As mentioned in my last post, lots of people in my life can’t understand why I’m no longer a Christian. Many think I am poorly influenced by certain friends. Some think I’m self-absorbed, or that I don’t believe in God simply because I don’t want to. Too intellectual, too cynical, too critical.
We have our disagreements. But many (far too many) of the people I speak to have a better method of wiping away my views and statements in a single, powerful stroke. It’s this: “You used to believe differently.” It’s the very fact I’ve changed my mind on certain ideas that tells people I know less, not more, than I used to.
The reexamination of my core beliefs, thoughts, and motives over the years has been an interesting ride and not one I initially welcomed. This past week I glanced at my bookshelf, spilling with theological assessments, histories, studies, and bibles (I majored in theology). A textbook I used at college caught my eye: A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman.
I was a Christian when I attended college. I bordered on fundamentalism, which means I got excited about scripture and read it rapturously. So when I took my New Testament course, I was shocked to find our textbook was written by an atheist (that’s how I thought of him, though Bart identifies a little differently). I was incredulous. What could an atheist teach me about the New Testament? Why was I taking this theology course and pursuing a degree taught by people who did not take scripture seriously?
This sort of thinking had a serious impact on my views as I continued to study theology. How could it not? I remember commenting – again and again – how silly it was that an unbeliever wrote my textbooks. This produced a mind which could, when presented with scriptural conundrums, oust the opposition without shedding a single bead of sweat. I merely had to remember that this person wasn’t simply not a Christian, he was a deliberate unbeliever! Of course he was tainted, of course he thought the Bible wasn’t the Word of God – how could he believe otherwise?
But I was wrong. A million times wrong. Wrong all over, and no one sees the errors of my ways clearer than me.
Being shelled of Christianity, I am now, I think, in a state where I can speak to both sides fairly well. I now look at my old textbook and read it with much greater clarity. I can perceive – without tinted glasses – the scholarship offered, arguments presented, unbiased criticisms. I no longer have the poise or reflexes to swat away the dissonance presented by critical scholars. If I wish to disagree with them at all, I must first understand them and be motivated to understand them without allowing my various biases to lead me to a particular conclusion.
The tactics I once used to dismantle contrary thoughts are now, effective as ever, used against me. Like Bart, I don’t stand a chance. To my opponents, my thoughts, critiques, ideas, and commentary are hay-stuffed pillowcases and crudely constructed sticks: easily dismantled in seconds. What’s more, I can’t explain or express myself in more than a sentence before I’m simply stamped as a dissident. From here, like Bart and others before me, I am packaged and shelved, and only my representative scarecrow is ever truly encountered.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m misrepresenting myself or others: to be sure I am riddled with flaws. I can be biased, irrational, foolish, and sometimes ignite like a powder keg at the smallest provocation. And many of my friends, family, and acquaintances are many times smarter than me, more charitable, and far more pleasant. But when it comes to their cherished beliefs, all bets are off, and any dissension reveals me as most wanting, unreasonable, excessively skeptical, and whatever other straw and pitch has brought my scarecrow to life.
My old dogma stings like an army of gadflies, and I am often enough rewarded by lost friends, lost respect, and too often lost stage time. I am trying my hardest to correct my biases and to reason in a respectful, provocative manner. But that’s not even the hard part. The hard part is getting people to look past the straw and stench long enough to hear what I say for what it is, rather than for what they imagine it must be.