Several years ago, I confidently put my pencil down on the desk, my final essay complete. I had proudly finished my Systematic Theology exam before anyone else. It was the last test of my undergrad. It was the culmination, the telos, the thundering crescendo to my magnum opus. As Jesus would have put it…
It was finished.
This moment represented much more than a semester under my belt. It meant so much more than a bachelors degree. It meant even more than the transition to a more lucrative vocation. I had become, for all intents and purposes, a theologian. I had learned the “truths” I had been searching for. I could articulate them with clarity, with zeal, with passion. While I knew I had more to learn over the course my life through continued research and reflection, I had at least conquered those gnawing questions that haunted me for so long.
You see, I grew up a fundamentalist… without even knowing it.
I was a pentecostal in the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). While I still have many friends who I knew and grew up with in that tradition, I no longer count myself among their ranks. Unlike many young persons who simply warmed the pews, I took it all in like a sponge. I mean, before my very eyes people began speaking in unknown tongues, dancing in the aisles, prophesying, and warning of the coming judgment of the Lord. Hell was a real threat, close as a car wreck on the venture back home. Sin was infectious, piercing our flesh with every “worldly” commercial, song, or curse word uttered on the playground. It was truth. It was reality.
And it scared the living sh#t out of me.
As I grew older I carried this fear with me. It wasn’t a paralyzing fear that came to me in nightmares, but it was indisputably with me. It affected my relationships, caused me to judge others and made me feel terrible about myself. I was under the delusion that God was somehow keeping score, counting the impure thoughts I had, just waiting for me to slip up. One unfortunate side-effect was the fact that other people had their own expert opinion on the subject. Pastors, friends, girlfriends, everyone. Basically it broke down like this…
1. Most everyone is going to hell.
2. No one is going to hell.
3. Hell doesn’t exist. Neither does God.
Are you kidding me? Something of such grave importance should be decided, right? I mean, if there really was a hell it should be as evident as a birthmark on every new-born baby’s forehead spelling out “Yes, hell exists.” Manuals for avoiding hell should be found inside every meteor that falls to earth. We should have an audio transcript of God giving us the specifics, available on iTunes. And we’re just supposed to believe it? With no evidence?
In college I was exposed to a whole new world of discussion on the topic. I was able to study the Church Fathers, the various historical theologies that developed over time, even the contemporary scholars who still were striving to bring relevance to the topic. Who would have guessed that there were countless interpretations? Who would have guessed that the matter was not settled by any stretch of the imagination?
I stepped out into the world with new eyes. I had a new peace about God, the world, and the life to come. I knew what I believed. I knew why I believed it. I was on a mission to free others trapped from the same web of fear woven for me. But then something happened. I realized something even more terrifying.
Some had grown accustomed to their cages.
You see, I had set out to find answers. Many others had never looked for answers. They had simply taken the answers as originally given and moved on with their lives. They had no interest in finding clarity. For them the matter was settled. I then became a victim of apologetics. My newfound freedom was suddenly taken from me, replaced with a burden to defend my new convictions. Every sermon sickened me. Every evangelical expression of faith made me roll my eyes. Jesus had been hijacked by a bunch of uneducated hicks who refused to reevaluate their categories of bigotry, racism, social injustice, and of course…
My freedom was tainted. My joy was gone. I was back in the tomb, the boulder immoveable. I wanted nothing to do with Christianity. I had more in common with atheists and agnostics. I found myself in an awkward position, defending my own views against the godless and faithful alike. I had nowhere to go.
I had let truth become a burden. I had become consumed with weeding out misconceptions, narrow-minded philosophies, any ignorant or uninformed articulation. But I came to find something interesting. Even if I were to offer a water-tight case for a theological position, few people cared. It did nothing for them. They were either uninterested in the subject matter (e.g. atheists) or unwilling to reconsider their own views in light of greater scrutiny (e.g. fundamentalists). Truth had become a burden too heavy to carry, a poison in my veins.
I came upon a phenomenon known to many as “The Wall.” There is no real way to describe it, but you know it when it happens. I had hit the wall. I no longer cared for theology, for academia, for debates, for apologetics, for church. Everything was at a stand-still. Now that I think about it, the wall felt a lot like a giant boulder, blocking my exit for that tomb.
I don’t remember the exact day the stone rolled away, but the light is now blinding. I am slowly emerging from the darkness of my cold chamber, but I’m wrapped in the warmth of a new day. A new “truth” is sinking down deep in my bones, a truth that hums and sings and teaches you the words. It is a truth that does not merely preach freedom, but is freedom itself. I’d call this freedom “love” but you may misunderstand. It slows down time, bringing things into focus, silencing the noise of your own ego, your own agendas.
If you’re reading this post, poised to respond with your own interpretation or philosophy, you miss the point. If the implications of others’ beliefs keep you up at night, if they stir your spirit to vanquish those falsities, those demons spouting lies, simply pause and reflect for a moment. Be still. Taste the fruit of your efforts. Are they sweet or bitter? When you put up your own walls to defend your treasures of reason, or heaven, or ideology, what view are you blocking? Are you seeing the big picture?
Imagine laying down your truths at your feet. All of them. Imagine looking out onto the horizon with a peace that whatever the new dawn brings, you are ready. Whatever you leave behind, you no longer require. The walls have fallen. You have finally seen the truth for the first time.
Then, and only then, is it finished.