Being in college at the time of this break with God, I had classes to attend. I almost feel that I couldn’t have picked a worse semester to give up God, for He was everywhere; not only was this a predominantly Christian (at least, in upbringing), white, middle-class Midwestern college, my courseload included philosophy, astronomy, and the history of Tudor and Stuart England.
In philosophy, my Christian professor would talk about sin and what that meant in terms of our self-awareness and essential potential; astronomy was all about the exploration of wonders something, if not God, had created; in Tudor and Stewart England we studied the Reformation in depth. Christianity surrounded me every day. In philosophy, one of my Christian classmates discussed one day how Christianity defined sin as any action in an opposite direction from God and wanted to know how that affected our author’s definition as failing to realize self-awareness. I didn’t hear my professor’s answer as I mulled over this idea and realized that that was part of what was keeping me awake at nights; in these terms, I was running from God, face fully averted. Having just been to two funerals in one week, with a full and healthy appreciation for the shortness of life, I was rather worried. What if I died while in this state of rebellion? Then I chastised myself. This whole thing started because I didn’t believe anymore that God cared enough to look after me like that, that He had no place getting me to grovel for eternal salvation. For all I knew, death could in fact be the final word, so going for this God guy was just wasting my time.
It didn’t make me feel a whole lot better, truthfully.
Later that same night I was reading for my England class—some of the primary sources we were assigned included the works of such Puritan fanatics as John Foxe, William Perkins, and John Downame. At the end of the selections from Perkins’ A Golden Chain: or a Description of Theology published in 1600, there is a definition of the Reprobates of humanity.
In order to understand Reprobates, one must first understand what Perkins stood for and what the Puritans themselves stood for. Predestination was a major tenet of what they believed; the idea that God, at the beginning of time, had laid out who was going to Heaven and who wasn’t and nothing anyone did could change that, because it was already decided. If I had given any credence to this idea, I might have been more comfortable in exorcising God from my life. As it was, though, I couldn’t bring myself to believe anyone would believe such a thing and lumped it in with all of the rest of the ideas of the “crazy Puritans”.
This passage that made me pause, though, was a distinction between the Called and the Not Called; in the Not Called category was my interesting find: “the execution of the decree of Reprobation hath three degrees, to wit, an acknowledgment of God’s calling, a falling away again, and condemnation.”
Wait, I thought, if this stuff is true, you can think you are one of God’s children and be, in fact, lying to yourself? Was that what I had been doing all of these years? Maybe I was one of these, one who had thought I had God at my side and was now discovering I didn’t have a clue—I didn’t have Him at all.
Even the reminder that five minutes ago I had chuckled at the “crazy Puritans” wasn’t much comfort.
It got worse as my reading from history collided with my readings in philosophy. In William James’ The Will to Believe I found this: “The question of having moral beliefs at all or not having them, is decided by our will. Are our moral preferences true or false, or are they only odd biological phenomena, making things good or bad for us, but in themselves indifferent?…If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.”
It became clear, as this strange and frustrating Lent progressed, that my frustration and disdain of God and my relationship with whatever I had decided God meant was by no means new. God is a tricky thing. I mean, it sounds flippant, but truly—we time-oriented linear mortal beings are asked to put faith and trust (two of the hardest concepts we’ve found) in an omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal Being Whose name we don’t actually know and Who, in not-catering-to-people-form, no one’s ever seen. And this in a world where, to put it mildly, shit happens on this perfect Being’s watch.
No wonder all of these writers spilled so much ink on the subject of trying to figure out whether we could logic ourselves in or out of faith. And no wonder, on the other side, that searches like the one I was smack in the middle of had been dangerous expeditions for so long. I wasn’t merely flirting with heresy, I was dating it and considering introducting it to my parents. Earlier times weren’t quite the dark and authoritarian caves pop TV has made them out to be, but neither was it a good idea to go around saying that God was dumb and you’d just been kidding for those 15 years your parents had dragged you to church with them.
But what I was also finding was that God was coming to me. Academics, as I’ve said, was my god—so this other God was showing me the company I had in the men I studied, in this system I admired. Once again, what I had thought I was doing turned out to be something totally different as I explored the lives of the crazy and the sane and the great majority who tread the fine line between.
I began to see that religion is part of faith, but faith is most definitely not religion. And I began to wonder which one I had, in fact, given up.
To be continued…