NOTE: This is a re-write…an update…to an article I wrote a year and a half ago. – Mike Nash
It was really hard to write about this when I first put it out there. At the time I felt that it would be easier to admit that I’m an alcoholic, or that I like to wear women’s shoes. (I’m not and I don’t.) I live in a small town full of Christians, and I was part of the broader Christian world for 30 years. I spent a total of 20 years as a leader in Christian ministries. I was involved in worship and preaching at every church I’ve gone to. I taught a weekly Bible study in my home. And now I find myself not sure what I believe anymore.
Why is this hard for me to be honest about? Why did it scare the hell out of me to admit this? I’ll admit that I have a fear of rejection. Religious people tend to have a hard time with people who no longer believe they same way they do. And since I first wrote about this, I’ve experienced some rejection. It’s been difficult. But, surprisingly, it’s also helped me to really figure out who I am and what I do and don’t believe anymore.
I met with a friend for coffee last year. I’d known her for over 25 years. I was looking forward to catching up, talking about our lives, our families, our worlds. Instead she shared with me how much I’d hurt her, how betrayed she felt, because of something I’d written questioning the Bible’s take on human origins. At one point I said something like, “can’t we disagree on some of our beliefs, and still be friends?” Sadly, her answer wasn’t yes. This stings, every time I remember it.
Another old friend recently told me through email that I’ve changed “and not in a good way.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she said that I don’t believe the same things I did when she first met me, and that she can’t accept that.
In contrast, however – just tonight I had a couple beers with another old friend – I guy I’ve known since we were both 19 years old and with whom I did ministry for a decade. I told him my “story,” where I am spiritually, where my journey has taken me, and he was full of understanding and empathy – and he shared some of his own very real struggles and questions. It was a healing time, and it’s what has prompted me to revisit this article.
I live in a small town. I’ve got some really good friends here, including people who are still involved in the town church, where I no longer show up on Sunday mornings. Most of them have been full of grace and understanding – I don’t feel like a bad guy when I’m around them. There are others, however, who don’t know what to say to me, now that I’m no longer part of the club. At one point an out-of-State friend warned me that I might be going to hell. (I think it was these recent conversations that have prompted this semi-public confession.)
I didn’t do this on purpose. At least for me, belief is something you have or you don’t. I can’t just believe because I want to. I’ve experienced that kind of intellectual dishonesty. I can’t do it anymore.
Brief history: I was not raised in a religious home. Between the drinking and the fighting and the divorcing, my parents never seemed to have the time to develop that part of their lives. When I was 14 I decided to “ask Jesus into my heart,” due to the loving influence of a group of new friends at school. It probably saved my life. From there I got involved in Christian camps, briefly attended a Christian college, led Christians programs, married a wonderful Christian woman, became a leader in the Christian church. But 17 years or so ago things started falling apart in little ways…just minor fissures at first. Just a few small chunks would fall from the wall every so often, then a little more and a little more. Then finally, a few years ago, big sections of the wall crashed down.
The science problem
The first small crack for me was a little thing called “science.” I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a genius, but I do believe in science, and reading about science has sort of become a hobby of mine. And you know what? Evolution really is a thing. The evidence for it is overwhelming. It’s “only a theory” in the way that Einstein’s theory of relativity is “only a theory.” And frankly I’m embarrassed by the conservative church’s war on science, whether it be climate change, psychology, biology or whatever. I was at the Smithsonian last year, blown away by the history of life on display in the fossil cases, and I overheard a home school dad explain to his two little boys, “Now remember, you guys. Satan buried all these fossils in order to convince people that there is no God, right?”
Talking snakes, the sun standing still for a day, a 6,000 year old earth, dinosaurs on the ark – I couldn’t keep it up any longer. I had to finally be honest with myself. Either evolution is true, or Genesis is true. Not both. And I had to consider the fact that one of those two theories has an avalanche of evidence going for it, while the other is based on a book and a strong desire to believe.
The Bible problem
A few years ago I was studying apologetics and Biblical criticism, and I discovered that the word that Matthew translates as “virgin” in the birth story actually means “young woman.” It’s the same word that’s used for the women in Solomon’s harem (and I think we can safely assume they weren’t virgins). Turns out there were about two dozen “virgin births” and savior myths during the time period in which Jesus appears on the scene. It’s widely believed that Matthew added the virgin birth miracle (along with several others details of Jesus’s life) to make the whole narrative more closely match up with Old Testament prophecy. Which finally explains why the apostle Paul, the primary writer of the New Testament, never got the virgin birth memo. Not once does he refer to it in his letters. In fact, in one letter (Galatians) he traces Jesus’s lineage through Joseph, apparently assuming that Joseph was Jesus’s actual father. Two of the four gospel writers don’t seem to know about this part of the story, either.
Why am I writing about the Bible? Because this was one of the bigger cracks in my strong wall of faith. I kept discovering that I couldn’t trust it. But I have to admit – I was terrified. What if these truths I’ve based my entire adult life on turn out to be only true-ish? What would happen to my faith? Would I have to start over? What would my friends say? What would my wife say? Would I end up alone, sent to live “outside the city walls” where the Old Testament heretics were sent?
And, speaking of the Bible, I soon ran into my next stumbling block – I started questioning whether or not the Bible’s morality was better than modern morality. Is it safe to set my compass on a bronze-age morality in which God required his followers to smash the heads of babies, “godly” men served up their daughters to be raped by lustful hordes, and homosexuals and people accused of witchcraft were executed? It’s in the modern era – not the ancient eras – in which we begin to deal with issues of genocide, equality and human rights, human trafficking, racism, slavery and child abuse, to name just a few. These aren’t issues that the God of the Old Testament seemed to be concerned about. The human race has developed and improved through “ages of enlightenment.”
An important note here. I really like Jesus. I mean, really. I’m not thrilled with the ways he’s often portrayed by conservative Christians. But him, he’s way cool. And he actually did speak to a morality that’s universal, radical, and more morale than any societal moral code. Love everyone, even the people you don’t like. Do good to those who do you wrong. Take care of the poor. Don’t be an asshole. Be gentle and humble and kind. Don’t be judgmental or hypocritical. Be suspicious of people who love money – and don’t love it yourself. This is great stuff. I’ve often wished that being a Christian was less about having the correct theology and more about emulating Jesus.
I’m not an atheist…
Many years ago I took on the task of cleaning up our “office,” which was a room in our home that had for eight years been the dump, the storage, the “I’ll sort through this later” room. It looked like an episode of Hoarders. I spent the first hour or so trying to rearrange things in there, but I got frustrated and overwhelmed and made no progress whatsoever. Finally I decided that the only thing that was going to work was for me to take every single thing out of that room, and then decide, one at a time, which things were going to go back. That’s a little bit like what’s happened to my faith. I just can’t sort things out within the jumble of my own theology, experiences, traditions, expectations and beliefs. I’m definitely open to where this all ends up…but I have to start over.
I’m hoping that the people who have known me for a while will remember a few things about me. One – that I’ve always been passionate about what I believe. I don’t take matters of faith lightly. Two – that I didn’t do this on purpose. I think that faith holds us at least as much as we hold faith. And three – that this isn’t about you. I’m not rejecting you, I’m not insulting you, I’m not angry at you. I care about you.Here are a few things I’m pretty sure about.
I’m pretty sure that when I “land” on a belief system, the god I hold close to my heart won’t be the exact same god that you hold close to yours. And that it won’t hate gay people – or any people, for that matter. And that she won’t create hurricanes and earthquakes as punishments for “Godless America.” And that it won’t be a magic genie or a controlling puppeteer. And he probably won’t be Republican. What I’m pretty sure I’ll end up with, actually, is a God who is in large part mystery. In fact, it’s the people who claim to have god all figured out who most worry me.
So…where do I stand today? Let me say it right here – clearly and succinctly. I’m not an atheist. That would take a lot of faith and certainty, and certainty seems to be the thing I just can’t hold to any more. Do I think it’s plausible that a higher power isn’t somehow involved in all of the amazingness around us? No, I don’t. But who, how, and in what way? I just don’t know what the hell is true. But I know that I’m open. If science has taught me anything, it’s that there is much, much more to this world than what we can see and understand.
Here’s where I guess I’m at, at least for now. I’ve been seeking God for over 30 years. I need God to seek me now.