Confessions of a Former Neofundamentalist

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

During my senior year of college, I mentored a freshman in my campus fellowship.  We met in the lounge of her dorm every week to talk about life and a book we were reading together, and during one of these meetings, she told me that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have children.

Slightly horrified, I said to her, “Can you think of a single godly marriage in the Bible that didn’t result in offspring?”

That effectively ended the conversation.

Eight years later, this young woman — still a dear friend of mine — reminded me of this exchange over sushi at a restaurant near LAX, where she was passing through on business.  My eyes widened with horror as the memory, so long dormant, replayed in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” was all I could say in the moment.

Reflecting on this conversation later, I realized that I had a lot to apologize for.

I’m sorry that I didn’t consider that the social and cultural context in which the Bible was written — specifically, an agrarian one in which children were needed to help plant and harvest crops, in which having children was essential to survival — was completely different from the one in which we live, thousands of years later.

I’m sorry that I basically repeated verbatim what I had heard a missionary say years before, without thinking about it critically or processing it with anyone.

I’m sorry for tacitly implying that people who aren’t able to have children aren’t godly people.

I’m sorry that these words seem to have stuck with you and may have influenced your life choices.

I’m sorry that I was a neofundamentalist back then — not quite a head-covering fundy, but a slightly more modern version that went to public school and listened to pop music — and that I imposed those views on you.

***

I became a Christian when I was a sophomore in high school, after years of wrestling with questions of religion and spirituality.  The experience of being in a faith community was transformative for me; just as significant was the sense that I finally had answers to all of life’s questions.  The world, once so complex and confusing, was suddenly simple and easy to navigate.  Had a question?  The Bible had an answer.  The end.

The problem was that many of these new answers didn’t seem to line up with the ones I had before.  I was raised by parents who had PhDs in math and science, in a household where scholarship and intellectual rigor were paramount.  But suddenly, after my conversion, I started questioning everything I previously knew, from the validity of evolution to whether women were truly equal to men.  It was the Midwest in the late ’90s — a time and place where science and religion were still seen as at odds with each other (which, I gather, is still the case in many parts of the country) — and I didn’t really have anyone to have these conversations with.  My scientist parents weren’t religious.  The Christian women in my life told me to look for a spiritual leader.  I didn’t hear anyone talking about how evolution and the book of Genesis could be reconciled.  I felt forced to choose between what I knew pre-conversion and what I was learning post-conversion, and because my experience with my faith community had been so life-changing, I opted for the latter.  Science, once so central to my life, was now something I viewed with suspicion.

I carried this skepticism with me to college, where I learned a ton but spent more time than I should have resisting the ideas swirling around me instead of engaging them.  The Christians I knew who had opinions on matters intellectual and political were mostly right-leaning; a few claimed persecution from the biology faculty for their dissenting beliefs.  Seeing no other options as a Christian, I bought into these ideas too, which led to some conversations and election votes that I wish I could take back.

Near the end of college, I must have voiced some of these opinions to my longtime academic advisor, an Episcopalian woman with very left-leaning tendencies, because she gently directed me to Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to issues of social justice.  I visited their website, where my mind was promptly blown.  “God is not a Democrat or a Republican,” it read — which, being in the Midwest in the early 2000s, was news to me.  The website’s list of moral issues centered not on abortion and gay marriage but on war, poverty, the environment.  The idea that I could care about these things — that, as a Christian, I should care about these things, and my faith should inform these opinions — immediately felt right.  And just like that, an entirely new world of intellectual and political possibilities was opened to me.

A few years later, I started a doctoral program in clinical psychology that was housed in a seminary, and my theology classes continued the demolition of my black-and-white beliefs.  How do we reconcile the fact that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell different stories of creation — or that much of the Psalms are word-for-word replications of Egyptian religious texts?  How do we reconcile the promises of Proverbs with the realities of the world around us?  Instead of giving me answers, my classes not only unraveled the ones I had but also raised questions I hadn’t known to ask.  The only thing that kept my faith from coming completely unglued was the fact that the professors asking these questions seemed to retain their faith in the midst of them.  They demonstrated that it could be done, that faith and questions weren’t mutually exclusive, that one didn’t necessarily quash the other.

If my theology classes took a wrecking ball to my simple, literal faith, then working with therapy clients blew the remains to pieces.  As I sat with people in pain and listened to their stories, a few truths became clear to me: that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have; that things do not always turn out well for people who make all the right choices; that you can’t really separate bad people from good people, because anyone, in the right circumstances, will do just about anything.  More than anything else, my time as a therapist made me see that my old black-and-white beliefs simply didn’t fit the world around me; the world was much more grey than I had ever realized.  I needed to learn how to be comfortable with that, and I needed to figure out what my faith was going to look like in light of these realizations.

My faith is still intact, but it looks completely different than it did before — and, I’ve come to accept, it will forever be evolving.  In contrast to when I started this journey, I have a lot more questions now than answers.  I’m aware that I know virtually nothing compared to what I don’t know.  But I think I have a much better understanding of how the world actually is; instead of forcing everything into boxes that feel manageable and safe, I can see that the world is messy, complex, contradictory, unpredictable.  And as a result, I have a lot more compassion for people than I did before — and a much greater appreciation for a God who entered the messiness, who knows suffering and pain, who gets just how effed up the world and its inhabitants are but loves them all the same.  So even though it’s a lot more complicated and a lot less comfortable, I think my faith is more real, more honest, better this way.  And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Oh, and Jenny — it’s cool.  You don’t have to have kids.

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