Spoilers »« The deacon’s backstory

The rest of the [back]story

Like I said yesterday, I decided in my mid-teens that I was going to follow God no matter what men said about Him, and that more than anything else led to my eventual rejection of Christianity. When you try to go beyond what men say about God, to the reality behind the words, you discover that the words are all there is to the reality. Superstition and subjective feelings reinforce the words, but when it comes down to the substance of the faith, it’s just words.

Let’s see, where was I? My wife and I left the Church of Christ (or rather, were effectively driven out), and began attending more mainstream conservative evangelical churches. I was very active in church life, mostly in the teaching and Bible study areas. We moved around some due to my job, but didn’t do much church-hopping apart from that. Eventually we ended up in an Evangelical Free Church, whose pastor was somewhat of an intellectual, so I was very happy there.

I forget the exact circumstances, but at one point I shared with him a post I had made on the soc.religion.christian newsgroup, on the subject of homosexuality and the Old Testament. I was defending the view that the Old Testament really had no tolerance for homosexuality (a position I still hold, though with very different implications), and he was very impressed. Shortly thereafter he nominated me for a position as deacon within the church, and I was confirmed by congregational election shortly thereafter. Yes, I really am a bona fide, duly elected deacon! (I still find that a bit surprising.)

But all was not rosy in the church. Though my wife was more exposed to it than I was, there was a serious problem in the church with factions and politics. (And such nice people too!). My wife became restless, and was looking for something more. Meanwhile, I was also experiencing some reservations. We still believed in baptism for the remission of sins, based on the Bible, and the Free Church wasn’t preaching that. And then there was the matter of the elders.

As I became familiar with the position I had been elected to, it dawned on me that our church organization wasn’t quite Biblical. The functions and duties I exercised as deacon were actually closer to what I thought the New Testament ascribed to the elders. The church trustees, meanwhile, were exercising functions that the New Testament ascribed to deacons. I went to the pastor and shared my findings, and he agreed: we ought to be calling the deacons “elders” and the trustees “deacons.”

The Free Church, however, is a congregational church, which means the pastor can only advise. Any changes must be approved by a general assembly. And to make a long story short, they wouldn’t even think of it. Other Free Churches might think we were implying that they were doing it wrong. What the Bible said was of no importance.

That was kind of a shock for me. I believed the Bible was the Word of God, and so did they, at least in theory. When it came to actually treating it as authoritative, though, it turns out they didn’t really believe after all. It’s a pattern I’ve seen over and over again: what people claim to believe, and what people will vigorously defend as their belief, turns out to have little or nothing to what they actually believe in practice. Yet another reason for me to decide that my own faith had to be based on God alone, regardless of what men said about Him.

We stayed in the church for quite some time, despite growing dissatisfaction there. Ironically, though I felt like their attitude was a betrayal of Christ, I was becoming the very thing I despised, professing one faith in church while secretly believing something very different.

Then one day my wife brought me a book about an evangelical pastor named Peter Gillquist, a former Campus Crusade staffer who had converted, along with a large portion of his congregation, to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I read the book in one big gulp, and was stunned. Here at last was the God I had been looking for: one not constantly molded and pimped to suit the latest vogue, a God Who lay at the core of a vast, rich, historical tradition. Finally I understood why Bible-based Christianity was so fickle and unreliable—it didn’t have Apostolic Tradition to guide it!

It was only a few weeks later that my wife and I were baptized (third time’s the charm, eh?) into a lovely little Russian Orthodox church, where I was probably the happiest I ever was as a Christian.

I have a lot of pleasant memories of the Orthodox Church. I loved the liturgy and the traditions and the pervasive ethnic Russian culture. The people were warm and accepting, and somehow lacking in that underlying spiritual competition I’d always felt in evangelical settings, and hadn’t noticed until it wasn’t there. It really felt like home. They even practiced baptism for the remission of sins! Woot!

We were happy Orthodox Christians for quite a while—well, I was. My wife was still restless, in part because the traditional Orthodox role for women wasn’t entirely a comfortable fit for her. But my downfall, once again, was my faith and my mind.

I was very active in the church, and became a cantor—before the liturgy, I would stand in one corner and chant the Psalms in a kind of free-style, a capella solo. I don’t know if I was any good at it, but people seemed to appreciate it. I also got involved in Bible studies with the priest and his deacon (deacons are ordained clergy in the Orthodox Church), and wanted to pursue my studies in theology. Full-time seminary wasn’t a good option at the time, financially, so I signed up for a theology-by-extension program. This was an officially recognized program in the church, and had I finished, I likely would have been ordained a deacon, and perhaps, eventually, a priest.

That course was my downfall. I’d noticed that Orthodoxy was, well, more mature than Protestant Christianity in a lot of ways. They didn’t have some of the quirky hang-ups that Protestants sometimes do, like superstitious fear of alcohol in any form. It was as if the religion, having rubbed shoulders with the world for 2,000 years, had rubbed off a lot of the rough edges and sharp corners that still plague the Protestants.

What I wasn’t expecting, though, was that one of these rough edges would be faith in the Bible as the Word of God. I could accept that God had somehow, miraculously, preserved the True Christian Faith in the form of the Orthodox Church, and that these were the people who, by God’s grace, had maintained the original, pure, authoritative understanding of what the Bible really meant.

In my seminary course, though, I discovered that the Orthodox theologians are really rather liberal in their view of the Bible. One of my textbooks—one of my textbooks, in an officially-sanction program of study leading to ordination—was teaching that the early Old Testament narratives weren’t historically true at all. They were just a patriotic assembly of local legends, knit together to lend a coherent narrative designed to establish the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty. David had conquered a loose-knit confederation of independent tribes, and all that stuff about Abraham and Moses and Pharoah and so one was just a bit of propaganda to get people to think of themselves as a common kingdom (with David as the divinely anointed king, of course).

I was absolutely shattered. This was—well, just say it, this was apostasy. But worse than that, it was uncontroversial. The priests were teaching that men more or less just invented the Bible to suit political expedience, and nobody was even bothered by that. I thought I had tested my faith before. I thought I had had doubts before. But for the first time in my life, I really and truly wondered whether Christianity was really true.

My one sure anchor was the Resurrection. I had had doubts about everything else, but I always thought that the disciples couldn’t possibly have faked their conviction that Jesus had really risen from the dead. This time, though, I dared to ask the question, “What does ‘really risen’ really mean, to a Christian?” To sincerely ask the question is to know the answer. Christians believe that God “really” speaks to them, and that Jesus “really” comes into their hearts. They believe in all kinds of things that, to them, are “really real” regardless of any mere mundane materialistic reality.

I became an atheist, in my early 40′s, after decades of unquestioning faith in Christ. For the first few years, I was a bitter and angry atheist, and spent a lot of time on the alt.atheism newsgroup, lashing out at the self-appointed evangelists who could be counted on to show up regularly to bait the heathen. One of them, who called himself Pastor Frank, told me I still believed in God, only my God was reality. I thought that was a great idea, and I happened to know that the Greek word for “reality” (and/or “truth”) was a lot like the name “Alethea,” so I officially adopted Alethea as my new God, and then proceeded to point out all the ways my God was superior to his. I don’t know if he ever regretted his remark (he wasn’t really the penitant kind), but he sure didn’t like what I had to say.

And that’s my backstory. Do you have one you’d like to share? Feel free to leave it in the comments. It would be interesting to get to know some of you.

 

Comments

  1. mikespeir says

    I actually have a similar write-up about my own deconversion, but it’s a little long. I did enjoy reading yours, though.

  2. Thorne says

    My own story is far less dramatic. I was raised Catholic, spent 13 years in Catholic schools (including Kindergarten.) Except for a few very brief (hours, not days) of inspiration following visits by visiting missionaries or something I don’t think I ever really believed any of the stuff they were telling us.

    In high school I started asking questions, the kinds of questions the priests and the nuns didn’t want to answer. I was told either that they were silly questions and to behave myself, or that I had to have faith. But when I asked those same kinds of questions in science classes, I got answers!

    So I drifted away, never feeling any need for any kind of spiritual help. I didn’t believe in ghosts, or alien invaders, or leprechauns, or gods.

    It’s only in the last five to ten years that I’ve become aware of the large atheist communities around the webs, and of the books and blogs written by atheists which have clarified my thinking about theology. I now unabashedly proclaim my atheism when asked, though I’m not the kind to speak out in public, about this or anything else. I’m comfortable in my non-belief, and no longer afraid of saying so.

  3. B. Andrew says

    Thanks for the [back]story Deacon. Quite interesting.

    I’ve known a couple of very bright people, some still in and others now non-believers, who converted to Greek Orthodox. I don’t know enough about Greek Orthodoxy to understand the attraction but there does seem to be a pattern of some commonality there.

    My own, briefly, backstory: Parents raised in marginally Christian homes who wanted more for their children, of which I am the oldest. In speaking with pastors about my baptism, they felt the best fit in the large Lutheran body that, while considered mainline, still takes the Bible literally.

    The majority of my education is within that church’s schools and colleges. I truly believed in its doctrines and organization from Christ’s resurrection on down. A friend recently regaled me with a recount of my claiming the Christian moral argument was the only thing standing between us and having sex with models. I also took seriously questions like whether Michael W. Smith had sold out by joining the pop music scene. While in retrospect I recognize there was a lot of adult organizational drama going on, this largely sailed past me with no effect.

    I was also my church’s golden boy, even if that’s something I’m not proud of now. Considering a future in pastoral or other church work, I found I vastly enjoyed and excelled at micro-economics as compared to introductory Biblical Greek.

    At 24, remembering a discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy in a business ethics course, I picked up a copy of “The Fountainhead” and followed it by reading “Atlas Shrugged”. Particularly “Atlas Shrugged” contains a counter-apologetic to Christianity. I don’t consider my self an objectivist, as those who subscribe to Rand’s philosophy are referred, it did still accelerate a reevaluation of my Christian faith. And my disbelief arose out of a less formed version of evaluating the necessity of a crucifixion – It’s necessary for God to sacrifice Himself to remove sin, which He at least assisted in creating, so that He can be glorified forever. And what about children?

    It was all over relatively quickly then. And apparently I was biding my time waiting for the widespread adoption of the internet to discover people who disbelieved like I do and think and write about these important matters.

    Thank you for hosting.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I’ve known a couple of very bright people, some still in and others now non-believers, who converted to Greek Orthodox. I don’t know enough about Greek Orthodoxy to understand the attraction but there does seem to be a pattern of some commonality there.

      I think the main attraction is the availability of something other than the Bible for determining what The Truth is supposed to be. Sola scriptura is an abysmal failure because ultimately it boils down to the papacy of the believer: everyone’s own personal personal interpretation of the Bible is infallible, to them. Spend enough time sincerely seeking the truth, and you’re very likely to realize that there’s no objective way to measure whose interpretation is more correct. Especially as regards the essentials of the faith. Every man believes whatever is right in his own eyes, and there’s nothing Protestantism can do about it.

      Ultimately, Orthodoxy ends up having the same problem, just with fewer men who are allowed to contribute to the official interpretation of the Apostolic Tradition, which includes but is not limited to the Bible. In the absence of an actual real-world God, dogma is just one man’s word against another’s.

  4. Mr.Kosta says

    Well, what can I say? I’m from Spain, a country that, although has a strong Catholic tradition (and it’s share of Catholic wingnuts), has also a great number of non-believers, so atheism doesn’t really rise any eyebrows here.

    Although my parents are both agnostic, I went to a private (that is, Catholic) school. As a little child I was a precocious and very avid reader, and I loved science and mythology books. I remember being fascinated by topics such as dinosaurs, the origin of the Earth, and Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

    So you can understand how puzzled I was when in my (compulsory) religion classes I was told that God created the Earth in six days, the story of the Flood, or that the Christian god was definitely true while all other gods were, for some obscure reason, false. There were a lot of things that, even when I was a child, didn’t make sense to me, for example, if humans evolved from apes, how come Adam was made from clay? Or if god was omnipresent and omniscient, then why do we have to pray, if he alreade knows what we want? And how did Noah manage to get individuals of thousands of species aboard the Ark?

    So yeah, I didn’t know the term when I was in elementary school, but I was an atheist back then.

  5. redpanda says

    How do the more ‘mature’ religions like Catholicism and Orthodoxy deal with the concept of original sin? The way I always see protestants explain it, without Eden there’d be no need for redemption, so it must to be true or their whole theology falls apart.

    If we just accept death and competition and so forth as a natural part of the universe, then what is sin?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      There’s two answers to that. One is that Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have different views on original sin: Catholics are the source of the Protestant concept original sin as innate guilt, whereas the Orthodox see original sin as creating a kind of weakened and corrupted condition both in human nature and in creation as a whole. Thus, not guilt per se, but a predisposition to commit sins, resulting in a personal guilt rather than an inherited one.

      The second answer is that such doctrinal issues are less prominent in Orthodoxy because most people who are Orthodox got it from their parents rather than being converts. Such things are therefore basically taken for granted as non-controversial and unremarkable. The main emphasis is on practice more than theory. Or at least, that’s how the Orthodox are; I can’t speak for Catholics.

  6. Donovan of NH says

    I was raised Irish Catholic in New England. Irish Catholic specifically, as my great grandfather had been officially denounced by the French Catholic church and told he was Irish Catholic, or at least his beastly demon spawn of sons were. But it was more of an “I don’t care what you believe, you’re Catholic” sort of family.

    I went to Catholic school, and that was probably my undoing. The nuns were very insistent on critical thinking and dedication to the truth. My 4th grade science teacher, an Irish nun who apparently trained with Bruce Lee in the art of yardstick-swords, was adamant that if science and the Bible conflicted, only an idiot would go with the Bible. This was a nun! It didn’t surprise me at the time, but it constantly pops into my head when watching the news. According to the nuns, God made the world, not the Bible, so believe what the world says, not what the book says. I guess I took the critical thought further than they wished.

    I just sort of faded away from belief in my early teens, and at fifteen I knew I had no more faith. I only remember I was 15 because it was the summer I spent with my uncle and one of my friends in his neighborhood asked me to church. I turned down her offer and said I really didn’t believe in God anymore. She freaked out and began to pray over me, she tried to counsel me, she skipped out on church and spent all day trying to tell me Satan had stolen my soul. While I liked her, she was cute, and we got along great (sort of a 15 year old crush), I was so annoyed with her Jesus pressure all I could think of was how much I wish she would leave. I’ve honestly never been attracted to religious girls since. It’s like it puts a hideous mask on them. Palin and Bachmann both just have that… …something that makes them ugly.

    At first, I just wanted to go along to get along. I thought churches were a force for good, just filled with well intentioned but wrong headed people. But then I joined the US Navy and tried to register as an Atheist. They told me they couldn’t put that on my dog tags and made me “No Rel Pref” instead. I was then told that there were no atheists in foxholes and was met with anger when I said, “Great, there’re no sailors in foxholes, either.” I then had to recite the pledge word for word and when I tried to leave out the “under God” part, I was chastised and made an example of. This didn’t instantly turn me against religion, but I’d say it was the turning point.

    When I started college, I became more and more engaged on campus. I flourished in the university setting and for the first time felt I was on home turf. In classes, I lashed out viciously at foolish ideas while at the same time asserting that I respected the person (not always true, but no sense making it personal). To my surprise, my fellow students who seconds before were champions of their gods backed down like scolded puppies, and still wanted to be friends afterwards. I am now drunk on the power of reason and on my way to graduate school. Mwa-ha-ha!

    Since then, the fanatical denial of reality and the violent response of the religious to any hint they could be wrong has driven me to be more and more outspoken. The religious should learn from opossums: when rationalists are about, play dead.

    I do have religious friends and we get along fine on a “let’s not discuss religion” basis. My wife is an atheist, though, and so is my best friend, so I’m lucky there. We aim to raise our daughter as a freethinker and promise to respect her decision when she’s an adult to be an atheist or a theist (I hope it’s a good one, or I hope I can live up to that promise). But the rest of my family is still the nominal Catholic and sees my atheism as an abandonment of familial duty, almost like changing my name. Still, they support me and respect my wishes concerning my daughter. Really, so far as my family is concerned, in addition to fighting over the best way to cook the holiday turkey, dress the tree, shovel snow, or how to best hate the Yankees, we now also fight over religion. It’s also forgotten as quickly as the turkey fight and treated with the same importance.

  7. CHARLES says

    Thank you for this. Without irony i can say it is very enlightening.

    And, if I may be excused the pun, you are a sort of “Recantor”

  8. Chrish says

    Great Story! And I truly do love the way you think, it’s what keeps me coming back here.
    I won’t go into my lengthy de-conversion story here, as I have typed it out in full on other FTBs’. But I will state again that sex, drugs and rock-n-roll saved me from a life of concern about Hell, God, and two faced Christians.

    I would like to mention that all of the infighting and power struggles in the Baptist church of my youth, did have a strong hand in my disillusionment with God.
    My Mother did a lot of the accounting for our church, so I was privy to inside info that I probably shouldn’t have been.

    Knowledge of pastor after pastor the church disposed of because a few people on the board didn’t like how they were doing things. How could there be so much dissent and hate between people of God? Baby sitting for the current pastors kids and finding his VHS porn collection tucked in the back of the family and kids movies.

    All of these events led to the eventual demise of my Christian beliefs, but as I stated before, Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll sealed the deal.

  9. Sheila says

    My story is similar to part of yours; as I was raised in the Church of Christ, which I attended until my early 40′s. I even graduated from a COC university (ugh).

    Eventually, during my 30′s, I began reading a lot of science-based books, and realized that the earth could not be only 6000 years old, no matter what the creation-apologists I was raised by said.

    And for me, that was it; because COC teaches that the Bible is literal truth, and if the Creation story was a myth, then that was enough to toss the entire book out the window. It took a few more years for me to totally break away, but once I realized I was sitting in Bible Class rolling my eyes, I knew it was time to go.

    I am still in my 40′s and still an ‘angry atheist’ in many ways, I love reading blogs and reading arguments shooting down what I believed for most of my life. I can’t imagine being so ignorant for so many years, and it embarrasses me, frankly. However, I have made a 180 in my world and political views, and I think I am a better person now.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  10. ah58 says

    Ha! I remember Pastor Frank. He had a very strange version of Xianity. It was just Jesus and the New Testament. The Old Testament was the “Jewish Bible”. I repeatedly asked him if Jesus was Jewish and who the “Father” was that Jesus kept mentioning was. Frank would always just ignore the question.

    There were quite a few questions that Frank refused to answer. I began to just post them at the end of every response I wrote to him.

  11. Brian M says

    I was raised outside a church by parents who were simply…disinterested….they were not actively hostile to Christianity but we never went to church as a family. We were sent to a Nazarene summer school along with neighbors, but it never really took.

    During high school and early university, I did become somewhat fundamentalist (independent Baptist and Assembly of God), but, for whatever reason, it never took hold that deeply. Part of it may be simple laziness…reading and memorizing Bible verses is boring and grueling.

    Late in adulthood, as the internet bloomed, I became more of an angry atheist. Outright hostile to religion. Which is where I am today.

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