I’ve pondered for some time writing about religion and, specifically, how my experiences with being “Christian” or religious at all, for that matter, have shaped my views on the necessity of religion. Let me say at the outset: I have an enormous amount of respect for people of genuine faith.
I was born Christian, baptized, and confirmed into the Lutheran church. Throughout all of the years of church services and Sunday school it just didn’t seem quite “right.” I didn’t know what was “wrong” as a child. I was interested in science as a child; I knew how old science estimated Earth to be and I knew about evolution even if I couldn’t quite articulate the concept. There was a disconnect between what science said on the one hand and religion said on the other. I didn’t understand why a conflict had to exist between these two great realms; I didn’t understand why one had to be “right” and the other “wrong”; and I certainly didn’t understand why I couldn’t believe that both were true.
I occasionally asked my pastors or Sunday school teachers about the disconnect between science and religion, but they could never answer my questions satisfactorily. The answer was always “The Bible tells truth of how the Earth was created. Since it is the Word of God and God is infallible it must be true. You just have to have faith and believe if you want to go Heaven.” The pastors and Sunday school teachers must know more than I, I thought. What kid doesn’t want to go to Heaven?
I knew also that there were other faiths … Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and many others. To one degree or another all of these faiths proclaimed that their’s was the one truth faith. All others had been superseded or were false faiths. I always wondered how a religion could say with certainty it was the “right” one and that all others were the “wrong” one. No one could answer that for me. Just like with science, I just had to believe the Bible and I wouldn’t need to understand anything else about any other faith.
Somewhere along the way I made the decision to just suck it up and believe. I don’t know when that was and it certainly wasn’t conscious. During that time my closest friends were members of the same church and we, eventually, persuaded some other friends to be baptized and join the church.
During my teen years my friends and I went to a number of conferences presented by Dawson McAllister (back before the Internet). The one I remember the most was called “A Walk to the Cross”. I remember it as being moving, particularly the first time. Our church had never really presented that period of Christ’s ministry in that great detail, with the intense discussion of the meaning of the Passion. It was, honestly, a moving experience. The first “Walk to the Cross” conference really strengthened by faith.
One of the features of these conferences was that at the very end an “altar call” would be made. I didn’t know what an altar call was, at that time, as our church did not use the ritual. But it was quite popular. Most of the teens at the conferences participated. The group from our church did not at the first couple of conferences we attended. The more times we went a few more people from our group would participate. Eventually I did too. In fact, I did shortly after I finished confirmation.
The altar call was not at all what I expected, though today I’m not certain what I expected. Everyone gathered at the church’s altar for prayer. Once it was clear that everyone who was going to answer the call were at the altar, we were led away. I was a bit anxious, of course, since I had no clue what this phase of the altar call was all about. We were led to one of the church’s large rooms where many, many chairs were set in pairs facing each other. Here were many of the adult chaperons from the various church groups. We were all eventually assigned a person. I forget what they were called; the term isn’t important now.
The discussion with the person began simply enough. We talked a bit about the conference, what I had learned, and what the lessons of “A Walk to the Cross” meant to me … personally. They wanted to know how it would affect my life, how I would come to ask Jesus Christ to “save” me, and how I would come to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. And that’s where things got complicated.
I had already professed my faith in Jesus Christ during the confirmation process. I said, “I already have.” I don’t recall exactly what their response was, but they didn’t accept that I had already. I tried to explain that I had just completed the confirmation process, but that too fell upon deaf ears. The person really wanted me to say that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. No amount of explanation of having already made that profession to my home church mattered to this person. The pressure mounted. I didn’t understand why I needed to say whatever magic words the person I was talking with wanted me to say.
Eventually, another person was brought over because, obviously, I was having trouble making the appropriate commitment to Jesus Christ. By this time I had reached the point where I really just wanted to leave. The altar call experience was not at all what I thought it would be. I don’t like high-pressure “sales” tactics. I just wanted it to be over. But it wasn’t going to be until I made the statement that these people wanted me to make. All I could think during that was that any such statement would be disloyal to my home church; I wondered if it would somehow invalidate what I had already done. The experience was unpleasant. By this point I was also noticing that many others were passing through their one-on-one sessions much faster than I.
In some respects I felt like a prisoner or hostage, not free to leave until the ransom was paid. I did begin to wonder if that ransom might actually be my soul and if saying the words they wanted to hear would be the death of my soul. I wanted to just walk away, but didn’t because I knew that it would get back to my Mom and being disrespectful to an adult would never end well for me (think being grounded to the house for an extended period). I resolved at that point to say what my tag-team wanted to hear; it no longer mattered what happened to my soul, I just wanted the experience to end. So I said something like “I accept Jesus Christ as Savior.” But that wasn’t good enough; I didn’t say the right magic words or they weren’t said with enough of the right emotion. I had to do it again and again. I no longer recall how many iterations of “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior” I went through before I satisfied them of my new-found acceptance of Jesus Christ.
And then we prayed. But my prayer wasn’t right; it didn’t have the right emotion or passion or additional profession of faith. So, I had to do it again. I was beginning to feel like I was being crucified. I shouldn’t have been placed in this position. I didn’t see, or hear, any one else in the room that seemed to be having the same experience. The group of participants in the altar call was rapidly dwindling. Somehow, either through my intuition in discovering what they wanted to hear in a prayer or their pity on me, they finally accepted the prayer and sent me on my way, a newly “saved” member of the Body of Christ.
I didn’t feel “saved.” I felt sacrificed, crucified, tortured into making a profession of faith that I didn’t feel was necessary. At the time I didn’t realize that making a new profession of faith was an essential part of an altar call. I also didn’t realize that repeated “acceptance” of Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior was an essential part of the evangelical strain of Christianity. For that matter, I didn’t know about or didn’t understand what evangelical Christians were. I was ignorant and, somewhat, naive.
My faith had been terribly shaken. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this experience provided all the nails necessary to complete the coffin. I just didn’t want to admit it. At the time there was this new thing in my life called a girlfriend who was Catholic, who was very religious, who had a very strong faith, and who would later become my wife (at present more than 22 years). I resolved to put the extremely negative experience of the altar call behind me … for her. I knew then that I would never participate in another altar call. I dove into being a “good Christian” with all of my heart. I did all of our youth group activities. I went to two church services every Sunday: one Lutheran and one Catholic.
When we went off to college together one of the things we didn’t know is where we would go to church. We tried a couple of churches in the community, including the local Catholic church, but none seemed quite right. We eventually discovered Catholic Campus Ministries and became involved in that community. It seemed much more friendly, more welcoming than any of the local churches. We’d found a home away from our home churches. Shortly after the community of Catholic Campus Ministries we found out that there would be a third very small and helpless person in our little pairing.
When we returned the following fall term with an infant and newly married, we reconnected with the campus group. Now that we had a child they were not as understanding. The leaders of the group, both student and lay advisers, were understanding. The student members of the group did not like the fact that this infant would come to services and cry. And even when she didn’t cry she bothered people with her mere presence. Christ, of course, welcomed children into his presence. Anywhere Christians gather is supposed to bring together the Body of Christ. It felt strange that children weren’t welcome. We eventually drifted away; the needs of school or family were more important than attending Church. Christ, of course, would understand.
For me, that was the end of my active religious faith. I had been confronted by people who couldn’t accept that the Earth had come about in a different way than the Bible said. Church figures had denied that other faiths might have some kernel of truth and that Christianity might not have all of the truth. I had been tortured into making what I saw as an unnecessary profession of faith. My family had been shunned by a community of believers that we very much wanted to be part of.
My wife has since found a new faith; she’s become a Baha’i. It gives her an enormous amount of satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment. In many respects the Baha’i faith is what I was looking for as young person. I just didn’t know about the Baha’i faith and had been “educated” that Christianity is the one true faith. Had I known about the Baha’i faith then I don’t think it would have made a difference. She would, of course, like me to become a Baha’i. I don’t think that will happen.