Saturday, December 8, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Returning to Fundamentalism

Rosemary and I continued to date, get closer, learn about each other, and fall in love.  I had been in only one serious relationship previous to meeting Rosemary, but it was nothing like this.  I began to believe that Rosemary was everything I had ever hoped or dreamed for in a woman.  I had to be cautious though.  I had thought the same thing when I met B---- nearly ten years previously, and that relationship had turned into a train wreck.  However in those ten years I had learned, through my education in physics, what critical thinking was and how to apply it when necessary.  I had applied my newly developed critical thinking skills to scientific problems on the job and at university, but I never thought to apply those same skills when evaluating a relationship.  As I stated in a previous article, I personally define critical thinking in this way:

The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true.  The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true.

Back when I was dating B----, I had ignored every warning sign that our relationship was headed for failure.  I was swept up in overwhelming, passionate infatuation, and I instead clung to the many reasons I could think of why our relationship could work.  But ultimately it did not work and it was a devastating blow.  As lovely, smart, exciting, and wildly imaginative as B---- was, our relationship became a disaster simply because I refused to see the warning signs.  I refused to focus on reasons why our relationship could not work.  I was not a critical thinker.  Instead, I did the romantic thing and “followed my heart”.

I put critical thinking to the test with Rosemary.  As unromantic as it sounds, I inwardly tried to think of reasons, any reason at all, why our relationship would not work.  I vowed to myself that if I could critically evaluate, and find any reason at all why this relationship could not work, I would have to put an end to it.  I never told Rosemary at the time that I was evaluating her in this way, because I was trying to be logical and critical about a relationship that she was so passionate about.  In the end, there was only one thing I could see that could possibly cause a problem, and I faced it as honestly and rationally as I could.  It was only when I believed that the hurdle could be crossed, that I relaxed my skepticism a little.  I could think of many reasons why our relationship could work, but I could think of next to no reasons why it would not work.  There was just one small thing that we both talked about often and were both willing and open-minded enough to deal with.  We did not hide from it.  We did not keep silent about it and hope it would go away.  We confronted it head on.  We were both ready.  I left Rosemary speechless when I finally asked her to marry me.

That single hurdle that needed to be overcome was living with our different religious traditions.  Despite all the anti-Catholic propaganda that I was raised with, and all the demonization of Catholics that I had heard as an adult, I was convinced that Rosemary was just as much a Christian as I was.  I had matured enough to see that she just expressed her Christianity and her love of God differently than I did.  She helped me to understand that my religious tradition was different from hers, but that I followed a tradition nonetheless.  We both believed in the same God, both had Faith in Jesus Christ, and both relied on His shed blood to justify us before God Almighty.

Rosemary was an amazingly open-minded Catholic.  She had never been to a Protestant church before moving the United States, but met several people at her work that encouraged her to attend a liberal, independent Baptist church.  We alternated each week attending St Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, where she sang in the choir, and La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church where we came to know Pastor Alvarez.

Pastor Alvarez was not a fire and brimstone preacher, like the other Baptist preachers that I was used to from my youth.  Pastor Alvarez rarely preached on Sin or Salvation, his sermons were more geared to nurturing healthy marriages and relationships.  It made for a less stressful Sunday morning with a girl that I was hoping to impress with reasonable religious convictions.  I must confess that at the time we were dating, there was a bit of a silent competition.  Which church would win out in our relationship?  Would Rosemary become Baptist, or would I become Catholic? 

Her Catholic services took a bit of time for me to get used to.  I had read about the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.  The elements of the Catholic mass, the wafer and wine, were not mere symbols of the sacrifice of my Savior, as they were in my Calvary Chapel denomination.  No, the elements did not merely represent, but literally became the actual substance of the blood and body of the Savior at the Priest’s invocation during mass.  I did not believe this; I never could believe this because I was not raised in this Catholic tradition.  I still clung to my belief that the elements were mere symbols of Christ’s sacrificial actions on the Cross.  I tried to listen and participate in the Catholic ritual of the Mass in a way that would allow me to incorporate them into my own beliefs.  I did not allow myself to become enveloped in the theater and mystery of the liturgy and ritual of the Mass.  I ruined it by analyzing the Mass more than I was supposed to, without first disconnecting myself from the rational world.  Analyzing the Mass ruins it in the same way too much analysis would ruin a good magic show.  I thought about everything.  I dissected it.  I tried to apply some kind of rational mechanism to the Mass to figure out how it worked. 

When the priest raised the chalice to the sky while invoking the blood of Christ, and the robed boy at his feet range a set of altar bells – I recognized the theater.  The Priest recited his chant, held the chalice of wine before him, the bells rang – all of which was designed to trigger something in the brains of the worshipers and allow them to believe that the wine was consecrated.  This is the point where the magic happens, and the wine turns to the Blood of the Deity, or so the worshipers allow themselves to believe.  The Priest held the wafer up before the congregation of worshipers  said his invoking words, the altar bells rang, presto-change, the wafer turned into the Flesh of the Deity.  After the transformation, the Priest would call out, “Let us declare the mystery of Faith”, I would chant, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.  I was supposed to ponder this mystery; the mystery that He had shed His blood and died at the invocation of the Priest.  But my critical brain told me that the chant, the ceremony, the ritual, the invocation, the audience participation, even the ringing of the bells at the moment of Transubstantiation, were all theater.  They were triggers for my brain to react to, that would allow me to accept this invocation as a real mystery, even a real miracle.  I never believed the Catholic dogma of Transubstantiation.  Like I said, I was not raised with this tradition.  But the Priest did believe it.  After all, he was up there doing something when he thought he was transforming the elements into the essence of a god.  He was performing in a theater.  This was a magic show that we were not to analyze too harshly.  But I had ruined it with my criticism.  The fog drifted away and the illusion was revealed.  The dim was sharpened and the dull was focused.  The whole Catholic ritual was supposed to put me in a state of mind for worship.  I did not want to say that this was hypnotism, but I came close.  To this day, the invocation of the Priest reminds me of a magician saying “abra-cadabra” before his astounded audience.

I tried to make up ways to transfer the Catholic ritual into something that more closely resembled my own Protestant tradition.  I was accustomed to my Protestant tradition of communion, where tiny individual cups of grape juice and thinly diced pieces of Wonder Bread were passed out to all the worshipers for us to partake in unison.  In the Catholic Mass, the elements were dispensed from the front by lay ministers, with all the wine drunk from a single, large chalice.  No matter – the method by which the elements were dispensed was not too important to me.  I believed the wine and bread were mere symbols, and I decided to take the elements seriously in that manner.  I once felt like collecting the bread to eat privately in the pew while saying a prayer.  I took the wafer back to the seat, kneeled to pray, and I was interrupted by one of the lay ministers.  “What have you done with the Host?!!?”  She saw that I had taken it back to the seat, and had to investigate what I had done to that most holy sacramental bread.  I learned that day that this host was to be eaten before the lay minister or priest who dispensed it, and was not in any other way to be tampered with.  It also struck me as strange that there was never a line of people to partake from the chalice of wine, or the Blood of Christ.  The long lines were to the wafers, or the Body of Christ.  I personally viewed the wine as more important than the bread, since the Blood of Christ was what imparted salvation to us mortals.  I asked Rosemary why so few people, including herself, ever drank of the wine from the chalice.  “I think people are afraid of germs.  Everybody is drinking from the same cup.”  That never crossed my mind.  I figured God would protect everybody from getting sick after drinking form the Blood of His own Son, and I was surprised so many people thought the consecrated Blood of Jesus might have kooties.  I have never been queasy about such things.  I always drank from the chalice.  Silly people….

In the meantime, much to my satisfaction, Rosemary was becoming more enamored with La Puerta del Cielo Baptist.  Pastor Alvarez kept his sermons relatively short, insightful and humorous, but still more substantial than the inane Catholic homilies I had to endure.  Rosemary was impressed that the people in La Puerta del Cielo were generally more friendly, more personable, more likely to become friends with.  And become friends we did. 

Pastor Alvarez emphasized that home groups and Bible Studies were the backbone of his church, so I started hosting them in my house.  It was not long before I had a dozen or so people coming to my house once per week for prayer and study.  I had initially wanted to stick to expository Bible Study as I was used to doing in Calvary Chapel, but I was discouraged from doing this.  Pastor Alvarez warned us that studying the Bible verse by verse, with no guidance or structure, could lead to trouble.  This made little sense to me at the time.  Wasn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to guide his Faithful in our instruction of Scripture?  Wasn’t there a single interpretation to the Scriptures that the Spirit would point us towards?  If we simply put our faith in Jesus, and trusted the Holy Spirit to guide is in His Word, what could we possibly fear?

No matter.  I was given a series of tapes from the church recording library that would help our home Bible study.  The tapes came with workbooks and self-instructional guides.  I was already suspicious of these things.  It is funny looking back at it now, how those old residual fears of extra-Biblical influences that were pounded into me in Calvary Chapel over ten years before were creeping back into the forethought of my brain.  I had spent several years in University; I had exposed myself to all sorts of diverse ideas and traditions; I had even learned important critical thinking skills that I never had when attending Calvary Chapel.  Yet despite all that exposure, I suddenly found myself again surrounded by Fundamentalist Christians, and that company of believers began to pull those old triggers again.  If I was to study the Bible, I did not need workbooks or guides.  I just needed the Bible, prayer and the Holy Spirit to guide me.  But in the end, I did not make waves in my new Baptist church, and I went reluctantly with their program.  So I started hosting my home Bible study with a lecture tape series from an Evangelical pastor that was taking the Evangelical sub-culture by storm in 2003.  It was Rick Warren and his 40 Days of Purpose taped curriculum.

I had never heard of Rick Warren, but suddenly his book The Purpose Driven Life seemed to be everywhere.  I recognized it as the latest Christian fad, and I had tried very hard to keep passing fads and gimmicks out of my Christian walk back when I was in Calvary Chapel.  I vowed not to buy it, but I was surprised on Christmas 2003 with a gift from Rosemary.  I undid the wrapper, and there it was.  My Catholic girlfriend Rosemary had also become enamored with Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven Life.  Her handwritten note on the inside cover began:

“To the man I love dearly – May this book be an inspiration for you to discover how special and wonderful you are…”

So I led our home Bible Study group with selections from Rick Warren’s tapes, books and the Bible.  I thought something felt disingenuous about putting Pastor Warren on such a high pedestal when I felt we should have been studying the Bible at a Bible Study.  It was like he was our surrogate pastor in our home, and we could not allow the Holy Spirit to guide us instead.  I felt uneasy, but I decided to learn from Pastor Warren what I could.  I also mingled it with attendance every other week for Mass at St Michael the Archangel to listen to Rosemary’s choir singing and participate in the Eucharist ritual.  The Fundamentalist that had been dormant inside me for over ten years started to reawaken.  I had learned so much, I had vowed to become more open-minded, I recognized the traditions in my own brand of Christianity, but in the end I had to retreat to that only tradition of Christianity that I knew.  I was no longer completely comfortable with it, but it was all I had and the only thing I could believe. 

Since we were not exclusively studying the Bible in our home Bible Study, I decided to once again, for the first time in over ten years, go to the Source of all my Christian belief and knowledge.  I needed the Spirit.  I needed Jesus and only Jesus.  I knew Jesus only through the Bible.  I needed the Bible that I had neglected for the better part of a decade.  I had previously read the Bible twice in its entirety, but I had done this back in the height of my religious fervor, as a follower of Skip Heitzig in the denomination of Calvary Chapel.  Watching Rick Warren videos during Bible Study left me feeling parched and dry.  I picked up my New King James Bible.  I started in Genesis.  “In the beginning….”


DoOrDoNot said...

It's lovely to hear how you and Rosemary worked things out between the two of you.

I remember going through that Purpose Driven Life study as well and balking at parts of it.

... Zoe ~ said...

And then I saw the name Rick Warren in your post and my internal voice went *ugh*.

I remember sitting in the pew when the senior pastor informed the church congregation that we were going to study Rick's book every week in our Sunday sermons. First though, all of us had to go to our local Christian book store and get a copy or buy one of the copies the church was ordering form the Christian bookstore.

Every week as a congregation we would go through one chapter. We were told this would help us in our daily walk with Christ and make us better Christians. The church gave us about a month to order or purchase our copies. Each week it was advertised from the pulpit . . . if you have not obtained your copy please do so soon.

Then the series began and there Biker Dude and I sat without our book. Now for the first few weeks we had to listen while the senior pastor started the talk by strongly encouraging people who did not have a copy to get one and if they could not afford one the church would pay for it. On more than one occasion I sat with confidence and looked back in the pastor's eyes. There was no way I was buying the book. And so we sat without the book and listened (and I took notes) week after week and let me just say that in the end I'm glad I did not waste our money. BTW, money wasn't the issue. I simply by that time in my conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, literalist Christian walk had had my fill of preachers telling me what to believe and what to read.


EricW said...

The whole Catholic ritual was supposed to put me in a state of mind for worship. I did not want to say that this was hypnotism, but I came close. To this day, the invocation of the Priest reminds me of a magician saying “abra-cadabra” before his astounded audience.

Abra-cadabra is right, as it seems the term "hocus pocus" may have come from mocking the Catholic priest's incantation of "Hoc est Corpus Meum" ("This is My Body") during the Mass to supposedly effect the change in the bread.

HeIsSailing said...

Zoe, I totally agree with you concerning The Purpose Driven Life. I will have plenty to say about that in a future chapter to this never ending de-conversion story.

EricW, thanks for the fascinating information. I never knew that was the source of Hocus Pocus! And to think I was not the only one who saw the magic trick in the Mass..!!

Thanks to everybody for your continued interest. I swear, this de-conversion story will eventually end. I promise!!

... Zoe ~ said...

In reality I'm not sure our stories ever really end HeIsSailing. So feel free to keep on keeping on. I'm not looking for the end. :-)