I bumped into an old church friend a few days ago — one that I haven’t seen for several years. We made mindless small-talk for a few minutes about work, family, and the weather.
This, of course, was just a prelude to the question they really wanted to ask. I saw it forming behind their eyes like a storm brewing on the horizon. Finally, it poured forth in a steady stream of glorious predictability.
“So,” They said, “Where are you going to church these days?”
When I was a kid, I went to church morning and night, every Sunday, and several times throughout the week. I was the only son of an evangelical pastor. I’ve heard ten thousand sermons — maybe more — and read the Bible cover-to-cover several times.
Yet, here I am in the middle of a faith crisis where many of the things that I once clung to, with the kind of righteous zeal that the Apostle Paul might be proud of, were all up in the air. Sure, I still have my faith, but it’s changed. How was I going to explain that to my friend?
“I don’t really go to church anymore,” I replied.
The look on my friend’s face was one of pity mixed with concern and just a hint of indignation. There followed the equally predictable invitation to attend their church (because it would definitely be a much better fit for me).
“I might check it out sometime,” I replied politely, with no intention whatsoever of actually following through. Then came the conversation’s benediction, delivered in fine liturgical style: “Well, I’ll be praying for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.
I’ll level with you. Although I have no intention of ever being part of the big conservative evangelical church scene ever again, there are actually times when I miss it. Some of these feelings are purely nostalgic, and others a harkening back to when faith was simple, when everything made sense, and there was no question that I did not have a satisfactory answer to.
Then life happened.
It exposed the flaws and frailties, and limitations of religious fundamentalism and left me with more questions than answers. Maybe that’s ok. But, in my weakest moments, I recall — with a mix of fondness and disdain — why I sometimes miss it! Here are a few of those reasons:
It was nice to be part of ‘the club’
The conservative Evangelical church is a first, and foremost, a belonging system. Within its four walls and steepled roof, the church provided an oasis of safety and predictability, tucked away from the dangers of the big, bad world — which we knew from our Sunday school teacher was hopelessly depraved, wicked beyond measure, and ultimately perishing in the fires of Hell.
We grew up surrounded by other children. We played together, and when we got older, our children played together. We were each other’s groomsmen and bridesmaids. We shared many meals around many tables. We were friends. We belonged. And it felt nice.
And all that was required to be part of the club was wearing relatively modest clothing, not swearing or drinking too much, and intellectual assent to a bunch of spiritual ‘truths.’ As long as you didn’t mention the problem of human suffering, your general discomfort with the idea that a loving God might create people and predestine them for destruction, your slightly liberal political leanings on matters of abortion or gay marriage, or your belief that maybe there was an evolutionary process involved in the creation of the world, then you remained part of the club. Easy!
Of course, once I became aware that much of my experience of religion was simply a quest for social order, group cohesion, and personal belonging, I understood why I was not experiencing any of the transformative power that it purports to offer.
It’s easier to view the world in black and white
Life is really easier when you can neatly place everything into a two-columned table with one column labeled “good” and the other column labeled “bad.” You can bet your bottom dollar that I had my two lists sorted out in my mind.
The problem came when I started meeting people that the church told me were wicked and sinful, and they actually seemed like decent people who were doing their very best. My black and white view of the world was eventually swallowed up in compassionate acceptance, as I heard the stories of individuals in their personal struggles, and I came to accept the personal struggles in myself.
Still, labeling everything and everyone is easier, right?
The kind of thinking that reduces everything down to just two options, where one is the right way and one is the wrong way, is known as dualism. Dualism is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, black/white, in/out, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum.
Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. To put it simply, this kind of thinking takes no account of the individual person, which is exactly the opposite approach to that of Jesus Christ.
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Moral superiority is good for one’s ego
“Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this p‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people — cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector.”
I am ashamed to say that, as a younger man, I sent up a few prayers thanking God that I was not like ‘this person’ or ‘that person.’ This was certainly the result of being brought up in a system with such clear boundaries to demarcate who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ — more binary thinking! Still, it feels good to feel that one is good. It feels even better to feel that one is better than someone else. My own ego was stoked by the fact that I didn’t drink too much, swear too much, or jerk too much (yes, this is what it really came down to when I was a teenager).
I completely failed to recognize that I was living out this heartless, cold, and arrogant brand of self-righteousness — the kind that looks down on others and judges others while simultaneously congratulating oneself on having it all together (which, in reality, was another lie that I told myself).
I have come to realize that true spirituality is actually the death of one’s ego, along with anything that one uses to prop it up — including spiritual action and activity.
It’s easier to take the Bible literally than to view it critically
I was taught that the Bible was 100%, without doubt, the pure, perfect, inerrant word of God himself. Still, I couldn’t understand how anything written by human hands could possibly be called pure and perfect. Perhaps you are different, but I have never met a person, in all my days, who came to a task with complete impartiality and neutrality. Every author has a bias — even this one!
Sure, I believe that the Holy Spirit can inspire someone to write something. As a writer myself, I want to believe that! Therefore, I believe that the Bible we have in our hands is good, helpful, powerful, and inspired. But perfect? I struggle with that.
I wish I didn’t struggle. It would certainly be easier to take the Bible literally. Many fundamentalist Christians tend to do that, but I feel that this is a lazy approach. The Bible was written in a completely different time, culture, and context to our own. It contains cultural and linguistic nuances that are difficult for us to interpret and grasp through the lens of our 21st-century world view. It deserves careful and proper consideration and study.
Should we continue to stone adulterers to death? Yes or no? Biblical law says, “Yes,” but then Jesus Christ said, “No!” What do I make of this contradiction?
Nonetheless, let’s imagine for a moment that the Bible is, in fact, the perfect and divinely inspired word of God. Why is it that the same powerful Scripture that leads one person to a greater love is mangled and misused by others? It is simply in how it is interpreted, and that it is largely dependant on the heart of the reader.
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I miss the spiritual benefits of being a white, middle-aged heterosexual male
Imagine a scenario where every time you opened your mouth to speak, what you had to say was respected not based on your knowledge, skills, or qualifications, but simply because you are a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male. Welcome to the world of conservative evangelicalism.
In the real world, you have to demonstrate your value to your workplace or company by doing things like being competent, working hard, and being a good team player — that’s if you ever hope to move up the “food chain.” By contrast, in the last church I attended, virtually any older, married man who had been attending the church for a while was considered a suitable candidate for a position on the church board, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Simultaneously, many much more competent people were overlooked because they were either too young or too female or both.
The church leadership ensured that this arrangement carried on in perpetuity by using an obscure passage from the biblical book of Titus 1:6:
To be an elder, a man must not be guilty of living in a wrong way. He must be faithful to his wife, children must be faithful to God.
They took this verse to mean that men and only men — specifically married men — can be church leaders— another example of taking a biblical text, removing it from its original cultural context, and applying it verbatim to the modern-day (but only when it suits). I still see good churchmen trimming their beards despite the clear command of Leviticus 19:27. I suppose we only really uphold the Biblical commands to help us to maintain power and control, rather than the ones that personally inconvenience us.
Conspiracy theories make fine entertainment
Fundamentalism is often associated with belief in conspiracy theories — so much so that there even exists a Wikipedia page to support the assertion! It must be true!
My friend at work calls Christians “Flat-earthers,” even after trying to explain that not all Christians are conspiracy theorists. Still, I don’t blame him for settling on this label. How could I when back in 2013, the Guardian reported that one in four Americans believed that Barack Obama might be the anti-Christ who was secreting plotting to rule the USA by Sharia Law? I guess that didn’t eventuate… at least not yet!
More recently, Christian “COVID-19 denialists” have come out of the woodwork, like 66-year-old Christian “musical evangelist” Landon Spradlin, who claimed on social media that Coronavirus was nothing more than media-led mass hysteria designed to damage President Trump’s re-election chances. He died of COVID-19 a few days later. How very sad that Mr. Spradlin’s faith didn’t grant him access to his common sense. Sadly, fundamentalism is fertile soil for gullibility and denial of scientific fact.
As for me, I never got into conspiracy theories, but I confess that I sure enjoyed having conversations with people who did.
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Pot Luck suppers are charming
This one definitely falls into the ‘nostalgic’ category.
There was one thing that the church was good at. It was food. The food was always good. Is it any wonder that Christians, on average, are more likely to be overweight than non-Christians?
Whenever I gathered with other Christians, there seemed to be food involved. Potluck suppers were common fare. The spread after the Sunday morning service was something to behold. And every mid-week Bible study was accompanied by decadent treats and excellent coffee. We couldn’t open our Bible without opening a packet of potato chips as well.
Christians even call this excuse to gather and eat by its own special name — ‘fellowship.’ The word ‘fellowship’ makes organized gluttony sound like religious exercise that enriches one’s soul — enlarging one’s faith as well as one’s waistline.
I confess; I miss gathering around tables for good food with generally nice people. I miss the human connection and conversation. When I was involved in the church, it was at least a weekly event. Nowadays, it is an occasional indulgence. Perhaps that is one thing we can learn from the church?
But I couldn’t go back…
There is a quote, commonly attributed to St Augustine, that says, “The church is a whore but she is still my mother.” This is how I feel. The Church raised me from childhood, despite her own dysfunction. She taught me many things. In many respects, She did her best.
But, while I miss the food, these days I cannot stomach much of the rest of what the conservative church is offering. It needs to change and I’m determined to be part of that change because free from the constraints of organized religion, I have found Christianity personally life-giving and existentially satisfying. I am only sad that I didn’t discover that until I left behind my conservative, fundamentalist roots.
Still, sometimes I miss it.
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This post was previously published on medium.com.
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