If we’re going to walk virtually together a few steps, it might help to know a little about how I got to where I am on my stumbling ramble (or rambling stumble) of faith.
So far it’s been a journey of two parts – the circuitous peregrinations via which I came to a Christian conversion at the age of 20, and then the second stage of journeying out of a more fundamentalist faith to the point I’m at now, writing this blog.
The first stage is probably a more interesting tale, starting with an ecumenical high-church upbringing and moving through late teenage brushes with drugs, the occult and mental health issues to conversion. However, it’s not so directly relevant to the subject of this blog so I’ll come back to it another time. (You can read a bit about it in my Theism post under the heading ‘Where I’m coming from‘.)
New-found faith and early difficulties
Post-conversion, I joined a thriving, vibrant and welcoming charismatic-evangelical C of E church plant which met in a small school gym. I was tremendously excited by the activity of the Holy Spirit in words of knowledge, prophecy and healings, and by the presence of God I often felt during the times of both exuberant and intimate worship. I went on an Alpha Course; started avidly reading Christian books by Ronald Dunn, John White, C.S. Lewis etc; joined the church’s worship band and soon started leading worship.
I should however mention that I was still finding some of the adjustments to the new lifestyle quite hard, and was still smoking, getting drunk and watching the odd dodgy film with mates. I was also still in a slow process of recovery from some mental health difficulties, so things weren’t entirely straightforward or easy.
And even at this early and highly enthusiastic stage of faith, I was not convinced by standard evangelical theology. I was bothered by the obvious discrepancies in the gospel narratives (e.g. the calling of the first disciples in John compared to the synoptics), I couldn’t accept a literal view of the Genesis creation accounts, and I viewed hell as a state of separation from God’s presence rather than a place of eternal conscious torment.
Later that year (1994), the ‘Toronto Blessing’ swept through the charismatic community and our church embraced it wholeheartedly, with all the attendant whoopings, barkings, fallings-over and uncontrolled laughter (though nothing very dramatic happened to me). I look back on that time with mixed feelings – I believe that I did experience the presence of God quite profoundly, but there were also many excesses and bizarre elements, and so many of the people who fell over and laughed ‘in the Spirit’ have since then lost their faith.
Then, through a church family whose son I was close friends with, I began to receive and be influenced by the ‘prosperity gospel’ literature and tapes of Kenneth Copeland and Hagin. When I found that most evangelicals viewed these preachers as false and heretical, I felt confused. And I was further shaken to find that others were deeply suspicious of the whole charismatic movement, which had been so important in my conversion and to my new understanding of faith. What on earth was the true Christianity among all these differing views? Was my version valid?
At this point I think I was starting to crave a bit more doctrinal certainty and solid biblical teaching – moving into Peck’s Stage 2 in other words. I tried (and failed) to read Jim Packer, and regularly consulted Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (a book I wouldn’t now give shelf-space to). I attended the conservative evangelical ‘Word Alive’ Bible week with speakers like Don Carson, Roy Clements (then a highly-acclaimed evangelical) and members of the Proclamation Trust. I found their uncompromising messages – including a terrifying one on hell by Clements – both inspiring and uncomfortable. They seemed so brilliant, so godly, so utterly certain. Yet I never felt completely at home with this kind of Christianity, which seemed to have little room for the creative, the beautiful, or indeed for the supernatural unless confined to the pages of the Bible or to certain prescribed spiritual practices. It seemed to me too austerely ascetic, too coldly cerebral; too limited and limiting.
Over the ensuing years I got married, graduated, experienced unemployment, undertook short-term mission in Mumbai, and went through various times of personal and emotional difficulty which challenged my faith and my perceptions of God and the Bible.
As a young married couple we set ourselves ridiculously high standards of prayer and worship times, and tried overly hard to live out Christian ideals of hospitality and service, but without proper boundaries to keep ourselves safe or prioritise our relationship. A suicidal anti-Christian college friend claimed hours and hours of my time; we bailed out an alcoholic ex-homeless friend in our desperation to lead him to Christ. We also came within a hairsbreadth of joining Wycliffe to do overseas Bible Translation work; our decision not to was perhaps one of the small turning points in our journeys.
Becoming a dad
Becoming a dad at the age of 29 led to a deep seismic shift in my faith. Up till that point, I’d never really felt that comfortable with ideas of God as Father, preferring just to address him as Lord. The process of learning to relate to my children, loving them totally and unconditionally despite at times being exasperated with them almost beyond measure, began to change my understanding of God and my relationship with him. It also began to affect my attitudes to certain doctrines – divine judgement, hell, penal substitution. I could no longer square the traditional evangelical take on these with my growing understanding of God as Father.
The erosion of certainty
Apart from this, I can’t say that any one thing led to me abandoning the earlier evangelical certainties or the charismatic exuberances over the years that followed. I read widely; I met others who were also journeying out of fundamentalism; I experienced depression and other difficulties which altered my perceptions; I gained valuable life experience and found that the world both outside and inside the church was far more complex and curious than I’d imagined. And I began to feel increasingly distant from an evangelicalism that only seemed able to focus on defending and promulgating its own beliefs in biblical inerrancy, divine sovereignty, penal substitution, hell, homosexual immorality and so on.
For a while I felt I had to take time out of church involvement while I worked out what I did believe and think. I didn’t stop going to church but I did largely disengage.
Along with fatherhood, I think one of the big turning points – or realising points – for me was about a year ago when a long-time work friend asked if we could have a chat about my Christian faith. I knew she had been hugely put off Christianity by well-meaning but insensitive hell-preaching evangelicals at university; that she had in her own way been seeking Christ for years but had felt evangelical Christianity to be an almost insurmountable barrier. Suddenly I found myself speaking what sounded to me like heresy. I told her I didn’t view everything in the Bible as God’s own Word. I didn’t believe in the evangelical vision of hell, and nor did I believe that non-Christians would all burn in it; in fact I was pretty sure that a lot of people who weren’t Christians would find themselves among the redeemed. I didn’t think that all other religions were completely wrong and mine was completely right.
I hadn’t pre-planned any of this, but suddenly it felt right to me. Scary; dangerous even; but an honest statement of my own beliefs which I hadn’t admitted previously even to myself. It felt liberating.
So here I am. I believe, and I doubt. I have faith, and I’m uncertain. I’m part orthodox, part heretical, sometimes both simultaneously about the same thing. I’ve not given up on my beliefs, but I feel the need to believe them in a whole new way. And at last I feel glad to be able to shake off the old dead chrysalises and move on out into new light and air, come what may.