An Agnostic Christian
- 1 An Agnostic Christian
Remember the building that Charles had visited some time before his adventure with Zorah? He expected to find what he was looking for in this building, but left disappointed. It was the place where “most escape artists lost their magic, most philosophers, their wisdom, and many people, their lives.” To me, it stands for knowledge, and I relate strongly to Charles’ experience in its maze of passageways.
It offered hope to those who would enter its walls, but in the end it became worse than death itself. For without guidance, knowledge of this building almost caused Charles to abandon his quest for a better life in the King’s Country. In the end, its promise of life led only to the destruction of a soul.
Unfortunately for me, this story became real before I had finished my first year of college at Cedarville University. My quest for knowledge had begun long before, but it reached its climax in the following way.
My first year of college was exciting and ended on a very depressing note. I met dozens of new people and developed the ability to begin a deep conversation with anyone and come close to actually being friends with them. My grades were mostly good, and I studied all the time. At the end of the year, I had learned a lot…that was about it. In fact, I was so depressed about college, I claimed it was overrated and said I wanted to quit.
However, my good scholarship, the encouragement from others and my unwillingness to leave the track I was on convinced me to go back. It seemed the building of knowledge still held its allure for others even as its potential diminished in my perspective.
Dissatisfied with my approach to exploring knowledge as a means to life, I determined to rewrite the experience. My second year, I decided to study whatever I was interested in learning.
Faithful to my ideals, I spent the third semester of my college career giving myself a virtual degree in psychology and business management through personal studies at the library, hands-on leadership training, and the experience of starting a business.
I excelled in learning, but still did not find what I was looking for. I had gone to college to grow up, not necessarily fill my head with facts. I could learn anywhere – without spending thousands of dollars on teachers, exams, and midnight deadlines.
In a last ditch effort to make the college experience worthwhile, I visited the travel studies office and applied for the only overseas program that was open for applications five weeks before it began.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was being set up for the worst year of my life. It was the year I discovered I was unable to find a way to the King’s Country through the building of knowledge.
In the sleepy mists of Dublin’s evening streets the following semester, I walked slowly up to an orange metal warehouse door with several friends. One of them said it felt like a scene from a horror movie and almost turned back, but I decided to go in. I pushed open the creaking little door on the side and looked in on the white walls of a church building. Entering a small, rather cold room full of six or eight people, I met an English gentleman, his wife, and several others who would become my close friends over the next few months.
Throughout that semester, I visited many of the famous cities of western history: London, Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, Munich, Prague, and others. As I travelled the world and walked through the massive hallways and monuments of history, my perspective on life began to shift.
Loving the experience of new sights, sounds, smells, and artistic masterpieces, I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. It was a growing feeling of lonely emptiness. It was a feeling of loneliness that not even a girlfriend could have changed. This empty feeling came from the fact that out there on the other side of the world, completely separated from the environment that made me, I knew no one and nothing, not even myself.
Within the context of history, my sense of meaning and purpose had vanished. I had finally achieved my childhood goal of seeing the world from a big picture perspective instead of just what was in front of my face. Yet, in the process of acquiring this picture, I had lost sight of myself. My life was lived in preparation for tomorrow, which was really just a stepping-stone to the next series of preparations for what would one day become the means of enabling me to…. Well, here I didn’t know. After following this out a few times, I realized that I was just preparing to die at the end of a completely unlived life.
Peter Pan’s quote “To live would be an awfully big adventure” stuck in the back of my mind and grew even more poignant as time continued. The train rides to class along the Irish seacoast listening to Disney-movie soundtracks evoked strange and compelling emotions inside me that I didn’t understand. To figure them out, I would walk for miles by the shores of the Irish Sea and up the small mountain that stood watch over the River Liffy. As the tiny stones crunched under my feet and the light drizzle cooled my face, I began to realize that I was looking for something.
At first, I was looking for answers. I wanted to know why who I was did not match who I wanted to be. I wanted to know why my relationships were so superficial. I wanted to know why my religion didn’t fit with what I understood about reality. I wanted to know what I wanted, but didn’t know why I wanted to know this. For the first time in my life, I realized that no one could tell me what I was supposed to want or feel. I was alone with the world and looking into the empty shell a life that I once thought I understood.
Dublin was not the first place that I encountered this problem. It simply was the place where I began to realize just how deeply it was rooted into my life. For years I had ignored the rumblings of discontent that indicated something was wrong. Now, I realized I could confront them early, or wait until I had invested more of my life in a way that I might regret. Blending in with the other tourists walking along the river between north and south Dublin, I made a decision that would change the course of my history. I decided I was going to find the truth, no matter what it cost.
Throughout my childhood, there came a couple moments of truth when I knew what I wanted life to be about. Everything was as it should be. Though few and scattered, they directed my dreams of the future and created the hunger in my heart that began to stir when I lived in Ireland.
One of these dreams came while I was working in the hot Texas summer to make Bibles for the Mexican people. The team I worked with would visit Mexico in the evening with puppet shows, tracts, Bibles, and a Christian message. I felt like I was doing something important. In fact, I had so much fun constructing books, I knew that I would someday become a printer and make sure that everyone in the world could have a Bible. I was very young the first time I visited the mission in El Paso where this took place, but I returned again at age 11 and this dream became even stronger. There was something about this place and what was happening that gave life a special quality I had not found anywhere else.
When I turned sixteen, this mission denied my application for an internship until I was eighteen. So I found a different printing company in Tennessee that would take me as an intern for the month of May. Living away from home as a teenager for a whole month was more exciting than I thought it would be. I loved the people I worked with and learned enough about the trade to begin working for a professional printer in my home state of Minnesota when I returned.
Returning with a slightly southern accent, I had accepted the word ya’ll into my vocabulary. I had also begun to listen to country music and question the weird habits of the northerners I grew up with. Tennessee had stolen a little piece of my heart with its friendly, laid-back lifestyle and warm humid summers. Most important, though, it had forced me to question for the first time the way in which my environment created my reality.
Two years later, I finally made it to the mission in El Paso, Texas. I was prepared to work as a professional in the print shop, but I was not prepared for what they called an experience of faith. The missionaries would often tell stories of rainstorms moving away from the meeting location, people believing the Christian message they were there to share, and other cool things that happened. They said it was because of prayer.
Hearing stories is not the same as participating in them, though. The first time I watched a rainstorm change directions after we prayed, I wondered what was up. I knew something cool had happened. When I acted on something I believed and prayed about, life became interesting.
For example, I chose to volunteer in Texas instead of working a summer job to pay for my college bill. I knew this was the right decision, but didn’t know if I would actually be able to attend school that fall. Then, three days before my flight departed I received a scholarship that more than covered the remaining balance of my school bill. I had done what was right because it was right, not because it made sense. The end result contradicted the conclusions of intelligence, but proved the action to have had value.
Unfortunately, these moments of truth became little more than cool memories. I could not embrace a lifestyle that didn’t make sense even if it was true. My life was governed by the rules and boundaries I had carefully chosen: doing everything the right way to perfection and only doing what was most highly recommended by the most respectable people and that held the most promise for the future. The result of this was a system of beliefs based on a lifestyle based on others perceptions of ideal. In the end, it turned me into a kind of living machine who held respect for my ability to have achieved the ideal that others desired, even if it was at the cost of my life. In my pursuit of success, I destroyed the very reasons why success would have been valuable to me.
Blinded by achievement, I had no ability to see that this had happened. By my standards of measurement at the time I left for college at eighteen, my life was nearly perfect: six years of work experience, an impressive resume, influence among my peers at church, leadership positions in almost every social circle I was involved with, good relationships with everyone I knew, no enemies (and conversely, no deep friendships), a full scholarship to a private university, plans to conquer the world, excellent grades from high school, an outstanding reputation for musical ability, a whole year of college credits, and a traveling history that stretched from Alaska, Canada, and New York, to Mexico. I also held conclusive reasons for what I believed and where I stood on practically every issue.
In my mind, I was ideally poised to achieve greatness in whatever I chose. I dared not make such an important choice for myself. My life had been carefully crafted from scores of books, online resources and respected friends’ opinions on psychology, interpersonal relationships, lifestyle, morality, and more. In fact, I was a complete product of my environment. Thus, my environment was proud of me. Sure, I had some unique talents and many quirks, but still, I had been custom made for my surroundings.
If I had been happy with all of this, I could have ignored the questions that began to assault my mind once I was removed from the setting I grew up in. Unfortunately, the life that I tried to present as perfect on the outside tore me apart inside. The ideal standards that I had for myself never matched the person who I actually was. The image I worked so hard to project had no life behind it. The faith I claimed was the only truth a person needed did not satisfy me.
This last fact surprised me more than all the others because I had always considered myself to be an ideal Christian. I would have traced all of my success in life back to my faith. It was the foundation of my environment and thus it stood beneath every aspect of my life.
I accepted the Bible without question, and spent hours reading books and discussing its ideas in order to clarify my preconceptions of its truth. By the time I reached college, there was no way anyone could dissuade me from what I believed. Nevertheless, it carried an important lesson I had yet to learn: Pride goes before a fall.
It was not the intelligence of the philosophers I encountered in my reading, nor the ridicule of my peers who would never understand my strange religious habits that led to the beginning of this fall. Instead it was the love of some people who met together at a church I visited in Dublin.
Welcoming the stranger from overseas, these people made me part of their family. Our connection went beyond the building where they met on Sundays into normal life. Not only did they enjoy life together, they wanted everyone else in the city to join them in their happiness every day. They did not criticize me for practicing my religion a different way, but eagerly explained why they believed the things that they did.
If they had used a source other than my sacred Bible to show me why their practices were so important to them, I could have shrugged off the differences. However, I had spent my whole life believing that this book contained the truth. Now, for the first time since I was 13, I began to wonder if my understanding of the truth might be imperfect.
At age 13, I had reached a pivotal moment in my understanding of faith. Standing in the damp basement of the large, musty farmhouse I shared with my family, I had leaned against the massive deep freeze listening to my favorite speaker, Todd, through the headphones of my Walkman radio. Almost every day, he would play clips of evangelists telling people how to become Christians. I wanted to become good at doing this, so I tuned in regularly to learn the right words to say to convince people to believe the same things I did.
One day Todd began to speak words of assurance to Christians that finally brought me to the point where I no longer doubted whether I was going to Heaven when I died. He said that my intellectual confirmation of the Bible as true and my understanding of its value were indicators confirming the condition of my soul. As he described how to become a Christian, I assented to everything he said. I believed I was a sinner. I had prayed (and did so once again) to God saying that I believed Jesus died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead. I had also asked Him to let me into Heaven someday because of that. From then on, I no longer wondered if I was a Christian, I simply tried to become the best one possible.
I didn’t really want to live the life that was outlined in the Bible, but there was no other option for a person like me who definitely didn’t want to die in my sleep and end up in Hell. Jesus was my ticket to Heaven, but the only reason to live like He did was peer pressure from my family and church. If I didn’t meet their expectations, I would have been scared that my ticket might be invalidated.
Thus, my religious practice became a laughable paradox. While seeking to become the best Christian possible, I left God out of the picture. Because Jesus had saved me, I needed to live a good life to make sure I was actually saved. Once Jesus saved me, I didn’t need Him any more. His only function was to keep me out of Hell when I died. Until then, I was responsible to live in fear that any wrong action was an indication that I hadn’t actually been sincere when I asked Him into my heart.
Before I met the people at my Irish church, I had not let myself realize that there could be another way. They did not live in fear; they spread love wherever they went. The core of their message was the same as mine, but the way it worked itself out in their lives was completely different. I walked on eggshells; they walked on clouds.
I began to ask questions, but did not like their answers. Even though they pointed out the logical validity of their beliefs, I was only persuaded to consider what they said because of the way that they lived. After reading through the whole Bible in a period of two months and then reading through the New Testament again, I could find no holes in their arguments either. Their perspective was equally as valid as mine. They had something that I wanted. I knew they had a piece of the answer I was looking for in my walks along the Irish seacoast.
On the last Sunday with my Irish church, I consented to let the pastor and my English friend pray for me. A couple weeks previous, they had asked to pray that I would receive the Holy Spirit. This request did not fit into my understanding of Christianity, so I had asked to wait a few weeks before giving them my answer. After days of prayer and Bible study, I realized that I could not turn down this offer, though I did not have to give it the same significance that they did.
My rationale for this decision came partly from a dream in which I stood above a lake full of crocodiles. I stood in the eerie darkness dressed in the armor of a knight and examined the withering bridge of ropes and planks that stretched across the treacherous waters. In this dream, I heard a voice say to jump into the water.
Like any intelligent person who loves their life, I refused and attempted to walk onto the bridge, which immediately broke. As I fell into the water, the dream reset and I had the choice to jump into the lake full of foul creatures once again. This time, I had learned from my previous mistake. If I was going to end up dead anyway, I might as well die bravely. When the voice repeated its command to jump, I immediately jumped toward a painful death. As I touched the water, I found myself floating downward, but it was not into the jaws of a sea monster. It was onto a seat in a wooden rowboat. The darkness was gone and the boat floated peacefully on the lapping waves of a serene and beautiful lakeshore. Beside me in the boat were the two people who had asked to pray for me.
I knew the Disney concept of follow your heart or dreams, but I did not think seriously that I should take direction from what I experienced in my sleep. Regardless, this dream helped me to understand the decision I was facing in a way that made sense to me. I came to understand that jumping into something I was afraid of would not necessarily lead to disastrous results. In fact, by passing through the water in this dream (a symbol of baptism), I encountered a world of beauty and peace that I had not seen while standing on the bridge. I would let my two friends pray for me to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
If I hadn’t yet received this gift, it would be an interesting addition to my Christian life. If I had already received it, I would simply come to recognize its significance. Either way, I didn’t think God would be offended – and I didn’t see anything in the Bible that said it was wrong to ask for it.
At the end of my last church service in Ireland, the two men put their hands on my shoulders and told me that I should begin to pray with them. As I received the gift, I would begin to speak in other languages. They said it would be more natural for me to let this happen if I prayed with them aloud.
After some time of prayer, I began to wonder when this would stop. I definitely didn’t feel any strange sounds coming out of my mouth and I wasn’t going to be making up anything because I knew how easily people can be manipulated into playing along with a religious experience. But we stood there for a very long time and the pastor’s prayer was growing pretty intense.
“Don’t try to control it,” I thought. “Stopping something that is there is just as much manipulation as starting something that isn’t there.”
So I spoke a couple of the random sounds that I had in my mind. Apparently, this was enough. Shortly after, I had their congratulations and my last Sunday with this church had come to an end.
I returned to the same country that I had left, but I would not be the same person for long. I had stepped outside the boundaries of my religious pride long enough to see that other people believed in the Bible differently than I did. Perhaps I could not define God. Perhaps my intellectual understanding of God was limited by my intellect. What if I had gotten a part of the truth wrong?
Beginning to think more critically about my religious beliefs, I wondered why what I said I believed made no difference in the way I lived my life, why church meetings were little different than other social gatherings I enjoyed, why I felt the need to show off around Christians, why I never actually wanted to read the Bible, why prayer was so boring, and why sermons were so long. Why did everything around me seem like such a sham? The faith of Christianity reminded me of the faith that my multi-level-marketing coaches persuaded me to foolishly act upon. It is unwise to put faith in something without seriously examining whether it deserves that faith.
What’s the point of faith in something that never delivers until after it’s too late to choose something different? It seems like an awfully big risk to limit one’s life for the sake of one’s eternal life. After all, it requires an initial belief in life after death that is not scientifically provable. If this was the philosophy of Christianity, it was not a good idea to choose it over instant gratification unless it was the first thing people were taught and only thing they were comfortable with.
After thinking through this a few times, I decided there was no reason for faith except as a feel-good, fail-safe measure. Furthermore, I realized that the faith I had grown up with was of little use outside of specific circles of belief that valued maturity in this area. Maturity was measured by knowledge and influence, though, not necessarily by results.
I began to despise the amount of work it took to keep up the image that I actually had faith. So many things to do and not to do; so many things to learn; so many people to convince that this was the right way so they could join me in my miserable quest for the unknown.
Ironically, Christians were supposed to have joy, so I began to look for ways to be happy about the predicament I was in. I was prepared to force myself to be joyful no matter how hard it was. To accomplish this task, I began to list out the things I was thankful for. In the process, I noticed that every one of them was based on an assumption about something else I would not be thankful for.
My Christian faith was a closed system that could support itself, by itself, within itself, and in a world that understood it. Outside of their little bubble, the things I believed only helped me when life was going bad. During those times, I could console myself that something better was coming – someday. Their limits also helped me to avoid self-destructive habits that so many people fall into. The moral ideals of my faith also compelled me to heights of achievement that were great for my education, reputation, and career.
These lost their glamor as I began to wonder if Christianity was simply a matrix that had been pulled over my eyes. Half asleep and mostly in a haze, I wandered through my daily routines with a smile and courage that could have fooled anyone from discerning my inner struggle. Eventually, I began to withdraw from the system I now mostly despised. I saw no reason for acting like a Christian anymore. In my mind, I had almost embraced the desire for evil as natural and normal. Yet all this time, I maintained the practiced façade of Christian faith that brought me some admiration.
Though I was happy to be questioning what I didn’t believe anymore, I was beginning to wonder if there were any answers to my questions at all. Everywhere I turned, I saw thousands of diverse answers to each of my questions. Most of these answers were as firmly supported as the ones I was walking away from. Eventually I began to withdraw from my quest in disillusionment. I could see no way to ever be sure that I had found the truth.
I was stuck between rejecting God’s Word for something else, returning to my old ways of doing things, or indefinitely staying in this state of hopelessness. Unable to decide between the first two options, I took the third by default.
A little less than a year after it began, my search for truth was about to be abandoned. Its only results were a shattered belief system, a cynical agnostic, and a young college student with no reason left to live. In pursuit of a life worth living, I had only confirmed that mine was not one of them.
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