I use the number 47 a lot. I’m not really sure why. I started doing that a few years ago. I figure by the time you’ve done something 47 times you’re either an expert, or you’re dead.
This post is titled ‘Take 47’ because as I’ve started unpacking my 32 years as a Christian I’ve written various forms of this exit testimony, and I figure that I ought to be close to fifty edits. In July of 2016 I posted a video on YouTube/Facebook where I confessed that I no longer believe. That was me being honest, with myself, and with whoever sees it. At this point you could say I’m more or less a Jesus-leaning deist with all sorts of Buddhist and Gnostic flavors and notes. Spiritually, I’m kinda like wine.
The journey of deconstruction and deconversion is a lifelong undertaking. I tried early-on to listen and follow. I tried to believe in inerrancy. I tried to be conservative and learned to look at with disdain and judge the ‘liberal’ believer. And over the years I let all that unravel.
I first converted a few weeks before I turned 20. And with thirty-ish years in I came to the realisation that it just wasn’t me anymore. It was an interesting journey full of hopes and fears and angry moments, ‘trusting,’ trying more and trying less. Along the way I threw out doctrines I no longer found useful, and all of the group-thinky bits that people in different congregations cling to, and a lot of that stuff isn’t even in the Bible. I’m still in the process of squelching the ‘still, small voice’ of various pastors’ pet phrases, and of oft and over-repeated verses that do the occasional drive-by in my head. It was a journey in. It was a journey through. And it is a journey out.
My upbringing was, for the most part, secular. I grew up around a mostly Christian family. I’m what you’d call a P.G.K., a preacher’s grandkid. Mom’s dad was a Baptist minister, and for the first 6 years of my life we lived in my grandparents’ house. My grandparents took me to church maybe 6 or 7 times, total. I had no involvement in any service other than trying, very badly, to not fidget so much on the pew. I found the whole thing boring. It just took too damn long. Two-and-a-half hours is an eternity when you’re four. The little suits were uncomfortable. The place reeked of dust, cedar, old clothes, old books, sweat, hair grease, and cheap colognes and perfumes. I never attended or participated in any of the children’s programs except one summer when I was eight or nine when I went to VBS. I attended funerals more than I did worship services.
Growing up in that setting gave me a rudimentary, I guess you could say ‘deistic,’ understanding of Jesus and God. By the time was four I had figured out that God, Jesus, and the Devil were invisible, and I understood that they were something other than Santa and the Easter Bunny. My grandparents’ pastor lived next door to us and was a family friend. He marveled at the goings-on in my little head. I knew nothing about the Holy Spirit. The subject never came up. In fact, I didn’t know anything about that beyond the words “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Most of the Sundays when my grandparents would go to church I’d be home with my parents. They probably made it to church about once a month, maybe twice. During those off-Sundays, they watched a lot of TV services, Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, and a few local services with a feed. This was the late 60s, and people like Swaggart and Bakker hadn’t made their mark just yet.
Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he grows up he will not depart from it.” Well that didn’t happen. At least my family didn’t do it that way. I learned to pray the basic “Now I lay me down to sleep…” kid’s prayer that is probably centuries old. Saying grace at the table was really all the praying we ever did together. The kinds of things one might expect to see happening in a ‘Christian home’ weren’t going on in ours. My grandparents and my mom and aunt all believed. They definitely wanted me to have a belief in God or at least a respect for God. But there were no devotions…no daily or weekly anything. No one voiced any concern for souls. Hell, and people ‘going’ to Hell were never discussed. The Devil may have come up as a topic every now and then, usually when something would go terribly sideways for one of them or for someone they knew. But there was no active ‘Satan’ tempting everyone, etc. I grew up without all of that.
The best way to describe the faith of my grandparents was that they had a strong reverence for the creator. They believed that they had done the best they could in life and they had an expectation that they would go to be with God after they died. They didn’t talk about ‘assurance’ or the ‘Roman road to salvation,’ or the ‘Sinner’s prayer.’ They didn’t see a world having ‘offended God’ and going to Hell or everyone around them whom they didn’t know to be believers as ‘lost souls.’ They still had a more or less positive outlook for the world, and held onto that despite having lived through their oldest child’s murder at age 18. Their faith was a simple one, free of doctrines and homiletic baggage. People might consider them to have been ‘nominal’ Christians, and if your standard for that is some fire-breathed, firebrand, everyone-is-lost, evangelical fundamentalism from somebody’s pulpit, then my response is, “maybe, but I really don’t care anymore.” They had a Christ-centered spiritual practice that they lived through faith. It consisted of a belief in God and a hope in Christ.
As to what I was raised on, just pick a relatively clear night and go outside and look up. My first love is and always has been the stars. Seeing the sky at night is really the only time I ever feel content. My dad taught me the names of the nine planets (sorry, Pluto demoters) and he took me up in small private planes when I was three. I remember the first time leaving the ground in a Cessna. I had ZERO fear. I grinned from ear to ear. I don’t think I really wanted to come down. I loved it. But like all things that take off, we did have to land, and give back the plane. I was still grinning during the ride back home, and I burst in the door and ran up to Grandma and said, “WE WENT FLYING!!!” The look on that woman’s face could have darkened the midday sun and slowed the motion of the universe. She was afraid and heartbroken at the same time. She looked at my dad and said, “Please don’t take him flying.” Well, we snuck off every now and then to the airport, sometimes to just watch planes take off and other times to rent another Piper or Cessna.
Dad and I became kind of two levels of the same thing. He grew up in Detroit with a fascination with planes. He used to go to the airport when he was nine or ten and a kind caretaker would open up planes and let him crawl around inside them. He always wanted to fly, and eventually realised that dream. Going flying with Dad and him teaching me the names of the planets were an initiation of sorts to my fascination with the night sky. In addition to that, I was on a steady diet of science fiction and science, and a few items from the crypto end of things like UFOs and Big Foot. These were the things that were feeding my sense of wonder about the world, and not much of anything to do with church. The things that held my attention and interest back then were Star Trek, anything else to do with science fiction, all cartoons, especially Looney Tunes, and whatever science programs were on PBS.
1978 was a pivotal year for me. We were in California then. I turned 15, lost my grandma, learned to meditate, and had someone try to witness to me about Christ. I didn’t have much of an interest in spirituality prior to that. One of my neighbors in the apartment complex where we lived was a holistic practitioner, psychologist, WWII vet, and a former Air Force test pilot. We talked about all sorts of things, and some parts of our conversations got around to astronomy. Sometime around February, I think, he said to me, “I want to put one word in your mind along with all the astronomy you think about.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “‘metaphysics,’ now you just leave that up there and come back to me when you’re ready.”
A few months later, once we got out of school, I went to him and said I was ready to learn about metaphysics. He loaned me a magazine about transcendental meditation. I read it, and I sat for my first meditation session. It changed my life forever. What I like about meditation is that it’s a skill. It’s something I carry with me wherever I am. It requires no gear. No one can steal it like they can a tablet or a pen. Over the next few years I meditated on a rather irregular basis. I guess maybe I have some sort of ADD. I don’t know. But I get easily distracted with life stuff.
Losing my grandmother was hard. She was the family’s ‘matriarch,’ not that our family was very big. But she was sort of a constant growing up. She was human, flawed, though she was usually loathe to admit it, and subject to the same entropy effects as the rest of us. After suffering pain from cancer surgery for 7 years and a couple of years after a stroke, she was gone. God puts people in our lives and they walk along with us for a while. Whether we’ll see them in some sort of after-existence or not, their love and lessons stay with us after they depart. So for the next couple of years I learned to move on.
Sometime during that same year a man who worked near the complex called me into his office when I was walking by. During the conversation he asked, “Raymond, have you ever prayed to ask Jesus to save you from your sins?” I run on autopilot quite a bit. I generally don’t go into conversations with agenda, so I wasn’t expecting this. “Um no,” I said, “I guess I’ve never been in that much trouble.” We went through one of those “Repeat after me” prayers and at the end of every sentence my thought was, I do not believe this. He tried several times over the next several months to get me to come to his church. He was part of the local Assembly of God congregation. I never went. I mostly avoided him. Later on I admitted that I didn’t really accept Christ when we prayed and that I didn’t believe. What I didn’t understand about Christians at that time is that wherever there’s one there are several.
In the Fall of 1981 I was a freshman at UT Austin. A few guys I met at one of the gyms on campus started talking to me about Jesus. Then there was the girl. I became quite smitten with a gal from one of my classes and I followed her down to a meeting of Campus Crusade for Christ. Over the next year and a half or so I had an entire network of people, many I never met, praying for me. Basically, back then I lost the debate. These people were well schooled on how to talk to people, what things to say, etc. They were well organised, and on the other side of the table there was me. There was nothing I was ever going to say back then that would convince them that I was all right, that things were going to work out. I didn’t have the words to say to repel all of this. I could have just avoided everyone and pushed people out of my life. For some reason I didn’t want to do that. I do that a lot more now. But I’m not 19 anymore. I didn’t understand at the time that while the concern for my ‘soul’ was more or less genuine, the people were employing a cheap sales tactic devised to get people to buy called relationship selling. This is where the sales rep goes to the customer, and may work a day or so on the line, to get to know what they do. This isn’t to acquire a new skill in case things don’t work out in sales, it’s to appear to be one of them to get the sale. Well something similar in Christian circles goes on. It’s quite disingenuous in many respects.
The writer William James said, “There is nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”
The corollary to that is, “There is nothing so absurd that if you hear it repeated often enough, you will believe it.”
After several months of life in the echo chamber of people I kept running into I sat down on Sunday April 3, 1983 and said the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ It was written at the end of a gospel tract handed out by Campus Crusade. I realised that I hadn’t given Christianity a chance, and some of the stuff I had read in Revelation sounded almost ‘science-fictiony.’ I also held out some hope that that I’d get to date that girl that I mentioned earlier. Well I haven’t spoken with her since the ’80s, so so much for that.
A few months later came baptism #1, when I joined one of the Baptist churches that my mom attended.I went to one session of what was called Baptist Training Union and the lady teaching it talked to us like we were 2nd graders. I never went back. Then a couple of weeks later came baptism #2, when I joined up with a Oneness Pentecostal church here because I had been informed that I needed to get the Holy Ghost. Because, “…those are really the only folks ‘going up.'” I’ve been a member or in attendance in seven different congregations from four or five different denominations. I’ve been baptised 3 times, twice in the name of the trinity and once in the name of Jesus for the remission of my sins, because in Oneness Pentecostalism everything else is invalid. I’ve had a pretty checkered attendance record everywhere I’ve joined up. It’s because I never really developed a need for church. I didn’t feel it was necessary to be there every Sunday, or every month for that matter. I’m an only child, and an introvert, and I’ve never had much desire for large communities. For me community is meeting with a couple of friends for coffee or dinner. When that number is hundreds or thousands of people, I’m looking for an exit. The ‘Order of Service’ in the bulletins was a checklist for me. That way I had some idea how close we were to being done so I could go home or to whatever I had going that wasn’t church.
September 11th happened and the world began to more closely resemble the dystopian nightmare everyone hears about in the movies. It affected me on several levels as it does everyone. With every disaster people start asking ‘Why would God allow that to happen?’ It’s a stupid question. Just look at what has happened and future calamities should be no surprise. In 2008 I started reading about and watching videos about conspiracy theories. The writers and speakers in those made reference to Alice in Wonderland by mentioning the ‘rabbit hole.’ They questioned everything…every fervently held idea, precept, thought, and concept. I decided that I was going to dig into the information everyone is encouraged to fear and ignore, and see where the rabbit hole went. In my case I took off the safeties. I didn’t allow the Christian religion to limit what I investigated, or what affects the information had on me. At some point I realized that whenever I emerged from the rabbit hole I would probably be unrecognizable as a Christian. I resisted that for a while but decided to let the transformation happen. Well I’m still in the rabbit hole and I’m not a believer in the popular or classical sense.
As to why I left, well in many respects part of me has always wanted out. I’ve both loved and hated being a Christian. There have been times when I wished I had been born ten thousand years ago and a million miles away from the peregrinations of Abraham. I liken deconversion to carrying a large sack full of all the stuff of religion, and you’re walking along, and something rattles to the top that you no longer have any use for, and it falls out. You keep walking and this happens every so often. Then years go by and you realize that the sack has gotten kinda light and you start to question whether you need it at all anymore. Over the years I realized that I had been dealing with a group of people that was essentially an elementary playground bully, who instead of threatening the proverbial “…or I’ll bash your teeth in,” threatened to have its god burn me forever. I’m a thinker, and that’s the lens through which I process everything in life, and I always have. I used to get chastised for not plunging headlong into each day by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This has always come from people who seem to want to have God involved with insect intricacy in every moment of their lives. I have never been one of those people. I thought my way in and I thought my way out. Faith was involved when I prayed the prayer, and faith was involved when I realised a couple of years ago that although I had accepted it, had believed and followed it, I had spent decades in a belief system that was never really mine.
You see, Christianity has changed in America, and probably all over the world. Living in the U.S. I’ve noticed a money-grubbing, jingoistic, genocidal, anti-intellectual nationalism among many believers that I just can’t deal with anymore. There are two Jesus ‘memes’ in the country that have gotten in the way of people finding the real Christ. One is the Big Money Jesus embodied in the Prosperity Gospel that began with the Name it and Claim it preaching from 30-40 years ago and has reached a peak in the myriad-seating stadiums of the mega-church with its palatial-estate parsonages, private jets, and Rolls Royces. The other is the Collateral Damage Jesus embodied in what I call the Genocide Gospel. This has certain believers cheering on as the secular government sends kids overseas to kill other kids. It has pastors saying “good riddance” in the wake of a mass shooting because the victims were gay, and, while they violate liberally other parts of Leviticus, calling for the execution of LGBTQ persons by stoning. It embodies a depraved indifference to suffering.
I don’t know what god this is that these people say they’re serving. I don’t recognize it, and as a result I’d rather go it alone and reconnect with Christ apart from man-made Christendom, of which we have made an irresolvable mess.
Then what do I believe?
- I believe that Jesus was a man who was dealing with the literalists and conservative evangelical fundamentalists of his day. Nothing that was going on back then isn’t going on all around us right now. Think about it. People then as now were dealing with imperialism, heavy state controls, religious fundamentalism, rampant suspicion and class warfare. Every era since states have existed has been steeped in this…the difference now is that we’re staring at phones.
- Jesus had a vision and experience of God that was not too much different from the prophets who had preceded him all over the world. And he was trying to articulate that to a world that was under the control of organized religion. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Jewish Court, they knew all these things, and the first thing they start to do is figure out how to shut him up, how to kill him. More than being the way he showed us the way, how to love and who to love. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and how he dealt with the situation in Gethsemane when Peter cut off the soldiers ear should give you an idea as to how we’re to love others. He was an example and he showed us an example, and the rest is up to us.
- Your ‘heavenly father’ is יהוה. He’s the same jealous, vindictive, punishing, genocidal deity. Nothing has changed except there is a thick layer of grace covering everything. We’re supposed to believe this idea of a loving, benevolent, heavenly father and that there is no difference from one testament to another. These are all traits which in humans are never desirable. Instead of questioning a god with those attributes, once again we suspend our reason and mumble something about an incomprehensible higher wisdom and morality. By letting all this go and leaving the church I am wagering that the divine is greater than Abrahamic tribal traditions have made it out to be.
- I’ve never really clung to the Bible with the fervor that I’ve seen in other believers. I tried for a bit to believe in it literally, but like the rest of the religion I eventually let it go a few years back. No one I talked to wanted to deal with the question of its ‘inspiration.’ Those who take it literally seem to want to believe that inspiration equals dictation. It doesn’t. And I wasn’t able to get any kind of dialogue going about that. At some point I figured out that inspiration is not some sort of mystical dictation like automatic writing, and when it occurs it mostly consists of the divine suggesting to someone that they tell their version of an event. Something would happen and the witnesses would get the impression, ‘Talk about it. Tell it. The people need to know that this happened here today.’ Basically these are the writings of a stone and bronze-age people who were trying to make sense of the world around them. They got some stuff right. They got some stuff wrong. And they were no more human, or closer to the creator than anyone else. I see no reason to treat the Bible with any more reverence than any other religious text, and certainly without the Gollum-esque fawning-over that I’ve observed from others. To many it’s become God, The Written Word, an idol, and fourth person of the Trinity.
- I’ve wondered at times, if another thousand years goes by with Jesus being a no-show, would the church finally realise that their ministry and focus was supposed to be on the people and that all this multi-layered and multi-dimensional rigmarole has been several millennia of misplaced foolishness? The Second Coming of Jesus is and has been the stuff of books and movies for decades. It’s been nearly two thousand years since the time the ascension supposedly took place and the church is still waiting. There is a lot of speculation concerning the rapture, when Christians are carried off bodily into another dimension and transformed into whatever is supposed to exist there. The speculation centers around when that great scooping-up happens. Some people call themselves premillennialist, meaning they believe the second coming will happen at the start of what is called the thousand-hear reign. Then there are people who call themselves postmillennialist, and think the second coming will happen at the end of this thousand years. If you’re not a prophecy nerd, it’s easy to confuse those theories with the pretribulation, midtribulation, and postribulation theories for the timing of the second coming. So sometime in the mid 1990s I started calling myself an antimillennialist. You see I don’t want the second coming or anything else proposed by End Times talk. This has been something that I felt early on but wasn’t willing to admit to myself or anyone else for years. I’ve always felt like the apocalypse proponents were giving the finger to those of us who like living on this earth. Antichrist has to have his pound of flesh and the rest of us be damned.
- The trouble with the afterlife is that we have to die to find out what it is. People talk about the ‘other side’ as if we have a NASA rover that we were able to get to pass through the tunnel into the light, and it’s been sending back stills and video. Heaven is a hard thing to pin down. It means something different to everyone. Gathering all the ideas I’ve heard over the years, most people envision a version of Mt. Olympus with gold, silver, clumps of grapes, and whitest Alabama marble structures everywhere. Everyone’s in togas, including God. People describe something along the lines of an infinitely-large vacation timeshare in Cabo and/or an insufferably-long church service. None of that appeals to me. I’d like to visit with my grandparents a bit and see a few people I’ve known personally, and some I’ve known of from history. But taking up residence is not something I look forward to. I want to be out among the stars. I want to see, in person, the wonders of creation. And when I talk about the wonders of creation, I mean all the vastness that has been opened up to us through our many ground-based telescopes, Hubble, and our other satellites and probes.I’d rather spend the first ten-thousand years kicking up dust storms on Mars, harassing NASA battle-bots, and watching galaxies collide.
I’m the type of guy who’d want to see Jesus, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Carl Sagan, Giordano Bruno, Terrence McKenna, the Dalai Lama, and Alan Watts in Heaven, and that perspective doesn’t fit well with popular Christian eschatological ideas.
My path has always been one of leading and discovery, not following and dictation, and it’s taken me over three decades to get that. I have a spiritual practice that is much different than it was just a few years ago. I’ve returned to the studies I was engaged in before I became a Christian. That means that I’m studying things that are frowned upon in the church. That fact used to bother me more. Now that time and distance have begun to work, I worry less and less about what the church thinks. To quote Thomas Paine from Age of Reason, “I believe in only one God; and I have hope for happiness in an afterlife.”