Forgetting What It Feels Like…

I became a Christian when I was around 7 years old. It was at a summer camp for elementary schoolers. I wasn’t quite old enough to attend the camp, but my parents were part of the staff. I remember sitting around a campfire with a few dozen other kids singing songs and hearing stories about Jesus. The night ended with the typical “altar call,” one of many during the week I’m sure. It represented the culmination of the week’s efforts and the ultimate reason a group of adults would take kids out into the wilderness: to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This was no Jesus Camp, but there were certainly heavy doses of emotional “encouragement” involved. A beautiful outdoor night, a warm fire, soft music playing in the background, a heartfelt narrative about how we were probably feeling guilty for all the sinful things we had done in our lives and how great it was that a Jewish carpenter turned deity was able to take care of all that. It is acceptable to manipulate the variables to “help” impressionable, malleable children draw a particular conclusion—that they need to give their hearts to Jesus—when it is something Christians approve of, that affirms their own worldview. Further, when a child, unable to vote, drive, or make any other significant decisions by him or herself, makes what is supposed to be the most important decision of his or her life, this is presumed to be wholly autonomous and respectable, whereas nearly any other decisions made by a child at this point are likely to be dismissed as the product of immaturity.

In any case, I was feeling sufficiently guilty and emotionally depleted. After most of the kids had left, I remained at the campfire and a few leaders led me through the ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ I was emotionally relieved at not having to carry around the burden of my own sins anymore. Of course, having grown up as a pastor’s kid, nothing much really changed. In the scope of things, I was a pretty good kid, and I already was at church Sundays, Wednesdays, and other times in between. But I’d gained two things: freedom from sin, and an eternal guarantee.

I remained a committed Christian for over twenty years. One of the things I find interesting about my exit from religion was that it was not nearly so dramatic. Of course, conversion is made instantaneous, at least in evangelical Christian circles, by the narratives we use to accompany it, ones that seem to emphasize the power of God to change people immediately, if only they are willing. Maybe it is God’s reluctance to let go, then, that marks the process of deconversion. Looking back, I can see at least a yearlong process of exiting from the faith, and if I consider all the variables involved, it was probably more like four years.

What surprises me now is that, several years removed, I am forgetting what it felt like to be a Christian. Those outside Christianity typically critique it for its logical contradictions or its collateral damage, but the advantage of the former Christian is that they lived the religion. As many evangelical Christians note, it is not a set of doctrine or dogma—at least not just these things—but a relationship. Misunderstanding the sincerity of this belief is understandable, if one has not experienced it, but it should be taken seriously, no matter how wrongheaded it ultimately is.

When encountering religious obstinance, over same-sex marriage for example, I increasingly find myself to willing to dismiss it as ridiculousness or hardheadedness. This may be the external result, but it also maintains the internally coherent worldview for many Christians. When a Biblical literalist notes that ignoring Scripture in one place means the entirety of Scripture is threatened, he or she is not making an argument about interpretation, but about the foundation of his or her existence. It is saying, “my world may crumble if I accept that change, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”

To a certain extent, that is true. The world as I knew it did crumble when I left the faith, but not in apocalyptic fashion. It was more like a building that, damaged through significant storms and left unprepared, gradually weathered to decrepitude and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. I don’t think the debris will ever get completely cleaned up, but it no longer serves a functional purpose.


Fear and Faith: Faking Conversion?

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.03.52 PMIn the past, citizens of Western societies had their religious beliefs affirmed directly through a  socio-cultural system that extended religion through most areas of public life. In the United States and Europe in the present, Christianity is treated—rhetorically speaking, at least—as a private affair. In my own experience, people who claim to be Christians do so on the foundation of a profound religious experience, be it that of a conversion, communication from God, an unexplainable series of events, etc. In other words, belief in God is founded first on an emotional understanding. This is important not because of the standard reasoning of naysayers that emotion is false and cognition true. Rather, because people know that society places a higher value on reason than emotion, they tend to privilege reasonable justifications of beliefs or world views over emotional ones, even when the latter have a greater sway.

I caught a TV show by British illusionist Derren Brown called Fear and Faith in which he shows by various means how religious belief can be reproduced through a series of psychological and emotional manipulations. The clip is forty-seven minutes long and worth watching in its entirety. Pete Rollins has a brief discussion on his blog about the very first portion of the show, when the vast majority of audience participants, even though they do not believe in the devil, were unwilling to participate in what they thought was a Satanic rite where they had to stab the picture of a family member. Brown suggests that we are “hardwired” to believe, to draw connections between our actions and some greater scheme of meaning. Rollins argues that, despite conscious disbelief, religious belief is still operative on a repressed level. This claim is particularly important in Western society where it is culturally normative to distance religious belief from public daily life; consequently we are encouraged to disassociate religious belief from our normal operation even when it is influential. This, as I’ve argued before, plays out in dangerous ways in the way we interact with other groups of people on a personal and international level.

What I found even more interesting, though, was the main focus of the show. Brown takes an avowed atheist and attempts to induce a religious conversion experience in her in order to show that religious experience can be manufactured and can occur outside our logical and volitional processes. In the course of a fifteen minute conversation, Brown speaks with a stem cell researcher named Natalie while sitting in the aisle of a large church. He first associates Natalie’s feelings about her father with the idea of an all-caring and loving father figure, and connects that idea with the tapping of his fingers on the table they are sitting at as an aural cue, much like a favorite song that helps one recall a significant event. He speaks with her about awe-inspiring experiences and subtly suggests the possibility of their orchestration for her personal benefit, like the idea of God or Jesus. Brown then gradually brings these two ideas together, both through hand gestures and his speaking to suggest to Natalie the possibility that a loving figure was arranging events in her life and watching out for her. Then, at nearly the end of the conversation, he says he has to leave the room for a moment, but reiterates the conversation by tapping on the table again to bring back the powerful feelings and suggesting that sometimes we may find “things” right in front of us that were with us all along. Brown then leaves the room and within less than a minute, Natalie has an emotional reaction as she takes in the conversation and the religious environment she sits in. She begins to sob and speak to God. When Brown comes back, she speaks of having an all-encompassing feeling of love. Only later on the show does he explain to her the cues he introduced to help manipulate her experience.

Watch the clip to get the full effect of this process, since it may seem staged on reading it. We are highly emotionally suggestive, naturally anthropocentric, and we want to make sense out of nonsense. Brown’s point is that we don’t need the supernatural to explain the scenario he created through a series of replicable manipulations. Though the emotional experiences are quite real, they come from within us and are not prompted by an outside force. It is interesting in that sense that many would rather attribute their actions as re-actions to a deity, rendering themselves automatons, rather than attribute to themselves the power to create experience. Even after explaining to Natalie the orchestration of the events, she still (understandably) could not immediately give up the reality of her emotional experience.

The point is not that the emotional experience is somehow fake because it doesn’t correspond to an outside object. That presumption begs the question of God’s existence we are trying to address. Rather, the point is that we are disposed to make meaning out of chaos, and religious belief is one of a number of ways to make meaning. It is not, however, the only way. Brown concludes that, insofar as religious belief makes people happy, there is nothing wrong with it, since we all just want to be happy. I cannot buy this argument because of its tendency to create collateral damage. As Brown suggests, after having a conversion experience, what one tends to do is find additional experiences, to discern additional patterns out of life events that confirm one’s beliefs. The supreme way of doing so is convincing others of your worldview and having them adopt it. The trouble comes when others have equally universal understandings that govern their lives and do not cohere with ours. Then conflict begins, and my happiness comes at the expense of yours. This is historically true with Christianity and with democracy.

It would be much too easy for me now, outside of a religious context, to say that I was always skeptical about God communicating with me. I did often have a sense of disappointment that it seemed to “happen” to others much more often than myself. I do recall one experience at a prayer meeting where I had what I thought was a mental picture from God. I had the picture of an empty ice cube tray being filled under a faucet. If you start in the corner and fill one cube, it begins to spill over and will gradually fill all the other cubes as well. In the context of a prayer meeting about how God was “working” in our community, I interpreted that image as God telling me that the work he was doing in our church was going to “spill over” into the surrounding areas and have a positive influence. I conveyed my image to the people who were present and it was validated by their approval. Our collective belief was affirmed. But, just like Brown’s experiment, it was highly controlled, not by one man, but through a tradition, which is even more efficacious because the responsibility is difficult to place anywhere but with God.

What do you think? Does the fact that we are highly suggestive, that spiritual experiences can be created, suggest the possibility that “supernatural” experiences don’t have to be supernatural?


The Obligation to Save

To finish talking about the idea of conversion, I wanted to bring up an issue that has bothered me about the implications of eternity. The last church I was attending started, after exploring a sort of postmodern, Emerging Church facade (candles, conversation around tables, etc.), to return to its charismatic and fundamentalist roots. One of the things this meant was the affirmation of a real heaven and hell. The hell was the stereotypical one you’re thinking of, with flames and torment and endless thirst. Because I’d never had to affirm this in writing before, it was particularly problematic, and I was “progressive” enough at that point that I couldn’t in good conscience sign it.  My version of hell was some amorphous realm that kept the soul separated from God for eternity (which is still pretty final). I suppose in my most conscientious moments I just told myself that I didn’t have to worry about it because God had it all figured out. That response works for any question.

I’ve embraced quite a few positions on the afterlife, from the black-and-white, “sheep and goats” perspective to the everybody-gets-in universalist approach that precipitated Rob Bell’s exodus from his megachurch. As I mentioned though, this is a big, if not the biggest, selling point of Christianity. When life is hard and bad things happen, you know that this life is small measured against the eternity you get to spend in heaven.

So as a Christian, you have your eternity taken care of, and now it’s time for you to share your belief so that others reap the benefits too. If something has happened to you that changed your life for the better and you know it would help everyone, you’re going to tell them, right? Put another way, if you see someone in danger or doing themselves harm by their actions and you have the power to help them, you should, shouldn’t you?

Here is my quandary. Christians have a mandate to spread the Gospel, to try to bring people into Christianity, or at least to an awareness of it. There are numerous Biblical texts that support this, and the Church has historically been built around proselytization, whether that be to strangers or to one’s family and friends. Further, if these people don’t hear about Christianity, they will not get into heaven, and if they don’t get into heaven, they will go to hell. Why is it, then, that Christians don’t spend every waking moment trying to convert people? If these people are destined to spend an eternity on fire or separated from God, and you have the power to stop it, and you don’t, how can you be fulfilling your obligation as a Christian?

Philosopher Peter Unger wrote a book, Living High and Letting Die, in which he makes the argument, following Peter Singer, that we in the Western world are obligated to give away the majority of our wealth to those who are in need. Singer’s principle is, “If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.” Unger provided numerous practical scenarios throughout his book to nuance this idea while countering common objections. In one example, you receive an envelope from UNICEF asking you to give $100 so that thirty people don’t die within the next month. If you throw that letter in the trash, your action is wrong. There are of course many objections, none insurmountable. One is that you don’t know where the money is going, but UNICEF is a reliable, third-party validated operation in which the vast majority of funds received go directly to the need, so you know with all practical certainty that your money will go where you send it. You may not think you have enough, but you certainly have worlds more than those who would get the money. For them, it is a life-and-death situation. You might argue that those people are far away, but you won’t give $100 to the local homeless shelter either. Even for those who cringe at this idea, most would agree that, as one scholar puts it, given a high set of standards, those with excess are obligated to help those in dire straits.

Conversion to Christianity, from a Christian perspective, is the most important decision a person could ever make, one that is literally life-and-death with implications for eternity. It would seem there is no excuse, according to Christianity, not to spend every waking moment, or at least the vast majority of your time, trying to “make disciples.” WWJD? For every day that one chooses to do something else with their time, there are people who are dying and destined to spend eternity in hell. Isn’t that problematic?

There are Christians whom this motivates far more than others. One possible reaction is to go on the defense. There are multiple steps of the argument that people could contend. One could, for example, argue that it is ultimately God’s responsibility to “save” these people, but at what point does that meet up with one’s obligation to spread Christianity as outlined in the Gospels? Even if we grant that it is ultimately up to God, we would know that throughout history millions have died as non-Christians and gone to hell. If is the case, regardless of whether it is someone else’s responsibility or not, we are obligated to help. We tend to think, in other circumstances, that bystanders witnessing a terrible crime have a higher obligation to help, obviously, than those who do not know it is taking place. The story of Kitty Genovese, which has prompted numerous sociological studies, is illustrative of that point. The argument that we all fall short of our obligations but should continue to try misdirects the fact that most could put significantly more effort to the task than they do.

Of course, I know of no Christians that fulfill these obligations. It’s terribly impractical. Or we might say that the desire to do other things with our lives overrides the desire to save other peoples’ lives. We could attribute this to several different things. We could argue that people don’t really believe that non-Christians will go to hell, because if they did, they would try to save them. That might be true for many, and if that is the case, they would need to explore just what it is that they believe regarding this point of crucial significance to Christianity. The full commitment to this mission of conversion would essentially mean sacrificing one’s own life for another’s. But what about the vast gray area in between, the space between one’s obligation, the high moral standard, and daily life?

We can easily see the potential improvements that would take place if everyone only gave a small amount to help those in drastic need. In the same way, we could see what a difference it would make for the religion if every Christian spent an hour a day trying to persuade someone else to join Christianity. Why isn’t this done? What function might it have to uphold the standard while consistently failing to live up to it? Or am I reading the obligation incorrectly?


Bringin’ One In

Reaching eighteen and graduating high school is important for many reasons, most of which involve the “What am I going to do with my life?” question. Within the church, the implied question within the question was, “What is going to be your mission field?” That was the insider way of asking in what venue you were going to serve God and tell people about Jesus. Our church put a heavy emphasis on joining YWAM (Youth With a Mission). Many teens involved in the church, including myself, had gone on several short-term mission trips in high school; YWAM was a much longer commitment, usually at least a year or two. We frequently had young people return to the church and talk about the great things that were going on in the far-flung regions of the world. I was jealous in some ways, mostly the part about being in Africa or Ireland or Thailand. Due to my circumstances (getting married, going to school), it never worked out for me to go on a mission, and I was fine with that. I didn’t really want to, but I felt like I should.

I could never fully buy the implication that you serve God wherever you are. It seemed clear to me that some jobs, like being a minister or missionary, were more about serving God than others. Since I didn’t really want to be a missionary, I had to find some other direct way to serve God and convert people.

I should be clear that I don’t think people ever used the word “convert” in a verbal form in my Christian context. I use it because it is more neutral and accessible than “giving your heart to God” or “coming to Jesus” or “coming into the Kingdom,” among many other euphemisms. Besides, the rhetoric was that God converted people; we were just there when it happened.

Anyway, I found an outlet for sharing my Christianity through music. Though I’d only sung in choirs and church concerts growing up, I took up the bass guitar, and then acoustic guitar, in order to play music in church. I was only ever good enough to barely play worship music, but it’s not that difficult to play. However, I also began to play (a few years later) in a Christian band outside of church as well. I’ll talk more about that another time, as there are many good stories from those years. I bring it up now to discuss the only opportunity I can remember of praying with someone to convert, to “receive Christ.”

As I’ve noted, it was disheartening to me that even after my entire life as a Christian, I’d failed at my job. Throughout my twenties, this was a recurrent theme in my thoughts. While playing a gig in Portland, OR, though, I finally got my chance. My band and several others were playing a free concert in Pioneer Square in the downtown area. I can’t remember the details of our set, but I usually ended our last song by saying that the bandwould love to talk to or pray with people after the show.


Usually, we just chatted it up with people that liked our music or wanted to buy a CD. In any case, a guy came up to talk to me afterward. I could tell he was bothered by something. We walked out of the crowd and began to talk. He told me that he was from the East Coast, but that his girlfriend worked in the Portland area. He had flown out because she had gotten pregnant with their child and he had encouraged her to get an abortion. She was uncertain, so he flew out and went with her to the procedure. When he came to Pioneer Square, he was on his way back out of town. He felt conflicted about what had happened and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either.

My mind was racing because I knew abortion was wrong. (I don’t think the issue is so black-and-white now, but I did then.) It wouldn’t do any good to berate him about that, though. Instead, I just asked him if he wanted to receive forgiveness. To my great astonishment, he said yes. I led him through a simple prayer to become a Christian. Sadly, I remember very little else, but I know I failed to do much else. I’m sure I got his name, gave him a hug and some encouragement, and sent him on his way.

From a distance of over a decade since, the episode is extremely interesting to me. From an inside perspective, it was abundantly clear that the event was arranged by God. What other possible explanation could there have been for that chain of events that led him to me? Everything had to have an explanation. I feel no need now to give an explanation for how/why it happened. The guy was at a low point in his life, feeling conflicted about his course of action, both in the face of contradictory versions of reality telling him what to do and certainly the emotions of his girlfriend through what must have been a trying situation.

What would I do now in that situation? I suppose I wouldn’t be in that situation in the first place. All the bands who played in those concerts loved music, and we knew that it has a powerful effect on the emotions. It’s amazing, really. If you’ve been to a club or a concert or a church service, you know that people can get “interesting” when the music is pumping. Though it certainly wasn’t with malicious intent, we used the power of music to influence people with a particular message.

If, despite the contingencies, I was in that situation now, I would just listen. If I knew the person, I would make a point to check in withhim again. If not, I would try to connect him to someone local who he would be able to continue to talk with. The difference is the solution. I had one then, I don’t have one now. I could tell him that he’s simply anxious over the dizzying array of choices he must make in this existence that is a constituent part of his humanity, but it would mean little to him. Christianity was a solution for any problem, but it was a solution for me, not necessarily for him.

I wonder what happened to the guy. I’m sure he had a down time, and then he got through it and moved on. Is he still with his girlfriend? Are they married? Does he remember the day like I do? Is he a Christian? Unless he surrounded himself by Christians, it’s unlikely. You have to be trained to communicate with God. I’ll never know.

Conversion (and deconversion) is a complicated thing. The web of social and personal influences, known and unknown, that we are involved in is complex. But is no simple answer that lasts without consistent reinforcement.


Converting the Savages

Ok. Just kidding. I didn’t think non-Christians were savages. Well, maybe some, but none that I knew personally. But I did really hope I could convert some people to Christianity. That was the point, after all. Unless Christianity is really more about you, which may be the most popular version, it is about bringing more people into the tradition. It might be explained differently. “It all about loving your neighbor”…so that they convert. Or “It’s about showing them Jesus”…so that they convert. Or “It’s about meeting someone’s needs” so they appreciate it and inquire after it and see the love that you have and ask where it came from…so that they convert. And why should they convert? Well, I noted the personal benefits yesterday, but once those are gained (eternity, happiness), they convert so they can convert others. It is what Jesus commanded in the Great Commission, and once completed, the end of history will be ushered in, something like in the book of Revelation (and I read Left Behind—we’re all dispensational premillennialists when the Rapture comes, right?). It’s not laid out this explicitly, but it’s the evangelical Gospel mandate. “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).

There is a logic to this disciple-making. Most of us have had the experience of being amped up on something and wanting to tell everyone about it. I was like that with Crossfit when I first started a little over two years ago. I didn’t exactly tell everyone about it, but when someone asked, I gave them the whole spiel. And when someone asked, it was usually because they noticed that I looked different, so they already knew it was effective, at least for me. I told them how it reduces you to a sweaty pile gasping for air after twenty minutes of exertion because you punctuated five rounds of thirty pullups that left your hands torn from gripping the bar too tightly with 400 meter sprints. Or something like that. It wasn’t much of a sales pitch.

It’s not saying much to say that Crossfit is a lot like church in some ways, since it highlights the commonalities of many lasting institutions. With that said, I particularly enjoyed this comparison between church and Crossfit when I found it a few months ago. My favorite point of comparison: “We spot each other on the heavy stuff.” Turns out there are many people jumping on the comparo-bandwagon. Just google it. If I wanted to milk the analogy for all its worth, I would say that Crossfit started as a bunch of back-to-basics fundamentalists, but then their message got popular and now they’re liberal evangelicals who want to save everybody. The fundamentalists are complaining because they’ve watered down the message, but more people are hearing it. People are really upset about it, but it seems to me just part of the institutional cycle.

Back to my point. As time went on, I was still into it, but I didn’t feel the same urge to evangelize. It became part of my routine, and it’s still a good part. Now it’s just like my morning coffee instead of the best steak I ever had. As Freud said, “You can only have a hard-on for something for so long.” Ok…that’s actually a paraphrase. He said, “What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs…and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment.” It’s like that overwhelming, all-consuming feeling of passion you feel for someone at an early stage in the relationship that, if managed correctly, can become a lifetime of satisfaction. Much time is spent trying to rekindle initial fervor, but a cycle of recurrent satiation can be just as powerful—just not as sexy.

I was always impressed by talking to new Christians, because whatever they didn’t actually know about history or dogma they made up for with verve. They were on fire…and I was comparatively the wet blanket. I thought, “Wait till they’ve been in it a while, like I have. Then they’ll settle down.” Some don’t. Some go until they crash, which is in a particular way quite admirable. But most do. They settle down, surrounding themselves with people like them so the rent is low. I did it for years, and only stumbled outside on accident. I’d converted when I was eight or so and had been in a Christian household before then, so I had no frame of reference. I remember thinking when I was a kid hearing some crazy story at a youth camp about turning from sex, drugs, and alcohol to Jesus how I wished I could have had that story too. Not quite enough to try it, but a little bit.

What I noted yesterday about institutions was that they are self-contained, and that to sustain themselves, the benefits must roughly equate with the costs. High costs indicate better benefits, and lower costs lower ones. For the institution, the revenue is about the same. Today I added detail on the other method of self-perpetuation and growth: conversion. A steady stream of converts ensures that the inflow will more than offset the outflow. What increasingly bothered me, and what must bother some others, is that even when costs are low, the rules don’t officially change. In other words, although no one was really going to judge me based on my conversion rate, the written expectations were that you were to try and convert. I knew the rules were there, and it bothered me.

One of the things that gets discussed in Crossfit is ROM (range-of-motion). Since we measure everything in order to chart improvement, a standardized range-of-motion is key. Coaches will remind you of maintaining that full range at first, but as time goes on, you’re increasingly called to police yourself. No one is going to kick you out for cheating the motion. But you know. I tell myself that even those who don’t think they know, know.

In the next couple days, I’ll talk about my one conversion and a theoretical problem with the mandate to share the Gospel, one that has occupied my mind post-Christianity.