A couple of readers have questioned where I’m going with this blog. To do that, I need to explain where I’m coming from. So, I’ll start at the beginning. Well, my spiritual beginning, anyway. I’ll briefly sketch how my journey has gone from being a traditional Lutheran minister’s son (we’re known as PKs—preacher’s kids) to a non-theistic Christian searching for Aliveness.
As a PK, I did everything I was supposed to do; acolyte for services, be very active in Luther League, confirmation classes, church camp, and dating as many of the church girls as possible. My parents were pretty open-minded with my upbringing as I was sort of a late surprise-child. (My siblings were eight, nine, and ten years older). I was taught about the Bible, but generally not from a strict literal point-of-view.
In college, I don’t remember my beliefs being challenged much by the required religion classes. As a psychology major, however, I thoroughly enjoyed looking at various points of view, the anthropology of cultures, and how we could change our minds even about deeply held beliefs.
My only striking theological stimulation was a single lecture by noted progressive theologian, Paul Tillich. I recall enthusiastically discussing his comments with several other students later that evening.
Following college, I led a Sunday school session for other young adults. I would read a book by some contemporary theologian or scholar and try to share the basic concepts with the few contemporaries who were willing to attend that church and my class. Through that teaching effort, I was getting more insights into differences between what was taught in church and what I saw as logical thinking.
Choking on the meaning
From early in our marriage, my wife, Louise, noticed I would often clear my throat in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed. I guess I just couldn’t believe every line of what I was supposed to believe. What was that about God having sex with a virgin? God is three different characters—one of whom he had planned to cruelly execute?
Over the years, much of Lutheran theology became more and more unrealistic to me, especially anything that gave God human characteristics. Also, it became difficult to see how God could intervene in worldly affairs. For example, if God could cure cancer, it must also be God who chose to give cancer to certain people.
I began to have tons of questions. Why did prayer work for some people and not others? Did some people just pray “better?” If so, isn’t that works righteousness? That is, are certain actions better than others to entice God to help them; especially to keep them out of hell?
Heaven? Hell? Are those places? Several decades ago I gave up worrying about hell. Why would God be so mean as to design a place that tortures people just because they didn’t say some words of endearment to Him by the time they died?
Have you ever held a newborn baby and thought, My, you’re a sinful person because of what Adam and Eve did? No, neither have I. That original sin stuff didn’t jibe with a God who was said to have created us out of love.
Those pieces of theology just seemed too bizarre. And I hadn’t even begun to try to figure out why God would require a human sacrifice to himself. You mean he had a son just so he could murder him? And this is a loving father?
And I was confused by the way Jesus was portrayed by the predominate Christian message. He died 2000 years ago for my sins today—again, to appease that wrathful Dad-in-the-sky? When I read the words attributed to Jesus—the ones about love and neighbors and mercy—none of them fit that dogma of predestined slaughter.
All this time—four decades—I was highly involved in my congregation’s activities. Most people who become disillusioned with religion, tend to reduce their church involvement. However, Louise and I never missed attending worship services except when we were out of town. If anything needed to be done, I was usually participating in either a leadership or support role. (Except for singing in the choir. They never invited me to sing—for good reason.) Several times I was asked to fill in for the pastor and would lead the service and preach the best sermon I could muster to try to explain the Gospel. I truly enjoyed being a part of North Riverdale Lutheran Church in Dayton.
For example, the photo at the top of this post shows Louise and me as characters in our church’s re-creation of Bethlehem on the day after Jesus’ birth. Although I was questioning the birth narratives in 1992, it was fun leading the building and staging of the village, complete with live animals, and to direct nearly 50 costumed villagers.
The fork in my road
By 2010, however, I had stewed in the pew long enough. I went to my pastor, Monte Stevens, and said, “If I have to believe the traditional Lutheran doctrine to be a ‘Christian,’ I can’t, in good faith (pun intended), continue attending church.”
Now, I knew that Monte had a very enlightened outlook on Christianity. Because, for several years, he chose some fascinating books for our congregation’s Adult Forum, which gave new insights into Bible history, comparative religions, the historical Jesus, and more.
However, after my comment, I think he finally realized I could read certain other books without becoming unhinged. So, he recommended Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Click! Light bulbs flashed on! There was a whole world of progressive religious thinking going on, and I just needed to tap into it.
Spong, and dozens of other authors, have allowed me to see way beyond the fear of hell, or even the allure of heaven. Gone are any feelings that “Christ died for my sins.” God is bigger and more significant than just a manipulative being. These scholars, theologians, pastors, and lay people have shown great insights into Jesus’ wisdom and love that is directly applicable to the enjoyment of an abundant life and the healing of the world.
Now, eight years later, American church attendance continues to drop dramatically, and that trend will escalate significantly over the next two decades. Most people assume that the predominate Christian story is the only one that’s true, and they’re staying away from the church in droves. My goal is to let at least a few dozen people, like you, know about this transformation and spur your thinking about the potential for a new age of being actual disciples of Jesus.
Since this post is kind of a digression, I won’t predict what my next topic will be. Have you had any similar experiences to what I’ve had? I hope you’ll continue this journey and let me know some of the questions that you’ve raised over the years.
___________________________________ May 22, 2018
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.