Conversation With the SuperSkeptic (Jan-Feb 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
January – February, 2007

The process of salvation is as important as the event. For as long as I can remember faith communities have emphasized event over process. Yet God is just as interested in the turning points (process) on the continuum of life as he is the consummation of the process in the event (baptism/sinner’s prayer). I have a friend who didn’t become a Christ-follower until after the death of his mother. Her death was a turning point in the process that led to his conversion (event).

The conversation you’re about to become a part of is with a gentleman who only wants to be known as SuperSkeptic. This conversation is part of SuperSkeptic’s journey. It’s also part of mine and it’s about to become part of yours. I may never cross SuperSkeptic’s path again. Yet I feel no urgency in convincing him that my convictions are something he needs to adopt. SuperSkeptic is in the middle of a process and I refuse to contravene its course.

Decades of involvement in ‘church’ programs and robust Christian fellowship pulled me away from the people Jesus seeks until a paradigm shift in the early 2000s moved me away from the comforts of my former life as a Christ-follower to a life with a more missional bent. Now for the first time I find myself with more non-Christian friends than Christian and more road stories than church stories.

Creating ‘safe places’ for the people Jesus’ misses is something I’m very passionate about. No time tables. No agendas. Call me a fellow explorer seeking to foster genuine friendships with the people Jesus’ misses the most. If it so happens that a person’s spiritual development matures while in relationship, I pray I’ll be the one given permission to become their spiritual guide. But before this will happen—I must find that point where our journeys converge and then allow time for the building of a relationship on the basis of a spiritual commonality.

Talking with a skeptic is something I enjoy. I used to be one.

No agenda.

No time table.

Just interest…

Genuine interest in another human being.

 


SuperSkeptic is a former Protestant who lost his faith in 1989 only to get it back (briefly) ten years later. Now he says it is slowly slipping away again. He makes this statement: Everything I do to try to strengthen my faith pushes it farther away. This conversation took place via e-mail.

SuperSkeptic has asked that he remains anonymous. His blog is the SuperSkeptic World of Doubt.


 

Exiles - The Church Has Left the BuildingFred: You mention that you left your faith behind in 1989. Is it okay for me to ask why? And then you state you “got it back briefly ten years later?” Why such a 180? Why back and forth? Not that this is bad; actually it shows you’re serious. And then you make the provactive statement, “everything I do to try to strengthen my faith pushes it farther away.” Wow! Can you go a little deeper?

SSk: I was raised in a family that was very Christian. We went to a church that called itself non-denominational, but was really evangelical. The minister – let’s call him Dr. P – was very educated. He had very intellectual approaches to everything. Like many churches, this church taught Biblical inerrancy. I went to this church from the time I was four until I graduated high school. My parents taught Sunday School there, I did summer camp through this church – it was a big part of my life.

One Saturday, during my senior year of high school, a really good friend of mine . . . let’s call her A, told me she was gay. I freaked out when I learned this and made up an excuse about having to leave – and left. Part of it was that I had a thing for A, I’m sure, but she was hurt and I was angry.

The following day, Dr. P’s sermon was on a refocusing of the church to solve “the homosexual problem.” He actually called all homosexuals “pederasts.” I remember thinking, “I’m angry at A, but she’s not a pederast.” Right then I had a huge moral dilemma. I thought it was immoral to view homosexuals like that, and I was being told it was sanctioned in the Bible.

When I brought it up to an older Christian family friend (who has a Masters of Divinity), he basically said, “the Bible is right; if you reject that homosexuality is a sin, you’re not a true Christian. Plus, God didn’t make Adam and Bruce, he made Adam and Eve.”

But I still thought it wasn’t right to view homosexuality like that. I had no moral basis? for it; at least not in my unjderstanding. I also didn’t think there was any way to be a Christian without espousing the ideals that my church told me.

So I just completely rejected Christianity at that point. I continued to attend church because my parents required it of me (I went to a nearby junior college and continued to live with them). I slowly, slowly, slowly, tried to rebuild my friendship with A, which was tough, since she had told me something very difficult and I totally rejected her.

Every church service I attended after the homosexual problem? sermon, I was angry and resentful toward the church. It really wrecked my relationship with my parents; my mom was very angry with me for choosing to reject Christianity on the basis of one single issue.

After junior college, I went away to finish at a four-year school and didn’t go to church again for a couple of years. I spent my college years and my early twenties considering myself an atheist.

Fred: Thank you, SuperSkeptic. I really appreciate your openness. There are many who have some of the same struggles as you.

I want you to know I have few – let me change that – I don’t have any explanations for you. I don’t think there is a rational explanation. I know my belief in Jesus didn’t (and possibly couldn’t) come through the rational.

I use to believe that all things that were true were rational. Love is a true emotion, but it’s not rational. People actually feel it. I’m in love and have been for 33 years; plenty of people have been in love, yet love cannot be proven scientifically. Neither can beauty. There are many things that are true that don’t make any sense. Does God make sense? No, I don?t think so.

In many ways I think we are products of our own culture and time. You and I came out of the print culture. The oral culture didn’t possess the ability to freeze words in space, as a result intellectual abstraction and creativity was of little use.

Interestingly, the printing press was in existence in China for nearly 800 years prior to its European debut, yet it had none of the effects it had on the West. While the Chinese used pictorial writing, we developed a phonetic alphabet. This is the basis for the hemispheric differences between Eastern and Western worldviews.

The Chinese dictionary has over 80,000 characters and is still growing. The phonetic alphabet is made up of just over two dozen characters and demands letters be organized in a specific linear sequence in order for them to be meaningful. By contrast, a single Chinese symbol can stand alone and carry full meaning. While the phonetic alphabet is linear, sequential, and abstract, ideographic writing is non-linear, holistic, and intuitive. The result of all this? Western philosophy perfectly mirrors its writing system – linear, fragmented, majoring in the use of logic (syllogisms).

As western culture becomes more postmodernism we find ourselves using more images (logos) to communicate (one example would be the Nike swoosh) rather than phonetic words.

The formation of the phonetic alphabet was an important element is shaping western thought, especially after it was channeled through the medium of the printing press. This restructured both culture and Christianity.

One dramatic thing print did was make us more individualistic. It introduced the notion of the autonomous self, and obliterated tribal bonds while profoundly amplifying individualism. The rise of individualism led to an interest in the more personal aspects of faith. Writing allowed us to externalize and freeze the dynamic and fleeting inner life of thoughts and feelings. This had a remarkable cooling effect and provided distance from the emotional life.

The modern mind is very fond of objectivity. And that’s not necessarily bad, but taken to the extreme, it leads to the belief that we can read and discover biblical truths with an unbiased clarity of vision. I read the Bible through the inescapable lens of a privileged white American male raised in a middle class neighborhood. My reading of Scripture is vastly different than a Ukrainian now living in destitute poverty and raised under the authoritative and oppressive rule of the former Soviet Union. The social subjective experience of our social location has a tendency to magnify certain parts of Scripture while masking the importance of others. Let’s not forget that the Bible is not a collection of objective propositions but a story told through hundreds of different perspectives and diverse social settings.

Only after the printing press was there an enthusiasm for the abstract. This eventually led to the pulpit’s displacement of the altar and the sacraments as worship’s center. Preaching then became the high point of the modern Protestant church. Sermons were abstract and often dense.

Another effect of this emphasis on the abstract was a preoccupation with getting doctrine right and straightening others out with it. Anyone who didn’t hold to a particular set of abstract propositions was often deemed a heretic.

Soon linear reasoning, pushed to the extreme, became the primary means of determining truth. One thing I believe strongly is how unfortunate it is that we have been reduced to little more than cognitive rational beings. This has repressed and devalued the emotional and intuitive aspects of our humanity.

I once saw a T-Shirt that said, Logic: The art of being wrong with confidence.?

Okay, sorry. Here are my questions:

1) How much do you think culture, doubt, diappointment, hurt, your extra-biblical readings, and the significan’t people that have come in and out of your life through the years has shaped your present understanding of Christianity?

SSk:Pretty close to 100%. I think you included everything that could have influenced me, except for God and the Bible. (I’d call sermons “extra-biblical readings” as well, and pastors “significant people”.)

My parents raised me as a Protestant, which shaped me quite a bit. They also taught me respect for others, sometimes in ways they didn?t intend. For instance, not discussing politics and religion in polite conversation led me to believe it was rude to impose your opinion upon others. I just extended it to include homosexuality.

My deconversion/reconversion/deconversion story starts two significan’t people: with a good friend who came out to me, and the pastor who called her a pederast.

It may surprise many Christians to know that I came back to Christianity after viewing The Last Temptation of Christ. When the movie came out, my church condemned it and asked the congregation not to see it – not an uncommon reaction in the Christian community. Because of this, many Christians believe is blasphemous or insulting, but is, in my view, one of the greatest pro-Christian films ever made. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Jesus is much more human than divine, and really struck a chord with me. The way it views certain things that happen (like Judas’ betrayal) made me realize that my assumptions about Christianity may have been incorrect.

I believe that Biblical readings have shaped my recent beliefs, but if it weren’t for significant people (the Rev. K. Scott Kirk, when he was at the First Congregational Church of San Jose) and extra-biblical readings (Marcus Borg and Bart Ehrman), I probably wouldn?t read the Bible with a critical eye, nor would I ask questions about stuff that doesn’t make sense to me.

And lastly, disappointment and hurt have affected me quite a bit. I hate to say this, but I don’t trust people who call themselves Christian. I’ve seen so much hypocrisy – and so little remorse for it – that I get my guard up as soon as someone tells me they’re a Christian. Christians can be the worst advertisement for Christianity out there. I hope that doesn’t sound too divisive, but I’m relieved, and more than a little surprised, when I find a Christian who I can talk with openly like this. Recently, I’ve come to realize that there are Christians out there who believe in the Golden Rule and who interpret things similarly to the way I do. If it weren’t for the blog, though, I might not have met them. They all seem to be in Kentucky, or Saskatchewan, or Virginia – not in my local UCC.

2) Does intellectually “not knowing anymore” and possibly never being able to know anymore – bother you?

SSk:Yep. I’m always scared that I’m going to go to hell. But my fear isn’t just of the Christian hell; it’s of all the religions’ different versions of hell. Well – it’s also of the Christian hell if I’m not the right flavor of Christian. But I’ve never had an experience where I thought Jesus was speaking to me. I’ve had experiences where I felt something that was beyond the rational world, but it was very much along the lines of a Taoist spiritual experience. I don’t believe science has the answers, but I don’t have have ’em, either.

3) I like George Harrison’s quote you gave me, “The more one travels, the less one knows.” Did you know that the “honest & geniune” Christian will say the same is true for him/her. By the way – I also like the group “Yes”.

SSk: Absolutely. I think that’s true for any type of spirituality – and it’s true for a lot more than spirituality too. For instance: scientists finding out there were subatomic particles opened up so many unanswered questions it boggles the mind.

The rock group Yes is a very spiritual group in their message; their keyboard player, Rick Wakeman, is a born-again and has appeared on the 700 Club and recorded Christian-themed albums (The New Gospels and others). I like Yes mostly for their musical wizardry, but Awaken – which I quote on my blog – is the most inspiring piece of music written since Beethoven’s 9th. (Seriously.)

December 2-11, 2006

Fred: Hey – SuperSkeptic,

A few thoughts on your last communication.

Before I finally surrendered to the headship of Jesus, I battled with similar influences. I’m a left brain (thinker) which means I was bent toward always reading, always thinking, which in turn left me skeptical through most of my early years. My wife was a strong believer and because of her influences I’m a Christian today. That’s the real story. But there came a point where I had to decide: was I going to continue on as I always had? Looking for more proof and finding more questions that I and others couldn’t give me good answers for? When I came to this place, I decided I was going to give the other side a fair hearing. So I began reading authors who were believers. For years I looked at material written by skeptics and I felt I was only listening to their side of the story.

I had also grown tired of the loop I found myself in. I guess you could say I came to a place where I decided I was going to have to either surrender as the manager of my little universe or go on as the skeptic I had been all my life and strangely continue in the same camp without sufficient proof from them either.

SSk: It’s funny; I feel like I’ve been through a similar loop, but it’s like the opposite of what’s happened to you. I’m a right brain thinker (at least, I’ve been told that I am) – a musician, a writer, someone who gets voted Most Creative. I came to a fork in the road where I questioned everything I had been told to that point from an evangelical Christian perspective.

Like you, I am tired of this loop. As I’ve mentioned in my blog, sometimes I call myself a Christian, because I believe I follow the example of Christ. But most Christians would not call me a fellow Christian, because I don’t believe that Christ is my personal savior. (Mostly, as I’ve said, because I don’t believe what the Book of John says.)

Fred: Through the years I’ve actually developed the other side, right side, of my brain. I guess, in the end, what it comes down to, is this: will I accept the story (even the parts I doubt, even those things I thought I had shown to be contradictory, even something as irrational as a resurrection) by faith? At about this time God placed a creationist named John Clayton in my life. He stood at the crossroad with a series of videos that helped me tremendously. So after years of all the left brain stuff, that never offered me any proof I could rest on, I surrendered and amazingly found rest. I never parked my brain (I think I would still be considered a thinker by those who know me today) I just use my brain differently.

SSk: I am at a point where I don’t think I’ll ever believe the whole story (i.e., the whole of the Bible, or even the whole of the NT). I have grave doubts that what’s in the Bible today was inspired by God. I think the resurrection could have happened I think that Christ may have even died for the sins of the world but the narratives that we have today, I have concluded, are probably inaccurate. Sure, it hasn’t been disproved, but there’s enough there (in the Biblical text itself) to make me believe that it isn’t even close to 100% accurate.

Fred: Okay, I want to ask you some questions that I think your answer can teach us some important things. So here goes.

Has anyone ever tried to save you? How does it make you feel when this happens?

SSk: I considered myself saved for the first 17 years of my life, and so no one tried to save me then. (Well, my dad and I had The Talk About Salvation when I was 4, and I accepted Jesus into my heart then.) I remember crying very hard because it hit me how much Jesus had suffered during his last hours; I had nightmares that night (and for the next few months – I’ve got an overactive sense of empathy). My parents again tried to broach the subject with me fairly recently – they’re upset that I’m not raising my two kids Christian – but they came at it from the angle that I was angry with God or that the Bible’s anti-gay teachings were the only things driving me away. What they didn’t understand is that I had very real concerns with the Bible’s historical accuracy, with the consistency of its teachings, and of the capital-C Church’s ecumenical views today. Because of the conclusions I’ve drawn, I don’t believe in an all-powerful God (although I think God exists; he just isn’t all-powerful), nor that hell exists, nor that Jesus is the Only Way to Salvation. Whenever I tried to engage with them about the conclusions I’ve made, they tell me they don’t know the Bible well enough to talk about it. I know they love me, and they just want me to end up in heaven with them. But since they refuse to discuss it, I feel very frustrated. I don’t know; maybe that’s the point.

No one else has tried to save me? – unless you count a Christian co-worker who used to bring his family into work to sing Christmas carols every year (each of them played an instrument and sang). He, for some reason, didn’t know Christmas carols like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Jingle-Bell Rock, but he knew O Holy Night and Away In a Manger. I assumed he played for his church and just never played the secular stuff. So, being a piano player, the third year I volunteered to bring in a keyboard and play with them, which I did. Now, about 30% of the office was Jewish, so I learned a song called Hanukkah Blessings (written by the Barenaked Ladies, and on their holiday album). I’m not Jewish, but it’s a beautiful song, and I thought it would include more of the office personnel. So I took out the lyrics and the chord progression and passed it out, and wow, the look he gave me! Apparently he was using the sing along as a conversion opportunity, not as an office teambuilding activity. In hindsight, I’m sure he thought I was trying to Make A Point, but it was an honest mistake. (The Jews had fun singing the Hanukkah prayer in Hebrew, though!)

Fred: What 3 things do you wish Christians would stop doing immediately?

1)I wish people from all walks of life? – Christians, atheists, etc?. – would stop treating people as inferior because of their beliefs. Many Christians and many atheists treat each other like they’re stupid because They Just Don’t Get It. Believe me: as soon as I have an experience that makes me think Jesus should be my Personal Savior, He’s in. I have had experiences where I think I’ve communed with a higher power; that’s why I believe there’s a God. But I know the Bible better than 95% of the Christians I know (and I don’t think I know it that well), and I’ve come to the conclusions I’ve reached based on years of research and painful, difficult decisions. Talking to people with respect for their differing beliefs goes a long way towards getting them to listen to your side of the story. There’s the old adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.

2)Please remove the Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven bumper stickers from your cars. Non-believers think it’s smug and arrogant. Here’s how non-believers interpret that bumper sticker’s message: I’m a Christian, so I don’t have to be a good person. But no matter how good you are, you’re going to hell. Nyah nyah nyah. Which is the exact opposite of what’s intended.

3)Stop acting like you’ve already made up your mind. Church views have changed hundreds of times over the last 2000 years. If there’s a challenging idea presented to you, think, Hmm, what would that look like? What do I believe that causes me to think that’s untrue? What about that scares me and why? Many Christians who have spoken to me about certain ideas dismiss them out of hand. (An outrageous example: When the U.S. went to war in Iraq in 2002, I had one Christian spit at me and tell me I was going to hell because I said I didn’t believe that Iraq had WMD’s.)

Fred: What do you think of the fact that we call you “lost?”?

SSk: It’s not very nice; it puts people on the defensive, and it’s really not helpful for converting anybody. I understand that you believe you’re going to heaven and I’m going to hell (because I believed that once myself), but pointing that out only pushes me farther away.

Fred: If you could design church – what would it look like?

SSk: I really like traditional services, with organ music, hymns that make you think, and sermons that challenge the congregation. I hear that’s not very popular, though. I know many people enjoy a place with modern music that simply allows reflection on God’s glory, although that doesn’t speak to me personally. Ideally, of course, I’d like a church where I could actually communicate (two-way) with God, and ask Him some of these questions about the conclusions I’ve come to. That conversation might be enough to convert me – although maybe I’d still be skeptical. But at least I’d have a conversation with someone who knows the Bible better than I do. 🙂

New Wineskins

Fred PeatrossFred Peatross lives, works, romances his wife and exudes deep feelings of love, awe, and admiration for his Creator while living in the heart of Appalachia. For over two decades Fred has resided in Huntington, West Virginia where he has been a leader in the traditional church. He has been a deacon, a shepherd, and a pulpit minister. But his greatest love is Missio Dei.

Long before thousands of missionaries poured into the former Soviet Union Fred, in a combined effort with a Christ follower from Alabama planted a church in Dneprodzerhinsk, Ukraine. Today Fred lives as a missionary to America daily praying behind the back of his friends as he journeys and explores life alongside them. [Fred Peatross’ book Missio Dei - In the Crisis of ChristianityMissio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity, reviewed in New Wineskins]. He blogs at [Abductive Columns].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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