I wrote yesterday about how fractured Christianity has always been. It almost seems like Christians have never been able to agree on, well, anything. Whether it’s arguing over whether Judaic food laws are still in affect or the nature of Jesus’ divinity or what happens at communion or whether Jesus would have been a Republican or a Democrat, the Christian church has always been, and continues to be, fractured. I wrote a bit yesterday also about the Emerging Church movement, made up of disaffected young people from a myriad of denominations and Christian traditions who want to bypass all of this fighting and pettiness, accept differences of opinion, and focus on the commonalities.
I have written before about how my atheism stems in large part for the fact that basic Christian doctrines simply no longer make sense to me. I can’t make myself believe something if it just doesn’t make sense. The fractured church, though, was another step on my path toward atheism. I wrote yesterday a post called “Jesus Can Lie” but then took it down, deciding it was too personal. In this post, I’m going to combine some of what I said there with more about the fractured church.
I started yesterday’s post by mentioning a blog post by fellow blogger Darcy. I’m going to start this one with a quote from this post, in which she seeks to reassure her family and friends’ fears about the state of her faith as she questions basic Christian doctrines:
I am not throwing away my faith. Not gonna happen. As much as I’ve been angry at God, have questioned Him and questioned my beliefs, one thing remains: I know Him. He is the constant in my life of insecurities and chaos.
At one point I would have said the same. I might question doctrines I’d been raised with like creationism or female submission, or even ask bigger questions about the Trinity or Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but I would not, could not abandon God. Jesus had always been my best friend, and my relationship with him was so real. It was the one thing I had to hold onto amidst life’s storms. This perspective would have made me a perfect candidate for the Emerging Church.
Even as basic Christian doctrines ceased to make sense, I still had my personal experiences with Jesus to fall back on. My experiences all told me Jesus was real, was there for me, cared for me deeply. My experiences told me I could trust Jesus, hold on to him, give my all to him. Even as I gained new knowledge, those experiences didn’t just disappear, and so neither could my deep belief in God and my close relationship with Jesus.
What changed? Two things, actually. First, the fractured nature of the church, both in the past and present, started to appear more and more problematic to me. And second, I found that I could be convinced, thoroughly and totally convinced, that Jesus had told me something, and then find out that it was a lie. These realizations made me completely rethink my “relationship with Jesus.”
The Protestant Reformation
I studied the Protestant Reformation in some depth in college, reading not the one-sided books celebrating the victory of the godly Protestants against the godless Catholics I had read as a child but rather actual works of history that took neither one side or the other. What I found was hard to understand. Both sides claimed to be hearing directly from God, both sides read the Bible and spent time in prayer, and both sides were equally devout. Both sides wanted God’s will above all else, and both sides were convinced they had it. Compare Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer, for instance. And yet, not only could the two sides not agree on key doctrinal points, they disagreed so strongly – calling each other heretics and nonbelievers and even the antichrist – that they killed each other by the hundreds of thousands and even millions.
This confused me. If God is real – and I was thoroughly convinced that he was – why did he not communicate with these people? Why did he not tell them all the same thing? Why did he allow them to wonder in confusion, denouncing each other, persecuting each other, and even killing each other? All of these men claimed to be filled with the Holy Spirit, all spent hours in prayer. Was God unable to communicate with them?
Perhaps, I thought, God didn’t care about the doctrinal points the Catholics and Protestants were arguing over. Perhaps he was the God of both, and each just misunderstood and thought God was telling them to defend their particular doctrinal points as the only true beliefs. But even that idea had a problem. Why would God not tell these men that he didn’t care about what they believed about communion or the veneration of saints? Why would he allow these men, all equally devoted to following him, to kill each other over points that didn’t really matter?
Perhaps God tried to tell them, I thought, but was unable to. I knew that God was supposed to be all powerful, but I also knew that God couldn’t force people to listen to him. Yet the more I read about the devout men who led each side of the Reformation the more I was impressed with how hard these men tried to listen to God. God was everything to them, and they wanted nothing more than to serve him. If cultural baggage was getting in the way of their communication with God, preventing God’s true message from getting through, God must be awfully hard to listen to, and what hope do any of us have of ever being sure we hear him?
My Parents and I Disagree
When I was going through issues with my parents during college, we were each convinced we heard Jesus speaking to us – but we each heard different things. I’ve written about this before, but I’m going to go ahead and recap it here.
My parents always told me that Christianity was to be a relationship, not a religion. All that mattered was our individual, personal relationships with Jesus. For that reason, we all spent time reading the Bible and in personal prayer each day. Jesus was my parents’ best friend, their closest confidant. I saw my mother crying out to Jesus when times were hard, asking him for help and for him to teach her through her struggles. I saw my dad asking Jesus to help him lead the family well. I watched my parents read the Bible, sometimes in tears, and knew that what mattered most to them, more than anything in the world, was listening to and following Jesus.
I grew up emulating my parents in this. Jesus was my best friend. I told him everything, brought every care and trouble to him, and asked him to help me grow in faith and become a better person. I spent time reading the Bible and Jesus revealed himself to me more through those pages. I spent time in prayer, and my relationship with Jesus grew even stronger. Following Jesus mattered more to me than anything else in the world.
In college, some of the views my parents had taught me, such as young earth creationism and right-wing politics, were seriously challenged. I realized that I had in many ways simply adopted my parents’ religious beliefs – the “add-ons” of capitalism, anti-environmentalism, anti-welfare, pro-spanking, and male headship – without seriously examining them for myself and looking at the different sides of each argument. And that, quite simply, was what I began to do.
As I sorted through my beliefs, Jesus was right there with me. My faith grew only more dynamic through this period, and I felt closer to Jesus than ever. When I began investigating Catholicism, I felt Jesus leading me in that direction and found that Catholicism only added further richness to my relationship with Jesus. Jesus gave me permission to ask big questions, and held my hand and encouraged me as I did. During all this exploration, I never stepped outside of his will for me.
My parents didn’t see things this way, though. Jesus was, you see, telling my parents something different. Jesus was telling them that I was wandering from the faith, that I was in grave danger, that they needed to bring me back to the fold. My parents continued to spend time in prayer and Bible reading, listening to the Holy Spirit and letting Jesus speak to them, and what they heard was that my very salvation was being threatened.
This was confusing to me. How could Jesus be telling me one thing, and my parents another thing? He wasn’t just telling us different things, he was telling us opposite things. I knew Jesus couldn’t do that. I knew God’s nature was to be consistent. That meant that one of us must be mishearing. The trouble was that I also knew we were both trying our hardest to listen to Jesus. If other things were getting in the way – for me, my new college experiences, or for my parents, their friends and the literature they read – that meant that listening to Jesus was no simple thing. Was Jesus not strong enough to make himself heard to each of us as we both sought to listen? Was it that easy to misunderstand what Jesus was saying? Could someone truly be seeking after Jesus with all their heart, and yet miss him entirely? We both wanted God’s will above all else, and yet we came to such loggerheads over my religious journey that our relationship with each other disintegrated, replaced with anger and hurt.
I’ve been told by readers of this blog that my parents were simply not listening to Jesus right. They were not being “discerning” enough. They were listening instead to the literature of Christian Patriarchy, Quiverfull, and fundamentalist Christianity in general, not to God. I understand that if you think that was the case what I say here isn’t going to change your mind, and you are free to think as you please. But I can only tell you that I know my parents, I grew up extremely close to them, and you really can’t find someone who is trying to follow Jesus harder than they are. Jesus’ will is all that matters to them. Their relationship with Jesus is more important to them than anything else in their lives. Given this, would it be so hard for Jesus to tell them that the literature they are reading, or the pastors they are listening to, are wrong? Is it so hard for Jesus to make himself heard that he cannot communicate even with people who want so desperately to do what he wants?
I was shaken by this experience just as I had been by my readings on the Protestant Reformation, but I still had one constant – I had my relationship with Jesus. As troubling as it was that Jesus could not handle the Catholic/Protestant divide five hundred years ago or speak clearly to my devoted parents today, I still had my own experiences. But then, one semester, even that was shaken.
In Which I Find Myself Misled by Jesus
At one point in college, I fell in with a group of evangelical friends and formed a sort of Bible study. One of our number was a pastor’s daughter. She was especially knowledgeable of the Bible and Christian apologetics and had a very close relationship with Jesus, so she became our de facto leader. She always seemed to have a keen insight, an encouraging word, or a pertinent Bible verse, and that semester became one of whirlwind spiritual growth.
Over the course of the semester, we became convinced that the spiritual growth we were experiencing was the beginning of a campus-wide revival. It was easy to believe this, given the growth in our own relationships with God during this period. What we felt was not dissimilar from what had animated the First and Second Great Awakenings. The intensity of spiritual feeling that was poured out on us as we called on the Holy Spirit to guide us is hard to describe. We felt we could take on the world – and we truly believed that was what Jesus had planned for us. I have never felt so in the center of God’s will as I did then.
As you will often find among people who emphasize the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we also came under demonic attack that semester. We prayed demons out of our rooms, our dorms, our campus, and prayed hedges of spiritual protection around each other. Our de facto leader came under especial attack, and sometimes we had to hold her down while she was physically convulsed and pray way the demons who were tormenting her. As we spent time in prayer and engaged in spiritual warfare, we had never felt closer to Jesus. All of this spiritual intensity only confirmed for us what Jesus had spoken to our hearts – revival was coming. And we were ready.
But something went wrong. Our de facto spiritual leader started behaving more and more erratic. This is a hard story to tell, but the end result is that she was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent home for rest, rehabilitation, and medication. Suddenly, everything we had thought was coming came crashing down. The revival, the spiritual intensity – it all whimpered out.
Someone might say that the trouble was that we listened too much to what our de facto leader said, to her insights and encouragements. In the end, that is what we concluded as well – that it was all in our heads. The intensity, the things we heard from Jesus, all of that had been imagined. It was all started by one mentally ill individual who convinced us that God was moving, and moving with force. I held onto my faith, and life went on.
This episode planted some very troubling seeds in my head. You see, we did not believe revival was coming simply because our spiritual leader told us it was. Rather, it was something Jesus told all of us as well. We never listened to anything our friend told us unless Jesus confirmed it for us individually. The time we spent with her was vastly overshadowed by the time we spent in prayer and Bible reading. We poured out our hearts to God, we listened to Jesus as closely as we could, and we felt a sort of spiritual intensity that is hard to describe. We were listening to Jesus, and he was speaking to us, telling us of the coming revival, telling us of the importance of our part in it, telling us that our leader had an especially large role to play in God’s plan. It taught me that I could think I was hearing from Jesus, and yet be wrong. It taught me that I could be listening to Jesus as hard as I could, and yet mishear.
Through all of these episodes, I was learning that “listening to Jesus” was not so simple as I had thought. Think, for example, of all the families in the Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy movement who follow Bill Gothard. Think of my parents, who are devoted to the teachings of Michael Pearl. These individuals want above all else to do God’s will. They don’t listen to Gothard or Pearl simply because they think their teachings make sense, but rather because they believe that their teachings are confirmed by God. We may call it legalism, but they don’t see it that way. They don’t see it as following rules, but rather as following God – it just so happens that God has told them that there are rules. The early church fathers with their many disagreements, the Catholics and Protestants of the Reformation, and liberal and conservative Christians today – all have tried their hardest to listen to God, and all have come away with something different, even contradictory.
As I tried to figure out how people could hear such controversial things from Jesus, I weighed the options available to me:
1. Jesus honestly tells people contradictory things.
2. Some people are listening right and some people are listening wrong.
3. Only some of what people think they hear from Jesus is from him.
4. Jesus isn’t speaking to people at all, it’s all imagined.
Option one goes against the very nature of God; option two means that we can never be fully sure that we are listening to Jesus right, because, as I learned, it was all to easy to listen wrong (plus this is just cruel – why would Jesus not make it harder for devout people to mishear?); and option three means that we can never be completely sure what of we hear is from God and what is ephemeral (plus this is also just cruel – why would Jesus allow the Protestants and Catholics to kill each other over something they were sure was from God rather than setting them straight?). In the end, I concluded that option four was the only one that made sense.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the Christian church is fractured because it is so very, very human. Not simply human in that it is made up of humans but rather human in that religion is man made and what we hear from God is only in our own heads. What Christians think they hear from God is shaped by their surroundings, experiences, and even personalities.
And this is why, unlike Darcy, I reached the point where I could no longer say with confidence that I knew God. I could no longer say with confidence that my relationship with Jesus, which had always seemed so real to me, wasn’t just something that I had made up in my head. This is why, when basic Christian doctrine ceased to make sense, I could let go. I was no legalist, following rules or an Old Testament God. I had a vibrant, dynamic relationship with Jesus. It’s just that I’ve come to the conclusion that Jesus was simply my imaginary friend.