Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why I Quit Seminary

I almost died within feet of the exact spot that I was born.

For several days I had been battling unrelenting food poisoning (or so I thought), wild spikes in temperature to 104.5 and exhaustion like I've never experienced before or since.  My appendix had ruptured.

That, however, wasn't what my doctor had diagnosed.  I was prescribed medicine for food poisoning and told to go home and rest.  Days went by and I was slowly rotting from the inside out.  When I could barely hold myself up to walk across the room I called my family and we went the hospital.

It was there that the first deep axe swing was sunk into the felling of my faith.

I can remember staring at the ceiling (I was there for 8 days.  that's quite a bit of time to uninterrupted time to contemplate) dispassionately accepting: "My ancestors were apes."  What I had accepted at face value from the Bible was wrong.  A piece of vestigial tissue several centimeters long that almost killed me proved that.  This organ, once used to process cellulose in my ancestors now was a perfect pocket for deadly bacteria that would love to make a meal out of me.

It was that pivotal moment that started my turn from faith.

There were things that for years i had accepted as 'mystery' that started to break down into 'iron/bronze age mythology.'

Question #1
A reoccuring question arose: did I really believe the miracles in the Bible happened?  The question often took on a more specific nature, did I really believe that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale?

Really thinking through it, if miracles happened they had to have had a method of occurrence.  If Jonah was swallowed, what organism could have done it?  What was the 'fish'?  My understanding is that while whales are enormous, most are plankton feeders and could not swallow a man.  They're essentially slurpers.  There's hardly anything out there that could have swallowed a whole man without any mastication.  Could it have been something extinct, like Carcharidon Megalodon?  Let's say it was something crazy like that, how would Jonah not been dissolved to bits by the acid for three days?  How would he have breathed?  You could just say it was a miracle, but even a miracle needs a M.O.  Did oxygen miraculously appear in his lungs while his body was shielded with some divine acid deflecting force field?

A tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Come on. Really?

Or, take another example--walking on water.  Let's say Jesus and Peter walked on water.  How?  Did the water become viscous?  Did their bodies become hyper-buoyant so that they floated on the surface?  Were they weightless?  Was it like walking on a smooth surface or was every ripple and wave jarring or possibly painful and sharp?  These questions aren't an  attempt to count angels dancing on needle points.  They're an effort to pass the story through a b.s. determination matrix.

These thoughts haunted me.  

Time passed, I graduate from UCF and enrolled in the Reformed Theological Seminary.  This was a means to the ends of furthering my ministry readiness, in addition to being a Pastoral Intern, playing guitar/singing on their worship team and being a youth minister at another church.  I remember Dr. Steve Childers giving the convocation service for the incoming students and saying how much seminary can challenge your faith in so many ways (not just academically).  He went so far as to say that some of the people there at the service might even lose their faith during their degree.  I remember thinking how that seemed impossible to lose your faith in a seminary and even if that were possible I dismissed his hyperbole for myself outright.  His words now seem almost prophetic.

The first objection concerned the content of the Christian scriptures and the second was their means of transmission.  Part of going to any reputable seminary is taking Greek.  As a part of the three semesters of Greek that I took one of the things that you have to learn a good deal about is the manuscripts that we use to compose the Bible.  Massive volumes and whole careers are dedicated to deciphering the minuscule flecks and fragments we have of incomplete and contradictory copies of copies.  We don't have the originals.  What we have are a plethora of bits and pieces of manuscripts copied years/generations after the original with hundreds of thousands of slight (and in some cases major) variations .  All this on top of the fact that we can't even be sure who wrote the original!

It came down to this, I felt like I wasn't really sure who wrote what, and even if the right apostle wrote it, how do I know that what we have is what he wrote?  AND even if he did write it and we have the right version, how do we know that we're translating this ancient, esoteric language correctly (examp.-->does John 1 say that Jesus is divine or not?).  and while we're at it, how does inspiration work?  So, the thoughts, words, use of amanuensis, the transmition of the text through copying, and the choosing of the cannon were all inspired?  And what about the varying accounts in the Gospels, the reference to extra-Biblical books like Enoch and the Assumption of Moses, the weeding out of other apocryphal and pseudopigraphal documents,  the view of women in the Bible, and the pericopes that are debateable in origin like the end of Mark or John 8, etc?

Question #2
If the Bible is divine then why can't we agree on the original message, messenger and message language?

The next major serious objection was one that had to stew in me for a few years until it reached a boil.  In an introductory theology class one of the optional papers really stuck out to me.  The concern that it asked me to address was how or whether or not mentally handicapped people can understand the Gospel and have saving, efficacious faith.  "Wow!" I thought. "Now that's something I've always wondered about."  This type of question is more often phrased as, "Can babies that don't hear about Jesus go to Heaven?" or "What about some tribal bushmen in Africa that have never heard about Christ?"

I researched.  Checked out books.  Got on the internet.  Talked to people about it.  The answers didn't sit right with me.  If a more conservative stance was taken, then there were some people that got to go to heaven simply because they knew the right people. If a more progressive stance was taken (like almost all Christian denominations with babies going to Heaven) then there was a huge, monstrous loop hole (or just a hole in the logic) in the doctrine of faith.  Bottom line: faith wasn't the only way to get to heaven.

This objection became much more palpable, tangible and inescapable when I went on a little trip--to the other side of the world.  I went to China on a missions trip.  One image in particular became burned on the retina of my consciousness.  I was able to spend some time in a city called Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province.  By the way, have you ever heard of Chengdu?  Neither had I.  Yet, the city is about 3 million larger than New York city.  There was one particular city corner downtown that we were standing at waiting for the light to change so that we could cross the street.  I looked to me left.  I looked to my right.  I looked behind me.  I looked ahead.  In each direction (which, by the way, was a completely unencumbered view since I was a giant at 6'3" in a land of munchkins) I could see tens of thousands (without exaggeration) of people.   Hordes of people going to work, headed home, with worries, with secret triumphs, with to-do lists, with families, lovers, histories, futures.  And all of them...going to hell?

Question #3: Did I really, really believe that all those Chinese, 1.4 billion were all going to hell because they hadn't accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior?...

It often is that people aren't too shallow to think on deep, philosophical verities of the universe.  It's more often that they have more important things to do first.  Like ministry.  And so was I.  I had big questions looming in the back of my mind, but I also had a job, friends, home work, deadlines, entertainment, etc.  These questions would sprout up perennially when I had motivation to question.  When burnout would set in.  Fatigue from school.  When people became odious.  I'd like to pause for a second and be honest in saying that, yes, in some ways I did want to stop believing (I say this to the Christians that might want to simplify my entire story and say that my objections were nothing but straw man arguments really trying to mask and hide my inner rebellion).  Large decisions like vocation, religion, social spheres, identity are never, ever made purely on the basis of logic and reason.  We think with the same organ that we feel with and the two often alloy (how easily we see this in the cross-hybridization we see in the language of "I feel" and "I think).  Reason may keep us out of the gutter like gutter guards in bowling, but it's motivation and emotion that toss the ball.

So, back to the impression that China had made upon me.  If Christianity was true, I began to see the overwhelming need that there was over there.  Straight up, literally like a billion people headed straight for eternal torment and damnation.  If Christianity was true, I needed to be a missionary there.  But.  But, I didn't want to go.  I liked America.  I like freedom.  I liked dairy products. I like sit down toilets.  I like home.  Home!

And back at home I was working at two churches and suffice it to say that people were behaving like people.  Glorious and self-sacrificial and other times greedy, clutching, duplicitous (just like me)--the dual nature of man.  Sigh.  To summarize much in a little, I didn't want their life.  i didn't want to think like them.  I didn't want to judge like them.  I didn't want to be afraid like them.  Afraid of losing.  Afraid of being wrong.  Afraid of questioning.   I didn't want to maintain a false sense of security in a lie like them.  I didn't want to foster a system of untruths for convention, hegemony or social status.  And i didn't want to work in the speed dating, social club churches of America.

i just wanted to be honest.
I just wanted to be able to change my mind if I wanted.
I just wanted to have the freedom to question.
I just wanted to be able to stay in America and no worry about indoctrinating others with a system of beliefs they have done quite well without for millennium, thank you very much.
I just wanted to be me.

There were other key moments, watching Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney was one.  Reading the Pseudopigraphal Gospels was another and other modern apocryphal cannon like Bart Ehrman's stuff.  I remember being in a panic about losing my faith and going out and buying Miracles by CS Lewis, reading the whole thing in one day and being totally let down that someone I viewed as one of my spiritual gurus couldn't even answer my questions.  But, as is often the case, it was one personal touch that was particularly guiding.

I was arguing on my old Christian blog with people, you know, "defending the faith!" (which was actually largely because I had to in order to get an 'A' in my apologetics class) and within that blog I made what I thought was going to be a coup de gras blow in a particular argument with a particularly bright fellow.  While it was more involved and I don't want to get into it now I was basically arguing from the beauty of the universe and saying that must be a artist if there is all this beauty--there must be a creator if there's a creation.

Boy was I headed for a side swipe.

Never even saw it coming.

Which has more beauty, mystery, compelling simplicity: a universe that some ethereal spirit being popped into existence
a universe that simple is.

Is evolving, morphing, transfiguring from one degree of wild singularity and white hot nebulous gasses to the self-organizing spin of the spiral bands of the galaxies, to the supernova burp of star dust that we are composed of on a wet iron ball orbiting our star made up of a masterwork of macro-molecules machines composed of millions, billions and trillions of simultaneously coordinated synchrony.

I'll phrase it like this:Which is more beautiful: a finished painting or a canvas that is painting itself?  A plan or a stunningly serendipitous, felicitous happenstance?  A loaded deck or a legitimately won Royal Flush?

That it had to happen or that it just did happen?

It's a subjective argument.  But one that stuck in my craw.

To quote Darwin, "There is grandeur in this view of life."

There is beauty in a universe that owes nothing but serendipity.


  1. Crazy bro, although i would have to disagree, (shocker, right?) good to see you're doing well though.

    One point I just have to contend with, the beauty of the universe is and has never been in question. I feel your fellow "blogger" whom side swiped you with his answer is correct if the question is "What is more beautiful?" Again though, when has that been the question that a human is to ask him/herself? The question is rather, since the universe is so unequivocally beautiful, how in the world did it get here? To reference your finished painting versus one that is painting itself analogy, it does not matter which holds more beauty rather which one makes more sense to actually happen; a painting that paints itself, or an artist who takes brush to canvas to create that masterpiece. Simply, you're new answer is not an answer to the original question at all, instead it's an attempt to sidestep the real issue of origin.

  2. Hey, Vince. Thanks for reading, caring, commenting. :) Your point is very understandable, and understood, but the debate was within a certain context which was not just debating causation of the universe but also causation of our desires - a Johnny Cochran hand-in-glove approach, if you will (our desires match reality for a reason).

    I do think, however, that people (arrogantly I'll say even you) believe not because they think something is true, but because they think something is beautiful to their mind's eye. Just by personal experience with the Jesus Film I know that you already agree with this. It's the very reason you play a movie about Jesus rather than an informative, point by point, academic presentation on the life of Christ. You want people to care and not just know. Beauty converts, not facts.

    Evidence is always subject to interpretation and since we think with the same organ we feel with, the two often get amalgamed. In the case of what we're talking about, Big Bang or Big Guy in the Sky, since the evidence of the universe is moot, you, me and the guy next door choose with our heart and not just our intellect. For me, I had intellectual reasons to question dogma already, but, as with all, it was when head /and/ heart were spoken to that then proverbial penny dropped.

  3. I agree that most, if not all decisions we make are driven in part by our hearts. However, I feel and correct me if I'm wrong that you are separating fact and beauty when I feel that what makes Christ, and his redemptive story so beautiful is the facts that drive it.

    During my time with the Jesus Film I learned that yes, people respond to a story and an emotion; beauty if you will within the film. However, it's the facts of the story that make it that way. It's like watching a movie that is based on real events and one that is not. The one that is a "true story" always elicits a more intense emotional response.

  4. I should say that when I think of 'beauty' (and it feels weird to keep using this word so much) I don't just mean a superficial aesthetic. It can also very much be a deeply, rigorously intellectual sense much like a mathematician just knowing that an equation is true simply because of its beauty.

    (I should also clarify that above I'm using 'beauty' in two senses: 1) The universe is beautiful and therefore there is an Artist (and the corollary that our desire for beauty is suggestive of a desire to want the Artist). 2) Beauty as a litmus for verity. I didn't feel the need to explain that earlier, but now I see that it is quite confusing.)

    What I hear you saying: something is beautiful because it's true.

    I fully agreeing with your statement and I'd add that: we think something is true because we think it's beautiful.

    Beauty is both the reward for seeking the truth and the means by which we distinguish it - the standard and the reward. It's a subtle point and not one to really overly pound, but interesting I think.

    I think the reason that I gravitate to the word 'beauty' rather than 'coherence', 'simplicity' or another synonym for 'trueness' is that in this context it capitalizes on the connotation of the subjective nature of aesthetic. We both look at the same set of information, but come to very different conclusions. Why? Because of differing attraction (and therefore weighting) to disparate arguments/information. I think one thing is beautiful and you think another is. I'm somewhat splitting hairs here, but I think it's a point worth making since it sheds light rather than heat on this issue.


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