From Fundamentalist to Humanist
Robert M. Price
Everyone is on a spiritual journey. Most of the time we are glad enough to admit this, but other times we want stability more than anything else, and at those times we are liable to fear religious change lest we fall away from hard-won truth. But I have come to believe that the spiritual journey is a journey of discovery into largely unknown territory. If we hunker down, insisting we’ve already got enough truth, thank you, we are like the Israelites stubbornly camping out on the threshold of the Promised Land, cheating themselves out of the fulfillment of their hopes. My own spiritual journey has taken me places I never thought I’d be going. But I’m glad it did! I trod a rocky but fascinating road from fundamentalism to humanism. Let me share some of the high points with you. Perhaps you have been over some of the same territory. Or perhaps you will.
At the ripe old age of ten (adolescence being the most common time of life for conversion, psychologists tell us), I began to fear the prospect of everlasting hell-fire and heeded the urging of the preacher at a local Baptist church to receive Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Unlike Huck Finn, who was back playing cards, smoking and cussing the next week, I took the whole thing quite seriously. It was not long before I broke open the Bible and began studying it, “witnessing” to friends and neighbors about my new-found faith, praying, and attending church at least three times a week. I loved the camaraderie of “Christian fellowship” and, while less enthusiastic about it since I knew what a nut I must seem, I persevered in witnessing and persuaded several friends to “get saved,” too.
Being intellectually inclined (a nerd, in fact, I’ll admit it), eventually my interest in the Bible and in evangelism began to converge. Sometimes people with whom I’d talk about faith in Christ would ask, “But who knows if Jesus even lived? Isn’t he a myth? Why believe the Bible is true?” Unlike many evangelists, I did not dismiss these objections as smokescreens. I realized they were serious questions, and I wanted the answers, too! So I began studying up on “apologetics.” This is the art of defending the faith. I read many, many books purporting to demonstrate the complete historical trustworthiness of Scripture and even to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead. I knew all the arguments backward and forward.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the debating forum. By now I was used to weighing arguments, judging historical probability. Even though I figured the Bible was accurate, it was no longer so much a matter of faith. I believed on the basis of the evidence. And there is always more evidence around the corner. Would it confirm or destroy my beliefs? Ironically, my very attempt to buttress my faith (and that of others) had actually eroded my faith. I went from believing the Bible because it was the Bible to believing the Bible because I thought the facts backed it up, to finally not believing the Bible once more evidence convinced me I’d been seeing only what I wanted to see. I guess I finally realized I had to choose between being loyal to a creed I had accepted, continuing to believe it by sheer will power, and being honest with myself. I chose the latter. It wasn’t long before I had gotten myself the reputation of a heretic and lost most of my old Bible-carrying buddies.
At the same time, I began to see that the fundamentalist “born-again” mentality was not all it was cracked up to be. The born-again gospel promises joy and peace of mind, but it does so by prolonging childhood (“unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven”). Fundamentalism fills you with answers before you even think to ask the questions. It discourages self-discovery and urges you to conform to a supposedly “Christ-like” stereotype. Your mind is made up for you, and a set of pre-packaged values and opinions are supplied you, like a uniform and field pack in Basic Training.
You are encouraged, in what I now view as a superstitious fashion, to see the guiding hand of God in every circumstance. Every minor disappointment and major disaster are messages from God to teach you some lesson, and it’s your job to learn to figure out the Almighty’s charade. It took me till I was out of college to begin to see how immature, even delusional, all this was. You can’t grow up, it seems to me, till you learn that you live in a world of impartially random events and that you are responsible for your own actions. But born-againism made life into a giant puppet-show, with God as the puppeteer.
All this pretty much crystallized for me, ironically, during seminary, while I was studying the New Testament for a Master of Theological Studies degree. I had by this time had my fill both of intolerant dogmatism and the smug evangelical subculture. So I decided to look into Liberal Protestant theology. Maybe this alternative would prove more satisfactory. So I read scores of books by major Modernist theologians. I never found Liberal churches to my liking. They seemed like social clubs and, though they lacked the fundamentalist taboos against movies, dancing, etc., they had their own wearisome self-righteousness what is these days called political correctness.
But I did find Liberal theology to be quite helpful. Paul Tillich especially answered my questions. Here was a faith that did not require intellectual fudging and self-deception. One could be genuinely open to the evidence since “faith,” Tillich argued, was not “belief,” but rather “Ultimate Concern.” Wrestling with the questions, not necessarily parroting the “right” answers to them. I believed one can experience the Holy, but not necessarily a personal God. No miracles, either. Who needed them? No more theologically important than UFOs or ESP. The Bible was mythical, but that was good, not bad. Myths give us symbols. Symbols become rituals. And as Carl Jung showed, rituals are psychologically and spiritually profound, even though there’s nothing magical about them. This is where I had arrived by the time I’d finished my Ph.D. in Theology atDrewUniversityin 1981.
The same year I discovered an unusual Baptist church which combined serious discipleship with open-minded theology. It felt great to be back in a spiritual community. But three years later I moved toNorth Carolinawhere I taught Bible and Religion at a Baptist college. While there, I started attending the Episcopal Church and came to love the liturgical life of the church. I still had a pretty left-wing theology, but my piety had become rather traditional.
I taught for four years until my Baptist church back inNew Jerseycalled me as its new pastor. Back up among the Yankees! I viewed the ministry as a high calling and privilege. But soon I found myself seduced again into academics. I enrolled in a second Ph.D. program at Drew, this time in New Testament (graduating in 1993). Almost immediately, my newfound piety began to chafe. My scalpel of critical reasoning, newly honed and applied to the biblical text, made it hard for me to restrain my old skepticism. About this time I also began to read extensively in radical postmodern philosophy. Unfortunately for me, my congregation had been getting more traditional while I was getting more radical! We had a bitter parting of the ways, and the church split.
As pastor of my own unofficial Universalist church, meeting in my home, I had come to view religion simply as a matter of spiritual experience. “God” was mainly part of the language of worship, not necessarily anything more. But that was enough. As long as religion offered a unique, special kind of experience, that was all that mattered. I was teaching Religious Studies atBergenCommunity Collegeat this time, and I would discuss this theory, that religion offered a kind of spirituality that could not be simply reduced to moral conscience or to a set of beliefs. But then I began to think that, no, the way I understood religion, it wasn’t even unique. It was really a kind of esthetic experience. Worship was something akin to the awe we feel at great art or at beholding the starry sky. Poetry could offer essentially the same, genuinely spiritual experience. Religion came to seem to me basically a matter of drama and theater. That is not to denigrate it. Rather, to see it as theatrical is to explain why it is so powerful, like an engrossing film or play that leaves the viewer changed.
But this meant that religion is nothing more than a creation of human imagination. As such it still fascinates me. Some theologians believe the same things I do but feel the need to remain a part of it. They feel that being a Christian is part of their identity, and that they need not give it up, only “demythologize” it. I felt this way for quite a while. But at length I realized I was kidding myself. I realized I do not esteem Jesus as any greater a teacher than Aristotle or Epicurus. I guess I agree more with Nietzsche than with Jesus. So what’s the point? As for the artistic, theatrical dimension of the thing, I find my imagination enriched, my soul nourished, by the arts. I look to philosophy for a deeper understanding of the world. Religion now seems to me a kind of nursery school version of philosophy.
Philosophy can never provide the kind of certainties religion promises, but, obviously, religion cannot provide them either! Someone may say there is eternal life, and you may want to believe there is, but that hardly makes it certain! Maturity is bittersweet. Among other things, it means getting used to the fact that, as John Lennon said, above us there’s only sky. Life is fleeting, but it’s all the more precious for that very reason! But, you may ask, is there nothing greater than me for me to look up to? You bet! There’s my potential as a human being that I have yet to fulfill. And there are the great future achievements of the human race to live for!
The Bible continues to fascinate me. I teach it in college and graduate school, though now it seems as bizarre to “believe” the Bible as it would be to “believe” the Iliad or Hamlet!
I have abandoned the ministry, though I have not abandoned my friends who left the church with me. We still meet often and call ourselves “Heretics Anonymous.” We discuss ideas. We figure there is at least as much spirituality in questions as in answers. And that’s good, since we find we have a lot more questions than answers.