I entered Willamette University in the fall of 1987 intent on becoming a Christian missionary to South America, followed by a career as a pastor in the Mennonite Church. My course selections reflected these goals.
During my first semester, I joined Young Life, a Bible study group on campus, but found the group left me unfulfilled. Its members were petty and reclusive, the group insular. It reminded me more of the Mormon youth group I had fled than of the Mennonite youth group I had embraced. Young Life did nothing to improve my esteem of fellow Christians.
Willamette was a shock to me. Or, more precisely, the myriad opinions on campus were a shock to me. Canby High School provided me a good education, but an education in an environment in which opinion was essentially uniform. Opinion on Willamette’s campus was diverse. My freshman seminar, World Views, included people with decidedly different opinions than my own. In fact, World Views would be the most influential class I took at Willamette.
World Views focused on the literature of Victorian England and the sea change that occurred in that country during the nineteenth century. It featured readings from Bernard Shaw, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, and more. These were great minds, pillars of genius. I was staggered by the intellectual heights to which these men and women aspired. I dutifully read the assignments, but rejected most of their ideas; they did not fit with my Christ-centric conception of the universe.
Still, they had a cumulative effect.
By the end of my first semester at Willamette, I was overwhelmed. In only three months I had been exposed to a broad range of ideas (feminist theory, utilitarianism, communism, evolutionary biology, etc.), ideas that had changed the course of Empire. What chance had my mind against such might? My belief system was being shaken at its very foundation.
In the final paper for World Views, I wrote: “What I say is what I feel and not what I know. I know little but I feel much. Perhaps you should not attack me with knowledge but with feelings.”
This statement is telling. It illustrates my state of mind.
For years I had been transported by a euphoric religious fervor. My beliefs made me feel good, but I had never accepted God on an intellectual level. In fact, I had staunchly refused to engage in intellectual debates regarding the existence of, or nature of, God. I kept the conversation on a strictly personal, emotional level. I felt God in my life — or so I believed — buy my mind was not ready to tackle the topic; I had not even made a Kantian “leap of faith” (nor do most Christians). Despite having read a fair number of Christian apologists, I had merely bought into a philosophy and a culture that made me feel good.
(Aside: Now that I am older (and wiser?), I have no qualms with a person who buys into a philosophy and a culture that makes that person feel good so long as this “buying in” does not interfere with my happiness. There are actually times that I wish I could buy into Chrisitanity — the community of spirit has its appeals.)
During the writing of the aforementioned final paper, I first began to doubt the validity of my own beliefs: “I worship. You worship differently. Who is right? Let’s play a game: I’ll flip a god, you call heads or tails.” It seemed to me that my belief in the God of Christianity was perhaps arbitrary, based more on geography, culture, and chance than on the truth of God’s existence.
By the end of the paper, it was clear to me that my faith was on the line: “Next semester I will take Study of Major Religious Texts. Let’s see how well my dwindling faith responds now! Let’s see some proof. I want fire from heaven. Question everything. I’m waiting.”
That’s what my first semester at Willamette taught me to do: question everything. (And this helps and hinders me to this day, fifteen years later.)
I ended the paper by describing my reaction to all that I’d learned during that semester at college: “I fall to my knees and I pray. To a God that I’m thinking of giving my two weeks notice. I don’t know if he hears.”
(Incidentally: this paper to which I keep referring was pivotal in my intellectual development, but it was surely non-standard. It was hand-written in four colors of ink, written as an internal dialogue (not a monologue) that never addressed the essay topic (which was something like: describe the roles that Mill, Marx, Darwin, and Dickens played in shaping nineteenth century intellectual development). I was too self-absorbed at this point, too consumed by my own personal transformation at the hands of these authors to completely tackle the Big Picture. Professor Loftus refused to give me a grade for the assignment.)
I started my first semester at Willamette devoted to God, ready to spend my life in his toil.
I started my second semester at Willamette questioning God, challenging him: “Prove to me that you exist.”
My focal point during that semester was Introduction to Major Religious Texts. The course was less an objective survey of major religions than it was a Christian analysis of them. Still, it was enough to push me into the corner with the agnostics.
We studied the book of Job, a book I found ludicrous. God, as portrayed in Job, is a capricious child, wagering with Satan over the faith of a righteous man. God torments Job sadistically, as if He were a boy with a magnifying class, burning the ants. Is this the God I worshipped?
We studied Gilgamesh as a “primitive” religious text, yet it seemed no more primitive than the Old Testament. We studied the Bhaagavad-Gita, but I wasn’t impressed with Krishna and the demands he placed on his worshippers. They were like the demands that Jehovah (or Yahweh, or Whoever) placed on His followers.
Every religion we studied was, in its own way, a method by which humans could cope with a seemingly meaningless existence on the Earth. (This seems obvious now, but was revelatory at the time.) I moved from the camp of the Christian Existentialists to the camp of the Existentialists.
I was not long for existentialism; the philosophy was too nihilistic for me. I did toil among the ranks of the agnostics for a time, though, and this caused my carefully planned life to crumble. My life goals were no longer valid; there aren’t many agnostic missionaries. I fumbled around for a semester or two before deciding that psychology offered my best choice for a career. (Look where that got me!)
My last three years at Willamette were a gradual progression from agnosticism to atheism. As I read more widely, as I became more frequently exposed to the principles of the scientific method (also here), essentially the more I learned, the weaker my faith became until all that was left was an understanding that not only is there no God, there are no supernatural phenomena at all. No angels, no ghosts, no spirits, no life force, nothing. There is life, and that, itself, is awesome.
Still, I longed for a purpose to this life that only religion had been able to provide me.
[… to be continued …]
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