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.