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I LEFT THE CHURCH
A Personal Testimony by J. Allan Danelek
following account is my personal story behind why I left the church. It is offered
only as an assist to those who might be questioning their own beliefs and is
not meant to be taken as an attack upon the church or Christianity in general.
I offer it only as one perspective among many and am perfectly willing to permit
others their own views. I would be happy to hear from anyone about their own
journey and am willing to dialogue with any reasonable person; please, however,
don't try and reconvert me or tell me I'm hell-bound for leaving the church;
first, that's rude, and second, I've heard it before. Simple disagreement is
fine but please keep it civil. Thanks. J.D.
Unlike most people who walk away from the church, my reasons for leaving had nothing to do with the sort of traumas many experience at the hands of the clergy. I was not molested or abused in any way, nor was I put out of fellowship or pressured to leave for some ill-advised lifestyle choices I'd made. In fact, my rationale for leaving was not negative in any way, and I remember my twenty years as an evangelical Christian fondly to this day. For that matter, I count the time I spent in the church as generally good times and owe much to those inside the ancient and hallowed institution who, over the years, guided me and helped me along my spiritual journey.
So if everything was fine, why did I leave?
I know this may sound simplistic, and perhaps it is, but I left because I simply outgrew it.
That may sound arrogant, but that's why I left. My spiritual reach had become greater than the spiritual grasp my church-or any church for that matter-was capable of providing. I moved on because it no longer fed me spiritually, no longer engaged me intellectually, and no longer had anything to say to me on a practical or personal level. I had simply reached a level of understanding from which I was finally able to recognize and appreciate the holes in my faith, and it was at that point I appreciated that a choice had been set before me: continue as best I could, suppressing any doubts and reservations I might have beneath a veneer of casual indifference, or move on. I chose the latter.
It wasn't an easy or quick decision, nor was it one that I took lightly. It was a process that took literally years and was, I believe, led my God Himself. But it was a necessary step I had to take if I was to come to understand the Divine in the way I wangted to. It was important that I leave if I were to grow any further and so, like a child that had completed elementary school and was ready to move on to more difficult lessons, I left, not in anger or disgust or even frustration, but with reluctance and even a note of sadness. The church had been my home, my spiritual mentor, and my emotional support for over twenty years, but in a way I almost felt it was bidding me farewell the way a mother hen bids one of her hatchling to leave and start a family of its own. We left on good terms, the church and I, and I would probably never have come to the understanding of the Divine I have today without its assistance and guidance. In that, I owe it a debt of gratitude and a word of thanks. Without the church, I would not be were I am today, and that would be the real tragedy.
A Born Again
Before moving on to explore the events that led me to make the decision I ultimately did, it is first necessary to examine a little background to get a better understanding of what sort of experiences I had that ultimately were to get me to that point. While I realize that my experiences are unique to myself, I don't believe they are unique to Christians, and so some may find my story useful. At least, that is the spirit in which I present it.
I did not come out of a fundamentalist background and was, if anything, a late bloomer to the evangelical lifestyle. My family was Catholic, and that remained my professedif largely inactivefaith for the first twenty years of my life. I briefly flirted with fundamentalism through the coaching of my first spiritual tutormy late brother-in-law Charlesand even made a profession of faith as a teenager, but like so many interests that came and went during my youth, it quickly faded. By the time I entered the service at age eighteen, I was hovering between Christianity and agnosticism with only occasional thought being given to either.
It was October of 1979 when I became a genuine Christian. I remember it clearly and while I can't recall the date specifically, I remember the moment quite well. I was stationed in San Diego at the time, far from home and lonely, just another sailor in a town full of sailors waiting impatiently to finish my enlistment and move on to...well, whatever awaited me next. I had befriended a clerk in a nearby store that summer and had been pestering her to go out with me when she began telling me about the importance of her faith (the truth be told, it was a tactic she later confided she used on guys who tried to hit on her. Either they fled like she were an unwed teenager or stuck around and "got saved," she told me with a smile.) Her words struck home and probably rekindled some fond memories of my earlier flirtations with Christianity as a teenager, and a few days later I found myself professing Christ as my Lord and savior.
In retrospect, it appeared I was especially ripe for conversion for this time it stuck. Within weeks I had been "born again" and baptized in the "Holy Spirit" (yes, I also spoke in tongues and still can if I care to) and was attending a full-gospel Charismatic church. For the next year I immersed myself in my faith, read through the Bible (parts of it several times), and read mountains of Christian literature. It seems that while it may have taken me awhile to get serious about God, once I did, I made up for lost time.
What was God to me at that point? He was a loving deity who was quick to forgive and endlessly patient, but one also who had very definite expectations and plans for my life. I truly believed God loved me and was pulling for me, but I also believed that when I sinned he kept his distance until I finally repented, after which we were friends again. He was my father, my brother, my teacher, and my counselor, as well as my disciplinarian and task master. As my second spiritual tutor, Bill (a retired Navy chief I had met through the clerk at the store) was fond of pointing out to me "God is easy to please but difficult to satisfy." Never has a truer statement been uttered.
Of course, like falling in love, no one can maintain that degree of fervor indefinitely and so, over the next few years I went on a spiritual roller coaster ride. There were times of spiritual drought and times of plenty; months when I sojourned "in the desert" and times when I grew by leaps and bounds; times of close fellowship with other Christians in other churches, and times of loneliness when I found myself sliding back into by old habits (known as "backsliding" in evangelical jargon) resulting in spiritual depression and, at times, even thoughts of suicide. It was definitely not a smooth journey, with the highs being ever higher and the lows ever lower, but it was the journey I was committed to nevertheless.
Eventually I married and some degree of stability entered into both my life and my spiritual walk. Being in one place for years at a time has a way of stabilizing one's life, and for the next fifteen years I was able to maintain a certain spiritual equilibrium. Though I was never quite able to recapture the exuberance and magical qualities of my earlier Christian experiences, I believe I had found peace in regards to my faith. I was no longer so frenetic about my spiritual journey and found room for other interests and pursuits. I was more comfortable with myself and with God and, while He still struck me as something of a stern taskmaster, I no longer felt that our relationship was as dependent upon my willingness to sorrowfully repent of my sins as it once was. God, I felt, accepted me as I was and would continue to do so even when I wasn't behaving very "Christian-like." We had an understanding, the Almighty and I, and for many years that seemed to be enough.
The First Doubts
I don't know when the first doubts about my faith began to creep in. I suspect it was sometime in the mid-80's when I began to explore the issue of the end times and Second Coming that had been such a source of fascination for me since adolescence. As a teenager, I had read Hal Lindsey's book, The Late, Great, Planet Earth, and got caught up in its imagery and drama and genuinely came to believe that Christ was slated to return almost any time. I, of course (along with all other "true" Christians who believed as I did about these sort of things) would be "raptured" before the anti-Christ made his appearance and so be safe from the coming seven years of tribulations God was about to unleash upon an unrepentant humanity, though it bothered me that my family-only one of whom had ever made a similar profession of Christ as I had-would not be so lucky. Still, I imagined God had everyone's best at heart and even they would come to the "truth" and be saved before it was too late.
As time passed and the date for the great tribulation kept slipping, however, I began to wonder and, finally, to doubt. Perhaps I had been too quick to believe everything Mr. Lindsey (and other end-times ministers of the era) had taught about Jesus' return, and I began to look elsewhere for other ideas about the end times. As is so often true of most beliefs that are blindly embraced in one's youth, it took me awhile to give up my cherished end times beliefs, but eventually I came to decide that old Hal didn't know what he was talking about and the first pillar of my faith fell with a thud. It wasn't a catastrophic loss, I decided (and it did free me from having to worry about my family's imminent salvation) and I moved on. I even found that embracing a different view of the end times than most of my fundamentalist colleagues hadn't destroyed my faith; it seemed I was still a Christian after all, despite no longer expecting to be raptured at any moment. In a strange way, it was even a little exhilarating to go against the herd, and it taught me to be a little more careful about what I so casually came to accept from the church by faith alone. It was an important lesson that was to pay off repeatedly over the next few years.
The next pillar of my faith to collapse was Creationism. As a fundamentalist, I had reluctantly sacrificed my long-held belief in evolution on the alter of faith, and so for a time was an enthusiastic, dyed-in-the-wool Young Earth Creationist who recognized the tremendous threat Darwin's theory of natural selection posed to my faith and the inerrancy of scripture. After all, if God didn't create the universe and human beings all in six literal days a mere six thousand years agoas apparently stated in Genesisthen the Bible was wrong and my faith was null and void. In an tortured leap of logic, I truly believed that for even one verse of scripture to be proven scientifically or historically wrong invalidated everything else right down to the virgin birth and the resurrection. It seemed that my faith was held together with bailing wire and spit; pull any single piece of its place and the whole fragile facade comes crashing down. That, at least, was (and still is) the fundamentalist position, and the reason Young Earth Creationism remains popular within the more conservative branches of Christianity.
But then a curious thing happened. I discovered other Christian writers who managed to maintain their faith and believe in evolution as the mechanism of Divine creation. They made a convincing argument that the Genesis accounts were meant to be taken metaphorically and not literally, and I eventually foundto my great reliefthat my faith didn't depend upon the exactitude of a few versus in Genesis nor was it utterly dependent upon the incompetence and deceit of modern science for its very survival. I no longer had to accept the dubious premise that very nearly everything we know about the universe from a scientific standpoint is wrong and had, in fact, discovered that science and God could co-exist in harmony. With that a second pillar of my faith crumbled.
Again, I accepted this new revelation as a gift of freedom. Like a heavy coat of armor that had never fit properly, I was glad to shed that dogma, and I moved on without it, my faith in both God and science firmly reestablished.
The third and, perhaps, most significant pillar that made up my extensive house of cards collapsed when I began struggling with my beliefs about Hell. I had always been uncomfortable with this particular element of my faith even during my most fundamentalist phase, largely because it always struck me as being so patently unfair and, as such, so cruel. How could a loving and caring God sendor, if you prefer, permitanyone to go to eternal punishment for what struck me as being fairly petty sins such as fornication or lying? Even worse, it occurred to me that most people weren't going to hell because of anything specifically they had done, but for failing to do something they should have done-namely, accept Jesus as their Savior and repent of their sins. It seemed to me one's salvation depended far more on being born into the proper environment where one had the gospel clearly and competently laid out to them than it did anything else. It was geography and timing that seemed to be the determining factors where salvation was concerned rather than the saving power of the Gospel.
The Devil, too, was a stumbling block for me. How could an omnipotent, omniscient, and loving God produce such a monstrosity in the first place, particularly knowing exactly what the outcome of that creation would ultimately be? None of it made any sense to me, unless I was willing the accept the idea that God and the Devil were allies in this ridiculous adventure, an idea I could never quite wrap my brain around. Something clearly was amiss here, and I spent literally years looking for an answer.
At first I thought annihilationismthe belief that Hell is simply a metaphor for spiritual extinction and not a place of eternal conscious tormentwas the answer. It seemed far more compassionate to exterminate the unrepentant than torture them eternally, and so for a time I was able to embrace it as the solution, but eventually it left me in the same place as before. Even if God wasn't going to banish anyone to eternal darkness, it still seemed pointless to extinguish a human soulone created in the image and likeness of God Himself at thatsimply for failing to embrace Christianity. If that were the case, it appeared that only a tiny fraction of all the humans that have ever been born or ever would be born would exist beyond the few short years they exist on this planet. While some people had no problem with the idea of seeing this life as the complete extent of their existence, I found it more problematic and eventually came to find my newfound solution to be no solution at all, but just a source of even more problems.
Clearly there was something wrong here. Either God was loving and caring as I had spent twenty years of my life believing, or He was not. Either He was a God of compassion or a God of judgment; He could not be both and still exist in my frame of reference. Something had to be done.
Something was done. I went of a quest of spiritual discovery.
After the collapse (or, some might say, reordering) of my basic theological views, it seems I was suddenly imbued with a newfound sense of wonder and curiosity about my beliefs. After all, if I was capable of being wrong about such foundational beliefs as the Second Coming, Young Earth Creationism, and even Hell, what else could I be wrong about? For that matter, since I had been taught most of my theology by others and had not developed it myself, how certain could I be about any of it? Curiosity drove me to learn more about my faith, which would only be possible by going to sources outside of my "approved" reading listeven if it meant going to sources entirely outside of Christianity!
As such, the next few years proved to be a time of tremendous learning for me. By reading other theologians-especially those outside the "pale of orthodoxy"-and even perusing the works of people who would not be considered Christians at all, I eventually came to change many of my long-held assumptions about my faith. For example, I began to examine the scriptures as historical documents rather than the "Word of God" in an attempt to understand the mindset and motivations of its writers. I learned about church history (and not the sanitized version I had been taught originally) and came to understand how a zealous certainty about anything can bring men and women to commit the most horrific and godless acts in the name of religion. I taught myself about other faith systems: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhismeven atheismto see if they had anything to say to me, and even revisited the literature of the very New Age movement I had been so quick to denigrate when I had been a fundamentalist peddler of certainty. At one point I had even taught Sunday school classes on the dangers and doctrinal errors of the cultsa "cult being defined as essentially any faith structure that possessed beliefs at variance with those of fundamentalist Christianity.
But perhaps the most important thing I discovered was that the angry God I had been taught to believe in did not exist. Instead, I came to see the underlying thread of truth that transcended all faiths and pointed me toward a God that lied just beneath the surface waiting to be discovered; a God not of expectations and judgment and reconciliation through the bloody sacrifice of His only Son, but of a God of unconditional love. I found a God who didn't love us because we had repented or believed the right things or belonged to the proper church, but one who loved us in spite of what we believed (or refused to believe). Not a God who loved us because of our good deeds or willingness to change, but loved us in spite of our selfishness, ignorance, and arrogance. In other words, I found a God who could love me for me (or in spite of me) and that changed everything.
It didn't happen overnight, of course. It took years before I could at last find the strength to wean myself of the church I had allowed myself to become so dependent upon for my beliefs, but one day I finally realized it was time to go. I could no longer conceive of their God of certainty and judgment, and so I did the only honest thing there was to do: I resigned my membership in my local congregation and walked out after a service one Sunday morning, never to return. I could still attend a funeral service or a wedding in a church, of course, and could still speak fondly of Jesus, but I was no longer one of them. I had become the very thing I had always imagined impossible for me to be: I was an ex-fundamentalist, an ex-evangelical, an ex-Christian.
Normally when one leaves their faith, they walk away from religion entirely and become either a full-flung secularists or a pseudo-agnostic, putting "God" on the back-burner while they live their lives. But I wasn't made that way. I was still convinced that there was a God and I still believed it was possible to "know" Him/Her/It, and so I continued my spiritual adventure. However, I continued my search from God from an entirely different perspective; I no longer looked for God without, but decided to look for Him within. In other words, I came to believe God could be found intuitively, and invited him to show Himself to me if that were true.
To put it mildly, things changed after that. About the same time I was deciding to leave the church I came across the writings of a man named Neale Donald Walsch, who had penned a series of books that claimed to be correspondence between himself and some "force" he took to be God. Intrigued at such audacity and certain the man was cracked, I bought the first book of the series, Conversations with God, with the intention of having a good laugh if nothing else.
Instead, something else happened. He made sense. His question and answer format between himself and the Almighty challenged every notion about God I had ever maintained and dramatically altered my perceptions of reality. By the time I had downed the third book in the series (there's about a dozen by now) I had come to see God in a very different light and for the first time in my life, I felt free. Not free from God, but free in God.
Suddenly it was okay to wonder and question and explore and find out for myself who or what God meant to me. I no longer had to be afraid, for I understood that God had never been angry with me in the first place. I had simply assumed that was the case based upon what others had told me about him and in so doing had allowed them to infect me with their own fears and superstitions and self-doubts. Overnight God became for me more vibrant, more alive, more meaningful than He/She/It had ever been before. I finally let God out of the tightly sealed box I had kept Him imprisoned in for so long and in so doing, discovered a God that was much larger than I ever imagined, and one who made me feel that I was an important part of the universe merely by existing. For me, God had become not just real but a thing of joy, and in that I had found a God I could love at last. It had been a long journey, but one that had been worth every step.
Later I went on to establish myself in a "New Thought" church that taught that each of us must find our own unique path to God, and I've been on that course ever since. I've become an adherent of the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and have felt led to take what he teachesalong with the other things I've learnedto others, which I do through my books and this website, as well as through various educational and radio opportunities I have been afforded. I don't know where I will eventually end up in all this, but it's an exhiliarating journey and one that is limited only by my lack of imagination.
Of course, this doesn't mean that my world has suddenly become idyllic or that all my problems have vanished like dew on a summer morning. I still have my doubts and struggles and uncertainties just as I've always had, and I still occasionally catch myself doing and saying things I later regret, but the change is that now I no longer feel guilty about them. I no longer see myself as living under a death sentence if I fail to apologize to God for my human failings, nor do I have a sense of urgency about saving the world from eternal damnation. I accept myself for who I amwarts and alland in doing so find the strength and courage to change those things about me that are less than loving, less than caring, and less than divine. I can see God in myself if I try, and strive to find God in others as well, for I know that in doing so the vitality of the Divine is showcased and my path of spiritual discovery is opened before me.
But what of my past? What of Christianity? Was it all one huge mistake and waste of time?
Christianity was my spiritual kindergarten. It's where I learned to read and
write and do simple arithmetic. It taught me the ABCs of spirituality and forced
me to think about God. It might appear on the one hand like years of futile
wandering, but that would be an illusion; in reality, it put me on the path
that was to ultimately lead me to discovering the Divine. True, it gave me only
a tiny, incomplete picture of God, but at least it was a picture I was able
to build upon. Without Christianity and the people it sent into my life, I doubt
if I would know the God I know now. It gave me the tools of discovery I needed
to find the mother lode of wisdom I was eventually to uncover and for that I
will be eternally grateful to the church.
But now it is time to move on to new vistas of discovery and learning. Christianity was the path I chose to find my way to God, but it is by no means the only or even the best path. It is merely one path, and the one I could best identify with due to my Judeo-Christian heritage and citizenship in a nation where Christianity has been the faith of the majority for five hundred years. For others, however, it might prove entirely inadequate as a conduit for spiritual growth. For some, it might even become a trap they will never work their way out of, so choose what path you will take wisely.
Also be aware that each path is unique and different, and each must be explored on a personal, even intuitive, level. I believe that if you are truly interested in finding a God that loves wastefully and lavishly and believes in you more than you believe in yourself, you will find him/her/it despite what path you take.
The mistake is in trying to follow another's path, for it will never lead you where you need to go. You might follow it for a time, but eventually you must learn to follow your own heart, for it is the only one that speaks specifically to you. In the end, it is the only one you must listen to, for within it is the whisperings of the Divine. Follow it, and it will show you the way. At least, it did for me.
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