Why I Still Consider Myself A Calvinist Part 2 – Escaping Fundamentalism
If you were raised in a fundamentalist church like me, then what I’m about to share with you may sound very familiar. But before we get there, let me first give you a good definition of fundamentalism by Steven Pressfield.
According to Pressfield, the fundamentalist is opposite to the artist. To do art the artist must look to the future and imagines “what will be.” The fundamentalist imagines a glorious past and re-imagines “what was.” They are antithetical visions.
Central to both is the concept of freedom. The artist requires freedom to look forward into the future visioning what can be. The fundamentalist “cannot stand freedom” and instead retreats to the past.
Childhood religious experiences based on the fundamentalist vision of the past can exert a powerful influence in adult life. When they are good, attempting faithfulness to the gospel, it can be a profound legacy. But when those experiences are bad, they can take the rest of our lives to move beyond them. The worst cases tend to be detrimental to faith, particularly in areas of sexuality. I’ve seen both sides.
Mine wasn’t bad. The church I attended introduce me to the gospel. However, today I’ve realized that much of my decision-making and beliefs were motivated by an “us-verse-them” mindset that has required significant alterations in my theology. Here’s my story.
The Christian Ghetto
I was raised a southern fried evangelical. My family and I attended a large, growing church in the city. During the week, my parents sent me to a Christian school. My formation was thoroughly biblical with dispensational theology as its doctrine.
As a fundamentalist, I learned Evolution is bad; rock music was from Satan (unless it was Christian rock but only in moderation), and no dancing or drinking (bummer).
Here is a summary of what I recall of that “Christian” education.
I should be like a Bible hero.
Bible stories and the moral principles applied from them made up the diet of my education. My Sunday School teachers would tell us a story of a biblical person and leave out almost all of the important points.
Most of the time the lessons went something like this. In the face of life’s menacing giants, have faith like King David. When God spoke to us, respond like Samuel “here I am Lord.” When “witnessing” to someone, evangelize boldly like Peter, Paul or Stephen. Why? Because after all “What Would Jesus Do?”
Biblical characters were always portrayed as heroes. They were never presented as the Bible shows them in their raw and flawed human nature. They were epic heroes, not fallen creatures. So it left an impression in my young mind that these characters were somehow super humans, and I never measured up.
God’s Sovereignty was always couched in terms of God’s will.
God’s will was emphasized but never explained. I just somehow knew He had a will for my life and it probably involved some full-time Christian service. If I was living life right (sometimes marked by God’s blessings), then I was somehow in the “will of God.” When life went wrong, that meant I was probably out of the will of God (or so it seemed).
The problem? I never really could be sure whether or not I was in or out of the will. That led to many head games and constant worry and anxiety.
For example, early on in my marriage, when my wife and I fought (we were married very young) the nagging self-doubt-voice-in-my-head would whisper, “Maybe it was a mistake to marry her; you must be out of God’s will.” That’s pretty unhelpful in the grand scheme of life and an awful thing to say to your spouse. I’ve since repented.
Say the sinner’s prayer and you’re in!
Early in my childhood, I knew I was a sinner, needing a savior because the consequence was burning in hell. Salvation meant avoiding hell and going to heaven. But there was nothing taught about how salvation applied to this life. Sin was something that caused you to go to hell.
When it came to personal salvation, I was taught assurance through the cliche’ of once saved always saved. Because I said the sinner’s prayer, I could be sure that I was in, but this seemed empty because I felt like a second class believer. Why? I found myself regularly committing sin. So how could I be sure if it worked or not?
Notice the amount of “I’s” in that last paragraph. God’s electing grace was never emphasized.
On The Last Days
It’s obvious that we are in the last days. Just watch CNN and how much biblical prophecy is being fulfilled.
Obviously, we were living in the End Times, after all, the European Union had just picked up their 10th country (a fulfillment of biblical prophecy — at least for a little while). So we needed to get out and get people saved. I certainly didn’t want to see anyone left behind (although I had a list of a few who I secretly was hoping might get left).
Living in Central Florida near Kennedy Space Center, very often NASA would fly the Space Shuttle over the area. The sonic boom from the shuttle’s speed always indicated it had passed over (like the death angel over ancient Egypt). One morning I awoke to that boom thinking the Rapture had occurred. I was so frightened that I ran around the house looking for my parents. Why? Because I was sure that I had been left behind, even though I remembered saying the sinner’s prayer.
Compartmentalizing My Faith
I attended public high school. Like so many of us, it was a very challenging and an awkward time for me — socially, spiritually, physically, and relationally.
Somehow I absorbed the idea that our primary purpose in life was to win souls for Jesus. My youth group pastors told us we needed to see our high school as a mission field, and my job was to bring students to Jesus (because we wouldn’t want them to be left behind). Consequently, I harangued my friends to the point where I didn’t have very many.
I quickly discovered that being a Christian was far harder than it first seemed and getting people to say the “sinner’s prayer” was even more challenging. So I learned a new skill, the art of compartmentalizing my faith to my private life, and I stopped telling people I was a Christian.
Result? Functional Agnosticism
This decision led to a crisis in my life where I became a functional agnostic. My faith was at the point where it couldn’t last much longer. I was filled with self-doubt and looming questions. So much didn’t make sense to me. So much that I had been taught seemed out of accord with reality.
That led to my confrontation at the University with my psychology profs. I was faced with subtle but relentless assaults on Christianity. My faith couldn’t stand their onslaught any longer. Challenged with the outcomes of brain science, faith seemed all but an illusion of neurochemical processes responding to various stimuli. Real intellectual pursuits would dismiss religion as a mental crutch for the weak minded.
So I gave up faith for a little while.
Calvin To The Rescue
As I stated in part 1 of this series, my journey was very much an intellectual one. Confronted with the polemics of secular humanist professors and lacking the basic apologetics to defend what I believed, the faith of my childhood simply was no match. I was adrift in the marketplace of ideas. So when I discovered Reformed theology of John Calvin and the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith alone, I became born again.
I no longer felt the shackles of a weak, performance-based religious system. And along with this faith came a comprehensive biblical framework that completely reorganized my categories of life. I came to know God as the sovereign Lord of the Universe who was far, far bigger than I had imagined.
I discovered that Christianity could indeed stand up to the challenges and arguments of the secularist. Christianity could indeed offer stimulating, thought-provoking answers to life’s most challenging problems. And in the end, I could enjoy the deep intellectual satisfaction that the Bible had far more to offer than superficial examples of heroic deeds. That in fact, the Bible presented human beings in their most accurate condition and offered a genuine solution of hope by grace through faith.
Through my study of Calvin and Reformed Theology, I also realized something. The greatest minds the West had every produced wrestled with the same questions as I and had come to profound answers. So in the end, compared to the weak shallowness of my childhood faith, Reformed Theology provided a much more satisfying and robust solution to life and ultimately rescued me from the pit of agnosticism.
But Calvinism is not without its problems. I’ll save that part for the next post!
Think through the impact of your religious childhood, how have those experiences affected your adult life?