Shedding Structure Without Shedding Jesus: from the mailbag

mailbagSince the inception of this blog and the creation of the Formerly Fundie online community, I’ve been getting a lot of mail from readers. I’ve been absolutely blown away with the amount of mail that I’ve received, and have enjoyed hearing from and interacting will all the readers out there who have reached out. On some days, getting so much mail from readers has meant building an extra 45 minutes into my day so that I can properly reply to each one (I always try to reply- if I missed you, sorry!). This “new addition” to my schedule has been life-giving in so many ways, and it has been an honor to jump into the messiness of following Jesus in a post-Christian world, right along side you.

Often in interactions with readers, questions come up which I feel are really worthy questions to be answered– not just in a private e-mail, but in their own article. Many of these questions strike me as questions that others may have, but haven’t asked, making it a good topic for me to discuss with all the readers together.

In light of that, I’ve decided to create a new section of the blog called “Asked & Answered” where I take questions from reader’s letters and answer them for the whole community. I’ve already compiled a great list over the past month, and hope to write for this section either weekly or every other week, on Friday. If there’s a question you want answered, just e-mail me through the contact form on the blog, and I’ll be happy to consider your question. I can’t promise it will make this section (there are some issues that I am not going to speak on publicly or haven’t finished wrestling with myself, and therefore don’t want to plant my flag in ground, yet) but I will certainly wrestle with your question and consider it for this section.

 The first question for this section of the blog comes to us from a reader named Ryan. Ryan asks:

“Why, after shedding the faith structure you were programmed with, do you still believe in God, and Jesus? Many people, myself included, after following the evidence where it leads, lose their faith entirely. You obviously haven’t. You’re also clearly a smart guy. I’d be interested in how, despite a healthy skepticism, you still believe in God, and a million miles from that basic belief, still believe in Jesus?”

Thanks for the question, Ryan– and since you asked, I’ll answer.

First, I’m not sure how I feel about the wording of the question. Personally, I don’t know if I actually did shed off the faith structure I was programmed with. My early childhood was actually good and positive- it was when I was a teenager that I got tangled up with a religious organization, that’s quite popular here in New England, which caused my thinking to become fundamentally broken. I still remember sitting in a class at their campus in New York at 15 years old and being told: “People may have warned you not to come here because we will brainwash you… well, that’s true. Your minds are dirty and they need a good washing”. It was through my experience over the next several years with this fundamentalist organization that my mind and thinking became very, very broken. I started to see God, Jesus, and the Bible only in the ways we were “supposed” to see. Something about this way of thinking seemed wrong in my spirit, but black and white thinking- especially when it comes to God- kinda grows on you, not because it’s right, but because it’s easy.

It’s easy to not have to wrestle with the hard questions, and simply reproduce the pre-written script you’ve been handed.

It’s easy to judge others and judge the world by a pat answer instead of deeply and authentically searching for the answer that best corresponds to reality.

So, the black and white thinking took hold. It made my life easier but like an addiction you hate having, it can take a really long time to completely break away. In my spirit, I hated that way of thinking, but I kept on doing it… and it was so destructive.

I actually wrote my now deceased grandma a letter once, and told her that she wasn’t an authentic Christian because she was a democrat. Another time, I refused to go to a chapel event (and made a big stink about it) when I was in the military because the guest speaker was a woman. Yet other times, you would hear me telling people things like: “Be not deceived, God will not be mocked” and other obnoxious religious jargon that doesn’t relationally look anything like Jesus.

Like a bad addiction to heroin, my black and white thinking was something I knew was destructive, was something I knew was wrong… but was something I just couldn’t stop doing.

So, how did I break it and what did I shed off?

I broke it because I hit bottom. Like an addict who realizes they were snorting their life down the toilet, I became a miserable person who sucked at any kind of relationship, and I realized it was because of my judgmental black-and-white thinking that I had been programed with. Furthermore, I started to realize that there were people in the world who didn’t think like me, but who were actually lovely people. Instead of seeing them as “objects of wrath”, I started seeing them as people who Jesus would have enjoyed drinking wine with, and this caused my heart to soften. I realized that my judgmental, black and white thinking, didn’t look anything like Jesus…

So, I quit. I still remember the day– and it was a “cold-turkey” experience that changed my life.

But why didn’t I shed off God and Jesus?

Well, for a lot of reasons- and I’m not sure I can think of all of them for this post. However, here’s a quick synopsis of why:

1. I’ve looked at all the arguments against God’s existence, and I simply don’t find them compelling. When I look at the universe, nature, and my family, I see God’s fingerprints all around me. I get that other people (such as one of my best friends, an atheist) look at those same exact things and walk away with an opposite conclusion. But me? I walk away with the conclusion that God exists. And, I’m not a guy with his head in the sand; I’ve read the God Delusion three times, seen “The God Who Wasn’t There”, and many other works by skeptics. When it all shakes out, however, I simply find the case for God’s existence to be more compelling than the arguments against it. It is where I have landed after doing the hard work, and I feel very secure in my position because of that.

2. What about Jesus? Likewise, I have explored the arguments against Jesus, and having strongly considered them, I don’t find them compelling either. Some argue that he never existed (which has never been a popular view, even with skeptics) but I at least considered it- and found it less than compelling based upon the evidence. Some then, argue that he was just a good teacher- an argument that I find less than compelling as well. To me, there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus not only existed, but that he was who he claimed to be- enough that I could do a whole series on the topic if I were interested in writing about apologetics, (which I’m not).  His disciples (less John) were willing to be put to death instead of denying that Jesus was the real deal, the rest of the early followers not only believed but spread the message despite it often being a capital offense, and many important details about his life are recorded in sources outside of scripture by authors who were not believers, such as the Jewish historian (working for Rome), Josephus. While this isn’t a comprehensive summary, suffice to say I have heard all of the arguments against Jesus and simply find if more believable than not, that he existed and was who he claimed to be.

3. I have experienced God in ways that cause me personally, to affirm his existence. In fact, I have experienced him in some ways that were so profound that there is no way I could ever walk away and pretend that he’s not real. I would have to deny my own experience to do so.

4. I find the teachings of Jesus so amazing, healing, and life-giving, that even if you could prove to me that Jesus had a dad named Frank and was just a carpenter with some bizarre teachings that somehow got passed along through history… I would still follow them, I would still encourage others to follow them, and you’d still find me blogging about them. Why? I think the way of Jesus is the best way to live, and that’s what I’m going to do– no matter what.

So, where am I today?

I don’t know if I’d say I “shed off a faith structure”. I think it is more accurate to say I shed off a “broken expression” of faith. I came to realize that Jesus was looking for followers, and wasn’t interested in starting a new religion. This caused me to approach my faith structure as a “do-over”; I started with Jesus as the center, and started re-building a faith structure that looks like him, even when inconvenient.

Today, I am where I am at because I decided to take God more seriously, not less. This causes me to be misunderstood, both sides. There are many who have walked away from faith yet might be attracted to this blog- and for them, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I never walked away, and I won’t ever walk away. I’m all about Jesus, and my hope is to actually convince readers that following him is infinitely more life-giving and relevant than they’ve ever been taught. For the religious conservatives, it would be easy to misunderstand me as well. They have been programed through generational theology to only see Jesus and understand the Bible the way they were taught- so someone like me who doesn’t fit the mold might be seen as someone who isn’t taking God seriously– and that would be a case of mistaken identity.

In fact, I’m taking God more seriously than ever.

I’m trying to live a life like Jesus, more seriously than ever.

And, I’m willing to be called a misfit, heretic, liberal, conservative… and yes, even a fundamentalist, if it means that I look like Jesus.

Cause that’s all I want to be. That’s all I want others to be.

So, anytime you see an opinion on this site that seems outside the mold, it’s not because I’m taking God or the Bible less seriously… it’s because I am taking it more seriously.

I speak out for immigrants, because that’s what the Bible teaches and I am finally taking it seriously.

I encourage the oppressed, because that’s what the Bible teaches and I’m finally taking it seriously.

I defend the poor, defend the fatherless, because that’s what the Bible teaches and I’m finally taking it seriously.

I critique my own culture’s expression of Christianity, because that’s what Jesus did, and I’m finally taking that seriously.

I love big and inclusively, because that’s what Jesus did and I’m finally taking that seriously.

I’m finally taking it all seriously… and that’s how I got where I’m at.

I find some expressions of faith and some expressions of Christianity, don’t look a lot like Jesus- so I shed those off when I find them.

But, I don’t find arguments for the nonexistence of God, or Jesus, compelling… so I choose to believe.

I realize this decision to actually follow Jesus, regardless of the consequences will continue to lead to a place where I am at home no where, and out of place everywhere, and I have accepted that.

Thanks for the question, Ryan! I hope the answer has been helpful.



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