Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Moving Beyond Good and Evil: College, Universal Truth, and my Rejection of Evangelicalism

If there is one time in my life so far that has been key for shaping the person I was into the person I am, it would have to be my time at college. I've talked to a lot of people about this, but I think this is the first time I've actually come to have some perspective on all of those happenings.

Disclaimer: I don't portray my college or most of the religion I grew up with very well. This is by no means intended to be defamatory, it is simply what happened. You have been warned. Don't take it personally if you're involved in any of this.

Before I went to college, I had become good friends with the person I met in the 10th grade of high school. I'd go so far as to call him a mentor, which is a little odd, since he was about my age. Regardless, after my foray into public college, I decided to get a Counseling degree and to go to a Christian school. My friend decided similarly, but he'd be going for a more pastoral/theological path. So we looked at schools together, and we both decided to go to one particular Bible college in northeast Georgia. We went to their visitors session and it seemed to be a good fit, considering that we had begun to explore differing religious thoughts. This school seemed to be a cross-denominational institution that allowed for people with questions and freely exploring thought. So we decided to go there.

My first year at this school showed me how wrong my initial preconceptions of the place were. I don't know how much of my initial belief came from being lied to by the institution and how much was me needing to believe I could go somewhere and figure out who I am and what I believe, but I quickly found out that questions and exploration of religious thought was scary to most of the people at this school. I suppose I can't blame them, since I also quickly found out that they were definitely a conservative Evangelical institution. More on that later in this post.

In the first few months at this school, my friend and I became involved in the Philosophy club/department, and he ended up changing his major to Philosophy, while I stuck with Counseling. In many ways though, I interacted with the philosophy section of my school more than the counseling/psychology section. I signed up and became active on a forum for several years, declared a minor in Philosophy, and most of the people that heard of me at the school assumed my major was Philosophy.

I say that people heard of me because one of the first things my friend and I participated in was a formal debate hosted by the Philosophy Club. I reference this a lot as one of the key events of my College experience, for very good reason. The topic was the inerrancy of the original autographs of the new testament, and the club hosted this topic because we did not believe in Biblical inerrancy. I would come to term myself liberal around this time due to my religious leanings, which was a dirty word at my college, as were other things that I'd find out about later. However, for now, a definition.

Inerrancy. The belief that a book, usually religious, is without error in some way. The way my college and some conservative Evangelicals mean this term is that every word (plenary verbal) of the Bible (biblical) is inspired by God and without error (inerrancy). This runs into some problems when we consider the contradictory accounts of the gospels and the differing tones in the collection of books that is now called the Bible, not to mention the fact that the Bible did not exist until well after the death of the Apostles in the first Century.

Plenary Verbal Biblical Inerrancy rests on some references in the New Testament to "all scripture" being "God breathed," which is taken to mean inspired and inerrant. We argued against this on the grounds that the original manuscripts were no longer in existence, the contradictory accounts of the gospels, our understanding of church history and the canonization of scripture's time frame, and the simple fact that it cannot be proven. We won a pyrrhic and meaningless victory. Perhaps it would have been better if we had lost. Being freshman at a college, you can imagine our nervousness at being up in front of a lot of people at the school, including professors and board members and students and various others associated with the school, and debating against upper-classmen on a topic that 99% of the room disagreed with us about. That said, we obviously did very well bringing forward our argument to win the debate. We won on the grounds that we called out the circularity of the positive side in their reasoning and on the presentation of our argument in a logical and consistent manner.

We then spoke to the moderator of the debate in front of the audience about why we really believe our position and the implications for it, and then were presented with the results. The judge presenting our win corrected the positive team's error in reasoning to show that we were wrong by asserting that they did not escape circularity by claiming apostolic authority, and then a week later in the school paper there was a two part article by two of the judges about why our position is wrong, sub-Christian, and borderline heretical.

If you know me, you know that this caused me to do the exact opposite of falling in line with what I was supposed to believe. This also gave me a reputation that would stick with me for the entirety of my time at the school, as my friend left Christianity and the school shortly after to explore other options in life and religion. I never did renounce Christianity, though I did come very close following these events.

What followed was me trying to figure out some things, being told to have faith by a lot of people (apparently meaning to believe something despite reason), and generally stumbling around reading things and having conversations with people. I made some very good friends in college, and there was the standard social drama that came along with having a group of friends and with the college you attend being much closer to a small Christian high school experience than an academic institution.

We were required to go to chapel every week, 3 times a week and to attend a small group every Thursday at my school. I did this begrudgingly, and often I was put on "chapel probation" due to not attending chapel enough, which I had to work off by doing chapel summaries (watching a video of the chapel message and summarizing it to turn in) and by adequately attending chapel the next semester of school. I attended a few small groups, and ended up attending a really excellent one with some great people in charge of it. We'd go through some material and talk about it, then most of the time end up talking about our lives and praying for each other. Regardless of religious conviction, I find this small group to be one of the best things that happened to me at that school, as it was often then only time during the week besides hanging out with friends that I felt like people cared.

The administration of my school changed several times as well, and this was connected to a movement in evangelical Christianity called the Emerging Church. This movement is hard to define, but I got into it for several years in college. Basically, the Emerging Church as a movement has no set theology, and is a movement that embraces Postmodern culture. It is friendly to questions (which I desperately needed at the time), and loosely embraced Christianity as a very good story. Postmodernism, at its' core, is skeptical of metanarratives, which are stories that explain life. The Emerging Church is part of this, but in general seeks conversational change and community minded thought as opposed to a strict theological adherence and foundational epistemology. Confused yet? So was everyone else.

What this practically meant at my school was that people became opposed to each other. Some would hold fast to "true Christianity" and be conservative Evangelicals and call the "postmodern" section of the students liberal and heretical. The Emerging Church people would respond by saying they are shutting down conversation and would ask for definition. What this meant for me is that I generally sided with the Emerging Church movement, and I came to become very sensitive to the repeated accusation directed at me of "heretic."

I was told by many students and professors that I was a "false teacher" and that I was destroying other peoples' faiths, and somehow I was never kicked out of the school. To this day, I still don't know why I wasn't, and I can only conclude that the administration change (which caused a lot of people to get fired) may have been part of it. When the administration changed to a more "postmodern friendly" group of people, we were all required to sign a community covenant based on accountability and conversation with others. A lot of punishment for breaking school rules was abolished (including having to do some work on campus for free for most offenses, including failing room check), and in general, either you were talking to someone in administration or were kicked out of the school if you were in trouble. A lot of people were kicked out for things like drinking or clear violations of school rules. One of my friends was kicked out for repeated violation of the chapel policy. Somehow, I was still not kicked out, though I was now very frequently on "chapel accountability."

As often happens with movements like this, the administration went the other way after the chaos of the initial change and chose to follow a more moderate path. This was after 3 years. My experience at this time was being called heretical, fighting with people over things, having a few experiences with dating, having some good friends I could talk to, being basically infamous at the school, having to do a lot of the "free work" policy, and generally chaos around my beliefs. My friend who'd left the school wanted me to leave Christianity to explore some other religious movements more in line with gnosticism (which is ironic since a lot of American Evangelicalism is basically gnostic in practice), my friends were every which way, and the administration basically considered me unsaved, as did most of the rest of the school that didn't know me personally. Having a reputation is annoying.

I did not even try to figure out anything from all of this chaos. It was simply impossible. I made my beliefs a personal thing and stopped talking to anyone but close friends about philosophy, theology or my religious beliefs. Of course, this was hard at a school where you're basically supposed to talk about these things constantly, so I started to simply say what I needed to say to get through my classes and chapel. I began repeating to myself that no one cares what I have to say when someone's theology pissed me off or made me want to say something, and the only place I regularly went to debate topics was the Philosophy board, which I was still a part of for a time. I did that until a Professor told everyone I didn't care about the Truth, then I left. The board was hacked and taken down a while after that, and a new board was put up on the school's website for Philosophy discussion. I joined that and made a few topics. Half of my posts were deleted and I was basically told to stop talking, so I left that as well.

As the reader, you may now have one of two opinions that I can think of. You may be asking yourself why I even put up with Christianity anymore at this point and why I didn't just leave the school and say to hell with it. Good question. You may also think I should've just fallen in line with people that have more experience than me, people that were older, the majority, and wonder why I didn't just conform and learn from people. Also a good question. In either case, I think the core question is "why did you put yourself through so much of this unreasonable insanity?" I asked myself this question frequently. Here is my answer.

When I first started having some difficulty with the religion I'd been brought up with, I considered leaving it. I thought it was a fable that a lot of people believe because of culture. However, something was really bothering me about that assertion. I'm not sure if it was because of the way I was brought up or some other feeling, but I did know a few things. My family and some really really close friends have always contrasted with my terrible experiences I've had with religious institutions. They were not uniform in belief by any means. My father is Reformed, my mother has a lot of the same thoughts I do about religion, my sister is in the process of asking her own brilliant set of questions, and a lot of the people I respect have religious beliefs entirely different from mine. Some are conservative Evangelicals, some are postmodern Emerging Church, some are atheists, some don't care about movements and have their own beliefs. The common thread is that they respect every person around them. Their beliefs and claims do not take away from that respect, they don't take cheap shots at people, they don't take advantage, they're self-aware and generally respectful and well-intentioned people.

I learned from this that my religious convictions needed to align with how I treat people. I believe very deeply that every person is worthy of basic respect. They are a person, and they should not be manipulated, taken advantage of, stepped on in any way, or disregarded. This does not mean you allow yourself to be taken advantage of, it means that you do the correct thing when no one else does.

I also read a book early on in my questioning called Velvet Elvis. I was ready to leave Christianity, and a friend recommended this book by Rob Bell (who a lot of people have called a heretic for reasons that have nothing to do with reality). This book basically took things like a triune God and an inspired set of writings from the ancient near-east and interacted with them with skepticism and facts from history. It also was my introduction to narrative theology, treating something like the Trinity as a story, which I still assert is the only way it makes any sense whatsoever.

From this I learned that theology and religion have no context whatsoever outside of history, narration, and intuition. I also concluded that science and religion are two languages talking about the same thing: the universe. This would stick with me as I have interacted with the differing branches of the church, differing religions than what I grew up with, and especially different philosophies. It was very freeing because I'd been taught growing up that religion is an intellectual decision, and I absolutely refuse to ever believe that again. It interacts with logic and philosophy, but that is by no means all of what it is.

Why did I stick it out? For two reasons. First of all, I had a sense that I was in the right place at the right time. Even when my days were mostly terrible, I knew I was doing some good just by creating dissonance where uniformity is demanded. Secondly, once that time was done I wanted to finish what I started, so I put my head down and plowed through it. I graduated and promptly cut the institution out of my life completely, with the exception of the friends I made there. I believe I've visited once since then, and I never plan to again. While I enjoyed seeing some friends, I was very obviously not welcome at the institution, and I will not willingly be back there ever again. Some things belong in the past, regardless of forgiveness. It took me a long time to forgive what was done to me, but being able to do so has allowed me to see how I grew during that time and why I am who I am after going through those experiences.

From all of the chaos of transitioning from high school through my college experience, I have learned that the truth is what all people should give their allegiance to. Regardless of my particular religious beliefs, I want to know what the truth is.

All of this said, about halfway through my time at college, I basically rejected Evangelical Christianity completely.

Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a movement originating in early fundamentalism that initially crossed denominational Protestant lines and came to stand for a certain set of focuses and practices. The "fundamentals" of Christianity are the inspiration/inerrancy of scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the belief in the Atonement for Sin by Christ's death, the bodily Resurrection of Christ, and the historical reality of Christ's miracles. They also emphasize the need for personal conversion (being "born again"), biblical authority, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the active sharing of the gospel, which can be summed up in all of the previous emphases and an intellectual decision to accept guilt for sin and Christ as the sacrifice for salvation.

Over time, Evangelicalism has become a cultural, political, and religious institution that wields a unique kind of power. I rejected Evangelicalism due to its' wielding of power for its' own ends and mainly due to rejecting its' particular theological emphases as reductionistic and imbalanced. What this means is that I came to see Evangelicalism as another movement of people looking to have control over others, using fear-based proselytization and theology with disturbing implications about God. The Evangelical God is much the same as the movement: conditional love, manipulative and capricious, and more concerned with a person's legal standing than the person itself.

The overriding reason I began to disassociate from Evangelicalism, however, is because of its' activism. I do not believe it is my place to convert any person to my faith (mainly because I'm still figuring it out). The Emerging Church redefined evangelism as conversation, and I found that I resonated with that a lot more at the time, mainly because I learn just as much from speaking with people that don't share my beliefs as they learn from me, especially when the conversation can be respectful.

So in a nutshell, Evangelicalism is a separationist movement that created its' own culture and set of values, being generally concerned with who is "in" and who is "out." Through my experience with this subculture, I began to see less and less of any real distinction between the "in" and the "out," and in many cases, I shared more values with those that the Evangelical would be attempting to evangelize with fear based tactics. Separationists are those who believe that they should stand apart from liberal Christians, who do not take theology or the Bible as literally. So obviously, I became one of the "out" in college.

Being an outsider does give one a unique perspective however. I held onto my faith through my own choice, though it was never the same after college. That, however, is a story for another day. Please note that I have a lot of friends that are Evangelicals, and even though I criticize the movement itself, I do not believe it is my place to pass judgment on the intentions of others.

Indeed, I can write about this with a critical mind only because I forgive the institutions and persons involved for the pain I went through. It is the past, but the past is something good to learn from. I'll continue my story with the rest of my college experience next week. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions or comments.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. After leaving the college, I didn't see this part of your life, or how bad it was.

  2. Oh the memories... I don't think I ever grasped how serious it was. But I wouldn't change the time we spent as friends for a moment. I've said this before already but I appreciate your vulnerable-ness in all of this.

  3. I read this in it's entirety and had nothing but slow nods to give in response. I thought you should know.