My early years are not that significant, other than to point out that I was not indoctrinated into any particular tradition. My mother left a very religious family when she married my father and my father’s family was more about business than church. My Dad’s brother did get involved with church after he had kids, so most of my church going and church family experiences happened when we visited relatives. I grew up in Mid-West America, so obviously I know about church, but more as an observer.
It was when I was 33 and bought a house that I really started to think about community and church was a natural extension of that. I had some Unitarian and Buddhist friends and a nice young pastor knocked on my door one day and gave me a video tape about the book of Luke. I eventually found a liberal United Methodist church populated by people who had grown up in the 60’s and who were now involved in their inner city neighborhood. We talked about and acted on the social justice aspects of the New Testament.
That was great, until I moved to a small town and found it a lot harder to find that type of community. There were a few people like that but you have to mix with a lot of other personalities if you want to have any kind of social life when there are so few people. This is really more typical of how churches work. Sermons have to appeal to range of politics and personalities. It was happening in my church in the city, but I just didn’t notice it as much since I was in the majority. Now it was very clear, they preach to what the people want to hear.
The church I found was so small, there was no children’s program, until one day a couple kids showed up, and something came over me and I volunteered to be the Sunday School teacher. It turned out to be quite a challenge to find a curriculum that wasn’t all about preparing little souls for the afterlife. 10 year old boys are also the best for asking the tough questions of why they need to go to church. This led me to the internet where I thought I might find some good arguments for the existence of God but instead I found these YouTubes of what began as a cable call-in TV show in Austin TX, The Austin Atheist experience. In my attempt to formulate an argument to call in, I talked myself out of belief.
There were other things going on. I was considering becoming a lay speaker and I found that the education they wanted me to have for that was very different than what those old hippies at the inner city church were talking about. I was also discovering liberal former Bishops like John Shebly Spong and reading their books. And there was this movie Zeitgeist. It had a strange logic against religion that I couldn’t quite refute, so I had to develop my own ability to research and think critically to decide if it was valid or not. In that process, I realized that movie was wrong, but the Christian narrative was also seriously flawed. All my bad reasoning dominoes fell.
So now I found myself in an almost alien world. I needed to figure out how it got that way and where I fit in. I had always lived a little less than a straight and narrow existence, but now I’d let go of the moral system I’d been living with for 17 years. I knew science and the philosophical enlightenment had led to the democratic system I lived in but I knew that system had some major problems. Studying the history of how those things came about has turned out to be much more valuable than reading the Bible and listening to sermons.
Also interesting though is how the two worlds of science and religion have evolved together. I never had the simple anti-evolution thinking of the fundamentalist, but when I started hanging out with atheists, I wasn’t too comfortable with the simplistic notions that Christianity was a barrier to science either. Questions like, why do people still believe in supernatural powers, are much more interesting than simple answers like, religion is all about power. Narrow minded thinking does not require religion. I felt that instead of shutting ourselves off from each other, we need to be asking how to promote open dialog and encourage the generation of new ideas.
So that brings me up to where we are now. I’ve learned from people like Bart Ehrmann that the seminaries are teaching the accurate history of the Bible; that it was written by men, often for political reasons, and it was compiled by fairly random decisions made by just a few people. Also, it is full of misinterpretations, some by accident and some deliberately inserted centuries after the original texts; in other words outright forgeries. Meanwhile, at those seminaries, they are teaching how to preach as if the ancient narratives are still true. There are some updated variations, but basically the same ideas.
You can find some of this out you go to the mid-week adult Bible studies but most of it I’ve learned from non-believers or Jewish if scholars or retired theologians. The sad thing, and believers and non-believers are both missing out on this; the real stories are much more interesting. The Bible is a rare collection of historical documents written by the slaves instead of the masters. How they dealt with being conquered and oppressed as well as their own internal struggles provides us with insight into us.
That pastors aren’t preaching this is all pretty well known if you just pull the curtain back slightly. Pastors I’ve known have tried to keep me at their church by agreeing with me and handing me books but then telling me that the rest of the church was not ready for it. What the rest of the church thinks is a lot harder to tell. They can’t have an opinion on what they don’t know, and I can’t make them read and listen to everything I do. It’s hard enough to get them to read along with the Lectionary on Sunday morning. You can find people who left their parent’s church for a more modern alternative, but they still enjoy the same hymns about the blood of Christ.
Still, I believe a lot of people sitting in pews are closer to what you would call a humanist than they are to being a Christian. They are there because they want to spend at least a couple hours a week talking about something that matters, something that might contribute to a better world. Most of them aren’t keeping track of the questions they have like I did and pursuing them when they can, rather they are having their doubts then just letting them go. Some will probably have the experience that Ryan Bell describes, of trying to fit his modern view of the world into the box he had created for God, until the box had expanded so much that he realized it was his whole view of the world and he didn’t need to call it God anymore.
Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for ways to bring the history and insights to light and hopefully keep some of them moving in that direction.