Sometimes freethinkers are made by their acceptance of modern science; sometimes it’s some onerous doctrine that has always offended but finally couldn’t be suppressed anymore; sometimes the desire to learn leads to it, as when one reads widely across many different positions; sometimes one is hurt badly by the “orthodox”, and is “snapped out of” orthodoxy, so to speak.
My journey is more of the latter, with the former proceeding from it.
Back in the 1980’s, I attended an evangelical seminary and earned my Master of Divinity. The seminary was inerrantist and leaned toward Reformed Theology. There was latitude on issues such as eschatology and baptism, but orthodox Christology and innerrancy were absolutes. As such, there was no textual criticism, except to oppose it.
I began ministry in 1988 in a Associate Reformed Presybterian Church. Think Presybterian Church of America but not as dogmatically Calvinistic. I lasted there three and a half years. Health issues, as well as discouragement and disillusionment with the behavior of some Christians, led to my resignation. After a time of recovery, I worked a number of interim ministries, with the most positive one being in a Reformed Church in America congregation. Then, in 1997, I began pastoring a small Conservative Baptist Church, which later became Living Hope Freethinkers. More on that below.
The crux of my break with evangelicalism focused on the behaviors of evangelicals and fundamentalists within the churches I served. The intolerance was almost unbearable. Every person that left one of my churches because I didn’t believe the “right things”, and every hate letter and remark aimed at me took more and more out of me until one day I just “snapped” out of orthodoxy. My attitude was that if this was orthodoxy, I wanted nothing to do with it.
So I explored other points of view and found a whole new world awaiting me. The congregation that I current serve has been following me along this new path. It is enlightening to see former Conservative Baptists being open to different points of view, and even different religions. As an example, we have had a practicing Buddhist attend our meetings, and be accepted and welcomed. We did lose several evangelicals who we tolerated but who refused to tolerate us.
Our group moved toward freethought as a result of my changing views on worship. For me, worship became nothing short of caustic. While I intellectually have moved away from the old views of God, emotionally the older views are harder to root out and still cause me difficulty. Worship represents the emotional views for me, and as a result, I had to end it in my life. So I told our group that for me to continue in any kind of ministry with them, one of three things had to happen. One, I would leave the ministry. Two, we could do a study series earlier in the morning on Sunday, and then they could worship at the church of their choice. Or three, we could rid ourselves of our worship service as it was constituted and do things differently. This would consist of a study with discussion, a song, offering, and a sharing and quiet time of reflection. Most of the group supported number three. With this change, we decided to modify the name of our “church” to Living Hope Freethinkers from its former name, Living Hope Church.
The studies we are doing are keeping me engaged intellectually and are helping all of us on life’s journey. Our group has studied works by Bart Erhman, the Nag Hammadi texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz, “The Bible Unearthed” by Finklestein and Silberman, the problem of suffering, and a host of other things along those lines.
I want to be doing something that I enjoy, and this at least brings in enough income for survival and some conforts of life, along with my wife’s job. Right now there aren’t many other options.
I am fortunate that I no longer have to hide my beliefs. I consider myself an agnostic freethinker, and the group has no problem with that. Most of them are Christian theists, but of a liberal persuasion currently. When I explained to the folks that when it comes to knowledge of a God, I am agnostic (I don’t know if some sort of divine being exists), but when it comes to belief in the God of the Bible I am an atheist (I do not believe such a God exists), they accept it well enough.
This freedom to be myself is one of the joys of my life, and a tremendous load has been lifted as a result. Things aren’t always easy, and I do struggle at times with scars from past experiences with evangelicals and discouragements with trying to grow our Freethinkers group. But even with that, I am still in a better place.
It’s been a painful and interesting ride.