Thursday, September 20, 2007

7 - Mrs Schofield

I don't know if it's because of my spiritual questioning, sexual questioning, both, or neither, but as we moved toward the end of high school, I spent less and less time with my best friend Ryan. To be honest, I was fairly freaked out by my questioning, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was freaked out by it too.

I remember one of the last times that I stayed overnight at his house, during the spring of our Junior year. He was on his waterbed, and I was on a mattress on the floor, and we just stared at the ceiling and talked until going to sleep. Ryan had glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling, even in high school.

We talked about Christianity that night, which was typical. We were always talking about predestination or assurance or some other complicated aspect of our faith, but this night was different.

On this night, I asked Ryan if he ever questioned all of it, the whole thing; I asked if he ever questioned Christianity itself.

He said sometimes he did.

I told him that recently, I’d been questioning all of it pretty seriously.

And instead of backing away, Ryan gave me something else to think about. Ryan can be that way in conversations. He said that he wondered about people like Knema or Rouzheen or Mrs Schofield, people we knew weren't Christians. He said that he wondered if a good God would really send them to hell (or allow them to choose hell for eternity).

“Whoa,” I said. “Yeah.” I couldn't believe it. Until that point, I hadn’t really questioned heaven and hell, or thought about specific people going there. I guess I had it in the back of my mind somewhere, but mostly, I’d just wondered about spiritual identity, and whether or not Christians were really different than anybody else.

Ryan said that he hadn’t made any conclusions about whether they could really go to hell. He said that he wasn’t going to let it get in the way of thinking about other things, though. Pretty soon after that, he rolled over in his bed, with the water sloshing under him.

My mind was reeling.

We were more than halfway through the school year, and Mrs Schofield had really made me curious. Rouzheen and Knema too, but especially Mrs Schofield. She was going through a divorce at the time, and we all knew about it. I heard about it through my friend Eric Perez. Mrs Schofield never talked about it, though. She just kept teaching biology, without missing a beat.

She would come to class prepared every day, with a 90 minute lesson that never slowed down. She had lecture slides, videos, lab exercises, and activities that really forced us to get involved: 90 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Also, she had music playing at the beginning of every class, and an honor system where we signed a slip of paper promising not to cheat. She said she would trust us, because we were adults. A few of the students cheated and she found out, and she almost started crying while she told the class about it.

When Mrs Schofield taught, she focused on the students, not just the biology, and it always made us focus on the biology. It was impossible not to learn, just from sitting in her class. But we knew that she wasn't a Christian, we just knew it. And I wondered how she could have so much life without Jesus in her heart... and even in the face of divorce.

And now, on top of all of this, I had to consider that she might go to hell when she died... There was just no way. There was just no way. Every time I saw her, after that conversation with Ryan, I would think about how there was just no way she could possibly go to hell.

I recently sent an email to Mrs Schofield, telling her about that conversation with Ryan, and how it affected my life. I then asked her, basically, "Do you consider yourself a Christian?" because she and I had never actually talked about religion before. I had always just assumed.


Her response finished like this:


I have never doubted that there is a higher power,
that there is a right and wrong, good and evil,
and that we should all strive to be on the right and good side,
and that Jesus was a miraculous soul who has made many in the world reevaluate their principals and choose the light.
I believe Plato said "The life unexamined is the life unlived,"
and so I refuse to go blindly along, just traveling the conventional and expected path.
If hell is the price to pay for that, then I expect I will be in some very good company.

Her email made me wish that we'd talked about religion earlier, but I wonder if the "Christian me" would have really understood her words... there's a chance that I would have heard her saying, "No, I'm not a Christian." There's a chance that I wouldn't have looked for any more meaning beyond that.

...But I knew, even in high school, that I wouldn't mind being with Mrs Schofield after dying, that wherever it was that she was going, I wouldn't mind going there too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

6 - David Erwin

“Dad, let’s have coffee soon,” I blurted to him one morning. My dad isn’t very good at “quality time,” but he knows it’s important and he knows that most people need it more than he does – so every time I tell him, “We should have coffee,” he agrees.

But I didn’t want to freak him out, so I didn’t pressure him to meet soon. I didn't really know what was going on with me, but I knew that I didn't want to make anybody worried. Between the 5 other members of our family and his job, the first time that Dad and I could meet was a week and a half after I first proposed the idea.

A week and a half is an entirely unimportant amount of time for most people in most phases of life, but for me it was serious: it was Christian or not, eternity or not, love or no love, and why - My mind traveled to a million places that week-and-a-half, leaving no stone unturned. I was really looking forward to talking to Dad. Somehow, I felt comfortable talking to him about anything; he would always know how to respond.

In many ways, questioning my Christian identity wasn't as much of a "brick wall" as it was like walking into some sort of thicket, as on a path that grows thin and crowded by branches. I had to deal with my questions, one at a time, in order to keep moving forward.

Tyler had 3 coffee shops, and 2 were closed for the day. We met at the third, a Starbucks. The evening was warm, so we found seats outside, overlooking the mall parking lot. We could have beat around the bush for hours, so I decided just to go straight for it: "Dad, I'm not really sure, but recently I've been thinking that I might be gay." Yes, gay. And by "recently," I meant "in the recent few days." I had originally wanted to talk about Christianity, but that's not what was on my mind.

Once I hit a question like, "What if I'm gay," I couldn't let it go. I tried to think about different things, but it kept coming back, like "Don't think of an elephant." And by the time that I sat down with Dad, I was going insane, unable to handle the ramifications behind the question: How would I ever have kids? How would I ever get married? Could I ever really be accepted as gay?

Dad wasn't phased at all. He didn't even ask me to try to explain why. He just told me that he would still love me if I was gay, then he talked about his best friend in college, David Erwin.

"David Erwin was gay?"

"Yeah, didn't I tell you that?"

My dad loves to tell stories, but sometimes he leaves out important details. I'd heard a thousand "David Erwin stories," but this little fact had been missing.

"I guess it's because he came out of the closet after he had already left Baylor," Dad said, "so most of the time that I knew him, I didn't really think of him as gay."

Dad told me the story of when he and Mom had gone to San Francisco, to visit David Erwin. "Jane, I think Erwin might be gay," he said as he knocked on the door. The door was opened by a man wearing tight leather and makeup.

Dad laughed as he said to me, "That was one of the biggest understatements of my life."

Not long after that visit, while Dad was finishing med school, David Erwin contracted HIV, then fullblown AIDS, and died.

"Nobody even really knew what AIDS was back then," Dad said. "It was devastating, the way his doctors treated him, as if he was some sort of test subject. They knew nothing about treating HIV. Nothing."

We talked until the breeze started to cool down, and by that time I felt much better. Dad knew that I'd wanted to talk about religion, but it was getting late, so we decided to head home. We'd talk about religion some other time.

Only a week and a half before, homosexuality was simply and completely wrong to me. It was an aberration from God's intended plan. After leaving my Christian worldview, though, it was no longer that simple. I couldn't really understand it, but I knew that it wasn't that simple anymore.

If David Erwin was living, I wonder what he would have to say about sexuality. I wonder what he would say about the Southern Baptist culture in which he was raised. I wonder what he'd think about religion. If anything, I feel sure that he would say only good things about my dad, just as Dad will always speak fondly about his memories of David Erwin.

To me, now, sexual identity just seems wrapped up in this much greater mystery of personal identity itself, a subject I'll explore (to some extent) for the rest of my life, with no expectation to arrive at any major conclusion, other than that I am human, just like everybody else.

Today, whenever I'm getting to know someone who might be gay, I'll ask them, "Are you gay?" and they they respond, "yes" or "no," then usually follow up with, "Are you?"

I'll always respond with, "no," because it's the most accurate one-word answer that describes me. If anyone asks for the twenty-word answer, though, I'll tell them, "I honestly think that sexuality, just like religion, is much more complicated/complex than the categories we create with words." ...and even with twenty words, I feel like I'm barely scratching at the surface.

4 - Darwin

Everyone knew that Mrs Schofield was an atheist - atheist, right? Or maybe agnostic, but whatever she was, she wasn't a Christian, and everyone knew it.

Mrs. Schofield was our biology teacher. She inspired scores of students to study medicine, she brought recycling to our city, and every year, she taught the theory of evolution as if it were scientific fact.

“I know this is a controversial subject for many of you,” she said as a preface, “but this is the explanation that science has to offer, so this is the explanation that I am going to teach.” Then she took a breath and began the evolution sequence.

Science,” I thought, and I thought of all of the evidence that refuted evolution. I thought of polystrate fossils and the missing link, I thought of people gluing peppered moths to trees, and I thought of Darwin’s Black Box.

And Mrs. Schofield continued her lecture, so I listened.

She started by telling the story of Darwin, a man who enjoyed traveling too much to continue on his path of becoming a minister. She told us about the context in which he had lived, how there had been a set number of species, and how it was widely accepted that these were the very same species that God had created, the species that marched two by two onto the ark.

She talked about how Darwin had been afraid to publish his ideas, because he knew it would cause controversy. She told us how, when he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his body still lies.

And when I went home to talk to my dad about this stuff, he would say, “Well, I believe in Natural Selection. How else could so many species be extinct?" But evolution was bigger than just natural selection, and Dad just usually didn't discuss it. Usually, my dad talked about how Medical School inspired in him a respect for a creator who would design a system as intricate as the human body – so surely, my dad was a creationist, right?

Mrs Schofield was introducing me to a different Darwin than I had ever known, and I was forced to sort out the facts for myself.


One time, a couple years prior, I had a substitute Sunday school teacher who talked about the importance of 6-day creationism and the worldwide flood.

“Because if they can get you to admit that even one part of the Bible is wrong, they can make you question the whole thing,” he said, “even the virgin birth, or the existence of Jesus.”

My dad didn’t agree with him, though. He thought that a 6-day creation wasn’t necessary for believing in the Bible. We never had a chance to discuss it in full, but, at the time, I leaned toward the substitute Sunday school teacher.

To me, the Biblical creation account seemed to be screaming for literal interpretation, not as an allegory (“…And there was evening and there was morning – the first day… the second day… the third… fourth… fifth… sixth”), and I felt compelled to believe in the Genesis account, the 6-day creation account, because if I questioned the Scriptural creation account, I questioned the inerrancy of Scripture itself.

About halfway through the evolution sequence, Mrs. Schofield was starting to have me convinced. It scared me. And I couldn't believe in Darwin without really re-assessing Genesis - When I re-read the Biblical creation account, it looked more like ancient mythology than complete Truth.

Suddenly, I noticed myself questioning other parts of the Bible, such as the Tower of Babel. "How did languages really develop?" I wondered...

Through these tiny, simple questions, I watched the Bible fall short of Holiness.* And as soon as I knew it had missed the mark, even a little bit, I started to question whether anything about it was worthy of being called righteous – even the gospel accounts of Jesus.

--------------------

*There are dozens of sources that attempt to lay out the flaws of the Bible in ways that people can plainly see them, but I feel sure that sharing them would only lead to debates and discussions that I've never enjoyed. It seems that for every author who tries to point out an error in Scripture, there will be another author who can explain it differently. I believe that those sources, just like most things that people read, exist only to convince people of that which they already believe.
And I know this firsthand: for the entire time that I believed that the Bible was holy, the only Bible I could see was a holy one, and there was never a lack of Bible scholars to affirm me in the way I interpreted Scripture. I still don't understand what eventually allowed me to see the shortcomings of the Bible, but my prayer is that it would allow my Christian friends and family to see them as well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

3 - Klint

I knew it was impossible for someone to actually lose their faith. I’d heard about people who left the church, and there were lots of jaded pastors’ kids, but if anyone had ever been truly saved, they would always be a Christian; their place in heaven was sealed for eternity.

The typical buzzword for this, doctrinally speaking, is “once saved, always saved,” and, for the regular churchgoer, this meant that you should make certain that there was a time in your life when you sincerely gave their heart to the Lord. And no matter where you went from there, you were Saved; your name was written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and it could never be unwritten - even if you renounced your faith in God.

But those of us who studied the Bible more closely knew that it was not exactly that simple. We knew that if you were really truly saved, that your life would be radically changed forever, and that the fruit of the Spirit (as evidenced by good deeds) would pour out of your soul for the rest of your life. This belief is called “perseverance of the saints,” and it is one of the 5 pillars of Calvinism*.

The subtle difference (between “once saved, always saved” and “perseverance of the saints”) was huge. It meant that if anyone left the faith (and died before returning to it), then their relationship with Jesus had never been true in the first place. We could not know if anyone’s faith was true, unless they could carry their faith to the grave. True Christians would persevere, in order to work out their salvation. And if they didn’t, it showed that their faith was not sincere.

“Will, I need to tell you something.”

I was on the phone with Kendall Bicknell, standing in the courtyard of my high school. This was somewhere toward the beginning of my junior year. “What is it?”

“It’s about Klint. He… he doesn’t believe in God.”

I had to sit down.

Klint Bicknell was the smartest person I knew. He had a perfect ACT score. He and Kendall studied Greek together in their spare time, so they could read the New Testament together, and Klint studied Hebrew as well. I remembered seeing Klint standing on the stage at church, the night they announced that summer’s interns – this was only a few months earlier. Klint could have gone anywhere for college, but he chose to go to Calvin, a small Christian School in Michigan. It was there, during his sophomore year, that he forsook his belief in God. It rocked my world.

“He knows he’s really smart,” Kendall continued, “and I think it just goes to his head sometimes.”

“Yeah,” I nodded, thinking to myself.

I thought about how small humans are, in comparison to God, and how pointless it is for us to question Him. I thought of Klint like an ant, questioning the existence of humans.

Deep down in my heart, I felt something starting to turn. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I didn’t talk to Klint for months.

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*The other 4 pillars of Calvinism are Total depravity of man, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, and Irresistible grace. Even though Calvinism is reasonably well-supported by scripture, it remains extremely controversial in the church. This is because most Bible-believing Christians disagree with the overall message of Calvinism, which is (at great risk of paraphrasing) that if God is sovereign and the Bible is completely true, then God, before the beginning of time, planned for a minority of people to be saved from eternal damnation.

Friday, September 14, 2007

preface

Sometimes a person will decide to ask that one, nagging question, the one that everyone around seems to ignore. The question that, when asked, will re-ask every question that was once considered “answered.” This question takes different forms for different people, but its basis is simple:

  • What if I am wrong?
  • What if everyone around me is wrong?

In these stories, I attempt to depict the time in my life when I asked these questions more intensely than any other time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

5 - The Brick Wall

At seventeen years old, I was becoming enlightened. I knew, as Socrates knew, that I didn't know anything, and the more I learned, the more there was to know. The process invigorated me, and I wrestled with questions that people have wrestled for ages: free will, existence of reality, and eventually identity itself. I’d spend hours just sitting and thinking, praying and thinking, and I had no idea what I was getting into.

Most of this philosophical journey unfolded inside the framework of Biblical Christianity. Even though I toyed with ideas like "maybe reality is some sort of dream," my core beliefs, by which I functioned on a day-to-day basis, remained intact:

The Bible was the infallible Word of God, and I, a depraved sinner, had been saved by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ. It was impossible for me to do good works, because of my sinful flesh; only Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, could do good works, and I prayed that He would work through me, and that I, a lowly sinner, would not get in the way. Any time I did something commendable, it was God. Any time I did something sinful, it was me. All of my actions, routine or unique, fell into one of these categories: spirit or flesh, Christ or me.
And I continued thinking.

The belief in a sovereign God gave me permission to question everything, including Him. And I finally did it, too. As I tested the stability of the framework by which I saw the world, parts of it proved to be structurally weak, and eventually the whole thing collapsed.


Every week, I attended a high school guys' prayer group, called Cornerstone. We met at my friend Jeremy's house. I had helped start the group a few years earlier, and I was among the handful of members that kept the group going through high school - in many ways, the group helped me through high school as well.

One week at Cornerstone, though, everything felt different. Cornerstone was the same, but I was different. That night, Jeremy was my prayer partner, so he would pray for my requests, and I would pray for his.

We were sitting on his living room floor, talking. There were about ten of us there that week.

“I’ve been thinking at a million miles an hour," I said to Jeremy, "and this week... I hit a brick wall."

Jeremy nodded, listening. There nothing else I could say. Jeremy shared his requests, and we bowed our heads in prayer. I went first, praying for Jeremy's relationship with his girlfriend and his performance in classes at school.

And then it was Jeremy's turn. “God, I pray for Will, God. He says he’s been thinking a whole lot lately, and God, he just, he feels like he’s hit a brick wall... And Lord I just pray that You’ll be with him in this time, that…” And that was it. Cornerstone went on, nothing had changed. I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life. My entire life had changed, but I could not communicate it to anyone.

Jeremy had no way to understand what I was talking about, and I had no way of explaining it. Whenever I tried to begin, I'd get lost in questions that I may or may not have known the answers to - I mean, I thought I knew the answers, but I didn’t know any more… Is the Bible true? Am I still a Christian? Am I going to heaven? Haven't I already doubted and questioned enough?

The brick wall was this: I had been getting to know a lot of nonbelievers, and I learned that they weren't very different from me - even though I had the power of the Holy Spirit, and they supposedly didn't. I asked myself:

What if everyone is exactly the same?

What if Christians are no different than non-Christians, and

What if everyone is just acting selfishly?

What if Christians just think they can love with the love of Jesus, and

What if that includes me?

3 more questions are scrawled on a note that I wrote to myself, sometime that week. It was one of those "distillment moments," when a hundred things had been boiling in my mind for hours, then I picked up a pen to write, and everything that remained poured out. three questions:

  • DOES THERE EXIST SOME NOTICEABLE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CHRISTIAN AND A NONCHRISTIAN?
  • BETWEEN A CHRISTIAN SOCIETY AND A SECULAR ONE?
  • DOES A CHRISTIAN SOCIETY EXIST?

The answer, deep in my heart, was no.

I could not ignore it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

2 - Onya

When I was fourteen years old, I knew where I was going. They say you can never truly know, but I knew. At least, I was confident enough to tell everyone around me that I knew, and with a clean conscience - My relationship with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was stronger than ever, and my faith was moving me into action. I was on this world to save souls, and that was all there was to it.

Through an online Christian message board, I met my first atheist: Onya.

“And yes, that’s my real name,” she said in an email. “It’s Russian.”

Onya had posted a blanket statement on the message board, about Christians ignoring facts in order to hold on to faith. In all, we probably only shared about 4 emails between the two of us, but I'll never forget our interaction. I, an outspoken evangelical, was not trying to convert her, but to give her a fuller image of Christianity. Obviously Onya had become jaded by "Christians" who might have treated her with bitterness. I wanted to prove to her what the love of Jesus really looked like.

I started by simply listening to her. Listening was the only thing that had gotten me anywhere in life, and, when I listened to Onya, I realized that she had a lot to say. Christianity, to her, was filled with stubbornly ignorant people, and this made her angry. She believed that Christians allowed themselves to be persuaded (practically hypnotized) by something they knew, inside themselves, to be a lie.

I assured her that this was not the case, at least not for me.

When she said that faith should never contradict facts, I agreed. I told her that faith was the evidence of things not seen, not evidence against things seen, and my faith in Jesus was reasonable and supported by evidence. I didn't say it to contradict her, but only to inform her. Obviously, I thought, her view of Christianity had been skewed, and it was my responsibility to show to her that Christians, true Christians, are reasonable people.

I wanted to find out where she had gone wrong, and lovingly correct her. So rather than telling her "you are absurd," I just asked her to tell me more.

“Will,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go on with this discussion much longer.”

I stepped back, so as not to pressure her. I knew that the situation was in God's hands, and that God would work within His perfect plan.

“But I want you to promise me something, ok?” she spoke to me like I was a child, and I tried not to resent it.

“I want you to promise me that if your faith in God ever conflicts with facts, that you won’t be too scared to question it... Never ignore what you know to be true, even if it contradicts your beliefs.”

Confident that the facts were on my side, I promised.

We broke contact on good terms, and have not resumed it since. At the time, I felt glad for having planted a seed of truth (real truth) into the darkness of Onya's life.

I was fourteen years old.

Monday, September 10, 2007

1 - Sarah*

About a year ago, while I was home from college for a few weeks, I sat at the kitchen counter talking to my little sister Sarah. My mom was cooking scrambled eggs, and I can't remember what we were talking about. Somewhere in the conversation, Sarah asked me, "Are you going to go to heaven?"

I looked at her, and with a smile said, "I don't know..."

"Yes he is going to heaven," my mom said, before Sarah could think about my answer. The conversation shifted to other subjects, mom finished the eggs, and we prayed before eating breakfast together. I doubt that Sarah has remembered it once since then, but I haven't been able to get that question off my mind.

In the last few months, I've had lots of conversations with Evangelicals. Their culture is the one that I was raised in, so I'm compelled to go back and talk to them, to hold ties to the world that I came from. Whenever someone asks me, "Do you think that you'll go to heaven or hell?" I try to cause them to think, by saying something like "Maybe, but I highly doubt it."

It is my answer that says, without saying it, "I want you to rethink your question."

But when my sister asks, it's different. She's ten years old now, so of course she'll spend more time thinking about the question, right? There must be some day in her future, when she begins to understand what life can be like, to live outside the boundaries of that binary eternity (heaven or hell?)… but until then, what do I say to her? What if she asks me again, in a different way? What could I tell her?

These are drafts of some personal stories that I'm writing and revising.
I would love to hear any feedback.