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Growing into Unbelief

As I continued to go to church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found that I simply believed less and less of the Christian tradition in anything like a literal sense.

Was God the creator?  Well, maybe in some kind of ultimate sense, but not literally.   The universe was billions of years old, it came into being at the Big Bang, it has been expanding ever since, and the reaches of space – with its unfathomable numbers of galaxies each with billions of stars –as surely not “created” by a being principally concerned with a form of life that happened to evolve on one small planet circling one relatively small star, one of many, many billions in one relatively small galaxy.  The human-centeredness of the view of “creation” did not, at the end of the day, really make sense to me.

And God himself?  Did he exist?  Yes, I thought he did.  But I wasn’t sure we could possibly know much if anything about him.   I assumed he was somehow in some sense connected with the world, but I wasn’t sure how.  I assumed he wanted me to behave and live in certain ways.  I assumed that the great moral values of human society – happiness, virtue, love of others, giving of oneself for the sake of others – all these things manifested God’s will in the world.  But I also had come to think that whatever God was, he was far beyond what we with our limited intelligence could possibly conceptualize or understand.

Was Jesus the son of God?  Well, maybe in some sense: he showed us what “God” (the ultimate reality) was ultimately concerned about.  Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching was valuable because it affirmed that there are forces in the world that have to be fought against, forces of evil that create poverty, hunger, oppression, injustice, war, birth defects, natural disasters, and so on.  All of these problems are bigger than the humans that cause or experience them.  Jesus had seen that better than anyone.   And Jesus’ life was a model for others, a life of giving of himself for the sake of others.

But the more I thought about that, I wondered if it was really true.  In church I continued to take communion every Sunday, by explaining it to myself in a non-literal way.   Jesus gave his life for others.  By standing in the Christian tradition I was affirming that I believed we should give our lives for others.  But really?   First of all, did Jesus really give his life voluntarily?  Wasn’t he, in fact, condemned to death for making some outrageous claims about himself, calling himself the Jewish “king” when everyone knew that the Romans were in charge of the Promised Land, and no Jewish king would be allowed?   Wasn’t he executed summarily by the Romans for political reasons?  Historically he didn’t think he was dying for the sins of the world.  He was executed for claiming to be the future ruler of Israel – not a ruler thousands of years later, but in his own lifetime.  And he was obviously wrong about that.

Moreover, am I myself really willing to die for others?   Maybe for my wife and children.  But for anyone else?  Really?  Is that how I want to spend my life, looking for an opportunity to die for people I don’t even know?  Is that the model for how I should live?

Did I believe in a Holy Spirit?  No, not really.  I didn’t think the Spirit had inspired the Bible and certainly didn’t think he guided believers in how to think and live.  Even now, today, I have people tell me all the time that I can’t interpret the Bible correctly because I’m not guided by the Spirit.  The idea is that only those who are Spirit-led can understand the Spirit-inspired word of God.  But is that true?  If Spirit-filled interpreters are given the “right” understanding of the Bible, why is it that Spirit-filled interpreters all have *different* interpretations that are completely at odds with one another?

I saw that already back when I was a fundamentalist.  Just before I went off to study at Moody Bible Institute, I had joined a charismatic community that believed that the gifts of the Spirit were still available to believers today, that if you were “baptized in the Spirit” (after having been baptized in water) you would “receive the Spirit” and could manifest spiritual gifts.  In particular, if you did that, you could speak in tongues, praying in foreign languages that you didn’t know (and usually that no one else knew either).  And I did.  I received the Spirit and I spoke in tongues.  Did it regularly.

Then I went to Moody, where the professors all believed, of course, in the Holy Spirit, but were also convinced, as non-charismatics, that the Spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues were no longer available and were now no longer necessary.  They were designed to help the church in the interim period between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Bible, to provide authoritative revelations from God until his ultimate revelation had come to be produced.  But now that we have the Bible, we no longer have or need the gifts of the Spirit.  Many of my professors believed that the charismatic gifts were in fact deceits of the devil.

So the Spirit-filled leaders of the charismatic community back home had one set of views, that they claimed were from God, based on their interpretation of the Bible, and my Spirit-filled professors at college had the opposite set of views, which they claimed were from God, based on their interpretation of the Bible.  One claimed that a set of experiences and practices were from God; the other claimed that these same experiences and practices were from the Devil.  What is the evidence to suggest that those filled with the Spirit are the ones who truly understand the Bible, that without the Spirit, no one can understand the Bible?

By the time I was a liberal Christian in the late 80s and early 90s these debates about charismatic gifts were all very much in the past for me.  I certainly didn’t believe in the spiritual gifts any more, and didn’t think that the devil inspired these gifts.  Neither one.  And I didn’t think that the Spirit guided the understanding of Scripture.  For that you needed scholarship – or at least you needed to know someone who could tell you what experts had to say.

In short, what did I believe, about God, about Christ, about the Spirit?  What did I believe that any non-Christian couldn’t believe?  Why, in effect, should I remain a Christian?


Leaving the Faith
Apocalypticism in a Modern Idiom

66

Comments

  1. Avatar
    davidschlender@Gmail.com  July 19, 2017

    Same here. I never spoke in tongues, because intellectually, I was already dealing with those very same questions. My parents were Spirit filled Christians, but attended a cessationist dispensational church in my teens, after several years in a charismatic church before I was born. In my teens, they started pushing me back into evangelicalism and charismatic environments, only to see me revolt at the hysteria and parlor-trickery I spotted when I started learning about the charismatic end of the spectrum. While I was learning more about glossalalia, I realized that it wasn’t strictly a Christian phenomenon, and so wondered why God’s Spirit would give validation to “demonic” groups, some of which existed prior to Christianity’s advent.

    I never could shake that realization, and then with the obviously immoral doctrines of a loving God sending good people to hell, and everyone else of every other religion known to mankind, I stopped believing that this God was worth believing in or even wanting to get to become aquanted with. The doctrines, my own sense of morality, and physical reality just didn’t add up. And thanks to you and other scholars, I realized the Divine origins claim about scripture didn’t add up either.

    I’d still love to attend church somewhere myself, but there’s nothing about the religion I can find that I can agree with either, besides maybe the Golden Rule, which isn’t uniquely Christian, either in form or in origin.

    Thanks for the article, it helps to know I’m not alone with my questions and my doubts.

    • Avatar
      mjkhan  July 25, 2017

      To get answers to your questions about God,creation,evolution and sufferings and to know what was originally written in OT and NT read Quran the unchanged original divine book that confirms previous books.Get a free copy from Gainpeace.com and ask for translation of Quran by Saheeh International,due to its American mdoern english.ORginal Arabic is same,in all times,all locations for all sects.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  July 27, 2017

        “To get answers to your questions about God,creation,evolution and sufferings and to know what was originally written in OT and NT read Quran the unchanged original divine book that confirms previous books.Get a free copy from…”

        This is not right. I can’t believe this is being allowed.

        1
  2. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 19, 2017

    I spoke in tongues all the time back in the day. There’s been moments since then when during stressful situations I had to make a conscious effort not to speak in tongues.

  3. Avatar
    cchen326  July 19, 2017

    Succumbing to psychosomatic influence seems like a more natural explanation for speaking in tongues especially when you throw in an environment that makes it the norm.

    If speaking in tongues could be in a language no one knows then whats the difference with someone just babbling like a baby?

    Are you able to produce the same tongues *language* now possibly by going into some mild meditative trance?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I think tongues tend to *sound* more like a syntactically coherent language. And yes, I can still do it at will. With some practice (not much) anyone can!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 15, 2017

        Sid Caesar, the late great comedian, was famous for imitating any number of languages. Once, a linguist, fluent in Hungarian because he actually was Hungarian, was brought in to meet Caesar, and if possible, translate what Caesar was saying. Caesar (who knew nothing about Hungarian) then broke into a couple of minutes of rapid speech, talking, gesturing, smiling, Then Caesar vigorously shook the translator’s hand and walked offstage. The moderator asked the expert what language Caesar had spoken, and to please translate it. The expert said, “Oh yes, he was definitely speaking Hungarian, but in a dialect, I’m not familiar with.”

  4. Avatar
    godspell  July 19, 2017

    Bart, did you just reject the concept of altruism?

    Pretty sure you don’t need to be religious to believe in that. As an abstract concept, anyway. You’re right, the truly religious (who are rare, and forgive me for thinking you may never have been one of them in the first place, and I extend that doubt to myself) tend to go further than that.

    There’s a national holiday named after one of them, who died in 1968.

    I really really do not like where this is going. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater doesn’t half say it. You’re not a trained philosopher. You’re a professor of history. The answers to the questions that you are qualified to ask are not the answers to all of life’s mysteries. I’ve noticed that scholars sometimes forget this.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. I’ve always (fervently) believed in altruism, as a Christian and as an agnostic.

      I also don’t know why I would have to be a trained philosopher to be thoughtful about faith and the existence of God. Virtually none of the thousands of persons on this blog has a PhD in NT, but that doesn’t mean they should be discouraged from thinking about the Bible.

      If you’re suggesting that I don’t know what philosophers have said about proofs for the existence of God or about the big questions in life, I’d be interested in knowing which modern philosophers you are thinking that I have not read but should. (On theodicy or anything else)

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 25, 2017

        I have no way of knowing what you’ve read in this area, because you’re not citing any sources at all. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books about the famed Problem of Evil–many new ones cross my desk in the course of a year here at the college library I work at. I see much more sophisticated interchanges going on there than anything I’ve seen here. I don’t know what you’ve read about it, because you essentially make it sound like you just worked all this out for yourself. You wouldn’t do that if you were talking about ideas in your own field.

        Of course you’ve a right to your opinion, goes without saying. Just like all the people, myself included, who argue with you in your area of expertise, with no qualifications at all other than some reading and the odd bit of navel-gazing.

        And what is your private reaction to that, Professor Ehrman?

        There was nothing inappropriate about you touching on your personal beliefs, but we’re far past that now. I think you do see now that it went on too long, and you were basically thinking out loud, which is problematic at the best of times.

        Let me make one final point.

        Naturalists study animal behavior in the wild. They see animals they study undergoing predation, injury, sickness, death. They do not, in most cases, intervene. This does not prove they don’t care about these animals–most of them do, deeply. They give them names, they identify with them, they rejoice in their triumphs, mourn for their downfalls. But they keep their distance. They’d be piss-poor at their jobs if they didn’t.

        Anthropologists, taking it a step ‘up’ in the chain of evolution, study various ‘primitive’ cultures, live alongside them, and watch them, in some cases, engage in practices that are harmful. They also do not intervene. It’s frowned upon when they do. I know, from my brief anthropology studies in college that they do, in fact, love these people, defend them to others, value their cultures, hope they can survive. But there are lines you don’t cross.

        It may be there are lines God doesn’t cross as well.

        I don’t know.

        And neither do you.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 27, 2017

          My private reaction is that people are free to talk about whatever they want; and that if someone doesn’t like what they are reading, they are always free to do something else instead!

          • Avatar
            godspell  July 27, 2017

            Yeah, because that would be so typical of the internet.

            😉

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 19, 2017

    Wow! Excellent summary!

    1. After the Hubble telescope showed us that our universe has 100 billion galaxies each having 100 billion stars and that there probably are other universes as well, it is hard to imagine that we humans are the center of it all.

    2. I once attended a church where they spent well over a decade arguing about whether women should be allowed to preach a sermon. Both sides in the argument prayed about this matter a lot and both sides were convinced that the Holy Spirit was directing and guiding their side of the argument. How could that be????

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Don’t the most recent Hubble observations suggest that the universe has two *trillion* galaxies? So I’ve read.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  July 24, 2017

        “Astronomers came to the surprising conclusion that there are at least 10 times more galaxies in the observable universe than previously thought.”

        –> https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/hubble-reveals-observable-universe-contains-10-times-more-galaxies-than-previously-thought

        so, to be more precise–if we could–the observable universe perhaps has more than 1 trillion galaxies; and, in the larger galaxies, the estimated number of stars exceeds a trillion.

        the largest galaxy observed, IC 1101, is estimated to contain more than 100 trillion stars!!!

        –> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IC_1101

        i dunno, but these numbers are beyond my ken. i have no conceptual framework to understand what 100 trillion amounts to; let alone a galaxy that has a 100 trillion stars; except maybe that it’s very, very, very big.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 25, 2017

          Wow.

        • Avatar
          godspell  July 27, 2017

          (And people wonder why God doesn’t have time to make them rich, happy, beautiful and immortal?)

          Man is the measure of nothing.

          Where were we when God (or whatever) laid the foundations of the cosmos?

          We were random bits of space dust floating through the void.

          And here we are, anyway. And not the least bit grateful to be here. Well, that tracks.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 28, 2017

            I suppose so — but everyone I know is exceedingly grateful to be here.

          • Avatar
            godspell  July 30, 2017

            Grateful to what, pray tell?

            Gotcha.

            😉

          • Avatar
            godspell  July 30, 2017

            Okay, that was snotty. My fault for posting so early in the morning.

            This is what I meant–there’s a story in the so-called “Dutch Catechism”, published after Vatican II. An atheist had spent the entire night persuading a friend not to commit suicide, and he finally succeeded. Afterwards, exhausted, he said to a religious acquaintance, “I feel like I want to thank someone. Is that what you mean by God?”

            There are, you know, people in this world who set out to be the perfect parent some would like God to be. They give their children everything they ask for. They shelter them from all danger, anything that might psychically wound them. Basically, they protect them from life. Helicopter Parents, some call them.

            Are they good parents?

            How do those kids usually turn out?

            We’re getting a good example of that in our politics, right now.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 25, 2017

        Re there being billions or trillions of galaxies, and associated thoughts…did you read recently that astronomers have detected possible evidence for the existence of at least one other *universe*? There’s a region of this one that’s seemingly colder than it should be (of course, I don’t know how they can tell!), and doesn’t have any detectable stars. The suggested explanation is that it’s a “bruise” left after a collision with another universe.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  July 28, 2017

          Wilusa,
          Have you read about how AI had to be shut down because it invented its own communication? Just wondering what you think about it.

          http://www.digitaljournal.com/tech-and-science/technology/a-step-closer-to-skynet-ai-invents-a-language-humans-can-t-read/article/498142

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  July 30, 2017

            Wow, that was scary! I’ve never let myself think too much about AI, because it makes one…uneasy. I hope scientists have enough *non*-“artificial” intelligence that they won’t accidentally create something that could escape human control, and eliminate *us*.

            Interesting, too, when thinking about “speaking in tongues.” If the AI could “create a language,” is it possible a small group of humans “on the same wave length” could unwittingly do the same thing? I do believe minds can be in contact, consciously or otherwise. After all, our universe began with all the matter and energy that’s now in it being crammed together in a “singularity”!

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  July 31, 2017

          There was a study about tongues conducted at Univ. of Penn. Interesting for sure, but I think it should be redone considering the advancements in neuroimaging since then.
          https://mobile.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/health/07brain.html

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 16, 2017

        Yes, that’s what I’ve read and heard, but can’t really understand–it’s definitely above my pay grade. But the most incomprehensible concept for me is the idea of the “Big bang.” Schooled relentlessly into the idea of cause and effect, I can’t understand what was “before” the Big Bang. Greek philosophers write very glibly about prime mover unmoved and first cause uncaused, but I don’t really know what that means. Also, infinitely large comprised in infinitely small is another beauty. Maybe that’s why I fall back on the nebulous idea of “God” as the answer to my ignorance.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 17, 2017

          Yes, I completely understand! But of course, if you push the problem of cause and effect, you can’t explain where God came from either! If you say: “well, he just was always there,” then you can say the same thing about the substance and causes of the Big Bang.

  6. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  July 19, 2017

    Frankly, I don’t care whether you believe in God or not. I DO care about your scholarship. I want to know the historical information about very early Christianity and the biblical, textual criticism that you share. I hope you will get done talking about what your personal beliefs are with regard to the existence of God and get back to presenting historical information about early Christianity and the Bible.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Sorry — this thread has finally ended, so its back to scholarship!

      • Avatar
        doug  July 24, 2017

        I’ve enjoyed all of your writing about your religious past and your current thinking on religious beliefs. It’s good to say we should evaluate our thinking. But it’s inspiring to see that someone (in this case, you) has actually done it. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      catguy  July 26, 2017

      I actually enjoy learning both Dr. Ehrman’s personal beliefs as well as his doctrinal knowledge about early Christianity. I was introduced to Dr. Ehrman from a couple of the Great Courses. I was hooked. I personally think it is helpful to have some background into a person’s beliefs, educational preparation, experiences, etc.

  7. Lev
    Lev  July 19, 2017

    “By the time I was a liberal Christian in the late 80s and early 90s these debates about charismatic gifts were all very much in the past for me. I certainly didn’t believe in the spiritual gifts anymore”

    This is where I’m a little confused over the chronology of your story. I can appreciate the step you took when you lost faith in the inerrancy of the bible and the dogmas of the evangelicalism. I can also appreciate the shift in traditions from an evangelical to a liberal expression of your Christian faith. But it sounds like you also severed your spiritual connection with God around the same time. May I ask what provoked this?

    I ask, because I went through a similar journey from evangelicalism to liberal Christianity, but I maintained my spiritual connection with God and I haven’t yet understood (maybe I missed it?) the reasons why you disconnected yours.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      That’s what I’ve been trying to explain (possibly with limited success!). The connection was severed the more I reflected on the problem of suffering in the world and my inability to explain it if there was a good and loving and powerful God who was ultimately in control of it.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 19, 2017

    What were you actually saying when you thought you were “speaking in tongues”? Were you just spouting gibberish, any random syllables that came into your head, convinced that it meant something? And if so, did you try to “translate” it, believing the Spirit would inspire you to understand what it meant?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Yes, that’s pretty much it. No, no translation was necessary: it was a direct communication with God.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 19, 2017

    Another thought that’s occurred to me: did you and your fellow believers *record* what was “spoken in tongues”?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      We never did, but of course we hear stories (rumors as it turns out) that others had and that professional linguists who analyzed the tapes had been amazed that they had been fluently speaking some otherwise virtually unknown language from someplace in Africa or the far East…..

  10. Avatar
    jhague  July 19, 2017

    When you say that you spoke in tongues regularly, what does that mean exactly? Since we don’t believe in spiritual gifts, what were you doing at the time you thought you were speaking in tongues?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Sorry — I don’t think I was clear. At the time I *did* believe in spiritual gifts. That was the point!

      • Avatar
        jhague  July 24, 2017

        I understand. What I mean is, what were you (or anyone) doing when speaking in tongues? Just babbling nonsense? Saying things that no one can understand?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2017

          Yes, both things.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 24, 2017

            I have never experienced speaking in tongues at the church I grew up in except to be told that it was nonsense. If speaking in tongues involves babbling nonsense and saying things that no one can understand, what makes people believe that it is edifying others or accomplishing anything?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 25, 2017

            People who engage in it feel that through it they establish a particularly intimate connection with God through the Spirit.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 25, 2017

            So its a personal experience that seems to be done in front of other people. Do you know why what is uttered is nonsense verses saying things that have meaning? I’m sure some people do it in private but if what is said is not understandable, what is the point of doing it in front of other people?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 26, 2017

            I suppose the point is to show that a divine force is speaking through you, miraculously.

  11. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 19, 2017

    “Was God the creator? Well, maybe in some kind of ultimate sense, but not literally.”

    Qur’an (52:35-36) Or were they created by nothing, or were they the creators [of themselves]? Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Rather, they are not certain.

    “The universe was billions of years old, it came into being at the Big Bang,”

    Qur’an (21:30) Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?

    “it has been expanding ever since, and the reaches of space”

    Qur’an (51:47) And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander.

    “Was Jesus the son of God?”

    Qur’an (19:92-93) And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that He should take a son. There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a servant.

    So who is our Creator?

    Qur’an (19:93) He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare His Praises and Glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.

  12. Avatar
    john76  July 19, 2017

    The Sanhedrin trying Jesus on Passover Eve? Not a chance. And finding him guilty of blasphemy for his messianic claims? There was nothing blasphemous about Jesus, Bar Kochba, or anybody else claiming to be the messiah (though of course they might be mistaken). 

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 27, 2017

      The Sanhedrin might have done anything, gripped by the fear that Jesus was attacking their authority, and that if he got enough followers, might provoke a crackdown from Rome. They were supposed to keep their people in line–that was the deal. When the deal was broken (and not by Christians), the consequences to Palestine were horrendous.

      “Blasphemous” is a word. Like “treasonous.” Think about how freely that word gets tossed around now, by all sides, and ask yourself how likely it is that all Jews then agreed on what was blasphemous or not.

  13. Avatar
    Seeker1952  July 19, 2017

    Besides the problem of evil, what caused me the most doubt was that understanding scripture and religion as “myth” (but not myth in the sense of current day “mythicists”), which I found both very meaningful and reasonable, seemed to ultimately lead to elimination of “all” the divine/supernatural/transcendent elements of religion. For example, Jesus’s Resurrection can be very meaningful religiously even if one doesn’t believe it is literally true. But unless there is “something” that is “miraculous/supernatural” that is literally true, even the existence of God seems to make more sense as a myth than as something real in however mysterious of a way. And no afterlife either. All that’s left is naturalism and poetry and humanism.

    Did/do you see “myth” as ultimately leading to elimination of the supernatural? Did that help lead to your agnosticism–in conjunction with the problem of evil?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I would have remained a Christian believing in some sense in the myth and the supernatural, if it weren’t for my wrestling with the problem of suffering.

  14. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 19, 2017

    There’s a woman named Dominique, on the CBS reality show Big Brother, who prays in tongues. On the July 19th episode, Dominique believes she’s received an answer from the Holy Spirit. As it turns out, the answer is correct. The show is on demand for anyone interested in the tongues phenomenon. I can tell that Dominique practices speaking in tongues often. My guess is that she can do it at will.

  15. Avatar
    Hume  July 20, 2017

    Great post. I’ve resonated with similar questions.

  16. Avatar
    webattorney  July 23, 2017

    Wow, a former speaker of tongues! I don’t even know what that feels like to speak in tongues. Do some people understand what you are saying? Could you understand what you were saying yourself?

  17. Avatar
    straitace2  July 23, 2017

    An excerpt from your post … “In particular, if you did that, you could speak in tongues, praying in foreign languages that you didn’t know (and usually that no one else knew either).  And I did.  I received the Spirit and I spoke in tongues.  Did it regularly.” I don’t understand … how did YOU do this, apparently literally .. and then not believe in the Spirit ??

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I’m not sure I’m being very clear in all this! At that period of my life I absolutely believed in the Spirit. That was my point!

  18. Robert
    Robert  July 24, 2017

    “In short, what did I believe, about God, about Christ, about the Spirit?  What did I believe that any non-Christian couldn’t believe?  Why, in effect, should I remain a Christian?”

    Orthodoxy vs orthopraxis. You once said that since you’ve become agnostic/atheist, you’ve become much more concerned about and active in social action. I now see that this process evolved as your beliefs developed from a more evangelical toward a more liberal version of Christian belief. No offense, but this seems to me to point toward a particularly shallow and objectionable earlier ‘faith’. I’m very glad you eventually rejected that. As you slowly rejected those previous theologies, were you discovering profound Christian faithfulness to God and others that was progressively less concerned with doctrine and labels? Did this feel like you were growing into a more exciting, true faithfulness?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I think maybe you’re imagining that my faith was a simple matter of intellectual agreement with a set of doctrines (which could be challenged), and that seems shallow to you? That would indeed be amazingly shallow. But that wasn’t what my faith was at all. My faith deeply penetrated my entire life: my beliefs, yes, but my worship practices my philosophy, my ethics, my daily (hourly) behavior, my prayer life, my passions, my cultural associations and activies, my social agenda, my political views, my … all of me. That’s why it was shattering for me to leave the faith. Or maybe I misunderstood what you thought my faith consisted of?

      • Robert
        Robert  July 25, 2017

        Sorry, but that is indeed what I thought you were saying with this comment:

        “In short, what did I believe, about God, about Christ, about the Spirit?  What did I believe that any non-Christian couldn’t believe?  Why, in effect, should I remain a Christian?”

        • Bart
          Bart  July 27, 2017

          I think we’re having trouble understanding each other! I’m saying that my faith deeply penetrated every bit of my life and thought, and so was not some kind of shallow assent to intellectual propositions (which is what I thought you were saying about me). But even a Christian faith that is deep, even totalizing, has *some* content, some theological basis. If that basis is completely and thoroughly undermined — for example if a person comes to think that there is no God or supernatural force in the world, or that Jesus is not some kind of representative of divinity, or whatever — then however deep, subtle, and sophisticated that faith is, it is in jeopardy. Christian faith at a minimum (not at a maximum) does have some level of content to it. It is not simply a vague attitude toward reality (“Hey, you gotta have faith!”).

          • Robert
            Robert  July 27, 2017

            I realize, of course, that this is the common orrhodox view of what defines ‘Christianity’. Personally, however, I have more respect for an orthopraxis of Christian agnosticism. I see Christian faithfulness primarily as treating others in the way we would like to be treated by others (including God, if he exists) and speaking the truth as we see it, sometimes courageously in opposition to unjust authorities.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 16, 2017

        I once heard Frank Lloyd Wright give a very moving and evocative lecture, describing the sources of his thinking and the organic nature of his designs. In the Q and A session afterword, the first question was, “Is it more lucrative to build homes or office buildings?” Wright shoved his papers into his briefcase, muttered, “Another evening wasted,” and stalked off the stage.
        I think you’ve done all that’s humanly possible to explain the evolution of your thinking. Anyone who doesn’t understand now, will never get it.

  19. cheriegate
    cheriegate  July 25, 2017

    Such a gruesome journey out of the faith I once embraced. Would you care to comment a bit on Tillich and his “God above the God of theism”. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2017

      I’m afraid I haven’t read Tillich for 35 years! But my sense is that he understood that the traditional Christian understanding of God as a kind of superhuman personal being (i.e., his God of theism) was completely inadequate for modern persons trying to understand the true divine reality.

  20. Avatar
    maklaka  July 28, 2017

    My background is a Pentecostal one. I grew up in a church where people spoke in tongues, were “slain in the spirit”, had prophetic words…etc. I remember my own mother recounting to me her experience of “speaking in tongues” when she was studying scripture one evening. She said that she recently just started praising in fluent Spanish out of nowhere while reading The Bible. At the time I didn’t have the heart to remind her… but she had studied Spanish for years in college many years prior. So as miracles go – this one didn’t feel particularly impressive. That was a pretty heartbreaking moment to realize I might have been raised to just accept confirmation bias as rocksolid proof, rather than critical investigation of evidence as a means of reaching conclusions.

    All that being said! Can you elucidate a little on the cessationist debate with respect to Pentecost and Acts 2:39 in particular where “the promise is for you and your children” bit would seem to obviously extend beyond just the very next generation of those present :p What does the Greek seem to imply?

    In your view, why did so much of believing Christian intelligentsia come to sacrifice the continuity of miracle working and accept cessationism? Was it careful reading or just confronting reality?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      The phrase “and your children” usually means “and for all subsequent generations”. Later Christians did continue to claim that the Spirit worked miracles. I deal with this a bit in my forthcoming book, where I argue that stories of miracles were precisely what led to so many conversions in the second to fifth Christian centuries. But it’s an interesting question — I’ll add it to my mailbag and deal with it in a fuller post.

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