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7/12/06                                                                                       View Comments

Out of a life of extremism

sent in by Dan

My wife and I were ultra religious up to a few years ago. If you had seen us, you would have suspected we were Amish or Mennonite (it doesn't help that we now live in Lancaster County, PA!). The women in our household wore head-coverings and I had a particular propensity toward wearing clothes that were often confused with the aforementioned religious communities. We have a LARGE family, have been home-schooling, attended church every week (some of my children and I participated in the church orchestra). At one time I aspired to the ministry and was an interim pastor for a mid-west church.

Our religious "trek" took us from conservative Baptist (me) and Catholic (my wife) through the charismatic movement, evangelicalism, Reconstructionism (five-pointers, no less!), Presbyterianism and probably a few other "isms" tossed in for good measure. I was even part of a cult (Witness Lee's "local church" movement) for a year.

A couple years ago, our oldest son moved to the west coast to be part of a presbyterian church that looked like it was going to set him up for his early adult life in a way that would have made both his mom and dad proud. Unfortunately, when he dabbled in the some "sinful" (but normal) early adulthood independence they ended up excommunicating him. We were devastated. We knew he had dome some things he shouldn't have, but his excommunication sent us into a root-level whirlwind that made us question EVERYTHING we'd believed in. While this was going on, we ourselves had moved to another church within that same denomination and I was beginning to be pressed regarding my responsibility in my son's excommunication. I was told I had not acted responsibly, that it was my fault, and that I was not doing enough now to win him back to the faith or prevent similar things happening to my other children. I was told I had not loved him enough. Furthermore, I could already begin to see the pattern they were setting in motion that would have enabled them to excommunicate me.

Those of you who are parents know how much you want your children to share your values. Some of you may have been better at letting go than we have been, but I would venture to guess that you feel a tinge of pride when you hear your child "figure out" a conclusion that you carefully taught them over the years. When the church drove my son away rather than work with him patiently, and then blamed me for his defection, I started to question that which I would not allow myself to question before.

With these events surrounding my son's excommunication, my wife and I began to question the foundations we had lived our lives on. First of all, we saw that the years we had spent carefully plotting our religious progress had made us prideful and exclusive. People were seen by us as threats to our growth, or threats to the development of our children, or as mere prospects for conversion. We saw that when our son discovered that people outside of the faith were normal, and often admirable, he had believed a lie that we had fostered. And, understandably, this drove a wedge between us and our son that tore our hearts in two.

So we began to open up to people outside the faith, too. And like our son, we saw what good people there were out there.

Secondly, we realized the limits we placed on our lives in order to live a life that pleased God had often made us and our children miserable. There aren't a lot of people, we've seen, that can make religion enjoyable. We *did* know a few (and at that point we still admired them), but most of the time, those with religious limits are so careful that they don't cross the lines they carefully draw that they just don't know how to enjoy life. When we saw this we thought - why would ANY of our children, once they see that the world outside is actually a wonderful place to be - full of song and dance and pleasure and joy - want to live the way WE have told them they should?

So we began to loosen our restrictions and encourage our older children to have fun doing things they weren't allowed to do before. We started encouraging our older children to date recreationally. We decided to stop home-schooling so our younger children could be with others their age. And my wife and I also started setting an example for them by going out on Friday nights to dance.

Finally, we realized that the people we'd churched with were not going to accept this new openness. The wheels for my excommunication were already starting to turn. I didn't want my wife of my children to have to face a decision of whether to follow me or the church. So I wrote to the elders and told them we would be looking for a new church and wouldn't be attending theirs any longer. It was abrupt, and many people called us who didn't understand why we were leaving. It was not easy for the family, but it needed to be done. We attended a "liberal" church across the street that was much more accepting of differences.

I mentioned above that I had been an interim pastor for a mid-west church (an inter-denominational church formerly pastored by a presbyterian minister). This meant that I was fairly well-studied since I was often called upon to teach & preach. I particularly remember doing a series on the "canon of the scripture", using FF Bruce's book of the same name as my foundation.

With new doubts in my mind, though, I set out on a quest to revisit many of these issues to see if they survived a higher level of scrutiny than I was willing to apply when I was the spiritual 'overseer' of a flock. I poured into books from various points of view, always with the idea in mind that I would seek out whoever was recommended by proponents of a point of view as the best resource to present that point of view.

Much to my surprise (or maybe not, in retrospect) I found again and again the inability of creedal Christian scholars (i.e. those whose point of view was governed by loyalty to the church's creeds) to answer to even the simplest of observations levied against them by non-creedal scholars. It almost became comic (if the subject matter were not so important). I came to see a pattern - when something the church espoused was exposed as illogical, unreliable or contrary to the non-creedal historical record, it was a matter of "faith". A mystery. Something we simply cannot "know" and therefore must accept.

With my growing awareness that the emperor had no clothes, my wife was overcoming her crisis of faith in a different direction. She appealed to old friends regarding her doubts and was held aloft from the intellectual process I was diving headfirst into. Not only that, but these "caring counselors" recommended that she cut off communications with me over these topics while she was unstable. Her daily telephone conversations with these former "friends" became the means of a rift that has set into our family life and remains to this day.

The shedding of my religion has been exhilarating, but it has extracted a high cost. The knowledge that I am no longer bound by the demands of a childish, vengeful, non-existent deity who would threaten me with eternal punishment for my temporal disobedience brings with it a freedom I have never known. But its a freedom that is muzzled because sharing it with the ones who are most important to me only brings conflict and even the threat of separation. It remains to my mind that my wife has chosen to remain loyal to a deity she believes will justly cast me to eternal fire.

Recently I had a kind of picture come into my mind of how things have gone for my marriage. I saw my wife and I were part of a primitive tribe engaged in their primitive worship. I happened to stumble across the truth, somehow, that the deity we worshiped was simply imaginary. But when I went back to my wife, in her religious frenzy she would not listen. Somehow I ended up on a sacrificial stone, and my wife was the one lifting the blade over me. I looked up, told her that I would lay down my life for her even though I knew the 'god' she was sacrificing me to was imaginary. She ignored my words, and ran the blade across my neck. I lay there bleeding to death, the life slowly ebbing out of my body.

It's a morbid image, I know. I'm unable to convince her that there's any truth to my studies, but I honor my commitment to love, honor and cherish her. As the days go by, my life ebbs away, but I know the last thing I did while I still had a will alive enough to do so, was to let her sacrifice me to her god.

On the positive side, I am growing in ways I never even realized were necessary. I would never go back to the closed-mindedness I accepted when I was a Christian. I have adopted a morality that is simple: "Live to enjoy whatever pleasures you can - so long as you don't hurt anyone (especially those closest to you) in the process. And, if at all possible, help relieve the sufferings of others."

I'm free now to see the reasonableness of things like evolution, gay marriage, erotic art and literature, and much, much more.