“The Journey Out of Evangelical Fundamentalism”. by Henry Regehr
This is difficult to write. I am concerned that it may hurt the people who were so much a part of the beginning of this long and painful pilgrimage, and I can assure each of you that I love you and wish you well on your journey.
In the Beginning.
Evangelical Fundamentalism (EF) was inhaled with every breath in the family and religious community into which we emerged on the austere prairie. It was assumed that we were born in sin, were evil by nature, and faced eternal damnation. It was assumed that learning to be Gehorsam (obedient) was the guiding principal of child raising. Disobedience led to severe correction with ten lashes of the belt that always hung in its special, very visible, place on the doorpost. In the same way, disobedience to God was a sin and the punishment was literally to burn in hell for ever. The way to avoid punishment was to be fully compliant with the authority of one’s parents, to adapt completely to the expectations of the church community and, of course, to God, the unseen final authority. Fear of disapproval made one compliant. Feelings of guilt resulted from any real or imagined breach of the rules.
In the process of growing up in such an environment, this child’s mind saw no distinction between the authoritative, punitive parent and the authoritarian, punitive God. Guilt induction by parents and church community was a means of control over children both at home and in the church environment. This feeling of guilt became the overriding and debilitating burden of this child’s early years.
We were taught this principle: “Give us the child until he is five years old and anyone can have him afterward”. Certainly, the overbearing feeling of guilt was established early and became a lifelong handicap that, like a ball-and-chain, would be a debilitating element for a good part of the rest of life.
Asked to be the speaker to a large group of thoughtful women some years ago, I illustrated the overwhelming feelings of guilt by my own experience. They all seemed to understand that their guilt feelings, taught them by their parents and by their religious groups, were a handicap. I said that they were fortunate that their guilt feelings were relatively easy to bear because their guilt grew out of their families’ teaching, but my guilt came directly from God and was therefor more powerful than their guilt. There was a loud hooting laughter from a group in the front row. “Your God’s guilt is nothing compared to our mother-induced guilt”, they assured the rest of the group who obviously understood.
Around this guilt was a huge theological structure and it was expected that these beliefs, cumbersome as they were , and as controversial, were part of the confession of faith that one was to adhere to if one was “saved”. One was expected to be a “true believer”. It was a confusing system based on subjective interpretations of Biblical texts.
Part of this journey led to attendance at Bible College, where an uncertain student in our theology class asked the professor on one occasion, “What do we believe about…?” And the professor obliged by telling the class what we officially believed. We were expected to accept this as our own personal belief without question.
It was during the final year at College that I began to wonder about these assumed beliefs. I had been highly active in student affairs and was student president after a year serving as editor of the College
yearbook. I was considered an up and coming preacher, but the nagging questions kept recurring. Quite understandably, two years of employment by the church turned out disastrously. I had held meetings with university students for the purpose of discussion of their current issues, but I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was expected to confirm the ordained beliefs by leading Bible study and prayer meetings. We parted ways and the questioning of my beliefs continued to increase in urgency. This was followed by a deep, dark valley of depression. It was a soul-shaking experience. As the defenses collapsed and the horror of the deep sadness took hold, it became necessary to examine the dark, hidden corners of my experiences and beliefs. With the determined, loving support of my wife and the wisdom of professionals, and, of course, a strong will and hard work, I began the long, slow process of recovery.
Traditional beliefs about church doctrine and traditions began to peel off, like losing layer after layer of skin. It was a long and painful process since it meant losing and re-forming values, beliefs and habits. Withdrawing from the original church and community that had nurtured me and to which I was strongly connected was like giving away what, up to that point, had bestowed on me an identity, a sense of place and a sense of family. Since EF beliefs were integral to belonging to the group, giving up those beliefs also meant giving up the community. There were precedents for this. Several friends had met with their ministers for pastoral care concerning the questioning of their beliefs and suddenly faced excommunication from the church and, with that, their community. The process left serious scars in my friends that lasted for decades. The difference for me was that, because of geographic moves, I was able to withdraw without experiencing my friends’ fate.
The welcome our family received in a very loving and tolerant church community in Toronto eased the transition. Immediately a position as discussion leader of a group that was open to a variety of ideas became available. It was a wonderful way of thinking through concepts in an accepting and tolerant friendship group.
Years later, still on this pilgrimage, my adult grandchildren burst into laughter when I casually broke the news to them that I as now an atheist. That stage lasted only for a few weeks, but it gave an opportunity to begin the search for spiritual fulfillment from a new starting place.
Allowing a new format of beliefs to painstakingly emerge was like going on an exciting voyage of discovery. The Cloud of Unknowing and Thomas Merton’s mysticism, C.S Lewis’ enlightening ideas, scientific writings and other literature allowed me to begin the process of piecing together ideas that were reasonable and thoughtful. This, coupled with the sayings of Jesus, made for the beginning of a foundation on which to build. That is still a work on progress, but the barest essential, the foundation of the foundation was the simplest idea, and the most profound: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself”. That seemed like the best place to start the rebuilding.
This love, I discovered, was contagious and, in an odd way, hereditary. I visited my parents when they were elderly. Mother had lived her whole life with anxiety and depression but her love for her children and for her neighbors had always shone through the dreary clouds. One day on this visit she was in a
dark place and she had gone to lie down near midday. Father despaired of what to do and asked me to spend time with her. At her bedside, holding her hand, I began to tell her of my experience with the many people I had met and that every time I was able to show love to others, I was expressing the love that she had passed on to me over many years. We were both crying, and it took a good while to get the story told, but when I finished her smile was radiant. She got out of bed, and with joy went into the kitchen to prepare lunch.
The practice of forgiveness at one point became a keen interest and part of the story of love. I wrote a paper on the subject and gave talks to interested groups and began the process of forgiving people as a daily process of meditation. In his old age, my father demonstrated this habit. He had, over his many years, got into squabbles with several people and had held onto hurt and angry feelings about them for decades after the people involved had passed on to their reward. On one of my visits to my parents in their Fraser Valley home, he told me, tearfully, that he had finally dealt with this by “bringing them lovingly to the cross”. He was able to forgive them and himself. It was, for him, a great relief and I was grateful that he was able to come to peace after all these years. I put this into my own repertoire of daily practice and found similar tranquility. It was a new way of living lovingly.
In conversations with my aging friends I am finding an interesting common element. They are saying that they have given up on theological constructs and have narrowed their beliefs to the bare bones: to love God and to love oneself and the people around them.
That is the place we started when, as infants, we learned to love and to be loved. It is a fine place to close the last chapter of our lives.