There and Back Again: A Heretic’s Tale Jun05

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There and Back Again: A Heretic’s Tale

There was a long period of my life where I knew everything that mattered.  I would be the first to admit that I didn’t know all the details, but in regard to the major things, well the major THING… what our purpose is in this life… I knew it beyond a sliver of a doubt.

 

But I guess that is where most people are in their early 20’s, similar to the place most politicians are when they enter Washington with no real experience running a country, but placed in a position where day to day decisions go from being mundane to having major national and international consequences .  I had all of 2 years of adulthood under my belt and began making decisions that would alter my life and some of the lives around me deeply.

 

One such decision was the choice to believe in at least the core of what I had come to accept as my faith.  When I was in high school I was ‘saved’ and found great comfort in the new community called the Church that I was a part of and a sense of purpose and identity as a ‘child of God’.  I mean if you edit some of the church’s history  and embrace the edgier side of faith, as soon as you become a Christian it is like being dropped into the plot line of Lord of the Rings except it’s real, or at least you and most of the adults around you believe it is and it’s perfectly acceptable to act out as if you have a divine calling to do this or that and that the fate of people all around the world hangs in the balance.  I attempted to embrace my new faith as deeply as I could but always warred with the hormones, stupidity, and hard headedness of a 17 year old.  Unfortunately, most of the time I thought my hard headedness (read religious closed mindedness) was right and my hormones were wrong.

 

I believe that the experience of coming to faith was beneficial to me in the short term.  I felt accepted in a way that I had never felt by a community of people.  I gained a sense of self-worth, albeit from an artificial source, when I believed that the creator of everything loved me.  Plus, I had a sense of direction and purpose that fueled my choices for over a decade.

 

Though, with all the good that it brought me, church and faith ultimately brought pain and confusion.   If you were to have asked me if I was a free-thinker between the ages of 17 and 24 I would have told you in no uncertain terms that I am my own person and I am rarely influenced by things that I don’t scrutinize very closely.  Now, however, as I look back at myself then I see how little i really knew myself and how few of the decisions I made were out of anything other than an attempt to gain approval from the people around me whom I admired.  I think one reason hindsight is 20-20 is because the amount of time between then and now allows us to unmask all the lies we tell ourselves and allow ourselves to believe.  Faith worked for me in that time.  I had no reason to debunk it and every reason to make sure I didn’t allow all the little doubts and inconsistencies to ever get a foothold and damage it.

 

One of my heroes during my 20’s said that one day we choose whether to believe or to not believe [in Christ] and after that we start building a case to support that decision.  I guess that if that is true then hopefully we make that choice based on some amount of reason and don’t just blindly jump one way or the other.  I thought I had a good reason for my choice to believe.  The experience I had of being ‘saved’ and the meaning and purpose that this event infused into my life was the main reason I chose to believe.  It was real enough to me and if my critical reasoning ever started to get into the dangerous waters of seriously questioning my faith I would fall back on my experience with God.  We were told several times in the youth groups that I participated in that “your testimony is yours and people can’t prove it wrong…”.   Sadly many clueless baptist and conservative methodist kids rushed into the world thinking that their religious experience was an equal match to logic and reasoning if ever the latter threatened the former.

 

But there are layers to faith… kinda like an onion.  Many people that I know now have faith that there is a god of some sort or something that created us and guides us in some way or another.  Many people are fine with the ambiguity of a nameless being being in control without having any direct communication or revelation to us, but you can’t make a religion out of ambiguity.  So God has to have rules, an order to things, a Way to salvation… laws.  Otherwise people wouldn’t have anything to argue about!

 

It didn’t take me long to realize that the more vibrant churches were the ones that believed that scripture was 100% true.  The liberal and often unresolved direction of my native Methodism became unpalatable to a young passionate seeker of thing like ‘purpose’ and ‘truth’ such as myself.    But it wasn’t the 7-day-creation-fundamentalism that often gets demonized in our culture that attracted me.  It was, rather, the view that biblical ‘truth’ is taking the bible to mean whatever it meant to the original writer.  And this book was, to steal a phrase, the norming norm.  Even reason and experience are no match for it in the arena of ideas.  It is the judge and jury… though you need reason and experience to interpret it.  Thus the things that I held on to the most in my years of faith weren’t communicated to me directly from God but my whole relationship with God was in fact mitigated by the Bible.

 

I spent my 20’s trying to figure out how to live the way this book said I should live.  I would sit and read this book, and even when I didn’t understand what I was reading I felt assured that something was happening to me ‘spiritually’ since it was the ‘word of god’ and all.  I felt it was my calling in life to tell other people about the story of God found in that book so I went to seminary to learn more about it.  I would believe firmly about something in the book and then later, sometimes years later, realize that those beliefs were misplaced and I had interpreted it wrong.  It was a hard to not feel completely lost in this ‘map’ for life.  When I looked around in seminary I found myriads of differing beliefs that were formed around issues of varying importance and with older and wiser people to back nearly every one of these contradictory viewpoints.  It felt inauthentic and naive to think I knew which way was the right to believe on many things in the light of so many possibilities being endorsed by so many scholars.   The general idea that held us together in seminary and churches was that we can differ on the small things but we needed to agree on the essentials… because sometime a long time ago all the people who didn’t agree with what the ‘essentials’ are now were demonized and run out of the church.   So consequently we now have a good degree of uniformity when it comes to the basic tenets of the Christian faith.  Though, how in the world Calvinists who believed that God chooses who is going to heaven and who is going to hell didn’t get cast out with the other heretics always baffles me.  But I guess there is safety in numbers.

My faith was working for me… I had purpose, I felt more emotionally secure than I ever had…

Still all the questions I had were small enough to ignore and never really attacked the root of my beliefs.  They were like small arrows against the concrete fort I had built around my decision to believe in Christ.   Though, I had left a gaping hole in this fortress.  It was on a side of the fort that never really got attacked much.  I never realized how vulnerable this made me.  I think that somewhere in my mind I knew that this was the weak point of my faith but I had never found enough evidence to fortify it sufficiently and whenever I would seek an answer from someone wiser than myself I never found an explanation that satisfied my questions.   My faith was working for me… I had purpose, I felt more emotionally secure than I ever had, I had based several major life decisions on this belief, and when I spoke or taught based on this belief I was backed by an authority that was timeless.  I wanted this belief to be true, I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of it not being rock solid.  And in fact it was with this belief that all my other beliefs were built.  If the Bible wasn’t true then I had no reason to believe the way I believed or do the things I was doing.  Ironically, there was a Bible lesson about building your life on the solid rock of God’s word… everything else is, as the song goes, sinking sand.  If you have any ultimate paradigm for life that you have faith in then it will be a solid rock for you.. whether it is the Bible, the Quaran, or the Bhagavad Gita.  It gives you security in life and has answers for the questionable times in life.  When things get hard it’s nice to have a script to look to that gives you answers or hope.  It was a solid rock for me… until I looked down and began to examine it and found it was sinking sand.   I had a choice to make… do I keep all those things that believing in this book provided me or do I live an examined and authentic life where no belief is too sacred for scrutiny.

 

In the summer of 2011 I began to ask myself this question… why do I believe what I believe?  Why am I doing what I am doing?  The answer I kept giving myself in return was ‘because the Bible says so…’.  It was then that I realized that my faith wasn’t so much in God but in the Bible.  The next question that came to was the weak spot in my fortress that I accidentally stumbled into and had to face directly… how do I know the Bible is true? As I looked around at other religions had a book that mitigated their relationship with God.  Christianity wasn’t special in this sense.  So why the Bible?  Why is this THE book that is the revelation of God to all humanity.  I then realized for the first time in a new sense that the not only were the writers of the Bible fallible… Moses, David, Luke, Paul, etc etc… but so were the men who decided that this compilation of writings would be our ultimate source for Truth in this life.   I realized that I had put all my life in the hands of a group of old men nearly 2000 years who sat around together and decided that this set of books would be our ultimate guide to life and God.  These weren’t even men who had direct contact with Jesus.  They were, compared to the grand task of discerning what actually is the Word of God, fairly random and insignificant.  In fact 99% of you reading this probably can’t name one of the men who decided what the Bible would be.  Somehow, I let myself base my whole life on a book for which I didn’t even know the origins.   After examining the reasons for believing what I believed and finding them wanting I had to make the hardest decision of my life up to that point… to walk away from my faith.

 If the saying, “religion is an opiate for the masses” is accurate then detox is a bitch.

I went on a cruise once.  It was a day-long cruise on a small boat to the Bahamas.   I found myself glued to a deck chair for 90% of the time because walking around on a small boat in the waves is a disorienting and tiring task.  Close to the end of the Summer of 2011 I found myself with no ground to stand on because the solid rock I had built my life on for the previous 13 years had vanished.  It is not a feeling I would recommend to anyone.  It was worse than trying to stay upright on a swaying ship.  It was trying to figure out which way is upright while the whole world around you spins.  If the saying, “religion is an opiate for the masses” is accurate then detox is a bitch.  I found comfort in intelligent people that were making a difference in the world without any religious affiliation.  I also found new things to be thankful for that I could not have had if I remained a biblical Christian… the ability to have conversations with people I loved without the agenda of ‘getting them to Jesus’ always looming overhead and accepting homosexuals with no conditions or desire for them to change are two things among many that I treasure now.

 

When you stand outside of a group you can have a birds eye view of the things they are doing of which members in the group may not even be cognizant because they are in the middle of it all.  In some Christian circles I was a part of we would scrutinize other ‘semi-Christian’ groups and wonder how they could ever believe this or that or do the things they did.  Could they not see what they were doing?  Mormons were a favorite target.  We would talk about their faulty theology, and strange and scandalous origins.  I would often wonder how men and women who were intelligent enough to get their PhD’s could allow themselves to be at Brigham Young University teaching that Native Americans were direct descendants of a group of Jews.  But like I said, when you are in that group it is hard to get an objective viewpoint.  Now that I am on the outside of the church I look back and wonder how I could have ever believed this or that or have done these things.  It is like flying over your town… you get a new perspective on things and it can be somewhat disorienting.  When you live your life on the ground in a community you form a map of that place in your head.  You can imagine what that map looks like from an arial point of view, but when you actually see it from the air, 9 times out of 10, you are way off.  Buildings and streets look different, things that you thought were far away are actually relatively close and things that were close to you look farther away.

 

So for nearly 2 years I have been up in that plane, examining my former life and seeing things in a fresh new way, but I know I wasn’t meant to be in a plane forever… I am exploring new areas and looking for a place to land.  The world is an exciting place.  Humanity is an incredible thing.  I am hopeful for us.  Not that we will all be somewhere together for eternity.  But rather that we will continue to push on to defeat the things that still defeat us in this life… disease, hunger, hate, and ignorance.   I have come to realize that an eternal afterlife makes this life infinitely meaningless, but a finite existence here means that my life and yours are packed to the brim with as much meaning as we can create.  I have realized I am here for a soberlingly short amount of time and so I never want to take a morning where I get the privilege of opening my eyes for granted.  3 years ago I would have never thought I could be happy without Jesus, but thankfully I was wrong.  Happiness in or out of faith is still 90% decision.

 

This post was meant to be more of a semi-colon than a question mark or period.  I wanted to share my experience because I know there are other people confused about their faith and wondering if there is life outside of it. Some of you have been down this road and I would love to hear your perspective, others may be in a similar spot to myself and have insights that could help me and others.  Some of you may be teetering on the edge of a life changing decision in your life and have questions.  Comment below!