I grew up with practically no religious instruction. I barely knew what religion was.
I knew it had something to do with belief in God. I knew it had something to do with telling people how they should behave and what would happen to them in the next life if they did not follow certain rules. And I thought it had something to do with going to church.
I knew that some people thought it admirable to attend church. I knew that others did not think so.
I was aware that some of the people who founded America had done so in order to gain the freedom to practice the religion of their choice. I knew, too, that these people were generally considered worthy of admiration.
But I was mostly indifferent to all of this, and the main reason could have been simply my observation that my father considered religion an irrelevancy.
I attended sixth through eighth grades at Planada Elementary School, where classes were dismissed early one day a week so that some of the students could attend religion classes. I was advised, by whom I do not remember, that I could join one of those classes if I wished to. I said, fearing a scolding for saying so, that I would rather not. To my considerable relief, there was no further discussion of the issue.
I was at least as inquisitive as any normal child. I read incessantly, and not only for entertainment. I was especially eager to read the few science books I could find that were written for juveniles.
Some science must have been taught in the elementary schools I attended, but I do not remember them. I do not remember having any science textbooks. I do not recall getting any instruction in anything but the three R's and occasionally some arts and crafts. There was also a smattering of history and, in the later grades, geography. And, of course, there was always "physical education."
The first scientific fact I remember getting from a teacher was in the third grade. Mrs. Zollars, on some occasion or other, was explaining gravity. She said the Earth was "like a magnet" that made people and everything else stick to its surface. If it were not for that, she said, we would all float up into the sky and never be able to come back down.
The next lesson I remember getting was in Mr. Brown's fifth-grade class. He took a white flower cutting, split the stem, and put the sections into two bottles of ink, one red and one blue. A day or two later the flower was colored half red and half blue.
On another occasion he took a piece of thick string, attached one end to a piece of cardboard with tape or a staple, and placed the other end into a glass of water. He left both on his desk, and the next day the cardboard was soaked. Mr. Brown explained that the water went from the glass through the string into the cardboard by something called "osmosis."
He did not explain, and I did not ask, why he did not call the piece of cardboard a piece of cardboard. He called it a "blotter." Not knowing what blotting was, I did not know the difference between a blotter and any other small piece of cardboard.
I learned most of the science I knew by reading books. Some of these books were in the school library. Others were on the classroom bookshelves, not as required reading but available to any of us kids who wanted to read them. I do not remember any of my classmates reading them, and so I knew that my interest in science made me different from other kids.
In the fourth grade I read a book about how the first flight to the moon might happen. A classmate who saw me with the book told me that it was a lie. We would never go to the moon, he assured me. I knew he was mistaken. I don't know how I knew, but there was no doubt in my mind. There was no space flight yet, but I knew it was coming.
I was in the seventh grade when Sputnik happened. I was not surprised by the event. I was disappointed only that America had been beaten.
I completed the seventh grade in June 1958, and with the end of school came, as usual, the start of vacation Bible school at Planada Community Church. This year my parents, untypically, wanted their four children to attend. I suspected at the time, and still suspect, that their main interest was in the free baby-sitting, but I never got around to asking them whether it was so. In any case, they assured us that we did not have to go if we preferred not to. It was, nevertheless, apparent that they really wished we would.
I would have preferred not to. I did not expect the classes to be fun. I thought they would be boring. However, Dad wanted us to go, and I wanted to respect his wishes. Besides, the activities were supposed to include some arts and crafts, and so I would not be entirely wasting my time.
The class for seventh- and eighth-grade boys was taught by the church pastor, the Rev. Gilbert Wantland. I had no reason to suspect that the message I was getting from him would have been any different if I had gotten it from any other pastor of any other church. I did not know why there were so many different churches, but it did not occur to me that it would have anything to do with fundamental disagreements over what Christianity itself was all about.
The message I got from the Rev. Wantland was as follows:
The Bible asserts that God created the heavens and the earth. We know this is true because the only alternative is to believe in evolution. Evolution is a ridiculous theory promulgated by atheistic scientists. The Bible further teaches us that, because of Adam and Eve's transgression, we are all sinners and for this reason condemned to burn in hell for eternity. However, because God so loves us, he sent his son Jesus to die on the cross for us, sacrificing himself as atonement for our sins. If we believe this, our sins are forgiven and we spend eternity in heaven. Belief is sufficient; it is also necessary. Skeptics will burn as surely as everyone else who rejects the Word of God.
I was skeptical at first, but I knew no one from whom to seek another opinion. I did not know that there were any other opinions on these issues besides "It's all true" and "None of it is true." I was confronted with Pascal's wager, many years before I ever heard Pascal's name: The consequences of believing in error were trivial compared to the consequences of disbelieving in error. I stuffed my skepticism and resolved to be a believer.
No one commits an act of faith just because he is convinced that it would be a prudent thing to do. I was not exercising faith. I was exercising reason. It was a poor exercise, but it was all I could do at the time.
My major obstacle in this exercise was in persuading myself that evolution was actually a ridiculous theory. Given the limits of my comprehension about scientific matters, this was not too difficult. The Rev. Wantland presented the theory in such caricature that, even knowing it to be a caricature, I thought he had a point. Wishing it were so, I persuaded myself that evolution could not have happened. I accepted, in my ignorance, the false dichotomy that if evolution could not have happened, then the world must have been created the way Genesis said it had been created. I accepted the further inference that if Genesis was right, then the entire Bible was right.
Nobody had told me that a person could believe in both evolution and Christianity. I was learning one kind of Christianity, unaware that there were any other kinds. I was informed, by a grownup who seemed to know what he was talking about, that if I wanted to go to heaven, I had to believe that evolution was a lie.
In due course, I learned I had to believe a lot of unconventional ideas if I wanted to go to heaven.
It was explained to me that "the world" had always, in general, rebelled against God's teachings. The righteous — those who chose to obey God — were always only a few. They were always called upon to be in some way different from most people.
The righteous always had to believe things that most people disbelieved, because holy men had said that these things were so. They had to avoid certain behaviors that most people thought innocuous, because God had prohibited those behaviors — and righteous people did not need to know why. They had to do certain things most people thought wasteful of time and resources, because God had said it pleased him when people did these things.
It was explained to me — not explicitly, but by clear implication — that righteous people knew these things to be true because they were written in the Bible, and righteous people believed everything in the Bible, because it was God's word. How do we know that? It says so, right there in The Book.
Even without any formal instruction in logic, I intuitively understood the invalidity of circular arguments. But I did not, and for many years would not, trouble myself about the fallacy of this thinking. I needed, for emotional reasons, to believe the conclusion, and so I believed it. Besides, the truth of scripture seemed, at that time, in a certain way to be self-evident. The Creator must have had a reason for the creation, and he would need some way of letting us know what the reason was. Why not put it in a book?
Then, too, there were the gospels and the Book of Acts, and I was not yet aware that anyone questioned their historical accuracy. I understood them to have been written by witnesses to the events they reported, or at least by people who had known the witnesses.
I could understand skepticism about Genesis. It was written long after the events it reported. The entire Old Testament might have been legend, for all I could know. But the New Testament was different. I understood it to be the testimony of men who had known Jesus. Jesus said he was the Son of God, and he did miracles to prove it. He vouched for the Old Testament. And so, as far as I was concerned, the scriptural assertion that “All scripture is inspired” was not actually an argument as such. It was not supposed to prove the Bible was inerrant, but was intended only to remind Christians that it was inerrant.
Planada Community Church was nondenominational. Most of the members were evangelicals, and under the Rev. Wantland's tutelage, I joined the subset of evangelicals called fundamentalists.
I knew none of that terminology at the time, and it would be years before I became familiar with it.
Many Christian fundamentalists won't call themselves fundamentalists. Many are not familiar with the term or, having heard it only on television news, think it refers to the kind of fanaticism exhibited by Middle Eastern Muslim terrorists. Others understand the term to refer to Christians whom they consider excessively legalistic or dogmatic.
The way Christianity was explained to me when I first joined it was along these lines.
There was a war between God and Satan. God wanted people to do three things: (1) believe he is real, (2) believe no other god is real, and (3) serve him. Satan did not care whether anyone believed in him or in any god, so long as they did not obey God. So far as God was concerned, if you were not for him, you were against him. Satan cared nothing about whether you were for God, against him, indifferent to him, or ignorant of him. All he cared about was that you did not obey God.
What kind of service does God want? Here, according to Jesus, is the First Commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." Implicitly, if one so loves God, one worships God regularly and obeys God's every instruction to the letter. To fail in this is to sin.
However, because of Adam's transgression, none of us can avoid failing. Because of Adam, it was written, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
Adam and Eve were created, like the rest of the world, perfect. They differed from all other living creatures in that they could choose not to be perfect. They could disobey God's instructions if they wished to. God gave them free will because he wanted to be served by creatures who had the option of not serving him. This would be in contrast to the angels, whom he had created without free will. Like good robots, they were incapable of disobedience.
(Where did Satan come from? He was an angel who had rebelled against God. How could this have happened if angels had no free will? The question never crossed my mind. None of my mentors, so far as I know, ever wondered about it, either.)
Here, according to the Genesis story as I learned it, is how sin entered the perfect world that God had created:
In the first five days, God created the heavens and the Earth, including all life on the Earth except for human beings. On the sixth day he created the first man and woman, named Adam and Eve, and he gave them certain instructions. On the seventh day, God rested.
At that point, the world was perfect, and it remained so for and unknown length of time. Genesis gives us no details of life in this paradise, beyond two facts: Adam and Eve had all they could eat without having to work for it, and they required no clothing. We are given to understand that if they had followed their instructions, they and their descendants would have lived forever in perfect contentment. It was God's intention that they do so.
Their instructions included one prohibition. They were told not to eat the fruit from a certain plant called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they did, God told them, they would die.
One day Eve encountered a serpent who told her that this was not true. The truth, he said, was that eating the fruit would make them wise -- as wise as God himself. Eve took a taste, found it pleasant, and persuaded Adam to do likewise. The only immediate result was that they suddenly felt embarrassed by their nudity.
Shortly afterward, God came to visit. Adam and Eve, hearing his approach, tried to hide from him. Failing that, and being asked to explain why they tried to hide, Adam told God about eating the fruit and feeling ashamed about his nakedness. He blamed the woman for tempting him. Eve in turn told God about her conversation with the serpent.
Caring nothing for their excuses, God announced their punishment. Because they had disobeyed him, their lives would be hard and of limited duration. For the woman, childbirth would be difficult and painful, and she would be subservient to the man, dependent on his support. The man, in turn, would have to work hard all his life to feed himself and his family. Everyone would live lives of pain and sorrow, and then they would die.
The serpent, having started it all, was condemned to lose its legs and to become an object of fear and loathing.
That, according to fundamentalist doctrine, is why there is evil in a world that was created perfect by an omnipotent and loving God. It is also, as explained by fundamentalists but not in so many words by the author of Genesis, the reason for certain other facts.
Having disobeyed God once, Adam and Eve became incapable of perfect obedience thereafter. They were now sinful creatures, and their descendants would inherit their sinfulness. We are all sinners, and cannot be otherwise, because Adam and Eve sinned. When Adam fell from grace, we fell with him.
God loves us, he offers forgiveness, but a price must be paid. A blood sacrifice is required. God decided from the beginning that his son, Jesus, would be that sacrifice. From the day Adam fell, Jesus was destined to be crucified in atonement for the sins of all humanity. God had his own timetable for accomplishing this, however, and the sacrifice was not scheduled to occur until several thousand years had elapsed. What's more, except for a few prophets, no one was to know about this arrangement ahead of time.
In the meantime, blood sacrifices were still necessary. Those who would please God were obliged to sacrifice certain animals, especially sheep, at prescribed times. This was to symbolize their acceptance of the sacrifice that would be made in due time by God's own son.
There is no excuse for anyone not to understand this, as demonstrated by what happened to Cain and Abel. We are informed that Abel became a shepherd, Cain a farmer. We are not told about any instruction they received in how to worship God. For that matter, we are not told what instructions Adam might have gotten from God after being told, "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." In any event, Cain and Abel were supposed to know how to obtain forgiveness for their sins.
Both did offer sacrifices to God, each one using the products of his labor. Abel offered some of his sheep, Cain some fruit and vegetables. God showed a preference - we are not told how - for Abel's offering. Cain became resentful about this. God informed Cain that he had no reason for resentment. According to God, if Cain would only do what he was supposed to do, then there would be no problem.
What Cain was supposed to do, the fundamentalists tell us, was to get a sheep and sacrifice it. If he had none of his own, he could have gotten one from Abel. God did not want fruit or vegetables. He wanted blood. This was put in writing in the New Testament - "without shedding of blood is no remission" - but righteous people from the beginning had no need to see it in writing.
With the crucifixion, the sacrificing was done with and people no longer needed to kill animals. They needed now to believe that Jesus had sacrificed himself for their sins. Any who did not believe would not be forgiven and would experience the consequences of their sins.
Adam and Eve were told that because they had sinned, they would not live forever, and that while they did live they would suffer various pains and hardships. Nothing they could do would change this, but they and their descendants were obliged nevertheless to do the best they could to remain obedient to God. God's forgiveness did not mean deliverance from mortality or from life's hardships. God's forgiveness meant escaping eternal damnation.
Recall Satan's rebellion. Other angels joined him in a rebellion against God. Angels loyal to God suppressed the rebellion. Satan and his followers were banished from heaven, and God created a lake of fire, in a place called Hell, into which the rebels would be thrown, there to burn forever in punishment for their evil deed. God had his own timetable, however, and the sentence was not to be carried out immediately. Satan had to be allowed to take with him as many men and women as would choose to follow him. People had to have this choice; otherwise, they would not be exercising free will. Satan was allowed to remain free so that he could tempt people away from God. Anyone who succumbed to his temptations would join him in spending eternity in the lake of fire. Those who resist his temptations join God in heaven and spent eternity there.
If we're all doomed to die on Earth, how do we get to either heaven or hell? Simple. Only our bodies die, and they are not the real us. Each of us has an immortal soul, and it goes to heaven or hell in the next life, according to how we chose to live in this life.
The church informed me that hell was not created in order to punish sinful people. It was not part of God's plan that there would be any sinful people. God created hell in order to punish rebellious angels. Only by choosing to be sinful do people, in effect, choose to share the punishment ordained for the rebellious angels.
Only God's intervention can save us. By default, we are condemned to burn forever with Satan and his followers.
God's intervention is not automatic. We would not be exercising free will if it were. He does not save us from damnation unless we ask him to. The choice has to be ours, not his. Those who choose rightly are called righteous people, and those who choose differently are unrighteous.
We make that choice through the exercise of faith. Faith is believing that Jesus died for our sins. The exercise of that faith is living in compliance with God's will. We are saved by what we believe, not by what we do, but what we believe is irrelevant unless what we do is consistent with it.
In the early days of human history, there was no written account of God's instructions. God spoke directly to a few men who were receptive to him, and everyone else was obliged to believe what these men told them about the conversation. When Noah told people that God had warned him of a flood, those who would not take his word for it were drowned.
A few centuries later a few men would write down the messages they said they had received from God. These writings came to be called scripture or the Scriptures. Later they were compiled into a book called the Bible. Righteous people believed that these writings were the word of God, for whom the authors were but messengers. To this day, among fundamentalists, skepticism about the Scriptures is proof of unrighteousness, because righteous people intuitively know when they encounter God's word and, because they know it is God's word, they do not question it.
These things I believed from when I was 12 until I was 18, at which time I left fundamentalism. I continued to believe in God and to consider myself a Christian for several more years.
About two years after my initial conversion, I joined a Pentecostal sect.
I was living at the time in a county foster home in a different city from where my parents and the few friends I had made were living. The first Sunday I was there, I asked my guardian for directions to the nearest church in the neighborhood. I did not find any church where she said it was, and I began looking for another one. About a mile from the home, I found the First Apostolic Church, where by this time the morning service was in progress. One of the members made my acquaintance after the service, offered me a ride home and said he would pick up me up for the evening service if I wished to return. There were services on Tuesday and Friday evenings as well, and there was always someone apparently eager to provide me with transportation.
I was not at first aware of anything out of the ordinary about the services. I might have noticed a general exuberance that I was unaccustomed to, but I do not remember giving it any thought. It was probably during the second week when a young man named Bill told me what was different about that church.
Bill had given me a ride home after one of the evening services. After stopping in the driveway, he asked me whether I believed I was saved. I told him I did. "Are you sure?" he asked. I said "Pretty sure," or something to that effect.
The implication that I was not entirely certain was enough to get him started. We sat in his car in for a long while as he explained what the First Apostolic Church believed about salvation, and he quoted the scriptures on which the church based its beliefs. I found the scriptural arguments convincing, and for the next four years believed that anybody who was not similarly convinced was not saved.
I was a now a Pentecostal, and not just an ordinary Pentecostal. I had been recruited by Oneness Pentecostals, who also called themselves Apostolics. A brief presentation of their distinct beliefs is at http://www.upci.org/doctrine/apostles.asp. What the Web site does not make clear is that Oneness Pentecostals generally believe, or least did believe when I was a member, that deviation from any Oneness doctrine will condemn a person to hell. We believed in my church that a member of any other church, even another Pentecostal church, was not a true Christian. We believed they were as lost as people who had never believed in Jesus.
The events that started moving me out of fundamentalism probably started during my senior high school year. One of the first involved a girl who, if the notion of parallel universes is true, is probably my wife in one of them.
Gwen, a Presbyterian, was in several of my high-school classes. Until we were in 12th grade she was only an acquaintance, but in senior English we happened to be seated together, my desk right behind hers.
Gwen was as devout as Presbyterians get, and partly for that reason was not among the popular students. The other kids liked her well enough. She was not Miss Congeniality, but she was a nice person. She was no beauty; neither was she unattractive.
Our conversations were limited to the few moments before class began. It was no secret among my peers that I was very religious. To Gwen, that was an attraction. She did not know about my religion's position regarding her religion. Nor did I make it a point to let her know. I wanted her to like me. I wanted everyone to like me, and I knew she would not if she ever realized I believed she was going to hell.
Fortunately, my personal disinclination to be forthright was not discordant with the church's position. We knew that when witnessing to members of other churches, it was a tactical error to reveal our belief that their religions were unacceptable to God. The approved tactic was to show them, if they seemed receptive to any new ideas, how our way was the most acceptable to God. The proposition that it was the only acceptable way could be presented later.
Gwen was clearly satisfied with her way, and I didn't push the issue. I liked her, and I could tell she liked me. We could be friends, and maybe someday there would come an occasion when I could tell her some things I thought she should understand about the Word of God.
Some of our classmates, girls who were friends of Gwen, noticed that she and I seemed comfortable with each other. They probably thought me a bit strange, but must also have suspected that I was a decent guy if nothing else. A couple of them came to me one spring day as prom time approached. They informed me that Gwen didn't have a date yet for the prom, but they were confident that she would go with me if I asked her.
They were ready for my objection that I could not dance. They knew that it was against my religion. They told me I wouldn't have to dance. Gwen would be happy with my escorting her to the prom. Surely, they suggested, my mere presence at the scene would not violate any commandments.
Many responses that I could have made would have been consistent with good manners, not to mention good tactics for winning converts. But I was not well versed in etiquette, and I was further disadvantaged by a sudden feeling of panic. I was caught quite off guard and was not thinking clearly.
What I did was to explain that my church prohibited not only dancing, but also dating anyone not a member of the church.
Within a few days it was obvious that Gwen knew about her friends' intervention and what my response had been. She did not mention it, but she was no longer friendly. She knew why she was not going to have a date for the prom. It was because someone she thought was a nice guy thought himself holier than she.
I had done the righteous thing, but I did not feel righteous. She believed in Jesus Christ. I thought her beliefs were mistaken, but she believed, and she was keeping God's commandments as best she knew how. For that, she did not deserve to be hurt the way I had hurt her. She had offered me something like her love, and I had responded by metaphorically slapping her face.
There was something wrong with this picture. I was not sure yet what is was, but I knew something was not right.
There was another incident during my senior year that left me feeling bad about having done the theoretically right thing.
One of my Mormon friends had tagged me as a potential convert, and I responded by trying to convert him. We had a few meetings during which we exchanged our respective arguments, maintaining appropriate civility the whole time. Then, apparently feeling that he needed a bigger gun, he suggested a meeting with one of his mentors, who happened also to be one of high school's history teachers. I said that would be fine with me.
I knew by now that my friend was not going to come over to my way of thinking, and I knew even better that his mentor would not be amenable to my persuasions. But, I was obliged to use every opportunity for witnessing that came along, and besides that, I expected to enjoy some further exercise of my debating skills.
I was with my friend when he approached the teacher about our meeting. The teacher, gladly it seemed, invited us both to join him at his home on a certain evening. He also volunteered the proviso that our discussion would be limited to the Bible, understanding as he did that the Mormons' other sacred books would be, so far as I was concerned, irrelevant to anything we might discuss.
My friend might have thought he needed some backup. I thought I needed none. I thought I knew Scripture well enough to go alone into any debate.
I checked with my pastor beforehand, though, not because I wanted his advice but because I thought I should have his permission. Proselytizing during chance encounters was encouraged, but a planned engagement with the enemy was something else. For that I wanted prior clearance.
Permission was granted. The pastor, Elder Bill, agreed that the object of the meeting, realistically, was not the winning of any souls. He figured it would simply be a good exercise of my knowledge of God's Word.
He also knew that it would be either jolly good fun or else a good exercise in humility. I did admit, at least to myself, that I was expecting to take a nice ego trip. I did not expect to be humbled.
I felt like a gunslinger heading for his first shootout at high noon on Main Street.
I never had a class with that teacher. I barely knew him then and cannot recall his name now. Unlike Gwen, he was essentially a stranger. Also unlike Gwen, he was presumably a volunteer in the Devil's army, not a draftee like her. She had, I presumed, inherited her parents' religion. He might have inherited his religion, too, but he was old enough, by many years, to have re-examined it for himself. I figured that if I hurt him, he had it coming.
The appointed time came. Metaphorically, I strapped on my gun, adjusted my white hat, and walked into the street to face the man in the black hat. The clock struck 12, we drew together and started shooting.
We spent the evening, as expected, quoting Scripture and interpretations at each other without apparent effect on either's thinking. Except for one exchange. The teacher had cited a passage in Revelation to support a Mormon doctrine concerning the priesthood of believers. I responded with a different interpretation, not uniquely Pentecostal but widely held among conventional fundamentalists as well.
The teacher sat in silence for several seconds, apparently scrutinizing the verse he had just read, and then without another word changed the subject.
I have no clue as to what actually went through his mind in those seconds, but I remember clearly what I thought he was thinking. I'd gotten him! He'd fired and missed, I'd fired back and hit him cleanly - with his protege watching, no less!
I felt gloriously triumphant. For at least a whole second.
Then I realized how I'd be feeling in his situation.
It did not occur to me, until years later, that I might have misread his reaction. He might have changed the subject only because he thought it obviously futile to try reasoning with me about that verse in Revelation. But I did not consider that possibility at the time.
I couldn't help feeling some pride about it. It seemed I had beat him fair and square, and I would not let go of that feeling.
But I also could not let go of my sympathy for him.
I did not, of course, admit any misgivings to Elder Bill or anyone else in the church. When he asked about the meeting, I replied only that, as expected, the Mormons had failed to see the light. Perhaps I also mentioned my little victory, but I do not remember that I did. I was never above boasting, but I did not feel boastful about that incident.
Success in college required more self-discipline than I was accustomed to exercising. I barely made it through the first semester; a few weeks into the second I dropped out.
I was then working as a dishwasher at a drive-in restaurant straight out of American Graffiti. One of the cooks, Roger, was a man whose intelligence I recognized right away. I once asked him if he'd been to college. "No," he said, "just the College of the World and the School of Hard Knocks." Still, I already knew better than to equate intellect with academics. We talked long and often when business was slow. He also volunteered to show me how to do some of his job, and I started entertaining notions of graduating from dishwasher to short-order cook.
One night as I was witnessing to him I remarked, as fundamentalists habitually do, "Well, the Bible says . . . ."
"Wait a minute," he said. "I've never heard a Bible say one word. I've seen a bunch of them in my time, and some were really fancy, but not a one ever said anything.
"What you mean," he said, "is that you read such-and-such in the Bible."
Almost any other member of my church would have dismissed his observation as a nitpicking semantic irrelevance, although few of them could have used those words. The thought did cross my mind, but I immediately dismissed it. I saw his point.
And so I said to him, "Well, as the apostle Paul said in his letter to . . . ."
No fundamentalist disputes the human authorship of the Bible, and few fundamentalists think the authors were merely God's stenographers. Our understanding of divine inspiration was that God had told them what to write, but not how to write it.
But on what grounds did we believe in any kind of divine inspiration?
For most fundamentalists, a sufficient response is, "The Bible itself says so." I had long before noticed the circularity of that argument, but I had found other reasons for being convinced that the Bible was as infallible as the church said it was. I knew also, by this time, that those other reasons were not logically watertight. I had come to realize by the time I met Roger that my belief in scriptural inerrancy amounted to only an assumption that looked reasonable to me. His remark was a reminder that, however reasonable I might have thought it to be, it was still only an assumption.
The difference between "The Bible says" and "Paul wrote" was a trivial rephrasing, perhaps, but it focused my attention on what I was really putting my trust in. It was not the book. It was the men whose words were recorded in the book.
And it was a short logical step from that realization to the next: that I was also trusting the men who had told me that the authors had been writing under divine guidance and therefore couldn't have made any mistakes. For a little while longer, but only a little while, I thought that trust was justified.
I felt compelled to ask myself: Why did I have to believe whatever Paul wrote? For a long time, I had thought that "Because Paul wrote under God's inspiration" was a good enough answer. But then I had to wonder whether I had a good reason to believe that.
There is much I no longer remember about how I picked up many of the facts that were beginning to bother me. One of those facts was that there were no original copies of the New Testament writings, and another was that there were inconsistencies among the manuscripts that did exist. According to the church, I was supposed to believe that God inspired the writing of the original documents but then allowed them to vanish within a few years and did not inspire the making of inerrant copies.
Somehow that did not compute.
Then I learned at some point that there was little consensus among early Christians as to which books ought to be considered to have been divinely inspired, and that a lot of authorship attributions were based on nothing but tradition. What this meant, I realized, was that some books, maybe all of them, could have gotten canonized because some church father said, "I believe it, therefore God said it, and that settles it."
I hoped it wasn't so. For a while I remained convinced that it wasn't so. But I could not shake the knowledge that it could have been so.
Not long after that conversation with Roger, I found out about the Documentary Hypothesis.
Connie, a former high school classmate, was attending college in another city. She was back home during a school break and I went for a visit, hoping to get in some witnessing, which I did. I think we were discussing something in Genesis when I said something like, "Well, according to Moses . . . ." Connie said, "Excuse me, but Moses didn't write that." She proceeded to inform me about J, E, D, and P, and assured me that this had been the consensus of Bible scholars for many years.
I had never heard of such a thing, and I couldn't begin to respond. I don't remember where the conversation went next. I wasn't sure whether to believe it. I didn't doubt that Connie was accurately reporting the scholarly consensus. But was the consensus correct?
According to the church, when experts contradict scripture, the experts are just wrong. No matter what evidence they claim to have, they have to be misinterpreting it, and the reason they're misinterpreting it is probably because they're manufacturing an excuse to reject the Bible's authority.
It was getting very hard to me to maintain that kind of cynicism.
I didn't have any idea what evidence supported the Documentary Hypothesis. Connie hadn't gotten into that. But somewhere in the back of my mind it occurred to me: If you're just trying to discredit the Bible, why invent four authors to take Moses' place? Why not three or five? Or just one?
I suspected there had to be something to the hypothesis besides pigheaded skepticism. The scholars certainly were not just making these things up.
Besides, I thought, God could have inspired J and the others, whoever they were, just as well as he could have inspired Moses. And, nothing in the Bible directly credited Moses with writing the Pentateuch.
Still, early church tradition accepted Mosaic authorship. If the church fathers were wrong about that, what else might they have been wrong about? No fundamentalist to my knowledge has ever claimed infallibility for the church fathers. Much fundamentalist dogma, however, rests on an implicit assumption that there were certain things that they could not have been mistaken about -- such as whether the four gospels were all true accounts of Jesus' ministry, passion, and resurrection.
For almost six years at this point, I had been thinking that I was ordering my life to be compliant with instructions from God. It was gradually becoming clearer that many of the instructions I was trying to comply with were really of human rather than divine origin. People were telling me that the instructions came from God. But I had only their say-so on that.
Conceivably, God was talking to me through those people. I had no problem believing that. But I had a big problem being sure about it. I needed evidence that what they were telling me was true, and I was not finding any.
Ken Finlayson was the principal of a rural elementary school where he also taught a boys' shop class. Though a bachelor, he had become the guardian of a boy named Jim, who was a year behind me at Merced High. I had shared no classes with Jim, but met him through an acquaintance named Bill, with whom I did share a class.
I had witnessed to both Bill and Jim, but they were Methodists and apparently intent on remaining so. I enjoyed their company enough to stay friendly with them. I have no idea to this day why they stayed friendly with me.
In due course I visited Jim at his home and thus met Ken, as well as Ken's other wards, who were sort of foster brothers to Jim. Their names were Cliff and Larry.
Ken and the three boys all attended the same church that Bill did, First Methodist, although Ken himself claimed no denominational affiliation. He thought denominationalism of any sort was a very un-Christian thing. He also thought several members of the church were being very un-Christian in expressing a desire that Cliff and Larry find somewhere else to worship God.
The membership at First Methodist was almost entirely white. Cliff and Larry were black.
One weekend evening Jim had had enough of certain evasions I had been offering whenever he asked me how important I thought our disagreements were.
"Just answer this," he demanded. "Do you believe I'm going to hell?"
"Well, um, uh . . . yes, I do."
I thought to myself: That's what I've been trying to tell you.
I presented the church's position again: Scripture records certain instructions from God, along with information about what happens to those who disregard the instructions. Jim listened politely, taking no obvious offense, and responded with his understanding of what Jesus had to say on the subject of how to please God.
I had heard it all before, just as he had already heard everything I was saying. But somehow I was listening differently now. What he was saying began to sound more reasonable than what I had been saying. By the time our talk ended, my self-confidence was very shaken.
I was not yet, however, doubting the basic soundness of my arguments. If the Bible was right - and I still felt certain that it was - then Jim was wrong, somehow. And yet, I had already admitted to myself the weakest point of my argument. Scriptural inerrancy was an assumption, not a proven fact.
Many fundamentalists had attempted to prove inerrancy. Few of those making the attempt were Pentecostals, because few Pentecostals thought proof was needed. But I was among the few. I thought proof would be good to have, and I had looked for it. Those who tried to provide it had not convinced me that they had succeeded. I did not yet doubt what they were trying to prove, but I had seen no proof that I was satisfied with.
One thing Jim had emphasized was the Great Commandment, that we should love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. I agreed with him about its primacy, and I saw that my brother and sister Apostolics tended to ignore it, and that they were wrong to do so. I saw that my church had committed the sin of the Pharisees, elevating complex teachings of men above a plain principle, stated by Moses, repeated by the prophets, elaborated on by Jesus, and enshrined in poetry by Paul in I Corinthians 13.
But even so . . . if I believed all that because it was so recorded in the Bible, then I could not just ignore all the other commandments. If the others were subsidiary, that did not make them null and void. My church was wrong in overlooking the most important parts of the Bible. It was not, for that reason, wrong in teaching that the whole book had to be believed and obeyed.
I continued such thinking for a further while, and it came to pass that I had a rerun of my conversation with Jim. But this time, Ken was with us.
I had been a fundamentalist for six years, and I had spent that whole time examining and re-examining my beliefs. As I had learned about first one and then another intellectual argument against them, I had added to their defenses, taking care as well as I could that they remained coherent. God was surely mysterious, but He could never be illogical; of that I was confident. He could be apparently illogical, perhaps, given the limits of human understanding, but never really actually illogical. Fundamentalism had its paradoxes, but thought I had resolved them.
I now believed that my brothers and sisters in the church had much to repent for, but I still thought that we were the one and only true church. Perhaps, I was thinking, I would be called to lead the church to a new understanding of its true mission; or perhaps I would not. That was up to God, and he had not let me know one way or the other. But there was still, I was sure, only one way to be saved, and that was our way, which we understood was based on a plain acceptance of the plain language of Scripture.
So I tried to tell all this to Ken, as I had tried to tell it to Jim.
Ken took no more personal offense than Jim had, but he was literally old enough to be my father, and he could hardly conceal his contempt for my shallowness. He had had many more than six years to examine his beliefs. He proceeded to compare them with mine; and, he compared his and Jim's lives with mine, as measured by conformity with the Great Commandment.
Later that night, walking home, I wept, not yet in defeat, but in shame.
A few days later, by chance, I was having to find a new place to live. I mentioned this to Ken during my next visit, and he offered to let me rent a camping trailer he had parked in his back yard. I thus became, unofficially, one of his boys.
The intellectual scaffolding I had erected to support my faith was meaningless. However necessary I thought it was to believe the Bible in its entirety, and to believe in the necessity of obedience to its every mandate, I had nothing with which to show these supposed infidels that they were the ones out of God's favor.
I thought I had plucked the beam out of my own eye, with Ken's assistance, and I had felt much better for it. I could feel justified in criticizing my brothers and sisters for failing to see the light that I had seen. But I could also see how morally naked I was, compared with this man who saw no need to believe that Genesis was history, that the Gospels were biography, or that Acts was journalism.
California had passed a law in 1963 prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale or rental of homes. In 1964 there was an initiative, Proposition 14, intended to repeal that law. Jim and several friends, under Ken's tutelage, decided to organize a committee to undertake a campaign against Proposition 14. For some reason, Ken and Jim suggested I join them. I agreed to attend the inaugural meeting, after which I would think about whether to continue participating.
The committee members were mostly college students with one or two still in high school. All were more or less active in one church or another, mostly Methodists and Baptists, but all of them, even the Baptists, very liberal.
The meeting was to be on a Tuesday evening. My church's Bible study was on Tuesday evenings. Excuses for missing any church meeting were limited to those such as illness that would also excuse absence from a job. And, when absence was foreseen, one was expected to call in to the pastor as one would call in to one's employer.
I had not yet decided to quit the church, but I was thinking about it - and scared mightily by the possibility.
If there had been no conflict with regularly scheduled services, I could have sought my pastor's permission to join the committee, but I was pretty sure that even then I would be told not to. There was no rule or precedent on the issue of political activism, but one fact would likely be decisive: The committee was being organized, albeit indirectly, by a group of heathen churches. Its members were motivated, for the most part, by their religion, and it was the wrong religion.
In any case, there was a conflict, and my being given leave to skip a church service in order to attend some political meeting was not even a hypothetical possibility. And so, I did not call the pastor. If I was going to stay with the church, I would have some hard apologies to make, but I would make them if I had to. If I decided to leave the church, skipping a service was not going to matter.
I went to the meeting. We began by introducing ourselves around the table, and Jim suggested we include our church and school affiliations where applicable. Being temporarily a college dropout, I was the only one for whom a school affiliation was not applicable.
Everyone claimed a church affiliation.
It was the last time I said, "I'm an Apostolic."
I became persuaded that the committee's work was God's work. I wanted to join it. But I knew I could not join it while maintaining allegiance to the Apostolic faith.
I talked with Ken again the next night.
I had been convinced for years that I would burn in hell if I followed any path but fundamentalism. I was now ready to believe I had been mistaken - but how, I wanted to know, could I feel certain about that? This was, after all, not the sort of choice to make on the grounds that it was only probably right. Nobody was telling me I would burn in hell if I stayed with the church.
When Ken and I were through talking, I had reached the following conclusions:
Still I wavered, but only until the following day. I was working in a factory at that time, at a task requiring little conscious attention. Sometime that afternoon, I crossed my emotional Rubicon.
In the years since, I have made other decisions as difficult, but none more so. At least, it felt at the time like a difficult decision. In hindsight, there really was no decision to make. My belief in the dogmas of fundamentalism was gone, and no act of will on my part could have changed that. I could have stayed in the Pentecostal religion only by hypocritically pretending that I still believed in it. I was not deciding whether to believe or not believe. I was only searching my soul to make very sure I no longer believed.
Having finally made sure, I started a new life as a liberal Christian.
For the next few years, I tried to justify my belief that God was real and that Jesus had given the world some special insights into his nature. That, I now believed, was the essential message of Christianity. I thought the message had been obscured by the legendary and doctrinal accretions that early Christians picked up in the years after Jesus' martyrdom and eventually put into the books that became the New Testament. Eventually, I believed, those accretions overwhelmed Jesus' core message, little of which was left to be found in the Bible.
And that core message, I thought, was not unique to Christianity. The founders of all major religions, I believed, had discerned the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of mankind, the moral primacy of loving one's neighbor, and the responsibility of humankind for turning the present world into the kingdom of God.
I did not consider the Bible or any other book inspired in a revelatory sense. Some writers, I believed, were unusually gifted with insight or intuition about spiritual matters. These people were in some sense more in tune with God than other people. To me, a writing was inspired if it was inspiring, and it did not matter whether any organized religion had canonized it.
I had little opportunity, though, to do much more with these ideas than think about them and, when the opportunity arose, talk about them in Sunday school classes for young adults. About a year after leaving the Pentecostals, I joined the Navy and put most of my life's ambitions on hold for the next six years.
Life aboard ship in the peacetime Navy gives a sailor a lot of spare time, and I spent much of mine reading, and thinking about what I was reading. I learned some more science, and some sociology, and some history, and some philosophy. At one point I came across the book ESP, Seers, and Psychics, by professional magician Milbourne Christopher. It told me much about how easily well-educated people, even those well versed in science, can acquire false beliefs. I read Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, where I encountered a reference to Occam's Razor and discerned how vital it was to the intellectual integrity of any belief system.
As I assimilated all this, the cumulative effect on my religious thinking was largely subliminal. I was not consciously thinking about any of its implications for Christianity as I understood it. I thought I had long ago abandoned all of its superstitious trappings and was embracing only its core truths.
I was 25 when my enlistment expired. Having acquired some electronics training, I found work in a TV repair shop for a few weeks before returning to college. One day during that period, my mind wandered onto religion while I was riding to a service call, and I realized that I didn't believe any of it any more. My belief in God was gone. There was no transcendent reality. The observable universe was the only reality, or at least the only one in which belief was justifiable.
I was back to the atheism of my early youth. But now, unlike then, I knew exactly what I did not believe, and I knew why I did not believe it.
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(This page last updated on March 20, 2017.)