6/25/2010 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Larry C --
Somewhere in the middle of my 2nd year of seminary (1988/89), while I was serving as an Army Chaplain Candidate in the Tennessee Army National Guard, and was endorsed by a extreme religious right "full gospel" (i.e., Pentecostal/Charismatic) chaplaincy group, I quit believing in my fundy faith.
Image by justinhenry via FlickrBut here's the strange thing: I knew I no longer believed, but I didn't want to see myself as an "unbeliever". I had, what I would now call, an "identity lag" due to the fact that by the time my de-conversion had taken place, I had a deeply ingrained self concept as an "on fire for Jesus" believer.
It's an odd kind of floating phase that one enters into when one has crossed from faith to unbelief. You are aware that you have changed, but you don't want to identify oneself as an agnostic or, God forbid, an atheist! I think this phase is much like someone who is a lifetime drinker finally admitting that their usage of their dear friend alcohol is a problem but they can't bring themselves to use the A-Word (Alcoholic) to describe their condition. Or, a person who finds themselves after many years of being in a loveless marriage, and they fall deeply in love with another person, that they are unable to acknowledge to themselves that they no longer "love" their spouse. But they can't leave the marriage because of their self-definition is very much tied to being "married" to their legal spouse. In the end, this long history of being psychological and socially linked to another is to great to overcome and so they stay in the marriage with someone they not only don't love but actually loathe!
So what did I tell myself about the new un-fundy me? I told myself I was still a Christian but that I was now a "liberal evangelical" or "liberal Christian".
By the time I have changed my thinking about my career goal of being an Army chaplain, I had obtained a Bachelor's degree in Bible, and I was half-way through my three year Master of Divinity (MDiv) program at a major university. I had several small children and a mentally ill wife to support. I had already piled up tons of student loans. The idea of starting over with another degree, and more student loans on top of what I had already accumulated, seemed impossible.
My deconversion experience actually had its roots in 1980 when I married this young, beautiful Christian girl who turned out to have Multiple Personality Disorder. Of course, at the time her different personalities came out and started talking to me - and at times arguing with each other in front of me - I only had my fundamentalist framework by which to interpret her strange behaviors. So, I diagnosed her as "demon-possessed" and spent several years trying to get her "demons" expelled.
Some may ask why I didn't take her to a psychiatrist for an assessment? You see, that wasn't even on my radar screen because my fundamentalist faith had completely prejudiced me against taking her to any secular mental health sources since they are "godless" and deny Jesus as the savior and God's word. None of the Christian ministers I took my wife to suggested I take her to see a regular medical professional. . . they saw themselves as having the only legitimate "healing" franchise around.
My fundamentalist faith had also taught me that I could never divorce my wife. I interpreted this "trial" of my faith as a means by which God will was going to cleanse me of all my spiritual impurities so that "He" could use me in some greater way on down the road of life.
Then, my wife became pregnant. The different personalities in her told me that our unborn son belonged to "them", and this freaked me out. I knew I was in for some serious "spiritual warfare" now. I had to make sure that my unborn child also did not become demon-possessed by virtue of being carried by his demon-possessed mother!
My wife and I moved back to the Tampa, Florida where my wife is from. We got involved with a Christian "home-birth" ministry there which emphasized that as believers we need to leave "Babylon" behind and only do what God had told us in the Bible to do. And since "doctors" "hospitals" and modern medicine are not to be found in the scriptres, and the only type of "biblical" form of birth is home birth, then we decided to have our child at home along with the support and prayers of truly godly men and women of faith.
My son was born in September of 1982 after a three day labor. The Christian mid-wives were there, but only to pray and offer support (they didn't want to be accused of practicing medicine!). Lots of children were being born through this "ministry". And, like most births, there were no complications or problems. But when something did go wrong with a birth, the leaders informed us that there was sin in the lives of the parents and so God - "who cannot lie" - was not able to fulfill "His" promises in such an unholy situation. This made perfect sense to me because it's what is taught in the Bible.
My son was born gray and barely moving after a three day labor. The sisters told us not to worry because God had "promised" us in "His Word" that if we exercised true faith, then miracles would happen! Several of those who had participated in my son's home birth were actually nurses with RN degrees and years of experience but who had become fundy charismatic fanatics and had quit working in nursing.
I realize now that I even though I was aware that there could be risk in having a home birth, I did assume that if something was actually going wrong during the birth process, that these nurses would recognize it and we would tell us that we needed to seek medical help. They never said a word that there was anything wrong. They were followers of Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland's "Word of Faith" nuttiness in which you are taught to not believe what you can "see" with "sense-knowledge" but instead to go with what "faith-knowledge" tells you is true. Thus, when my son was born gray and not moving, and I asked if anything was wrong, these former nurses smiled and assured me that everything was fine and I just needed to trust the Lord for all things!
Needless to say, there was something wrong. In the days following his birth, my son seemed to be OK. But in within six months, we noticed that while other children born around the same time as he were crawling and moving a lot, our boy was not. Then, he started having little jerks on his right side. The jerking started happening more often. We still did nothing insofar as taking him to a doctor for an evaluation (the church we attended preached against going to doctors and even said that having health insurance indicated a believer was not really trusting totally in Dr. Jesus). We simply prayed and believed that God would make everything right.
Then one morning I woke up and went to my job as a plumber's helper and I felt like I had an upset stomach. The pain increased to the point to where I was in total agony. I knew I probably had an appendicitis because the symptoms were the same that a friend of my had had several years before. In my faith view, what I needed to do was "increase my faith" by hearing and believing the Word of God.
I was in so much constant pain I could not even focus on the words in the Bible. I then put in a cassette tape by a great "man of faith" I had been following: Dr. Hobart Freeman, ThD. He preached Hagin's faith message but with a veneer of more verbal polish. In his sermons, he told many wonderful stories how God had miraculously healed people through merely exercising "faith". But listening to Dr. Freeman's faith filled messages did not do the trick either. The pain increased.
I finally had to admit to myself that my faith perhaps wasn't were it should be and so I asked my wife to drive me to a local Emergency Room where they did an emergency appendectomy. My appendix did not burst, but it was a close call. I had never had such pain in my life. I was puzzled that God did not heal me.
After that brush with death, and I realized that had it not been for these so-called "godless" medical professionals, I could have died, I decided to take my son for a medical evaluation. The results were devastating: mental retardation and cerebral palsy caused by lack of oxygen in the birth canal during my wife's three day labor ordeal.
I lost my job because I could not work for the next two months due to the appendix surgery. With no job I moved back to Tennessee in the Spring of 1982 with my newborn son and wife. A major recession was going on and there were no jobs to be had so I joined the US Army as a Chaplain Assistant. As we started taking our son for medial check-ups we realized that his problems were totally due to his home-birth experience. The realization hit me that had I just taken my wife to a regular hospital he would have been fine. They would have probably had my wife have a Caesarean section.
This disaster of my son's birth, started me questioning why had the "promises" that God had made to us believers in the Bible had not worked in my situation? I had searched my heart as to sin. I was sincere and trying to be pleasing unto the Lord in all my ways. Yes, my wife was demon-possessed, but as the spiritual head of the home, God would bless or curse us based on my walk before Him. God had always been so real to me. Jesus was my constant invisible friend who was always there watching out for me. I had dedicated my life to following Him and spreading God's word so that other's may know the new life in Jesus.
Prior to entering the US Army in Oct of 1982, I had never completed my undergraduate degree even though I had a couple of years of college credits. I decided to complete a BS degree by extension from a pentecostal college I had attended. I hoped that by studying the Bible in a more academic manner, then perhaps I could make sense of why this tragedy with my son had taken place. I finished this degree in May of 1987 while still in the Army. I realized I had not found the answer to my questions.
But even in completing this degree from this conservative evangelical school, I did get a very mild exposure to the historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. In all my years of studying the Bible in conservative churches, it had only been taught in a "devotional" manner in order to increase one's faith and obedience to God. Problems in the texts were ignored. This school still taught a very conservative line, but I did learn about such things as "The Synoptic Problem" in that my professors did acknowledge that all the different stories in the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) do not match up and in fact do contradict one another in numerous details. We did not spend much time with this issue, but the fact that there were recognized problems with the text of the Bible was news to me.
Also, working with the different Army chaplains also helped to push me along in my de-conversion process. As am evangelical, I had learned to disdain those ministers who were "liberal" and not firm believers in the "inerrancy" of the Bible. But an interesting thing happened: I started noticing that some of the chaplains who I would classify as "liberal" seemed to be better at helping the average soldier deal with practical problems of daily living than the conservative chaplains. I came to understand that he "liberal" had been taught in their seminaries secular theories of counseling and could identify mental health problems and make referrals. The fundamentalist Chaplains, though, could only counsel people with a Bible verse and a poem. The results were not good and individual soldiers would tell me what chaplains they felt were effective and who were not when they went for "counseling".
Then, I also came to realize that some of the "liberal" chaplains seemed to be a lot easier to work with and more supportive of us lowly chaplain assistants than the true born-againers were. This won big points with me. Several of the evangelical/fundamentalist chaplains were complete jerks and ass-holes to work under. I found this interesting: the chaplains who I felt theologically were in serious error and were not actually "born-again" seemed to act more "Christ-like" than those who were supposedly had The Holy Spirit living within them!
I ended up deciding to become an Army Chaplain and to do this I would need to obtain an Master's of Divinity degree. I left the active Army in September 1987 and attended a liberal seminary. Part of my reason for going there, even though I was still conservative in my politics and faith, was that since I had come to the realization that the evangelical world did not offer me any good answers as to why the Bible had not worked in my son's birth. I reasoned that perhaps a liberal school would offer me some way to make sense of what had all happened. It did: The problem was that the scriptures were not to be taken literally, but that they were mythic and legendary by nature. I also came to realize that as an evangelical and charismatic Christian, I had never been taught to "contextualize" the scriptures. I read in regards to its original time, setting and social location. Yanking versus out of their historical and social context and saying that what was written 2,000 years ago can be applied to modern day American life, can get one into some rather bizarre and dangerous situations, as the "biblical" home-birth case of my son proves.
By the time I graduated with an MDiv in May of 1990, I still planned to become a chaplain even though I was filled with "doubt and unbelief". I rationalized that though I no longer believed as I use to, I could still offer hope and support to others. I took a pragmatist position in regards as to how I was going to do "ministry". I knew from my five years as a chaplain assistant, that what military chaplains largely do could be classified as "social work". In fact, I remember a chaplain or two complaining that they feel like they were doing social work and not ministry in their work.
But the military chaplaincy was not to be mine. Communism collapsed all over Europe in the early 90s and the Army decided they could shrink their service. And that reduction meant they did not need as many chaplains either. I was turned down for Active Duty chaplaincy. I could not even find a position as a reservist or national guard chaplain slot. I eventually found work as a substance abuse counselor and have now been in that line of work for the past twenty years. I know I have done more good than I would have ever been able to as a pastor of chaplain to a small group of true believers.
I am still very intrigued by issues of faith. I actually volunteer as a chaplain for a homeless ministry in my town. I'm a pragmatist about it all: I meet people where they are at. If they find it comforting for a prayer to be offered on their behalf to a sky deity, then I do it. I would classify myself as a "mystical agnostic". I don't know if there is actually anyone or anything out there, but "faith" is a source of rich solace for people. And that is why religions have existed all through time and will continue to exist. As long as there is the mystery of birth and the mystery of death, there will be religious communities who will try to offer a story to tell to make sense of the painful and the joyful moments in life. I am all for promoting a spiritual humanistic approach and not leaving the fundamentalist undisturbed in their extremism. People need to learn how to critically think and evaluate things with reason and evidence. If I had known how to do these, my now 29 year old son would not be living in a group home for disabled persons.
I am not of the opinion that religion is just totally bad. I see much good that comes from deep spiritual devotion. And like all of you, I have seen terrible harm inflicted on people too. I guess, my position would line up best with the Ethical Union Society folks who do not actually wrestle with the question of whether there is a God or not, but rather: how do you treat your fellow human beings and all creatures? I like their stance of pragmatic compassion. It makes sense to me.
I resigned my fundamentalist ordination through a Pentecostal denomination in 1992. I still have a "license" as a Baptist minister and have signed up for several "Internet" ordinations through the Universal Life Church and The Church of Spiritual Humanism.
All these "ordinations" mean nothing, but are useful if anyone ever wants to get married by a minister. In the end, the only ordination that counts is how we treat one another and our Mother, the earth.
In large part, I see most of what happens in the name of religion as quackery of one form or another. But, sometimes, we need a little delusion and quackery to get us through life!