An Outside Observer of American Evangelicalism

This is a very long story that really started over 70 years ago when I walked away from a Baptist Sunday School after rejecting what I had been taught about the trinity.

I was ‘forced’ to become an outside observer of the American Evangelical (and Fundamentalist) Christian scene soon after 1995 when the leadership of the Sabbath-keeping Christian church we were attending announced that much of their theology was misguided. It didn’t take long for the leadership of some of the member churches of the National Association of Evangelicals (in America) to welcome the leaders who had made that announcement, with almost open arms!

The reality of the situation for me was that without any formal theological training, I was being ‘forced’ for a second time to reconsider just about everything I had ever been taught (without any recollection of ever doubting the existence of God). I had walked away from the Anglican church (I was treasurer of the local church for 8 years) in the early 1970’s when I couldn’t get satisfactory answers to my questions about the trinity, and gradually became disillusioned by what I saw as the lack of ‘radical’ Christianity. I could never understand how people could attend church at Christmas and Easter and not be seen at any other time. I had seen an advert in the Readers Digest offering a subscription to The PLAIN TRUTH magazine in the late 1960’s. Only later did I come to really appreciate that here was a Christian church committed to keeping the biblical Sabbath and Holy Days instead of Christmas and Easter that they considered to be Pagan festivals. They also rejected trinitarianism and did not accept the traditional teachings of heaven and hell and believed that ‘this is not the only day of Salvation’.

That announcement in 1995 led almost immediately to the breakup of our own family of 14 related by marriage – wounds that have never been healed! The church had been very legalistic in some ways. Only later did I realise that this legalism had been much stronger in America. It was in 1998 I was suddenly aware of a freedom and liberation from the slavery of legalism. By this time the church had ‘splintered’. My wife and I were still attending what was left of the local church, but our daughter and her husband who had been Youth leaders walked away, and some of the family have not spoken to us since then!

By 2012 I had a story to tell of a faith that I thought I could hold on to loosely despite the fact that I had always had doubts about the traditional teachings of the trinity as a result of what I had been taught in a Baptist Sunday School when I was 13. these thoughts had reinforced my doubts about Evangelicalism – summed up in “Christianity After Religion?” – the title of a book written by Diana Butler Bass, that formed the basis of my current blog in 2012.

I first came across the Progressive Christian Network in the UK in 2004 when I was introduced to the work of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg and John Crossan. I wasn’t ready to listen to much of what they were saying, but by 2010 I had been introduced to the work of Richard Holloway (the former leader of the Episcopal Church in Scotland) and found myself in agreement with a lot of what he was saying.
I had what I have described as another watershed experience in 2016 when I listened to Rob Bell and Richard Rohr.
I am not sure when I first came across this provocative critique of Christianity by Rob Bell:
Because there was a problem here on earth, God had to send his son from somewhere else?
Was it necessary that God’s son had to be killed so that there would be less violence in the world?
Peace would only come if God killed someone?

The interview with Barbara Brown Taylor in April 2019 was another ‘watershed’ moment. I just sensed that here was an understanding of God that made sense to me. I had been brought up as an adult with an Anglican (or Episcopalian) view of Christianity – where to some extent we were encouraged to think for ourselves. I had then in 1995 been forced to reconsider just about everything I had ever been taught.

I have described in some detail in “Stepping Stones” what has happened since 2012 and the impact the interview with had on my thinking.

It was at the end of May 2019 that I saw two posts on Facebook from a man who is now an Anglican who describes himself as an armchair theologian. He has, like so many of the people I have shared with over the years, moved from Fundamentalism to a very different loving form of Christianity – to the sort of place that I was comfortable with many years ago – the sort of place my wife is still comfortable with – the sort of place that I, along with many others have since been ‘dragged away from’.

I was introduced to “Fowler’s Stages of Faith” over 15 years ago and spent many hours in the past discussing the significance of this and similar material. I am familiar with some of the alternative points of view and I definitely don’t want to take anything away from what he has written.

Like many who have been drawn away from traditional Christian Churches I have no wish to upset anyone – especially older people (including my own wife) who just cannot comprehend how life is changing all around them.

These are the two posts:

Here are a few things I used to believe but no longer do (not an exhaustive list):
– That the Bible is the infallible, inerrant word of God
– That the “unsaved” will spend eternity in hell, a place of unending conscious torment
– That the “saved” will spend eternity in a place called “heaven”, out there somewhere beyond the blue
– That what we are “saved” from is God’s active anger towards us and our sinfulness
– That salvation is obtained through doctrinal conformity
– That what happened at the cross was essentially a legal transaction whereby Jesus took the fall for us so we would be spared God’s wrath
– That Jesus will one day return to slay his human enemies… but only after miraculously rapturing away his faithful followers
– That God is “out there” much more than he is “in here”
– That God is actively opposed to non-heterosexual relationships, and therefore so should his followers be.
Growth, by definition, is not static. It follows that if everything you believe stays the same, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’re stagnant at best and quite possibly dying.
Here’s to growing

Yesterday I posted a non-exhaustive list of a few things I used to believe but no longer do.Of course, just as growth involves letting go of that which has been outgrown, it also involves embracing and welcoming that which is new and life-sustaining for the next season of growth. With that in mind, here’s a quick corresponding (and, once again, non-exhaustive) list of things didn’t used to believe but now do:
– That the Bible is a very human, if divinely inspired, collection of literature that narrates humanity’s faltering path toward understanding God
– That we create hell for ourselves and others by transmitting our woundedness and pain and by relying on violence to solve our problems
– That our eternal future is much more about living on and caring for a fully restored earth than it is about whiling away the ages in a distant and ethereal heaven
– That what we are saved from is largely the consequences of our own inhumanity to ourselves and one another
– That salvation is a journey, not an event, and that the best guide to that journey is Jesus, who invites us to follow him in the way of peace
– That the cross was the supreme fulfilment and revelation of God’s all-embracing, self-giving, other-centred love; and that it was the place where we sacrificed God, and God in Christ willingly submitted to our sacrifice, defeated death on our behalf and returned proclaiming peace and reconciliation
– That Jesus is alive in the world, not only by his spirit but also through his mystical body
– That God is most reliably found not by “reaching up to heaven” but by daring to look and listen deep inside ourselves
– That God is not remotely concerned with skin colour, gender, sexual identity/orientation, religious affiliation… or any of the multitude of other barriers we construct to wall ourselves off from the “other”.
In conclusion, I’ll say again what I said yesterday: here’s to growth!

*******

Is there a ‘Safe Haven’ where we can share alternative points of view?

I’ve been pondering all of this now for about 4 months.
I came into the world of Anglican Christianity as an adult .
I was drawn away from traditional thinking.

I learned a lot of how things should not be done.
I was ‘forced’ to get to know something of the Evangelical world and rejected it.
I had been away from the ‘world’ for nearly 20 years

To be continued

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