Saturday, November 8, 2008

How I Left Fundamentalism-- Part 4

The last part of the story (that I'm telling here!)...

Done (almost) in a sentence

That led to a search. I began to investigate various denominations and their views of these things. I wrote dozens of letters, spent hours in the library, and read many books. I did not have to look far. I discovered the Mennonite Church held views concerning the Bible and non-violence similar to mine. That culminated in my awakening one Sunday morning and announcing to Irene that she did not have to come, but I was going to the Mennonite church down the road. She came, but reluctantly.

It was an easy transition because this Mennonite church decided to organize into small fellowship groups (termed “D” groups, or “discussion” groups), and it was largely Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal). We soon fit right in. We got very involved, and, after a time, I began to lead a small group. Then, the final event occurred. As I talked with the associate pastor one day, concerning something in the Bible, he announced he did not believe all of the Bible was historically, factually true. I heard my voice say, “Neither do I.” Then I was out. No longer was I an absolutist.

I wish that was the final happy conclusion to the story, but as we have discovered, leaving is hard. I enrolled in seminary. There I learned to question. I did question. I did think. Then I would get scared. A voice would say, “You’re not supposed to question.” Again and again, I had to remind myself I was no longer an absolutist. I had “been there and done that,” and I knew it no longer worked for me.

I served as pastor sharing my time between a Mennonite Church and a Church of the Brethren congregation (also a peace church) while attending seminary. However, I missed the closeness of the subculture. I started searching for that sense of camaraderie I shared as an absolutist. I aligned myself with the Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal) Movement in the Church of the Brethren but soon found them too absolutist for my liking. After my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, I began my full-time pastorate in Virginia; I affiliated with a conservative group trying to get the Brethren back on a path they thought they had forsaken. To me, that was the path of peace and community. However, it did not work. I could not accept the hellfire view of things anymore.

Frustrated, I resigned my ordination after a few years. There was anything wrong with the Brethren. The Church of the Brethren is a superb denomination with a long and honorable history. I was simply a victim of my absolutist past. I began looking for Christians who practiced community. I missed that close-knit subculture so much at times that it hurt. In the midst of our deciding to leave the Brethren, Irene and I visited with the Bruderhof community, an Anabaptist, peace oriented, communal denomination that holds all property in common. Irene found them too rigid and regimented in their lifestyles.

After a time I (we) joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I stayed with it for ten years. I even taught in the SDA school system, as did Irene. Still, the literal approach to the Bible kept smacking me in the face. (This is not to say anything negative about individual SDA’s. I must say virtually all my close Adventist friends are true free thinkers) They were non-combatants, but they rarely said anything concerning non-violence. In addition, I was back to the flat Bible. It just was not going to work for me.

For a bit, we attended an evangelical mega-church. The music was great, but they lacked the subculture of the Adventists. I began to get tired. I had lost the faith of absolutism. I did not miss the wackiness I experienced as a result of the subculture’s beliefs. I missed the closeness I experienced in the subculture (this is something most folks who attend mainline churches—and I do—cannot really understand). All of this running and changing went on for almost fifteen years. Eventually. I concluded the subculture was somehow a product of the absolutist version of conservatism. Finally, I just quit searching. I decided to learn to live without that closeness. It was too costly.

I stopped running and decided to start helping. I again accepted a pastorate at a small church, greatly needing leadership for its continued existence. Theology was not much of a concern to me. As long as I did not have to be certain of all the answers, I thought I could make this work. My association with the church began when a clergy friend convinced me that, no matter what my history, I had the training and concern to help. The church was near my home and the college where I teach. I stayed at the church for a number of years.

It has been about ten years since I quit running. I may have renounced absolutism twenty-seven years ago with one simple sentence. Nevertheless, I have discovered that it is hard to leave. It took a toll on my wife. It took a toll on my kids. It took a toll on me. Freedom is the prize, but the cost is high.

Several themes common to "quitters" appear in my story. Please be certain to note how, even after I left, I, indeed, experienced relapses. I continued to look for the community the subculture provided. I have never found anything resembling it, and I now wonder if such dependency is really a good thing after all. Still, my journey makes one thing clear. Leaving is a long process. It goes on and on. Some days, after all these years, I think I am still in the process of leaving. I still want order and predictability in my world. I must always remind myself that is not the nature of reality.


  1. How I knew I'd found my community:
    1. I was accepted exactly how I was
    2. no one required me to wear their uniform
    3. no one asked me to wear their god's symbol around my neck
    4. I was asked to share only my experiences and cautioned not to share my opinions
    5. I was asked to search for similarities with everyone and to stop searching for differences
    6. The fundamentals were: be awake; be of service; pray for serenity and the ability to be of use; we are all fallible -- make amends for harm caused by fallibility; fogive; belief in god optional; talking about the 'spiritual' part of one's life is like talking about the wet part of the ocean
    7. Everyone looks to the state of their own spiritual condition & encourages others not to take the temperature of anyone else's
    8. Political discussions are largely discouraged because they might deprive people of the benefits of the spiritual program
    9. people are encouraged to find their own religion
    10. the possibility of transformed human experience and relationship can happen spontaneously at any moment to anyone under any set of conditions

  2. Now that is a philosophy I like! You make many good points. I hope you "keep" finding your community!