How I walked away
By Edmund D. Cohen
None of the usual factors that make involvement in fundamentalist
Christianity destructive were present in my case. No family relationships
were wrecked. No huge sums of money were tricked out of me. No crackpot
political cause had me for its misguided champion. I never jeopardized
my health making believe I had been supernaturally healed of a disease.
I cannot even say that very many of my years were wasted, stultified,
None of the background to my becoming a fundamentalist was very usual
either. The fragmented, half-hearted instruction in Judaism I received
as a child had given way to skepticism and contempt for religion by
the time I was twelve. In those days, we were just beginning to come
to terms with Hitler's mass murder of half the world's Jews, and for
me that made rhetoric about ourselves as God Omnipotent's beloved
chosen people ring very false.
As a young adult, I had been a psychologist. The conventional wisdom
that Christian conversion did a more powerful job of transforming
personalities than any of our psychotherapy, made a pivotal impression
on me. The abiding interest I developed in Carl Jung's psychology
reinforced that impression, and also led to friendships with many
enlightened liberal Christian clergy.
Having too much of my life consist of such rarified stuff made me
want to do something real. I took a law degree, and for seven years
I reveled in untangling bungled real estate deals, defending criminals,
being a combatant in damage and divorce cases - in being right in
the middle of every sort of squalid human drama. By that time, Reagan
was president, political conservatism seemed to be the wave of the
future, and there was nothing to counteract the misconception that
the more intense and orthodox Christians - the conservative ones -
were the people who really "had their acts together."
Now, every other time when an "ism" - a political ideology, a school
of psychology, a philosophical system - attracted my attention, I
could sort out the ideas in it, and put it in some degree of perspective.
When I landed among the conservative Christians, I sensed something
powerful going on. It did not boil down to mere ideas. None of my
academic study prepared me for it. It fascinated me. I wanted very
much for these people's rosy "testimonies" of the benefits of Christian
conversion in their lives to be genuine. Indeed, William James' easy
acceptance of such "testimonies" in _The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience_
turned out to be a poor role model for me. I let myself be taken in.
My fascination with reading and learning about the Bible overrode
the influence of particular people and institutions along my journey.
My migration over about four years from liberal, "mainline" Protestantism,
to Pentacostalism (Assembly of God), to Calvinism (Orthodox Presbyterianism)
was far too rapid for individuals I encountered to gain much of a
hold. Each time I migrated, I looked for closer adherence to the Bible.
The biblical counseling movement of John Broger and Jay Adams figured
importantly toward the end of my journey. Finally, I enrolled in Westminster
Theological Seminary. Thankfully, that proved to be where the merry-go-round
ground to a halt.
I had never experienced a specific, memorable moment of conversion
personally. (It seems that people who have been in church all their
lives are the ones most likely to have those.) Lacking such a "testimony"
was not considered objectionable among the Calvinists as it was among
the Pentecostals. But I can say that the moment when my Christian
indoctrination collapsed was an ecstatic and poignant moment for me.
For most conservative Christians, cultivating the illusion of a benign,
other personality - who obligingly is whatever one wants him to be,
and with whom one can have whatever imaginary dialogue one wishes
- seems highly pleasant and rewarding. The Divine Other becomes the
adult equivalent of an imaginary playmate. Having a Divine Other always
available to assuage one's loneliness is mentioned more often than
anything else when ordinary people are asked how they think religion
But for someone who is studious and thoughtful about using all of
the biblical information about God's personality to constitute that
imaginary Divine Other, it does not work that way at all. God's reported
capricious indulgence for deviation, his vengefulness, and his extravagant
sadomasochism in dealing with the propitiation of sin take their toll
on the spontaneity of that dialogue. The only comfort he really holds
out is that maybe he will not send you down into eternal torment on
Judgment Day. (If he does not, he will send you to something resembling
an eternal church service instead, which you will not find boring
because your nature will have been changed.) One ends up straightjacketing
one's thoughts and feelings lest something taboo for the saved person
- for the believer predestined to persevere to the end - be exhibited
to that Other's unremitting scrutiny.
At the seminary, the constant effort I expended to censor my thoughts
and feelings began to exhaust me - a real self-induced neurosis. The
vacantness and hollowness I sensed in the other seminarians began
to get on my nerves. How boring and distasteful it was going to be,
to spend the rest of my life like this. It dawned on me how often
the demeanor, body language, and tone of voice of believers around
me "testifying" about the supposed benefits of their "walk with God,"
had belied their words. I began to understand why fearfulness and
depression became many people's most constant companions.
Reflection on the transformation in my own personality proved startling.
Devoutness had brought out some of my worst tendencies. I had grown
not in righteousness, but in rigidness, not in purity, but in priggishness
- not in holiness, but in ass-holiness! I had been on my way to becoming
a regular little Savonarola, a regular little Calvin itching to get
a Servetus burned at the stake. Show me a fundamentalist who does
not become like that, and I will show you one who conveniently finesses
the Bible's harder teachings! The absurdity of it all overwhelmed
me. I realized that biblical Christianity is all a devious psychological
rigmarole, ingeniously designed to make people compliant. No wonder
that in the places and times in history when preoccupation with Christianity
was at its height, mankind progressed very little. No wonder that
the accomplishments of contemporary fundamentalists in the arts and
sciences are so pathetically few.
I had been wiser at twelve than at forty! How could I have been so
damned stupid? At a moment I remember vividly, in mid-1983 early in
the morning while I was praying, that imaginary Divine Other simply
went poof and was gone, never to return. What a relief, to be rid
of that obnoxious, intrusive presence, and to have my privacy and
the freedom to explore my own thoughts and feelings returned to me.
For most of my former "brothers and sisters in Christ," I feel sorry.
Toward the ones I do not feel sorry for - especially the control freaks
who became the pastors - I feel contempt. My message for them is:
get real and grow up!
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