...all described in a long post:
I was raised in a conservative Lutheran family. Around the time I was a freshman in high school, we started driving an hour each way to go to a MORE conservative church than the one in my hometown.
And when I was inside that closed system, it all seemed to make sense. We had “by the grace of God” the Right Answers, the Correct Doctrine. And when you start from that assumption, you can justify a lot of shit.
Drug my poor wife into this. I’m not quite sure why she agreed—she thought it was pretty weird, but I guess she thought our relationship was worth it.
As I look back now, I notice that during this phase of my life I never really “shared my faith” with anyone. I would sometimes join in arguments about evolution or the death penalty or whatever from my fused political/religious view, but I didn’t even like to tell people that my family was so weird that we drove an hour to church. And at some level, I must have known that the message I had to share wasn’t very “good news.”
Anyway, eventually I went to graduate school, where I learned a lot. I guess I had a “feminist awakening” in some ways. Certainly many of the people I was around called themselves feminists, or practiced “feminist pedagogy,” and I read a lot of feminist and Marxist and otherwise-broadly-liberal stuff. More, I saw those views in practice, and saw that they weren’t evil. No one tried to brainwash me or silence me or anything. (Well, one jerk kind of had a one-sided shouting match with me when I wore an anti-evolution T-shirt into the office to grab something, but he was the exception in lots of ways, and I just ignored him.) People treated me well. I learned how to teach. I was trying to do that in the best way I could, which to me meant basing it in love. I even called it my “developing Christian pedagogy.”
And I would go to church on Sunday and try to sort out why I spent five days a week trying to empower young women (and minorities) and then one day a week at a church where we actively silenced them. I remember standing in a church service and thinking “I don’t want to lose my faith.” And I remember asking the pastor how we knew we had all the “right” books in the Bible and getting a vague answer that boiled down to “have faith.”
Soon we had moved again and I’d started teaching as a job, and by then we knew we couldn’t stay in that church. I couldn’t support its sexism and racism any longer, and I couldn’t keep going through the same motions over and over and never growing.
We did a huge “church search,” which was scary. (Visited a truly Fundamentalist church in that process—walked out about five sentences into the hateful sermon.) But we found a Baptist General Conference megachurch with music we liked and an exciting, smart pastor. Broke the news to my family via email, feeling very nervous about it, but that went more or less okay. After all, we were still Christian, even if we did weird things (like lifting hands during worship) and were wrong about stuff. And the 600 mile buffer zone didn’t hurt.
This began a long stretch of time when my faith was really mine—that I was making choices about it.
At that time, I thought I had decent answers to my question about the books of the Bible, and I was being introduced to a wider range of theologies that I had ever known, many of which were more palatable than what I’d grown up with. And because that church had an attitude of inquiry and some degree of openness to question, I could grow spiritually and intellectually.
Switched to a smaller church in the same body, where we were very involved. I preached there a few times and was on the leadership team and quickly enough a co-chair. Somewhere during that time I completed my move to being an explicit LGBT Ally, and while I didn’t demand that the church I was in take a stance, I took comfort in knowing that at least a few of the other members shared this view.
Slowly I became frustrated with church, with how it was done and what it was. We threw all this money and effort into Sunday events that didn’t actually accomplish much. Even in that fairly healthy church, the number of people who really seemed to base their lives around Jesus and his message, who really seemed to grow, was small.
I was reading widely, still—N.T. Wright, Brian MacLaren, occasional wilder things. I knew that Christians didn’t all agree about things, which meant that nobody had it all right. That was the gift of my original church: they’d shown me that a group can think they have the Correct Doctrine, and from within that can be totally convincing—but once you’re on the outside, you see all the inconsistencies and the ways the evidence is ignored.
Anyway, we left that church to relocate to a smaller town and see if we liked that. (We didn’t.) I was on sabbatical at that time. Wife and I were looking for a group of committed people who were just trying to live like disciples of Jesus. Tried a couple of house churches in the area—and they weren’t it. (One in particular was just conventional church done in a house instead.) Tried many of the churches in that area, if they weren’t explicitly sexist or anti-gay. They all felt shallow or exclusive or crazy. Went and sat with the Quakers once or twice—interesting, and a very honest kind of experience, but you can just see that they’re dying off. I guess it’s not very sexy to sit around in silence for an hour, so they aren’t drawing a lot of new people in.
I started reading online about progressive Christianity and found some things to like, but it felt kind of ad hoc to me.
But this was during my sabbatical, when I really had time to read. And I did. I read about different religions, and an excellent critique of attempts to claim that all religions really said the same thing (God Is Not One, I think it was called). Read Spong and Borg, read about Buddhism (couldn’t believe that somebody just sat down and thought really hard and worked it all out; to me, it was all about practices). Read and enjoyed very much the book The Spirituality of Imperfection. That was an important step toward being able to just accept being imperfect instead of trying to fix it. Read The Bible Made Impossible, which put the final nail in the coffin of my being able to take the Bible as magic and correct. I’d been headed there a long time, but this finally gave me a briefly summarize-able way to explain it.
And then I read Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. I love that book: it’s funny and richly researched and smart and philosophical. And it’s not about religion. It’s about how and why people are wrong, and what we can (and can’t) do about it. It includes a chapter about what happens when we find out we’ve been WRONG in the biggest things—that our whole life was based on something wrong.
And so that book perfectly described and predicted and caused my faith crisis. It’s ironic and funny now, but didn’t feel so at the time.
There’s a lot in that book that speaks to religious worldviews, even though that isn’t the subject. And reading it helps me be more understanding of people who still believe, because I know some of the many reasons it’s possible to be very wrong and still feel like you’re right. (Plus, I am constantly aware that I could be wrong.) But for me the key thing was this: being wrong is just a built-in feature for us. The way we think inherently includes being wrong some of the time. So if humans ever were perfect, then they were a completely different kind of thing from us. And if we ever were to become perfect in some future world, again, we would have to be completely different people.
So there can’t have been a “Fall” from perfection, no matter how metaphorically you take that. And while I can’t completely exclude the possibility of some post-death experience, it can’t possibly be like Christians think it is.
I spent about a day as an atheist, but didn’t find that able to sustain. I started Just thinking of God as a mystery, as the source of all good. My wife and I started saying some pretty weird prayers. “We don’t know who or what you are, but if you could do us some good, we’d appreciate it.” Or “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Very freeing. No less productive than any prior prayers.
Explored progressive Christianity further but couldn’t find anything satisfying there. Saw someone online bluntly ask people “Why progressive CHRISTIANITY?” and the basic answer was “I grew up in this tradition so I want to hold on to it.” But I don’t care about that. And the more liberal churches we tried ultimately weren’t very satisfying—more of the same, more going through the motions, holding tradition for tradition’s sake. I didn’t really feel a strong need to be connected to a church any more, even though I was interested in continuing to grow spiritually. But I wanted to support my wife in anything she found valuable.
Then she read basically everything Bart Ehrman ever wrote, and she gave up on Christianity for good because she was convinced we had no direct reliable evidence. That was it for church-going for us.
For me, now, I don’t have an exact name for where I am. The agnostics have it right in my view, because they make the most modest claim of knowledge. While I respect atheism as being internally consistent and intellectually sound, I can’t claim that I know there is no god. People can ask questions that they can’t answer. I’m confident that every version of conventional-Christianity-God that I’ve heard about either can’t exist or is unworthy of love or respect.
But I sometimes do think about God as the source of good. Some days I think that might be an actual person or force or entity or whatever. A lot of days I think it’s just a convenient myth, a shorthand for a complex concept. I wish for an afterlife that would make some things better for the people who got screwed in this life, but I know that I don’t have any theory for how that could be, and most of the time I think that’s just an empty fantasy.
But I don’t personally have a satisfactory answer for who Jesus was. If I had a time machine, I’d go see if there was such a person and if so if he taught anything or did anything or healed anybody or died or rose again or didn’t. I know the documents we have are not reliable. But none of the theories I’ve heard explaining those documents are fully satisfying to me. So I’m left with “dunno.”
I do know a little about how humans come to believe things, and I know that no just and all-knowing god could ever judge us based on what we do or don’t believe: that’s a stacked game. And I figure there’s probably no god, or else no god who judges. If somehow there is, then I figure either She is a good god who judges with mercy or fairness, in which case I’ll be okay, or She isn’t, in which case I’m screwed no matter what. So I spend no time worrying about that.
I do try to find ways to grow spiritually wherever they might be. And I try not to fault Christians for believing what they believe. I did gain some things from trying to follow the teachings of Jesus as I understood them, so I try to hold on to them. But now I insist on being an adult, and I won’t let anyone try to make me be a child again—not a religious teacher, not a boss, not a relative, not a god.