year, I learned of his questioning. I’ve followed his journey on and off since then and have felt confused about how someone already so public in his faith could find the motivation to leave it entirely, as he finally did last year. I knew I needed to call him myself.

That same friendly voice greeted me on the phone. As always, Jim was earnest and open. “I realized it wasn’t authentic anymore for me to be a pastor. My sermon always preached against the text,” he said. “I spent more time justifying than promoting Christianity. I thought I could be a normal Christian person, but I learned pretty quickly the crisis I was struggling with was deeper than my occupation.”

I asked Jim if he ever felt like he had betrayed those who believed in his words.

“The old me was authentically me at that time,” he said. “The person you experienced at Spectacular, the person I was as a pastor—I was being as authentic as I could be at that moment. And it may look different now, but I am being as authentic as I can be now, too.”

I paused and remembered the specifics of that day at camp, the day I nervously prayed in front of my peers. I remember Jim’s kind face and his graying beard. The sense of calm that washed over me when he stood by my side. His peace. Surely that feeling was real.

I attended Spectacular again a few months ago, this time as a teacher. I taught a class on spirituality to 65 Christian high-school students. At the end of the week, one student heading into his senior year asked to be joined in prayer. What was his prayer concern? Doubt.

I thought about all the times the biggest figures in the Bible were alone—Moses as a leader, Paul writing in prison, Jesus when he slipped into the wilderness to pray. As Jim proves, growing up doesn’t mean you’ve found all the answers. It can mean you’re not sure where the wilderness becomes the mountain and vice versa. I prayed that the student would continue to engage with the big questions. I prayed he would keep exploring, whether his feet took him up a mountain or down one.

 

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