We’ve taken a pretty long digression in order to get my mindset out in the open. Before we head back into a stricter chronological retelling, I feel the need to clarify something. I may have given the impression that I was constantly plagued with doubt, especially in the last post. That could not be further from the truth. I had doubts, but those doubts were stuffed pretty deep, nearly all the time, in my Canyon of Doubt. For the most part I took the stance that the things that didn’t make sense right now would be answered later. You know, after I died?
In retrospect, that’s a pretty crappy promise, but it was all I had in those dark occasions, rare as they may have been.
So returning to the narrative, it’s the early 90’s. I’m working full time at one thing or another (it was a very flighty period of my life.) T is attending San Jose State, having transferred from Cabrillo, pursuing a business degree. We’re basically getting her through school on our own.
During this time she opted to take an Early Christian History class (it might have been a Bible History class, recollection for both of us is a little fuzzy) with Professor Brent Walters, who later spent a stint on the air on KGO’s Sunday morning program, “God Talk.” He had taken it over sometime after long time host Bernie Ward got caught with an AOL email box full of kiddie porn.
I remember having some concerns when she announced she was taking this class. I accused her of seeking out the world’s view of religion rather than the Truth. She said that she just wanted to learn more about other religions and about the history of Christianity, and that truth is truth. Of course, I wasn’t going to dissuade her. If you haven’t guessed yet, T is quite stubborn, something to which I at least partially credit our long-lasting relationship.
T was very fascinated by what she learned. It put a much more human face on the church, when she was so used to this spiritually aggrandized version, sort of the like the US History we’re taught in second grade. Her view of the church and Christianity started to shift, little by little, and she started asking harder questions.
One of the topics that fascinated her most was the concept of Hell and its history. It’s my intention to either do an article or series on that topic either with her help, or just have her guest post. For now, suffice to say, that Hell was not a Jewish concept, not back then. Souls that died slept awaiting a later judgment. Hell was derived from other Mediterranean sources, and it was the Hellenistic movement that introduced the concept of Hell to Judaism and Christianity. And, really, the Christian concept of Hell today has more to do with Dante than with any particular religious tradition or alleged revelation.
For a number of years, she maintained her belief despite her doubts, though she was slowly shifting away from the fundamentalist viewpoint.
Also during that time from 1990 – 2000, the church, which had 400 members when we had begun attending, had ballooned to over 1000. Theresa had complained on day one about the size and lack of intimacy. She missed the small church community feel she’d grown up with, part of her argument from day one that I had just glossed over.
Between her growing doubts and dissatisfaction with this overcommercialized megachurch SCBC (they had changed their name from Santa Cruz Christian Church to Santa Cruz Bible Church to avoid confusion with the specific “Christian Church” denomination) had become, she started skipping services. By 1999, she wasn’t attending at all. She didn’t begrudge my involvement, and by this time I’d become careful to keep my nights out down to a maximum of 2 per week. But she was done. I tried, gently to encourage her to come along, but knowing how she felt, and knowing what our church was like, I knew it was fruitless, and sometimes I felt like an asshole just asking.
I’m the kind of guy who thrives in pretty much any kind of environment, especially with lots of people. I’m an extrovert, the kind who will simply find a comfortable spot in the crowd and introduce myself to people around me. Next thing you know, I’m involved somehow or somewhere. Not so my T. So while the growth and the opportunity to do new and different things was exciting to me, it was anathema to her.
My friends, of course, saw this as her drifting away from the faith. And I did too, truth be told. At church they would preach at us men to be the leaders of our house, to lead in prayer, bible study, and so on. I knew if I tried to sell that at home, if I really tried to take charge and insist on a biblical home life, I’d probably end up in court trying to sort out child support and visitation. So I just kept most of it inside and hoped that she would eventually come around. I mean, I was praying for her, and most of our friends were praying for her on a regular basis. Something had to happen, right? In fact, I was convinced she would eventually snap out of it.
In 2001, we were on one income (yep, she got the college degree and became a stay-at-home mom – I think I might be a sophomore… maybe) and I was making enough that we started thinking about buying a home. Santa Cruz was far too expensive, so we moved to the small community in which we currently live, about 80 miles away (oddly enough, we have our house up for sale and are planning to move again this year – more on that in a separate article.) The first thing we did when we decided this town was our target was to find a church. We found a little bible church just out of town, King City Bible Church. I mean, the name was basically identical, it had to be good, right? And truthfully, it was. They’re a pretty good bunch of people, several of whom are still in my life today, and one of whom I still count among my best friends. The Pastor at the Time, Pastor M, is someone I’m also still in touch with. He’s the one challenging me to read Not a Chance, an effort I’ll be blogging in the series I just started Games of Chance. But back then, we just wanted to make sure we could get plugged in somewhere. Even T was considering she wanted to give church a try again, perhaps in part because it was so important to me, and this little church of around 80 members (though they rarely broke 40 in attendance on any given Sunday) was just the right size for her, and just the right modern style for me.
We started attending there about 6 weeks after we moved and became members almost right away. It wasn’t long before I was playing bass and singing for the worship team. Another year and I was leading worship, and did so right up until the end.
One thing that was happening with me personally was that I had given up trying not to cuss when I was at home. Well, I hadn’t given up, but I tried a lot less. Cussing was something I learned from my friends (and mom, truth be told) by the time I was 10, and being latchkey, had plenty of freedom to practice on others. Swearing is still, today, a guilty pleasure… well, a pleasure anyway, I hesitate to reinstall guilt anywhere in my life, but it isn’t the most constructive way to make one’s point. Theresa hated it because she just didn’t like to hear it all the time. She can drop one like it’s hot now and then, so she was no perfect angel, but she’s more… selective about such words and their ideal usage.
Anyway, while I was settling in and really enjoying my music ministry, T was helping out where she could, mostly with the young children, watching over them and teaching them a simple bible lesson.
We were invited to join one of the home bible studies on Wednesday nights, this one led by Pastor M. I jumped right in and T was happy to join me. But as we started into the first couple of studies, the cracks started to show for her again.
You see, T is an introvert, but she is not afraid to ask the hard questions. To this day I can’t remember what topic we were on, and I can’t remember what her question was. What I do remember was everyone’s eyes widening when she asked it. And I remember thinking “Oh shit.” I also seem to remember it was a damn good question, and hoping that Pastor M or one of the others would have a reasonable answer. There was some dithering around the fringes of it, and it was never satisfactorily answered, especially not to T’s satisfaction.
I think she went one more time. After that it was all me. She didn’t want to become the center of attention, but it drove her nuts that a small venue designed to dig deeper into the bible didn’t seem to want to accommodate her questions. She was only being honest.
Still she stayed with the church for a little while, but her doubts were growing again, and stronger this time. One day, maybe a couple years after we started there, she was telling the little ones the sanitized story of Noah’s Ark, I think with cute little felt animals on a felt sticky board. She came home and asked herself why she was teaching this crap when she didn’t believe it herself. She felt dishonest, filling their heads with something she thought was nonsense. The bigger question for her was if she didn’t believe most of this, why was she even going to church?
The next time we talked, she told me she was agnostic, and would not be returning to church.
I think at this time the church needed a new elder. Pastor M broached the subject with me. But I knew my own heart and struggles, and I didn’t feel like a good enough example to anyone. Someone asked T about it, and she was more blunt, telling them she wouldn’t attend any church that would have me as an elder, knowing my mouth especially! And she was right, dead right.
I think it happened right before T stopped attending, because I recall discussing it with M and knowing inside that she was about to jump ship, and how could I be an elder if I couldn’t even lead my own family?
So she was out. An apostate. And I had a decision to make.
I had already seen couples, and one in particular, disintegrate over the non-belief of one spouse. And it was invariably the believing spouse who wouldn’t accept the non-believing spouse’s decision, wouldn’t respect their journey. Those marriages blew up like an old hotel when they pushed the plunger.
Did I want that? Was I going to be yet another Christian asshole who would make life untenable? Somehow I didn’t think that’s what Jesus would want. I had it in my head that marriage was the most important thing, and honoring and loving my wife unconditionally was the only Christlike thing to do. We had some emotional discussions, but both came to the same answer: we were equals in a committed marriage, for the long haul, and we would respect each other’s journeys.
That didn’t stop us from having lively discussions. She upped her own personal research on church history, on the facts rather than the theology. She would challenge my assumptions and my beliefs, and I would challenge her back. Over time we learned to have these discussions without anger, without getting invested in the outcome. We learned how to let these conversation get excited and emotional without feeling threatened. We learned to communicate I think better than we ever had in the past.
And that led me to a new doubt: Why did our marriage seem to improve in the wake of her apostasy? Why did so many things seem to get better? Especially our communication. I could see some Christian suggest that it was God blessing my unconditional love, blah-blah, but I know better. It’s because we were committed to the relationship as our primary human relationship, and we knew that we were in very different places, and that the conflict that could develop could become debilitating if we didn’t work at it up front.
But our relationship when we were both in Christ should have been idyllic, right? God’s spirit should have at least made a difference. But it didn’t, not like us working on it ourselves.
The hardest compromise I had to make was that she would not allow me to indoctrinate the children. She drew a hard line around them on that. If they asked a question, and I gave a “god” answer, she would immediately, and gently, add the caveat that “Not everyone believe the same way, though,” and offer alternative beliefs or even the option of unbelief. At first it drove me nuts, but after while I felt that it might be best. I came to the conclusion that it was best to let the kids make their own choice in the matter. If they came to faith on their own, it would be theirs, and they would be less likely to lose it. If I pounded it in there, they might not consider as deeply and might be more vulnerable to secular inputs.
Well, it was a good rationalization at the time – and I think one of my smarter moves, despite the fact that I think every peer in church thought I was not handling this right.
T started challenging me on the more difficult parts of the bible, Old Testament atrocities and such. At one point, T had either done some reading, or attended a seminar, perhaps with Professor Walters. She expressed the idea that the use of prophets by ancient tribal kings such as the early Hebrews during their campaign to overtake Israel was not to listen to god, but to manipulate the soldiers into being willing to do horrible acts in that would benefit the tribe, but that they would not ordinarily be as willing to do. However, if you know “God” has commanded something, you’re more likely to do it, even if it means killing babies by dashing them against rocks, or cutting them out of their mothers’ wombs.
That stuck with me, long after T had forgotten the conversation. It stuck with me because it made sense. It made much more sense than believing YHWH had undergone some strange transformation over the intertestamental period and had suddenly learned to chill out.
Every now and then, and by that I mean rarely, I had an answer for her. Once she was reading this book about Paul’s writings in which, IIRC, the author contended that there were two different authors at work with every different ideas.
It’s a little fuzzy, but I believe it centered around Paul’s use of the word for “salvation.” The author of this book contended that Paul (or whomever actually wrote it) was using conflicting or even contradictory definitions for the word, indicating that the two had different ideas of what the word even meant, or should mean to believers.
The problem was that in one passage, he was speaking to believers about themselves, and in the other, was speaking about unredeemed/unregenerated people, but this change made the use of the word consistent. To this day I still see this as faulty research and hermeneutics on the part of this author, even though I’d probably agree with more of her conclusions today than then. At that point, having scored one single point over the course of years, I felt that maybe there was hope that I could learn more and get through to her.
Not too long after that I found myself in a Barnes & Noble. T was on my mind. I thought that if I learned more about the anti-Christian arguments of atheists and anti-theists, I could counter those arguments with T and maybe convince her to come back to the fold. So I searched the shelves for atheist books and found one that seemed the most comprehensive, Why I Became an Atheist, by John W. Loftus. I plucked it out and checked out the table of contents. Chapter three was titled The Outsider Test for Faith. I had an idea of what that meant, and I remember feeling a slight trepidation inside, and behind that, my own tiny voice in my head wondering if this was a bad idea.
I opened up to that chapter and read just enough to scare the shit out of myself. Honest to goodness. The very, very short version of the OTF is:
- People tend to adopt religion based on their geography and upbringing – Americans will likely be Christian, Saudis Muslim, etc.
- People tend to go out of their way to justify their beliefs – they have a confirmation bias.
- Because of these two facts, people should adopt the point of view of a complete outsider when thinking about and analyzing their faith.
By this methodology, an individual can circumvent their personal biases and cultural conditioning and make a more honest evaluation of their faith, and any faith, really.
The question hit me like a ton of bricks. I had not only rejected all other faiths in the past, I had read pamphlets and books that taught me to do so on many, many grounds. What would happen if I examined my own faith that way? What if I was born a Muslim? Wouldn’t I be just as convinced in my religion and think Christians were ridiculous and needed to find the truth?
I closed the book with a snap and shoved it back on the shelf. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready for that process yet. Maybe I needed to read more. Maybe I needed to find a different source of information.
But that moment, those words, never left my mind. And honestly, I knew that if I ever really wanted to explore the idea of losing faith, that was the book I would go to.
I think after that I really stopped fighting the battle with her. I was unnerved, to say the least.
None of this was really going by the script. In many ways the two of us were happier than we had been in years. But by then, my worldview was already shifting, little by little.