10. Retrospective

Battles Past

I did not come to orthodox Christian belief by either of the usual two roads, having been neither born into it nor having had a religious conversion from unbelief. Instead, I was born under the boughs of heresy, ardently believing the same words and names as other Christians, yet mated with distressingly different meanings and doctrines. At one time I companied with false prophets and apostles, and I held false texts and revered them. And though my upbringing was by no means oppressive or unhappy, filled as it was with nurture and care, these beliefs held a time-delay fuse and would one day have to be understood against the backdrop of broader Christendom.

I eventually struggled free through two different but equally dark crises, both of which were resolved in the end by protracted investigations of the texts and evidence. Passionate and faithful advocates took opposing sides during both crises, vying for my mind, fueled by equally good intentions, and bilaterally sounding the warnings of consequence. The compass danced for a time, but I eventually identified fixed points by which to determine whose North was true.

It is the most disconcerting of realizations: that one’s view of God is a delusion. That the divine face that one has known for so long was a false one. That what had been real and deep and true simply was not. That it had been but an error within the mind, and that for so long I had been incapable of telling the difference. I had never wanted to believe amiss.

Yet God is not of my making nor my wishing – of that I was certain. And ultimately, I believed that the Bible was correct, and orthodoxy was calling from its pages. Thereafter, it was in the aged traditions that I sheltered, investing myself in the study of that which my past had omitted and deeply committing myself to both faith and church.

Not everyone is able to inquire beyond their closest held presuppositions and biases, nor to accept a conclusion that overturns their beliefs. It is easier to trade up: to accept that one is wrong as long as it means getting a better deal or higher spiritual enlightenment. But it is far more difficult to change on a loss, where you have no upward trade, yet where you are left with a residual distrust of your own compass. This was twice my path, and the growth and blessing which followed only did so after a time. But I know the gravity of gambling one’s very soul on the consequences of being mistaken. I learned to look the bull in the eye without folding. For I had been taught, and was then reminded by all, that none have the choice of not playing.

This experience base has proven rather unique, and those past battles left several residuals.

They left a deep and indelible commitment to truth and a reciprocal revulsion for false doctrines and false prophecy. The truth, once located, demands conformance – even at the cost of discomfort.

It is possible to discriminate the true from the false through serious inquiry: objectively and without appeal to vague intuitions, feelings, or desires. But it takes work.

There is a distinct difference between researching for apologetic ends and research for legitimate inquiry. The ammo hunt of the former sometimes postures as the true investigation of the latter, but the apologetic approach already knows the answer that it will find, and at bottom it asks no serious questions.

I became familiar with the responses proffered by those who are defending losing positions and beliefs that have no factual basis. The faith card is played uniformly when inquiry threatens belief, particularly so when the belief actually stands baseless.

I learned the genuine sincerity of the false prophet: the open and ardent face which deludes itself long before it misleads anyone else.

And I learned, perhaps most importantly, to recognize the difference between putting questions to God and putting questions to men. Prophets may be questioned, as may their writings. For the first question must always be whether or not they actually spoke for God as claimed.

There will be those who consider such a past to be a liability, to which I would not protest. Yet I do believe the scars to be outweighed by muscle, for the asset of such a history proves to be a fairly rare and demonstrable skill – the ability to discern the error of religious beliefs of which one is still inside.

The Many-Colored Remainder

Not to allow such major dislocations to obscure the remainder of the tale entirely, a number of other way points should be acknowledged for a more complete panorama.

In my youth, I spoke in tongues and believed in the contemporary perpetuation of gift ministries. We engaged in a decent amount of scripture memorization. We tithed our money and loved our neighbors. We believed in a fairly literal reading of the Bible, and with it a fairly literal view of the Creation, the Flood, etc.

Later adolescence brought an obsessive and fixated pursuit of martial arts, and with it came a supplementary diet of Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist philosophy. For a time I found myself intrigued and entranced by what seemed to be accurate observations about human nature and teachings of wisdom in these sources. They gained no ultimate purchase, however, since my belief in Creation evidences gave criteria by which I judged them to be misguided . (It was not until years later that I discovered how misleading the architect of such instruction had proven to be.)

My undergraduate education was undertaken in a rigorous private engineering program at John Brown University, a Bible-belt evangelical institution with twice-weekly chapel services. While away at school, I began attending church regularly and underwent the two key crisis periods. However, the school exposed me to a fascinating cross-section of Christian thought and praxis, ranging from bookish protestant to charismatic evangelical to Roman Catholic.  I participated in many campus ministry groups, including both the studious and the spirited. We stayed up till the wee hours discussing the experience of God, went away on prayer retreats, and studied theology. I took an additional two semesters of the latter, in fact, to catch up on what I had missed of orthodoxy before. The professors were thoroughly adept in their fields and exemplary models of the Christian walk. I can still recall our many off-hours conversations with smiling nostalgia.

For two years while at JBU, I participated actively in street evangelism and inner-city outreach, both in Tulsa and nearby Fayetteville. We prayed with the drunk, gave rides to the lost, talked to the drugged, and listened to the lonely. It was an eye opening time. I still recall vividly my discourse with a young man that informed me that he was demonically possessed with a dozen spirits, which were infancy ‘gifts’ from his witchcraft-practicing father. We invoked the name of Jesus over the darkened streets and frat houses and walked bloodlines in reclamation of the worst city blocks. It was a time of engaging and heart-driven outreach, but also a great deal of over-spiritual nonsense. The nonsense was in any case real because it was believed quite fully. Yet it did eventually fall away, particularly as I learned more about orthodoxy and theology and the scriptures. I saw that a great deal of our supposed spirituality did not seem to function as advertised. The tires had been kicked, but the car often did not turn over. That is of course, provided that you were the type to keep track. Consternation drove self-blame and soul searching – and study. God again, was not of my making, nor my wishing. Before my time with the outreach ministry was over, I was advising friends in a more thoughtful and scriptural faith as we tried to help the lost.

En toto, it was a period of tremendous change, tremendous learning, and tremendous exposure to the panoply of Christian thought and practice. But in the end, through the labors and investment of several key mentors, I emerged from those years as an orthodox Christian and a Calvinist – the latter being quite a trick to pull off at the largely Arminian JBU. Stasis converged upon the Reformed Protestant tradition, and my new bride and I eventually joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Subsequent years brought a great deal of professional growth and a great deal of church involvement. We always gave a true tithe, took communion weekly, and placed our relational and social epicenters within our Christian community. I was actually baptized at 22, having never been cleansed by the waters during my youth. Inspired by Eric Liddell and God’s creation-ordained week, I refrained from any work on Sundays, even during graduate school. When Katrina came, we made trips to the shelters to help in whatever way we could. When a runaway woman and her children sought refuge from an abusive husband, they spent a somewhat clandestine month with us. When we had the misfortune to observe pastoral abuses at one church, I felt compelled to stand in fairly stubborn opposition. I talked with coworkers about the faith, debated charitably with my unbelieving friends, and prayed a great deal for others and for my own family. To us, faith was ever and always about the living God who was there, the truth of what we believed, and how that belief was to express itself in action. Jesus lived, and our faith was to live as well.

Yet during this otherwise blessed season, it proved our unhappy fate to watch from a distance of many miles as one of those closest to me gradually lost his way in life. In a tempest of substance and relational abuse, his life shook itself apart. I think there has been no one upon whom I have shed as many tears, and over whom I have said as fervent of prayers. Interventions, flights to assist, and pleading phone calls all ultimately came to naught, leaving me with the deepest sense of futility I had ever known.

And so it was that my wife and I already had a variegated spiritual history when our most desperate crisis arrived. A mere twelve days after birth, our fourth child contracted bacterial meningitis, a ravenous affliction that takes the hearing and the sight, the limbs and the mind – and often the life – of its victims. The futility of that moment submerges all description: a wordless horror of clutching hands and up-rolled eyes. The gale clutched at her candle, and the ground heaved us from our feet. We remembered other infant deaths, and it had come to our turn. A single fleeting glance, passing between doctor and nurse, told the hour. Yet her plight became the catalyst of an incendiary prayer campaign that arced over four continents within a matter of days. And she lived – her candle flickered, but it didn’t die. She is today the most perfect and whole of children. A miracle – one worthy of song. And even today, tears remain but a moment’s reflection away.

Retrospective

I breathe deeply, and I consider that life is a play comprised of many acts. During this year of inquiry, I have tallied everything that has passed before. Heresy. Salvation. Spirituality. Growth. Prayer. Orthodoxy. Loss. Delusion. Miracle. Knowledge. Seeking. Tragedy. Triumph.

This is the backdrop of consideration: visceral and gritty and sublime human and spiritual experiences.

And yet. Yet these things must be seen for precisely what they are. They are experiences. They are my experiences. My own spiritual path. And precisely because they are mine, I cannot overvalue them, realizing that a great many people of quite opposite spiritual beliefs could claim similar credentials. Anecdote cannot surmount the objective. Anecdote cannot be the compass.

The simple fact – that we simply do not like – is that these experiences are millions of miles separated from the question of inquiry on the table: whether the ancients of Israel actually had a special communication line to God or not. Experiences today simply do not put animals on the Ark. Nor do they place Adam in the Garden, nor do they lift Jesus to heaven. These great events of the past either happened, or they did not. And my experiences, if I am honest, could be explained a great many ways.

On questions of fact, I must eschew the subjective. As before and as always, God is not of my making, nor my wishing.

Next: [11] Faith Card >>

4/18/2013

© Copyright 2013

Comments

  1. Blane says:

    A powerfully moving and articulate account of your journey so far. Thank you. Your background gives your honest inquiry all the more credibility, in my opinion.

    Like

    • Thanks Blane. I think most people, if they dig, have interesting background experiences in their spiritual histories. But I also think we tend to not talk about some aspects of our histories. Filtering happens… we tally wins and forget losses, etc.

      And I’ll add – this was an incredibly difficult section to write. 🙂

      Like

  2. Happened to be rereading this today, pretty much one year on.
    Your blog is thoughtful and encouraging. Thanks.

    I feel quite a ‘kindred spirit’ with how you view the world. You seem to be charting a possible way ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks CW, glad if it helps. I’m afraid it is a way “found”, rather than charted. It proves interesting to read the minds that already walked this way, and in ages with far less information availability. 🙂

      Like

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Michael Seidel, writer

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My freedom from spiritual abuse happened when I walked away from the abusers. My healing and recovery from the complex trauma of spiritual abusers, spiritually abusive faith and toxic religion happened while I was still a Christian and continues to this day. My deconversion came later after many many years of studying the Bible, Christian apologetics, cults and spiritual abuse. When I realized that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God, the only honest thing I could do was to stop calling myself a Christian. What I write here, may be very different from what I’ve written in the past. It might also be repeats of the past themes. ~ Zoe

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