After wandering through Baptist, Pentecostal and Episcopal churches – on the way to a career as a minister – this man walks away from Christianity
I have to smile each time I see one of those bumper stickers that says, “No Jesus, no peace; Know Jesus, know peace.” The premise behind this clever play on words is that the driver of that automobile has perfect peace because he/she has accepted Jesus as “personal savior” and people who have not, or those, like me, who once embraced Jesus but have subsequently rejected him, are crawling through life in turmoil, torment and indescribable unhappiness.
As others have observed, most Christians find it unsettling to think that there are “former Christians,” people such as me who were completely converted, born again, filled with the spirit – people who had all this but, after sober reflection, walked away from it. We must be unhappy, they say. Perhaps we were not “genuine” Christians in the first place; had we been deceived by Satan?
My own de-conversion was not hasty nor undertaken without a lot of study and thought as this essay will show. For years I felt as does the driver of the car with the bumper sticker – I was sure I had “the peace that passeth all understanding.” I recall standing hundreds of times in church singing “Just As I Am Without One Plea” as the pastor urged the “unsaved” to come forward and accept Christ. Only then would they know true peace. The transformation would be immediate, we were told; we would feel the “burden” of sin lifted from us. The joy of the lord would come upon us as we were made whole by the washing of his blood. We would be given the tools of victory over sin, thanks to the holy spirit.
Yes, I felt for years that I had that blessed peace but, fortunately, I came to realize that it was not a genuine peace; it was a transitory feeling based upon self-delusion – and the Christian “walk,” as any former Christian will tell you, is fraught with uncertainty and a sense of sadness (one example – Christian workers are often proud to tell how they “agonize” in prayer for the “lost”). When I finally said “good-bye” to Christianity, THEN I felt at peace! I felt liberated, set free, then the burden of all the “dos and dont’s” along with the neurotic mind-set that kept looking for sinfulness in everything went away. No longer was I mentally casting about, frantically trying to learn if I was “doing the Lord’s will.” It was liberating to walk away, but I’m sure Christians can easily dismiss my relief (that has lasted four decades now) as the influence of a “lying demon” or, at best, a bit of mental trickery. My only response to these comments is, “How can you be so arrogant to assume you know how I feel? How can you justify projecting your concepts upon my life experience?”
With the hope of helping someone else, I’m happy to provide details about my religious experiences – a path that nearly found me living in the rectory. Many readers will no doubt recognize parallels with their own lives.
I was raised in a good home in a smaller Oregon town. My parents were not especially happily married but they stuck it out together for more than 60 years. I was the youngest child with siblings who had grown up and left home by the time I was beginning school. My father, while a church-goer when courting my mother, had for years refused to attend church. He was very interested in science and I suspect his decision to stay away from the pew was based upon some inner knowing that what he would hear there didn’t really mesh with the way things were in nature. Given our family environment, he was smart enough, though, not to talk much about it – he only encouraged us kids to study hard, go to college, and learn all we could about the world. But his moral inclinations and way of life were very much in the pattern of how he was conditioned – while not being called “Christian,” his way of life was, nevertheless, identical with that of my mother’s.
Mom was a died-in-the-wool Conservative Baptist (that’s both the name of the denomination and an apt description of their theology). She had met Dad, I was told, at a revival meeting conducted by the Rev. Dr. Charles S. Price, a protégée of Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Churches of the Foursquare Gospel. (See my friend’s beautifully sensitive biography of this early troubled Pentecostal evangelist: Least of All Saints: The Story of Aimee Semple McPherson by Robert Bahr; Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979.) Price conducted revival meetings in my hometown for many months, several years perhaps, as the crowds kept coming (the meetings graduated from a tent to a huge, permanent wooden “tabernacle” built by volunteers). My folks eventually married and gravitated to a non-denominational church and, later on, Mom returned to the church setting she was most acclimated to, the Baptist faith. She made sure us kids attended Sunday school, sat still for the main service and we usually returned for Sunday night services and Wednesday evening prayer meetings. Ours was a large, active church and in junior high and high school I became involved with the youth group. That experience brought me many friends and it was a good time, despite the religious teachings. In all my years of close association with various churches I encountered predominantly good people who were sincere in their faith.
As I was growing up, though, there was a pressure to “become saved.” Although I was fully known and accepted in the church, there was an unspoken attitude by others that made me feel guilty because I hadn’t “gone forward” to receive Christ as my savior. In other words, I was treated well, but others weren’t sure if I was a “real Christian” because they hadn’t seen me make that trip down the aisle and that, of course, must be followed by baptism (total immersion – nothing less would do). I was sensing the unspoken pressure and it was causing me to feel guilty – that feeling, we were told, was the Lord “convicting us of our sin.”
Our next door neighbor was a spiritualist; I knew this from overhearing conversations at home. One of my friends in school once handed me a copy of Fate magazine. Each month it contained amazing stories about psychic phenomena and I believe it is still being issued.. I asked our neighbor about all these topics and she eagerly shared what she knew, all of which was far from what I’d been told in Sunday school. I continued to read with an open mind.
Then I became introduced to the amazing Little Blue Books published by E. Haldeman-Julius. (I was probably in junior high school at the time all this was going on, in the late 1950s.) I began collecting these little booklets and some of them contained pretty amazing stuff that made me ask myself some serious questions. There were essays by Robert G. Ingersoll, the legendary 19th century lawyer, orator and agnostic; others by Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair and other freethinkers.
While in the eighth grade my older sister, who was then in a Christian college, gave me paperback copies of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, holy books of Hinduism, along with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. These would eventually open up great vistas for me.
So, when I made the decision in church one night after an especially emotional service to “go forward” and accept Christ as my personal savior, I was indeed acting on a sincere understanding that this was something I needed and wanted to do. I had believed what I’d heard in church – I was a sinner who needed redemption. However, I wasn’t making that decision in a vacuum; I had already been exposed to some other ideas.
As I made my decision and rendered my prayer of submission, clouds did lift. Looking back, I’m certain that sense of relief and joy was probably prompted by the fact that I’d finally accomplished something I’d been prepared to do but had been putting off. Also, by walking forward I was in the public limelight; everyone in that huge crowd was proud of me and joyful that I’d, finally, fully joined the ranks of the redeemed. That realization no doubt contributed to my inner joy.
From that point my assimilation into Conservative Baptist church and devotional life proceeded rapidly. I was elected president of the Baptist Youth group at our church, organized a church library (which is to this day one of the largest church libraries in the area), attended regional youth events and made the decision to aim for a career as a minister. I visited our church’s impressive seminary in Portland and got ready for the necessary undergraduate work.
At this time I also began seriously reading the Bible. Of course I’d heard all the familiar stories from my earliest days onward but I was told, and I accepted, that Bible reading was an important part of the Christian life. Years later I found that my approach to reading the “good” book was far different from that pursued by most Christians – I read the whole thing! Not just once, but several times (I’ve been through the whole book verse by verse at least seven times, much of the New Testament in both English and Greek versions). It’s a funny thing about many serious atheists – many of them have a better working knowledge of the Bible than do most Christians!
As I read the Bible I also began asking some serious questions about what I was discovering. For instance, what about all those laws in the Pentateuch – there were, of course, the Ten Commandments (actually a couple of versions of them and more than ten, one of which my church directly violated, the one setting aside the Sabbath as the day of worship... their excuse for using Sunday doesn’t hold water!). But aside from that there are the multitude of other commandments that nobody but the most orthodox of Jews pay any attention to – my favorite one, appealing to my newly awakened teenage sexuality, concerned menstruating women and the fact that because they were “unclean” they had to live outside the community until they were over their period and received absolution from the priest. That just didn’t seem quite right to me. There were hundreds of others that made absolutely no sense to me, even when I tried to look at them in their historical context (see Ex. 20-23 & Lev. 20). All the needless bloodshed in the Old Testament bothered me a lot, too. I found numerous inconsistencies and troubling statements in the New Testament as well. In summary, I was beginning to realize that the Bible wasn’t all it was cracked up to be; this realization came from my independent study and no other source. Years later I was to learn that much of what I was discovering had been written down in many books that are condemned by Christians, one of the best being The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by C. Dennis McKinsey (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995). The Bible, upon close reading, was not appearing to be the infallible “word of God.”
I decided to ask some respected Christians about a few of my questions. Our Sunday School teachers, I found, were barely-thinking people with only a thin, transparent film of understanding. They mouthed the stock answers when they had them or dismissed questions out of hand. I asked our pastor and my good friends who owned the local Christian book store – devout Christians and knowledgeable, members of another evangelical church. But answers were often not satisfactory. I later learned that those I talked with were expressing answers prepared by conservative theologians and taught to seminary students in a required class called “Apologetics.” In other words, this coursework attempts to find answers (or “apologies”) to the many contradictions and inconsistencies that I was discovering in the Bible. In my high school days I often found those so-called answers unsatisfactory and incomplete – usually the logic was stretched to a point that it was as unbelievable as was the Aesop-like story in the Old Testament explaining the origin of different languages (the Tower of Babel).
My bookstore friends were asked one day, for example, about the doctrine of sanctification. I had learned that their church, springing from the Holiness tradition, taught full and instantaneous sanctification while my church tended to believe in gradual or progressive sanctification. I asked these kind folks if there was a book that laid out the pros and cons of each doctrine. They said, “no.” Nor could they recommend a source book that compared Calvinist and Arminian doctrines of salvation. Apparently us evangelicals weren’t supposed to do serious thinking on these weighty matters.
One Sunday evening speaker at our church made a tremendous impression on me. His sermon – actually it was more of a lecture on church history – fascinated me and afterwards I went up to talk with him. He had a bunch of booklets from our denomination’s home office that were for sale and one I looked at with interest concerned the history of the Baptist movement. This minister showed me on the back cover a flow chart that started with Jesus and proceeded with an unbroken line through the early church to the Anabaptists and on to other groups, ending with, believe it or not, the Conservative Baptist Church. There was, this clergyman explained, clear historical evidence that the teachings put forth in my local church had been alive and preached throughout the ages in their present-day form. Incredulous, I asked if, in fact, our Baptist movement had emerged from the old Roman Catholic Church, much as the Lutherans had. “No,” he said. “We have direct linage back to Jesus himself.” I guess this is the Protestant version of “apostolic succession” and that night at church I had to restrain my laughter. I knew his thesis was awfully flawed and I was dumbfounded that he had the gall to preach such obvious falsehoods.
Late in my high school years there was some sort of a flap in our church concerning our minister (something that is quite common in evangelical churches). I was working one evening in the church library and in the fellowship hall next door much of the congregation was holding a meeting about this pastor. I liked the fellow and respected him. He was smart, articulate, delivered good sermons and his son was one of my best friends. I’d been in their home a lot. As it turned out, the congregation either asked for his resignation or fired him, I can’t recall which. He hadn’t taught any heretical doctrines; there was just a bunch of people in the church who didn’t like him and wanted him out. As it turned out, the pastor left, the trouble-makers stormed off anyway to form their own church on the other side of town, the pastor had a nervous breakdown and withdrew entirely from the ministry. It was a tragic turn of affairs that caused me a great deal of sadness.
We teenagers were told repeatedly to be wary of sinfulness. Jesus was coming soon and how would we feel if we were doing something sinful the moment he appeared for us in the clouds? What if we were in a movie theater? Or playing cards?? Dancing??? Or, heavens!, masturbating???? Yes, we were saved and that salvation couldn’t be taken from us, but we could still SIN.
Puberty and dealing with sexuality is an extremely difficult time for any teenager and I certainly wasn’t immune to these conflicts, new desires and emotions. Evangelical Christianity in my teenage days was ill prepared to provide any helpful advice. My father had told me that masturbation was the cause of all mental illness and that those who played with themselves ended up in insane asylums. What a horrible thing to learn! After struggling with this news for months and months I finally decided that my fate must be sealed – asylum here I cum! At least I’d be enjoying myself on the trip to the state hospital! At church the message was not much different. We were provided feeble alternatives to school dances and other secular venues where boys and girls could meet and have a good time. But there was always the unspoken message that we were to avoid the “ways of the world.” Things that were too much fun (like orgasms and even dancing) were sinful and off limits. Everything that had a positive ring to it was suspect because, after all, we were humans and as such were grounded in a sinful nature. Satan was the lord of this world and we had to keep our guard up continuously. Today I ask, is this what is promised by the bumper sticker, “Know Jesus, know peace”? I fail to see much peace in this mindset.
After our pastor was dismissed, an older man took over as interim pastor. He and his wife were wonderful and he was doing a grand job. Those people who were left in the congregation liked him and offered him the job as full-time pastor. There was a sticking point with the denomination, however. Fred had ordination from a full-gospel fellowship and no formal seminary training. He would have to be “examined” by a board of ministers from the Conservative Baptist denomination to see if he was qualified to receive ordination by them. This was required before he could take the job. I sat through the two days of grilling and found it to be a nit-picking exercise of the first order. His application for ordination was refused and our parish had to look elsewhere for someone to fill the pulpit. Everyone was disappointed, including me.
I had been accepted to attend Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, the following fall. Whitworth was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and everyone in the church was concerned that I’d be corrupted with “liberal” thinking. A Baptist minister gave me a copy of Gresham Machen’s 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism. Machen had led a number of congregations in a major split of the Presbyterian denomination. Ironically, his New Testament Greek textbook was the one used in my classes at Whitworth!
My four years at Whitworth were a roller-coaster ride intellectually and spiritually. During my first week there I met another freshman, Dan, who eventually ended up in the Presbyterian ministry (albeit in their most fundamentalist wing) and who became a close friend who went through many of these transitions with me. I had been instructed to seek out a “Bible believing Baptist church” and attend it regularly as a safeguard against the “modernism” and “liberalism” of the Presbyterians (Presbyterians were viewed with suspicion by us Baptists – most of them probably weren’t “real” Christians because they had not been “born again” – they were, rather, just “playing church” – AND they practiced infant baptism, something the Baptists strongly objected to). I followed the instructions from home and began attending a Baptist church; but it just wasn’t the same as what I was used to so I tried the campus Presbyterian service once or twice. It was boring!
Then one day that first fall, while standing in line at the college cafeteria, Dan and I were engaged in conversation with a couple of upper classmen who, they said, attended a small, exciting congregation. Quite a few Whitworth students went there; would we like to try it out? Sure, why not! We arranged for them to give us a lift the following Sunday.
We had been forewarned that the Church of the Rock of Ages at Spofford and Post avenues was a barn of a building outside but that the worshipers there were wonderful. And the pastor, the Rev. C.A. Brown, was amazing. All of this proved true.
Dan and I learned that first morning that this church was unlike anything we had ever experienced. Although it didn’t label itself as such, this independent congregation would have many of the earmarks of those fundamentalist charismatic churches (aka “Pentecostal”) lumped together as “full gospel” churches. Worship was very spontaneous; there were times during the services, especially when there was congregational singing, that the ecstasy and joy was thick. We would sing praises spontaneously and individually but the mixture of all this was gloriously harmonic and uplifting. Our hands were in the air, tears of joy streaming down our faces and hearts racing. Occasionally there was speaking in tongues but, more often than not, there was prophecy from either Pastor Brown or one of the others in the church. This congregation took Eph. 4:11 literally – there were supposed to be apostles in each congregation today, not just in Bible times. Also, there were supposed to be prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. This was ordained by the Bible.
Prophecy was often general in content (it was tape recorded, transcribed and mimeographed – I still have much of it) but occasionally there were specific “words of knowledge” imparted to one of us in the congregation. These personalized prophetic messages often contained detailed instruction or information. It was always appropriate, I observed; nobody was ever told to do something that was not for their own good. Occasionally these “words of the Lord” were pronouncements from Him as to who had been selected as a future leader in the church – both the local church and the Church worldwide. After attending only a few times, I was singled out for one of these “words of knowledge” from Pastor Brown.
This man was a giant of a man, both in body and personality. He stood over six and one-half feet tall and had the physique of a body builder. Handsome with his thick, wavy silver-gray hair and mustache (he was perhaps in his upper 50s or early 60s at this time), he had an infectious smile and boisterous laugh. I have never heard a more powerful preacher from any pulpit anywhere, before or since (I was told once he had been one of the top officials in the Assembly of God denomination back in Missouri before he acted on his belief that the denomination had gone down too many wrong paths and struck out on his own, first starting a church in Great Falls, Montana, then this one in Spokane). On the day I received my word from the Lord, Pastor Brown came down from the platform, walked over to the benches where all of us Whitworth kids always sat, and strode toward me in his spit-polished size 16 shoes, placed his massive hand on my forehead and said, “Thus sayeth the Lord....” I had been set aside by God Almighty as a prophet in the church, he continued; a prophet in training, perhaps, but an instrument of the Lord nonetheless.
Each Sunday morning and evening as well as Friday evenings were dedicated to the “work.” Friday nights were our favorite times as the college group always got together at the pastor’s lovely home near the college for a time of fellowship, singing and study. Pastor Brown always seemed to have just the right message and they were not superficial at all; we were being treated to some pretty deep stuff and we knew it. Sometimes the message was delivered by the church’s associate minister, Pastor Harding. Besides us Whitworth kids, there were a few others who came to these groups from time to time. Years later when my second wife and I were recalling those years we discovered that she had been to a couple of those Friday evening meetings when I was there. I was a freshman or sophomore in college while she was a high school girl. I vaguely remember being introduced to her. After our worship and study Mrs. Brown always had refreshments ready and we enjoyed a rollicking good time visiting.
This sudden turn in church affiliation caused me to change my career outlook entirely. The Church of the Rock of Ages (now known as Rock of Ages Christian Fellowship) was not part of any denomination so there were no seminaries and no clear-cut career path toward the ministry. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing; I couldn’t find any career guide-books for prophets!
Although Pastor Brown didn’t preach much, as many Pentecostal ministers do, about the benefits of receiving the “second blessing,” the “baptism of the Holy Spirt accompanied by the gift of speaking in tongues,” it was generally understood by us college kids that this was something to be desired. We had been shown the scriptural basis for it. But we were educated folks and going to a wild revival meeting to get the gift of tongues wouldn’t fit in with our self-concept that well. At this time, in the early 1960s, there was a movement afoot in the Episcopal Church, a more sedate acceptance of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that had begun under the preaching of the Rev. Dennis Bennett in Van Nuys, California. One day we learned that Bennett would be in Spokane, speaking at an Episcopal church one evening. The opportunity would be available afterwards for Rev. Bennett to lay hands on us “seekers” so we could receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and the accompanying gift of tongues. A carload of us drove out to that church and, sure enough, after the orderly service, the invitation was given to come forward for prayer and laying on of hands. All of us Whitworth kids responded and that night at an Episcopal altar rail I was washed by a flood of spiritual joy and began babbling in tongues – very quietly but distinctly. There was no doubt; I’d been baptized by the Spirit and equipped with new spiritual tools just as it was promised in the book of Acts.
Between my freshman and sophomore years I worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon as a fire lookout. It was an incredibly lonely assignment and I found it difficult but I continued to read my Bible, pray, and I was able at night on my mountain-top to tune in 50,000-watt gospel radio stations from Mexico that broadcast revival meetings nonstop. Tent evangelist and healer A.A. Allen was my favorite.
Returning to Whitworth the next fall I was exhilarated to get back into the social atmosphere that the college provided and, most particularly, to return to the “R of A” as we code-named the church. The old group was there, of course, with some drops and adds. Dan and I had become dorm roommates.
It wasn’t too many months, though, until something happened. From this distance I can’t put my finger on what it was that caused me to loose interest in the church and all the activities and teachings; I suspect it was a combination of things. I was having some relationship difficulties with a girl I was madly in love with (who also attended the church); I was having problems with my chosen major in college (English) and made a switch to a field I enjoyed much more (journalism); I was battling depression (I determined much later); and Dan and I weren’t getting along as well as I thought two Christians should (he had been singled out by a word of prophecy as well and, unlike me, he stuck with it). All of these things plus a whole lot more – like my growing skepticism about the validity of the Bible and Christianity – combined to discourage me and I stopped attending R of A meetings altogether. Frankly, I missed the fellowship a lot but I was being “rebellious” and stayed away. I recall riding my bicycle past Pastor Brown’s home a couple of times on Friday evenings, hearing faint sounds of singing. Those were very sad moments as I was missing the closeness of that group. But I had changed and needed to move on. Just as Dad’s information about masturbation was woefully wrong, so, too, what I’d been hearing all my life in church was being shown, bit by bit, to be inaccurate as well.
Despite my discouragement, my interest in religion didn’t wane, however. I continued my study of both Christianity in all its denominational forms and its teachings as well as non-Christian religions. One book on Christian origins from the Whitworth library shattered my remaining trust in the Biblical account and the understanding I gained from it has been expanded and strengthened by countless other books since. The Religion of the Occident, a massive volume by Martin A. Larson, started me down a road of scholarly investigation that continues four decades later. (I read the original 1959 edition published by the Philosophical Library. It was later reprinted by Littlefield, Adams & Co. as one of the titles in their Students Outline Series and later reissued, I think, under the title of Story of Christian Origins.) Larson confirmed my suspicions that what I’d heard about the early church from the pastor with the Baptist flow chart was entirely bunk. In recent years I’ve decided that the historical record as updated over the past decade or two shows pretty conclusively that the person we label “Jesus” probably never existed but was, instead, a creation of Paul. Later gospel writers got confused between this creation of Paul’s and an earlier, actual person, the Teacher of Righteousness, who began the Jewish sect known as the Essenes.
During my junior year in college I decided to get back into the church game again, though. I began attending nearby St. David’s Episcopal Church, thinking this denomination’s reputation, demeanor and career path would be more to my liking. It was. The rector was a “spirit-filled” man (a friend of Fr. Dennis Bennett’s) who I respected greatly and it wasn’t long before I completed necessary classes to qualify for confirmation and membership at St. David’s. That winter I was also selected to go cross country by train with a group of students to an international Christian student gathering at Ohio University, sponsored by the National Council of Churches. I believe there were 4,000 of us there over Christmas break. The week-long event introduced me to the civil rights struggle and confronted me with the reality that slavery and its long-lasting effects had been perpetrated by good Christian folks and justified by passages from the Bible.
In addition to my work at St. David’s, I began attending student meetings on Sunday evenings at the gloriously-beautiful Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane. I was selected to help conduct evensong services in that massive gothic cathedral and the art, sound and beauty of the services and surroundings impressed me greatly. Even now, whenever I return to Spokane on business, I usually find myself stopping at St. John’s in order to soak up this beauty once again.
I applied to the Diocese of Spokane for postulant status and after consultations with the bishop I was accepted. The cathedral’s dean, the Rev. Richard Coombs, encouraged me to consider applying to his alma mater, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now Episcopal Divinity School, adjoining the campus of Harvard University). I applied, was accepted after a rigorous process that included interviews with psychiatrists and several clergymen who were on the seminary’s board of directors. I was assured that necessary financial obligations would be taken care of for me. However, my mother and members of her church (I had withdrawn my membership) were dismayed. There could only be two or three things worse than my heading toward a career as an Episcopalian priest – being sucked off into some cult, becoming a Unitarian minister or, gasp!, turning to Romanism (the Roman Catholic Church). Actually, most Baptists don’t see much difference between the Roman and Episcopalian churches.
What the folks back home didn’t know was that I had already rejected much of their social teaching and most of their theology. I smoked (Baptists then didn’t think one could be saved and smoke at the same time – I subsequently quit for health reasons), I enjoyed a beer now and then (more often than that, actually), and I even danced. (Which reminds me of the joke – “Do you know why Baptist couples never have intercourse in the standing position? Because it may lead to dancing!”) Besides this, I was thoroughly enjoying my sexuality through masturbation and occasional “flings” with friends. But my understanding of the Episcopal way was that most of these things, in moderation, were a normal part of life that should not hinder my spiritual development too much. There was NO way I would ever consider going back to the Baptist outlook. My foray into the full gospel at R of A had convinced me that the Baptist church was even more boring and misguided than the Presbyterian. Their Baptist dogmatism, based as it was on false and selective interpretations of scripture and their strange outlook, was repugnant to me by this time. The high-pitched tone of the Pentecostals didn’t appeal to me either; its circus atmosphere was fun but they shared some of the myopia of the Baptists along with a whole lot of other baggage they had created for themselves. Episcopalianism seemed a good alternative. I appreciated the rich artistic beauty of its churches, the dignified approach to worship complete with beautiful music and chant. Plus, that church encouraged the scholarship that already captivated me – Baptists and Pentecostals generally disparaged higher learning.
As captivated as I was with scholarship, I was also growing weary of study and wanted to “get on with life.” I graduated in 1966 and, as I did each summer, returned to Oregon to work with the Forest Service – that is, after a graduation gift I gave myself – a trip to see my sister in San Diego. While there I learned about a new federal government program that sent college graduates through a master’s program to prepare them for teaching in public schools. This intrigued me and I visited with a neighbor of my sister’s who was in the new program. I decided to apply and see what developed. After all, I already had my seminary locked in, perhaps I would have that plus another option to choose from.
One factor that caused me to look seriously at this new alternative was a fresh girlfriend I’d met just before graduation. We had “hit it off” and talk of marriage had come up. I didn’t know how I could juggle that with seminary. As it turned out, I was accepted into the program at San Diego State, I got married in September, and I didn’t go to seminary.
Just before graduation in Spokane I had asked to visit with the good dean at the cathedral. We had a long talk wherein I expressed doubts about many of the cardinal teachings of Christianity including the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth and those other statements we had to say in the Creed each Sunday morning during the Eucharistic service. I will never forget the dean’s response because it blew me away. While I can’t quote the exact words, a very close paraphrase would be, “Don’t worry about those doubts. Almost all of us in the clergy doubt those things, too.” That summer while struggling with the choice between seminary or San Diego State I thought often of this conversation. I had to ask myself, “Even though it is apparently commonplace for clergy to doubt or deny the cardinal teachings of the Church, by virtue of their employment they are clearly bound to keep it pretty much to themselves and not tell their parishioners. How could I do that? How could I, knowing the truth that scholarship supports, go through the motions of leading worship and reciting the creed that I didn’t believe?” I finally decided that I did not want to set myself up in a position where I would have to live a life of hypocrisy. I would not live in the rectory after all and I was relieved with that choice. I have attended perhaps only half a dozen Episcopal services since my college graduation in 1966 and long ago considered myself divorced from that church, and all churches really.
Years later I read a book by a prominent Episcopal bishop that clearly shows how things have changed over my lifetime. Why Christianity Must Change or Die by retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong makes a strong case for abandoning dogmatic adherence to most of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1998). Last year I told a friend of mine, a retired Episcopalian priest who is a fan of Spongs, that I agreed with most of what Spong says in his several books but that I didn’t think he had gone far enough. I suspect that the security of his pension may prevent that!
I grew up with a term that describes Christians who revert to their former sinful ways – they are called “back-sliders.” I suppose that in the eyes of my former Baptist and Pentecostal friends I was a “back-slider” slipping to my eternal death in the Episcopal Church. But I also made a couple of back-sliding moves back toward Pentecostalism during graduate school and over several years after that. Please recall the prophetic selection at the Rock of Ages Church that called me to the ministry of a prophet. One summer break in college I was staying for several days with an aunt and uncle in Portland. I had heard that there was a Church of Christ minister there who had received the baptism of the spirit (this experience is contrary to Church of Christ teachings). While in Portland I called him and he offered to pick me up that evening to attend a prayer group meeting in the home of one of his congregants. I had never met this man nor had he ever heard of me. I told him nothing of prophecies made about me in Spokane. During the prayer meeting, however, this minister was “moved” by the spirit and began to prophesy. Among the messages he delivered on behalf of the “Lord” was one directed specifically to me. I had been called to be a “prophet of the Lord,” he channeled.
While living in San Diego I had a similar experience. I found an ad in the newspaper for special services at a church I’d never heard of, being conducted by a visiting evangelist. There were some “code words” in the ad that tipped me off about this church – it would be much like the R of A church in Spokane (I believe the phrase was “A church of the living word” or something similar). I was right. When my wife and I showed up we spoke to no one and sat in the back pew. The service droned on and on and my wife finally decided to go out to the car and take a nap. I remained awhile longer, however. Finally the sermon was over and this visiting minister, who I had never heard of before this night, began to utter “words of knowledge” to several in the audience. He pointed at me and repeated, to my amazement, the same words I’d heard in Portland and Spokane: “You have been called to be a prophet of the Lord.” The coincidences are striking. While I firmly believe there is no supernatural influence in this coincidence, I am at a loss to explain the mechanisms that allowed them to occur. While my current and longstanding secular humanist perspective agrees that there is absolutely no valid evidence for a supernatural realm, I remain open to the possibility that there may be as-yet undiscovered mechanisms such as telepathy that appear much like supernatural agencies at work. Recent theories in quantum physics postulate a whole lot of things that might account for much of what humankind has long held to be supernatural. Time will tell. Some years ago we attended a seance where the “spirit” speaking through the medium revealed some things about my wife and me (even using proper names) that nobody in the room had any knowledge of (we hadn’t spoken a word to anybody there and everyone was a total stranger to us). Mysteries remain in this world of ours and it is exciting to contemplate them without the encumbrance of pre-conceived notions imposed upon us by religious dogma.
Anyway, we back-slid to Pentecostalism on this occasion in San Diego. Upon moving back to eastern Washington the following year we began attending services again at the Rock of Ages church, in the beautiful new structure they continue to occupy. Pastor Brown was out of the picture as he was gravely ill with Parkinsons, a disease that would take him before long (their belief in spiritual healing didn’t work in his case). The church simply wasn’t the same and I could not get “with it.” To do so would be to deceive myself. We drifted away again.
That first marriage ended in divorce. Fifteen or 20 years prior my oldest sister had divorced her husband and it was a scandal in my family. My parents were dismayed and hoped that none of their friends or, especially, anyone in Mom’s church, would get wind of it. In the intervening years attitudes toward divorce changed greatly in the church. It was much more common and those in the evangelical church, including clergy, had to deal with it from a practical point of view. Other things had changed as well. No longer were the women in the local Assembly of God Church in my home town prohibited from wearing makeup, jewelry or cutting their hair despite clear passages in the New Testament. The days were near when the Pentecostal face of cake-makeup Tammy Fae Bakker would appear on television and those Biblical prohibitions would be completely out the window. I doubt that you could get many ministers in these denominations to talk freely about how times, teachings and ways of life have changed within evangelical Christianity over just the past 50 years. To me these patterns have been healthy but they also point to a root inconsistency within the movement that essentially belies claims of supernatural guidance or even self-assertions that the movement is attempting to follow infallible scripture.
In my younger years I came across some writings by teachers, heavily influenced by Far Eastern ideas, that are lumped together under the broad term “New Thought.” From these teachings (those of Charles Fillmore, founder of Unity School of Christianity; Earnest Holmes, founder of the Churches of Religious Science; and my personal favorite, A.K. Mozumdar, an Indian transplant) came today’s “pop psychology” and “self-help” movements. Norman Vincent Peale and even the infamous Pentecostal/Methodist healing evangelist Oral Roberts borrowed heavily from New Thought to formulate their positive spin on traditional Christian teaching. The Rev. Robert Schuller’s TV ministry also tapped into the resources of New Thought.
After leaving Christianity for good in the late 1960s, following my brief return to the Rock of Ages Church, I spent awhile with the Unitarians and with organized Humanism. Then I delved more deeply into New Thought. Yes, that work employs some of the buzz words of Christianity but the doctrine is MUCH different. It is a positive expression of our intrinsic self worth and a road map to better living through better patterns of thinking. (By way of contrast, about 15 years ago my wife attended a Mother’s Day tea with my now-deceased mother at her Baptist Church. The event’s speaker was a woman who railed against efforts of schools and others to raise the “self-esteem” of children. After all, they are sinners in need of the blood of Christ – to make them think otherwise might thwart their chances to be saved! Mom was thrilled with the presentation; my wife was disgusted.) Off and on over the years I have dabbled with this New Thought teaching and find that it is, in most respects, a rewarding way to deal with our world. I’ve also done a great deal of reading in Eastern religion and I’m aligned with several freethought (atheist or agnostic) organizations. An open mind is a refreshing one.
In closing I’ll recount an experience during my senior year in college. As I have said, I was active at St. David’s Episcopal Church but I’d heard about a church downtown, Bethel Temple, led by Dr. Alexander Schiffner. He had a nationwide radio broadcast and his teaching was known as “Anglo-Saxon Israelism,” the idea that Anglo-Saxons are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and, therefore, the chosen people of God. Curious, I called this pastor and made an appointment to visit with him. He was kind and attentive, freely sharing of his ideas. He seemed to have everything wrapped up in an understandable package.
On my way back to campus I had to drive right past St. David’s. I saw Fr. Knight’s car in the lot, so I pulled in unannounced. He was happy to see me. I told him where I’d been and what I’d learned. He, too, was kind and attentive. After I made the statement that the other minister seemed to have all the answers and was secure and happy in that, Fr. Knight sat back, thought, and then said something very wise. “It is far better to feel somewhat unsettled while keeping an open mind than it is to close your mind by believing in something that is entirely false.”
While not expressive of the typical Christian outlook, that statement is, by far, the most meaningful and lasting thing I brought away from my experience with Christianity.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)