It was Autumn on Wheaton’s campus, the trees were gorgeous quilts of soft browns and reds. The air was refreshingly cool and I was going out on one of my prayerful evening walks, as was my custom.
A few months earlier I had returned from an eye-opening 1-year overland trip to India. Since then, I had been confessing to friends that my Christianity had transformed and I could not longer comfortably call myself a “normal” Christian–or at least that is the best expression I could come up with at that time. I could give my friends no more details as I, myself, did not have a handle on on the changes happening in my own mind even though I could feel it happening.1
What I did know, however, was that I did not believe that all non-Christians were going to hell. How did I know that? No, it was not because I had scrambled to the Bible to find passages to support my Universalism heresy.2 I realized that such Bible support was cheap. For during the last several years I had met Christians from many denominations with hugely different doctrines and each with their own brilliant Biblical support. I knew I could find the support if I needed it — and I would not have to sacrifice too much orthodoxy. But my path was much simpler and from a Christian perspective, equally worthy of condemnation — I was listening to my subjective heart.
My hitchhike from Europe to Asia was made without money and had been fraught with dangers. But I was kept safe by the kindness of people I had met on the journey — people of many faiths. I was privilege to the generosity from many of them. I saw the hearts of many people, for without common languages, the heart is often all I could see. Also, at the end of that journey, I worked with Christian missionary groups both in Pakistan and India and I had a chance to compare the kindness of Christians and the kindness of “Pagans”.
My Conclusion: Christianity did not guarantee a good person and being Pagan did not guarantee a godless heart — or so I would have phrased it at that time. I started seeing that beliefs were more like clothing we wear than the substance of our souls. Our beliefs are for appearance and to keep us warm, but beneath, our real selves remains unchanged by the clothing we call beliefs.3
These doubts alienated my Wheaton Christian friends from me. Actually all my friends were Christian — I had no need for other friends at that time. I could tell my friends were uncomfortable in our conversations and they avoided me when they could. Three of my friends were my roommates but even our shared times became more awkward. Consequently I was feeling a bit alone on my recent evening prayer walks.
This evening, as I walked and as I finished my prayer-conversation with God, I ended my prayer with, “Amen”. Then I remembered, “Oooops, wait ! I need to add ‘in Jesus’ name‘, because as a Christian, that is what makes my prayer effective. It is only through Jesus that God hears our prayers.” And then a huge wave of embarrassment of such a silly thought came over me as I thought of all the sincere non-believers who I had met in the last 2 years who don’t tag on the Jesus coupon to get their prayers heard. I thought of their heart-filled prayers and of their love of the divine.4 I remembered their commitment to following sacrificial love and their giving without expecting in return. I had been the recipient of such kindness on my Asian sojourn. And yet, with out finishing their prayers correctly, these fine people had prayers that were meaningless before God. God could not even hear their prayers because they did not tag on the Jesus coupon. “No, no, don’t think like that.” My mind said to itself. “It may seem simple and heartless, but remember the sacrifice, the resurrection, the debt of sin. God’s ways are not man’s way. It may seem complicated, but it is the truth. You are a mere vessel, how dare you doubt !” But in spite of all the warnings my Jesus-brain was now giving me, it was too late. I could feel the momentum of doubt cracking the wall of hypnotism I had voluntarily constructed during the last 6 years of my Christian life.
Then I shivered realizing I was entertaining de-converting. And I knew that if I de-converted I would loose my girlfriend, all my friends and my dreams of my future Christian life. After all, I graduated with a Psych degree from Wheaton College so I could do Christian Psychology and help believers in their doubts and their suffering. What was I doing? Here I was, just out of college for 1 year and still living in the city of Wheaton safely surrounded by my Christian community and if I continued on this path, I would loose it all.
“Wow”, I thought, “I am hesitating with pursuing this doubt because I am afraid of the social loss.” Ironically, it seemed that I had a deeper choice than mere belief, I was now about to make a decision between following the truth where ever it may take me or to stay committed to my beliefs because of what they offered me.” And with that insight, when I saw how simple this choice was, I choose truth. And indeed I eventually lost all my Wheaton friends, my girlfriend, my imagined career and a whole community. All that knowledge of the Bible would mean nothing in my new world. It felt like I had to start over. What I did not foresee, was that I would gain good-hearted friends from various belief systems — religious and otherwise– without needing to sacrifice truth. And indeed, operating from our human commonality with honesty gave me a supportive community more quickly than I imagined. A life without my invisible friend Jesus and my true source of knowledge, the Bible, was not as empty as I had imagined.
1. In this story, I tell how new beliefs were appearing fuzzy in my head. The mind is like that, our decisions and beliefs often form without our conscious intervention and it is not until our thoughts take a recognizable shape or a communicable form that our brain reveals them to us along with the illusion that we consciously constructed it. But I did not understand this part of the mind’s function until many years later. You can read my view of self here.
2. It was not until decades later that I learned other Christians had actually searched the Bible to reveal a workable Universalism Theology.
3. This “Beliefs as Clothing” analogy would stick with me for years and I continue to see it as very useful. Clothing can hide much — that is why we go out of our way to choose clothing so carefully. Clothing can say much too — if you buy into the cultural signals for clothing. But our bodies are unaffected by our clothing. Instead it is our choice of food, exercise and our habits that change our bodies. Likewise, it not so much our beliefs that change our minds, but our mental habits, our actions and our associations. Who we are may be motivated by beliefs, but what really forms our minds is our actions, thoughts and relationships. Many different beliefs can result in the same outcomes. Sure, lots of belief sets end up in undesirable actions, attitudes, actions and relationships — I am not a relativist. But just as there are many poor belief sets, there are many apparently contradictory belief sets that ironically result in similar healthy mental habits, attitudes, actions and relationships.
4. This deconversion story is set at time when I was still a believer in God and so I was comparing fellow God believers to each other. It was only later that I expanded my insight to realize that it doesn’t take a god-belief to have a good heart, deep meaning or to choose good actions.