Friday, June 28, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions - God is Dead

Rosemary and I waited patiently for the obstetrician’s results.  We were both hopeful and excited about our new baby.  The last time we visited, we could see that the little fetus was alive and healthy.  We discussed in anticipation how we would raise, educate and discipline the child.  We even discussed teaching the child our religious beliefs, customs and traditions, but agreed to love and accept our child no matter what religion they chose to follow.  Rosemary did not seem to mind if the child decided to not even follow any religion at all.

I still believed in God, although I had to confess that I knew nothing about Him or what, if anything, He wanted from me.  Even after so much of my Christian Faith had dissolved, I still considered myself a Christian.  I had been a Christian my entire life, and I did not know what else to call myself.  I found nothing objectionable with belief in itself, and I still considered Faith to be a kind of virtue that could not be matched with unbelief.  When I was a Fundamentalist, I used to claim that religion was just a term for man’s feeble attempts of reaching out to God.  But I was not religious.  I let God reach down to me.  After losing so much of my own Faith, I reverted back to a slightly modified version of that same Fundamentalist definition of religion.  The Bible, I now thought, was one record of man’s feeble, but earnest, attempt at reaching out to God and trying to understand Him.  The same could be said for other religions and their Holy books and beliefs.  We were all trying to reach out to God, in our own way.  My study and criticism had given me the more educated view that our religions would always fall short of allowing us to fully understand the mind of God, much less have a relationship with Him. 

The truth was that I missed believing in God.  I wanted to believe.  I missed believing in God because I wanted to believe.  I missed the companionship of people who believed the same things I did.  I missed contemplating about eternal and weighty matters that were bigger than this world.  I missed having even the illusion of aligning myself with a moral plumb line.  I still believed in sin, because I could steel feel the grip of guilt that sin put on my thoughts and actions.

I had been a Christian my whole life, and even after losing Faith I could not shake my Christian convictions overnight.  I wanted to believe, and I clung desperately with my fingernails to the thinnest sliver of ledge was left of Christianity.  I wanted to believe, until a disaster finally pushed me over the edge.

I was 45 years old, Rosemary was 36, and for the first time in our lives, we were thrilled to be bringing a child into the world.  I felt like I had gotten a bit of a late start in life.  After all, I was old enough to start thinking of having grandchildren, and here I was waiting for my first child!  I figured that I may have gotten a late start, waiting to start university at 32, marrying at 40, now having a first child at 45, but I had spent all that extra time in preparation.  I was well educated, earning a large paycheck, had a wonderful marriage, and I felt age and experience had given me a level of maturity that I certainly did not have in my 20s or even 30s.  Rosemary and I felt ready to raise the next generation.  We figured two children would be ideal.  We even had names picked out.  We had figured out a clever way of naming the child after her grandparents and my grandparents, no matter what the child’s gender would have been. 

We could see Rosemary’s womb on the sonogram.  The obstetrician immediately gave us the bad news.

He left the examining room to give Rosemary and me a little time alone together.  It took a silent moment or two for the shock to sink in, but when we realized what had just happened, we collapsed into each other’s arms.  We held each other and wept bitter tears.  I was more stunned than the first time this had happened.  That bloody, painful and frightening miscarriage in our bathroom was bad enough, but we both thought this time would be different.  We thought this time, the baby would survive.  We were just in this examining room a month earlier, and we saw the sonogram on the computer monitor!  The little baby was alive and healthy!  Now, just a few weeks later, and for no apparent reason …

No, the religious person would think.  There is always a reason.  As bad as it seems, there is a reason - even for this.  We cannot know the mind of the Almighty, the religious person would think.  Some lesson or some greater good must come from this tragedy. Maybe the death of the child will somehow alter future events to bring Rosemary and me closer together in love and marriage.  Maybe this child is not the one that the Almighty had ultimately planned for the two of us.  For all we know, some little boy is being born, just this very instant, into a family who does not want him.  Maybe the little boy was somehow saved from the abortion clinic, and was being preserved for us to adopt him.  Who can fathom the mind and providence of the Almighty?

I was once the person who would have struggled to find meaning in tragedy.  I once thought that Hurricane Andrew struck southern Florida in order to allow Christian missionaries to descend on the needy, provide comfort and proclaim the Gospel in the name of Jesus Christ.  There is transcendent meaning and purpose in everything, I had once believed.

I did find comfort soon after the death of our little child.  I was grieving bitterly, but for me it passed surprisingly quickly.  I found my comfort precisely where I am accused I could never find it.  I found comfort in non-belief.  I did not have to struggle to imagine some higher purpose.  I did not have to imagine that the Almighty performed some abortion on our healthy child, just to teach us a lesson, bring us closer together, or to secretly prepare us for an adoptive child.  I did not have to wonder at the mystery of a Deity who would perform some cruelty toward us and toward our tiny child, just for some imagined and unknowable greater good.  I had no Faith to defend, and I did not have to struggle to use a Faith to imagine a reason in my hour of grieving.  No, I just grieved until I was finished grieving.

If there was some higher meaning to all this, it was the discovery that I did not need my old beliefs to find peace in tragedy.  Faith demanded that I struggle to find meaning where there was none.  This struggle vanished after I lost Faith. I discovered that Faith did not give that transcendent meaning that I had been promised.  Faith was a cancerous tumor that promised peace which passeth all understanding, but actually delivered nothing but false hope.  Not only had I lost Faith, but the moment of salvation came when I discovered that I did not need Faith.  Faith is a coping mechanism where one is not needed. 

Is there a god?  Does God love me?  Does He care for me and want the best for me?  Even after so much of my Faith had eroded, I still held out hope that this God was still out there somewhere, and Faith in Him, whoever He was, was still somehow virtuous.  But after a tragedy like this, I could see that questions like these were moot.  I finally understood that if this creature named God, Yahweh, Jesus, the Almighty, actually existed, this creature did not give a rip one way or another about me.  Or Rosemary.  Or anybody else who lived on this earth.  I was not angry at God for the tragedy; I just found that it was pointless to try to turn to Him when I should have needed Him the most.  He had vanished.  He was a phantom, an illusion, a projection of my own hopes and fears.  The religious person struggles to find meaning through Faith, whether it be through traditional religion or personal piety.  But I discovered that through my own lack of Faith, I had killed God.  The deity named Jesus was no different from one of the old Greek deities who could only survive through the prayers and devotion of their pagan worshippers.  The only thing keeping the modern God alive in any form was my faith.  But I had no faith.  I finally understood that God and Faith are pretty much the same thing, and when I kill one the other dies right along with it.

My comfort came in understanding that there is no higher purpose in tragedy, suffering and death.  Rosemary and I are animals.  We live with all other animals on a spinning rock, orbiting an enormous nuclear reactor.  We are at the mercy of our dynamic earth, and the profane laws that she abides by.  I once had to use my religious Faith to find comfort, meaning and purpose in earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes.  If I still had Faith, I would have to use it to find comfort in the death of our little child. 

But no more.  I believed the comforting words of the obstetrician, “there is nobody to blame.  You did all the right things, but sometimes this just – happens.”

And that is all there was to it.  Things just happen.  God never was and never has been.  But even with that, the detritus of God wanted to cling to my life like a parasite.  If I need to kill a parasite then I have to stop feeding it.  God is Dead.  There is relief in those words.  I grieved with Rosemary.  Then I could simply let the pain go.  I was finally free.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions - Unequally Yoked

I had it easy.  Mom had long since left her Pentecostal religion behind her, and for all I knew, was apathetic towards religious belief.  Dad had fully given his life over to the Mormon Church, and only occasionally talked to me about his religious beliefs.  They had both divorced decades earlier, and although there was no animosity, they rarely had need to speak to each other.  I was 42 years old, so my parents had long ago lost any influence over my personal religious beliefs.  Both lived over one hundred miles from us, and Rosemary’s parents lived over 8000 miles from us, so they were not involved with our daily activities.  Rosemary and I had both moved to El Paso to find employment, and had spent only a few years investing in local friendships and commitments.  Despite our activities in both La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church and St Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, we had not formally joined either church as members.  Probably most importantly, Rosemary and I had no children to drag through the confusion I felt after losing my Faith in Jesus.  I have since read countless, heartbreaking stories by former believers who, because of concerns over children, parents, an overbearing church involvement or religious culture, cannot completely make the break from the religion they no longer have Faith in.  The only person I felt accountable to was my wife.  My Baptist church?  Since I was not a member, I simply stopped attending on Sunday mornings.  I figured that I did not owe anybody there an explanation.  Cowardly?  Perhaps.  But since I liked Pastor Alvarez, and did not object to his more tepid form of Baptist preaching, I just did not want to raise trouble where I thought trouble would not be welcome.  My Catholic church?  Since I never said anything to anybody at that church, outside of the rote, ‘peace be with you’, nobody there knew or cared about my personal religious beliefs – or even non-beliefs.  I bet half the people in that church were heretics of one kind or another, but people in that place rarely talked about their beliefs.

Without any societal commitments, my departure from Faith was relatively easy.  Not that it was painless.

Rosemary knew that my beliefs were changing.  She could see the books that I had been reading, and she was troubled by some of the conversations that I was starting with her.  I was honest and open with her throughout the entire transition away from Faith.  I have read some stories of apostate husbands who must break the news to their wives that they no longer believe God exists.  Such stories have always astounded me.  Had I done this to Rosemary, had I hid all my books, inner thoughts and secret doubts from her, then just slammed her with the news from out of the blue, she would not have understood anything.  It definitely would not have ended well.  But since I never hid anything from her, nothing took her by surprise.  We had our share of difficult conversations, but at least I shared everything with her, honestly, and from the beginning.

Rosemary once asked me bluntly if I still believed in God.  Did all that reading and skepticism destroy my Faith?  I said it did.  But, of course I still believed in God!  I was not sure who or what He was, and I was struggling to figure all that out.  But my Faith in God was pretty much gone, and I was still trying to discover what I could have Faith in!  Rosemary was relieved.  I did not have Faith, but I was a ‘Searcher’.  I would eventually find my way.  I did my best to explain that I had come to believe that the Bible, along with other Holy Books of the world, were just man's attempt to find God.  God was out there, and he gave us what we needed, but He was also leaving it up to His faithful to find him with the tools He made available.  Somehow, I also must find my way to God, in my own way, and with my own kind of Faith.

Rosemary then asked me about our marriage.  If I no longer believed in God as I had once understood Him, what about the marriage vows that we had taken in His name?  Did I feel that our marriage was still valid?  Would I ever feel justified in leaving her in this unequally yoked marriage if I felt I did not have to answer to God?  Was marriage no longer a sacrament?  I think this was the most painful question that I had to answer upon leaving Faith.  My own wife was frightened about her unbelieving husband.  I did my best to help her understand that not only did I did make a vow before God during our marriage ceremony, but I made the same vow to her.  I made the vows before her family, my family, all our friends, and even Pastor Alvarez who officiated.  I may no longer hold God to be sacred, but I did hold everybody else high enough to honor them with my marriage vows.  It took her some time to understand, but eventually she did.  A couple of years later, her mother asked me the same thing.  Needless to say, this devout Catholic woman was not too thrilled with a sudden Heathen as a husband for her daughter.  Over time though, and after a concerted avoidance to speak about religion to her, I think I have earned her trust.

I had only shared the mildest of doubts with the believers in my small home Bible study group.  Pastor Dave Shultz, the usual leader of our group, had no warning when I suddenly announced that I would no longer be able to host the Bible study in my home.  I tried to avoid trouble by giving no real reason, other than I was not feeling convicted to host the Bible study any longer.  Pastor Dave, suspecting that I was up to something fishy, told me that he would like to schedule a time where we could discuss my conviction privately. 

I was nervous when the appointed day came.  I had hoped that he would visit, that I would give some lame excuse about not feeling led by the Lord any longer, and that would be the end of it.  But when I tried that lame tactic, Dave’s pastoral discernment told him that I was hiding something.  While our wives spent time making deserts in the kitchen, Dave interrogated me until I confessed.  And confess I did.  I figured that if I was going to make a clean break from my religious beliefs, and if he was going to be insistent enough to get me to confess all my grievances against the god of our beliefs, then I would give it to him with both barrels.  So I let Pastor Dave have it.  The years of pent up doubts.  The frustration with praying to a silent god and resting all our hopes on an indifferent deity.  The realization that the Almighty was thoroughly impotent without the Faith of His followers.  The admission that I could not honestly reconcile what I understood about science, particularly theories of our origins and evolution, with my Biblical understanding of the origins of the universe, our world, and Original Sin.  Finally, the years and years of psychological torture that I endured with the superstition called Eternal Life.  My confessions gushed forth like bitter water from an untapped well.  Pastor Dave tried to answer with simple and unconvincing apologetic responses that I was already both familiar and disgusted with.  There was no reasoning with me.  I was given over to a reprobate mind.

Meanwhile, Kate and Rosemary were preparing deserts in the kitchen.  Rosemary admitted that she was still a believer in God and always would be.  Kate was relieved that the wife remained in the fold, even if the husband had given himself over to a life of apostasy and sin.  Knowing that Rosemary still believed in God, Kate thought that she could confide in her:

“Joe is losing his faith?  Is he still a believer?”
“I don’t know,” said my wife.  “He is searching.”

“His spirit never seemed to stay at rest.  He was always questioning.  Questioning is OK!  God welcomes questions!  But at some point he has to rest on Faith.”

Rosemary was already uneasy with the direction Kate was taking the conversation.  Rosemary was particularly shocked when Kate said,

“We might not be able to let you watch Henry anymore,” referring to her autistic son that we sometimes enjoyed taking out for pizza and miniature golf, “I don’t know that we can trust Joe.”

“Why won’t you trust him?”

“Because we don’t understand him anymore.  We cannot relate to him.  It is going to be very difficult for us to love him.”

Rosemary became very upset at the willingness of her friend to completely dismiss us, based not on my actions, not on my morality, but simply because I had unacceptable and offensive beliefs.  I had offended her simply by not agreeing with her beliefs.  Rosemary was finally coming to understand how conditional our Christian friendships really were.  Rosemary was open and accepting of the beliefs of others, but was always skeptical about accepting Baptists and their beliefs for herself.  She had resisted joining their church.  Kate had assumed that Rosemary held more devotion to her church than to her husband.  Kate had assumed that Rosemary, as a believer, was willing to hate her father and mother, her brother and sister, and even her husband for His sake.  Under the same circumstances, I know that many women would think of ending their unequally yoked marriage.  But even this unbeliever was lucky to have such an understanding and faithful wife.

After Pastor Dave Schultz had the full confession that he had come for, he and Kate left our house.  Rosemary and I never returned to La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  I figured that my confession of nonbelief to Pastor Dave officially made me out as an apostate to that Church, and I had no desire to return to explain myself.  I saw Kate briefly in the airport some years later, but other than that chance encounter we never again saw them.  Rosemary could not believe that Kate had confessed that they were going to have a hard time loving me, when I was trying to be as honest as I could.  Apparently God welcomed questions and doubts, but at the end of the day I had damn sure better get the right answers.  God cannot tolerate wrong answers from honest questions, and neither can His followers.  

Rosemary and I still talk about how we miss their son Henry.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Conversions and De-converions - Slash and Burn

Penchansky’s Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible was the first book in my new journey.  It was exhilarating.  I was reading things about my Bible that I never could have imagined.  Polytheism?  The Bible has more than one god?  Absolutely – Penchansky just had to show me where to look, and I definitely found that polytheism is in there.  Inconceivable!  I was not convinced by everything Penchansky or anybody else said for the sake of it being counter to anything I had known before.  But I came to understand that there was a possibility that everything I had understood about God, about Jesus, the Bible, everything had another side to the story.  I was discovering that there was so much more that I had never learned from a single pastor or Bible teacher, and that I would never learn unless I ignored all the warnings of ‘worldly wisdom’ from Pastor Skip, went to the library myself and did my own digging.

I was 42 years old, and I was as enthused as any youngster who was on the verge of an exciting intellectual discovery.  I remember the thrill of first reading about and understanding Chaos Theory or Quantum Mechanics some fifteen years before.  There was once a time when I had stayed up late into the night reading and pondering on this newly discovered knowledge that few other people could claim to understand.  It was more than any of my family, friends or anybody I had grown up with had ever known before, and that had made anything that challenged what I thought I knew about the world to be a thrilling intellectual adventure.  It was the thrill of having my mind expanded, my vistas broadened, and learning something that only a privileged few who put forth the effort could know.  I felt that thrill again in early 2006, when everything I thought I knew about my religious beliefs was rattled from the foundation.  I felt the pull of my own ignorance.  The more I learned, the more insignificant I felt.  There was more out there in the world than I could ever hope to absorb.  I simply could not get enough.

I was not a young, angry rebel who was looking for a way to shake off the confines of my religion.  I had no desire to start ‘living a life of sin’, as so many offended Christians would imagine of me.  None of these supposed motivations were anywhere on my radar.  ‘Sinning’ was not my motivation.  I had just turned 42 years old.  It was my first year of marriage to a woman I desperately loved.  I was attending two different churches, keeping close to my Fundamentalist faith, and learning to appreciate Rosemary’s Catholic traditions.  We were hosting weekly Bible studies in our home, and I loved all the people we met from the two churches we attended.  I had no reason to rebel against anything in my life.  But I had to face the fact that Christianity, as I knew it, was not working in my life anymore.   As much as I had tried to deny it, it had not worked in years.   I could no longer naively accept what I was being told from the pulpit, as I once had.  But to cut my skepticism even deeper, I now could no longer naively accept what was even in the Bible itself!  The very Fountainhead of my Faith, the Holy Scriptures, also had to come under my intense scrutiny. 

Penchansky challenged me to try reading the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, not as a historical or theological description of mankind’s Fall into a state of Original Sin, but as mythology no different from any other mythology of antiquity.  Instead of accepting my religion’s official interpretation of this sacred story as the origin of mankind’s eternal and defiant separation from God Almighty and the corruption of the natural order, I tried reading the story only as it stood in the text.  Try imagining Yahweh as only one in a pantheon of deities who created humans for the tending of His garden.  Inside His garden is a magical tree, the fruit of which gives the innocent couple a sense of self-aware morality.  The curses that Yahweh inflicts on his creatures are myths to explain why men must work and toil in life, why women must labor in childbirth and be subservient to men, and why snakes crawl around with no legs.  I had fought for years to somehow interpret the Adam and Eve story in a way that would not violate either my imposed religious dogma of Original Sin, or my scientific understanding of evolution and the origins of Homo Sapiens.  Each attempt at reconciliation was so unsuccessful, that over time I simply resorted to the ‘somehow – someway’ interpretation that they both must be simultaneously true.  Penchansky challenged me to look at the same story as ancient, polytheistic myth, no different from the fantastic myths of the Greeks and Romans.  I had long thought that the story fell in some genre of inspired myth, but one that ultimately pointed to Christian doctrine.  But if I tried, even just for the sake of argument, not to impose later Christian dogma onto the ancient story of Adam and Eve, and just let the story speak for itself, the interpretation of the text became simple and obvious.  Suddenly, the story made sense.  It worked.  It fit perfectly within a pre-scientific world that routinely generated myths to explain natural phenomena.  So much the worse for that part of Christian dogma.  Christian dogma was what I was scrutinizing.  If it was not working, I figured – tough luck.  It had to go.  If I could find a simpler model, a less contrived explanation to what had been impossible to put together, I figured that one was more likely to be true. 

So, one chip at a time, inspiration and inerrancy was removed from the Bible.  From here, it seemed that everything about my Christian religion collapsed all at once.  The doctrine of the Biblical Inerrancy was very fast to go.  I had seen ‘alleged’ contradictions in the Bible, but I had been trained with plenty of apologetic talking points that would save my Bible from embarrassment.  It was not until I started reading library books, then buying them for myself, that I discovered just how many problems there really were with the Biblical text, and just how ludicrous most of my canned responses to them were.  Biblical inerrancy went fast.  I was still a Christian, at least I still felt like one, but I knew my Faith was going to go through a rapid transformation.  I was vaguely aware by this time that I might even have to discard my Faith completely.  For some reason, I do not remember being particularly afraid.  I knew that my intentions were honest and sincere.  I knew that I was not looking for an excuse to sin.  I knew that I did not hate God.  I was just fed up with being confused, miserable, and forcing myself to settle with unsatisfactory answers.  I just wanted to get to the bottom of what my religion was really all about and to cut through the lies that I knew I was being fed from the pulpit.

I was more afraid of my friends and family than I was of God.  Rosemary was certainly concerned.  Since she was a Catholic, I don’t think she ever understood my bizarre obsession with understanding the Bible.  It seemed that every day, my reading and research led me to some new unsolvable problem with Biblical inerrancy.  After enumerating everything I had just discovered about the contradictions, for instance, between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trail and crucifixion, my suffering wife would just seek to make peace rather than argue. 

Rosemary could tell me, “Yes, yes, they wrote their gospel stories differently, didn’t they?  Maybe they just wrote from their own perspectives, and could never get all the tiny details exactly the same.  I am sure those were busy times with lots of confusion and intrigues.  Nobody could have gotten it exactly right!”  I had by then learned that there were plenty of reasons why the differences between the four Gospels should be concerning to a person trying to preserve inerrancy, but I never argued with her.  I just did my best to listen to her point of view, and take from it what I could.  But she really did not know what to say to me.  She did not know what it would take to ease my doubts.  She had been raised in a religious environment that emphasized Faith as the ultimate virtue, and unlike my tradition, never looked to the Bible for evidence of her Faith.  Looking for evidence would make her a doubter.  If she was to be a Catholic, she was to believe, Bible or no Bible, evidence or no evidence, and that was all there was to it.  She did not understand why I would begin doubting after finding Biblical discrepancies or contradictions.  To her, such things were unimportant and irrelevant.  I did my best to explain to her that I was on my own religious and spiritual quest.  I needed to find out what was best for me, and what I could understand as truth to my best satisfaction.  I believed that to be the best husband that I could be, I needed to be honest with my convictions and with her.  Although she was concerned for me, I tried to reassure her that my beliefs were mine alone, and I would never force her to believe exactly as I did.  Rosemary was incredibly patient with me during this time.  I am sure it was a stressful situation for her.  We had married with different religious traditions from the start.  Now less than a year into our marriage, she could tell I was headed for some kind of drastic change.

We continued hosting weekly Bible studies in our home, but I think everybody in the room was feeling the tensions of my changing beliefs.  I never kept any thought or doubt secret from Rosemary.  I was not ashamed to show her the books that I was then reading.  But I kept everything secret from my Bible study group and anybody else at La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  Instead of venting my doubts to my Bible study group, I presented them with some challenges that I had suddenly been made aware of to see how any one of them would react.  Many Fundamentalists are particularly sensitive to the charge that their Scriptures contain contradictions, so every now and again I thought I would challenge the members of my Bible study group with a bit of a problem.  Inevitably, the only person who responded to my challenges was our group leader, Dave.  Everybody else sat in tense silence.  A typical challenge would go something like:

Me: I know that there are no real contradictions in the Bible, only ‘seeming’ contradictions, so what is your opinion of salvation by grace versus salvation by works.  I grew up believing in Grace Alone, but Rosemary grew up as a Catholic, and that God’s grace allows us to do good works, but ultimately we have to work out our own salvation.  So who is right?

John: The Bible says that we are saved by grace alone.

Me: What about the problem between Paul in Romans and James.  I read both, and it really like they are saying two different things.

John:  No.  Paul is saying that we are saved by God’s grace.  James is saying that our works are the evidence that we are saved through God’s grace.

Of course I had heard this apologetic countless times before, but I did not want to needlessly press the issue with my study group.  I was not trying to cause problems with them, or cause any of them to doubt with me.  I was just interested to see if they had anything new or more compelling to offer than the usual apologetics that I was finding increasingly unconvincing.  I never told my group that I had noticed the common strategy of ironing over contradictions by inserting things into the Biblical text that were not there.  I figured that the doubts swimming in my head were far beyond anything my poor group was equipped to deal with.  Both Paul and James reference Abraham as a model of salvation, but Paul uses that model to say, explicitly, that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).  James uses that same model to say, explicitly, that we “see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24).   My study group responded to this nasty theological problem with the common apologetic tactic of making James say things that I did not see in the text of his epistle. 

I felt that if there was this much controversy, with my Fundamentalist traditions interpreting these texts one way, and Rosemary’s Catholic traditions interpreting them differently, then what good reason did I have to choose one interpretation over the other?  What good reason did anybody have to choose a favored interpretation of ambiguous texts, except by appealing to a favored religious tradition?  But even if my friends were right, and James said that works were only an evidence that we were in fact saved by Faith alone, how do we Christians know how many good works are enough to count as evidence of our own salvation?  I knew plenty of non-Christians, especially in my university years, who were definitely not Christians, but whose outward actions made them indistinguishable from Christians.  So if works are the evidence of salvation in a Christian, and the Christian finds himself not performing enough works that he feels would be a manifest result of his Faith, he will be forced to perform more good works, just to prove he is in fact saved!  I had struggled with this problem many times over the years.  I had to believe that I was saved only through my Faith in Jesus, and not to rely on my good works for salvation.  But if I did not do enough good works, I did not have solid evidence that I was in fact being sanctified into the image of Christ.  So I would have to perform more good works to demonstrate my sanctification.  As a result chasing my tail like this, I could not tell the difference between works and faith.  It was all just ridiculous semantics that I was basing my salvation on.  I feared that my home Bible study group would suspect my doubts had increased to an unacceptable level.

But what about my Christian friends?  If they wanted to say they were saved, and that their good works were evidence of salvation, I should have expected to see that evidence manifest in how they lived their lives.  But from what I saw, their morality was nothing markedly different from anything saw in the typical, non-believing heathen.  If anybody stood out as moral paragons, it was some of my Catholic friends who had devoted enormous amounts of effort and sacrifice into border justice, all done in the name of Christ.  These were the same Christians who criticized my strong focus on the Bible.  Yet, my Fundamentalist friends constantly spoke of grace, faith, and our works manifesting the sanctifying work of the Spirit, yet they evidenced nothing that demonstrated some supernatural Force compelling them to divine service.  Outside of church and Bible study, they acted pretty much the same as anybody else.  Where was this ‘works as evidence’ of divine grace?  If Christians were in fact indistinguishable from non-Christians, how could their works be any evidence of their supposed salvation? 

Our home Bible study had stagnated into a half hour or so of exploring a theme in the Bible, asking everybody to volunteer their opinions on a few selected scriptures, then gather group prayer.  How many decades had I spent repeating this same material over and over again?  How many different ways can we repeat the constant refrain – we are sinners, Jesus is the Savior, He died to bare our sins, and we now need to accept His salvation?  How many times must we dredge up Scriptures that convict us to love our neighbor, to seek His higher glory, to pray without ceasing, etc, etc?  I felt that there were only so many ways to express the same things over and over again, and I was afraid that some of the more, shall we say, emotionally needy believers in our small study group were leaning far too heavily on the wisdom of our group leader, John.  With a limited number of scriptures that could be referred to in a finite book like the Bible, I felt that stagnation was inevitable, and these people had become complacent in constantly hearing the same thing.  They asked questions of our group leader, but I suspect they knew what the answers were before they asked, and would have been disappointed if they received an answer that they did not expect.  Complacency in my Faith was the one thing that I was trying to escape from.  Fed up and frustrated with this seeming over-reliance on Faith at the expense of Works, I decided to test my home study group with another kind of challenge.  

Martin Luther King Day had just passed, so I decided to read a small excerpt from Dr. King’s classic of activist literature, his powerful Letter from Birmingham Jail.  I had just recently finished reading a biography of his life, and I was gripped by how much he had sacrificed for the cause of racial justice, and by how powerfully he was empowered by his religious beliefs.  In 1963, King was arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama While he was in jail, eight white pastors from around the state wrote the local Birmingham newspaper, and editorialized against King’s activism.  They figured he should be a good preacher, stay behind the pulpit, and keep his nose out of racial justice and activism.  In response, King wrote from solitary confinement what came to be known as Letter from Birmingham Jail on scraps of paper, and smuggled out by his lawyer bit by bit.  King’s letter detailed his commitment to using the Church as an empowered vehicle that I thought made our comfortable Christian apathy pathetic in comparison.   Would my fellow Christians be as affected by Dr. King’s letter as I was?  I gave my study group a short background of the history behind Dr. King’s letter, then read to them this excerpt:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I told them that this letter had a powerful effect on me, and I waited for their response.  I was not expecting an instant moral commitment to social justice.  I was just expecting a comment for discussion.  Perhaps somebody in my group could tell me what Dr. King’s letter and message had to say about our modern church, specifically ours, who had the same concerns of falling into apathy and irrelevance.  What I did not expect was the room full of blank stares and tepid nods of accent and agreement.  I could not even get an honest opinion from these people who believed that their morality and works were manifest evidence of their personal salvation.  These people had no desire or intention to have their convictions challenged, even by a fellow Christian like Martin Luther King!  They clearly were not interested in Spiritual growth or any kind of moral challenge.  My spiritually empowered and sanctified Christian brethren only wanted to coddle themselves up to the same familiar, warm and simmering pot of stewed ingredients that they had been born and raised with.  I loved them all, but I had to be honest with what I was seeing.  The evidence of works that the Spirit had made manifest in these fellow Christians was nothing more than a pathetic dependence on comfort food.  These people had nothing to offer me, and I did not want to be content with their spiritual complacency.  I was searching because I was no longer satisfied with living a spiritual life of doubts, concerns and questions.  The familiar Fundamentalism of my home Bible study group and La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church had nothing more to offer me.

Simultaneous with these events was my discovery of the Internet.  I have never been especially enamored of electronic gadgets in my house.  I did have a boom-box to listen to music, but that is about where the technology ended.  In 2006, I still had my rotary telephone and no television.  I certainly did not have a home computer!  Rosemary would have none of my aversion to technology, and had the Internet installed in our house around the time we started hosting the weekly Bible studies.  I had used the Internet quite a bit as a research tool at work and when I was attending university.  I had no intention or desire of ever using it for personal use, until I saw a need to do some personally important research.  I discovered that there was an endless supply of the apologetics that I had come to despise.  I discovered that Chuck Missler was still around, and still selling the ‘briefing packages’ that I had practically memorized back in the early ‘90s.  I already knew that stuff.  I needed to be challenged with something different.  I remember naively typing ‘Bible Contradictions’ into the search engine.  What a mammoth mistake that was!  I discovered that there were a lot of irrational and unwarranted criticisms of Christianity that seemed to come from very angry people.  I did my best to avoid emotional ranting that contained obvious lies.  But I eventually found two sites that were instrumental in my ultimate departure from Christianity. introduced me to the works of Robert Ingersoll.  I had never heard of Ingersoll, and had no idea who he was when I started browsing the lectures stored at  Robert Ingersoll, polemicist and orator, toured the United States during the turn of the century, back during the time when public lectures were a form of entertainment.  I opened something from Ingersoll called Heretics and Hericies, only one of dozens of his public lectures in print, and started reading:
Whoever has an opinion of his own, and honestly expresses it, will be guilty of heresy. Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrine of the weak. This word was born of the hatred, arrogance and cruelty of those who love their enemies, and who, when smitten on one cheek, turn the other. This word was born of intellectual slavery in the feudal ages of thought. It was an epithet used in the place of argument. From the commencement of the Christian era, every art has been exhausted and every conceivable punishment inflicted to force all people to hold the same religious opinions. This effort was born of the idea that a certain belief was necessary to the salvation of the soul. Christ taught, and the church still teaches that unbelief is the blackest of crimes. God is supposed to hate with an infinite and implacable hatred, every heretic upon the earth, and the heretics who have died are supposed at this moment to be suffering the agonies of the damned. The church persecutes the living and her God burns, for all eternity, the dead…
I had a visceral gut reaction to what I was reading.  It felt like an emotional gag reflex.  It was one of the very few times that I was offended by the blasphemy of what I was reading.  I felt the strong urge to choke on what I was reading, to look away from the horrors of heresy.  No!  I had to force myself to override the instinct to look away from what was on the page before me, and rather ask myself if there was anything in Ingersoll’s shocking words that were not accurate.  Was my revulsion due to reading lies and distortions, or was I reading ugly truth?  Is it not true that, for instance, “Christ taught, and the church still teaches that unbelief is the blackest of crimes”?  Was Ingersoll correct when he said, “Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrine of the weak”?  I knew very well about purges and inquisitions of the past.  But even if heretics are not now persecuted to the extent that they were in the past, Ingersoll was still correct about the Church’s hatred of heresies.  After all, why was I hiding my own heretical thoughts and opinions from my small Bible study group?  Was I not afraid of their hatred of my unorthodox thoughts?  I had to accept that Ingersoll was not stretching the truth.  He was expressing Christianity’s hatred of heresies and originality and freethought in highly charged and polemical prose.  This is what public speakers do.  It did not make it any less true.  I was fascinated with what critical evaluation of Christian texts and traditions had to offer, and how it expanded my mind to new ideas about my Faith.  But the bluntness of Ingersoll’s polemics forced me not to sugar-coat what the outcomes of my changing Faith really were, and where I was headed.  I was becoming the subject of countless condemning sermons from the pulpit.  I was becoming a heretic.  I may have been intimidated by my fellow Christians, but I was no longer afraid of God.  Was I becoming hard of heart, like Pharaoh’s defiance against God?  Was I in the process of being handed over to a reprobate mind?  Perhaps, but I had lost all my guilt and fear of Divine judges.  I was not afraid of Him because I knew I was being honest.  If anything, I knew that my integrity was intact.

One other website that I must mention, pummeled my senses with a blunt question - Why won't God heal amputees?  Reading in particular a long article which addressed this question, brought me back nearly twenty years before to a Calvary Chapel service in which believers were sharing their stories of miraculous healing.  As I have written about in a previous article of this series, one man shared how he had prayed for the healing of a friend’s severed hand.  When he shared with us that he had seen that hand grow back with his very eyes, Pastor Skip quickly intervened to quiet his obviously deluded testimony and end the sharing of miraculous stories.  It seemed strange to me at the time why everybody would believe stories of healed colds, bad backs, even cancer remission, or anything else that had one thing in common - that any testimony could conceivably occur with no miraculous intervention.  But nobody, not me, not even Pastor Skip, believed a sincere, faithful and enthusiastic story that involved something truly miraculous.  I was finally ready to confront the question of why Christians never pray for the healing of amputees, the mentally retarded, the Alzheimer patient, or any other person in which there was no chance of natural remission.  When the question was raised in Calvary Chapel, I ignored the obvious implications, and brushed them under a rug.  But fifteen years later, I was finally ready to examine those questions again.  I pulled them back out from the rug and the answers were immediately obvious to me.  Christians, at least every Christian I had ever personally encountered, only prayed for things that would take no faith to believe would be answered.  Nobody prayed for the healing of our Bible study leader’s autistic son.  Nobody ever prays for the regeneration of severed limbs.  Nobody ever prays for new skin on a 3rd degree burn patient.  We all know that those prayers will never be answered.  But why shouldn’t they be answered?  The entire Universe will be just as insignificant as a speck of lint to a Being of infinite scope.   Healing a head cold and healing a congenital birth defect should be pretty much the same thing to a Creature of unlimited power.  So why, why did we never pray for those miraculous things that would unquestionably demonstrate His existence and majesty?  Why shouldn’t a prayer for the resurrection of a still-born fetus be just as common as a prayer for the relief of an aching back?  

I knew the answer why.  I think that deep down, we all knew the answer why, and we always knew it.  But it took me decades to accept that grim fact of my Faith in the Almighty.  We never prayed those prayers because we knew they would never be answered.  We only prayed for those things which would not make a mockery of our magical genie in the bottle.  We only prayed for those things that take no faith at all.  We even append each prayer with ‘…but Your will be done’ just in case, because we also know that even pathetic, faithless prayers are only answered with no greater certainty than random chance.

Looking back at the year 2006, I am shocked at how fast my Christian Faith collapsed.  I never intended to stop believing.  I was not out to look for an excuse to stop believing.  I did not know this intense ‘spiritual quest’ of skepticism and scrutiny of my religious beliefs would lead to my eventual abandonment of those beliefs.  I caught myself by surprise when I realized that I no longer believed.  I knew that my beliefs were changing, and I knew that I would not come out of this skeptical period with the same Fundamentalist beliefs I had held before.  I initially welcomed that change and I was not afraid of where it would eventually end up.  I had no idea it would end in non-belief!  I was expecting to wind up, perhaps, as an enlightened Catholic Christian, which was just fine by me.  All I wanted was to believe in something that I could be honest with, and not have to lie about or tie my brain into logical knots to justify.  Finally, I wanted to believe in something that would be attractive to my wife and hopefully be compatible with her beliefs.  I wanted a happy and successful marriage, and I needed some religious framework that would make our relationship stronger in the coming years.  So I merrily went along, reading everything I could get my hands on that looked intelligent and skeptical, yet fair to my Christian Faith.  I did not know until it was too late how quickly my Faith had completely eroded away.

The shock of what I was doing to myself finally came early one morning sometime in summer 2006.  Rosemary was asleep next to me in bed.  I was up early, reading a book that gripped me like a best-selling suspense novel.  I remember reading in that book about the various forms of early Christian beliefs that existed in the first centuries after Jesus walked the earth.  Bart Ehrman’s book Lost Christianities demonstrated to me that the ancient Mediterranean was a cornucopia of religions, mythologies, saviors, miracles, god-men and pagan beliefs.  Ehrman demonstrated from the numerous writings that are preserved from the ancient Mediteranean world, including the New Testament itself, that the Christian milieu was awash in various types of Gnostics, Marcionites, Encratites, Docetics, Ebionites, and other extinct forms of Christian heresies.  Ehrman showed that what later became Orthodox Christianity most likely sprung out of this syncretistic stew like the first strands of primitive DNA had once steamed out of chemical reactions in thermal vents and magma flows.

I lay next to my sleeping wife.  I put the book down momentarily, dumbstruck at what I had just then realized.  “Oh no,” I whispered to myself.  “Joe, what are you going to believe?  What are you going to believe?”  It was a stunning moment.  I knew then where I was.  Rather, I knew where I was not. 

One evening in 1988, I had walked behind the Calvary Chapel stage in Albuquerque, New Mexico to make a firm commitment to Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  I had cried and slobbered my way through the Sinner’s Prayer, convicted and repentant of my sins, and ready to live a new life for Jesus.  F there is any such thing as an ‘Apostate’s Prayer’, I said it to myself that morning in 2006, with Ehrman’s Lost Christianities open in front of me. 

“Joe, what are you going to believe?” 

I did not know quite what to believe.  But I knew, right then and there, that I did not believe a single thing I had once thought was true of God, Jesus, The Bible.  Heaven or Hell.  The sanctification of the saints and the inherent virtues of holding to the Christian Faith.  In that moment, it was gone.  All gone.  Slash and burn and start all over again.  All those years – all that time and effort and expense of holding up a belief system to mold everything in my life into – all of that was gone.  I realized it all at in just that moment.

I momentarily panicked.  But it did not last long.  I guess that was how it felt to be abandoned by God and “given up unto vile affections” (Romans 1:26).  I felt the breathing of my sleeping wife lying next to me, and I turned the page to expose myself to more damnable heresies.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Guilt in the Dream Aether

I was walking in a crowded mall with some friends.  I looked through the glass walls of one shop and noticed the brightly colored books inside.  The shop was full of youngsters, eagerly looking through all the new and colorful books.  I remember the bright colors of the books.  I remember that they were large.  And that they were held by tiny hands of youngsters.

“Amazing!  A bookstore just for children!  I really love that idea!”  My friends mocked me for expressing such silly enthusiasm over a bookstore.  But as I continued to walk through the mall, they somehow drifted away into the aether, as people and places tend to do when I am fast asleep.

I felt a tug on my leg.  I clutched my backpack tightly as Rosemary had taught me to do in crowded places.  I looked down at a boy who had placed his arm around my leg.  I looked up at a young woman with a baby who had emerged from out of the crowded blur of shoppers.  They were Mexican.  The boy’s skin was very brown.  He looked like he could have been one of my boyhood friends from rural New Mexico.  His dirty face made him look like he was one of my opponents in a mischievous schoolyard dirt clod war.  

He sobbed as he clutched my leg.  I somehow knew that the baby wrapped in rags was his baby sister, and that the young woman who held the baby was his mother.  No words were said, but I sometimes know certain things about people when I am fast asleep.  The young Mexican mother was fresh and clean, simply dressed and, of course, very beautiful.  Of course she was.

I looked down at the boy.  He sobbed as he clung to my leg.  “I heard you talk about the books.  The children’s books.”  He looked up at me.  His sobs revealed a large, misshapen tooth that could have been corrected with braces.  “I have always wanted a dad who would give me books.”

I looked at his mother.  She looked at me with pleading eyes.  “Can I buy him a book?” I asked her.  She gave me a look that told me she was touched by the gesture.  “No.  Please do not buy him a book.”  Her thick, Mexican accent was quiet and humble.

I never think rationally when I am fast asleep.  I knew they would be going back across the border soon, but I figured this boy might want to get a letter from me.  Maybe I could even send him a gift now and then.  I asked the mother if I could write the boy and at least be his pen-pal.  She thought that was a great idea.  Maybe he could even write me back - if only they could have my address.  I never think rationally when I am fast asleep. 

I put my backpack down by a bench and retrieved my notepad and pencil.  I turned to write my address down, but the mother was disappointed that I gave her a post office box instead of a home address.  She asked if I had a home address.  Her voice had lost its quiet serenity, its humility, even its accent.  I think she had even lost her simple beauty.  It was hard to tell since she was becoming a blur.

“This is my mailing address.  I do not use my home address.  I use a PO box.”  I looked at my backpack left under the bench.  A blond boy had one hand in my pack and another clutched to the wallet he found inside.  He never looked at me.  He just took my wallet and ran away.  I looked back at what was left of the mother, but she had evaporated back into the dream aether.  I never felt the Mexican boy release his grip from my leg, but he was not there either.  They had turned into mist and diluted themselves back into the crowd from where they came.  It was as if they were never even there.