I entered Willamette University in the fall of 1987 intent on becoming a Christian missionary to South America, followed by a career as a pastor in the Mennonite Church. My course selections reflected these goals.

During my first semester, I joined Young Life, a Bible study group on campus, but found the group left me unfulfilled. Its members were petty and reclusive, the group insular. It reminded me more of the Mormon youth group I had fled than of the Mennonite youth group I had embraced. Young Life did nothing to improve my esteem of fellow Christians.

Willamette was a shock to me. Or, more precisely, the myriad opinions on campus were a shock to me. Canby High School provided me a good education, but an education in an environment in which opinion was essentially uniform. Opinion on Willamette’s campus was diverse. My freshman seminar, World Views, included people with decidedly different opinions than my own. In fact, World Views would be the most influential class I took at Willamette.

World Views focused on the literature of Victorian England and the sea change that occurred in that country during the nineteenth century. It featured readings from Bernard Shaw, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, and more. These were great minds, pillars of genius. I was staggered by the intellectual heights to which these men and women aspired. I dutifully read the assignments, but rejected most of their ideas; they did not fit with my Christ-centric conception of the universe.

Still, they had a cumulative effect.

By the end of my first semester at Willamette, I was overwhelmed. In only three months I had been exposed to a broad range of ideas (feminist theory, utilitarianism, communism, evolutionary biology, etc.), ideas that had changed the course of Empire. What chance had my mind against such might? My belief system was being shaken at its very foundation.

In the final paper for World Views, I wrote: “What I say is what I feel and not what I know. I know little but I feel much. Perhaps you should not attack me with knowledge but with feelings.”

This statement is telling. It illustrates my state of mind.

For years I had been transported by a euphoric religious fervor. My beliefs made me feel good, but I had never accepted God on an intellectual level. In fact, I had staunchly refused to engage in intellectual debates regarding the existence of, or nature of, God. I kept the conversation on a strictly personal, emotional level. I felt God in my life — or so I believed — buy my mind was not ready to tackle the topic; I had not even made a Kantian “leap of faith” (nor do most Christians). Despite having read a fair number of Christian apologists, I had merely bought into a philosophy and a culture that made me feel good.

(Aside: Now that I am older (and wiser?), I have no qualms with a person who buys into a philosophy and a culture that makes that person feel good so long as this “buying in” does not interfere with my happiness. There are actually times that I wish I could buy into Chrisitanity — the community of spirit has its appeals.)

During the writing of the aforementioned final paper, I first began to doubt the validity of my own beliefs: “I worship. You worship differently. Who is right? Let’s play a game: I’ll flip a god, you call heads or tails.” It seemed to me that my belief in the God of Christianity was perhaps arbitrary, based more on geography, culture, and chance than on the truth of God’s existence.

By the end of the paper, it was clear to me that my faith was on the line: “Next semester I will take Study of Major Religious Texts. Let’s see how well my dwindling faith responds now! Let’s see some proof. I want fire from heaven. Question everything. I’m waiting.”

That’s what my first semester at Willamette taught me to do: question everything. (And this helps and hinders me to this day, fifteen years later.)

I ended the paper by describing my reaction to all that I’d learned during that semester at college: “I fall to my knees and I pray. To a God that I’m thinking of giving my two weeks notice. I don’t know if he hears.”

(Incidentally: this paper to which I keep referring was pivotal in my intellectual development, but it was surely non-standard. It was hand-written in four colors of ink, written as an internal dialogue (not a monologue) that never addressed the essay topic (which was something like: describe the roles that Mill, Marx, Darwin, and Dickens played in shaping nineteenth century intellectual development). I was too self-absorbed at this point, too consumed by my own personal transformation at the hands of these authors to completely tackle the Big Picture. Professor Loftus refused to give me a grade for the assignment.)

I started my first semester at Willamette devoted to God, ready to spend my life in his toil.

I started my second semester at Willamette questioning God, challenging him: “Prove to me that you exist.”

My focal point during that semester was Introduction to Major Religious Texts. The course was less an objective survey of major religions than it was a Christian analysis of them. Still, it was enough to push me into the corner with the agnostics.

We studied the book of Job, a book I found ludicrous. God, as portrayed in Job, is a capricious child, wagering with Satan over the faith of a righteous man. God torments Job sadistically, as if He were a boy with a magnifying class, burning the ants. Is this the God I worshipped?

We studied Gilgamesh as a “primitive” religious text, yet it seemed no more primitive than the Old Testament. We studied the Bhaagavad-Gita, but I wasn’t impressed with Krishna and the demands he placed on his worshippers. They were like the demands that Jehovah (or Yahweh, or Whoever) placed on His followers.

Every religion we studied was, in its own way, a method by which humans could cope with a seemingly meaningless existence on the Earth. (This seems obvious now, but was revelatory at the time.) I moved from the camp of the Christian Existentialists to the camp of the Existentialists.

I was not long for existentialism; the philosophy was too nihilistic for me. I did toil among the ranks of the agnostics for a time, though, and this caused my carefully planned life to crumble. My life goals were no longer valid; there aren’t many agnostic missionaries. I fumbled around for a semester or two before deciding that psychology offered my best choice for a career. (Look where that got me!)

My last three years at Willamette were a gradual progression from agnosticism to atheism. As I read more widely, as I became more frequently exposed to the principles of the scientific method (also here), essentially the more I learned, the weaker my faith became until all that was left was an understanding that not only is there no God, there are no supernatural phenomena at all. No angels, no ghosts, no spirits, no life force, nothing. There is life, and that, itself, is awesome.

Still, I longed for a purpose to this life that only religion had been able to provide me.

[… to be continued …]


On 26 November 2002 (10:04 PM),
Tammy said:

Now JD did you really expect thatI would let this one go uncommented on? Lol JD you read all those books yet I wonder, Have you ever read the Bible from cover to cover? If not then why make a decision on God and who He is without first reading everything he has to say? My religion class at the college shook the very foundations of what I had learned growing up. I took a different route then you tho. When that happened to me I dug deep into Gods inspired Word to discover who he really was. My faith began to buld itself once more. You know JD God does not have to prove himself to anybody. “He is God and beside Him there is none else~” The Bible speaks of those “those that are ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth”. Jesus also says that unless you become as children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. All the knowledge in the world will not bring you to Christ. Proverbs says, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God”. JD the only place to find God is on your knees. Forget the books; read the Bible! And unless you have read it from Genesis to Revelation then you have not given it a fair chance. I hope the end of the story will be that you have discovered that God cannot be boxed into our little minds but that by faith we must know that he is God! “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and LEAN NOT UNTO THINE OWN UNDERSTANDING: in all thy ways acknowledge HIM and HE shall diect your path.”

On 27 November 2002 (08:33 AM),
Paul said:

I am very interested in your jouney. I too have made a similar journey but in reverse. I went (am going) from non-belief to some sort of belief I’m not able to discribe as of yet. I look forward to hearing more about yours.

One thing though. You too easily dismiss your earlier “feelings” of God. You don’t give this feeling as much credence as your intellectual
beliefs. Isn’t this the classic mind/body split that has plagued us for so long. This split is the Great Mistake of Western Thought (wow). Weren’t those feelings some sort of Faith? Most people would like to have some sort of feeling, some strive their whole life for it, some never get it. I don’t think people want some doe-eyed, pious, naive feeling but something akin to Knowing (more than just intellectual). [Again, I’ll refer you to Brother Wendell in his “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.” His essay about Christianity’s culpability in the spoiling of the environment begins with a examination of the creation story (Genesis again) in that mankind is not made: breath + clay = man (the split) but rather breath + clay = soul. It’s still interesting to note that the etymology (sp?) of Adam and soil are the same (adama) so Adam is made from the soil.]

As long as I’m spouting off: There are forms of Christianity that don’t ascribe to the practice of Sola Scriptura (scripture only) that Tammy espouses…

Alexandria, VA

On 27 November 2002 (10:44 AM),
Scott said:

Religion as a word points essentially, I think, to that area of human experience where in one way or another man happens upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage, a come-all-ye; where he is led to suspect the reality of splendors that he cannot name; where he senses meaning no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myths and rituals, in foolish, left-handed games and cloudy novels; where in great laughter perhaps and certain silences he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it. To the many in the world who wistfully or scornfully would deny ever having such experiences, the answer, I suspect, is that we are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe – life is complicated enough as it is, after all, and I don’t know why the trees are angry. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, through some horror of the twelve o’clock news, some dream, some breakfast on the first and last of all our days, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded of. Only then, unlike the saints, more pigs always than heroes, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened even though we are not sure what it was or just where we supposed to go with it, is to enter that dimension of life that religion is a word for.

On 27 November 2002 (10:57 AM),
Tammy said:

Hmmmm and what form of Christianity would that be? Do they then call themselves Christian? I too have read other books but I’m just trying to say that salvation and faith are very simple and one needs no other book, or books, other than the Bible to point them to the Truth and the Life. Truly the Bible is enough. Why should one read others interpretation of the Bible rather than the Bible itself. The problem with embracing the Bible as the inspired word of God is that it is just too simple for intellects to grasp. They think that there has to be more. They cannot grasp even the first four words of the Bible, “In the beginning God…” So they turn to evolution and slowly their faith erodes. And slowly they work out their own faith. They move into the “twilight zone”; that time in their lives when the Light meets darkness. From there they move to evening and then finally into the darkness itself. That is a very sad state to be in. One must hang onto faith. Without faith there really is no existence. We all have faith in something than why is it so hard to have faith in God? Curious, Tammy

On 27 November 2002 (11:00 AM),
Tammy said:

Wow Scott I like that!

On 27 November 2002 (04:11 PM),

“Do they call themselves Christians?”

Yes, they call themselves Christians. I’m not dismissing scripture at all but merely suggesting that there is more than the Bible. There is tradition, lives of the Saints, there is Communion (the Eucharist). Some groups see that the Eucharist is central theme or event that their community revolves around.

It takes quite a bit of faith to believe that it is truly the Blood and Body of Christ of which one partakes at Communion (and not Kool-aid and wonder bread).

Golly, the waters getting pretty deep around here…[the “me” of 5 years ago would be rolling on the ground laughing at the “me” of now and what I just wrote.]


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