Friday, August 24, 2012

Conversions and De-Conversions - Awake, My Soul, And With The Sun


The five years that I spent in Calvary Chapel undoubtedly changed my life.  Calvary Chapel taught me that I was worthless, corrupt and wicked in the eyes of God.  I was utterly powerless to do anything from my own strength.  I was a failure as a human being.  My mind was the product of corrupted and sinful flesh, and was sure to do nothing but lead me astray.  My feeble works were folly, and my pathetic wisdom was foolishness.  The World in all its lustful glory was thoroughly damned, and it could offer me nothing but one-way ticket straight to Hell.  Calvary Chapel taught me that we put ourselves in this miserable situation, and we had nobody to blame but ourselves for God’s condemnation.  Everybody I knew, everybody I loved, everybody who I cared anything at all for, was doomed.  We were all born to be damned.  Almighty God provided only a single provision for our deplorable condition, and I thanked God everyday that He had chosen me according to His all-beneficent providence. 

I was certain that I had my Heavenly salvation, but I could not stop grieving over all those who did not.  Calvary Chapel forced me to accept that the heathen deserved their own pitiable reward, and the force of that heavy burden weighed mightily on my soul.  I had to believe that God was infinitely wise, infinitely just, and that the damnation stored for those I loved was due to their own willful and wicked rebellion.  I could not believe at the cost of my own sanity, it but I had to believe it.  Calvary Chapel taught me that God was infinitely wise, loving and just, but it brought me no joy.  I reacted to my Christian beliefs as if the all-loving Ruler of the Universe was an insane, jealous, capricious, all-powerful monster, who dangled each of us, as Jonathan Edwards once said, over the Fires of Hell by the slenderest wisps of thread.  All secondary beliefs had to conform to this one primary dogma.  If we were destined for suffering and damnation, it was not because God willed it, because God is infinitely just.  It logically followed, therefore, that the fault for our damnation lied with us.  God’s creatures ultimately got the blame for all suffering that they inherited, while God Himself received all the credit for any good that they happened to experience.  Nothing good proceeded from us tragic humans.  I was a worthless, wretched sinner.  God was to receive all glory.

  I gave my life to Jesus in 1988 because I was a miserable, joyless wreck.  I attended Calvary Chapel because I wanted to worship my Savior Jesus, learn more about Him, do good for others, and try to give my life some purpose and direction.  I left Calvary Chapel after five years, more miserable than ever, but in a way that was different from before I attended.  I was no longer drinking my sorrows away like I was before my conversion, but I nonetheless felt like my humanity was stripped from me.  Everything in those five years was focused on Jesus.  I could do nothing good of my own, and I had to give it all up to Jesus.  Jesus had to be the focus of every aspect of my life.  I could do nothing without His guidance and direction.  Idle moments had to be spent in His service.  I read and studied my Bible, I prayed, I witnessed, I ministered, I worshipped.  Everything was Jesus.  Jesus.  JESUS JESUS JESUS JESUS JESUS JESUS JESUS.  I still loved my Jesus, at least I thought I did, but He never gave me any isolation.  He was a stalker.  He was driving me crazy.

With this one-dimensional mindset that was forced on me, my self-esteem spun straight into the toilet.  Anything in my life that I gave any worth to was nothing but a puppet controlled by the mere whim of a silent deity.  When I prayed to Jesus for comfort, the silence that He returned to me was louder than ever.  I felt alone, I was wracked with guilt, and I fought the conviction that I was a worthless sinner in the eyes my perfect God, and any good He saw in me was due solely to His own worth.  I was evil, corrupt, and superfluous to my loving Jesus.  I was just so much chaff for the fire.

I left Calvary Chapel soon after I returned from my Hurricane Andrew mission, mainly for my own sanity.  The stifled mindset that Calvary Chapel was forcing on me was unbearable.  At the time I did not know exactly what was wrong, but I desperately needed a change.  I did not leave Calvary Chapel because I no longer believed.  I was not yet a critical thinker.  I did not question the historicity or veracity of the Bible, the deity of Jesus or any other central tenet of my Faith.  God was still sovereign.  Jesus still died for my sins.  I cannot say that I lost my faith.  I still believed everything I was taught.  I just needed a break from a life devoted totally and exclusively to Jesus and spiritual matters.

This was my state of mind as a Christian in 1993.  Upon leaving Calvary Chapel late in that year, my self-esteem immediately improved.  I do mean immediately.  I did not return to drinking and partying, as so many paranoid sermons at Calvary Chapel assured me that I would.  Instead, I focused more on my night classes at Albuquerque TVI, particularly physics and math.  I stopped spending time only and exclusively with my church friends, and surrounded myself with a more diverse group of people than I had ever done before.  The natural curiosity that Calvary Chapel squelched was finally awakened in my mind.  I returned again to my first love of reading, and I was suddenly unafraid to read books that would have been discouraged at Calvary Chapel.  I don’t know exactly what happened in my psyche in the immediate years after I left Calvary Chapel, but my whole outlook blossomed.  It may be that after three false starts of trying to grow up, the first attempt through the military, the second through alcohol and parties, and the third through Jesus, that I had finally found something that worked.  I finally found a simple maturity, and a blossoming self-esteem, neither of which I had ever possessed before.

I turned 30 years old in 1994.  If my high school years were the worst years of my life, I can honestly say that the years between 1993 and 1996, the years immediately after I left Calvary Chapel, were easily the best years of my life.  Instead of focusing every aspect of my life on Jesus, everything I learned felt new and fresh.  I spent more time at Albuquerque TVI.  I read, I explored, I studied and I learned.  Most importantly, I began meeting a wide and diverse array of people, some with unusual and contrary opinions.  For the first time in five years, I listened to my new friends without the ulterior motive of trying to wedge the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the conversation.  It was liberating.  Christians sometimes accuse apostates of leaving the Faith because they want to be free from God’s accountability.  I must confess that in my case at least, they had a point.  While I would not have called myself an apostate at the time, in fact, I still considered myself a Christian, I needed to be free from the ever accusing judgment that God burdened me with.  I never felt more free than I did in those few years immediately after leaving Calvary Chapel, when I finally learned to live without Him invading my every thought and judging every action.

For the first time in my life, I had enough confidence in myself to become romantically interested in women.  Outside of a single high school fling, I never dreamed that any woman would ever be interested in me.  Women generally left me aloof and intimidated, and I rarely talked to them.  I never questioned my own sexuality; after all, homosexuality was an abomination.  Dad asked me more than once if I was gay.  I think he was a little concerned.  I assured him that I was straight, but unconvinced, he asked me on several occasions to join his Mormon congregation on some Sunday morning, and he would introduce me to some nice, young women that he knew.  No thanks.

It is amazing to me, looking back nearly twenty years ago, how the simple act of not attending church had such an impact on my self-esteem and general outlook on life.   Perhaps another factor that played at this time were the night courses that I was simultaneously taking at Albuquerque TVI, and the interaction that I had with the wide and diverse mix of people that I met there.  It may also be that at this time I was discovering that, to my amazement, I was exceptionally talented at something that I had earlier in my life found to be impossible.  While Christianity taught me that my total intrinsic worth was nothing outside of Jesus, and that absolutely no good thing could ever come from myself, my night classes taught me that I could understand and creatively apply mathematics, that terror of my high school years, to a level that I never before dreamed possible.  Calvary Chapel, in particular, constantly stifled my own worth and merit, so I guess it should be no surprise that my self-confidence blossomed the second after I finally left that particular Church.

I continued to work as a cook and waiter in Albuquerque when I was finally able to gather up enough courage to ask one of my waitress co-workers on a date.  She was the first of several that I casually dated at that time.  I was not too romantically involved with any of these lovely women, and I was not yet interested in pursuing a relationship.   I was just thriving in my new, guiltless freedom, and I was learning new perspectives on life like a dry sponge thirstily soaking in water.  I was constantly meeting new people, and I was excited to see for myself how they approached life.  While I never felt the need to adopt any new lifestyle, neither did I feel compelled to preach to anybody and convict them of their sinful ways.  I purposely let that part of my Christianity wither and die.  I figured that I could always come back to Jesus, but I for the time being I needed to remove myself from Calvary Chapel, the only conduit for Faith that I then knew of.  In the meantime, I thrilled in exploring, growing and maturing.  I cannot emphasize enough how those Renaissance years between 1993 and 1996 were the best years of my life.  I was too close to the trees to notice that it was also the beginning of the end for my Christian Faith.  The chisel was applied to the foundation, and it slowly, speck by speck, chipped away.

Calvary Chapel taught me to be aware of ‘cults’.  I needed to avoid those beliefs which had a resemblance to Christianity, but which denied the sole divinity and salvation through Jesus Christ.  Most people that I met during this time claimed to be Christians, but very few of them actually fit my narrow definition of what a Christian actually was.  Not that any of that kept me from learning more about them.  I dated a woman who was fascinated by UFOs, crop circles and traveling to places of harmonic convergence.  She had photo albums and binders full of catalogued photos and articles about these astral encounters.  I never criticized her, but I wanted to learn more.  I wanted to understand why she believed these things as strongly as she did.  She was also a licensed Reiki therapist.  The Fundamentalist in me would have condemned her as a heretic and her beliefs as demonic cultism.  Instead, I asked her to give me a session.  I wanted to experience what she did.  I lied down on my bed and she placed her hands on me, explaining that she was projecting or channeling some kind of energy through herself and into key connection points of my body.  I had heard of such silly things before, but instead of dismissing her as a nut, I decided that I wanted to take her seriously, and experience what she experienced, and to see if I could immerse myself into her alien belief.  And after several minutes of concentrating on her hands that I felt on my body, I could actually feel her hands sink deep into my chest, and bury into my flesh.  If I allowed myself into her world, and had momentary Faith in her Reiki discipline, I could literally feel her burning into my bosom.  It was a powerful sensation.  While I enjoyed exploring what she held to be sacred, I also secretly understood it to be a mind game.  I had to allow myself to let it happen, just like a therapist’s patient can be hypnotized by the power of suggestion only if the patient is willing.  If I stopped concentrating, the spell was broken, and I was instantly whisked back into the mundane world, and I could feel her mere physical hands resting only on the surface of my physical skin. 

It was then that I realized all those emotional rushes of love that I felt by the power of the Holy Ghost, well, they might have also been just brought on by the power of suggestion too.  I only felt the physical embrace of God during intense moments of ecstatic worship, and I had to allow for the sensation to take place.  They never took me by surprise.  Of course I still believed in God.  But I was not going to allow myself get so emotional over worship again.

I became a master of, what I later learned was called, cognitive dissonance.  I wanted to place the beliefs of my friends into one part of my brain, experience them, and try to understand them, only to ultimately see the mind game inherent in them.  I could see the danger of doing this, because it is only natural to extend that kind of criticism to my own belief in Jesus.  There was a reason why Calvary Chapel wanted so desperately to keep me ignorant.  But I left my own precious beliefs in another part of my brain that was safe from self-reflection. 

I have a strong suspicion that most people who leave Fundamentalist Christianity stay stuck at this point in their escape.  I did not reject my former beliefs completely.  I still believed in God, Jesus, Divine incarnations, Heaven, Hell, Divine Judgments, and all the rest.  I had to meet other people and learn other perspectives to understand that, well, Jesus might not be the only way to Salvation after all.  How could God damn all these na├»ve, sincere people?  I thought, maybe, perhaps, God did allow many paths to Salvation after all.  And this, I do think, is where most people who escape Fundamentalism leave it.  They do not take the next few crucial steps that I had to make into total non-belief and de-conversion.   I did have to take a few more steps to get to that point, but those steps had to come in their own time.

The next crucial step in my de-conversion was that I fell in love.

In May 1994 I met B----.  How do I describe this woman without allowing my writing to descend into a pool of emotional mush?  This is a story of my spiritual journey, and she is a huge part of that journey, even if indirectly.  B---- came into my life in that crucial time after I left Calvary Chapel, a church that encouraged Christians to be obedient and ignorant followers of unquestioned dogma.  B---- was the first person I ever met who dared tell me to shake those chains from my mind.  She proposed the frightening concept of doubt and questioning.  “Question Everything!” she would tell me, and it was a lesson that took me over a decade to fully understand.  She taught me to believe in myself.  She was the only person I had ever met up to that point, parents included, who convinced me that I was good, that I was smart, and that I was interesting.  B---- introduced me to science, to life, to art, to all sorts of worldly pleasures and pursuits that were the complete anathema of my Christian heritage.

At the time, B---- was studying chemistry at the University of New Mexico, and loved my enthusiasm for math and physics.  Even though our relationship only lasted three years, I will always remember B---- and how much she taught me.  Some time ago, I wrote a short story on this blog about the time B---- took me to the University of New Mexico library, and I stood dwarfed amid shelf after shelf after shelf of bound research journals.  “There is so much here!”  I exclaimed.  “There sure is.  This is the Wisdom of the World!”  The Wisdom of the World was contained in this new sacred space.  This library had so much content, and so much to digest, and the platitudes and condemnations of Pastors Skip and Chuck just paled in comparison.  Pastor Skip taught me to beware of the Wisdom of the World, but surely he was wrong about that.  I could not wait to dive in!

B---- accepted my Christianity, and constantly affirmed that she was also one.  Her family came from a long line of Methodists back in Virginia, and her family was in regular attendance.  I had been warned by Calvary Chapel about ‘Sunday Only’ Christians.  She never answered an alter call, and certainly did not understand the concept of Salvation through Faith alone.  But the thought of preaching to her just seemed absurd at this point, although I came dangerously close a few times.  Some of the books she asked me to read were certainly bizarre and heretical, but I also found them exciting and mind-expanding. 

One of the first books that B---- gave me was James Redfield’s new blockbuster The Celestine Prophecy.  I had to read it, she said.  I honestly do not remember much about the book, except that it was a story about an explorer traveling to exotic locations in quest of certain ‘spiritual insights’.  It was left ambiguous whether this story was true or not, but I suspected it was not when, at the last page, some characters literally vibrated themselves into pure energy.  “What did you think about the book??” B---- asked enthusiastically.  “Well….” 

B----- always seemed to flirt a little too close to ambiguous New Age western-eastern spiritual jumble.  But she insisted she was a Christian, and I was madly in love, so what did that matter?

Other relevant books she gave me included Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters.  These books attempted to describe how Eastern religions such as Hinduism so neatly correlated to modern particle physics.  I read these books, but I remember almost nothing about the religious or spiritual aspects.  But their descriptions of the bizarre world of quantum physics fascinated me, and the natural physics captured my imagination.  Several books on the mathematical discipline of chaos theory, which seemed to be almost trendy in the early 1990’s, put me deeper into the world of math and physics.  Instrumental here was James Gleick’s popular book, Chaos.  Chaos theory, which could not be fully studied until computer power had evolved to a suitable level, explored the idea of infinite amounts of information contained in finite spaces, and constructed with only a simple recursion formula.  Even the tiniest perturbation in a formula’s initial condition would add a new set of infinite amounts of information.   Chaos theory and quantum mechanics overwhelmed me with their ambiguous power.  The world was more enormous, more vague, and more unpredictable than I ever imagined.

I also re-introduced myself to the work of Isaac Asimov.  My high school years were filled with his science fiction novels and other forms of escapism.  I picked up from somewhere his enormous, three-volume book, Understanding Physics.  This book fascinated me like no other.  I read it in bed, in the bathtub and in my break area at work.  I read it at every spare moment until I had it finished.  I started at page one, the most basic forms of mechanics, and did not stop until his discussions of general relativity and quantum physics at the end.  I was enthralled.  Asimov presented physics as a historical overview, how the simplest steps in understanding the natural world was started by the ancients, and how each new discovery was built upon the previous foundation.  I particularly remember Asimov’s discussion of Mendeleev, and his construction of the Periodic Table of the elements, to be incredibly fascinating.  Atomic elements could be predicted to exist, based on the periodic nature of the already discovered elements.  Predictions were made, experiments were conducted, and the elements were discovered, with the properties that they were predicted to have.  Learning about the scientific method, and constructing theories and models that could actually make predictions was just mind-blowing to me.  I desperately wanted to be a part of it.  Somehow.  Someway.  The New Age stuff that B---- was attracted to was fun for me to think about, but it did not have the meat, or the tangible reality that physics had.

Unlike my own family, B---- came from a highly educated family.  Her father was an engineering professor from Virginia, and upon meeting him, he generously gave me a few gifts to encourage my curiosity.  Books.  Books!  Books to encourage my ever-growing interest in physics!  One of them was a new book by Carl Sagan called Pale Blue Dot.  I had not heard or read anything from Carl Sagan since his PBS series Cosmos aired on television when I was a teenager.  The book was a celebration of the Voyager Spacecrafts.  Voyagers I and II had spent the better part of the 1980’s rushing through the solar system, taking unprecedented photos and collected valuable data about the planets.  Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the gods of the ancient pantheon, were now objects to be explored and probed by the instruments of mere mortals.  In the opening pages of the book, Sagan tells the story of how he convinced the Voyager project leads to point the instrument cameras back toward Earth to take a photo.  So out beyond the orbit of Neptune, past the farthest reaches of the solar system, Voyager 1 turned its camera back towards its earthly origin and took this now famous photo of a Pale Blue Dot:



The Earth is but a single pixel amid the vast vacuum of space.

Sagan then gives this homily:

Look again at that dot.  That’s here.  That’s home. That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar” every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dust.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit, yes.  Settle, not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known
 -Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, p8-9

Reading this in 1994, soon after leaving the rigid dogmatism of Calvary Chapel was an amazing revelation.  In my mind, Sagan had written a sermon more spiritually profound than any I had ever heard from Pastor Skip.  I had found my calling.

B---- and her father were the first people I ever met who convinced me to attend university fulltime.  Nobody ever told me I was smart enough or that I could do anything with my life other than dead-end work and manual labor. They believed in me.  They had confidence in me, and they gave me the confidence in myself, something religious belief never did.  They literally changed my life, and I will be forever thankful to them.  I was afraid.  I had been led to believe that I would never attend University.  University was for ‘other’ people.  I barely knew what University was!  I truly had little idea what to expect!  But in December 1995, I jumped off the cliff into the unknown and embarked on the next huge chapter of my life.  At almost 32 years of age, I enrolled, fulltime, as a freshman student at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology as a physics major.  And through it all, I insisted that I was a still a Christian.

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