What’s so great about being an ex-Christian? Intellectual integrity.September 1, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
While I’m slowly recovering from this flu or whatever it is that has me knocked down and dragged out, I thought it might be refreshing to spend some time thinking about the various ways my life has improved since I abandoned the myths and superstitions of the Christian faith. Today’s post will zero in on just one of those improvements, which, for want of a better term, I’ve labeled “intellectual integrity.”
Given my particular (some might say peculiar) personality type, this is probably the most significant and substantial way in which my post-Christian life is an improvement over my days of faith. For years as a Christian, in fact for decades, I was aware that the teachings of the Bible and of the historic traditions of the Church didn’t quite jibe with the facts as we experience them in the real world. It made me uncomfortable because even in the midst of all my faith, I had an inkling that truth ought to be more consistent with itself than that.
For example, in my early teenaged years, in the last dying gasps of the Jesus Freak movement of the 60’s, I became involved for the first time with some people who were real evangelical types. I started attending Bible studies with a close friend who was already an evangelical, and I heard testimony after testimony about how they’d prayed to accept Jesus and how he had come into their hearts and flooded them with his divine grace, power, and forgiveness. Eventually, I also felt “convicted” of my sins, and one night, in my bedroom, alone, I prayed The Sinner’s Prayer, hoping that Jesus would come into my heart too.
Confused, I tried again a couple nights later. Crickets chirped, but from Jesus, zip. The following night I gave it one last try, pouring all the sincerity and contrition and submission I could muster into my confession and prayer. But I might as well have been calling out to Little Bo Peep. So I sat and I thought and I wondered, and eventually I came to the conclusion that Jesus must have come into my heart the first time I prayed, and was waiting for me to do something about it.
It seemed to sound right, or at least to feel right. After all, what right did I, a mere lowly sinner, have to expect God the Son to come down and dazzle me with some kind of spiritual light show? Foreshadowing my whole Christian experience, my “salvation” consistent of me believing what I was told, trying it out, having it fail, and then “learning a valuable spiritual lesson” that taught me humility, obedience, and, well, gullibility. My first “lesson” was the self-taught rationalization that we must “experience” God by submitting our lives to obedience to His will, thus allowing Him to work through us.
The trouble with this approach is that, practically speaking, it involves making up for God’s absence by doing the things He ought to be doing, and isn’t. Sure, it’s a great way to see “God’s will” become real, since real people are the ones doing the actual work, but it doesn’t involve any particular necessity that God be involved in the process, or even that He necessarily exist. Part of my mind was aware that I was making God a sock puppet, a prophet who “spoke” only when I wiggled my fingers inside the sock. I rationalized this charade by telling myself that God was really the one Who was “leading” my fingers to do the wiggling, but still, part of me felt like the truth ought not to be this way.
Then there was the world. I knew in my Christian heart that God was a loving, sovereign God Whose will wisely and inexorably directs all things to His greater glory, but when I looked at real life, I had to admit, I was giving the phrase “mysterious ways” a bit more exercise than was probably healthy. Sure, my faith in God endowed every trivial circumstance with a deep and awesome sense of purpose, but that sense of purpose was somewhat spoiled by the impenetrable confusion and apparent randomness that this “purpose” continually betrayed.
I believed in the purpose, I felt like this purpose gave meaning and value to my life, but most of the time I had absolutely no idea what this so-called purpose was supposed to be. And even when I did think I knew what God’s purpose was, so that things finally started making sense and falling together, it turned out more often than not that my understanding was mistaken, or at least the purpose failed to consistently follow the course I thought I had perceived in its wanderings. Purpose, in practice, offered very little to distinguish it from ordinary, haphazard circumstance. And why would that be?
Then there was theology. Shortly after my marriage, my wife and I got involved with the Church of Christ movement, which teaches that the Bible is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. That appealed to us at the time, because we were put off by the kind of wishy-washy, this-is-what-I-believe brand of evangelicalism that basically turned Christianity into whatever anyone thought it out to be. Surely that could not be the truth, because that essentially said that there was no truth, at least in the sense of truth that existed independently of subjective personal preferences.
So the idea of a Bible-based religion sounded good, like a Kingdom of God with a real, well-defined Constitution that spelled the truth out specifically for all to read and heed. Sadly, it turns out that Bible-based religion doesn’t actually specify anything, it merely means you will phrase your opinion of what the truth should be in terms of what you think the Bible is really trying to teach. There were divisions over how many cups you should have when serving communion, and divisions over whether churches were permitted to set up missionary organizations, and one fellow even came to us, in all Christian charity and humility, to warn us that prayer offered in any posture other than kneeling was a sin that would damn us all to hell.
This proved to be a significant spiritual crisis for me, because I realized that the Bible could not serve as an infallible guide to the truth, since each reader necessarily reads it in terms of his own understanding of what the truth is and ought to be. Truth is consistent with itself, but Christians cannot arrive at a consistent understanding of the Bible, because their interpretations will reflect their own experience, education, culture, personality, ambition and other subjective factors, and because the principles taught in the Bible don’t really reflect an objective reality we could use as a standard to judge whether the Bible was telling us the truth about God or not.
By the time I was in my late 30’s, I had to admit that I was down to one, count ’em, one solitary, lonely reason why I still believed that Christianity was true. I had seen holes in the theology being preached by theologians, and I uncomfortably rationalized it away by regarding it as just a personal flaw on the part of the individual theologian. I had seen apologetics that promised great proofs and delivered only weak rationalizations. I had turned to creationism in hopes of finding some real-world basis on which I could base my conclusion that the Bible was true, only to find out the creationists were lying and deceiving and bringing general shame on the whole Gospel. I excused it all as the failings of the individuals themselves, but then what did that leave me with as a reason for continuing to hold onto my faith?
My one toehold, the one slender grip I had on my faith was that I did not believe the Resurrection could be faked. Nobody would die for a lie, surely? The early Christians must have seen a genuine, literal Resurrection in order to become the martyrs they eventually became. Right? Right?
Nothing else had proven to be solid enough to support the weight of the conclusion that the Christian God was real. This one last hope must be the sure foundation of my faith, because nothing else was left. And yet, if it were true, then why was there nothing else? I dared not ask myself that question, nor probe too incautiously into the matter of what the apostles really died for, until the election of George Bush as president in 2000. The events that led to that election, and more importantly the words and deeds of Bush’s Christian supporters, finally drove me to honestly ask myself, Is this the sort of world that would exist under the wise and omnipotent sovereignty of a loving God?
My last toehold crumbled as I realized how easy it was to explain the disciples’ convictions in terms of the same hysterical fantasies and denials that surrounded Bush’s election (and even more since Obama’s). I was crushed, enraged, embittered, as though my whole world had betrayed me and then died.
But then something amazing began to happen. The world began to make sense. Suddenly, things that had long perplexed and grieved me became suddenly clear.
Why isn’t the Word of God as powerful as it claims to be in terms of having an impact on people’s lives and actions? Well, because it’s just a book men wrote, as an exercise in what they thought God ought to be saying. It has no power, so its practical impact is simply as great or as small as the abilities of the men trying to use it.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, because they happen to everybody, as do good things. It’s not a reflection of some intentional blessing or cursing by some invisible Magic Dude, it’s just the combination of circumstances. There’s no “mysterious purpose” to try and decipher, no omnipotent benevolence that needs to be reconciled with hard facts. The world is just the world, and things happen, good and bad.
Why doesn’t God show up to do something good in the world? or at least to keep His people in line and out of trouble? Well, because He can’t; He’s just a figment of group imagination.
On and on it goes. Sure, there are complexities we don’t understand and questions we can’t answer, but at least the answers we can find are consistent with each other. That’s a new experience for me, and a tremendous blessing (so to speak). At last, I can believe the truth, and not feel guilty about what I believe. I don’t have to worry about all those internal inconsistencies and known fallacies that I have to embrace anyway, because they’re not there any more. The world is a real place and a true place, and I can embrace it intellectually without compromising my intellectual integrity for the sake of sticking to some dogmatic party line.
I wish I’d had a whole lifetime to learn the truth about the real world, unencumbered by the demands of maintaining a “worldview” in the midst of hostile facts. I wish I’d never been a Christian at all. But at least I can say, now that I’m an ex-Christian, I have won the greater prize, I have found the hidden treasure, and there is nothing in all of Christendom’s twisty little ways that is of one tenth the value.
Can Jesus ever buy me back? I don’t think so. I’ve tried Jesus, and I’ve tried reality, and reality is what makes me whole. Nothing Jesus has to offer can ever compete with that.