Beyond Born Again
Appendix: Getting A New Start
Some readers may have been taken aback at my suggestion at the end of Chapter 10, that I can deem leaving Evangelicalism a viable option. It is clear to me that there are individuals whose experience with Evangelical Christianity has been negative enough in the long run that they no longer want to identify themselves with it, even should Chapter 10’s analysis make a continuing identification theoretically feasible. And then again, there will probably be readers who see the cogency of my critiques, but not of my reconstructive proposals. They may decide that a “postmodern Evangelicalism” just will not fly. They will see Evangelicalism as a sinking ship that needs to be fled. I have nothing more to say to try to stop them, so let me instead offer a few hints for a healthy and smooth exit into the outside world.
First let me warn the new ex-Evangelical about the trap of self-fulfilling prophecies. Those raised in a revivalistic setting may recall certain warnings against the evil of backsliding. “Now that you know the truth/are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, you can never enjoy a life of sin again. The Spirit will convict you of your backsliding, so you won’t be able to enjoy your sin!” If the listener eventually does backslide into his old worldly ways, he probably will feel guilty, at least if he ever took his faith seriously. Whether or not the supernatural agency of the Spirit is in play, the backslider’s conscience will bother him, and for easily explainable reasons. An apostate is one who no longer believes what he used to believe, but a backslider is one who acts contrary to what he still believes. No wonder his conscience would give him fits.
We see a similar situation with regard to the devotional practices of meditative Bible-reading and “up-to-the-minute” confession of sins, i.e., confessing your sinful thoughts to God as soon as you become aware of them. (Bill Bright, John R. Rice, John R. W. Stott, Lehman Strauss, and nearly all other fundamentalists recommend this. Peter Gillquist is one of the few who have broken with it.) The idea is that if one stops practicing these regular disciplines, he will atrophy spiritually. His unconfessed sins will distance him from God; his failure to “feed on the Word” will make him “dull to the things of God.” Will they? The earnest Born Again Christian will never know, since he dares not experiment. We see here a phenomenon formally analogous to obsessive behavior, e.g., the neurotic who is always snapping his fingers to keep tigers away. If a friend points out that there are no tigers in the area anyway, the neurotic merely replies, “See how well it’s working?” If however such an earnest Christian does temporarily relax his spiritual rigor, he will almost certainly feel the guilt and distance from God he was warned about. Is this due to the inherently deleterious effects of his relaxation? Maybe not; he is quite possibly the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He is in the same position as the backslider. Had he been taught that a different, more casual, devotional life was permissible, he might never feel any ill effects, much less guilt, for not being so strict.
Now what does all this have to do with our ex-Evangelical friend? Presumably he no longer believes the threats and warnings of his former mentors. Could he still be prey to self-fulfilling prophecy?
Yes indeed. There is yet another version, designed especially for him. Back in Chapter 2, I quoted James Sire, Francis Schaeffer, and others, to the effect that the only consistent alternative to Evangelical Christianity is nihilism, even despair. The point of such warnings, I suspect, is not only to back the non-believer into an evangelistic-apologetical corner. Perhaps even more importantly, the Evangelical reader is being warned never to consider leaving the camp of the faithful. There is only darkness and despair without. As long as the Evangelical reader is convinced of the validity of his faith, he can breathe a sigh of relief–no existential Angst for him, thank God! But what if the day comes when the Evangelical becomes dissatisfied with his faith and its apologetical defenses? Such a reader may be able to identify with Sam Keen: “The issue was so drawn for me, that the choice was between remaining Christian or becoming honest.”
Such a person, tragically, may see himself faced with the alternatives of dishonest faith (worthless in anyone’s reckoning) and honest despair. Why do the alternatives seem so bleak? Why, simply because, even though the ex-Evangelical has rejected the Evangelical alternative, he has not realized the need to reject the Evangelical delineation of the alternatives! And the latter of course is itself part of the Evangelical alternative! As we saw in Chapter 2, the negation of all other views was a defense mechanism for the Evangelical worldview. If the reader sees fit to reject that worldview, let me remind him that he need no longer trouble himself to defend it! In other words, he should now find himself in the position to re-examine other viewpoints. Their failure to conform to Evangelicalism should, obviously, no longer count against them. Yet this is far from obvious to many ex-Evangelicals, who never bother taking a second look, say, at Liberal theology. They still take Francis Schaeffer at his word on this one point, and proceed to resign themselves to a lifestyle of “quiet desperation.” This is not necessary. I advise such a reader to reread Chapter 9. There I tried to demonstrate how Liberal theology cannot be dispensed with so easily. And of course there are other options as well.
Back in the Introduction, I made the observation that instead of really leaving Evangelicalism, many de-converts actually become sort of reverse-fundamentalists. To call them “ex-Evangelicals” is analogous to calling someone else, e.g., a “neo-Evangelical.” All that is different is the prefix. They are but a different stripe of Evangelical. The idea is that the emotional bond continues to tie them to their faith, only in a mirror-image way. I think I can illustrate this with an enlightening anecdote from Richard Rubenstein. He recalls an ironic episode from his days in a Liberal Jewish seminary. He sat talking with a handful of other students in the lounge when a friend rushed in, enthusiastically brandishing his lunch. It seemed that the seminarian was a recent convert from Orthodox to Reform Judaism. Exulting in his newfound freedom from Orthodox dietary laws, he exclaimed, “Look, I’m eating a ham sandwich!” Rubenstein comments, “N. was, of course, unaware of the extent to which his symbolic revolt tied him to the very religious system he wanted to overthrow. His need to assert his rebelliousness openly was an acknowledgment of orthodox Judaism’s continuing power over him.”
Accordingly, I warn my ex-Evangelical reader that every time he
announces his repudiation of his former compatriots, each time he derides what now seem to him absurd views, every time he becomes resentful over having been “taken for a ride,” he is placing himself, albeit negatively, back into his Evangelical world. Now all of this is quite understandable, even justifiable, since one must “get it out of one’s system.” And, as is well known, a pendulum never stops in the middle the first time. But the ex-Evangelical should look forward to its settling down in the middle eventually. That is, his goal is to put the whole thing behind him, not to continue to be involved with it, fighting the same old battle only on the opposite side.
James Barr has perceptively written that “just as a personal conversion is normal as an entry into fundamentalist religion, something not far short of another conversion may be needed before one can get out of it.” Taking Barr’s hint, I want to mark out a sort of Evangelical path out of Evangelicalism for those who want to “hand back their ticket,” in the phrase of Ivan Karamazov. This is going to involve the reverse application of those defense mechanisms and maneuvers discussed in Chapter 2. Now remember, I am assuming such an ex-Evangelical reader already to have discarded his old faith-stance for cognitively appropriate reasons. Otherwise, he would be tempted to use these defense and avoidance maneuvers as an excuse for not coming to an honest decision; i.e., he would be merely slipping out of his faith by a kind of unthinking osmosis. (And as you remember, this is just the kind of cop-out I criticized Evangelicals for in Chapter 2!) It would only be a more sophisticated form of backsliding.
What is really at stake in the deconversion contemplated by the ex-Evangelical is a jump from one worldview to another. Peter Berger calls such a worldview a “plausibility structure,” i.e., that web of assumptions, beliefs, and values taken for granted by us and our peer-group, which provides the ground rules for our view of reality, and for our behavior in the world. The consent and affirmation of one’s peer-group or community is all-important here. Psychological experiments and anthropological research have amply demonstrated that our grip on normally taken-for-granted assumptions becomes very tenuous when we find ourselves in a “cognitive minority” position. How can you be so sure you’re right if everyone around you disagrees? This is another form of the “truth by majority vote” syndrome. Obviously, such cognitive intimidation cannot answer the truth question, but if one is not careful, it often seems to keep one’s convictions secure and reinforced (Stephen Board even puts it explicitly in the terms of our discussion–see his booklet Doubt).
If the new ex-Evangelical has made an intellectually conscientious decision against Evangelicalism, he may find it helpful to “clear his head” by at least temporarily absenting himself from the Evangelical subculture and its plausibility structure. If he doesn’t, he will find himself still resident in his customary plausibility structure, but now as an alien! His new beliefs will be unwelcome, and will serve as a poor guide for conduct among Evangelicals. He will constantly be on the wrong wavelength. With all the cognitive pressure surrounding him, he may himself almost believing absurdities like
“Evangelicalism is true, though unfortunately I no longer believe in it”! Besides, at this crucial stage of the game, the new ex-Evangelical needs input from the outside world.
The ex-Evangelical is probably headed for identification with some element of the mainstream culture or worldview. But this cannot come immediately. In his first steps outside the cognitive ghetto of his past, he will probably find very helpful a transitional peer-group, a support-group of other ex-Evangelicals like himself. These people can share perspectives, work through common questions, etc. The others can give the new ex-Evangelical the relief of realizing “Hey, I guess I’m not crazy after all!” Just where does one find these other ex-Evangelicals? If one’s decision to “de-convert” has been preceded by a period of questioning and discussion with Evangelical friends, he may have smoked out some of them already. It may be surprising just how many Doubting Thomases there are waiting to come out of the closet with a little provocation. As a matter of fact, anyone who one thinks might be interested in reading this book would probably be a good candidate for such a support group. Or one might try to find a local chapter of Fundamentalists Anonymous.
Whether or not the reader can find a collection of kindred spirits, he can take advantage of a kind of written equivalent. There are several fascinating books wherein a writer recounts his or others’ personal exodus from Evangelicalism, or modification of it. Some have not left the fold entirely. Reading some of these books can give an idea of options, within or without the Evangelical camp, as well as insights as to various reasons individuals become dissatisfied with Evangelicalism. Here is a list:
- Skipp Porteous, Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
- Harvey Cox, “Dialogue with Harvey Cox,” Right On, June, 1975
- Martin Gardner, The Flight of Peter Fromm
- Philip M. Helfaer, The Psychology of Religious Doubt
- Thomas Howard, Christ the Tiger
- Sam Keen, To a Dancing God
- Shirley Nelson, The Last Year of the War
- C. Brandon Rimmer, Religion in Shreds
- Wayne Robinson, I Once Spoke in Tongues
- Jack Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical
- Daniel Stevick, Beyond Fundamentalism
- Mike Yaconelli, Tough Faith
If I may offer some friendly advice as to what a new ex-Evangelical might avoid, let me caution such a reader not to become an anti-evangelist. There is no point in carrying a vengeful chip on one’s shoulder, looking for every opportunity to challenge and refute an Evangelical. What a pathetic irony this would be! Just picture the person who has repudiated the task of trying to save people by converting them to Evangelical faith, now trying to save people by converting them from Evangelical faith! A similar temptation is to negate completely one’s Evangelical past as a “life of sin,” i.e., “I once was blind, but now I see!” Once again we would have the mirror-image of the thing repudiated! No, I dare say the “ex-Evangelical” wants eventually to mature past the “anti-Evangelical,” to
become the “non-Evangelical.” Then he will be able to appreciate the positive experiences of the past, however he may now want to explain them. He will be able to look at his former co-religionists simply as people with whom he happens to disagree, rather than as the unsaved “them,” i.e., the same set of categories he used to see. As a full- fledged non-Evangelical he will not have to deny his past, nor let his past define all the issues for him.
The position of the ex-Evangelical has always reminded me of the hero of Hesse’s Siddhartha. After a successful yet unsatisfying period of life among the Samana ascetics, Siddhartha concludes that enlightenment must lie elsewhere, back in ordinary life. Yet the distance from it all that he has gained gives him a unique perspective on common, worldly affairs. Though he no longer scorns the world, he can take it with less than full seriousness. He treats his new life in the mainstream “plausibility structure” as a kind of game to be experimented with, not a rat race in which one blindly takes one’s place. I think that the ex-Evangelical starts his journey back into the mainstream on the same footing, with the same advantage. He can be purposefully selective in his embracing of the new world before him. And who can say what will come of it all? Perhaps like Siddhartha, the ex-Evangelical will find his return to the world a stage on the way to enlightenment.
- Sam Keen, To a Dancing God (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 12-13.
- Richard L. Rubenstein, My Brother Paul (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 12.
- James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), p. 38.
"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.