Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.
WHEN I FIRST STARTED HAVING MISGIVINGS ABOUT MY FAITH, I DID WHAT ANY GOOD Evangelical would: I prayed. I was fifteen at the time, earnest and devout; an eldest daughter with a caretaker’s heart and responsibilities; a good student surrounded by a good family, good friends, and a good church community. Even so, the cognitive changes that beset teenagers: increased ability to introspect, to think critically, and to envision the possible, were giving me trouble.
As they do to most teens, these changes chewed at my self image. The world became one gigantic mirror, and I noticed for the first time that I had been born ugly. By extension, they chewed at my image of my parents, who became more and more annoying and less and less smart. But they also chewed at my Answers, at the carefully constructed world view that I had built during years of listening to my elders and thinking and reading. (Yes, children and teens can and do think deeply about spiritual matters.) It was a world view with clean lines and clean answers, not always simple, but solid. Now parts seemed a little fuzzy, dubious. I didn’t like the feeling.
Fortunately, I had learned my lessons well. I knew what to do. I prayed and read my Bible at night before I went to bed. My home church, a nondenominational congregation called Scottsdale Bible, offered lots of opportunities to reinforce faith, and I took advantage of them. I attended Pioneer Girls, like Evangelical Girl Scouts, on Wednesday nights. Mom shuttled me to Bible study on Thursdays, and, of course, I was there with the family for Sunday morning worship.
In the summer, I volunteered as a counselor at a Child Evangelism camp, working to win inner city children to Jesus. I led my little troop of dark-eyed campers through prayers at breakfast and bedtime and many times in between. During the school year, I attended Young Life meetings.
Young Life provided after-school fellowship and wilderness adventures for teens like me, combining music and Bible study with a sense of belonging to something exciting and fun. For my high school biology class, I wrote a scathing paper attacking the theory of evolution with information I got from the Creation Research Society. I was thrilled that neither my biology teacher nor her young assistant knew how to rebut my arguments.
In the early seventies, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey made the rounds in my church community. It has since sold over fifteen million copies. Intended to fuel anxiety about godlessness, this book depicts our age as the “End Times,” culminating in a world ruled by a brutal Antichrist before God’s final judgment. It is based loosely on the apocalyptic visions in the book of Revelation and on a scheme of theology called dispensationalism that emerged during the 19th Century. In recent years, Evangelical author, Tim LaHaye, has written the bestselling Left Behind series on the same topic. You can find them in any airport bookstore; fear sells.
It worked on me! I redoubled my efforts to live a Christ-centered life. I even participated in the “I Found It” campaign. After billboards that said “I Found It” appeared all over the country, Evangelical Christians fanned out, telling the world what they had found: Jesus Christ. I, who hated selling even candy bars for marching band, sat at a phone bank and talked strangers through the Four Spiritual Laws and the prayer they needed to be saved.
Late in high school, I joined thousands of others in the Phoenix Coliseum for the Bill Gothard Seminar, a modern equivalent of the old tent revival, which was touring the country at the time. The focus wasn’t on hellfire and brimstone, but it was on repentance. With notebooks in our laps and pencils in hands we talked through rituals of renewal: setting right our relationships with others by confessing to them any ill will and making amends, then returning to devoted Christian living, giving, and worship. I painstakingly and often tearfully completed the steps at home.
Does this sound like insider talk: jargon and buzz phrases and name dropping? It is. I was an insider. And I was trying very hard to keep it that way. My faith had been the center of my life since I was small. In the fifth grade, my best friend, Jeanine, and I used to sit in a corner of our public school playground during recess and complete Bible study workbooks. Not, mind you, that there was much else to do. We were both outsiders, new to the school, and we shared bookish tendencies as well as our faith. But this episode illustrates an important point. Evangelical Christianity was what I fell back on when I felt lost. It was my home.
If I said the doubts made me uneasy, I lied by omission. In actuality they terrified me at times. I remember kneeling one night on the floor of my bedroom, crying, pleading for God to take them away, and then crawling into bed with some sense of relief. I read, desperately, whatever I could get my hands on that might solve this problem. Your God is Too Small, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, The Problem of Pain. Often this worked. I would find myself comfortable again, at least temporarily, and could divert my attention to the playful fellowship of my church youth group: water skiing trips with small fireside chats, backpack trips during which we meditated and sang God’s praises in lush alpine meadows, a kiss after Wednesday night Bible study for my sixteenth birthday.
When I left for college, I headed, by my choice, to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where the graduate school, called the Billy Graham Center, houses a museum of American Evangelicalism with a focus on Graham’s fearsome crusades. Wheaton is the elder statesman in a group of Evangelical colleges that have grown in recent decades to include Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College. Since 1860, Wheaton has been a bulwark of conservative Christian education. Thanks in part to the college, the town of Wheaton is dry to this day, and church attendance is stellar, even for the Midwest.
Wheaton made national news in November of 2003 by allowing its first on-campus dance. In my day, students signed what we called “The Pledge,” promising, as I later joked, not to drink, dance, swear, or sleep with anyone who did. Actually, the promise was not to sleep with anyone at all. I presume married students got an exception. For twenty years I have thought that the Wheaton motto was “All Truth is God’s Truth,” meaning that since God is the source of all that is true (by contrast with Satan, the Father of Lies), there can be no evil in the honest pursuit of truth. I’m not sure where I got that impression. The actual motto is “For Christ and his Kingdom,” which, in reality, fits much better.
By the time I arrived at Wheaton, my Evangelical faith had become somewhat convoluted and confusing, not in the basics, that Christ had died to save me and that I otherwise, thanks to original sin and my own behavior, was doomed to an eternity of anguished separation from God and goodness. That part seemed clear. But the rest was muddier. I was struggling, trying to hold together what seemed, to my finite mind, to be a complex lot of logical and moral inconsistencies. What does it mean when the Bible says ask and you shall receive? Why is our youth minister, Bob, so full of himself when he is supposedly full of God’s spirit? How could God torture my Mormon friend, Kay, for all of eternity when she is the nicest person I know?
By then I also had a frightening eating disorder, which I now look back on as the end result of several factors: unresolved family conflict, a genetic inclination toward anxiety and depression, and a societal context that looks down on short, sturdy physiques like the one I inherited from my Italian grandmother. My symptoms didn’t go away in response to determination, tearful confessions, spiritual devotion, or bedside pleas, and I fell into a suicidal depression.
While in high school, I had once confessed my humiliating symptoms to a youth minister who seemed particularly wise. “Pray,” he advised. He gave me a penetrating look. “Remember, if we ask anything in prayer believing, truly believing, it shall be done unto us. ‘If you have faith as a mustard seed you shall say to this mountain “move from here to there,” and it shall move’ (Matt 17:20). You need to align your will with the will of God.” He took my hands and we knelt and bowed our heads together.
I went home, hopeful.
But my will, it appears, had not been aligned with that of God, or my faith lacked strength, sincerity, or resolve. My symptoms gradually got worse, until, in the fall of my sophomore year at Wheaton, they overwhelmed me. I promised the one person in the know that I wouldn’t try to take my life, and then broke that promise. Even if doctors or counselors could make me better, what was the point? I was a failure in the eyes of God, a moral and spiritual failure, and I couldn’t stand living day to day knowing that. I plunged into absolute despair and self-loathing.
Alone, one wretched evening, I swallowed a bottle of pills. They didn’t bring the relief I wanted, just hours of vomiting and, when I failed to convince my parents and school authorities that the whole incident wasn’t a big deal, a month-long hospitalization. I was provided with excellent Christian counselors who sidestepped the question of why my faith had been inadequate to heal my bulimia and dealt instead with my family dynamics, my griefs, and my misconceptions about myself. The symptoms subsided.
As I had so many times before, I found a way to interpret my experience within the structure of my Evangelical beliefs. I left aside questioning why I hadn’t been able to come up with faith the size of a mustard seed and decided that if God gives us tools, whether they be table saws, surgeons, or psychologists, he expects us to use them rather than trying to build our houses, fix our broken bones, or heal our psyches by prayer alone. Moving mountains by prayer must mean something else. I returned to my studies.
Wheaton, as an Evangelical college, embodied a dynamic tension: the mission as an institution of higher learning to foster inquiry, and the mission as an Evangelical institution to maintain boundaries around the nature and shape of that inquiry. Some answers were Given and thus were off limits.
Take biology for example. It was fine to contemplate the mechanisms of microevolution as long as we didn’t extrapolate too far. Fortunately for the professor, who needed to teach within the boundaries of her mission, few of us did. We didn’t know that Christians in other traditions and places had accommodated their faith quite comfortably to the evidence that species emerge by natural selection. Even if we did, it might not have mattered. Our kind of Christianity was the most real kind, and our kind had pegged itself firmly to belief in a literal six-day creation.
It was fortunate also, for the biology professor that the students in my class accepted that human life becomes uniquely valuable at conception, not before, not after. (Except for one, who kept her questions to herself.) They remained in agreement even after we contemplated the writings of Malcolm Muggeridge, a Catholic who argued that God knows/envisions/ loves a human soul well before conception and that even family planning is a violation of God’s law. Muggeridge obviously was wrong, as wrong as the folks who argued that life becomes valuable gradually during gestation. Consensus kept our class discussions tame. Mostly, we stayed far away from such complexities and focused instead on mitochondria and mitosis.
Here is another example of the tension between Wheaton’s two missions. Generally at Wheaton, compassion was considered a good thing. After all, Jesus lived his ministry among the downtrodden. In keeping with his life model, the college had a program called Human Needs and Global Resources, known by the acronym HNGR (to sound like hunger), that placed students in downtrodden communities overseas. The goal of the program was to help students follow the path of Jesus, leaving home and caring for the needs of those he called “the least of these.” But the head of the program started showing excessive sympathy for the collective uprising of the downtrodden in Nicaragua and was heard spouting a little too much liberation theology, and he had to find a new job. Compassion too, had its limits.
Yet even within the walls defined by the Given, there was plenty at Wheaton to broaden as well as to prolong my faith. The theological differences of opinion that were debated in the Wheaton community might sound trivial to an outsider, but to me they would prove vital. For example, my New Testament class included both pre- and postmillennialists. Let me explain.
Evangelicals believe in something called “the Rapture,” a miraculous event in which all the living Christians (of our type) will be taken up to heaven. At Wheaton, I learned that some Evangelical theologians think this would happen before the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth, while some think it will happen after. My upbringing had tolerated no such diversity: we were in the pre- camp. Also, there were scattered Lutherans and Presbyterians on campus, even the occasional Catholic. I discovered that my favorite writer, C.S. Lewis, was Anglican. Yet, oddly, they all seemed to be real Christians, even the ones who believed in infant baptism, an abomination to my spiritual guides, who held that baptism must be a mature and voluntary decision.
In these small ways, the sheltering walls of faith at Wheaton College were farther apart than those I had grown up in. They were less confining, and yet, at the same time, they were close and familiar enough to be secure. It was this combination, I think, that ultimately encouraged my path of inquiry. Thanks to my professors and classmates and many hours of animated discussion, I came to accept that some differences in doctrine or interpretation of the Bible were reasonable, in spite of what I had been taught. I felt safe acknowledging these differences because they occurred within a community of devoted believers, between people whose faith I could not deny. I discovered, in the process of wrestling with these small differences, how good it can feel to ask and resolve questions rather than struggling to suppress them.
And so, resting in the confidence that all truth is God’s truth, I kept asking. Not that I always got the answers I was looking for, nor answers that were acceptable to my peers, or even many satisfying answers at all. Instead of getting smaller, my list of tough questions seemed to grow:
If God is good, and he made nature, why does nature so often reward strength rather than goodness?
Why do so many people, including children, suffer excruciating pain, even pain unto death?
Does it really make sense to say that Adam and Eve brought death into the world?
Why do so many scientists think the world wasn’t made six to ten thousand years ago like my biblical genealogies suggest?
Why does the violence in the Bible still bother me, after I’ve had it explained so many times?
How does blood atonement (salvation through the death of Jesus) work?
All of those Buddhists and Hindus on the other side of the world who are going to suffer eternally: if God decided they would be born there, how is their damnation fair?
How can heaven be perfectly joyous if it co-exists with hell?
If each Christian has the spirit of God dwelling in him or her, how come Christians are wrong so often?
Are Christians really better than other people?
Would the world truly fall into violent anarchy if the Christians weren’t here as “a light shining in the darkness?”
How did we come to believe all that we do, anyway? Where did the Bible come from?
Who decided what got included, and why?
Why do I feel like I’m lying to myself when I try to make all the pieces fit together?
After Wheaton, I moved on to graduate school in Iowa to study counseling psychology. There I lived in an ecumenical Christian community run by Lutheran Campus Ministries, and the space within the walls of faith grew larger still. I hoped that I had found my spiritual resting place.
Indeed, worship as a part of that community felt deep and beautiful, full of humble gratitude for the gifts of life and eternal life, rooted in the compassion and love of Jesus and steeped in divine mystery. And yet, sometimes I couldn’t help applying the methods of inquiry I was being taught: logic, analysis, and empirical research, to questions that threatened the delicate balance of that beauty. Even as I sang praises to the creator, I was learning that creation science was neither science nor faith, but rather a peculiar amalgam that relied on one set of rules at one time and another set when those became impossible. Even as I turned to the Bible for moral guidance, I was discovering that some forms of moral, or immoral, behavior are caused by biochemistry or neurological damage rather than free will.
The process didn’t stop when I finally left Iowa for Washington, where I would continue my clinical and research training. Attending church became difficult. I found many details of Evangelical theology increasingly difficult to justify, and I struggled to sit through sermons, frustrated by faulty logic and simplistic answers. For a while, I dealt with this by avoiding dogma. I turned to older traditions, Catholic and Anglican, in which the Sunday focus is not on teaching but on worship, expressed through ancient music and ritual. In this way, I was able, for a time, to split off my critical rational training from the part of me that yearned for a spiritual center. I built my own walls around my faith. But walls hadn’t worked when other people built them, and they didn’t work when I built them either. In spite of myself, I kept tunneling under and out, carrying secret, scary, confusing discoveries back in with me until, finally, I got to a place where I stood and looked back, and the walls looked to me like a prison instead of a sanctuary.
I had come to the place where I now live. It is a place of freedom, the freedom to accept the evidence of my senses and my mind. It is difficult to describe the peace that comes with giving yourself permission to know what you know: to have hard, complicated realities staring at you and to be able to raise your head and look back at them with a steady gaze, scared maybe, grieved perhaps, but straight on and unwavering.
I spent years contorting myself as an advocate for my beliefs, finding complex arguments to explain away the fossil record, the suffering of innocents, the capricious favoritism of my God, the logical inconsistencies of scripture, and the aberrant behavior of my fellow believers. And, rather like your average conspiracy theorist, when I went into my mental exercises with an a priori conclusion, I could make the pieces fit.
But when, finally, exhausted from the strain, I untangled myself, sat back and looked at those pieces all together, there weren’t many conclusions that made much sense. I no longer had clean answers about what was true, but my old ones clearly contradicted both morality and reason. The only hope I had of pursuing goodness and truth was to let those answers go.
At times, when you look at an entire body of evidence, when you look at it all together, some possibilities are pretty easy to rule out. You may not know exactly what is real, but you can be confident that some things are not. So it is with Evangelical teachings. When one examines the evidence related to Evangelical beliefs—the content and history of the Bible, the structure of nature’s design, the character of the Evangelical God, the implications of prayer and miracles, the concepts original and universal sin, the mechanism of salvation by blood atonement, the idea of eternal reward and punishment, the behavior of believers—when one examines all of these together through a lens of empiricism and logic, the composite suggests some kind of reality that is very different from the ideas that dominated my thinking for so long.
Many books depict the Evangelical experience as a spiritual journey, a journey from darkness to the light of salvation. But few describe a path that leads people out of traditional faith to another place and another source of light. When ex-believers write, they usually write about the things that do make sense to them, not about the contradictions they have left behind. Rare exceptions include: Losing Faith in Faith by Daniel Barker and Annie L. Gaylor, Farewell to God by Charles Templeton, and The Event Horizon Rider by Brian Elroy McKinley. Edward Babinski’s book, Leaving the Fold, contains testimonials by ex-fundamentalists who have found their way to other forms of thinking.
Equally rare are Christian scholars like Don Cupitt and John Shelby Spong, who, from within the faith, unflinchingly examine every dogma as a possible source of idolatry, expose each to the light of reason and compassion, and then ask what core of transcendence remains. To these voices in the wilderness, I add my own, not as an ex-minister or scholar, but as an ordinary ex-Evangelical who thought too much about questions that wouldn’t go away.
Is it possible to make a case for traditional creeds in general or Evangelical orthodoxy in particular? Can someone embedded in such a perspective justify the contradictions inherent in his or her faith? The answer to these questions is an unqualified yes. But they are not the right questions to ask, if what we’re after is truth.
Instead, we must ask this: when no sacred assumption is untouchable, when we cherish honest inquiry more than any set of handed-down answers, when we follow the questions where they may lead, what looks to be real? What are the most likely conclusions, based on the whole stack of messy evidence? What are our best, wisest, most honest judgments, knowing they will never be beyond a shadow of a doubt, if we trust that all truth really is God’s truth?
Like this chapter? The book is available at www.Lulu.com/content/220355 ; or more musings on life, society, and Christianity at www.spaces.msn.com/awaypoint/.
* Unless otherwise specified, all biblical quotes in this book are from the New International Version. Occasionally a verse is quoted from the King James Version for the sake of familiarity or poetic flow. In such cases, the letters KJV follow the reference.
*Liberation theology is a movement that arose in Latin America in the mid twentieth century. Members of the clergy came to believe that it was blasphemous and contrary to the ministry of Jesus to focus on men’s souls without focusing as well on their hunger, illness and need. This movement aligned the clergy with the politics of social reform.