THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART EIGHT

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To the beginning, and beyond

I came by my doubts honestly. It took years of study and soul-searching before I could admit that my faith was in a state of crisis. By faith, I did not just mean an acceptance of a particular point of doctrine. I also do not mean doubts about my exclusive denomination. My crisis of faith went beyond religion in general, and even scriptural inspiration. I had a real crisis of faith because, for the first time, I was seriously starting to doubt the existence of God.

I couldn’t locate God in any tangible sense. God’s morality as testified to in the bible was suspect. It was certainly different from any morality I claimed as my own. From the monstrous acts of the God of the Jews, to the insistence of Jesus that the majority of the world would burn in Hell, the bible’s moral messages I could wholeheartedly endorse were few and far between.

I could not locate God in the sciences. What I found was a world ordered in such a way that no god was required to explain its workings and appearances. Things once believed to be the workings of god were discovered to be the results of natural processes. Sickness was not caused by sin or disobedience. Health and long life were not the result of righteous living, or being obedient to one’s parents. Those prayed for by armies of the righteous were just as likely to die of cancer as those who worshiped the devil.

I could not locate God in my day to day life. I saw no evidence of supernatural intervention in any aspect of life. My fortune was not better or worse with or without confidence in God. My bills were not smaller or easier to pay. My inner spirit was not more or less satisfied. My experience was insufficient. So I expanded it to encompass the whole world. I could not find God in any pocket of human experience. Disease, war, oppression, and poverty visited the lion’s share of the earth’s population at any given time. The nation that was the happiest, wealthiest, cleanest, and most well balanced in almost every category was the most atheistic. The most religious seemed to also suffer the most. The cosmos smashed planets and blew up stars as if they didn’t matter at all. There was no evidence of a guiding, loving, miraculous hand anywhere I looked. As hard as I tried, I could find no god.

I had to give up on finding god in the present. He was nowhere to be found. Even so, there was one more place I could look. Though God was not to be found in my present, he was definitely to be found in my past. I had to know why I believed in him in the first place. My whole life had been based on belief in God. I didn’t just believe he was real. I knew it. I knew it just as sure as I had come to know he was not real. I had to know if God was hiding from me because I was the recipient of one of those strong delusions, or if I had been deluded about his presence my whole life. I laid out all the reasons I ones believed, and held them up to scrutiny. For the purposes of this article, I narrowed it down to three reasons:

I was born into faith

I can be honest and objective about it now. Back then, I denied it with all my might. My father had other jobs. But through it all, he was always a preacher. I was always a preacher’s kid. There was never a time when I did not go to church at least three times a week. Two of those times were on Sunday. There was never a time when I didn’t know about collection plates, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. There was never a time when I was unaware of my sinful, hell bound condition. When I could stand it no more, I was baptized. That was at age 7. There was no getting around it. I was born into the church. I never had any choice to do or believe anything else.

By the time I was 7, I was thoroughly indoctrinated. Some might say brainwashed. I would not disagree with that assessment. After all, that is the whole point of convincing a half preteen that he is desperately wicked and on the fast track to perdition. The word, “abuse” comes to mind. I don’t lightly use such an emotionally charged word. I also do not use it in a mean spirited way. An act need not be malicious to be abusive. How many children were beaten to within an inch of their lives out of love for the child’s soul, and devotion to God? Imposing religion on children young enough to still believe in Santa Clause is a form of mental and emotional abuse. Good intentions notwithstanding.

Because the bible said so

I recognize this reasoning is circular and invalid. But as a child who grew up with it as a cornerstone, it went unquestioned for most of my life. It goes something like this: The bible is God’s infallible word. The bible tells us that God exists. Therefore, God tells us that he exists, and God cannot lie. Therefore, God exists. Of course, the flaw in this logic is one that believers are incapable of considering. We are conditioned to unquestioningly accept the bible as a sort of magic book that is completely accurate and true in all its details. If the bible is not true, then our entire foundation of faith falls apart like a house of cards built on the sand in a windstorm.

Here’s the thing. If something is presented to you as the exact words of the living God, then you kind of have to respect it. It is one thing to doubt your parents and teachers. But to doubt God would surely get you a first-class ticket to Hell. Doubting or questioning the bible was tantamount to doubting and questioning God. No one in their right mind would do that.

So strong is the acceptance of scripture as sacred on some level, even those who come to believe that the bible is not the literal word of God still hang on to aspects of theism and religion that can only be supported by a literal reading of the bible. They still go to church as if it were a sacred assembly. They still tithe as if they were Jewish males with a literal share of the promised land. They still believe in the fall while rejecting a literal creation, eden, and the works. Most important, they still believe in the god of the bible long after they stop believing in the bible.

They can question bits and pieces of the bible while still accepting the bible as a whole, whatever that means. They have no hermeneutic or guiding interpretive principal for deciding which parts of the bible to accept and which to reject. The god of the bible and his will for us somehow transcends the words written in the bible and all their many faults. I can’t explain it any better than that. I can only say that I was such a person. I believed in the god of the bible and his religion because it was in the bible, and the bible was beyond critical scrutiny. How are you supposed to apply human criticism to the inspired words of God? The very idea was absurd, until I actually did it.

I needed it to be true

Finally, I believed in the god of the bible and his religion because I needed it to be true. My whole life was based on it being true. If the bible wasn’t true and there was no god of the bible, then I didn’t know who I was any more. Though my textual study of the bible rendered it impotent as a sacred text, I still held on to the God delusion it fostered. Theism was the only worldview I understood. Without it, I didn’t know how to relate to politics, ethics, or humanity in general.

Just as bad, I didn’t know how to relate to the rest of the world of believers. If I denounced God, I would be alone in the world. I had a large community of liberal minded friends who happened to be believers in some kind of god. My family was still staunchly conservative in their belief. I stood to lose my entire community. I wanted to believe in god with all my being.

I tried a watered down version of god. It didn’t take. Deism held no appeal for me. The clock winder god who set things in motion and left them to wind down as they will was like having no god at all. What is the point of having a god who doesn’t actually do anything or promise anything. That kind of god doesn’t even watch. He has already done what he had to do. What follows does not interest him, nor he, me.

Conclusion

I would have been content to believe that God really was there, but had abandoned me to a strong delusion for my unfaithfulness. Even though it would forever leave me outside of his grace, there would still be a god around which I navigated my life. But the reasons I believed in the first place all turned out to be bad reasons.

My father was not a stupid man. He had a college degree from a conservative Christian university. He majored in bible. He was most certainly not a man of science. He had a large library of bibles, religious books and commentaries. He specialized in the minor prophets. He instilled in me the love of books if only by example. But I never once saw a science text in his library. He never quoted Einstein, or even Newton. I don’t think he understood physics at any level. It was simply a non-issue. I don’t believe he ever understood the science of evolution or creationism. For him, the bible was the only science he needed. The rest was the Devil’s playground.

The bible was not written by God, or inspired by God, or compiled by God, or even proofread by God. There are more textual errors in it as there are in my own writing. There was nothing superhuman about the grammar, spelling, composition, or fact checking. Most textual errors are written off as scribal errors. But if a magic book can have a scribal error, then it is not a magic book. If God dictated it word for word, but those words were written down inaccurately, then it is not the bible.

It wasn’t just the scribal errors that sank the bible as a legitimate source; it was the contradictions and outright atrocities in the stories about who God is. I got tired of spin doctoring obvious contradictions in the text. Different writers had opposing ideas about important matters of faith. Paul and James really were not saying the same things about faith and works. The four gospels really do not harmonize.

Beyond that, almost every direct act of God recorded in the bible is morally reprehensible. His laws were morally reprehensible. That goes double for his plan of salvation. The tenth plague, alone, disqualifies God from being an object of devotion. The fact that he ever thought that homosexuals, adulterers, and disobedient children should be put to death is just icing on the morally bankrupt cake. If I actually believed in this god, I would devote my life to hunting him down and killing him. I would never voluntarily bend the knee to the monster identified as the god of the bible.

Finally, I no longer need him. I never needed him. I just didn’t know it until recently. I often pondered this question: What would I be like if there was no god? Would I run wild through the streets raping, pillaging and plundering with reckless abandon? Would I become hateful or indifferent toward my fellow man? Would I give over to drugs, sex, and rock n roll? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “NO” to all of the above.

More or less, I am the same person on this side of faith as the other. In many ways, I am better. I have extended my concern for people to include those I once wrote off as enemies of God. I have a greater appreciation for how the universe really works, and my place in it. When I do a good deed, it is 100% because of my compassion, not because I am trying to fulfill a duty. When someone does something nice for me, I acknowledge that kindness rather than redirect that gratitude to another being who deserves none of the credit.

I am more respectful to women. The bible inspired male domination complex no longer applies to me. I no longer need a heavenly father to tell me what to do. I can figure it out on my own. My decisions without god have, in aggregate, been better than they were with god. I can make decisions on reality rather than childish hope and the power of prayer.

But not everything has come up roses. Don’t think for a moment that one can go from Church of Christ rockstar to atheist without consequences. In the final chapter of this biography, I will detail those challenges.

David Johnson 

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THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART SEVEN

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Beyond religion: the quest for god

Why is religion so diverse? This is the question that drove me. What, if anything, was behind the curtain of religion? If God gave a message that he wanted everybody to have and understand, one would think everybody would have it and understand it. That does not seem to be the case at all. No two people seem to have broad agreement on what it is God has said or what he wants. For the longest time, I was convinced that I knew. Naturally, I was in the minority. God delivered his word to one and all through the bible. There were no private communications as they would be superfluous to what was already written in the bible, and freely available to everyone on the planet.

If anyone wanted to know exactly what God had to say on any given topic, they only had to open the bible and correctly parse the meaning of what was there. Simple. Increasingly, I became concerned by the fact that so many people kept coming up with different conclusions than mine. This represented a problem and required an explanation. In the past, I was content to believe that those with different opinions were either too stupid to understand simple truth, or they were insincere in their desire to know the truth. Another accepted reason was that they were so caught up in sin, God had given them a strong delusion so that that they would believe a lie. If you are not Verizon familiar with the Christian scriptures, you might not be aware of how this one works. Take a look:

 …and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. 2Th. 2:10-12

That’s right, people. If you take pleasure in wickedness, you are just someone who refused to believe the truth. God wants to make sure he judges you while you are in that condition of unbelief. Therefore, he will send you a deluding influence to make sure you continue to believe what is false. That’s what you get for not loving the truth in the first place. In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a direct example of how God used a lying spirit to deceive someone so that he could get his way. Don’t even bother trying to square this with all that talk about how God hates lying liars. It seems he has a cross-licensing agreement with the father of lies. If you are not all that interested in knowing the truth, God will make sure that you never can.

That is what I thought had happened to the billions of people who disagreed with me. The search for God had to begin with a search for truth wherever it led. The bible had already told me to seek, and I would find. Thing is, I wasn’t the only true seeker. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been the only truth finder. I had enough experience with the denominational world to know that their problem wasn’t that they were too stupid, or insincere, or caught up in sin. If they had received a strong delusions so that they would believe lies, how did I know that I wasn’t equally deluded? If we were all seeking the same truth, why were we not finding the same god at the end of the same answers?

Their god cared about very different things than my god. Some of them had a god that was still active in the affairs of men in overtly miraculous ways. Mine wasn’t. Their god cared about social justice a lot more than mine. Their god was not particular about worship details. Mine was. Their god did not have a lot of rules about everyday living and habits. Mine did. Their god allowed dancing and swearing. Not mine. Their god liked churches with steeples and bell towers. Mine didn’t. Their god was very ecumenical. Mine wasn’t. I could not wrap my mind around their god. Yet mine was the minority god. After having many conversations and reading many books, I just could not understand why there was so little agreement about what it was God was trying to say to us. After what seemed to be an eternity of reading and rereading the bible, I realized I had no idea what it was trying to say either. By the time I was 35, I had been on both sides of every issue. I was just as confused as everyone else. I was looking for God to provide me with some sort of clarity that never came. I sought God through scripture. I prayed for truth. I begged for clarity. I learned the bible very well, but found no god within. I would have to widen my search.

God of the gaps

There was an uneasy and complex dance between the churches of Christ and science. Above all else, we revered truth. We also gave lip service to science. For the most part, we believed in three levels of revelation. The first is the revelation of our spirit. Everyone knows that God exists because we all have a god-shaped hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God. We have a knowledge of right and wrong. We have a sense of the eternal, etc. The second level is what some might call the book of nature. Mostly, it just refers to science. We can look around and see the evidence of creation. The observable evidence points to God if it is interpreted correctly. The third level is the bible. The other levels point to God and his nature. The bible provides the specifics. The bible is the only one necessary. The other two just serve to confirm it, not that any confirmation is needed. If a person insists there is no god, the book of nature and the god-infused spirit would be enough proof of the contrary..

Both of those point to the bible in the end. But since the bible had failed me, or I it, I had to look to the other two levels. At that point, I was not looking for religious details, just God. My inner spirit was not doing much for me either. That just left the book of nature. I had determined to get as familiar with that book as possible. It is not fair to say that I began a serious pursuit of scientific understanding at that time, since I had always appreciated science, and thought I knew the basics pretty well. While I would never be a biologist or physicist, I did have a good grasp of the scientific method. Without the bible to point me to God, I found it necessary to brush up on science. My intent was to discover God through science.

What I found was shocking to me. Rather than God being made evident through observation, I found the opposite. If evidence for God was there, it was well hidden. It seemed God went out of his way to be undiscoverable in nature. From astronomy, to geology, to biology, to psychology, to history, the universe was dressed in a cloak of independent operation. Science revealed the universe to be old and evolved, not young and instantly mature. God had cleverly hidden himself behind illusion. We were to believe in him despite the best evidence in front of us, not because of it. Science was a test of faith, not an affirmation of it. For the first time, I felt the real antagonism between faith and science. I realized that all of my evidences for the existence of God were the gaps in my scientific understanding. The more gaps I was able to fill, the less room there was for god. I devoted myself to biology, physics, astrophysics, quantum physics geology, ecology, history, anthropology, and anything else that could be consumed from books and lectures. After that, I applied myself to philosophy, logic and reason. I did not abandon God. I looked every place I could think to look, including introspectively. He simply was not there.

If he existed at all, he was hiding from me. The broader I expanded my search, the fewer clues I had of his whereabouts. During this time, I was praying a lot, constantly. One might even say that I was praying without ceasing. My prayers had come down to one simple request: “Show thyself!” If a glimpse of his awesomeness would drive me blind, I could live with that. I by bolstering my faith with certain knowledge of his existence would disqualify me from all but the room next to the noisy ice machine for all eternity, then I was prepared for that. I just wanted a sign, any sign. A still, small voice of a deafening roar would have been equally welcome. I was desperate and willing to die on the spot for the confirmation I sought. In my search for God, I left no stone unturned. I just wasn’t there, at least, not for me.

Conclusion: full circle

And so it was that my search for god ended in failure. But I was not yet done. Perhaps I couldn’t find God with human effort. Perhaps God would appear to me on his terms and in a time of his own choosing. At the very least, I wanted to collect all the reasons I believed in God in the first place, and with a fresh set of eyes, see if any of them had merit. If they did, then perhaps God was there, but hidden from me. I refused to be the victim of a strong delusion. So I started a new examination. I lined up all my previous reasons for believing in God in the first place, and measured them against my newfound insight.

David Johnson