Ron P.’s Spiritual Journey

Early in December I invited atheists and skeptics to tell their stories here, the idea being that if we see each other as real people, we are much more likely—even on the Internet!—to treat each other as real people.

Ron P. sent me an email with this. I appreciate him sharing this with us.

BEGIN
I suppose I will start at the beginning. I grew up in a nominally Christian home in a fairly typical middle class American household, where weekly church attendance was mandatory but faith itself wasn’t spoken about too much. I was baptized a Catholic when I was 13 but my family went over to Protestantism a few years later, so I attended an evangelical church during my later teens and early twenties when I headed off to college.

During my senior year of high school, I remember picking up a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and subsequently seeking out other works by Lewis—both fiction and non-fiction—to devour. During my first two years of college, I joined a Christian youth group and went to church service every Sunday at a local Baptist church. I met my best friend through that college youth group there. I remember going to their weekly meetings in a lecture hall where we’d sing worship songs and listen to various guest speakers.

This sounds like a typical Christian conversion story but it was much more complicated than that. I always had doubts about faith and thus sought to read a lot to help me navigate through those doubts. I’ve read more apologetics than anyone I personally know, for example. I’d question the party line more often than most in my Bible study, which came to a head during a retreat I went on at the end of my freshman year. The big issue that bothered me the most was the problem of hell, which at first was about how a loving God can consign people to an eternity of conscious torment for their sins (conjoined with their unbelief of course). The rationale of meriting infinite punishment for transgressing against an infinite Being struck me and still strikes me as ridiculous for a number of reasons. None of the evangelical authorities I spoke to could really give me satisfactory answers about this, so I soon decided to prefer a more liberal theological outlook.

I remember clearly my best friend (who also shared my doubts) lending me a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s collected quotes. Kierkegaard was a 19th century Christian philosopher who is known for being the “father of existentialism.” Basically, reading him turned me on to a different way of conceiving Christian faith. Instead of thinking of it as having to assent to a bunch of dubious doctrines, I could think of it as being primarily of existential commitment or venture. This comes down to reading the New Testament as a challenge to obey rather than a holy text filled with doctrines that one needs to mentally affirm.

As time passed, I switched churches a few times before I stopped going altogether. I went from supporting a sort of theological liberalism that was some odd mixture of C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell to really doubting the worthiness of the whole project, as it all seemed after much reading a searching just to be an issue with no clear answers. Sure, I could take a position and argue for it well, but at the end of the day I’d wonder if there really was anything to argue about, or if it was just all an enigma wrapped in a mystery with no possible solution that isn’t just made up. Proof texts can be found for a variety of views ranging from C.S. Lewis’ moderate view, to eternal conscious torment, to annihilationism to universalism.

There is even a deeper problem lying behind all of this, though. The problem is that it is one thing to say one has epistemic justification for believing a certain thing, say, that Jesus is God incarnate or rose from the dead, which are two huge propositions. I think to this day that the arguments for the resurrection are pretty good, all things considered, but I wonder about whether I’d be justified in saying that someone else needs to believe in this in order to be saved from God’s wrath or whatever. Before I get too far off the trail let me turn back to the autobiographical approach that I forgot about once I got on this philosophical tangent.

In my freshman year of college, I had a profound conversion type experience on my knees giving my life over to God. Since then I’ve struggled with sins to which young men are increasingly susceptible, which never really went away despite all my prayers, resolutions, plans, etc. God increasingly became just a theoretical abstraction in my mind, ever more distant and less real when it comes to my daily life. I guess I went from believing he was there and very real, inspiring the Scriptures I read and guiding my life, to not really knowing what was there when it came to questions of ultimate reality. I felt that my personal experiences could be chalked up to the emotionalism of a young man desperately wanting to find some deeper meaning to his life. That and all the pretty young women in my college group gave me a ‘spiritual’ feeling that I now realize was more biologically based.

Since I graduated college in ’08, I’ve gone to church a few times here and there. I still find myself hoping that God is there and thinking about the possibility of it really being true. No label really clearly describes what my position is on the issue well. I could say that I’m a ‘skeptic’ but I’ve never liked how that term means basically atheist or materialist. In a way, I could be taken as a Christian in a dim light, I suppose. I have atheist friends that think of me as that although that’s mainly an assumption on their part. I mainly argue against atheists for the same reason I argue against Christian fundamentalist; I seek to shatter rigid ideological certainties since this world seems bigger than what fits neatly into a pre-fabricated ideology.

I’ve enjoyed this blog and hope I haven’t written too much. I realize during many parts of this that I could have written a whole lot more, mostly about the philosophical issues I’ve just briefly touched on. I tried to strike a balance between philosophical thinking and autobiography. I do know that a lot of people in my age range have felt disillusioned by church and are in my position right now. In any case, this is a haphazard piece of writing so I’d very much appreciate any questions, challenges, etc. from anyone reading this. I’m finding that this exercise has helped clarify things in my own mind at least.

END

In my December invitation I assured my guest writers of this:

Once your story is posted, I’m going to strongly encourage others to ask questions, and I’m going to enforce the above-mentioned moratorium on judgmentalism… The questions people ask you should be for the purpose of understanding you for who the writer is, rather than something like, “How could an educated person like you come to such irrational conclusions?” which is really just judgmentalism in thin disguise. Of course if the writer brings philosophical/atheist apologetical topics into your story, those things are open for people to ask about.

The floor is open for getting to know one another better. Thanks again, Ron.

Comments 12
  1. Mark McIntyre

    Ron,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I sometimes tell people that I am a believer in spite of the church, not because of it. So I get the disillusionment with church.
    I am not, however, disillusioned with Christ and have had to learn to focus on him and not focus on the the shortcomings of my self and others.
    There is a line from the Count of Monte Christo (movie version) where Edmond tells Mercedes that he has given up on God. Mercedes replies, “but God has not given up on you.” I would offer you the same hope.

  2. Doug

    Thanks very much Ron!
    Your story could easily be mine… or my son’s.
    Both of us have gone through (almost) everything you describe. I puzzle over the fact that my son (likely) shares your position, while my faith became (much) stronger through the process.

  3. SteveK

    Thanks Ron, I really enjoyed this. I think you remain in the capable hands of God despite your many attempts to run away. Keep asking honest questions with a heart of humility. May God’s grace be with you.

  4. Nick K.

    Hey Ron, as they say, cool story bro! I appreciate your honesty.

    The thing I’d love to hear about more is – can you tell us a bit more about your conversion experience? Do you remember who was preaching and what they were preaching? Do you remember what you were thinking? What “moved” you finally to your conversion point? We’re there any popular preachers/teachers that your group was listening to at that point in time besides Lewis?

  5. Ron P.

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I am touched by the care you all show. To Nick K.’s questions I remember generally being much more emotionally involved in the whole issue of faith back then and wanting to commit myself to it. No specific preacher was really involved besides what I got from reading and in my college youth group. No one really personally stood out for me. It was more of a culmulative effect of a bunch of factors.

    Anyway, let me know if any of you have more questions.

    Thanks,
    -Ron

  6. Doug

    Hi Ron,
    You make reference to the Christian faith as

    assent to a bunch of dubious doctrines

    and the Bible as

    a holy text filled with doctrines that one needs to mentally affirm

    Granted, the source of this travesty is almost certainly sincere, if none-too-clever, Christians (often Christian parents, who imagine that they are doing their children a favor by making the message “more understandable” [!??]).
    But there is considerable irony in the fact that this tragic position has no support in scripture itself. That is, if folks really treated scripture as authoritative, they would be much more modest about its flavor of authority!
    But here is the question for you: given that “doctrines to assert” is hopelessly broken, do you believe that “existential commitment” is the only other option? Could there be unexplored alternatives that would be a better “fit” for you?

  7. Ron P.

    Doug,

    Thanks for the question. If there is another option besides the ones you’ve mentioned I’d like to hear about it. Basically, I don’t see any way around either 1) trying to assert the traditional doctrines and hold to them despite their problems which could be construed as either dishonest to oneself and others or 2) trying to live a life of commitment bracketing one’s doctrinal doubts which would really be a tepid kind of venture since beliefs and actions really reinforce one another. Having the “existential” without the (for lack of a better word) ideological would undercut the whole thing.

    I hope this clarifies things. Is there another option you have in mind?

    -Ron

  8. Doug

    Hi Ron,
    We (with, frankly, all “thinking Christians”) would agree that “holding to doctrines” is emphatically NOT “what the Christian thing is about”. But all “thinking Christians” would disagree (indeed, we would be dismayed at the suggestion) that the only alternative is “trying to live a life of commitment in spite of doubts”.
    Totally. Not. Christianity.
    (more later)

  9. Doug

    Christianity is aligning one’s life (heart, mind, soul) to the reality of a brilliantly wise and extraordinarily loving God. This is the God who could conceive a suitable platform for consciousness, morality, personality and rationality out of elementary particles (that He also created) — an achievement not even remotely diminished by evolutionary biology.
    If that seems to be a “dubious doctrine”, then there is likely little value in going further. But in that event, I’d be inclined to suggest that the only alternative (viz., that consciousness, morality, personality and rationality are cosmic accidents) is considerably more dubious.
    Note, however, that if such a Creator exists, He does so entirely independent on our affirmation of His existence. Our ability (or lack thereof) to grok His presence and our debt to Him is completely irrelevant to its reality. It is simply our personal health (wholeness) that is improved by such an alignment to this reality.

  10. Ron P.

    Doug,

    I agree that consciousness, morality, personality, and rationality are problematic on a purely naturalistic view of the world. I am not a naturalist but I suppose a type of deist perhaps. More precisely I believe there is some sort of Supreme Intelligence behind our existence although what that Being is like probably defies most human categorization.

    I am sure one can imagine different ways in which evil can exist in the same world as a all wise and loving God but I find the answers of theodicy to be lacking. The authors of the NT themselves weren’t really sophisticated philosophers but people caught up in a bunch of (what most of us would consider as) really weird religious experiences.

    Then there is of course the issue of the identity of Jesus. Most scholars of the historical Jesus see him as Albert Schweitzer did, as an apocalyptic prophet who believed the world would soon end. There is evidence that the early church believed this as well. It’s a hypothesis that makes sense of Jesus’ statements such as “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Also, this makes sense of his ethical views as a 401k does not make sense in a world about the end. (That’s a little tongue-in-cheek but Jesus does say a lot of things about money that Christians conveniently forget about).

  11. Doug

    Hi Ron,
    If I read between your lines correctly, you seem offended by:
    – the failure of Christians to engage with Jesus’ words and person.
    – the failure of Christians to justify God in a world that contains evil.
    Or, more succinctly, the failure of Christians. But I’m not sure why that’s relevant to anything, frankly — there is nothing quite so consistent with the Christian message than the fact that Christians need forgiveness and help.

  12. Doug

    Hi Ron,
    A couple more comments, if I may:
    – “defying human categorization” gets huge agreement from me. But the facts that life is so enjoyable and that the Creator (it would certainly appear) intended His creation to support that life — surely these suggest concrete attributes for that Creator?
    – the problem of theodicy is, in its essence, the attempt by humans to rationalize the existing moral environment (i.e., with all of its evil) to a projected moral standard (i.e., one’s preferred theology). Hoever, there is considerable irony in the fact that the entire basis of theodicy (i.e., the human ability to make moral assessments at all) remains entirely unexplained on most worldviews that consider theodicean failures of greatest significance.

Comments close automatically after 120 days. Comment numbering may be incorrect due to a temporary bug.