Monthly Archives: June 2014

Reading: Something Other Than God

Jennifer Fulwiler is a former atheist who converted to Catholicism, and whose story was recently published in her autobiographical memoir Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It.

I have enjoyed reading Jennifer’s personal blog at Conversion Diary, as well as her blog at the National Catholic Register, but wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the book. I am very pleased to say that it exceeded my expectations, and is a wonderful, well-written journey of faith. Jennifer writes about her childhood, her parents, her marriage, her children, contraception, abortion, Catholicism, moving, babies, going to church, house hunting, and brings it all together into one coherent message about God, love, and the Church.

I highly recommend it, and am going to start rereading it soon!

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Solitary Christianity

One of the things that struck me most about the Catholic Church (vice Protestant denominations) is the attitude toward the Church. Which kinda makes sense; most of the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestantism on things like authority, the sacraments, even morality and salvation, are based on how one defines what the Church is.

For Protestants, Christ’s Church is just a way of referring to individual Christians in the collective sense: the Church is all Christians, throughout history, whether they knew each other or agreed with each other or not; the primary relationship was between each individual and God, and if you are properly linked to God, then you are part of the Church. Hypothetically, a lone man on a desert island could find a Bible, read it, and have a fully sufficient means to be a Christian.

Thomas Howard gives a wonderful image of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism in his book On Being Catholic:

In the first years of the apostolic and patristic Church, if I had been a pagan shopkeeper in Smyrna, say, and had been watching you, my Christian neighbor, for some time and had concluded that you Christians had something that I wanted, I might have approached you with, “Um — I’d like to be a Christian.”

If you had been an Evangelical of the school that has arisen in the modern world under the preaching of John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham, you might well have said, “Praise the Lord! Here — here’s John 3:16. See that? Do you believe that? Wonderful. Let’s just bow our heads here, and you can repeat after me: “Lord Jesus, I believe that you are the Savior — my Savior — and I want to accept you into my life right here and to confess you as Lord. Forgive my sins, I pray, and make me your own.”

But of course you weren’t a modern Evangelical. You were a Christian in Smyrna. So you would have said in response to my overture, “What? You want to be a Christian? Ah. Well, now — it’s an immense business, really. You’ll have to turn around and head 180 degrees in the opposite direction. But if you’re serious — and you can mull it over for a while if you wish — I’ll take you to Polycarp, our bishop here, and he will no doubt talk to you and then turn you over to some of the elders in our Christian assembly, and they will take you in hand and instruct you and bring you to our weekly liturgy (you’ll have to leave half-way through, though: they won’t let you stay for the Lord’s Supper); and if, over a period of months, everyone, and most especially Polycarp, is satisfied that you are wholehearted in your desire to be a Christian, and that you understand all that it will entail, then Polycarp will baptize you at the liturgy, and you will then be a Christian.”

This is the fundamental difference, and it is a big difference: Catholicism believes that salvation occurs in the context of the Church, an active, visible Body of Christ on earth. Protestantism sees salvation as an interior, private occurrence, regardless of the rest of the Body of Christ. Catholics understand that to become a Christian is to become a part of Christ’s body — not just grafted, individually, onto His severed Head.

Protestants laud the Gospel as something simple: something that someone with no prior knowledge or information can sufficiently grasp and assent to after hearing a mere few verses, plucked from context. (Any Protestant who has been pressured to witness to others has had the drill pounded into him innumerable times.) And that’s not to say that in extreme circumstances, salvation can’t occur like that; sometimes people in grave peril can do nothing but “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)

But, in general, is that how it is supposed to be? The same Protestants who have heard how important it is to expose everyone they meet to the Roman Road all know what the fruits of those encounters often are: people who hear a fire-and-brimstone sermon, get scared, run down the aisle, pray the sinner’s prayer, then never advance in the Christian life because they were told that they just had to “believe” one thing one time and they would be set for eternity. If this was the case, then why did Jesus spend three years teaching? Why did He tell the disciples to teach? Why did the New Testament writers spend any time at all teaching about the Christian life, and how we were supposed to live as Christians? If there is nothing to being a Christian than “believing,” then there is no need for a Church, no need for believers to identify as such on earth, no real reason to do anything ever.

Catholics believe that to become a Christian is a very significant thing, entailing many responsibilities and a lot of stuff to know. Before someone enters the Church, there must be an assurance that they understand what they are doing, and won’t quickly find some objection and fall away. It’s no use getting someone “saved” if they don’t continue in the Christian life.

Jimmy Akin makes several good points on this episode of Catholic Answers; he contrasts the relative ease with which people can join Protestant denominations versus the Catholic Church (which can take up to a couple of years to join, depending on the parish and the individual person). He says the Catholic Church doesn’t like to rush people into membership, because “they don’t understand fully what they’re committing to, and they’re less likely to stick with it.”

It makes sense to me that something as important as being a Christian ought to take a while to accomplish. (Even when one joins the military, one goes through at least 8 weeks of 24/7, immersive training just to get started.) If people aren’t properly informed, they tend to 1) leave once the initial thrill wears off, 2) become easily swayed by incorrect doctrine and teaching, or 3) suffer needlessly through misunderstandings and ignorance of what they are and what they are expected to do. According to Protestants, everything one needs to know can be easily found by reading the Bible, but the Catholic Church understands that people in authority are needed to translate and explain and teach the truths about the faith, and that takes time. Sufficient training is essential for someone who wants to become a Christian, and that is where the Church comes in.

If Jesus intended every Christian to figure everything out for himself and go it alone, then there would be no need for a Church; it would just be each individual and Jesus going along. But that doesn’t seem to be the way that He wanted it.

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Humans acting human-y

Simcha Fisher, Catholic blogger at the National Catholic Register, once wrote a post about supporting your local priest, and she got this as a reply (from someone who claimed to be a priest himself):

“I’m sorry but many of us do not drink Beer. Wine was the drink of Jesus and is therefore my drink of choice (in moderation). Beer and the modern way of drinking it (out of the bottle ) is just a bit vulgar. I just can’t see Jesus and the disciples hoisting a bottle of beer. If you want to make your priest happy then go to confession on a regular schedule and give up beer for Lent and donate the money to the poor. Too much beer is not healthy for you and it is the reason that many men cannot look down and see their feet. How much money have you spent on beer lately?”

 

She responded:

“…I believe with all my heart that, if beer had been present in 1st-century Israel, Peter would have been all over it.”

 

It reminded me of a question from a caller on a Catholic radio show: why doesn’t the Bible ever show Jesus having fun or telling jokes?

My first thought was, “Because the jokes He told weren’t fit to be printed.”

There is a tendency to put the Apostles, saints, and even Jesus Himself on a pedestal that isn’t really realistic. They are often portrayed as the type of upper-class Victorian gentlemen whom John Cleese likes to satirize. But I think that belies the truth about who this group of men was.

For one thing, they were mostly lower-class, blue collar workers. Palestine at the time of Christ was a poor area; we know that Jesus’s family was very poor by the level of temple sacrifice they could afford to make. Several of the disciples were fishermen, so even if they made a good living, they still got out and worked with their hands every day.

The question is, when you think of carpenters and fishermen today, do you think of rigidly polite, impeccably dressed, wine sniffing aristocrats? Or do you think of grungy guys hurling insults at each other at work and then adjourning to the bar afterward?

I suppose it’s because I spent several years in the Navy, but I always viewed the disciples and our Lord as very down-to-earth men. I’m not saying that Jesus went around taking the Lord’s name in vain, because we know He never sinned, but there are plenty of earthy jokes that would have been perfectly acceptable in a man’s world of carpentry and fishing boats without being explicitly sinful.

I think it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t come as someone in the upper rungs of society, who would have been admired and followed because of His social position; He came as the lowest of the low, from the poor, the hard-scrabble, the people who would have taken all the little comforts they could get because life was that hard and who didn’t have time or energy for looking respectable.

He was the type of guy who the uptight little old church ladies would be horrified by, He hung out in all the wrong places with all the wrong people, He didn’t have a nice respectable house and a nice respectable career, and He was executed with criminals.

The next time we try to divide society into “us respectable people” and “all the other ones,” we need to remember into which category Jesus falls.

 

 

 

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Why should I trust the authority of the Catholic Church?

Most Protestants recoil from the idea that they should let a group of (mere) men interpret God’s Word for them and tell them what to do and believe. We all have experience with the incompetence of large groups of people, and the idea that a huge bureaucracy can make any kind of good decision on anything, much less matters of eternal significance, seems preposterous. So Protestants rely on the Bible and their own brain to tell them what the truth is, and believe that they are trusting no one less than God himself.

The first problem is that God’s Word has always been transmitted through man. Yes, there have been times when God has revealed himself directly to an individual (fun fact! The Catholic Church calls the appearances of saints, etc, to random people “private revelations,” and they don’t require that any other individual necessarily believe in them, hence the term “private.”), but for the most part he has spoken through prophets and other men to deliver his messages to people in general. In the Old Testament, Moses went up on the mountain to tête-à-tête with God, and came down with the law: the people had to trust that God was working through Moses. Throughout the history of Israel, God sent prophets to tell the people what he wanted: they had to trust the prophet (that doesn’t mean blind acceptance; there are standards for what you believe God has revealed. I’m talking to you, Scientologists). Jesus came and spoke directly as God, but when he returned to heaven he enabled his disciples to spread what he had said throughout the entire world, and the people had to trust that what the apostles said about God was true. Before the books of the New Testament were written, the apostles preached and taught throughout the known world, only writing down some of what they said. By the time the New Testament was canonized, the Church was already formed, preserving and passing down what the apostles had taught.

The second problem is that the Bible is not easy to understand. The Jewish Scripture had always been held in a framework of tradition passed down through the generations, and the same has held for the Christian Bible. The immensity and complexity of the collection of books guarantees that even if someone has the knowledge of history, language and theology to truly understand everything in it, he wouldn’t have enough time in his lifetime to unpack it all. Right now, after two thousand years, the Catholic Church still doesn’t claim to know the exact meaning of every passage of Scripture, and they’ve had some of the best minds in western civilization working on it. The understanding that the Church has of Scripture has continued to develop over the centuries; although the Church maintains that revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle (something that most Protestants believe, too), she believes that our understanding of God’s Word continues to grow and become more detailed. What God has revealed is neither so simple that every person can comprehend it upon a quick glance, nor so complicated that only a few can understand it.

The third problem, which I think is more a misunderstanding, is that the Catholic Church doesn’t define “infallibility” as always being perfectly right about absolutely everything, every time. Infallibility just means that the Holy Spirit will prevent the Church from making an absolute teaching about faith or morals that is incorrect. For a former Protestant, it’s easiest to understand it like how the Holy Spirit worked through the apostles preaching God’s Word in the early years of the Church. The leaders of the Church taught the truth, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t sin in their own lives, or that they spent every moment just spewing the direct voice of God out of their mouths. When issues came up about correct doctrine or morals, they got together and hashed it out and decided what the truth was. (See Acts 15. Aside, it is fascinating to read Acts and the other New Testament books in the context of the Church as a living, visible entity, not just a word used to refer to Christians in the collective sense.) One thing that they didn’t do, incidentally, was just let anyone go around preaching conflicting teaching and say, “Well, he understands it differently.” They actually got pretty heated when people started teaching things that didn’t agree with the teaching of the apostles.

The fourth problem with denying the role of the Church in interpreting the Word of God is that Protestants do the exact same thing. If all Scripture was clear and the Holy Spirit taught everything to each individual, there would be no seminaries, there would be no Bible colleges, or pastors, or sermons, or books about the Bible or Christian teaching or radio programs explaining the Bible or TV shows or magazine or any of the multitudinous resources that Protestants use in their attempts to understand the Scripture. If the Protestant understanding is correct, every Christian would have to be fluent in Biblical Hebrew and Greek in order to understand the original manuscripts, as well as being intimately familiar with every social, cultural and rhetorical device used in the books. A translated work would be useless, because the translator could have misinterpreted something. It just doesn’t make sense that the Word of God would be limited to a set of static words in unfamiliar languages.

This makes much more sense to me than the Protestant understanding; to be a Protestant is to never really know, even in your own heart, if you believe the right thing. For all you know, in a few years you could hear a new interpretation of something and suddenly realize that you had been wrong up to that point. I often felt inadequate as a Christian when I was a Protestant because I couldn’t make everything in the Bible make sense, and I had no way of reconciling differing viewpoints. Not to mention the tension when fellow believers interpreted things differently. For every Protestant teaching backed up by Scripture, there is an opposing view backed up by Scripture. It doesn’t make sense that God deliberately left his people in chaos.

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Authority (or lack of)

I really like the website “Why I’m Catholic“; it’s just a collection of conversion stories from people from all walks of life and faith backgrounds. I have found that the ones from “Evangelical” or “Baptist” backgrounds particularly resonate with me; it seems like they’re writing exactly what I was thinking.

Here’s some stuff from Jason Workmaster, former Evangelical. He talks about the debates he would get into with his Protestant friends over the interpretation of Scripture, then he says,

“All of this was done under the protection of the Protestant understanding of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” which meant, in practice at least, that each of us individual Christians had virtually unlimited authority to interpret the Bible for ourselves. I felt free to question everyone else’s positions, including my pastor’s, on pretty much any doctrinal matter.”

According to Protestantism, Christians should not need to listen to any other human being to know what God wants; all they should have to do is read the Bible, and the Holy Spirit will reveal to them what the true meaning is. (Other people have pointed out that for most of Christianity, most people 1) couldn’t read, and 2) couldn’t afford a book, much less an entire Bible, so if this was how Christians were supposed to gain knowledge, then they were out of luck until sometime in the 1500s.)

“This whole system meant that folks even within a particular congregation were at liberty to disagree on any number of issues, and there was no authoritative way even of deciding which differences were important to resolve and which ones weren’t. If someone decided the difference was important enough, they’d just leave and find another pre-existing group of people that seemed to agree with them more than their old group, or they’d go rent their own building and put a sign out front with the word “church” on it. Everyone would say that they thought this system was unfortunate, but none of the congregations I was in did anything about it. We just seemed resigned to the fact that the Body of Christ had been torn into a million pieces over doctrinal issues that most of us denied had any real significance. And yet, at the same time, the main point of going to church every Sunday seemed (at least to me) to be merely to learn more and more about doctrine, both in the worship service, which revolved around the sermon, and in Sunday school, so that eventually I could get all the answers right on some divine SAT test. What tended to get lost in all this, of course, was the idea that living a virtuous life in my day-to-day existence was all that important in determining where I’d spend eternity.” (emphasis added)

The fact is that, in the Protestant tradition, there are tens of thousands of denominations who all disagree with each other to a greater or lesser extent. Some things are relatively small, but others are critical to the understanding of Jesus and what God desires of us. So even though Protestants emphasize correct doctrine as the most important thing in a Christian’s life (remember, if you’re not actually saved, then nothing else matters), they have no way of determining what the correct doctrine even is. Among Protestants claiming to follow the exact same book, you have both the Episcopal Church (who welcomes and even ordains practicing homosexuals), and the Westboro Baptist Church (who disagree with homosexuality, and who, I have to add, aren’t affiliated with any Baptist denomination; they appear to be a wacko cult, but the point is that they all are using the same Bible to reach their conclusions).

“I began to wonder, if God is good (and He is) and if He loves us (and He does), why would He leave us with a system like this where Christians can never settle any question with finality? It also prompted me to think again about how the Gospel tells us that those who heard Jesus were amazed by Him because He spoke with authority–unlike the teachers of the law. It seemed to me, though, that the Protestant system was the same system that existed prior to Jesus: no one really had the ability to say anything definitively because everyone else had the right to respond, “Well, that’s your opinion!” How could that be, though, if the Church is the Body of Christ in the world? If Christ spoke with authority, doesn’t His Church need the ability to do so as well, at least on the core of doctrine regarding faith and morals that binds Christians together? This free-for-all also seemed inconsistent with Christ’s promise that we would know (not forever guess at) the Truth and that the Truth would set us free.”

It doesn’t make sense to me that God would go to all of this trouble to reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ, spend three years teaching and preaching, then just disappear and leave all of his followers with no way to know for sure what he wanted of them. Even if he just wanted everybody to follow the Bible and figure it out for themselves, the Bible as we know it didn’t come into existence for several hundred years, so until that all came together, everyone was out of luck.

The idea of the sufficiency of Scripture (also another topic for another post) and the authority of each believer to interpret the Bible for himself isn’t backed up by Scripture, history, or common sense.

 

 

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Original sin

One problem I always had with Protestant Christianity was the doctrine of original sin. While the understanding of this varies, many Protestants believe that original sin is a spiritual state, inherited from Adam after the first sin, which renders all humanity inherently evil, incapable of doing anything good in the sight of God, and unable to seek God as an act of will.

According to this mindset, if a person is not saved, then they could spend all of their time doing good works, helping people, and sacrificing themselves for what they believe to be good, but in the end God will say that it is all worthless because they were not among the saved. Part of this is an extreme reaction of the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works; Protestants wanted to make sure that people knew that there was nothing that they could do, in and of themselves, to earn their way back into communion with God.

It also follows that whenever a person starts to seek God, then it is because God actively worked in his life to make him be able to do so. Ipso facto, no matter how much a someone personally wanted to know God, his searching would only be fruitful if God himself worked in the person’s life. On a theoretical level, this is true; whenever someone is saved, it is because God worked in his life.

The problems start turning up in the practical application of these principles. As a Protestant, I believed that I was naturally completely depraved and evil, that everything I did was inherently bad if I wasn’t saved. And if I tried to follow God, how could I know if it was of my own, useless volition, or if God was actually working in my life? If it wasn’t the correct time that God ordained I should be saved, then no matter how much I did, it would be worthless. So all I could do, on a practical level, was to wait and hope that someday God would actually call me, and then everything I did would be worth something. And then I ran into the problem of how could I know if I was saved or not, at any given point? (That’s another topic, under assurance and perseverance of salvation.)

The other problem is the fact that people who are not Christians do good things all the time. Denying that is to veer dangerously far from reality. The idea that every single person who isn’t a Christian is nothing but a selfish, depraved sin machine just doesn’t correspond to the evidence. Some people do good things out of religious traditions other than Christianity, some people do good things because they just believe it is the right thing to do. I had a hard time believing that God scorned everything they did because they weren’t absolutely right with him at the time they did it.

But the Catholic Church understands original sin a little differently:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin — an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405

In other words, Adam’s descendants don’t inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin, just the consequences: lack of God’s sanctifying grace, darkening of the intellect, weakening of the will, and the disordering of the senses (Catholicism for Dummies, 2d edition, p. 43). We are not damned for guilt based on Adam’s choice, but we each merit damnation based on our own ACTUAL sins (as opposed to original sin), when we make choices, with full knowledge, to disobey God. We suffer for Adam’s sin, but we are not born doomed because of it.

This was a revelation to me. I don’t deny that I am a sinner, or that I’ve sinned, or that I don’t need salvation in order to be right with God. But I think I am a sinner because of what I, myself, have done of my own free will, not because a man sinned many years ago. If I was born damned, and all of my actions are worthless to God, then I don’t have free will, and don’t deserve the punishment because I couldn’t help it. But according to the Catholic Church, I am in a (somewhat) similar state to Adam and Eve: we were all given a choice, and we freely chose to do evil. And that is why we are sinners, each deserving punishment, but each offered redemption through Jesus’s work.

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Why I Began Researching the Catholic Church

I can’t say that I really disagree with anything that Deists adhere to. I still believe that God exists, that he created everything, that he gave people reason and a moral conscience and wants us to be good to each other. I guess Deism is like the lowest common denominator of religious philosophy.

I guess I’d have to say that the lowest common denominator wasn’t enough for me anymore; I wanted/needed more of an active religious presence in my life. I can’t tell you if that’s some deep, inherent longing, or if it’s because that’s the way I was raised and now that I have a child I default to that as the proper thing to do.

I do think that part of it stems from a desire to have a human and social connection with other people, and with a larger community. Humans are social creatures, and following a particular religion gives them a ready-made community or family. I think this become especially important when 1) one has children, 2) one is separated from one’s family and friends, and 3) one lives in a society that doesn’t have very many expectations. Especially in America, we’ve become so tolerant and accepting (which are good things) that we’ve forgotten the vital role society plays in regulating people’s lives and actions. While there are downsides to feeling constrained by social rules one doesn’t agree with, the fact is that humans have always lived around other people and have relied on them for help and support, and part of that is knowing what other people expect from you. Living self-sufficiently is fine, but it’s hard to keep going every day with the knowledge that if you dropped off the face of the earth, only a couple of people would notice. I guess I’d say that there’s nothing wrong with Deism, but it just wasn’t sufficient for me.

There was also a factor in wanting my child to grow up familiar with some kind of religious tradition, even if all that meant was learning how to sit still and be quiet for an hour in a large group of people. One feature (positive and negative) of Deism is that there are no churches or groups, so there isn’t any social aspect or human connection. Certain Deists have recommended it, and I think it would be great if they existed, but as of now there aren’t really places where Deists get together on a regular basis and fellowship, to use a religious term. There are also no specific holidays, and I missed having days with specific significance to celebrate and to mark the passing of the year. (I have always been intrigued by the idea of homo religiosus; I don’t know how you’d prove it, but it seems to have common sense on its side.)

I puttered around with various made-up celebrations and glanced around at other religions, but nothing really grabbed me.

Then my husband had a bad episode in his mental and emotional health, and one of his doctors pointed out that religious faith is something that can give people meaning and a reason to live. I started searching for something to help him, and I stumbled across some of the teachings of the Catholic Church, and was amazed to discover that it made more sense than anything I had heard before. Things that in Protestantism didn’t make sense, or that I just had to accept (without being able to be sure what was right), the Catholic Church has pretty much figured out. I started looking into it more, and gradually came to the realization that the Catholic Church is the original church instituted by Jesus.

 

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Why I became a Deist

Last time I covered my departure from Christianity; now I’ll talk about my conversion to Deism.

Actually, “conversion” is kind of a strong word; Deism is a lot more like a philosophy than a religion, i.e., there are no rituals, no holy books, no churches, no specific moral requirements. In fact, a lot of Deists don’t agree with each other on everything, due to the understanding that every person must use his reason to identify truth.

Deism was the “religion of the Enlightenment,” the period in Western civilization when human reason began to gain prominence as a source of knowledge and truth. Deists believe in God (as the Creator, or Prime Mover), but don’t find sufficient evidence that he ever revealed himself through “special revelation,” such as holy books, prophets, or other “inspired” information. They believe that God reveals himself equally to all people through his creation (the natural world) and through human reason, which he also gave us. Deists believe that God reveals his moral will to people through our reason and common sense, although our specific moral beliefs (like our languages) vary depending on our culture and history.

As a Deist, I believed that God’s moral requirements were fundamentally to love your neighbor. I was no longer enslaved to an endless list of arbitrary rules that seemed to be added to all the time. I had peace about the afterlife for the first time; instead of dreading a judgment day that could send me to hell, I trusted that God would treat me justly, in light of my actions and motivations. (Note: not all Deists believe in an afterlife; opinions vary.) I was able to interact with people not based on an artificial divide of “Christian/non-Christian,” but by viewing them as individuals, with strengths and weaknesses and good and bad motivations. I saw people as having both the capacity for good and for evil, which was formed by society and by the choices of their own free will. I didn’t feel that I could judge anyone, because I couldn’t know how God had revealed himself to them, or what their understanding and motivations were.

For the first time in a long time, I was at peace with myself and with God. The fear and guilt went away, and it was as if life had opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Next time: why I started exploring Catholicism

 

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Why I left Christianity

When I moved away from home at 20 (for a brief internship) and again at 21, I more or less stopped going to church. I considered myself a Christian, but my introversion ultimately prevailed over the requirement to seek a new church home. For a brief period I attended a church with an extreme view on fellowship (like it NEVER ended: the single members of the church even lived together in large apartments), which was nice because they were very friendly and welcoming, but eventually the pressure to spend every waking moment with other people was too much to take.

At 22 I joined the military, and spent 2 months in boot camp (where I attended church once, then was discouraged by the paperwork involved to go), then went to training school, where at first I tried to attend chapel every week. Eventually I stopped going there, too; having to spend my one day away from intense training with a bunch of other people in a forced social situation was too much.

It was at this point that I began to realize that I couldn’t honestly recommend Christianity to other people. I still believed that I would go to hell if I didn’t meet the requirements, but I didn’t want to convince other people to convert, because I didn’t want them to suffer the fear and never-ending guilt I lived with every day. I tried harder and harder to do the right thing, but no matter how much I did, I always felt guilty for all the stuff I DIDN’T do.

I also began working with a lot of people from other cultures and faith backgrounds, and what I saw didn’t correspond to what Christianity had led me to believe. I had been taught that all other religions were false, and that they were worthless both for helping people to live good lives and for achieving heaven. But the normal, moral people I met belied that principle. Their moral systems were very close to Christianity, and they even understood their faith in the same way Christians did. It began to seem that one’s religion was more a part of the culture one was born in than a single truth besieged by falsehood. I didn’t feel right trying to tell these intelligent, moral people that they were bound for hell unless they converted to my religion.

It was at this point as well that I began to feel crippled by Christian standards. If I held to what I had been taught, I would have secluded myself in a tiny social bubble with the other Christians, careful to avoid the unbelievers lest they taint me. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to be able to be friends with the people I worked with and not divide them into mental boxes for “clean” and “unclean.”

Ultimately I decided that I couldn’t continue to follow Christianity. It wasn’t so much that I disbelieved it, but I couldn’t find enough reason to believe in it. The strain of trying to follow all of the rules had worn me down; I concluded that while Christianity might work for some people, I wasn’t capable of doing it.

Christianity didn’t seem to conform to the world as I knew it, and on a personal level I couldn’t continue destroying myself trying to meet the standards.

Next time: why I became a Deist

 

 

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My religious background

I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant home. Because we moved around a lot when I was a child, we attended different types of churches, mostly nondenominational and Evangelical, but sometimes Southern Baptist. My mother was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and my father was baptized as an infant in the Lutheran church, but didn’t attend church regularly until his conversion as a young adult.

I was never taught the Apostle’s Creed, but nonetheless we believed in the vast majority of it:

“I believe in God,the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”

The only difference from Catholicism we understood was that the word “catholic” (lower case) meant the invisible union of believers through the ages, not the visible Catholic Church based in Rome.

I remained a dedicated Christian throughout my adolescence, being baptized, attending church several times a week, serving in the church’s music ministry, and trying to live the best that I could. I remember at the time having a lot of doubts about my salvation and never feeling like I was good enough. But I was afraid of hell and believed that Christianity was true, so I kept on trying to do what was required: believe the correct doctrines, do the correct things (go to church), and try to follow the moral rules.

I never had an emotional conversion experience, or indeed any kind of subjective experience of God, except for the guilt that I felt most of the time. I wasn’t concerned by that, though, since I was taught that truth isn’t a feeling, but is more objective: facts, explainable beliefs. I learned how to defend Christian doctrine, and how to explain why Christianity (Protestantism specifically) was right and other religions were wrong.

My main reasons for believing Christianity were 1) because I had always been taught that it was true, and 2) I was afraid of going to hell.

Next time: why I left Christianity and became a Deist

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