Saturday, July 24, 2004

There is no perfect tree

One of the major changes in my perspective on life was the realization that differences from norms aren't defects.  The idea of personal perfection is nonsense, and there is no particular way things "ought" to be.

One day when I was out in our back yard thinking about the audacity of some people who were trying to tell me that some things were wrong with my life, it occurred to me that there is no perfect tree.  We don't judge a tree by whether or not its branches and leaves have exactly the shape we think they should have; we look at the whole tree and admire its beauty.

I was taught that sin is a failure to live up to the perfection that God requires for a relationship with him.  The concept of a perfect person makes no more sense than that of a perfect tree.  Each is different and each is good.  I feel uniquely valuable and enjoy being myself.  I look for ways in which my particular abilities can be useful to other people.  I take pleasure in who I am, apart from my accomplishments.

It seems that we increase our discontent with life by comparing it to the way things are "supposed to be."  We set up an unattainably high standard for what we want from our friends, our jobs, and every aspect of life, and then feel disappointed because the reality isn't what we think it ought to be.  Realizing that there is no "ought" has mellowed me.  I can enjoy my job even if it isn't what I've always dreamed of doing.  I can be disappointed with my friend's decision not to go hiking with me without being angry that he isn't doing what a friend "should" do.

Many quarrels in the world arise from moral judgements.  We classify people as good and evil based on their apparent motives.  It seems to me that we all have one fundamental motivation for everything we do: to improve our own well-being.  The people we think of as supremely evil—serial murderers or terrorists, perhaps—are distinguished by their disregard for the well-being of other people.  They apparently believe that the well-being of others is incompatible with their own.  It seems likely that in the vast majority of cases they are mistaken in this belief, but that doesn't make them any less human or less deserving of life than the rest of us.  By accepting the fact that other people have different values, it's easier to address issues more compassionately and negotiate arrangements that are mutually beneficial.

People make moral judgements as a way of attempting to control other people's actions.  At the bottom of all control issues, there seems to be fear—fear that people will do things that will harm me or other people.  Maybe they will.  If they do, I will do whatever I can to protect myself and others.  But I will try to limit myself to defensive actions that don't unnecessarily limit the offender's choices, because that's how I would want to be treated.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Nothing is all-important

My beliefs and actions are cosmically insignificant—important only to me and the people around me.

One of the first books I read as I was beginning to look for a new goal in life was Gregg Levoy's, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.   Levoy tells of an experience that put his calling as a writer into perspective.  Looking out at a mesa and realizing that our entire culture would eventually be a thin layer of sediment on the side of a mountain, he acknowledged that his life's work would have very little impact in the long run.  He concluded, "Yet precisely because it makes a flyspeck of difference whether I write my essays or not, somehow this frees me up to write, to follow the calling, to do whatever I want, because there is no failure."

This was a profound statement to me.   What I do with my life is not likely to change the world for good or ill, so from a cosmic standpoint it hardly matters what I do.   I am free to fail.  On the other hand, my life has a substantial impact on my family and friends, and of course it is extremely important to me.   I want to do what I can to make our life good, so I do my best to find ways to do that.  I'm free to be creative.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

I have to live my own life

I am responsible for myself, and not for anyone else. I have to make my own decisions and accept the consequences of those decisions, but I don't punish myself when I make mistakes.

I have free will. My authority over myself is not dependent on what anyone else says or does, or on any other aspect of my circumstances. Nobody else lives inside my body, experiencing what I experience. I have to live my life the best I can with my own limited understanding. I can't depend on someone else to know what my best interests are, and nobody else could make my decisions for me even if I wanted them to, so I am the final authority for myself.

The fact that my understanding of reality is inaccurate doesn't mean I can legitimately base my actions on something I believe to be false—even if everyone else says it's true. If I did that, I would be forfeiting my life—giving up my own thoughts in favor of someone else's and living as an extension of them rather than as myself. Some cultures value this kind of self-effacement, but I don't. It seems to me that doing so deprives the world of my unique contribution to its store of experience.

My responsibility extends only to the boundaries of what I can control, which is myself. I can try to affect my environment, and I often can exert considerable influence over it, but I usually can't control it as completely as I'd like.

In particular, I can't control other people, and if I tried to do so, I would be attempting to usurp their responsibility for themselves. I now consider respect to be a fundamental aspect of love. Jesus told people to treat others the way they would want to be treated, and I still think that's the best way to get along. I don't want other people to try to control my life, so I want to respectfully allow them the freedom to live as they want as well.

Since people and other aspects of my environment aren't under my control, I have to base my decisions on my predictions of the effects of possible actions. I'm now more careful about making major decisions because I can't expect God to rescue me from my failures. I take more initiative to do things I want done, rather than waiting for God to do them for me. I more carefully consider the long-term effects of my actions because I no longer expect Jesus to come back and make everything right.

I used to spend hours berating myself after making a particularly poor decision. I no longer regard myself as flawed for having made a mistake, so I see wallowing in guilt as a waste of time. I constantly re-evaluate my decisions based on their outcomes, and when I conclude that a decision was not a good one, I think about it enough to try to avoid making the same mistake again, but I don't dwell on it because I know I can't undo it. I see no benefit in punishing myself beyond accepting the consequences of my actions and doing what I can to ameliorate the situation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Nobody knows

The most effective way to find truth is not by accepting tradition, but by objective study.

It seems to me that an accurate understanding of reality is the most powerful means to well-being. If our ideas are erroneous, our actions based on those ideas are unlikely to accomplish our objectives. If I think my illness is the result of bad blood, it might make sense to drain some of it, but in reality that would be unlikely to improve my health.

Some people claim that there is no objective reality, only a subjective reality created by each person. That seems absurd to me—a careless exaggeration of the truth that each person has a different view of reality, which seems accurate to that person and on which that person bases all decisions.

There are so many things that so many people agree on that it seems clear that there is an objective reality. The repeatability of experiments is very strong evidence of this. It may be obvious that there is an objective reality, but comprehending it is far beyond our capabilities. To one degree or another, though, we do all have our own views of what it may be.

Since no two people agree completely on everything, it seems unlikely that my views are accurate and everyone else's are flawed. It seems much more likely that mine are not only inaccurate, but that many people have more accurate beliefs than I do.

I used to believe that we human beings were incapable of discovering truth on our own. The only way we could know the truth was by God's revelation to us. When I discovered that there is no belief that all Christians share, I began to realize that none of us can justifiably claim that any of our beliefs is certainly true. Considering the multitude of ways in which our knowledge can be defective, it seems extremely presumptuous to claim to know anything for sure, other than that we exist.

Although we can't assert that we have absolute knowledge, we can have some confidence that, on the whole, our body of beliefs corresponds with reality to a useful degree. We can have this assurance because most of our beliefs agree with the beliefs of most other people, but more importantly because many of our actions based on those beliefs produce the expected results. The unique contribution of science to our understanding of reality is due to its efforts to study things objectively by cross-checking observations and interpretations rather than relying on individual or mystical means. It seems to me that such approaches are the most effective way to discover truth.

It was most humbling to realize that the beliefs I had based my life on were supported only by tradition and anecdotal evidence. My distrust of science became an eagerness to learn from science, and I shifted the focus of my reading from books of Christian teachings to books about scientific discoveries.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

In the Real World: my naturalistic worldview (my story part 6)

If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. – Albert Einstein

I was stunned to see my whole world view and belief system suddenly disintegrating. Over the next few weeks I pondered many of the implications of this change in my thinking. I thought about the many ways I had parted company with conventional Christianity in the past and came to the conclusion that my own thinking made more sense than the inconsistent, poorly-substantiated doctrines I had been taught all my life. I wondered if there is a God at all. I re-evaluated the basis for my belief in him, and found that very little of it was rooted in my own experience; the great majority was a result of what I had heard second-hand. When I realized that my faith had been based primarily on tradition, I came to the conclusion that I don't know if there is a God, or a supreme being of any kind.

One of my first realizations was that my underlying purpose in life—although expressed in very subtle ways—had been sharing my belief that a good and loving God was taking care of us. Now I had no goal to replace that. I began reading a lot more, and reading a greater variety of books, as a way of looking for something toward which I would want to direct my life. I began to read more books on science, and discovered a strong congruence between scientific inquiry and the way I had grown to view the world. I found that evolutionary theory, in particular, explained many of the oddities of nature (e.g., instincts, food chains and diseases) far better than creationism.

One day in 2002 I reviewed James Sire's intriguing book, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog, and found that my world view is most similar to what he calls naturalism. As a Christian apologist, Sire states the naturalistic view rather dogmatically (e.g., "Matter exists eternally and is all there is. God does not exist."). I would severely qualify such statements to admit the limitations of our knowledge. I would say, for example, that matter and energy have existed since the beginning of time, and we don't know of anything else that exists. Spirits (including God) don't exist as far as we have been able to determine.
One day as I was browsing the web looking for people with similar viewpoints, I found the web site of The Brights, an organization that seeks to connect people with a naturalistic world view, to protect their freedoms and communicate their concerns. I joined immediately.

The change in my viewpoint was almost as shocking to my family and friends as it was to me. I didn't even tell Jeanne and the boys until a week or so after it happened, because I didn't want to upset them without being confident that it wasn't just a temporary period of doubt. All my closest friends were strong Christians, so I felt like I was turning my back on them. This change in my relationships has been one of the most difficult events in my life. Jeanne has kept the trauma to a minimum by continuing to work to improve our marriage in spite of her dismay over the loss of her Christian husband. She's a dear woman!

One day I happened to find Marlene Winell's book Leaving the Fold in the public library. It was a great encouragement to me because it told about the experiences of other people who had left Christianity, and it helped me think about how to refocus my life and how to explain my new perspectives on life to my family and friends. These posts are an outgrowth of the ideas in that book.

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:

    Part 6  In the Real World:  my naturalistic world view

Monday, July 19, 2004

On the Outside: my personal, non-Christian relationship with God (my story part 5)

Our opinions, gently nudged by circumstance, revise themselves under cover of inattention. We tell them in a steady voice, No, I'm not interested in a change at present. But there is no stopping opinions. They don't care about whether we want to hold them or not; they do what they have to do. – Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts

In church the next Sunday, the speaker was discussing issues related to the Christian life as a form of evangelism.   I suddenly found that I no longer had any interest in evangelism.   I wanted to tell people about the freedom I had found in self-responsibility, not about how Jesus had atoned for my sins.  It struck me that my new-found freedom had nothing to do with Christianity, and furthermore that my half century of Christian training had been a barrier to reaching it.   I realized that it was Christianity that had hidden the reality of my responsibility from me all these years, by teaching that what I needed to do was find God's will for my life.  I recognized that the church and Christianity had not met my needs, and that they had no gospel ("good news") for me.   The freedom I had found hadn't come from meeting Jesus, so I felt no desire to bring other people to Jesus.  To my astonishment, I found that I had no reason to be a Christian, and that I in fact wasn't one.

As I thought about this, I remembered the teachings I've heard that we can't count on God to do any particular thing, and it occurred to me that that means we can't actually count on him for anything, which means there is no gospel and we have no basis for faith in Christ.  Without faith as an answer to all the nagging questions I had accumulated over the years, the whole edifice of my religion collapsed in ruins.  Suddenly I found myself outside the church, and it felt very strange, but to my great surprise, it wasn't scary.  In fact it felt good!   I looked back on my life amazed that I had remained a Christian so long.

I found myself with a somewhat deistic world view, but different from classical deism in that I still believed very strongly in an immanent God.  Rather than denying the possibility of miracles, I still believed (as I described earlier) that everything is equally under God's control, and that he sometimes does things that surprise us.  With God in complete control, it seemed to me that the world is the way God wants it—not "fallen."

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:
    Part 5  On the Outside:  my personal, non-Christian relationship with God

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Going Free: my acceptance of responsibility (my story part 4)

The artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation. - Dorothy Sayers

In 2002 I gradually became aware of a longing for a greater sense of purpose for my life.  For several months I was very depressed over strains in my relationship with Jeanne, disappointments in my professional career, and my lack of close friends.   In counseling, I discovered that I had avoided facing the lack of meaning for my life, and I began to wrestle with how to deal with my frustration.  I wrote a lot in my journal and did a lot of reading.   One day I decided to research ways in which other people found meaning for their lives, and found a psychologist's web site that discussed the issue of finding meaning in life.
The Existentialists make several good points: (1) to have a deep investment in the meaning our own life we must have thought about it very seriously, it can't be actions merely directed by parents or friends or teachers or ministers or anyone else.  We must decide what has meaning for us (although we don't have to be an entirely original thinker about what is meaningful).   Until we settle on a purpose, our life is in danger of having little meaning except for self-gratification.  (2) Unless we think of ourselves as self-directed—as making choices about our life rather being determined by the genes, the past, and our social environment—we can't take great pride in the good we do.   (3) It is pretty obvious that, given our personal limitations, individuals aren't mystically assigned a clear mission that changes the universe 1000 years from now.   So, in some sense, we have to decide on and "make" our own life's meaning.
(Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd, Psychological Self-Help, chapter 3, at
These points resonated with me because they made sense with the idea that God gave us freedom because what he wants from us is not lives of slavish obedience, but lives that are works of art.

My feeling was that if God wanted us to be slaves, he would give us moment-by-moment (or at least day-by-day) commands and detailed instructions, and expect us to carry them out without having to do much thinking about them, and certainly without taking any initiative to do anything else.  I had been seeking such instructions, and wasn't getting them, so he seemed indifferent to what I did.  My reinterpretation of his silence was to begin thinking of myself as a capable, responsible servant, who could be trusted to notice what needed to be done, decide how to do it, and get it done with minimal supervision.

That was a new concept to me, and it felt good, but it also felt like a radical departure from conventional Christianity, because I had never heard much teaching along those lines.  The vast majority of the sermons I had heard strongly emphasized obedience, and only a few had even mentioned creativity.

It suddenly dawned on me that God had given me the responsibility of choosing what to do in my life, and that he wanted me to live creatively rather than just doing what other people say I should do.  It occurred to me that his seeming indifference to what we do is actually freedom to respond to him with our best creativity.  I decided that, contrary to what I've been taught all my life, God has no specific plan for my life, but rather leaves it up to me to decide how to honor him.

As I considered this, I realized that I have the freedom to do whatever I choose, and that of course other people do, too.   I recognized that what I had heard in counseling was true—I had indeed damaged my relationships with my wife and other people by trying (usually unconsciously) to manipulate them.

The more I thought about it, the more excited I became about the possibilities for improvement in my life and my relationships.  I decided to take responsibility for my own life, and let other people do the same.  I was immediately overcome with the joy of that freedom.  After that day my depression disappeared, and my relationship with Jeanne improved remarkably.

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:
    Part 4  Going Free:  my acceptance of responsibility

Saturday, July 17, 2004

On the Edge: my own version of Christianity (my story part 3)

From the solemn gloom of the temple, children run out to sit in the dust, God watches them play, and forgets the priest – Rabindranath Tagore

Having discovered that my childhood understanding of God wasn't necessarily the only possible one, I continued to explore ideas and adapt my theology to what I learned by reading and experience. Some that broadened my thinking about God and his dealings with people were:

J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small
Becky Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World
Edith Schaeffer, Hidden Art
James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What's So Amazing About Grace?

From Pippert's book, I learned that people are more important to God than rules. That idea seemed to be confirmed by what I saw happening in the lives of people I knew. I saw a wide variety of people enthusiastically worshiping God and sacrificially giving their time to serve other people. It seemed to me that they truly exhibited the presence of God's Spirit—in spite of the fact that they were very different in their beliefs and practices: Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Jesus-only Pentecostals, Messianic Jews, career soldiers, liquor dealers and homosexuals.

I rejected the idea of a seven-day creation as a young adult. I thought the theory of age-long days stretched the text far beyond the point of sense, and it seemed obvious that the theory of created fossils was the product of desperation. I was embarrassed by the strong opposition of many Christians to the concept of evolution.

I noticed in the last few years that I tended to think of God as one rather than as a trinity. Since the Bible ascribes the same attributes to each member of the trinity, I didn't understand how they could be distinguished. Jesus, of course, had the experience of being a man, but when he was said to live in us, that seemed to me to be the Holy Spirit. That was an example of the difficulty I had with the doctrine of the trinity. Considering that the Bible contains only one clear trinitarian reference, that doctrine seemed to me to be merely a theory that created an unnecessary complication to our understanding of God.

Over the years I gradually came to feel that the descriptions of the afterlife given by Christians were unlikely to be at all accurate. An eternal life of pure joy was inconceivable to me. The joys we have in this life come from things like overcoming obstacles, so without any pain or suffering, joy would lose its meaning. I decided that "heaven" must be a situation so different from what we know now that no words could describe it.

I also gave little credence to the common expectation that Jesus will return to earth soon. I figured that if 2000 years can be considered soon, then 10,000 years can just as easily be considered soon. I didn't see the increasing corruption in the world that other people saw; in fact, it seemed to me that human history has shown considerable improvement in the way people treat each other, even though progress is slow and there are many setbacks.

At one point, I read a lot of the Bible in a short period of time, trying to get a high-level perspective on it. In that reading, my view of the nature of the Bible changed somewhat. It appeared to me that the Bible was more of a collection of testimonies about what God had done than the "guide to faith and practice" that most evangelical churches consider it to be. I increasingly came to believe that the Bible is a human document with no more authority than other books. This view made it awkward to join a couple of the churches of which I have been a member because I couldn't fully subscribe to their statements of faith.

Having been raised in a non-liturgical church and being a charismatic Christian most of my life, I've never felt that formality was a necessary part of prayer or worship. Over the years, I increasingly felt that church attendance and other traditional devotional activities were unnecessary and unhelpful. For example, I preferred to pray with thoughts--or better yet, actions--rather than words, and I believed that ordinary life is as much worship as any religious activity. I considered an intimate relationship with God to consist of allowing him to direct my thoughts and being inclined to agree with him, feel his feelings, and do whatever he suggested.

For many years, I took seriously the frequently-heard teaching that our vocation is what we're called by God to do, and that not everyone is called to a religious profession. I felt called to be a computer programmer, and I considered that my ministry, but whenever I heard someone referred to as a minister or as "going into the ministry," I felt that I was on the wrong side of a double standard. I couldn't understand why some people were ordained to be "ministers," but nobody was ever ordained as a programmer or as a homemaker. In the area of earning a living, as well as in prayer and worship, I could not find the line that distinguished between sacred and secular or holy and worldly.

In 1998 it occurred to me that what we call natural law is simply our understanding of how God usually works and that what we call miracles are simply unexpected acts of God for which we have no scientific explanation. I decided that natural and supernatural are arbitrary categories, not qualitatively different types of things, so there is no real distinction between them. Here's what I wrote in my journal:
5/24/98 I woke up this morning thinking about M Fellowship and trying to put my finger on what's wrong with it. In a sense, they seem to rely only on spiritual gifts of discernment and prophecy to minister to people they don't know. On the other hand, I suspect their prophets have also been trained, or have learned by experience, to pick up subtle clues from a person's appearance and speech that guide their prophetic ministry to that person. My feeling is that they should do both of these as much as they can, but that they could minister much more effectively if they also took time to get to know the person. It seems that they would consider this a "human" or "fleshly" ministry rather than a spiritual one, and thus much less desirable.
We've been taught that we consist of three parts: body, soul and spirit. According to this theory, our mind, will and emotions are aspects of our soul. Our spirit is defined very vaguely as the part of us that interacts with the spiritual world.
The words used in the Bible for "soul", though, would probably be better translated "self" or "being", which implies that our "soul" is the totality of our being, and can be thought of as including both body and spirit. This is supported by Genesis 2:7. Perhaps the spirit should be thought of as the non-physical aspects of our mind, will and emotions. These are the areas which interact with other spirits, which also appear to have minds, wills and emotions.
By these definitions, it's clear that at least some animals have spirits, while others may not, and there seems to be no evidence that plants or non-living objects have spirits, except in a metaphorical sense. (Old Man Willow in the Old Forest clearly had a spirit.)
What bearing does this have on M-style ministry? It suggests that spiritual revelation may come through the mind or emotions, so it may not necessarily be "miraculous." It suggests that such "non-miraculous" revelation may be highly desirable and that in fact, it may be much more prevalent and effective than revelation which is "miraculous."
I use quotation marks here because it seems the distinction between miraculous and non-miraculous events is solely in our perceived ability to understand and explain their causes. The distinction is usually made that the former involve direct intervention by God to override the laws of nature. It seems to me that everything happens by direct action by God (and other spirits, including ours), and what we call natural law is simply our understanding of how God usually works.
The purpose I see in miracles is to evoke faith in unbelievers and to build the faith of believers. Both of these are valuable, of course, but obvious miracles aren't the only means God uses to accomplish his goal of building faith. In fact, miracles generally seem to be effective only temporarily, if at all. We always discount what happened a long time ago, and pay more attention to what is happening today.
It seems to me that M ministers (and many others) are looking for God to work in ways other than those he usually uses. This seems presumptuous, and indicative of a lack of appreciation for his faithful, everyday, "natural" provision. Attempting to speak God's word to a person while avoiding knowledge of that person's needs appears to be an attempt to manipulate God into performing miracles. Perhaps this is a sign of a lack of faith. It doesn't make sense not to trust God to care for us in the ways he usually does, and at the same time hope he will care for us miraculously. This seems to me to be the approach of people who reject medical care while praying for miraculous healing.

In 1999 or thereabouts, I read a book that turned out to be one of the most influential in my life, Charles Kraft's Christianity in Culture. Written by a highly-respected missionary as training for missionaries, that book showed me that much of what I've always thought of as Christianity is merely the forms adopted by Christians in my culture. Disillusioned with the traditional forms myself, and concerned with communicating the gospel to people in my culture, I began looking for the essential core of Christianity that would be the same in any culture. I never succeeded in distinguishing that core, and eventually came to believe that what we call Christianity is cultural in nature, rather than an absolute norm for everybody.

Expanding on that idea, I wondered about what kind of relationship aliens might have to God. I thought it was unlikely that we're the only fallen race in the universe, and wondered how we should tell others about our faith if we were ever able to communicate with them. I concluded that we can testify to them of what God has done for us, whether he has provided for their salvation through Jesus, or in another way. In 2002 I read Ray Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines and pondered questions about the applicability of Christianity to artificial intelligences.

I decided that we should expect God to have communicated with other cultures, alien or not, in ways which aren't part of our traditions. I also thought we should be willing to learn from other religions, recognizing that God has communicated with their founders and leaders, and affirm whatever truth they have received from him. It seemed to me that the traditional Christian claim of exclusive truth is an unwarranted and arrogant extension of the truth that our God is the only real God. I felt that we should acknowledge that our understanding of God's revelations to us, and especially our application of them, is not necessarily correct.

In 2001, one of the elders of our church asked me about my relationship with God. I told him that I considered God to be present and active in every detail of my existence, and that without him I wouldn't exist at all. Looking back on it, I think he was looking for some human relationship (lord, friend, etc.) as a metaphor. I think this shows that although I considered my relationship with God to be intimate, it was in fact abstract and theoretical.

Earlier in my life I had thought things would change as I matured "in Christ." I would get closer to God, share his feelings about other people, and gain more understanding of life. As I matured, I was very disappointed to find that I didn't see the "fruit of the Spirit" that I had thought would grow. I was especially frustrated by all the teaching I heard about relationship with God, because I couldn't see that mine was growing at all. I couldn't figure out how to build a relationship with someone I couldn't see or hear. I knew that God spoke in my mind, but since I couldn't tell which thoughts were his and which were mine, I couldn't tell if I was communing with him or merely thinking.

In 2002 I was excited about The Sacred Romance and the other John Eldredge books. They presented a more loving picture of God than any other Christian works I knew of. They also encouraged a freer, more creative response to him. Creativity seemed to me to be an appropriate response to God, the great creator.  For a long time I had been disappointed that Christian arts seemed to follow the lead of secular ones. I felt that it should be the other way around. Now I see that the creativity of Christian artists is hindered by the constrained thinking taught by the church, so it's not at all surprising if they are often less creative than people who don't feel that they must believe certain things or behave in certain ways.

For several months I had felt that I was "on the edge" of Christianity.  I wanted to serve God and follow Jesus, but more creatively than the conventional Christian ways.   I sometimes felt that I was a Christian, and other times that I was not, but it didn't matter much to me because I still believed that God was the creator and lord of the universe, and I knew I was devoted to him.

- - -
I was once asked to sign Christianity Today magazine's statement of faith "without doubt or equivocation."  I had to tell them I can barely sign my own name without doubt or equivocation. - Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:
    Part 3  On the Edge:  my own version of Christianity

Friday, July 16, 2004

Out of the Box: my charismatic, ecumenical experience (my story part 2)

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. – Samuel Butler

In the 1960s, when our youth group leaders moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then to Houston, Texas, they began to experience what they considered to be a new level of relationship with God.  They had come to believe that the Holy Spirit is personally present in all Christians, and that he continues to give all the gifts of power for ministry that he gave to people in the Bible.   I was impressed by their reports of miraculous answers to prayer as well as by the consistency of their teachings with what I read in the Bible.   They taught that the Holy Spirit living in Christians enabled direct communication with God, and I found that kind of direct interaction with God described throughout the Bible.

Our leaders introduced us to the teachings of well-known charismatic leaders, including those of Derek Prince on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and deliverance, and those of Malcolm Smith on the Blood Covenant.   I found these sermon series fascinating and convincing.   I asked my friends to lay hands on me and pray for me to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  I also began to read books by a variety of Christian authors.  Some that had a powerful effect on me were:

Rosalind Rinker, Prayer - Conversing With God
David Wilkerson, The Cross and the Switchblade
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others
Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

I also enjoyed and was influenced by the fiction of Madeleine L'Engle, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R Tolkien.  I read The Lord of the Rings several times, as did many of my friends.   I found it to be not only a masterpiece of fiction, but a rich parable of the ongoing spiritual battle between the forces of good and evil.

After reading Rinker's little book, I began to talk with God anywhere and everywhere, using my own conversational language rather than the formal, King James English which I had been taught to use in prayer.  I began to listen for the Holy Spirit to speak to me in whatever way he wanted to use—whether scripture, teachings by other believers, or thoughts in my own mind, and I sought his guidance through circumstances and visions as well as though these forms of verbal communication.

I found that I could not only hear what God was saying, but could sometimes tell other people what I heard, and they generally recognized it as prophecy.   I was very familiar with the Bible, and my favorite form of prophecy was to read a passage that expressed what I felt God was saying at the moment.

Christianity became something real and relevant to my life when it broke out of the routine church services I had grown up with.  "Going to church" took on a new meaning, because often it meant going to the home of friends on Saturday night and sitting on the floor for hours of Bible study, singing and prayer.  More significantly, I realized that my whole life belonged to God, and I wanted everything I did to be an act of honor and worship to him.

As a charismatic Christian, I discovered that worship could be a very enjoyable activity.  The folk and (later) rock styles of music were much more appealing than the country style I had grown up with, and even the old hymns took on a new excitement when sung in the enthusiasm of the knowledge that God was present, enjoying the music with us and taking pleasure in our praises.  For the years we lived in New Jersey, Jeanne and I hosted a number of music parties, with musician friends sitting around our living room, playing one worship song after another for several hours.

I took advantage of my freedom from denominational barriers by exploring a variety of worship styles.  At different times in my life, I have been a member of eleven churches of these denominations:

Church of Christ
Presbyterian Church in the US
United Methodist Church
Non-denominational charismatic church
Vineyard Christian Fellowship
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Fellowship of the Way of Christ - my "home" fellowship since 1971

I have attended these kinds of churches regularly for periods of several months:

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Episcopal Church
Assemblies of God

I have also participated in Tres Dias weekends and have visited these kinds of churches:

Southern Baptist Church
American Baptist Church
Presbyterian Church in the USA
United Pentecostal Church
Evangelical Free Church
Church of the Nazarene
Christian Church
Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod)
Lutheran Church in America
Christian and Missionary Alliance Church
Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
Apostolic Church
Roman Catholic Church
Evangelical Orthodox Church
Charismatic Episcopal Church
Non-denominational churches

As a result of the charismatic teaching I received, my view of inspiration in general and the Bible in particular changed dramatically.  I saw no reason to believe that the writings contained in the Bible were inspired to a greater degree than those of Christians today.  As I read the Bible, I noticed that what it had to say about itself was that it was "useful" (2 Timothy 3:16), not that it was inerrant.   I felt that the term "Word of God" should be used to refer to Jesus, rather than the Bible, because that is how the Bible most often uses that phrase.  Although this seemed obvious to me when I read the Bible, this idea seemed totally foreign to most of the Christians I knew.  I felt frustrated by this and wondered why God left so many people ignorant of this truth that had been so meaningful to me.

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:
    Part 2  Out of the Box:  my charismatic, ecumenical experience

Thursday, July 15, 2004

God in a Box: my fundamentalist Christian youth (my story part 1)

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. - Pascal, Pensees #895

You can tell what's inside by what comes out. - Jesus (paraphrased)

This is the beginning of the story of my religious life and how I went free of religion.

I was raised with the view that the Bible was inspired by God, and thus totally reliable.  My church taught that the Bible was the primary way we can learn about God and that we can become what God intends for us to be by following its teachings.  Although we can't expect to become perfect in this life, we will be made perfect in the next life.

My family went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night.  By the time I entered my teens, I had heard hundreds of sermons and hundreds of Bible class lessons.   I knew that God had created the world and had made two humans from whom we were all descended and who were the source of our sinful nature.  I knew that he had chosen Abraham and his descendants to be his people in a special way.   I knew that Jesus, a descendant of Abraham and the great Jewish King David, was born of the virgin Mary, and that he was God's only Son as well as a man.   I knew that Jesus had been crucified to atone for the sins of all people, and that he had been resurrected from the dead and had ascended into heaven.   I knew that he had established the church as the institution made up of all those who believed in him, so they would help each other until the end of the world, when he would come back to take them all to live in heaven with him forever.  I knew that my church, although it began in the early 19th century, was the true church because it followed the Bible—unlike other churches, whose teachings were wrong in essential ways.

I accepted the church's doctrine because it was what my family and friends believed.  Of course I questioned it in my own mind at times, but I had heard so many teachings that answered the objections of others that I assumed my own questions had answers—even if I never found out what they were.  I was well aware that most people didn't share my church's beliefs, but my teachers explained that most people didn't know the truth, and that it was our responsibility to teach them the truth.  My view of the world was so parochial that I couldn't conceive of what it might be like to be a Catholic, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or an atheist, except to think how sad it would be to be so benighted.

Now I think how sad it was that I was so indoctrinated.   So much of my life was wasted listening to repetitive, boring, false teaching, and I failed to pursue my interests because I considered them less important than seeking God's will for me.

When I started high school, my family started attending a congregation which was less conservative than most in my denomination.   The leaders tried to focus on teaching the basics of Christianity rather than emphasizing the faults of other denominations.  There, the young couple who taught the high school Bible class and led the youth group introduced me to some teachings of the Bible which were radically new to me.  From them, I learned that God related to people personally, not merely as members of the church.   This was the beginning of my exposure to a broader perspective on Christianity.

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:
    Part 1  God in a Box:  my fundamentalist Christian youth