My faith: pruning hook, or axe?

I’ve been in rehab for a few years now.

More on that later.

It’s strange how things which seemed so colossal when we were young are now so trivial or easily dismissed.  Like the little trolls that we were sure skulked out of your fireplace at night to do all kinds of horrible things to unsuspecting people.  Or the dangers of getting coodies if a girl touched you (which could only be prevented by scrawling “Coodie Protection” on your arms and legs with indelible ink).

It’s easy to laugh at those now.

But certain other fears from my past are a little bit more sinister and embarrassing. I was reminded about some of these when reading the news a couple days ago and came across an article in The Guardian. In it, Josiah Hesse describes the panic he experienced as a kid thinking that the Rapture had happened, that he was “left behind,” and that he would have to now face off alone (since his parents had vanished) against the Anti-Christ and his global government bent on overthrowing all that is good. I’m not sure what prompted The Guardian to publish that story at this time.  But just the same, I could easily relate to it quite well: one night when my parents were taking far too long to return home (in my defense, I can at least say that I hadn’t gone so far as to arm myself with “every sharp knife in the kitchen”).

For those who may not know what Josiah and I are talking about, “the Rapture” referred to the second coming of Christ when all the Christians on Earth would be evacuated immediately prior to an Armageddon fought by all the world super-powers converging on the nation of Israel, in turn led by some  kind of dark cosmic spiritual overlord.

Sure, kids today have grown up watching grand battles led by Sauron in Lord of the Rings and Darth Vader in Star Wars, and have grown up unscathed. But for us it was different. The adults around today’s kids rarely mention Sauron or Lord Vader; in fact, as far as those kids might be concerned, the adults probably don’t even know who those tyrants are.  But for us, we heard often from authority figures about the Anti-Christ, and had a visceral fear of him instilled into us.

To understand what I mean, start with how adults today will try to keep kids believing in Santa Claus, with frequent cheerful questions like “What’s Santa gonna’ bring you this year, dear?” or “What’ll you leave for Rudolph?”, spoken with little winks and nods given to the other adults. One might have noticed those looks, but our young naïve minds just didn’t know how to interpret them. Occasionally, one might get a gentle warning of what you might not get if you behaved out of line.

But now take that charade and ramp up the seriousness of it with vivid technicolor imagery of destruction and violence, and  combine it with dire threats, not merely of getting a lump of coal in your stocking this year, but of actually being one of the coals burning for eternity in the Lake of Fire. And without any of the smiling nods and winks, but instead delivered in fire-and-brimstone sermons from authority figures who commanded the ultimate of respect and influence.

The article also reminded me of a summer or two in my teen years when a local church played movies every Sunday night in their parking lot for the public to watch for free. But these movies were very different from the ones you’d catch in the local Cineplex downtown: these were mostly part of the Left Behind series, which portrayed the Rapture, the Anti-Christ, Armageddon, and the global chaos that these brought. Planes dropping out of the skies, and highways choked with multi-vehicle accidents, because so many pilots and drivers had been “raptured” while en route. Riots and looting and anarchy because all the good law-abiding people had been taken out of the picture.  Patients bleeding out on the operating tables because the doctors and nurses had suddenly vanished. Each of those movies was followed by an urgent plea of “don’t be left behind,” complete with Larry Norman singing in the background “I wish we’d all been ready.”  I’ve blogged previously about a recent sequel in that series, and what I see as a more sensible interpretation of the New Testament passages that are often used to support those apocalyptic distortions.

I remembered taking part in dramatic productions of Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames, in which we enacted a series of scenes of people dying and finding out their eternal destinies … usually of the variety you didn’t want to experience, complete with screams of terror and regret, and flashing lights and paper-mache flames being whipped up by up-tilted fans. We took a certain sadistic glee in “scaring the hell out of people,” but we knew this was OK because it was all for a good purpose: we were bringing the Good News.

The internal fears those experiences created in us were real and deep.  And long-lasting.  As Josiah attests in his article in the Guardian, and which I’ve heard others share before, and to which I can relate.

But, as the Apostle Paul put it: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

Which brings me to the “rehab.” I’ve got a group of friends who like to go out for a beer once a month and indulge in all kinds of questions of philosophy and theology: to “open some pints and opine some points.” All of the core group would call themselves Christian; all are well-read and critical-thinkers. They’ve been instrumental in helping me better understand my Fundamentalist background. One thing that became abundantly clear to me was how the theology I grew up with, and which I thought represented the full scope of all things Christian, was in fact just a narrow and superficial slice of the entire spectrum of Christian belief. In fact, one of them, a psychologist no less, referred to it lightheartedly as my “toxic religion” and these friends as my therapy group.  I’m sure it’s hurtful for some to hear it referred to in that way.  But I have to agree.  I’ve since learned that the Christian faith goes much deeper than the veneer we knew. It offers so much more than merely an (after)life insurance policy. And it surely doesn’t offer certainty about life’s many questions, nor guarantee a problem-free journey.

Unfortunately, many others around me have also become skeptical of some of their own original beliefs, and concluded that the entire Christian faith must therefore be useless.  The “baby with the bath-water” thing.  That seems to be the decision that Josiah came to. As have many others with whom I grew up.

And this brings me to the main reason I’m writing this blog.  Coming to realize that not everything you once believed now stands up to close scrutiny doesn’t have to call for indiscriminate and callous radical surgery.

Many people have been lured into the investment world by certain ideas of how to become wealthy, only to find out that some of those ideas were misplaced or mistaken: but that doesn’t mean the rational response is to quit your paying job, close all your bank accounts, liquidate all your assets, and “live off the land.”

Scientists have sometimes found a certain pet theory turned out to be a dead-end because it was based on certain erroneous observations or biased interpretations: but they don’t then smash their computers and equipment, throw out all their data and knowledge, and stop pursuing scientific questions.

When it comes to my theology — as in finance and science — I’ve found it’s possible to set aside certain ideas and hang on to the ones that still have merit.

As I closed the Guardian article, the significance of the name of this kid who wrote The Guardian article struck me.  “Josiah” is also the name of a kid who became king of ancient Judah, and who brought that nation back to remember the God they had once worshiped but had long since forgotten.  The Josiah who wrote this article was a 21st century kid who remembered the faith he once had and was now telling his on-line peers to forget it.  I wondered if that name was a pseudonym chosen for that purpose.  But some background checking showed me he’s been using that name for a while in other stories. I also wondered why the picture he included with the article had so much apparently unnecessary background … was there a message in that?  Perhaps his warming up from his numbing childhood nightmare was melting back the piles of ice and snow that hid the truth, now revealing the clear cut lines of certainty on the ground before him and revealing new places to park his beliefs?  Were the fading images of fantasy and surrealism on the wall immediately behind him, occluding the distant views of reality behind it, supposed to represent his childhood religion and beliefs?  Maybe I’m just over-analyzing it a bit?

Yes, much of what we grew up with was theologically goofy. Much of our government is politically goofy, many of the TV shows we watch are intellectually goofy, much of the food we eat is nutritionally … well, you get the idea.  It’s too easy to just throw the whole thing out when you find some defect in it.  It’s harder — but a lot more rewarding — to invest a little bit more effort in discriminating between what’s worth saving and what can be put to the side of the curb.

Let me know what you think.

 

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4 thoughts on “My faith: pruning hook, or axe?

  1. There are ideas in the world that are far more goofy…not to mention dangerous…than the fi.e tuning of ones faith…rescent science alone is enough for the church to ha e to sit up and take notice…a friend of mi.e often tells me that u just cant plug god in the gaps in science…ive come to realize its the otber way around.

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  2. I also grew up with crazy end-time beliefs. We believed we’d be raptured /after/ the 7-year tribulation, so I was more expecting to be tortured to death for my faith than afraid of being left behind. I even planned out the method that I hoped they’d use to kill me when I was about 6 years old. I hoped they wouldn’t burn me alive because I was scared of fire and wasn’t sure I’d be brave enough not to recant.

    In the end, I am also now non-Christian. Don’t be so quick to judge that we just “threw the baby out with the bathwater.” For me and many others, finding one thing wrong didn’t prompt us to smash the whole thing in a fit of passion. Rather, discovering that something was wrong led me to thoughtfully examine the rest. I moved through various different forms of Christianity as I continued to search for evidence and continued to find none until eventually I reached agnosticism. It WAS hard and it WAS rewarding to invest time into discriminating what was worth saving and what should be put to the curb. I just came to a different conclusion than you did about the useful and curb-worthy stuff. That doesn’t make my process of getting there inferior or less thoughtful.

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  3. I don’t judge you at all, GE. I can’t. If you’ve sincerely evaluated what you believe and why, and “continued to find none,” then I can’t fault you. There may be others who do claim an unwavering faith in God, and who will judge you, but you and I can ask them (or ask God himself) why he hasn’t / doesn’t make himself more readily evident. Thomas (the disciple) said he couldn’t believe unless he had physical evidence and the palpable/tangible experience. Jesus didn’t judge him for that (many arm-chair theologians will, though), but actually offered him the evidence he needed. At that point it was up to Thomas to make a decision. I don’t know where you are in that kind of transaction/dialogue, but I certainly can’t judge you for being honest and thoughtful. Keep it up.

    As for myself, I haven’t given up. My faith is nothing like it used to be, though. I’m honestly wrestling with the contradictions, the paradoxes, the questions, and my own doubts. Especially when it comes to how we interact with God. As I’ve written before, what on earth would a relationship between a 3-dimensional being and a 10-dimensional being look like? How on earth would a human and an amoeba dialogue? It can’t be as simple as “He lives in my heart” (not found in the Bible) and “He talks with me and he walks with me” (not part of my own experience).

    I’m still searching.

    Let me know if you discover anything.

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