Thursday, 22 April 2010

Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary (2009)

I am now reading an online book, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary by Ken Daniels. It's another memoir by an ex-Christian. I am drawn to these kinds of books for obvious reasons.  The thing that sets Daniels apart from other authors of this kind is that he writes with very little venom or sarcasm. He makes the point in his preface that this was intentional, but I think one must really be free of resentment to successfully write in the style he does. He pulls it off, so ten points to him. I know I would still want to rip into Fundys and Evangelicals if I were to write my story. I guess this means my time to do so is not yet.

The thing that struck me was how similar his thinking was to mine as he deconverted.  His story is certainly very different to mine, but a lot of the conclusions he drew are identical to my own. What I want to do here is  paste some quotes from Daniel's book that resonated with me or mirrored my own journey.

(Chapter 1)
Why should I be concerned with what other people believe, as long as they aren't causing any harm, or as long as their beliefs lead to admirable acts of charity? I have heard this objection from a number of Christians, an objection I find surprising in light of the Apostle Paul's view:
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Corinthians 15:14-18).
Paul goes on to assert that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, but if his assertion is mistaken, then according to these verses, my intention to bring that to light should be seen as a noble endeavor. I don't quite concur with Paul that Christians are to be pitied more than all men if their faith is baseless. After all, knowing the truth is not a precondition for happiness; there are happy and unhappy members of every religion. But Paul does make a valid point: devoting our life to an illusion is not the best use of the only life we have.
(Chapter 2)
One of my best friends that year was a Mormon, so I read extensively on Mormonism from an evangelical perspective, finding numerous faults in the Latter Day Saints' scriptures and discussing them with my friend into the wee hours of the morning. After I pointed out a number of historical and theological flaws in Mormonism, he confided in me, "Religion is a bitch." I responded that no, it was clear the universe was created by a personal being, and so it was a no-brainer that we needed to give him our allegiance. I never did convince him to leave his faith, but I became more confident in the moorings of my own faith. I did agree to read an apologetic book he gave me entitled A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Richards 1950) and was able to find enough faults in its reasoning to dismiss it quite readily. It did not occur to me to apply the same level of criticism to Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict (McDowell 1979), a popular evangelical apologetic work I read during that same year.
(Chapter 2)
Often when I had been tempted to doubt earlier, I would remind myself of the many fulfilled prophecies of the Bible outlined in Evidence that Demands a Verdict (McDowell 1979) and other apologetic works. But I was confused as to why on the one hand the Old Testament seemed so ugly while at the same time it seemed to have amazing predictive ability. The prophecy of the 70 weeks of Daniel particularly impressed me because of its accuracy in predicting the time of the messiah's coming. Subsequently I found arguments on both sides of the issue on the Internet, but the skeptical explanations began to look increasingly plausible
Why does the Old Testament incessantly violate my idea of right and wrong? Why does it regard women in such a poor light? Why are the people of Yahweh supposed to wipe out men, women and children but are allowed to take the virgins for themselves [Deuteronomy 21:10-14; Numbers 31:17-18]? Why are the sacrifices offered in the tabernacle called food for Yahweh [Leviticus 21:21-23]? Why does Yahweh need sacrifices anyway? Can't he simply forgive those who ask for his forgiveness, just as we humans forgive each other? Why do some people get zapped instantly for touching the ark inadvertently [2 Samuel 6:1-8] while Aaron, Moses' brother, gets off scot-free after making a golden calf for the people to worship [Exodus 32], and then he becomes the leader of the priesthood and the recipient of the best of all the offerings of the people? Why do women suspected of adultery have to go through some bizarre ordeal of drinking bitter water and seeing their womb swell and thigh waste away, while no provision is made for women to test their husbands for the same offense [Numbers 5:11-31]?

God, the weight of all these troublesome passages, and many more, add up in my mind to foolishness. Or at least an attribution of ancient cultural ideas on the God of all creation. The list goes on: the Bible's endorsement of polygamy[10] [2 Samuel 12:8], the magic of the striped sticks causing sheep's offspring to be striped [Genesis 30:31-43], the assertion that camels don't have split hooves [Leviticus 11:1-4],[11] the mixed use of round numbers and exact numbers in Numbers [3:39-51] to justify paying redemption money to Aaron's family, Yahweh's command to hamstring the horses [Joshua 11:6], the barbaric brutality of the Israelites in their holy wars, the contradictory teachings on divorce [Deuteronomy 22:19, 29; Ezra 10:2-3; Malachi 2:16; Mark 10:11-12], the many little historical contradictions, the attempt to explain language diversification through a "how-the-leopard-got-its-spots" Tower of Babel story [Genesis 11:1-9], the conception of a young earth which is clearly unattested to by the facts [Genesis 1-11], the inability of Christians to agree on so many doctrines while reading the same Bible that seems to say one thing in one place and another in another place, the long process of canonizing the Bible, the vengeful attitudes ascribed to Yahweh when his wayward people are attacked by their enemies, the sacrifices in Ezekiel's temple that has yet to be built [Ezekiel 40],[12] the vengeance Samson took on his betrayers under the influence of the Spirit of Yahweh [Judges 14:19], the exclusively physical punishments and rewards promised for the Israelites [Deuteronomy 28] with no mention of heaven until late in the writing of the Old Testament, and on and on and on. 

(Chapter 2)
Not wanting to give up the faith that had been so dear to me for so long, I searched the Internet for some helpful apologetic articles. I had heard that Clark Pinnock was an apologist of a more scholarly caliber than Josh McDowell, so I searched for his name. Instead of finding anything written by Pinnock, I found an online book referencing him entitled Beyond Born Again by Robert M. Price (Price 1993). Price spent his youth as a fundamentalist, attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as an evangelical, transitioned to liberal Christianity, then went on to earn two doctorates in New Testament studies. He was still a liberal believer when he wrote this book, but he later became a humanist after some 20 years as a liberal Christian. In any case, his was the first book I had read specifically attacking evangelicalism, and it was compelling, throwing my already fragile faith into a tailspin. I don't believe I would have been willing to listen to anything he had to say had it not been for my prior misgivings about the Old Testament. Having devoted my life to the calling of Bible translation, it was devastating to realize that the Bible probably is not God's word after all. You can only imagine the knot in my stomach and the beating of my heart with every new discovery I made confirming my suspicions that the Bible is man-made from start to finish.

Divine Inspiration
(Chapter 2)
 The Bible seems so conditioned by the ideas of the times in which it was written and to me bears no evidence of divine authorship. Must I be eternally damned because I can't believe that Samson, under the influence of your Spirit, avenged himself on his personal enemies by killing 1,000 of them with the jawbone of a donkey? Or because I see inconsistencies in the accounts and viewpoints of the biblical authors, such as whether Jehu was justified in killing the household of Ahab (Kings) or not (Hosea)? Or because I see many of the ethics of the Bible (for example, polygamy, taking virgins as war captives and slaughtering the rest, and slavery) as objectionable? Or because I see innumerable parallels between the myths of the Ancient Near East and those of the Bible, leading me to believe that they are in fact mere myths? Or that I can't see why you couldn't just forgive truly penitent people for their sins without requiring a blood sacrifice, just as humans forgive each other? Or that I can't see any fundamental reason to choose Christianity over Islam except for evangelical Christianity's emphasis on a personal relationship with you (but there are sects within Islam and other religions that do emphasize such a relationship)?

In short, it seems quite clear to me that Christianity is just another religion like the others, perhaps a little more advanced than others, but a human creation nonetheless.

(Chapter 2)
In this final crisis it was not only the Old Testament that drove me to doubt, but increasingly the New Testament as well. While the Old Testament can seem cruel in its advocacy of genocide and capital punishment for Sabbath breakers and rebellious sons, all these punishments are limited to the present life. By contrast, the New Testament suggests (at least, as I understood it; evangelical leader John Stott and Seventh-Day Adventists would disagree) that unbelievers will spend an eternity of conscious torment in hell, an infinitely worse proposition than being stoned to death. I could no longer believe that a god who enjoins us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek could be capable of subjecting his own enemies to endless punishment with no further offer of mercy or reprieve (Hebrews 9:27). Why not simply annihilate his rebellious subjects and put them out of their misery?

The Failed Return of Christ
(Chapter 2)
Other objections to the New Testament I began to consider at this time were the failure of Jesus to return in the generation of his disciples as promised and the significant discrepancies in the Resurrection accounts of the Gospels. I discuss both of these matters in chapters 10 and 11.

Lack of Miracles
(Chapter 2)
Though I wanted a world in which God was active, my personal observations during my relatively well-traveled life had never encountered an unambiguous supernatural event. Experience seemed to be at odds with the belief that God is at work in the world. I will expand on this issue in chapter 13.

The Presence of God
(Chapter 2)
During my years as a Christian (and even afterward), every now and then I would sense what I thought was God's presence: a warm, beautiful sensation flooding my soul as I talked to God (or sometimes when hearing a patriotic song or stirring classical music, but that's another category, or so I thought). One day in 2002 I prayed, as I had prayed many times before, "God, if Jesus is your Son, I accept his sacrifice for my sins, and I ask you to help me believe." Immediately this same wonderful sensation flooded my soul. I was thrilled. But wanting to know whether this was a unique confirmation of the gospel, I prayed, "God, if you are Allah, and if Mohammed is your prophet, please let me know." And the same sensation came over me! What was I to make of that, if as I had always been taught, Islam and Christianity are incompatible?

I cannot doubt that Mormons and members of other faiths experience this same phenomenon when they talk about a "burning in the bosom" as a way of authenticating their faith. Given this reality, I don't think it's unwarranted to ask for more than a sense of God's presence, a satisfaction with the doctrines of a particular faith, a sense of joy, the fellowship of believers, or a "could be" miracle to authenticate the kinds of claims that are made by many religions. If God truly intervenes in people's hearts, why did he allow this real sense of peace, what seemed like God's presence, to flood my soul in both cases, rather than in just the first case or in neither case? If God, being able to intervene in any way, had prevented any sensation at all, I would have been left much less confused. Though I continued to pray occasionally for God to make himself known to me were he to exist, this experience marked a turning point, a loss of expectation of ever hearing from God after years of seeking him.

What's Really Wrong with You?
(Chapter 2)
Some of my readers might wonder, "Why did he do it? Why did he leave the riches of his faith for the despair and danger of unbelief? It couldn't be that he sincerely believes Christianity to be untrue; there must be some deep underlying issues he's dealing with, some flaw, some hidden agenda, some dashed expectation." I have been asked this question directly, and my response has been this: you can dig as deeply as you like, and when you get to the bottom of it, you'll find I believe what I believe because I think it's true. There may indeed be some hidden issues that have driven me to this point, but if so, they are as hidden to me as to anyone else. I have shared freely with others and with God the matters I consider relevant to the question, but nothing definitive has turned up.
What is the source of Christians' reluctance to accept the above simple explanation for my unbelief? I cannot speak for all, but as a former Christian, here is how I might have internally processed a story like mine:
He appears to be sincere, and he seems to have been a genuine believer, but he has now rejected God, so despite appearances, it may be that he never experienced a true relationship with God. According to Hebrews 10:26-27, the penalty for rejecting Christ after having followed him is divine judgment with no further hope for redemption, so Ken must be in danger of this fate. He claims his motives are pure, and that he truly perceives Christianity to be untrue, but there must be some fundamental flaw in him, something that marks him off from other believers who remain faithful to the faith, or he could not justly be subject to the judgment described in Hebrews 10. I don't know what it is, but I trust God's word over Ken's. His willingness to embrace something as problematic as evolution and to believe that the universe could have formed by chance must indicate an underlying desire to disbelieve despite the evidence for God and the Bible. At times he displays an argumentative, arrogant spirit, which may reveal a willful rebellion against God. Perhaps his motives are not as pure as he claims.

On the other hand, he does seem to be aware that he's putting the eternal fate of his soul in jeopardy if he turns out to be wrong, so he must have a high degree of confidence in his belief that the gospel is not true. What could possibly have motivated him and driven him to such a degree of certainty that he would be willing to invite the disapproval of his friends, family, supporters and mission board, to live without the hope of a hereafter, to abandon his calling and sense of purpose, and to risk divine judgment? Perhaps 2 Thessalonians 2:10b-11 pertains to him: "They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie ..." This could mean he truly does believe what he says he believes, but God has brought this on him because of his rebellious spirit and his failure to acknowledge God for who he is. Only God knows his heart; it may be that Ken will ultimately recognize his error and return to God, refined by fire and more useful to God than before.
I invite Christian readers to consider the possibility that my apostasy is a result not of divine or diabolical deception but of a simple weighing of the evidence. It would be impossible for me to relate here the volumes of arguments I have considered on both sides of the question. It is my hope that those who are unable or unwilling to read skeptical works extensively will consider the possibility that there might be legitimate reasons for taking the position I have taken, given my willingness to risk my eternal destiny as a result of what I have come to believe.