When did I first begin to doubt?
I’ll start off by admitting I don’t rightly know. Trying to define the point at which I turned from believer into doubter is a little like trying to pinpoint when the water in a tea kettle turns from cold to hot. On either end you know its cold and that its hot, but there is a lot of lukewarm in between.
My earliest recollection of a disturbance of doubt is from my first couple years as a Christian, probably 23-24 years ago. I was a fervent young believer then, still convinced that full-time Christian ministry lay in my future. My study of the bible was ever-deepening, and in that effort I was buying a number of extra-biblical study aids. Several of these I bought not out of any perceived need, but because they were recommended as part of a core library for any serious Christian student of the bible.
One of these must-have books was Gleason Archer’s “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties.”
I vividly remember thinking, “Why is there an encyclopedia of bible Difficulties?” In my first year or two of study I took everything I read and everything I heard from the pulpit as absolute truth, without reservation. It had never occurred to me that the bible was somehow imperfect, or that there were contradictions that were difficult to explain away. No pastor had ever said, “Look, guys, there are some dicey passages in the bible that don’t make a lot of sense. You’re just going to have to trust us.” In fact, their message was just the opposite. This bible was god-breathed, the perfect expression of god’s will on earth, living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. Not only that, but we had the holy spirit to illuminate the words of this book, to teach us and reveal god’s truth within. How could such a thing have difficulties?
As I delved a little bit into the book, I had this mild sick feeling in my gut. Could it be that this whole Jesus/Salvation thing wasn’t as cut and dried as had been represented?
At the time, though, this recovering Catholic had a severe bias in favor of the bible. I was emotionally sold out to the idea that I had found the real truth hidden in the pages of the bible. How could millions of Christians, and these men in whom I’d placed my trust, be wrong? I ignored the rest of the book, reasoning that it would only serve to put doubts in my head and, hey, the book itself was proof that these supposed “difficulties” had answers, right? I didn’t need to know every last thing at this point in time, and if such a question did come up, well, I had this handy book of answers.
Yeah, I know. I was young.
Fast forward a few years. I’m married, working a lot of hours, relatively poor, and my dream of full time ministry is fading fast. One, I can’t afford to go to school. Two, I’m immature and relatively lazy. Three, the plans my wife and I come up with to get me there are half-baked at best (driven by my own tendency to pipe dream in the face of her common sense.) And four, I’m spiritually a wishy-washy failure. My dedication in many ways is second to none. I’m as faithful as anyone anywhere in my church attendance, bible reading, scripture memorization, and participation in church activities. But my personal failures are consistent and annoying. While they’re not earth-shattering by any stretch, they’re persistent, and leave me feeling I’m always slipping back to square one.
I was caught in a cycle that so many Christians find themselves in, though many won’t ever admit it, for fear they would be seen as unqualified for whatever ministry they find themselves in charge of or involved in at church. I guarantee you that the number of Christians actually walking in persistent “victory” is much smaller than the number of them who aren’t but want you to believe that they are. They’re not being deliberately deceitful. They’re treading water, trying to get over that hump of failure, convinced that this time they’ll stay on the path and depend on the Jesus through faith to stay on the straight and and narrow and not gossip/lie/cuss/masturbate/look at porn/steal/cheat on their taxes/drink too much, etc – anymore.
My natural pattern when I was feeling like a failure was to take another deep dive into Romans 5-8, Paul’s clearest teaching on the Christian concept of sin and the believer.
At one point I thought to myself, “If Jesus is the answer to my problems, why am I always going to Paul to seek wisdom and power?”
I realized at that time that there was a disconnect between the teachings attributed to Jesus Christ in the New Testament and the convoluted detail of Paul’s teaching. Alas, at that time I managed to rationalize it away by seeing the bible as a whole and concluding that God had to use Paul to explain what his son’s ministry was really all about.
Now, of course, that seems incongruous. Surely god incarnate could have made all of these things abundantly clear, at least for those who do believe, right? Why do I need Paul? Why would I have to wait 35-65 years after the time of Christ to get a clear explanation of what it means to really be a Christ follower?
Over the succeeding years I ran across the same sort of things that other doubters uncover, though I certainly was fervent and dedicated throughout most of that time. Still I would wonder:
- Could god really have flooded the entire earth, or was it a local flood?
- Why would god command genocide?
- How could the Adam and Eve story be remotely real in the face of modern scientific knowledge?
- Where did Cain’s wife come from?
- Who were the Nephilim anyway?
- Why didn’t many of the Christians I know care as much about the poor as Jesus seemed to?
- What really happens to billions who never hear the gospel of Christ?
That’s just a sampling. All of those questions I began to store up and hide away. I didn’t want to face them. I didn’t have the courage. Looking back at it I call it my “Canyon of Doubt.” When the canyon started to get full, I built a dam to hold them back. I had to…
You see, sometime about 8-9 years ago, my wife’s doubts, which she had been harboring for awhile, came to a head when she couldn’t hide them anymore. 8 years previous she had taken a college course on Early Christian History that had really forced her to take a hard look at the doubts she had harbored throughout our Christian lives together (we were together a couple years before we became Christians.) She continued to question and pursue, seeking truth rather than comfortable ignorance. Finally about 8 years ago she came out to me that she was an agnostic, that she could no longer believe the Christianity we’d supposedly built our lives on, and she stopped going to church. She had had an epiphany while helping out teaching Sunday School to preschoolers at the little church where I was the worship leader. The lesson plans had her teaching lessons like Noah’s Ark, Adam & Eve, and so on. She felt like she was lying to these little children. She loved her friends and our little community, but she couldn’t go on pretending she believed these things and indoctrinating the little children.
So she was out, and I was in, and I had to figure out what to do. I tried to tread lightly, because I love my wife dearly, and furthermore, there was a small part of me that understood. There was a much larger part of me that did not, however. She has a tendency to look at all the things that can go wrong in a situation. This is actually a helpful skill, but is annoying when you just want someone to tell you how wonderful everything is and how clever you are. So I attributed her doubt to that tendency, that she would lend credence to everything that supported her view and eschew anything that supported the Christian view (because, y’know, Christians never do that!) Basically, for the sake of our kids and our family, I had to hold the line and keep the demons at bay. I should say that we learned through this to communicate better, to accept each other, and to love each other more deeply for who we were. Our ability to do that, I confess, further added to my doubts. After all, how could we do that if we were unequally yoked?
So I refused to look deeper into my doubts. Furthermore, anything she and I discussed that added to my doubts I tossed to the other side of my Dam of Doubt, trusting God had all the answers. I had to hold the line.
As the next 6-7 years or so passed, I found my view of living life as a human being shifting. Through experience I found life to be far more random, far more like the book of Ecclesiastes than Romans. It rained on the righteous and the unrighteous. Life was random. Things happened to whom they happened to solely because they happened, not for any particular reason. The issue wasn’t what happened, it was who you WERE in the midst of what was happening. That really is not a Christian way of looking at things. There is another philosophy that fits the bill, and some of you may recognize it already. I didn’t. In fact, I thought I was getting a little closer to Jesus and his teachings than most of my peers.
Maybe I was.
Furthermore, I let some doubts on fringe issues out of the canyon. As I learned more things about the world we live in, I had to adjust my theology to match. One particular item was the evolution/creation “debate.” After years of being a creationist in the face of most common sense, I decided that the emphasis on this concept by Evangelical Christians was misplaced. My thought was that as long as Jesus Christ rose from the dead, it didn’t matter how we got here. It didn’t matter if the whole Adam and Eve thing was an allegory to show how we all were one human family that needed redemption. As long as the resurrection was true, the bible was true.
Noah’s ark took the next hit. It could have been a local flood. Those from whom the oral tradition was handed down would likely have experienced the flood as a worldwide flood, one that in their experience seemed to cover all the known world, leaving only water as far as they eye could see, destroying nearly everything. They were telling the truth as they knew it and God was using it to make a point. No problem.
The circle of what I believed from the bible was getting smaller and smaller, leaving pretty much just the core message of salvation through Jesus Christ intact.
Fast forward again, this time to earlier this year. There was an event in our lives that brought me face to face with my continual struggle with anger, to the point where my wife gave me an ultimatum to deal with it once and for all. Someday I’ll go into the details of this event, but suffice to say I was lucky that the only fallout from it was facing the fact I needed to deal with it. We should all be so lucky.
It made me a little sick with fear. If I stayed with the same old thing, I was facing another vicious circle of victory, struggle, failure, shame, repentance, recommitment, victory, struggle, failure, etc… I had spent 26 years on that roller coaster and it was draining me.
I went casting about for a fresh look at anger. (Right here is where most of the Christians will say I went wrong. I should have stuck with Jesus and asked him for help. I’ll tell them right now – help had not come in a quarter century, and I wasn’t about to go all the way to my deathbed wondering when it would come.)
I decided to find a book with a different, practical approach to anger, to see if it would make a difference. The first one I found, Beyond Anger, didn’t describe me at all. I couldn’t identify with the seething, unhappy, raging, unsuccessful, broken household angry person the author described. I’m happily married, very successful, respected in my community, etc. It didn’t line up. I even wrote to him to say so. He basically accused me of being in denial. Okey-dokey, next?
The next book I found seemed odd at first, but the solution was alluring. It was called The Cow in the Parking Lot, and it promised a Zen approach to dealing with anger. It also promised that their approach was purely philosophical and wouldn’t conflict with anyone’s religion. So I gave it a go.
It was transforming. Here was a philosophy that laid bare my reasons for anger, the emptiness of those reasons, and the solution in compassion to overcome the anger. While I still struggle here and there, I have found respite from it, and learned how to deal with it in a real way. More consistency may be needed, but even there I can accept where I am now and continue to pursue compassionate living.
With that epiphany, I began meditating, mostly on verses and psalms focusing on love and compassion from God’s word. I began to research the mystics like Thomas Merton to see if one could pursue Zen philosophy under the umbrella of Christian belief. Still, diving deeper into Buddhist philosophy, I found a lot of conflict between the two. Impermanence vs. unchanging, immortal eternity. Monism vs. Dualism. Soul vs. non-self.
All the while I’m still leading worship at my little church.
I came to a realization that even if I could find a way to reconcile the two philosophies, the leaders of my little church would never be able to accept and understand the idea. Meditating was something lost new-ager/Hindu/Buddhist types did, not Christians. Believe me, you can find a LOT of uninformed Christian ranting on this topic online.
I realized I either had to give up the first thing that ever worked for me in this way, or I had to decide what I really believed.
I turned and for the first time viewed in its fullness my Dam of Doubt. I gave apologists the first crack at me, starting with Norman Geisler. I was unimpressed. In ways that I’ll go into specifically in the coming weeks and months, he skirted around or ignored the hard questions I had, or worse, gave pat answers that convince only the convinced and pander to those who don’t want to dive deep, but are troubled enough to at least read his material. So I then read Why I Became an Atheist. There I found my most disturbing questions addressed deeply. Obviously I’ll go into this in depth in future posts as well.
Finally I broke the news to my wife. I had hidden the depth of my doubt throughout this whole process, again because I was holding the line. After that I had to meet with my pastor. I stepped down from ministry and away from the church. I’m now an agnostic Buddhist.
But when did I become a doubter? When did I move from a believer who deals with doubts to a doubter who couldn’t believe anymore? Which doubt sealed the deal? Was it any of them? Was it at the point that I was willing to change my mind? Who knows?
All I know is that once I was blind, but now I see…