From Fundamentalist to
is on a spiritual journey. Most of the time we are glad enough to admit
this, but other times we want stability more than anything else, and at
those times we are liable to fear religious change lest we fall away
from hard-won truth. But I have come to believe that the spiritual
journey is a journey of discovery into largely unknown territory. If we
hunker down, insisting we've already got enough truth, thank you, we are
like the Israelites stubbornly camping out on the threshold of the
Promised Land, cheating themselves out of the fulfillment of their
hopes. My own spiritual journey has taken me places I never thought I'd
be going. But I'm glad it did! I trod a rocky but fascinating road from
fundamentalism to humanism. Let me share some of the high points with
you. Perhaps you have been over some of the same territory. Or perhaps
At the ripe old
age of ten (adolescence being the most common time of life for
conversion, psychologists tell us), I began to fear the prospect of
everlasting hell-fire and heeded the urging of the preacher at a local
Baptist church to receive Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Unlike
Huck Finn, who was back playing cards, smoking and cussing the next
week, I took the whole thing quite seriously. It was not long before I
broke open the Bible and began studying it, "witnessing" to friends and
neighbors about my new-found faith, praying, and attending church at
least three times a week. I loved the camaraderie of "Christian
fellowship" and, while less enthusiastic about it since I knew what a
nut I must seem, I persevered in witnessing and persuaded several
friends to "get saved," too.
intellectually inclined (a nerd, in fact, I'll admit it), eventually my
interest in the Bible and in evangelism began to converge. Sometimes
people with whom I'd talk about faith in Christ would ask, "But who
knows if Jesus even lived? Isn't he a myth? Why believe the Bible is
true?" Unlike many evangelists, I did not dismiss these objections as
smokescreens. I realized they were serious questions, and I wanted the
answers, too! So I began studying up on "apologetics." This is the art
of defending the faith. I read many, many books purporting to
demonstrate the complete historical trustworthiness of Scripture and
even to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead. I knew all the
arguments backward and forward.
But a funny thing
happened on the way to the debating forum. By now I was used to weighing
arguments, judging historical probability. Even though I figured the
Bible was accurate, it was no longer so much a matter of faith. I
believed on the basis of the evidence. And there is always more evidence
around the corner. Would it confirm or destroy my beliefs? Ironically,
my very attempt to buttress my faith (and that of others) had actually
eroded my faith. I went from believing the Bible because it was the
Bible to believing the Bible because I thought the facts backed it up,
to finally not believing the Bible once more evidence convinced me I'd
been seeing only what I wanted to see. I guess I finally realized I had
to choose between being loyal to a creed I had accepted, continuing to
believe it by sheer will power, and being honest with myself. I chose
the latter. It wasn't long before I had gotten myself the reputation of
a heretic and lost most of my old Bible-carrying buddies.
At the same time,
I began to see that the fundamentalist "born-again" mentality was not
all it was cracked up to be. The born-again gospel promises joy and
peace of mind, but it does so by prolonging childhood ("unless you
become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven").
Fundamentalism fills you with answers before you even think to ask the
questions. It discourages self-discovery and urges you to conform to a
supposedly "Christ-like" stereotype. Your mind is made up for you, and a
set of pre-packaged values and opinions are supplied you, like a uniform
and field pack in Basic Training.
encouraged, in what I now view as a superstitious fashion, to see the
guiding hand of God in every circumstance. Every minor disappointment
and major disaster are messages from God to teach you some lesson, and
it's your job to learn to figure out the Almighty's charade. It took me
till I was out of college to begin to see how immature, even delusional,
all this was. You can't grow up, it seems to me, till you learn that you
live in a world of impartially random events and that you are
responsible for your own actions. But born-againism made life into a
giant puppet-show, with God as the puppeteer.
All this pretty
much crystallized for me, ironically, during seminary, while I was
studying the New Testament for a Master of Theological Studies degree. I
had by this time had my fill both of intolerant dogmatism and the smug
evangelical subculture. So I decided to look into Liberal Protestant
theology. Maybe this alternative would prove more satisfactory. So I
read scores of books by major Modernist theologians. I never found
Liberal churches to my liking. They seemed like social clubs and, though
they lacked the fundamentalist taboos against movies, dancing, etc.,
they had their own wearisome self-righteousness what is these days
called political correctness.
But I did find
Liberal theology to be quite helpful. Paul Tillich especially answered
my questions. Here was a faith that did not require intellectual fudging
and self-deception. One could be genuinely open to the evidence since
"faith," Tillich argued, was not "belief," but rather "Ultimate
Concern." Wrestling with the questions, not necessarily parroting the
"right" answers to them. I believed one can experience the Holy, but not
necessarily a personal God. No miracles, either. Who needed them? No
more theologically important than UFOs or ESP. The Bible was mythical,
but that was good, not bad. Myths give us symbols. Symbols become
rituals. And as Carl Jung showed, rituals are psychologically and
spiritually profound, even though there's nothing magical about them.
This is where I had arrived by the time I'd finished my Ph.D. in
Drew University in
The same year I
discovered an unusual Baptist church which combined serious discipleship
with open-minded theology. It felt great to be back in a spiritual
community. But three years later I moved to
where I taught Bible and Religion at a Baptist college. While there, I
started attending the Episcopal Church and came to love the liturgical
life of the church. I still had a pretty left-wing theology, but my
piety had become rather traditional.
I taught for four
years until my Baptist church back in
New Jersey called
me as its new pastor. Back up among the Yankees! I viewed the ministry
as a high calling and privilege. But soon I found myself seduced again
into academics. I enrolled in a second Ph.D. program at Drew, this time
in New Testament (graduating in 1993). Almost immediately, my newfound
piety began to chafe. My scalpel of critical reasoning, newly honed and
applied to the biblical text, made it hard for me to restrain my old
skepticism. About this time I also began to read extensively in radical
postmodern philosophy. Unfortunately for me, my congregation had been
getting more traditional while I was getting more radical! We had a
bitter parting of the ways, and the church split.
As pastor of my
own unofficial Universalist church, meeting in my home, I had come to
view religion simply as a matter of spiritual experience. "God" was
mainly part of the language of worship, not necessarily anything more.
But that was enough. As long as religion offered a unique, special kind
of experience, that was all that mattered. I was teaching Religious
Bergen Community College at this time, and I would discuss this theory,
that religion offered a kind of spirituality that could not be simply
reduced to moral conscience or to a set of beliefs. But then I began to
think that, no, the way I understood religion, it wasn't even unique. It
was really a kind of esthetic experience. Worship was something akin to
the awe we feel at great art or at beholding the starry sky. Poetry
could offer essentially the same, genuinely spiritual experience.
Religion came to seem to me basically a matter of drama and theater.
That is not to denigrate it. Rather, to see it as theatrical is to
explain why it is so powerful, like an engrossing film or play that
leaves the viewer changed.
But this meant
that religion is nothing more than a creation of human imagination. As
such it still fascinates me. Some theologians believe the same things I
do but feel the need to remain a part of it. They feel that being a
Christian is part of their identity, and that they need not give it up,
only "demythologize" it. I felt this way for quite a while. But at
length I realized I was kidding myself. I realized I do not esteem Jesus
as any greater a teacher than Aristotle or Epicurus. I guess I agree
more with Nietzsche than with Jesus. So what's the point? As for the
artistic, theatrical dimension of the thing, I find my imagination
enriched, my soul nourished, by the arts. I look to philosophy for a
deeper understanding of the world. Religion now seems to me a kind of
nursery school version of philosophy.
never provide the kind of certainties religion promises, but, obviously,
religion cannot provide them either! Someone may say there is eternal
life, and you may want to believe there is, but that hardly makes it
certain! Maturity is bittersweet. Among other things, it means getting
used to the fact that, as John Lennon said, above us there's only sky.
Life is fleeting, but it's all the more precious for that very reason!
But, you may ask, is there nothing greater than me for me to look up to?
You bet! There's my potential as a human being that I have yet to
fulfill. And there are the great future achievements of the human race
to live for!
continues to fascinate me. I teach it in college and graduate school,
though now it seems as bizarre to "believe" the Bible as it would be to
"believe" the Iliad or Hamlet!
I have abandoned
the ministry, though I have not abandoned my friends who left the church
with me. We still meet often and call ourselves "Heretics Anonymous." We
discuss ideas. We figure there is at least as much spirituality in
questions as in answers. And that's good, since we find we have a lot
more questions than answers.
By Robert M.