How does one ‘loose his (or her) faith? I did not one day wake up and say to myself: from now on I do not believe in Jesus anymore. As I have argued in my last blogpost my deconversion was a long and difficult process. It took about 25 years! Looking back now, I can see it was a process. One with four — somewhat distinct — phases. Of course, when one says that, one is really trying to impose an order on an otherwise fairly chaotic picture. But still, as I write this, this makes sense to me.
My questions regarding faith started in a behavioral science
class in University. The professor made
us see that two people can look at the same object or incident, and yet see
totally different things. It suddenly dawned on me that this explained why
people could look at the same beautiful world, and yet not a creator behind it,
but rather evolution. Or they could look at church, and not see a great
wonderful movement of Jesus-loving people (as I did), but a confused, small
minded and ingrown people who desperately needed traditions to protect
themselves and give their lives meaning.
This discovery was a shock to my system. It confronted me with a simple thought: maybe they’re not wrong!
I was raised up with the idea that ‘they’ were wrong, and we were ‘right’.
I wasn’t ready to start considering that I might be wrong — I just started thinking perhaps those people had a point.
If I go back to it, that is where the slow-motion earthquake started that finally brought down my faith 25 years later.
The process of the search
The journey out of faith is different for everyone. No two individuals follow the same path. Yet most of us will pass similar places: similar questions, and similar books and authors seeking to address them. If I had to condense the questions all of us ask along the way I would do it like this: how, with all that we know now, can the Christian faith make sense?
The questions that underlie this simple question are myriad. How does the Christian faith square with evolution? With an ever expanding universe? How does it square with history, and Christianity’s troubled part in it? How do I make sense of there being so many theologies and denominations, all claiming to be the right one? How can God be all powerful and all knowing and all loving, and there be so much suffering in the world? Why are churches always in crisis? Why are Christians always fighting? How do I square these Biblical passages about homosexuality with my gay colleague or neighbour, who is a really decent human being? The list goes on and on.
Looking back I can see my search had a number of phases. Again, this is different for everyone.
Phase 1: outright denial and dogmatism
I think at first I tried really hard to push the questions away. Following the apostle James’ admonition not to doubt, I pushed all my doubts away and embraced simplicity and dogmatism. I was taught inerrancy (The Bible is God’s word and it contains no errors) and infallibility (The Bible is infallible in all that it teaches) and bought into it lock, stock and barrel. Yes, you are reading that right: I was a fundamentalist. You may have seen that bumpersticker: “The bible says it; I believe it; and that settles it”. That was me. In my defense: I was very young. And probably quite intolerable.
What drove me during that time? I suppose it was, in a word, fear. I did not want to loose out on eternal life. I did not want to loose out on the connection with my heavenly father. Allowing the questions threatened all that. For me faith was not just something I did on Sundays, but it controlled every part of my life — because it was supposed to control every part of my life. And I could let nothing interfere with that.
Phase 2: intelligent defense
Unless you lock yourself in a closet and never see the news, or read a book, you can’t stay there forever. At some point you understand there are good questions, and you need to deal with them. My college question kept bugging me: there is a way to make sense of the world outside of faith. There is another way to see things.
The very first notion I let go was the idea that God created the world in 6 literal days. I adopted the idea of intelligent design: the idea that God created the world through a process of evolution. Of course this raises new questions: if we are descended from monkeys, what to make of Adam and Eve and the idea of original sin… That question may not mean much to you, but the idea of ‘original sin’ passed on to us from generation to generation as part of our human make-up, is quite important: it’s one of the reasons Christians believe Jesus had to come and die. Scratch the idea of original sin, and now you have a bigger problem.
This became a pattern. You answer one question, and immediately discover you now have a whole new set of questions to answer. Quite frustrating at times. You might be tempted to retreat back to dogmatism and fundamentalism — except that you can’t live there and feel you are being honest with yourself and the world. The questions do not really go away. No matter how hard you sing at church, or pray in small group, or memorize scripture… At some point you are going to walk along a quiet country lane at night and glance up at the starry sky. And you will be struck by the idea that the light that is entering your eye right now started travelling your way possibly well before Jesus was born. And you will be wondering how that is even possible.
There is a seemingly simple solution to this: you make God bigger. At first this earth was a flat pancake with Jerusalem at the centre and God up in heaven above. Now we understand the earth is round and part of a solar system — and so, wow… God created a whole solar system. And then you understand he didn’t just create a whole solar system, but a galaxy… well, God must be bigger still. And then you understand there are actually lots and lots of galaxies… and the universe is 13,8 billion years old, and it is expanding, and the rate at which it is expanding is still increasing — and at some point you just go: really? I realized I kept stretching up this idea of this deity to match up our scientific understanding. It’s like an elastic band that you just keep stretching and stretching…. Until is snaps and slaps your hand.
The big question, of course, is: how do we understand this Bible? Because our tension is between what it teaches, and what we know and experience today.
For me, an elegant solution was to understand the Bible as literature, with specific genres. One such genre, for instance, was poetry. Obviously we can communicate beautiful ideas in poetry, without the poem having to be true in it self. The creation of heaven and earth, as described in Genesis 1, is obviously poetry. With meter, repetition, cadence, and grandiose language. You don’t really need to see it as literal truth, but can instead marvel at the idea that God created the world, while thinking that the process he used was 4,4 billion years of evolution instead of 6 days.
Another genre was apocalyptic literature. My professors at
seminary showed me that the apostle John wrote his revelation at a time when
apocalyptic literature was a fairly common thing. The author in these genres
did not intend so much as to literally predict events, as to make God’s
displeasure (as they understood it) known at certain societal phenomena.
I felt this literary approach to scripture was very helpful. It amazed me (and continues to do so) that not more Christians approached scripture this was.
But in time this new approach also presented its own set of problems. If the apocalyptic passages of the Bible do not predict actual events, then what is God’s agenda with the world? Scratch Matthew 25 and the book of Revelations, and all of a sudden we do not know what to believe about the future any more.
Phase 3: Progressive Christianity
At some point the Christian trying to make sense of it all will come across an author or speaker who has revolutionary or innovative ways of looking at scripture, faith, church, and the world. These are authors who are plagued by the same questions, and who have come up with ideas and ways to reduce the tension. They hold out a simple promise: it is possible to be a Christian and make sense of this world after all.
These authors go under the rubric of Progressive Christianity. I will name a few, but quickly say all of them will dislike the label, and many of them will also dislike being categorized with some of the other authors in this group. Examples are: Rob Bell, Shayne Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Alan Hirsch, Greg Boyd, (the late) Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, John Shelby Spong, and Marcus Borg.
I spent most of my slow motion earthquake reading these guys. Became friends with a few of them. Al most all of them are excellent writers and gifted speakers. They give you the sense everything is going to be all right after all. Not to worry, it is possible to use your brain and remain a Christian.
But at some point I realized these authors shared a common trait. There was something that characterized them all. They valued some parts of the Bible more than others. The emphasized certain features of God, and de-emphasized others. In essence, the Bible became a buffet, where they picked what they liked, and left the rest.
The Jesus they ended up with, was invariably some kind of hippy, straight out of the 70’s, saying ‘peace’ and asking people to get along. He was a revolutionary, introducing a loving and caring movement called the church, which was here to change the world. For good, of course.
The parts in scripture where God is angry, or seeks vengeance, or judgment, are quickly forgotten. The parts where members of the LGBTQ+ community should be stoned to death, are quietly ignored. In truth, after a while, it seemed like many of these authors first formed an idea of what they might like Jesus to be like, and then dispensed with the passages that did not match this Jesus.
I became increasingly uneasy with progressive Christianity. I did not feel this authors were being really honest with scripture. They were picking and choosing to match their own likes, and present us with a likable Jesus. And then asking us to follow this Jesus in changing the world.
Following Jesus was always at great personal cost. I figured that I was going to pay that cost, I should better make sure I followed the real Jesus.
Phase 4: deconversion
If there was such a person. Because the more I dove into it, the more I found there are books and books and books on the topic: who was Jesus really? And: how should we understand scripture really? And there was little to no agreement between them.
At this point my search had lasted for about 25 years. It’s one of those things where you do not realize you are in a process until you can look back and say: oh, wow… that’s how the journey went.
It was also at this point that I started wondering whether the atheists had it right after all. Maybe there was no God. Maybe all of this was simply, as they said, human inventions and ideas, created to help us make sense of this world and universe. Maybe, religion was best explained as what happens when people get together: one person says something, a second joins him, and a third — and all of a sudden you have a thing going. People start thinking and acting and talking alike. Pretty soon this thing has a life of its own. Then someone hungry for power discovers it, and sees a way to gain a measure of power by giving it credence. Someone else sees a way to make money out of it. Doesn’t mean the original idea was a bad one; but now it has a life of its own. I could not deny I had seen this process up close many, many times.
There were more factors that motivated my deconversion. My struggle with sex; my involvement in church planting; my experience of the supernatural, and my emotional turmoil were each huge factors. I am sure they will come up in future blogs. But intellectually, with regard to scripture and theology, this summarizes my journey leading to my deconversion well.
I do not think every one who starts asking these questions will in time loose his faith. Not everyone who reads authors associated with progressive Christianity will in the end have to deconvert. I already know man y people ask these same questions and arrive at very different answers. The journey is different for every one.
All I ask is that you think. You have a brain. You live in a world of information. Think! Ponder! Seek truth! And do not be simplistic about it.
And then, follow your own process.
May your journey lead you to some really cool places and insights. And bring you freedom and life.