Looking over the previous installments, there is one area I’ve glossed over. Perhaps in future edits (i.e.: when I’ve recovered from this confessional deluge) I’ll add it in chronologically. For now I’ll just relate it here.
Something else that happens when you become inculcated in the Christian subculture is you take on their politics and social mores. It’s one of those things of which I have a distinct, if partial, memory. First off, I was raised in a blue-collar lifelong union liberal Democrat family. And as with many other kids, I took their beliefs as my own right into my Christian life.
So there I was. It was at least a couple years into it my Christian experience, because I was chatting with a few of the older men of our church, including one of the elders, and we were standing outside the original portables that had been built to accommodate the church’s growth. I don’t remember what the political topic was, but what I do remember is thinking, “Oh, is that what I’m supposed to think about this issue?” It was a shift that I made deliberately because I was supposed to until I was a fiscally and socially conservative member of the Christian Right, with all the right beliefs and the right voting record.
I think the deeper truth is that we were conservative fiscally because of abortion and gays. Those were leveraging issues. The Christian culture makes those out to be the issues that end all issues. It was, and is, preached from the pulpit that getting it wrong on those issues is defying God. And so even if you’re really not socially conservative, you don’t dare fall out of line with god. Christian voters often go to the polls knowing basically who is for and who is against abortion and gay equality.
At some point later in my Christian experience, probably around 2004-2005, I began to see things differently. I’m not sure what changed my mind, but I had come to a few conclusions about what it meant to be a Christian.
For one, I thought we were exactly wrong on helping the poor. My bible seemed to read that the poor were not poor by choice, and deserved help and compassion, from Jesus on down. The downtrodden were his ministry focus, not the well-off who couldn’t be bothered to pay another 1% in taxes to feed poor children because OMG my trust fund!
For another, I began to believe that Christians were wrong to try and impose their beliefs on other people who had not chosen to submit themselves to a biblical worldview. My reasoning was that, as we were taught, God wasn’t interested in changing our behavior. He was interested in changing our hearts. We were taught that Christians were first saved and justified, and then sanctified. You couldn’t expect spiritual, godly behavior out of people who were not already saved. So why were we fighting so hard to do so when it was clearly driving non-believers further away from the faith to begin with?
And for yet another, I couldn’t figure out why Christians, whose goal was that the entire world be reached with the gospel and that souls be saved, would support politics that so readily and willfully went into other countries to bomb the shit out of them? How could we support killing people who, according to our theology, god wanted most to reach? Wouldn’t the Prince of Peace want us to pursue peace and be people of peace? But then someone would point out that Jesus didn’t come to bring peace but a sword, etc.
The point is that I thought being a Jesus believer meant being compassionate to other people, period. I thought that God’s supposed unconditional love should be just that, that we should reflect it. I decided that the church had lost its way. And yet I still believed the bible to be inerrant in a fundamental way. I wondered if there was a happy medium between mindless conservatism and the heretical, to my view, ultra-liberalism of leaders like Bishop John Shelby Spong.
November of 2004 I cast my first votes for a liberal ever, including John Kerry.
What I recognize in retrospect, but was not clear to me then, was the nature of shift that was taking place in my mind and heart.
The Big Shift was: I had begun letting my conscience drive my religion, rather than my religion drive my conscience.
That’s a very good thing. Of course, true fundamentalists would disagree. They would argue that all morality is driven by God and the bible (wrong, but I won’t get into that here.) They would argue that such a shift would lead to moral anarchy and a dissolution into rank relativism.
But I didn’t see it that way, naturally. I saw it as setting aside the cultural bulwark that had arisen and getting down to brass tacks.
I also began to wonder about the random nature of the world. I had several friends and acquaintances who died of cancer in their 20’s and 30’s. They died at the same rate as unbelievers. They underwent the same procedures, with the same levels of efficacy. And I thought that maybe God didn’t intervene in the way we’d come to believe, or that the world was at least more random, that our prayers to change things maybe weren’t the right prayers. I thought of the writer of Ecclesiastes, who got a lot of it right, up until the end of the book. It certainly rains on the righteous and the unrighteous. The unrighteous prosper and the righteous get fucked.
In 2008, in the space of six weeks, my uncle, my brother-in-law, and my father died. My father was the oldest at 65, my uncle in his late 50’s, and my wife’s brother only 38.
It was probably the most devastating six weeks in our lives. My life was a chaos of hospitals and funeral homes.
In the aftermath, I recall being in church prior to service. I was sitting in the sound booth setting up the morning’s slide show. A dear friend of ours (and she and her hubby are still two of the very few friends who have stuck with us in our transition out of the faith) said to me, “I’m sure god’s got something better for you right around the corner.” Now, set away your cynicism for just a moment. She’s as sweet and sincere as anyone you know, and there wasn’t anything cloying about what she said. We are very close to them and she was not just offering up platitude. She was trying to comfort me and give me hope that better days were ahead.
But I had got to the point where I didn’t believe in that sort of economy, where God gave you good stuff to balance the bad. I said, “Well, maybe, and maybe not. I don’t think God works that way. Life is just life. What matters isn’t what happens, but who you are in the midst of what happens.” That was a different sort of thought for her, and we chatted a little more, but clearly, I had decided that God was not hands-on manipulating affairs to benefit his praying people.
By that time I had decided that the church was wrong about creation. I decided that if God did the creating (and I believed he did) that he created everything in the beginning, 13.8 billion years ago, with us in mind (how’s that for arrogance?) I decided that the creation story was an allegory representing the rise of human consciousness, the discovery of sin, and the need for salvation. I know, I know, just go with me here for now.
I also decided that none of those issues really mattered as long as Jesus rose from the dead, and this I believed with all my heart. I believed that I was still worshiping a living savior who died for us, rose again, and by the Holy Spirit was changing us and making us fit for heaven.
I still believed that the time was short, that Jesus’ return was imminent, and that the End Times were right around the corner.
I still believed God was leading me to choose just the right songs for just the right Sunday morning.
So what changed?