[This posting was initially published Dec. 9, 2013 on “We Occupy Jesus,” a now defunct blog that began during the Occupy Wall Street era for Christians rethinking their faith.]
It didn’t entirely make sense. I’d been involved with a church-community for almost 9 years and had come so close to fulfilling my leading to live communally as the first believers did in the book of Acts. But, I was about to walk away, to discard the entire theological framework I’d worked so hard to construct. As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I’d avoided the stereotypical backsliding rebellious phase but I also rejected the conservative view of the gospel of individual salvation. I’d used my religion as a rebellion!
I’d always felt that popular evangelical culture was shallow and didn’t really get the point of Jesus. He didn’t come to earth to be offered up as a transactional scapegoat purchasing an otherworldly passport to a faraway planet called heaven, but rather to launch a millenia-spanning revolution to transform humanity’s earthly suffering into a divine kingdom on earth. As an adult, I’d discovered liberation theology, feminist, black, and anti-capitalist, and it turned my religious traditions inside out.
It’s a commonplace view in the evangelical traditions that if one dabbles with unorthodoxies like liberation theology, then one is on a slippery slope to apostasy. For years, I defied that prediction. Why did I finally cross that almost invisible line between my Pentecostal liberation Christianity to becoming a post-Christian agnostic? I doubt I can disentangle all the threads in this posting.
Even as I was fiercely criticizing my Pentecostal and evangelical origins, I was nevertheless intensely “orthodox,” studying theology and scripture voraciously, even planning to go to seminary someday. I took seminars in healing prayer and expected that miracles were possible. Even the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom was for me also a miracle, a resurrection event which would enclothe me in an immortal body.
It was probably evident to some people who knew me, but in my manic radicalism I was deeply unhappy. I spent years in counseling, coming to terms with the child abuse I’d experienced in my Pentecostal family. I could barely function at points without anti-depressants. I lost every job I’d ever held before the age of 39 within a year and a half.
In fact, it was very much the depression that sustained my religious passion. I felt worthless, an appropriate state when you believe in total depravity. Satan was trying to keep me from fulfilling Jesus call to ministry by using depression, or so I told myself. Such tormented thoughts played a pivotal role in my eventual departure from the faith.
After years of therapy, I finally was reaching desperation. Jesus wasn’t healing me, and the first generation anti-depressants were barely making a dent. I took a leap of faith in chemistry and asked my psychiatrist to prescribe Prozac.
The result was magical. Within a few weeks, I was literally gliding across the floor. This wasn’t the ecstatic bliss of Pentecostal worship, but it was a new feeling. I was content and happy in a way I’d never known.
With depression gone, my mind was free from self-defeating thoughts for the first time. I began to view my religion free of an unhealthy attachment. As the months rolled by, my obsession with theology and scripture faded. Ordinary life became amazingly interesting.
I’m seriously compressing the elements the lead me to finally walk away from Christian doctrines. Even while a Christian, liberation theology meant that I’d had a more accepting attitude towards Marx and other radical philosophies. Once I no longer feared my intellectual capacities – a common obstacle for emotionalistic Pentecostals – I could actually revel in letting my mind take up all sorts of unorthodox possibilities. In an essay I published in 2005, I described the transition from orthodoxy as falling dominoes, which I listed as first creationism, next inerrancy, then bodily resurrection, and finally God. Each of these orthodox beliefs toppled over without much effort, once I was free of emotional blocks to critical thinking.
I don’t want to be misunderstood, I absolutely do not think that everyone should become a non-believer like me. My path is clearly a specific one, as is every one’s path. Yes, I do believe that the orthodox God does not exist, nor did Jesus resurrect bodily. However, I do still have to accept that I would not be who I am today without Christianity. In other words, I followed Jesus until he let me go in an act of healing and grace to follow a different path.
In fact, I have known some very wonderful Christians who were more whole and caring than I may ever be. Nontheism may be rational, but rationality doesn’t give anyone a corner on basic human decency or compassion. In fact, I still stand by the second commandment of Jesus as a prime ethical rule, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The theme of “We Occupy Jesus” resonates with me because I’ve recently had a rapproachement with my religious past. This was enabled by a creative nonfiction writing course that focused on narrative writing of personal experiences. As I wrote for a new audience about my sense of who I am and what I am about, I came up with the title, “Jesus made me a Communist, not a Christian.” Someday I’ll turn that into a multimedia presentation, but for now you can watch an extemporaneous talk I gave at a local forum on that topic. If the word “communism” troubles you, read my redefinition.
I do believe in a revolutionary transformation of the world into a new era of peace, justice, and love. A good part of that belief comes from Jesus, with a little help from Marx. I can’t help but believe that Christians can play a constructive role in that transformation. Of course, so can atheists, Muslims, Pagans, and everyone. He who is not against us, is with us.
Charley Earp is a Pentecostal preacher’s kid living in the Chicago area with his wife of 31 years. He has two adult children. While his day job pays the bills, his real passions are social and political philosophy and progressive religion. He plans to begin an M.Div program in 2014 and a vocation in universalist ministry.