I recently stumbled across a perversely interesting article, posted by a Facebook friend who apparently has dealt with his own protracted struggle with rigid orthodoxy.
The article, aptly titled “Early Warning Signs of Adult Onset Calvinism,” explores the various ways that passionate Calvinists fall into rigid, exclusivist – and I would add to that list of adjectives, neurotic – patterns of thinking.
It reminded me of a trip I made many years ago to a national conference with a older gentleman, an articulate, materially successful, and devoutly observant Christian who served as an elder in the very conservative Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He said something to me en route to the conference that floored me: “I like to have someone close to watch over me because of all the sin I’m capable of falling into during one of these trips!”
I’ve been an apostate most of my adult life, but I can honestly say that I have never fallen into any serious transgression attending a conference – at least, not one big enough to land me in jail, wreck my marriage, or permanently alienate me from my children. I thought to myself, “If his Calvinist Presbyterian faith breeds this sort of neurotic thinking, I am fortunate to be a fallen Arminian Methodist!”
All joking aside, I know a thing or two about theologically rigid thinking and how this often translates into neurotic patterns of behavior. As I’ve mentioned more than once in this forum, I grew up in a theologically rigid conservative evangelical church in the Deep South in the 1970’s.
A few years ago, many years after I had parted company with that faith, I spent an afternoon listening to some of the sermons posted on my old church’s Website. A few minutes into listening to these sermons, the thought occurred to me: The minister was engaging in the time-honored practice of sowing fear in the minds of his congregation, drawing a clear distinction between the godly “New Testament church” and the fallen secular world beyond.
He treated the congregation to a litany of warnings. The one that sticks in my mind was his reflection on the the irony of so many parents investing years of effort into raising godly children, only to send them away to be corrupted by “pagan universities.”
And another thought occurred to me while I was listening to these jeremiads: This was the same sort of doomsaying to which I was exposed Sunday after Sunday as a child, only in a slightly more updated form.
This led me to a long reflection on my own religious upbringing, trying to account for the factors that drive my kind Presbyterian elder friend, this perfervid evangelical minister, and so many other conservative evangelical Protestants to cultivate these sorts of siege mentalities.
I was told all through childhood and teenage years that the truth sets one free, that with salvation, one is freed of the all-consuming fear that plagues non-Christians. But after my baptism at the unusually tender age of 7 (yes, believe it or not, 7) I found myself frequently consumed with fear – fear that my conversion experience was not genuine, fear that I would somehow slide back into sin, and, most frightening of all, fear that I might might be among those doomed souls left behind following the rapture of the saints, a prophesy foretold in the Book of Revelation (according to some, but certainly not all, evangelical faith traditions).
Unfortunately, I’ve always been a damnably self-reflective individual, and these fears grew even more wrenching as I grew older.
Granted, these were not fears I shared with family or friends or that consumed me 24/7, only fears that would surface with a vengeance in one of those unguarded moments: waking from a deep sleep, pondering a disturbing scriptural passage or, as was most often the case, listening to these frightening Sunday Baptist jeremiads and the protracted and emotionally wrenching altar call that typically followed.
Yet, looking back on all of this 40 years later, I discern a bit of tragi-comical irony in all childhood and teenage soul searching. After all, hadn’t the greatest Protestant Christian of them all, Martin Luther, in an event known as the Tower Experience, dispelled all this soul searching and wrenching doubt simply by acknowledging his powerlessness in the face of an all-knowing, sovereign God – what we understand today as the doctrine of sola fideism – faith only?
As it turned out, I, like so many who have struggled with this sort of neurotic theological rigidity in the 21st century, took the process a step ahead or, depending on how one looks at it, a step short of Luther’s. After committing myself over several years to a reasonably extensive study of Christian history, theology and biblical textual criticism, I finally concluded that it is simply impossible to supply an answer to all these cosmic questions.
I decided to leave questions such as the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus unanswered. But after reflecting on all of this over time, a strange thing happened: it occurred to me that I had become no less of a Christian in the process. And another remarkable thing happened along the way: God actually became more real to me, even though I’m remain entirely uncertain of His existence or, for that matter, His essence. Likewise, Jesus Christ became a greater presence in my daily life, even though I’m no closer to affirming, or, as the case may be, re-affirming the christology of the Nicene Creed.
That sounds entirely paradoxical, I know, but it works for me and countless others, and I dare say that all forms of belief, religious and secular alike demand a degree of paradoxical thinking.
For all I know, God and Jesus Christ are simply archetypes that human beings have fashioned and refined over centuries, expressions of a deep-seated human need to ascribe not only causality but also deep transcendent meaning to all that we do and all that happens to us.
In a sense, this realization was my own Tower Experience. And as a result of it, I like to say that I was surprised by joy, albeit in a rather unconventional and entirely secular way way. But like Luther, I was liberated from fear and, in the process, freed to live, to love and to experience the transcendent – to live a life of fullness and to become fully actualized and fully human.