The fall of literalism in my life

April 2, 2008 at 6:09 am 35 comments

Cross and BibleTaking a cultural perspective to belief is a useful exercise. For me, it means that I am no longer bound to particulars. What matters now is the context in which experience arises.

Not too long ago, I would read the Bible as if it were God’s Word to me now, as if God were speaking to me through the text. In fact, that was the primary way I could know God and maintain the sense of relationship. I came to speak of and relate to God as one would a person, obviously through the creative use of imagination. This God-sense began at a youth concert, where I was so emotionally moved by the sermon that I experienced a shift in my focus. It was that ‘born again’ conversion experience that so many talk about. Thus began many years of my life as a devoted follower of Christ.

Fast-forward many years into the future, and I am listening to an interview with Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren discussing the metaphorical nature of hell. It was my first exposure to the idea of universal salvation. Suddenly, an entirely different paradigm came rushing in to shatter the foundation of my faith. If the message of the gospel as proclaimed within evangelical churches is that Christ saved me from hell, and hell is not real, what is left of the gospel? I felt disillusioned and immediately stopped attending church, whilst beginning to explore the alternative approaches to scripture. Over time, a lack of exposure to evangelical Christian church services and a range of books and podcasts would blast away any remaining hope that I had in a literal view of the Bible.

What then was I experiencing all these years, and what is it that holds so many people to continue in literal belief? Certainly, it was that sense of emotional connection to God, Jesus, and the concepts of salvation. Largely, it was the assurance of bliss in afterlife rather than eternal suffering. Brian McLaren’s attack on this aspect of afterlife was the key that unlocked the door of critical inquiry. When the Bible is believed to be God’s trusted Word, any form of questioning implies a lack of trust. If hell is only a metaphor, scripture itself cannot be taken literally seriously, and a faith based on literal truth crumbles.

You can’t blame anyone for taking a literal view. Literalism abounds in our culture, as we want simple and easy answers to complex problems. We leave little room for ambiguity, and this is reinforced daily through media. The problem with taking a western understanding of religious scripture is that it wasn’t written by western authors to western audiences! We place our judgment on the text without the dual understanding of the cultural complexities of the original culture and our culture. On one side, the non-believer takes an objective, scientific viewpoint, and labels the text as nonsense. On the other side, the believer pulls bits and pieces together to form a religious belief system that is unquestionably based on the absolute authority of divine authorship. Both polarities will never cease to be in conflict.

The main problem I can see with this way of seeing the issue is with the idea of trusting God – if we do believe in God, we need to equally believe that he/she/it would provide an authoritative text of belief. And then, what about our personal and corporate spiritual experiences which we see as authentic? I believe there was always some kind of cultural/naturalistic explanation for any of my experiences. At conversion, I was undergoing a very traumatic period in my teenage life. In the church, I experienced a kind of acceptance. At times I thought I heard the voice of God, but how can I differentiate that from my own inner voice? I experienced many ecstatic emotional experiences, primarily in meetings where the atmosphere was one of expectancy. I heard thousands of sermons, and each were constructed by morphing the worldview of the preacher with the scriptural subject being presented. This is how the prosperity gospel (health and wealth, name it and claim it) came into being, among other varied views. I can also imagine it as the source of denominational division.

Where does that leave God? Right now, I don’t know. I will go so far as to say that since I believe there is room for ambiguity and mystery, then there is also room for God, though not as I knew before. I would like to say that God is present, but I can’t say that with certainty. This is where I am, and that is fine.

- Gary

Entry filed under: Gary. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Should we challenge every theistic argument? Satan: The Greatest Bible Myth?

35 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Quester  |  April 2, 2008 at 7:04 am

    I’m in a very similar place, Gary. I went into seminary believing the bible told the literal truth, which made me rather concerned about “getting the gospel right”. My professors took three years to shake my view of the bible. Three more years of trying to preach from scripture finished off my ability to believe that the Bible contained a clear image of who God is and what God wants of us. As for my view of hell, it was not Brian McLaren, but Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn who knocked what little certainty I had left right out of me. That’s where I am now. Rather uncertain. I’m willing to believe that there is more to life and the world we live in than we could ever explain, which may yet leave room for a God. But even I recognize the desperation in my voice when I say that.

  • 2. The de-Convert  |  April 2, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Quester,

    Here’s a great entry by HeIsSailing that you may enjoy:

    http://de-conversion.com/2007/06/15/a-confession-i-want-to-believe/

    Paul

  • 3. societyvs  |  April 2, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I think I am kind of in the same position as Gary on some of this (Literalism is a weak viewpoint) – and then on some of this I came to other conclusions (ie: faith in God can still exist). I really see little problem with literalism (usually a denominational interpretation) as being based in bias’ – what I can’t figure out is why this means faith is also somehow in the same boat?

  • 4. Cthulhu  |  April 2, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    #3. societyvs

    A critical reading of the Bible makes a literal viewpoint impossible in my opinion (see http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/). And I have gone much farther in my distance from faith. Try as I might, I can find no empirical evidence for God in any form. At the same time, I cannot find empirical evidence that God does NOT exist either. I have adopted Michael Shermer’s description for myself as an ‘agnostic non-theist’. I think many people find comfort in faith that is completely OK in my book – it is just not for me. I find that it is enough that I am alive and conscious in an amazing universe, full of wonder. I will live this life to the fullest and do my best to share my awe and wonder about being alive in such a beautiful world. The works of Joseph Campbell (especially ‘The Power of Myth’) taught me that finding transcendence is possible without the need for a Creator and/or special purpose in the universe. I find that the ‘de-conversion wager’ on the sidebar does a nice job of summing up my opinion on how to live one’s life.

  • 5. ned  |  April 2, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Gary: Would you minding sharing why you don’t simply reject the existence of god?

  • 6. Lyndon  |  April 2, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    a lack of exposure to evangelical Christian church services and a range of books and podcasts would blast away any remaining hope that I had in a literal view of the Bible

    It’s amazing how much conditioning takes place while staying in the same pattern of behavior. What was left of my faith began to rapidly break down once I took a hiatus from church. I began to look at things more objectively and entertained a variety of viewpoints. I became more open-minded, and I don’t consider that a bad thing.

    I find it harder to contemplate ever going back, if I don’t believe in a evangelical afterlife, sin, creationism, the deity of Jesus, end times, etc. anymore. What’s left to go for? The only thing I can think of is community and service, but those things can be found in many other venues.

  • 7. LeoPardus  |  April 2, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    It’s interesting to me to see the current conversations here about Creationism, Eschatology, and literalism.

    For me literalism took it’s first blow in the early 90’s when I finally figured out that the first 10-11 chapters of Genesis weren’t literal. Soon thereafter I realized that the book of Revelation wasn’t meant to be taken so literally and I didn’t have to beat by brains out try to figure out the whole pre, mid, post, etc stuff.

    When I became EOC I found even more that I didn’t have to sweat all the minute details. The BIG picture was more important.

    I suppose from a fundy point of view I blew off the two ends of the Bible and the rest just unraveled from there. Hmmmm…. maybe. :)

  • 8. The Apostate  |  April 2, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Leopardus,

    I suppose from a fundy point of view I blew off the two ends of the Bible and the rest just unraveled from there. Hmmmm…. maybe.

    That’s kind of humourous, considering that I was exactly the opposite. In my deconversion process it was the middle chunks that got blown out with the beginnings and ends simply a byproduct.

  • 9. karen  |  April 2, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I feel for you in your confusion and worry, Gary. I was where you are about five years ago and it is a very difficult conundrum. Do know that it gets better as time goes on.

    Brian McLaren’s attack on this aspect of afterlife was the key that unlocked the door of critical inquiry. When the Bible is believed to be God’s trusted Word, any form of questioning implies a lack of trust. If hell is only a metaphor, scripture itself cannot be taken literally seriously, and a faith based on literal truth crumbles.

    I have to wonder how many people start out on the road to agnosticism or atheism after being exposed to popular liberal and emerging church figures like McLaren and Spong. They still call themselves Christians (though fundies don’t agree) but I have a feeling they probably influence just as many deconverts as they influence liberal believers.

  • 10. LeoPardus  |  April 2, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    TA:

    So maybe we can say you exploded and I imploded. :D

  • 11. tonalddrump  |  April 2, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    The Bible is a great collection of lies.

    http://tonalddrump.wordpress.com/

    It actually started as an inside joke amongst Jews.

  • 12. chickennn  |  April 2, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    It waas good so thats cool man

  • 13. chickennn  |  April 2, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    - JD

  • 14. Gary  |  April 2, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Ned, I have yet to reject the idea of God even while rejecting the God of the fundamentalists as I still remain convinced of a mystery beyond explanation. I think of a possible divine dimension which I cannot speak of with certainty. The ideas of panentheism and process theology, among others, reverberate with me at the moment.

    Karen, it makes me wonder how those figures, particularly McLaren, think about that effect, given that he is still within the evangelical fold. BTW, anyone here heard of Peter Rollins? He’s another EC figure who takes his postmodern deconstructive philosophy to the Bible and his faith with very interesting conclusions.

  • 15. Cthulhu  |  April 2, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Gary,

    I found it very hard to completely abandon the idea of God. It took me 2 years filled with a lot of reading and introspection. The clincher for me was the level of evil I saw in the world – and much of it committed in the name of ‘God’. Also, being a science geek anyway, the volume of evidence for evolution, the age of the Universe, etc… led me to apply the scientific method to my belief system. It did not stand up to the test in any way whatsoever. But it was still a gut-wrenching process to go through. But I feel free now – free from the guilt and doubt that plagued me while I professed Christianity. I wish you the very best during your struggles and hope you find the freedom – however you find it – that I so enjoy now.

  • 16. Gary  |  April 2, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Thanks Cthulhu. This faith crisis has been ongoing for almost 2 years now, and I’ve now become a university student so I growing even sharper in my critical thinking – I think my new mantra is ‘challenge everything’.

    Paul, thank you for posting the link for the article from HeIsSailing, it’s great to be able to see shared sentiment in such vivid detail.

  • 17. Cthulhu  |  April 2, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    Gary,

    Could I be so bold as to suggest a book I found extremely helpful? When I read ‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell, it gave me great insight into my journey.

  • 18. karen  |  April 2, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Karen, it makes me wonder how those figures, particularly McLaren, think about that effect, given that he is still within the evangelical fold.

    Yes, I wonder that also. In fact, I wonder if they even realize how many people they are influencing away from belief of any kind? Of course, this is what their fundamentalist critics accuse them of – making deconverts – so perhaps they don’t even want to contemplate the effect they are having outside of those who join the EC or more liberal churches.

    BTW, anyone here heard of Peter Rollins? He’s another EC figure who takes his postmodern deconstructive philosophy to the Bible and his faith with very interesting conclusions.

    I have not. I deconverted around 2001/2002, before these guys had found substantial followings, I think. I only heard about them after deconverting when discussing religion with Christians.

    BTW, I think most of us cling to god-belief as long as we possibly can. I still consider myself an agnostic atheist – I don’t believe in a god, but I don’t know for sure if there is or isn’t one. I am more sure that there’s no theistic god.

    To imagine no god at all – even a deist god – is inconceivable when you’ve been a god-believer all your life. I think the beginning of the end for me was the day it really occurred to me that religion was man-made. The thought that it could all be made up was so incredibly radical, and yet so undeniably right deep down, that it probably took me at least six months before I completely acknowledged it.

    If you haven’t heard Julia Sweeney’s monologue, Letting Go of God, you should give it a listen. It’s just wonderful and I bet there’d be a lot in there that you’d appreciate and enjoy.

  • 19. OneSmallStep  |  April 3, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Of course, this is what their fundamentalist critics accuse them of – making deconverts – so perhaps they don’t even want to contemplate the effect they are having outside of those who join the EC or more liberal churches.

    Do the critics mean making deconverts in the sense of losing other fundamentalists, or making deconverts across the board? If raised in a liberal Christian religion, where the Bible doesn’t have to be historically true and you can be more pluralistic, it seems you’d be less likely to de-convert, as the rules wouldn’t be as rigid.

  • 20. Gary  |  April 4, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Brian McLaren considers himself to be evangelical, as do other figures within EC. The fundamentalist critics then rightly accuse them of being subversive, and this is particularly problematic given what’s at stake – eternal life. Since McLaren and others challenge so much of what most evangelicals take for granted, such as atonement theory and hell, I wonder whether it’d be best just to drop the labels. They don’t fit into either evangelical and liberal, and I’m of the opinion that those labels are becoming more and more meaningless.

  • 21. The Apostate  |  April 4, 2008 at 2:49 am

    Gary,

    and I’m of the opinion that those labels are becoming more and more meaningless.

    But… but… but how will we categorize, diminish, and condemn our opponents and enemies if we cannot label them with ambiguous and shallow terms?

  • 22. Gary  |  April 4, 2008 at 9:56 am

    TA mentioned: ambiguous and shallow terms

    You are so on the money there.

  • 23. Richard  |  April 4, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Literalism is an interesting phenomenon. I think it is closely connected with the psychological need for certainty. If you have a literal interpretation of scripture, that tends to close off the possibility of multiple interpretations (or is supposed to; many who take the Bible “literally” still manage to come to opposite conclusions about it, e.g., eternal vs conditional security). A nonliteral view of the Bible means an *interpreted* view of the Bible, which means having to consider a variety of interpretations, and thus take the views of others seriously — i.e., to *argue* with those views, rather than just reject them. And having to base your view of matters eternal on an*argument*, rather than Gods own truth, is too shaky. It disallows certainty, which was the whole point in the first place.

    I suggest that only by learning to emotionally tolerate uncertainty can we entertain nonliteralist views of the Bible.

  • 24. chickennn  |  April 4, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    ur site has got to be one of my favorite ones so good job and keep them coming u should look at my blog chickennn

  • 25. karen  |  April 4, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Do the critics mean making deconverts in the sense of losing other fundamentalists, or making deconverts across the board?

    Good question. Fundamentalist critics often don’t believe that liberal Christians are real Christians or truly saved in the first place. So when they accuse McLaren and others of making deconverts, I think they’re talking mostly about fundies (youth, mostly) who wind up becoming liberal believers or even non-Christians – which is practically the same thing anyway, in their minds.

    Sounds crazy? Yup. But it’s kind of hard to overstate how narrow are the belief criteria of many fundamentalists. ;-)

    If raised in a liberal Christian religion, where the Bible doesn’t have to be historically true and you can be more pluralistic, it seems you’d be less likely to de-convert, as the rules wouldn’t be as rigid.

    That’s what I thought, initially. But then I ran into lots of people raised in liberal Christian churches that didn’t so much make the painful, wrenching decision to deconvert (as many of us here did) but simply drifted away from belief over the years and eventually realized they were no longer Christians, or even theists.

    It seems like the less-rigid doctrinal groups simply don’t exert the same hold on people’s psyches as the fundies do. Which makes sense, and doesn’t bode well for the longevity of the newer, more liberal versions of Christianity that seem to be popular today. One wonders how long they can keep people interested without the threats of hell etc hanging over their heads.

  • 26. Gary  |  April 4, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Richard said, Literalism is an interesting phenomenon. I think it is closely connected with the psychological need for certainty

    I have wondered about that, particularly after hearing that some people seem to be more concerned with certainty, while others seem to have less need of it. I wonder if this can be tied to Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, on the level of Safety.

  • 27. bipolar2  |  April 8, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    ** ancient voices dictate your thoughts — **

    The single best place I know to find the whole “soul” story is in The Greeks and the Irrational. UC Berkeley Press. 1950. [ER Dodds's classic in the history and psychology of Greek religion.]

    Basically, xianity is a confluence of judaic and hellenistic greek cultural patterns (I almost said ‘thoughts’ but that’s not right). The pythagoreans held that the body is the tomb of the soul (psyche): soma sema = body (is a) tomb. Plato then takes up this strand of propaganda giving voice to it in the Phaedo. Dodds claims that the ‘soma sema’ dogma originates from shamanistic cultures in what is today Russia/Georgia. Only after the Black Sea became open to Greek traders (600 BCE?) did the “separable” soul notion spread.

    Shaman to this day go into self-induced (or drug induced) trances, “leaving” their bodies behind as their souls travel great distances to retrieve a soul of someone who has “died.” Sometimes a shaman’s soul can be seen flying as a great water bird, like a crane. This is one of the oldest spiritual images in continuous use going back into the early neolithic, perhaps even back 35,000 years to cave paintings in France.

    It took xianity 200 years to get to the point where its leading “apologists” realized that the upper strata of roman society would never “convert” unless xian beliefs were philosophically defensible — there’s little question that as late as 180 CE xianity was still a mish-mash of contending sects, altering their god-given texts, and getting recruits mainly from the great unwashed of major cities in the eastern part of the empire. And the “pagans” said so.

    For this — see Celsus’ critique of xianity circa 180 CE, sometimes titled On The True Doctrine. (See RJ Hoffmann. Oxford Pr. 1987 for translation and thorough preface.) Celsus finds the doctrine of the resurrection “disgusting.” As for the incarnation, no god could or would alter his imperturbable states of perfection to become a lesser being. And, Jesus was just another charlatan who’d learned his dark arts among the magicians of Egypt.

    Orwell has a word for xianity in practice, he calls it “double-think” — the ability to hold two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time believing in both, in this context, one jewish and one greek: Jesus=Christ=God.

    What harm does this cause today outside of religion — large tracts of psychology (and ordinary language) still hold that there are “bodies” and “minds” and that somehow these two different orders of thing, the physical and the mental (ye olde soule) “interact.” This too is madness. But, that’s another issue.

    bipolar2
    c. 2008

  • 28. chickennn  |  April 8, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    u guys are gay haha LOL

  • 29. chickennn  |  April 9, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    hay dude like I was just playing dont get butt hurt

  • 30. foufga  |  April 16, 2008 at 8:21 am

    I would argue that there is no possible ‘literal’ reading of the Bible (or any text). The point is extremely obvious if you say that each culture has its own culture code by which it interprets specific words or signs in a text. But I think each individual has a personal version of a cultural code that stems from the sum of their experiences. This means that when I see the phrase “I saw her duck”, I will be more biased towards one of the possible meanings than to the others.

    The fact that the Bible can’t be interpreted literally is clear in passages like “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. I have never heard a Christian take this to mean we give anything to Caesar… it’s always a metaphor (aka, not literally) for government.

    Oh, the hypocrisy…

    Thanks for this post, I thought it was a good one.

  • 31. LeoPardus  |  April 16, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    foufga:

    You are right. The whole idea of taking the Bible literally is just idiotic as well as impossible.

    Some people once took a highlighter to some Bibles and highlighted in one color all the parts that could be taken literally, and used another color for the parts that had to be taken non-literally. They did this to a number of Bibles, using different interpretational approaches.

    What they wound up with was nuts. In many places they actually had different color highlights alternating within a single verse.

    I believe I recall that they did try to do a conglomerate Bible with all the different interpretational methods color coded, but it was impossible. Just too many variables.

    Take home point is that the varying denominations and interpretations out there constitute a massive, irreconcilable mess.

  • 32. Gary  |  April 16, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Speaking of taking the Bible literally, anyone here read The Year of Living Biblically? Sounds like a blast, has the author attempting to take the Bible literally from start to finish with some hilarious moments (just his take on stoning adulterers had me in fits of laughter).

    But yeah, I think the more appropriate word to use instead of literal is canonical, which is a way of saying that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, perfect in every way. It is more than a human book, and it carries more authority than any other text. I find that an ultimately untenable approach.

  • 33. Ubi Dubium  |  April 16, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Karen – you said:

    Yes – I think that describes me very well, as well as several other ex-xtian friends of mine. Thanks for putting it so well. I came from a liberal protestant background. No literalism for us. As I finished middle school I was really trying to believe what the church was wanting me to believe, but by the end of College I was done with religion. I think actually reading the bible cover to cover had a lot to do with it. No earth-shattering break, just a gradual realization that god seemed too much like Santa Claus for grown-ups.

  • 34. Ubi Dubium  |  April 16, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Karen – sorry – I don’t think you quote came through on my post. You said:

    “I ran into lots of people raised in liberal Christian churches that didn’t so much make the painful, wrenching decision to deconvert (as many of us here did) but simply drifted away from belief over the years and eventually realized they were no longer Christians, or even theists.”

  • 35. karen  |  April 16, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Yes – I think that describes me very well, as well as several other ex-xtian friends of mine. Thanks for putting it so well. I came from a liberal protestant background. No literalism for us. As I finished middle school I was really trying to believe what the church was wanting me to believe, but by the end of College I was done with religion. I think actually reading the bible cover to cover had a lot to do with it. No earth-shattering break, just a gradual realization that god seemed too much like Santa Claus for grown-ups.

    Interesting, thanks for your story Ubi Dubium. I think the drifting away from faith and ultimate realization that one is no longer a believer (typically seems to happen in young adulthood) sound much preferable to the misery of the “deconversion from fundamentalism” process!

    Yet another positive to chalk up to liberal/moderate belief – leaving is So Much Easier. :-)

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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