I generally date my loss of faith to the late summer of 2009, but I had at least a couple of crisis phases long before that. Once in college (a good 15 years earlier) I questioned the validity of the Bible long enough to consider that the whole religion I had been taught could be bogus. But I had great aspirations for being a spiritual giant, so I threw myself all the more into studying the Bible from the perspective of faith. I made it through that crisis with a renewed faith in the inspiration of the Bible mostly because I became so impressed with the thematic cohesiveness of the book when filtered through the lens of Pauline theology. I knew I had lots of questions I couldn’t answer, but I was convinced that God wanted me to believe and trust this book even if the wrinkles never got ironed out to my satisfaction.
My second great crisis came around age 29 after I had accumulated just enough life experience to see that real life wasn’t tracking with what the Bible led me to believe about it. I had helped to bring three of my four daughters into the world and had begun to accumulate the subsequent stress and debt which any school teacher would get from trying to be the primary breadwinner for a family of five. I had gambled my life on my faith, relocating my family two states away to be a part of a church movement which deeply resonated with my understanding of what the Christian faith is supposed to be about. The stakes were higher now than they had been in college, with people depending on me to hold it together and stay the course of my calling as both the spiritual leader of my family and as “a brother” in our church. But my questions had never gone away; I had only pushed them down because, in lieu of satisfying answers, I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Now they were all coming back to me again.
Before I became a father of four who works three jobs, I used to keep journals. Most of the time those were scribbled in my messy handwriting in spiral bound notebooks bought from the grocery store. But for some reason I did a handful on computer during the summer of 2003. These entries were raw and brutally honest, venting all my worst fears and deepest struggles. In the end I decided that the cost of seriously questioning my faith was too high, so after wrestling again with these questions I stuffed them down once more, throwing myself even harder into the work to which I seemed to have been called. Soon I was being sent to churches in other states to “minister” to them and I eventually published a book encapsulating my theology into one neat little volume (the twelve people who actually read it said it was great). No sooner had I completed that project than I looked at all I had written and said, “Meh. Never mind.” It brings to mind something C.S. Lewis once admitted:
Nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate.
Ironically it was my passion to get to the heart of my religion which caused me to see it for what it was: a brilliant and intricately nuanced invention of the collective imaginations of many, many people. I call this my Wizard of Oz moment. It illustrates how many who leave the faith do so not because everything’s going wrong, but because they’re doing everything right, only to find there’s nothing at the end of the yellow brick road but a guy pulling levers and turning knobs from behind a curtain. The spellbound audience buys into the illusion, but the people whose job it is to keep this illusion going should know better.
After I deconverted, I was going through some old computer files and found this journal entry from the summer of 2003. Six years before I finally left my faith, I was clearly wrestling with many of the same questions that would later multiply and grow into an inescapable conclusion. In the brighter light of adult reasoning, these things would no longer be persuasive for me. But this journal entry provides a snapshot—a captured moment in time—of a young man still in transition, still struggling desperately to come to grips with the nagging doubts which never fully went away. I’m including it here today in preparation for answering a reader’s question (in an upcoming post) related to the struggle of a man trying to make heads or tails of his faith.
I cut out a couple of highly personal references since this is now “out there” for anybody to see, but the rawness is still evident to me between the lines. You’ll also notice that I often wrote my journal entries as prayers, even though this one required a parenthetical aside addressed to no one but myself. It’s almost as if I couldn’t even bring myself to complete the prayer without also admitting that I may be just talking to my own self. What follows is the entry from that day:
Wed. June 25, 2003
Lord, I’m running out of reserves.
The entirety of my faith is being put to the test of late. It’s not enough that all my life I have been able to find alternative explanations for everything that happens to me. I see too many legitimate explanations for everything upon which my faith is built, including but not limited to the course of my life and the series of decisions that have led me, inexorably, here.
My life is quite the tower resting on a penny…stood on its edge. A big wind is blowing and threatens everything I know. At this point, I have a wife and three kids (plus now a dog and a puppy), a house (which I want to refinance to absorb debt) in a neighborhood populated in part by [redacted]. We follow an offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot from mainline Christian religion—the one religion most at odds with the tenor of the world (die to live, give without getting, love and trust the unseen). At this particular date three decades of building doubt and skepticism have culminated in a moment of crisis, of sorts. If my wife had any idea to what extent I am questioning everything we believe, she would undoubtedly panic and want to go “home”.
After thousands of years of asking questions and probing into the inner (and outer) workings of the world around us, humankind has determined that a belief in God is not necessary. In fact it is neither substantiated nor necessitated by things as they are. The world itself is larger than ever thought by those who wrote even the latter books of the Bible. The skies extend immeasurably beyond the canopy envisioned by Abraham, Moses, David, or Paul. The movements of the earth, the stars, the seas, and the clouds have explanations more complex, yet demonstrably superior to the explanation that “God did it.” Illnesses, psychological processes, birth and death . . . all of them can be broken down to specific, verifiable causes and effects. A man doesn’t have a demon, he has a disrupted nervous system which can be treated with the right medications. So many things simplistically relegated to “the spiritual realm” can just as neatly be accounted for by science. A man dies and sees light at the end of the tunnel, has visions and returns to tell about it. But the brain does that upon the loss of oxygen and disrupted electrical activity.
Then there’s the Faith itself. I have spent thirteen years now relating to what may very well be a figment of my imagination. I mean, really. I tremble at one level to suggest that God’s provision and grace toward me all these years can be dismissed just because He isn’t giving me what I want, when I want it, in the right packaging. Spoiled little rich kid doesn’t like the cross, or winter, or faith, so he just gives up and pouts. Some great man of faith I’ve turned out to be. I picked this “grace” route to the extreme so that when my spiritual life wanes I’m just “in a season.” It’s ultimately up to HIM what mood I’m in. But so many thoughts crowd out these and tell me that this is a dreamer’s paradise. All of life is romanticized into a meaningful, cohesive whole, rather than a random mutation on myriad levels producing the chaos surrounding us….I came here driven by a desire to live up to a goal which I set for myself early on: To Know God in collective, free expression. But looking back, I’m not so sure there is such a God. I used to think certain things were Him. But any one of those things could have too easily been other things…
Even the end itself struck me the other night: I’ve spent most of my life nursing the assumption that life doesn’t end. It moves forward to its ultimate destiny. But my study of the history of religions reveals that EVERYONE THINKS THAT. Granted, that doesn’t make it necessarily wrong, and the thoughtful ones always say that this shows the sense of the divine in all, thereby reinforcing our system of belief… But then again don’t we all (myself included) believe in transcendence a little too automatically? “It’s okay when we die because then we’ll be in Heaven. Let’s dream about how great that will be. Life never ends. Only happiness. No tears. No war or death. No crime or hate. Only love.” But if God will not be so uncomplicated here and now, then why should I think He would be later? Worse still, if you don’t believe you GO TO HELL. There’s a generous option. Only a few minutes of thought in that makes me shut off. Those are people we’re talking about. Kids too, right? How small? Come on! This stuff makes my head hurt. I have to shut it off to make it work.
I’m supposed to believe that a man died and rose again thousands of years ago, and that he lives in me. Somehow that is supposed to make a difference, although I’m really struggling to see that either in myself or in my fellowship of believers…Really. The synoptic gospels differ too much from John and Paul. The stories of origins before Abraham are too fanciful to believe they are real. Maybe Christianity fits more than I previously admitted into the flow of the history of religions found everywhere else. Apocalyptic, nationalistic fervor dies after a second captivity, so Israel reinvents itself. Over in Greek territory a man [Paul] recasts the faith into terms that fit philosophy, so well in fact that Plotinus, Origen, and Aquinas can just quote Plato and Paul together and they fit. I can watch the Matrix and get sucked right in, seeing only Christianity. I feel a little duped…
Lord, I really need some saving here. If not, It’s gonna suck. Bad. I need you to show that You are here. If not, I’m totally lost. And alone. And purposeless.
Can I please have something that I can hold on to? Something concrete to remind me that You’re here? A fleece? A rock? A floating ax head? A resurrection? Something. I’ll keep it as long as I can. And I’ll write about it.
That’s a fascinating snapshot of a moment in time, isn’t it? It captures the ambivalence of a young man struggling to make sense of things he was taught to believe, all expressed as a prayer to a person he’s not sure even exists. And who better to express these things to than the very person who knows my deepest doubts and fears? In time I came to see why it is that this person always knew my most secret thoughts and feelings: It’s because he was me. He was always me. That’s why he knew me so well. That’s why he was always so personally concerned for my well-being. He was because I was. That’s the way it works.
Letting go of God, as Julia Sweeney put it, is a difficult thing to do. It’s like saying goodbye to an imaginary friend. Worse than that, it’s saying goodbye to an imaginary friend who your surrounding environment insists must never leave your side. Massive guilt and social disapproval awaits those who finally let go of this self-inflicted delusion. No wonder so many of us need therapy once we’re out.