Friday, December 28, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Marriage and Morals

Rosemary and I did not continue with our private Bible studies for very long.  I knew what was in the Bible.  That knowledge was the downfall of those Bible studies.  I was embarrassed by what was in it, so I hid it from my curious fiancé.  I just never talked to her about it.  I was a little naïve though.  Rosemary also knew what was in it.  She carried the baggage of the Bible around in the guise of Church Tradition.  She knew that she would one day have to be submissive to her future husband because of her tradition.  She knew that one day she would have to follow me as her spiritual guide.  Rosemary was intelligent, strong-willed and independent, and I was just a little afraid of upholding my future obligations.  Fortunately, we both talked about this often.  Neither of us was willing to accept the other as ‘head of the household’.  And both of us were fine with that.

We had a massive choice to make regarding our marriage.  Should we wed in the Baptist or the Catholic Church?  I initially did not mind going to the Catholic ceremony, until Rosemary told me that the Catholic Church would be a little more complicated than the Baptist.  I would have to actually be confirmed as a Catholic believer, which meant a whole regimen of instruction and catechisms followed by a public declaration of Faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  There was no way that was going to happen, because I felt no Faith conviction with the Catholic Church.  I was not raised in the Catholic tradition, and I had no reason to believe any of the claims that it made regarding religious beliefs.  I attended the Catholic Church with Rosemary, I partook of the Eucharist, and I tried to incorporate the elements of the Catholic rituals into my own personal beliefs.  But I did not literally ‘believe’ any of it.  I did not believe that the priest was really invoking the body and blood of Christ into the elements of the Eucharist.  I did not really believe that praying to Saints would do anybody any good.  I did not believe that Mary was and continued to be a virgin, and that this virginity was somehow a mark of her purity and worth of veneration.  I had no reason to believe that a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals and popes had any authority to dictate what my personal beliefs could be, or even should be.  I was advised by some more liberal minded Catholic friends to just go with the flow.  Take the creeds in stride.  I was told that lots of adult converts to the Catholic Faith did this.  I was advised to stop taking these matters of Faith so seriously.  But I could not.  I took my Christian Faith very seriously.  I always had.  Honesty compelled it.  I could not publicly confess something, especially something that was to frame my entire moral and spiritual life, when I did not really believe it.  To do so would make me just another hypocrite, just like the whitened sepulchers that Jesus condemned in back in His day.

In the meantime, Rosemary was being pressured to be baptized and join La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  She worked with the pastor’s wife, and our friends who joined us in our weekly Bible study all encouraged her to make a public declaration of her Faith as a member of the Baptist Church.  But the Baptist Church was just as alien to her as the Catholic Church was to me.  We both respected each other’s religious traditions, and we each got what we could out of the respective churches.  I did my best to use the symbols of the Catholic Church to suit my own beliefs, and I gained a better appreciation for them as symbols.  But there was no way I was going to join the Catholic Church.  Similarly, Rosemary loved the Baptist tradition of direct prayer to God and the more practical, family oriented sermons of Pastor Alvarez.  But there was no way she was going to join the Baptist Church.  It was not her tradition.  “I am not a Baptist!” she would sometimes tell me in secret frustration.  “I wish they would stop telling me to convert!” 

Fortunately, each on our own way, we both identified as Christians in the traditions that we were raised in, but we both felt free enough by this time, to take what we felt were the best of each other’s traditions and meld them into our own private beliefs.  We somehow made it work.  In the end, we decided to get married in La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  There were far fewer strings to deal with than trying to wed in the Catholic Church.  We had the added bonus of having much more control over how the actual ceremony would be conducted.  We just had to pay a few service charges, rent the church building and a few props for the day, and attend a mandatory wedding class.

We were to have thirteen sessions with one of the La Puerta del Cielo Christian counselors as part of the wedding class.  The class was intended to teach us the Biblical standards and God’s ideals for a successful marriage.  While I appreciated the fact that our Baptist church did not treat marriage in a trivial manner, and wanted to ensure that our marriage would be a success, I was still secretly concerned about this class.  I will repeat that I knew what was in the Bible, including what the Bible had to say about marriage.  That is, it said practically nothing about marriage.  I did not know how the sparse Biblical instruction concerning marriage could be ever padded out to fill thirteen counseling sessions.

Unlike what I had learned of the physical sciences, I discovered that Christian theology rests on a foundation of vague concepts, nebulous definitions and subjective language.  When we have a problem in physics, or when something needs to be studied, one of the first things to be done is to have terms precisely defined.  Everybody involved must speak the same language, so definitions must be precise, assumptions must be listed, and initial conditions must be established.  Subjective language was for the realm of poetry, literature, art.  And religion.  I found that consistent definitions for basic and fundamental concepts could not be agreed to by any of my fellow believers.  Spirit did not have an adequate and consistent definition apart from vague and unconvincing references to energy.  I later found that God, religion and even Christianity could be defined so broadly and vaguely that they could conceivably lose any meaning at all.  But at that moment, I was only interested in understanding what I had heard and taken for granted my entire life, the Biblical definition of marriage.  That definition was essentially what I found printed in our marriage counseling workbook:
Marriage is a divine institution.  It is God’s idea.  He made the first man and woman.  He introduced them to each other.  He gave them their pre-marital counseling.  He performed the first wedding service.
And that was it.  This was the only definition given in our 152 page counseling workbook.  It said nothing else.  And I knew that even that was complete post-hoc fabrication.  I knew God gave no pre-marital counseling, and performed no wedding service.  This was the author’s desperate attempt to give marriage some kind of Divine sanction.  At least the Catholic Church tradition made marriage into some kind of sacrament!  But I knew that the closest the Bible comes to ever defining marriage to his creation is found in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Gen 1:27  
And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.  Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. Gen 2:23-24
And on this meager citation, the modern Evangelical institution of marriage has been defined, and my marriage counseling workbook was forced to fabricate what it could out of those scraps.  By this point in my life, I was far beyond knowing that Adam and Eve were myths.  I knew that such people never existed.  The institution of ‘marriage’ was then left to be the product of a mythical origin story.  My church claimed that a permanent vow between a man and woman had its only foundation on a story that I knew to be a myth.  This was no different than claiming that rainbows, which I knew to be the product of light diffraction through a prism, were really God’s reminder to me that He would not to flood the planet.  As if I needed a reminder about that.  Clinging to ancient mythology and ignoring the changing cultural and societal definitions of marriage was no different from ignoring what we knew of science in favor of mythologies.  Rainbows were not God’s reminder of the world engulfing Deluge.  The world was not a flat, circular disk.  Heaven was not in the sky.  Women did not have difficult labors because Eve ate fruit from a tree.  A donkey did not talk, an ax did not float, the sun did not stop in the sky and marriage was not ordained on the First Couple.  My counseling workbook was fully, completely, thoroughly incorrect in its definition.  It was deceptive.  It did not tell the truth.  God never introduced Adam and Eve to each other.  God never gave Adam and Eve pre-marital counseling.  God never performed the first wedding service.  And without even a basic definition of what marriage was that made the least bit of sense, I was left to do with my workbook what I was doing with the Bible.  I would have to grab what good I could out of it, ignore the rest, and hope nobody noticed.  Someday it will all make sense, I figured.  For now I will just make do the best way that I can.

What I feared about our Biblical marriage counseling proved to be correct.  The Bible had next to nothing to say about what marriage was, or how it should be conducted and lived out in modern, western society.  Our counseling workbook, which emphasized on the cover that it would teach marriage God’s Way, was essentially 152 pages and 13 lessons of padding.  Sure, it had some good stuff in there.  There were exercises on how to communicate effectively with my spouse and avoid conflict.  How to handle finances.  Sorting out responsibilities.  Dealing with in-laws.  But I found the same problem here that I found in trying to dredge practical relevance for my life out of the Old Testament.  Despite the claims made by our workbook, the Bible says next to nothing about how Rosemary and I were to handle our personal finances, our domestic responsibilities or conflicts with in-laws.  The workbook was absolutely pathetic in its attempts to attach Biblical foundations for these kinds of issues.  How can we read nonverbal communication from out spouse?  Try some examples from Scripture like 1 Kings 21:4 or Joshua 7:6.  How about resolving a conflict peacefully?  Try getting an example of how this is done from Genesis 26:17-31.  What can the Bible teach us about handling family finances?  Surely we can glean a lesson from 1 Chronicles 29:11-12.  Need advice about relations with troublesome in-laws?  The story of Jacob and Laban can provide some inspiration.  The vast bulk of our workbook dealt with these issues in a practical manner with exercises and discussions to work through, but the Bible verses seemed tacked on as superfluous afterthoughts.  Reading them provided no guidance whatsoever.  They were either vague or irrelevant to our situation.  I could see no point in including any of these Scriptural references except for the need to make the Bible “God’s instruction manual for my life”, despite my growing realization that it was anything but that.  My fears about the counseling sessions were confirmed, and my Bible again proved to be an embarrassment.

There were a few exceptions in which our workbook cited direct and unambiguous authority from the Bible.  One of them concerned my leadership role as a husband and Rosemary’s subservient role as a wife.  The Bible spoke with more certainty on this issue than pretty much any other.  I was 41 years old by this point in my life, and preparing to wed for the first time.  I was not a youngster.  I had lived independently and alone for more than 20 years, and I had no intention or desire to marry Rosemary as my subservient helpmeet.  On this, however, the counselor was insistent and my Bible was clear.  I inwardly cringed at workbook passages like:
“…conflict can be eliminated if clear lines of responsibility are delineated.  The husband under God is the head or manager of the home (Ephesians 5:22-27; 1 Timothy 3:4-5).  He is the one who is finally responsible to lovingly and Biblically guide the home.  The buck stops with him.  But he may decide to let his wife (his chief helper – Genesis 2:18; Proverbs 31:10-31) take the leadership responsibility in certain areas…”
It was to our great relief that our counselor almost entirely skipped the portions of our workbook that dealt with sexuality.  Neither Rosemary nor I were youngsters, and our counselor cut our sessions short by three weeks, skipping over huge chucks of our workbook that dealt with sexual anxieties, God’s commands against fornication, abortion and birth control.  Our councilor agreed that since we were not a young couple, these sections were probably not applicable to us.  In hindsight, we were smart not to wed in the Catholic Church, which would have claimed much stricter controls on Rosemary’s reproductive system.  I don’t think I would have been able to sit idly by if Rome attempted to impose personal and sexual authority over Rosemary.

Between the Old Testament atrocities, the moral ambiguities, and the way any pragmatic meaning had to be forcibly scraped and dredged out, the Bible was turning into an embarrassing, irrelevant fifth wheel in my Christian life.  Its ancient ethics, stories and myths seemed to be losing all meaning in modern western culture.  But somehow, even after all this emotional conflict, I could not shake the conviction that the Bible was still the inspired Word of God.  Somehow, someway, this Bible was God’s ordained foundation for my Christian Faith.  That firm, bedrock belief, sealed by a lifetime of instilled conviction, was the paradigm which framed my entire religious existence.  I believed in the Bible.  It is the Word of God.  And the only thing that was going to make me a good husband, which I desperately desired to be, was a solid relationship with He who created me and He who had a purpose for me.

That was all I knew.  There was only one way to be good and that was through God.  That is all I was ever taught.  Even after all the work I had done in scientific research, even after all the training I had in problem solving and critical thinking, I still clung to that old boogeyman of primitive morality, inculcated by childhood indoctrination, and cemented with years of rote repetition.  God is Good.  Man is Depraved.  God is Love.  Man is Sinful. 

I could give up creationism.  I could give up atrocities.  I could give up mythology.  But one thing was certain, and one thing was at the center of my beliefs – and that was the Person of Jesus Christ.  My faith had to remain in Him no matter what.  I knew that I had to believe the correct things about Him.  He was God, incarnate on earth as a man.  He was fully human and fully divine.  He died, atoned for our sins, and ascended into Heaven.  He was the second Person of the Holy Trinity, but one with the Father and Holy Ghost.  He was eternal and infinite, with no beginning and no end.  Through Him all things were created.  And He wanted to have a personal relationship with me.  That had to remain the core and certainty of my Faith.

I secretly inspected Rosemary’s answers in our marriage counseling workbook.  I was particularly interested to see what she answered in the Spiritual Convictions Questionnaire.

Finish the following sentences:

Jesus Christ is:
Rosemary answered: My brother who inspires me to do good and support my life’s discoveries and experiences.

A Christian is:
One who lives life like that of Christ – full of hope, forgiving, relentless in the search for truth, kind, and sincere.

The Bible is:

Oh no.  Rosemary’s answers seemed very limp and weak to me.  There was nothing powerful in her convictions.  Rosemary said nothing about Sin.  Atonement.  Salvation.  And she had absolutely no opinion on the Bible.  What am I going to do to change that about her?  I am so embarrassed to confess this, but these are the kinds of things that I was thinking as I scrutinized her personal Faith.

So I secretly condemned the woman that I loved because she did not list her answers in a stupid workbook exactly as I thought she should.  At the same time I was embarrassed by the very Bible I was using to condemn her.  Slowly, imperceptibly, I was retreating back to my Fundamentalist, Calvary Chapel mentality.  In my desire be a good husband, I tried to rediscover my religious foundation.  But ironically, the more seriously I took my desire to be morally virtuous, the more I turned into a self-righteous, smug, judgmental asshole.  I was so conflicted.  I was so incredibly confused.

Rosemary noticed how my attitude was changing.  She did not understand why her relaxed and content fiancé was slowly becoming more cranky, uptight and insensitive.  She did not know at the time that he was just trying to find Jesus.

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unkleE said...

I feel very sad to read this. I can see how difficult it was for you, and think it didn't need to be that way. I am deeply sorry that you had so much baggage laid upon you by christian teachers and leaders. It reminds me of Jesus' criticism of the scribes who loaded their followers up with burdens they couldn't carry.

I think the main problem is that too many christians have imposed pedantic doctrinal systems onto the Bible, in defiance of what the Bible actually says, and in defiance of the practices of Jesus and the apostles. If we allowed common sense and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I think we wouldn't get into most of the dilemmas you faced.

Best wishes.

HeIsSailing said...

UnkleE, the ironic thing is that the churches I came from prided themselves on having NO doctrinal systems. That is what Catholics did. Rosemary had all these complicated creeds that she had to recite. Years of catechisms and classes and rituals. A pervasive and complicated church hierarchy with endless lists of doctrinal points of belief, rules and regulations. And as long as she could sing in the choir, and was given time alone for prayer and meditation, she was perfectly happy. That is all she needed.

Me? My church taught me that God did not want “doctrinal systems”. He just wanted my love and my willingness to let Him work in my life. I just needed Jesus. I just needed a personal relationship with Him, to keep Him in prayer and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep my heart and mind through Christ Jesus.”

I thought I had none of the “pedantic doctrinal systems”. At the time I thought that I was just relying on the Bible, common sense and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian who takes their Faith seriously, as I did, at least thinks they are allowing their lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit. It is just Faith. And you see where that was leading me.

I found no lasting peace in God. There was no peace which passeth all understanding. I eventually found peace. But not through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is the baggage that I needed to remove from my life.

DoOrDoNot said...

Even when I got married at 21 I couldn't handle the church's teaching on marriage. At least my husband went along with my refusal to use the traditional marriage vows including the word "obey". I preferred the passage in Ephesians that included the phrase "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."

DMa said...

I'm still here and following along. I'm really enjoying your decoversion series.

The thing is, with all due respect to unkleE, the Bible itself is full of pedantic doctrinal systems. So while our teachers and preachers may not have them right they aren't exactly pulling them out of thin air.

Anyway, I know what you mean about not wanting Rosemary to read what is actually in the Bible. It's pretty scary stuff and has inspired a post of my own that I'll put up at a later date regarding the Old Testament. The church I attended tended to read the Old Testament into the New, as if it were a postlude to it. But when read in the way that it was written, as a prelude to the New Testament, it changes one's perspective drastically.

HeIsSailing said...

Thank you DoOrDoNot and DMA for your continued interest in this story. I am nearly finished telling this long story, but I am taking my time to tell the next few chapters. I am finding that they are going to be very difficult for me to write. This will likely be the only time that I will ever write my de-conversion story in this kind of detail, so I want to get it right the first time around. Thanks again - the next chapter will be up soon.