Ten years out of fundamentalism

It was fall 2003 and Rachel and I were driving down Highway 37 having one of our increasingly frequent gripe sessions. We were frustrated with the church we were attending – actually, with the entire fundamentalist tradition in which we were raised. We were changing, seeing our Pentecostal Holiness churches with new eyes.

We had been changing for quite a while. Thanks to the internet I had begun to discover the religious world outside our small group of strict, independent fundamentalists. I was realizing that we were not (in the words of an Audio Adrenaline song) the only ones moving toward Jesus. Also, I had discovered theology and other forms of religious thought far more rigorous and exciting than anything I’d ever encountered before. As Rachel and I discussed these things we both became curious about life outside the narrow world of our church.

Once we discovered liturgy, hymnody, and the ritual of the Christian calendar we began, stealthily, to visit a local Lutheran church. We were stunned by the beauty we found there.

We attempted to work what we were learning into our Pentecostal church: Rachel sang hymns in the services and I introduced theological concepts into Sunday School lessons. We went as far as creating an Easter production that was nothing but thinly veiled liturgy. We still believed we could stay where we were.

Then we attended an Audio Adrenaline concert with our friend Jeremy and his youth group. Audio Adrenaline was a Christian rock band – music that was at the outer edges of acceptability in our churches. If our people hadn’t believed jewelry was a mark of harlotry there would’ve been a great deal of pearl-clutching once they heard about where we’d gone. The consequences were serious for Jeremy, less so for us. But those events and the discussions that followed them allowed us to see more clearly the nature of the churches in which we were involved.

We began to realize that our people had a far too narrow view of religion and the world more generally. They were legalistic and, if you fell out of favor, they could be incredibly cruel. We were taught that the world was populated by demons and dangers. Yet as we tiptoed out into it we found a wonderful and thrilling place opening up before us.

So as we drove down Highway 37 I asked, half jokingly and half hopefully, “Why don’t we just leave and join the Lutheran church?” To my amazed delight Rachel replied, “Okay.”

After a few difficult, tearful conversations with family and friends, we started attending the Lutheran church on the first Sunday of 2004. We finally felt connected to a faith with a history and a link to the universal Church. We were intoxicated by the beauty of the ritual. Where previously I had only read books of sermons written by an approved list of authors, now I was driven by the joy of discovery to read whatever captured my interest. Later that year I stood in the sunlit sanctuary on Easter morning singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with tears in my eyes and the deep conviction that we were home.

But, like everything else in the universe, we continued to change. In 2006, two years later, our daughter Darcy was born and introduced a happy disruption to our lives. I continued to explore new ideas, often reading books that I only half-understood. I continued to have conversations online with fellow theology nerds. I had discussions/debates with Andy, whose friendship I had recently regained and who was himself going through serious changes. He presented me with questions that had a slow but relentless effect on me.

In 2009 we moved into Bedford, further away from our Lutheran church and within two blocks of an Episcopal parish. This proximity caused us again to consider whether we were in the right place. The denomination to which we belonged officially banned women from the ministry and semi-officially taught Young Earth Creationism (the belief that the world was created in six days less than ten thousand years ago).

Over the past five years we’d gone from politically and theologically conservative to politically liberal and theologically moderate. We accepted the scientific consensus on evolution. We no longer believed the Bible was inerrant. We believed women should fully participate in every aspect of the church’s ministry. We believed in the full equality of our LGBT sisters and brothers and acknowledged the holiness of their sexualities and gender expressions. Although our Lutheran church was a warm and welcoming place and we had no reason to believe we would encounter any difficulties, we believed that the Episcopal church would allow us the freedom to fully embrace these changing beliefs. So we made the move.

“Whatever IS will be WAS” (Bhikkhu Ñanamoli).

A friend from my fundamentalist days once said to me, “You’ve changed, Jeremy. You didn’t believe these things before.” And she was right. Unlike her, I do not consider it a compliment to say of a person that their beliefs have never changed. We have new experiences, new questions, and new encounters which curiosity and honesty compel us to incorporate into our mental universes. The alternative is to filter out any challenges to our beliefs. In that way, we avoid all psychic disturbance, but at the price of creativity and growth.

So far my emphasis has been on beliefs. This is because much of my life has been consumed by beliefs – acquiring them, changing them, ordering them, comparing them. Over the last few years I’ve detected this imbalance in my life. As my conception of politics grew from concern over the electoral horse race (something from which you can disengage between election cycles and legislative sessions) to a concern for the distribution of power and the ways in which we live together (something from which you must never disengage), I began to see that, like many introverts, I was living inside my head. I was very good at acquiring the right opinions, but not so good at acting on them.

This led to the feeling that I was wasting my life. I became resentful of my job and daydreamed continually of doing something else. Below the surface I lived with a continuous sense of dissatisfaction. I made a few half-hearted attempts to get involved with various causes, but none of them took.

Meanwhile the chatter continued in my head. I was trying to integrate my various interests – Anglo-Catholicism, Buddhism, mysticism, Protestant liberalism – with my developing politics. Finally, in January 2013, I had a panic attack. Sitting in traffic at the intersection of Highway 37 and Vernal Pike I suddenly had an intense, overwhelming desire to rip everything I knew about religion out of my head and never, ever remember it. That’s when I realized I needed to take a break. I stopped reading about and discussing religion. I decided that God (who/whatever s/he is) didn’t need me risking my mental health over problems I wasn’t going to solve anyway.

More changes came. Rachel and I became vegans and got involved in an effort to get a farmed animal sanctuary up and running. It is one of the most fulfilling projects we have ever been a part of. It has given me the opportunity to act on my beliefs in a concrete way and relieve that dread of wasting my life.

My work responsibilities have also grown in complexity and quality. The boredom and frustration that once filled my days is gone.

But 2013 has not been an unmixed blessing. The lingering effects of my religious neurosis (that’s what I’ve decided to call it) and my increased professional responsibilities have resulted in a few relatively minor panic attacks and bouts of anxiety. I’m learning how to deal with them. More change. More change.

I have no idea where I’ll go from here. I could never have predicted we’d be where we are. In fact, if you would have told me twenty years ago where I’d be today I would have been terrified. Just goes to show you that the preachers were right: Christian rock and intellectual curiosity will damn you every time.

Some days I worry whether I have it all wrong. Still, I know certain paths are closed for me. There is no way back to Christian exclusivism. Whatever God is, God is not parochial. God has not set up a system in which large segments of humanity will be tortured in hell because they have not properly arranged their mental furniture.

But most days I find that beliefs are unimportant to me now. I don’t care what you believe; tell me what you’re doing. Whatever God does, God is not actively intervening to improve the world. That, apparently, is our job. As Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Rachel and I are now ten years out of fundamentalism. Despite the pain it has sometimes caused, I would not undo the decisions we have made. Above all else I am thankful that we have travelled so far together. She is a delightful companion.

I know more change is coming – and sometimes I feel the panic creeping up the back of my neck. Then I breathe deeply, tell myself I’m okay, and greet my old fears with a smile.

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