Normally this blog is a place for me and Sarah to record our memories of fun trips and new projects. All that is well and good, but there is much more to our lives than the peaks, there are also many valleys and long stretches of plateaus. And somewhere mixed into the vast geography of a life is the spiritual journey. I’ve never written publicly before about my beliefs, but lately I’ve been feeling a sense of readiness to do so, if only to clarify the internal noise.
I was raised with a rather conservative Western understanding of Christianity. As any child will do, I accepted these teachings as facts. I can still remember bristling when my high school science teacher told us the earth was about 4.5 billion years old. “Mr. Dierksen’s an idiot who clearly hasn’t read the Bible,” I pouted to myself.
A fundamentalist understanding of the Biblical text was deeply entrenched in me… that is, until I went to college. I left high school and started my 4 years at Point Loma Nazarene University, blissfully comfortable in my fundamentalism. On day 1 of my college career, I went to my first New Testament class. The very first homework assignment was a seemingly harmless worksheet with about 10 pairs of Bible verses on it. The assignment was to read each pair of verses, and write a brief description of them. That night, as I worked through the assignment, it didn’t take long for the point of it to sink in. Each pair of verses directly contradicted each other. Things like:
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months. —2 Kings 24:8
Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem… —2 Chronicles 36:9
No man hath seen God at any time. —John 1:18
For I have seen God face to face. —Genesis 32:30.
Verse after verse of contradictions, each one another stroke of the hammer, driving one more nail in the coffin of my fundamentalism.
And that’s how, on the very first day of my Christian college career, my deconstruction began.
In the years since, my faith and understanding of God and the message of the Christ has dramatically changed. I’ve learned that like anything else in life, if we hold a belief too tightly, it becomes an idol to us. When we cling rigidly to our views, they become stand ins for the actual God we claim to worship.
In this post, I’d like to talk about a number of beliefs I was taught and how each of them has evolved in my spiritual journey. It is my hope that this post will not be an offense to those that still hold these beliefs, but rather an invitation to a fuller, more expansive, inclusive and welcoming understanding of the Christian faith. It is my hope that we can begin to tear down the idols of our beliefs.
The Inerrant Bible
One of the core beliefs of my youth was that the Bible was the perfect, flawless word of God. Sure, it was written by humans, but God must have been whispering in their ears. The Bible was so purportedly amazing that it was almost a god in its own right. This was apparent by the frequent practice of starting sentences with “The Bible says…” The Bible was consistent, it had a clear message, and that message could always be applied to our lives. We could always find the answers to life’s many questions in its hallowed pages.
As I mentioned above, it took all of one day at college for this idol to come crumbling down. In the years since, what I’ve learned is that the Bible is far from flawless and hardly consistent. The Bible is the beautiful and complex compilation of the works of humans attempting to describe their stories of seeking God. It was written over the course of more than a thousand years by a myriad of authors, each in their own way and their own time trying to put words to their experiences. It’s important to remember that all literary works are inherently influenced by the culture in which they were created and the Bible is no different. In much the same way that people a thousand years from now would probably struggle to understand the sentence, “Kimye share snap of North West dabbing.” it is impossible to fully understand the text in the same way it would have been understood by it’s original authors and readers. The Bible was written in patriarchal and violent cultures, and this necessarily influences its tone.
All these flaws aside, once you accept that the Bible is not a book of literal facts but rather a story of the people of God, rich in metaphor, there is much meaning and truth (not facts, but truth) to be found in its pages.
Creation vs Evolution
As a child I learned that God created the universe in 7 days, and that this fact is incredibly important to our lives and faith. Anyone who says humans evolved is wrong because the Bible says so.
Once you part ways with a literal understanding of the Bible, you no longer need to cling to a false dichotomy of Creation vs Evolution. Science shows us that humans did indeed evolve, as all animals have done, and our faith informs us that God was the energy behind this evolution. I believe the concept of evolution is actually much more true to God’s character than the image of God snapping God’s fingers like a magician, and boom, there’s the universe. The image of God gradually working over the course of billions of years, driving the evolution of humanity to it’s fullest expression is one I cherish. In fact, I can think of no greater example of God’s loving patience.
Also, I think this debate is rather unimportant. How our understanding of Christ affects our mode of being in the world is much more important than any discussion of where we came from. The real question is “What now?”
Country Club Salvation
At the heart of my early education was the idea that the world was split into Us and Them. Us being saved by the sacrifice of Jesus and Them being Not Saved and definitely going to hell unless they joined the club. It was very much like a ritzy country club where you must pay your dues (say this prayer, go to church, read the Holy Bible, etc) to belong in the club, but once you were in you were given a preferential superiority over those who were Not In. This private club existed as separate and elevated from the general unwashed masses whom we tried to either avoid or force them into joining our club.
I believe that to achieve any moderately mature level of Christian spirituality, this toxic belief has to be thrown out. Reading books like CS Lewis’ Great Divorce and Rob Bell’s Love Wins completely changed my perception of salvation. Salvation is not a private club but rather an unstoppable river of love that washes over all humanity. Jesus wasn’t some sort of sacrificial atonement for our collective awfulness but rather a symbol of the absurdity of sacrifice and scapegoating, pointing humanity towards salvation that always exists for everyone and a heaven that is here and now.
Heaven as a Distant Future Afterlife
Another key belief in my youth was that there was a separate place called Heaven where everyone in the club would go when we died. Heaven is an incredible place where everything is perfect, mostly because all the people who disagree with us won’t be there. Heaven was also the main reason for being in the club to begin with because if you weren’t in the club God would send you to Hell forever. You should try to convince as many people as possible to join the club so they can be just like us and go to Heaven.
Over time my concept of heaven has shifted along with my view of salvation. The true compelling beauty of Jesus’ teaching is not that you can buy some sort of afterlife insurance policy. The Good News is not the promise of passage through the pearly gates (why are there gates, anyways?). The Good News is that God loves us and is present in the universe and with us here and now and if we slow down long enough to pay attention, we can participate in eternal life today and work towards creating Shalom, a world of wholeness, love, acceptance, kindness, generosity, inclusivity, and non-judgement. It would be wonderful if when I die I get to spend eternity in a perfect world with my wife and family, but I’m not holding my breath for that. Instead I’m choosing to mindfully appreciate and make healthy changes in the life I have today, which is what I believe Jesus was really trying to show us how to do in the first place.
God as Super Being
As humans, we love to anthropomorphize things. In an effort to understand the objects and creatures around us, we ascribe human qualities to them. This is why we have countless stories of talking animals, why I sometimes think I can read my dog’s mind based on her facial expression, why the front ends of cars can sometimes look like faces, and why there’s an old, bearded, white man painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Our only understanding is a human understanding, and as such, we filter everything we experience through our human filter, including God.
If you ask a Christian to describe the character of God, most likely he would use words like strong, mighty, wise, all-powerful, all-knowing, generous, loving etc. Essentially, many Christians’ understanding of God is that God is a Super Being, all the good things humans are, but even better.. Humans are strong, but God is stronger. Humans are smart, but God is smarter. Humans are loving…
Growing up, singing endless songs about how strong our God was and all the mountains he could move, I could practically see his giant muscles bulging through his toga. This was pretty dang cool considering that this guy was on our side. Not only did he own the country club, he was also the bouncer. The only bummer was that He lived really far away and could only make the commute if I was on his Nice List.
The God I was taught as a child was sort of a hybrid of Santa Claus and Zeus, half jolly old white man who lives far away most of the year but occasionally gives gifts to some of us and coal to others, half fiercely muscled old white man who would smite you with lightning bolts if you stepped out of line. The images varied, but one thing was certain, he was definitely a powerful old white man. He was also pretty flighty. If I was good and believed the right things, God would reward me and love me and stay close. If I sinned, that sin would separate me from God, driving him far away.
This view of God wasn’t ever challenged until I read The Shack in high school. In the book, the main character, grieving the loss of his daughter, encounters God as three entities, God the Father is an African American woman, the Christ is a Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit presents as an Asian woman. This portrayal of a diverse Trinity was one of the first times I encountered a view of God outside of the typical patriarchal Santa-Zeus image. I was especially drawn to the image of the “Father” character as a feminine, motherly being. This comforted me in ways the Buff Old White Man never could.
In the years that followed, my image of God continued to gradually shift. Unlike my view of the Bible, which was rocked in a single worksheet, my God metaphor evolves slowly as I’ve continued to read and learn about some of the countless views on God. My first God was an Old White Man In The Sky. Then God became a genderless all powerful being. More recently my understanding has continued to grow into something more like God as the Source of everything, a force that draws humanity forward, more similar to gravity than Superman.
Rob Bell, one of my favorite authors on spirituality, likes to point out that things in the universe are supposed to move towards entropy. Things are supposed to break down and become less orderly and more chaotic over time. And, of course, we do see this as machines break down, stars explode, and humans die. But when you consider how, in all the cosmological chaos, somehow scattered clouds of gas and bits of broken stars congealed to form a life-giving planet, and that on that planet humans evolved, and that humanity seems to gradually move from disorder, violence, and conflict towards greater states of inclusion, tolerance, and peace, it’s not hard to imagine that some greater force, against all odds, is pulling humanity out of the primordial soup and towards Shalom.
I cannot say with any confidence who or what God may be, and even less, what my image of God will be in another 5 years. What I do know is that I will continue thinking about these things and, hopefully, discovering new ways of relating to the force in the universe that some call God.
Certainty as a Virtue
In the faith of my youth, doubt was to be avoided at all costs. The rigidity of our faith made it prone to shattering like broken glass at the slightest bending. There was no reason to learn about other faiths or read the work of atheists because these things were dangerous to our steadfast, doubtless faith.
As I’ve grown older, my experience has exposed this ridiculous notion for what it is, fear. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, any belief held too rigidly will become an idol, and this one was the first line of defense for all the other idols. The visceral reaction to any practice or belief system outside my version of Christianity was a testament to the insecurity of my faith and a result of the fear of finding truth that might challenge my worldview.
What I’ve since learned is that certitude is an awful vice, doubt can be a wonderful companion, and there is much to be learned from the multitude of other religions and worldviews outside mainstream Christianity.
It is only through doubt that my views of God, salvation, and the Bible have continued to expand. Doubt has led me to the place where I can see the love of God in evolution, appreciate the stories of people seeking God in the imperfect pages of the Bible, and sometimes even glimpse the divinity of the Christ in the face of a passerby.
As Franciscan friar Richard Rohr wrote, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called Freedom.” Doubt and questioning have stripped down my beliefs to their core, a wide place of flexibility and openness, where there’s nothing left to protect or shelter, nothing left to clinch my fists around.
Thank you for reading about my journey. This is the best I can do to put some of my beliefs into words, but I hold them lightly and loosely and without any certainty. Take these words with a healthy serving of salt. My aim isn’t to convince anyone or change any minds. My desire is only to share part of my story, clarify my thoughts, and maybe give voice to some of the doubts that linger in your secret places
If you’re interested in learning from some of the sources that have influenced my path, I’ve included links to some of the things that I’ve found helpful along the way.