The Wall of Discomfort


In my previous posting, I wrote something that made me realize more clearly the issues that have made me so conflicted about religion ever since I renewed my interest in religion some 18 years ago at the age of 28. In that posting, I wrote

It was this belief in reason, science, and a natural laws that had led me to reject religion in the first place when I was 16 years old; I wasn't about to come around full circle and accept beliefs in miracles, virgin births, and resurrections now, after all this time.
When I was 16, I told my parents that I had become an atheist. This was a difficult decision for me to make, and it had been preceded by a period of questioning. I had one conversation that I recall with a girl a little older than me in the church youth group to whom I expressed my doubts, and whose answers to my questions I found unsatisfying. I can recall one time attending some kind of religious event on the other side of town with my brother and then feeling so frustrated that I just left without telling anyone, walking three miles or so home, by myself, in the dark. This was all a prelude to my break with Christianity.

When I made the decision and told my parents about it, they did not take it well. My mother forced me to go to church. It was a fundamentalist church, an independent Christian church that was part of the Restoration Movement tradition that believed in congregational autonomy and baptism by immersion only for those old enough to decide to be baptized. I had made that decision myself in the sixth grade. As a prelude to baptism, I had attended a series of special Sunday School classes with other people about my age, where we learned about what it meant to be a baptized member of the Body of Christ. When I then stood before the congregation one Sunday morning and responded to the minister's question of whether I would accept Jesus as my personal savior, I was so moved by what was taking place that I was visibly shaking. I know that my shaking was visible because I was embarrassed later when a schoolmate who attended the same church told me he could see my shaking from his pew several rows behind me. (It's funny, but I don't really remember the baptism part of the ceremony at all.)

And there I was, some five years later, telling my parents I was an atheist. But even though 11 was old enough to make a decision to be a Christian, 16 was apparently too young to make a decision to be an atheist, so off to church I was forced to go. Often, though, we were late getting to church, and we only managed to make it to Sunday school (which, in retrospect, I guess must have come after the main service.) That was fortunate for me; adult Sunday School was separate from the ones the children attended, so while Sunday School was taking place I was able to slip out and walk around the streets of the city, alone in my suit (ah, those suits--I hated dressing up for church, even when I was a young believer!), and returned in time to meet up with my parents. I don't know if my parents ever found out that I did that, but if they did, they never said.

The objections that I had to the religion I was brought up in were, in my eyes, a rejection of all religion. This was almost certainly a byproduct of the all-or-nothing theology that I was taught to believe. Either the Bible was all true and inerrant, I was told, or it was all false. The only legitimate Christianity, I was taught, was a conservative Christianity that valued the Bible as the completely true Word of God. There was no picking and choosing allowed. You either believed it all, or rejected it entirely.

There were four main objections that I as a 16-year-old had with the religion I was brought up in.

The first one was scientific and rational. I was interested in science, I had read books about science since being a small child, I and took science classes in school and believed in the scientific method. I could not, for example, reconcile my belief in evolution with the book of Genesis. More generally, I believed in a world that obeyed certain laws of science, and I could not reconcile this with a belief in miracles.

The second objection was soteriological. I could not believe in the doctrine of hell. I had a brother who was an atheist at the time; was I supposed to believe that he would endure an eternity of torment simply because of the beliefs he held during his life? Was I to believe that people who never even heard of Jesus were condemned to hell? God was supposed to be all-loving, and all-forgiving. I was taught that God would forgive any sin, no matter how heinous--even murderers and other assorted ruffians could have the slate wiped clean, the catch being that the sinner just had to accept Jesus as his or her savior. That was a big catch, of course, but the idea that it was even possible for God to forgive anyone no matter what they did struck a chord with me. Forgiveness and universal love were to me the highest virtues, which Christians were supposed to emulate (because, after all, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies), and I found these virtues inspirational. Yet, on the one hand, God was said to have implemented this very forgiveness in the most extreme cases to those who satisfied the belief test; on the other hand, for those who didn't have the right belief, God was said to have imposed a terrible and eternal suffering on people who committed the slightest offense. The latter was justified by Christian apologists as merely Divine justice, but it was not justice; it was punishment that was all out of proportion for the offense, and, worst still, it stood in stark contrast both with God's own willingness to forgive more serious crimes and the universal forgiveness that Christians were taught to carry out. To this day, I still am amazed that there are large numbers of Christians out there who can believe this stuff.

The third objection was that of theodicy. It is a common complaint, of course, as to how an omnipotent God could allow evil to happen in the world.

The fourth objection was empirical. This actually goes hand in hand with the scientific objection that I listed above. I believed at the time that the existence of God should be subject to the same scientific principles that the phenomena that we sense in the world around us are. Since the existence of God was unprovable by empirical means, and because I believed that the burden of proof lay on those who would prove God's existence, I therefore rejected the idea of God.

I basically accept the validity of three of those four objections today, thirty years later. It was only the last of those that I later changed my mind about, when I became interested in religion as an adult, and it was this change that allowed me to rekindle a belief in God. I came to the conclusion that God, as an infinite being who sustains the world, makes philosophical sense as a deeper level of reality. That isn't to say that I don't have doubts about the existence of God, but it does mean that I don't believe that a Divine reality requires any kind of empirical proof. In fact, I have come, at least to some extent, to accept some variant of the "No watch without a watchmaker" argument for God's existence. I believe that a finite (or at least in some sense limited) universe requires an infinite reality to sustain it.

The question, however, is what kind of God this is that I believe in. And that is where those other three objections from my youth come into play. The first and the third objections--the rationality of the world and the problem of theodicy--were resolved quite easily once I discovered process theology and the panentheistic conception of God. Once you come to believe that God is not omnipotent, then miracles can no longer possibly be a part of your theology; and a non-omnipotent God can certainly not be blamed for the existence of evil in the world. This opened up a world of possibilities for me. As for the second of those three remaining objections, the existence of hell can be resolved simply by realizing that the traditional, orthodox Christian conception of atonement and hell is not the only way of viewing things. One can be a universalist who believes that everyone eventually attains salvation; one can believe that there is no afterlife at all; one can be an agnostic on the question of an afterlife and instead focus one's religion on one's relationship with God in this life. There are many possibilities. The point is that one need not believe in eternal torment for nonbelievers to believe in God. In and of itself, this was liberating, because I realized how much more mature my faith could be if it wasn't all about going to heaven.

Last, but not least, I came to view religious scriptures as not requiring an all-or-nothing approach. I realized that it was possible to view scriptures not as being the literal Word of God, but as human records of people's attempts at understanding God. What a form of liberation it was to realize that scriptures can be flawed! With that, it then became clear to me that many different religions might actually be simply different paths to God. At the same time, I realized that, of all the world's religious traditions, I was naturally drawn to Christianity because it was the religion I was the most comfortable with--it is what I was brought up in, it is the prevailing religion of our culture, and many of its values deeply inspired me as a young person.

But what has been scary about all of this for me is that those three objections from my teenage rejection of Christianity that I still believe to be valid continue to form a wall of discomfort whenever I come in contact with Christianity. The rejection of those beliefs that I found abhorrent or unacceptable still sits strongly within me. I do not want to be religious at the cost of my rational self. I do not want to give up my mind in order to please my soul. The aversion to certain aspects of Christian orthodoxy is so strong within me that it has kept me from exploring Christianity for most of my adult life. The reasons why I gave up on Christianity at age 16 were too important, and too integrated into what matters to me, to go back on now. I cannot and will not do that.

I think it only really began to sink in as I have read the works of people like Spong and Borg that it really is possible to be a rational, thinking Christian, and that there are many people out there who have similar views. It made it possible for me to dip a toe into the waters. The wall of discomfort still remains, and it is the reason why I am still treading the waters of Christianity very slowly.


John Shuck said...

When I read your story, I said to myself that I could have written the same thing although not as eloquently. Our experiences, struggles with our faith tradition (and ages) are very similar. I think your story is one that many share. Would you mind if pointed out "A Blog of Mystical Searches" on one of my posts? The reason is that the autobiographical way your write may resonate with others' journeys.
Thanks for your words!
John Shuck

Mystical Seeker said...

John, I left a comment in your blog thanking you for your kind words. You are welcome to point my blog out in one of your posts if you wish.

Theresa Frasch said...

Thank you for your comments on my blog. I look forward to reading more of yours.

CT said...

I'm guessing there are MILLIONS of us. People with religious belief who grew up with fundamentalist teaching and gradually realised that we don't have to accept every teaching or every biblical story.
Its not easy to do though when you've had 10 or 20 year attending church during your formative years. Some people feel guilty doing that - especially those with parents who endorsed the fundamentalist teaching.

It takes a lot of unlearning and rediscovering.
Plus the more acceptable liberal progressive version doesnt provide answers like the old fundo approach does - and this means you have to be more committed to follow it through. And be ready to come to a place with few answers and many questions.