I tell people “twenty years ago-you would not have liked me” and then add. “God, I would not have liked myself!” And they inevitably ask “Why?” My answer is “well, do you care for Fred Phelps or Jimmy Swaggart? That’s what I was like!” And their facial expression reveals their reaction ranging from “you’re kidding” to “oh my God.” Yes, I was a mean-spirited fundamentalist preacher and a bigot. Now, do not misunderstand, not all fundamentalists are bigots, but I was and took great pride even referring to myself from the pulpit as a “Bible Bigot” as if intolerance based on scripture was morally acceptable. Yes, a bigot! What else to you call someone who believes he has all the answers- the absolute truth- and condemns everyone who does not fit into his theological box: Buddhists, Moslems, and especially liberal preachers, humanists and homosexuals. I had placed God in a box and God could only operate within the confines of that box. But little by little, cracks began to appear in the foundation of the box and suddenly like the rupture of a pressured cabin at high attitude, a theological shift occurred, one that would change my life completely.
If there is one overarching characteristic of a fundamentalist, it is a mindset fixated on certainty of truth, that one possesses the absolute truth, the Bible. My faulty logic went something like this: since God is an absolute being, His word is then absolute and since the Bible is God’s word, it is absolute and since I have God’s word in my hand- I possess absolute truth. There is no arguing with that kind of mindset. Oh, by the way, it was only a short step in the flow of the logic when I began to unconsciously view myself as god-assuming I possessed all the answers and everyone else was wrong.
There were cognitive blows that attempted to crack my Kantian bubble of reality. In my early years of preaching a Presbyterian historian, Dr. Bruce Willson came up to me after a Bible study and told me: “Ed, you see only black and white with no gray.” I took it as a compliment but years later, those words haunted me. It was during my first Pastorate that I learned the hard way- through sad heart breaking experiences with people, that judging and condemning others (which I seemed well endowed to do) is always more self-consuming and self-destructive to the one doing the condemning then the condemned. There was one final epiphany when I met a hard core extreme fundamentalist who called himself “Christian Identity” a virulent anti-Jewish racist and suddenly I saw what I could become and it scared the hell out of me.
But for 20 years I labored as a Fundamentalist Protestant preacher and then in the course of one decade- I changed. Now, I did not wake up one morning and suddenly realize “God, all these years, I’ve been wrong.” No, it was a slow steady progression of mind searching reasoning which was a new approach for me. It began when I began to question certain foundation beliefs and the cracks began to appear. The first crack that appeared in my theological box was the idea of an imminent rapture- or second coming of Christ which in my case, bordered on paranoid apocalyptic fixation which was the motivation for not only my preaching but my lifestyle. My lifestyle was such that I was not concerned about education or career advancement because I was getting ready for the end of everything. Yet as important as it was, looking back, I am surprised that there was no real wrestling match in my soul over it- no real fanfare. It happened when I spend considerable time looking at the scriptural evidence and the historical origin of the doctrine and discovered one, scriptures contradicted scriptures on this issue and secondly, the rapture theory was a rather modern invention and was not evident in the early Church. I just stopped preaching it. But the second crack that appeared was more serious and affected my entire theological system. It dealt with the cornerstone of my faith, the doctrine of sola scriptura, the belief that the scriptures are inspired, inerrant and the only rule of faith and practice. This occurred rather indirectly and ironically when I began a Master’s of Theology program at Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio. Yes, one of the most conservative-fundamentalist Catholic schools in America. The course was on Biblical Studies and what caught my attention was the emphasis on Biblical Criticism. To be quite honest, prior to this class, I never questioned the origin of the Bible. I had never given much thought to how it came about. I had assumed and I confess it was a rather ignorant assumption on my part that the Bible was inspired and that inspiration extended to the very words themselves. I never held to the idea that the Bible just dropped out of the sky but my view of inspiration was such that it was very close to a mechanical dictation, a kind of God inspired automatic writing. But the class opened my mind up to several ideas which in essence changed how I viewed the Bible. The basic underlying principle is that although God is an absolute being, God’s word (Bible) does not have an absolute value but is conditioned on the historical and cultural setting in which it was written. This of course stands in stark contrast to my previous fundamentalist view that God’s word has an absolute value regardless of its historical or cultural conditions and therefore speaks to every culture, time period and generation. There were two basic problems with my previous fundamentalist view of scripture. The fundamentalist view of scripture overstates the divine origin of the text and ignores completely the human instrument or human authorship. And finally it ignores the multiple complexities of the Biblical text: that the text that was written over the course of thousands of years based on oral traditions, complied by multiple authors, in different languages and now there is the time and cultural gap of the reader attempting to understand a text some thousands of years later situated in a different cultural and historical setting. This class and outside readings (J. Barr, R. Bultmann, P. Tillich) introduced me to a critical study of the Biblical text, the goal of which was to assist the reader at arriving at the meaning intended by the original human author and as understood by the original audience. This is accomplished by looking at the: traditions- that is the stories, songs, rituals that were passed down from generations to generation; the text as a piece of literature studying its structure, style, genre and literary devices: the history “in the text”- it’s setting in time, location, and social, political and religious conditions in which the text was written and the history “of the text” – the who, what, why, and when of the text; and finally at how the authors edited and modified their material to reflect their particular situation and problem. I came away from that class with a new perspective of the Bible- that it was not a set of laws to enact but a story of man’s encounters with God and as such it was not intended to be a historical, economic or scientific textbook. But most importantly it was not meant to be the defining theological textbook or the final word or the only word about God. How could it be? How can man, a finite being definitively explain the infinite being?
So where am I? Well, it is obvious I am not a Fundamentalist or even an Evangelical Christian since I no longer believe that the Bible is inerrant and the literal word of God, that man is innately evil (original sin), that the Trinity is the only definitive description of God and that the only way to God is through Jesus Christ. What am I? I don’t know and really does it matter? Oh, if you must label me, I am someone who believes in God- a God that has many names, yet unnamable- what Tillich called the ultimate reality. I am someone who believes he has thought too much about dogmas about God and has not practiced my faith. Am I a Christian Humanist? Or have I become what I previously condemned, a liberal- the final irony.