Memoir introduction: Losing my religion–from dispensationalism to pantheism

 

Over MLK Weekend 2022, my wife and I enjoyed a winter “staycation” in the Loop, where we stayed in a wonderful room on the 12th floor of the historic Reliance Building, arguably the finest remaining skyscraper of the First Chicago School of architecture. The accommodations in the room were clean and very comfortable: not one, but two plush and clean comforters, fluffy bath robes, and soundproof engineering all around.

Among the rich cultural fare we took in over this weekend:

In mind, body, and spirit,we enjoyed epicurean delights. 

In itemizing these enjoyments, I do not show off my excellent ability to plan such weekends. This one was my wife’s plan. Nor do I look for social validation as one might on Instagram: “Look at the cool stuff I’ve been able to do! I must be pretty worthy/wealthy/cool, right? So I deserve your ‘likes,’ right?” 
 
No. I bring this catalog of privileged entertainment before you to draw a contrast and reflect on how far my life has failed to live up to the standards of Mary “Mae” Gibson Bendelow, my fundamentalist Christian Grandmother.
 
Because she loved me and wanted me to be happy, Grandma knew that I would need to devote myself to her version of the Judeo-Christian God. Otherwise, true contentment was impossible.
 
Read her concern in the closing of this letter, written when I was a lad of 15, about to enjoy a week at a co-ed Young Life camp in the Catskill mountains. She admonishes me to root myself in God’s word. “…I will pray not just that you have a good time physically, but that the Lord will open your eyes to a life lived for Him, in His will. Really listen to His voice in the word, and respond. Psalm 1 gives us God’s recipe for a happy (blessed) life–this is what I want for you.”
 
Only my walking in the paths of the righteous, she believed, could a person find abiding satisfaction, peace, and purpose in life. 
 
Forty-five years after my summer camp experience, my wife’s and my epicurean staycation stands in stark contrast to the heaven-focused activity Grandma wanted me to be enjoying as a sixty-year old.
 
It shows how far my idea of a good life has moved from the Plymouth Brethren notion that, for a while in my youth, I espoused.
My parents had grown into it and espoused the idea that, from an eternal perspective, this life was meaningless, and that only serving God matters.
A member now of no organized religion, I do have a few tenets, or basic beliefs about life, the universe, and everything.
 
I have come to believe:
  • that this life can be beautiful and worthwhile just as it is, on this earth and in the here-and now;  apart from any religious framing, I now understand that each life has meaning and value

  • that there is value in seeking out and enhancing beauty; leaving the world more harmonious and pleasant than you found it? That now seems a fine legacy for all living things.

  • that there is value in learning and argument, which allow us to be wiser in our conduct (to the extent that our conduct is within our control)  

  • that sharing our experience with others enhances contentment; I believe that love is the mojo of the universe, and that “happiness is something that is multiplied when it is divided” (Coelho), and

  • that after life, we face no eternal judgement; I no longer fear a one-way ticket to heaven or hell handed out by a punitive creator God. We cannot be sure what happens after death, but I now believe that if a person’s sense of self/existence persists after death, it will be different from the “self” it was in this incarnation. Since in the natural realm a “law of return” rules, and humans are part of nature, not separate and superior to it as claimed in Genesis. The idea of us retaining personality eternally, even in heaven, now seems hellish to me.

I’m pretty sure that Grandma would see in my current path the fool’s errant way described in Proverbs; she’d see my wife and me enjoying our activities as pitiful, short-sighted souls getting the carnal pleasures of this world but destined to eternal hellfire. She would grieve her retrograde, or “backslid” Christian grandson (if he ever really was one), and this might break her heart. 
 
If she had seen me giving thanks for my bounty to the Universe (which on our staycation I did at each meal, beautiful vista, and cultural experience), a Universe of which I now conceive myself a small but significant part, she would have been appalled at my pantheistic paganism, and possilbe blasphemy. She’d see that her prayers for me had been in vain, and that her beloved  grandson would not be joining her and all real Christians in heaven with the Savior forever.
 
My grandma hoped that I would chose as she and her children (and my mother’s whole Plymouth Brethren/Southern Baptist family) had: to wholly accept myself as a miserable sinner worthy of perdition, and to ask for redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
 
Once I humbly asked, He would then forgive my sins and when I died bring me to spend eternity in heaven with Him, the angels, and all of the redeemed. And while on earth, I would live as part of a Bible-based assembly of fellow believers. Only thus could I find joyful, sustaining community on earth. 
 
Grandma Mae as well as my paternal grandparents wanted me to fulfill Christ’s “Great Commission”: that as a saved Christian, I would commit myself to growing spiritually and advancing Christianity til every human on earth had been reached with the life-saving message of the Gospel. (Matthew 28:19-20–“Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
 
This was the path of my family’s righteous forebears. 
 
Had not my maternal grandfather, Rufus Colgin and his wife Mildred devoted their retirement years and wealth to just this mission through Wycliffe Bible Translators (see below)? 
And had not my great grandfather Tom Bendelow been one of the founders of a successful assembly of believers on the Austin neighborhood of Chicago in the 1900s? 
When I was a boy, I followed my family’s dispensationalist Christian faith to the letter. I 

I very much lived in a fundamentalist Christian world for my entire pre-teen years, going to church at least weekly, and enjoying summer camps at Lake Geneva Youth Camp  (LGYC), where I won achievement badges and a Bible memorization contest (top prize: a Scofield Reference Bible)

Away from religious gatherings, my life was never terribly faith-based. But during these years I took great comfort from the message that God’s consistent and omnipotent love could lift me out of the despair everyone at my house seemed in, and that He would give me victory out of my suffering (a message exemplified in a song we would sing at LGYC,  “He Lives”: 
 
“I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today/I know that He is living, whatever men may say/I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer/And just the time I need Him He’s always near./He lives! He lives!/Christ Jesus lives today!/He walks with me, and talks with me/Along life’s narrow way.”
 Along these lines, the propulsive optimism of another camp song, the “Assurance March,” still gets my toes tapping.
During these years, I was hungry for constant, uncomplicated love. I also wanted miracles.
 
I got eternal love AND miracles in this version of the Judeo-Christian God. Featured at LGYC were “chalk talk” preachers who would tell the dramatic story of walking the straight and narrow path Christians were destined to walk. Christ told us we’d be beset with difficulties (but also opportunities for spiritual victory) at every turn.
The colors on the canvas would be brilliant, and when the preacher got to the part where the devil and his human helpers would come for us, he would declare in a loud voice, “All is lost for the believer! All! But one thing! And do you know what that is?”

 He’d pause dramatically. “Well look closely,” he’d continue, “and you’ll see it.” He’d nod his head to a church attendant, the lights would go out, and there, miraculously appearing on the canvas (with the hidden ultraviolet light that hung above his easel), glowed a brilliant image of the Shield of Faith and the Breastplate of Righteousness spoken of in Ephesians 6:10-18.

A huge “Awwww” would sweep the young audience.
My indoctrination was carried out via some impressive (for the time) audio-visual aids. Looking back, I give lots of credit to the youth ministers. Their version of Christianity was complicated, rooted as it is in a vast and somewhat contradictory text. It took real skill to convey its somewhat confusing doctrines to young people. 
For starters, we worshiped a complex, seemingly three-in-one God, an entity that was simultaneously the jealous, destructive God of the Old Testament, but also the peaceful, self-sacrificial lover of mankind, Jesus Christ.
And then there was the third part of God, the Holy Spirit, who invisibly ministered to Christians as Gods 1 and 2 stayed out of the picture until the “end times” (a chart of which can be seen below).In my fundamentalist home, at Woodside Bible Chapel‘s Sunday School, and in concentrated doses at LGYC, I received a version of human history articulated in my Scofield Bible.
The Bible was the inerrant word of God the Almighty given to men, and the Scofield, through its running commentary and internal margin references to other scripture, formed a foundation on which studious Christians could make their own claims regarding God’s plan for His universe.
One assertion made in the 19th century was the exact age of the heavens and the earth based on Archbishop James Ussher‘s calculations. He dated the creation of our universe as the year 4004 BC. 
The Scofield‘s eschatology, or theory of how the world ends, was based on the work of the founder of dispensationalism, Anglo-Irish and Plymouth Brethren John Nelson DarbyDarby argued to the first “Plymouth brethren” in 1830s Britain that God had prepared for mankind a chronological series of eras, or “dispensations.” Only when certain conditions defined in scripture had taken place would God give a new dispensation to mankind.
An implication of this theory is that everything in the universe is done in God’s good time, which no one can change. However, God’s ways are not unknowable. Informed believers can see God’s plan unfold through the scriptures, and on the basis of prayer and study make their own claims about how God’s plan might unfold in years to come. It was an empowering, democratic ideology, the notion that mere men could understand and even predict God’s plan for mankind.
One of the most important prophecies that dispensationalists believed would be fulfilled before the really scary stuff began (the Rapture, AntiChrist, and Tribulation) was the return of the Jews to Israel. Author Hal Lindsey, whose book I read, said it was “the most important event of our age,” and “the most important prophetic sign to herald the era of Christ’s return.” 
With Israel’s unlikely re-emergance after World War 2, and especially after the 1973 Six-Day War, the dispensationalist doctrine appeared vindicated, and sales of the Scofield Bible soared. A whole industry popularizing dispensationalist end-game narratives was born, and I, born in 1961, was raised in its frightening midst. Who in 1973 could argue against God’s unfolding plan when His word foretold that the abandoned homeland of Israel would be re-established as a state in 1948?
 
In the pages of “tracts” like the compelling “Chick” comics handed out at church and camp, I saw corroboration for my family’s cosmology. The tracts’ graphics showed the inevitability of God’s wrath against a contemptible mankind:
Unless a human accepted Christ’s forgiveness by sacrifice, he or she would spend eternity being tortured in hell. 
We had a copy of Lindsey’s book at our house, and although ten years old, I read it and was scared. But I was also reassured, since I was a born-again Christian. 
Or was I? 
Truth be told, I was never 100% sure that I had been “saved,” since my family’s religion qualified salvation. It held to a doctrine of predestination, which meant that one could never presume or be entirely confident of one’s status.
My beliefs did not offer me, in the words of a popular hymn, “perfect peace and rest.”
There was also a scary dispensationalist movie about this time, 1972’s A Thief in the Night, that was shown at Woodside. The plot of the film was confusing, but its featured song (written by Christian rock musician Larry Norman) that was very clear: get saved or get left behind with the hellbound:

 

 The fear-based “secret sauce” of dispensationalist ideology, it seems, is a variation of the successful sales technique called “Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.” 
  • Once the salesperson has gained the audience’s attention, a dramatic need, or dissatisfaction is introduced. The audience didn’t know it had a problem, but now it fears negative consequences if it persists in doing what it’s doing. 
  • It feels motivated to address the problematic/dissatisfying situation. 
  • The salesperson then gets the audience to visualize the satisfaction that his/her product or service will provide. 
  • And because the audience’s strong aversion has been leveraged through these motivating images, the sale is almost certain. 

The awful prospect of being “left behind” terrifies members of our social species. If I were not a Christian when the next, inevitable dispensation happened, my truly Christian friends and family would be “raptured” up to heaven, and I would have seven years of Tribulation under AntiChrist with no hope of sure salvation and a guillotine waiting me, according to the Chick comics:How scary this world given over to Satan was! But at the same time, how reassuring to count oneself on Jesus’ side. The plausible-seeming and intimidating vision of what my parents, grandparents, and siblings told me would certainly happen left me feeling cornered, peer-pressured and frightened into a commitment to Christ.

As an aside, the same dispensationalist narrative that scared me into religion as a boy went on to make inroads into American society through the popular Left Behind (LaHaye & Jenkins, 1995) series of books and movies.

Through the late 90s and into the new century, this series’ readers and viewers could vicariously feel that they, like its fundamentalist Christian protagonists, were not on the runaway train of history, but in the front car, and bound for certain glory.

Fans of this fiction imagined themselves as agents of God Almighty’s will. One critic described the heroes in these novels as “God’s Green Berets,” bravely outsmarting and outfighting the forces of darkness in Tom Clancy-like adventures.

Modern-day Christian survivalist works of fiction have a similar appeal, and the cult of Donald Trump as God’s secret agent exists in the same worldview. An exciting story ending with wickedness damned and happy-ever-afters for the righteous/me on the winning side? What human who knows how bad it feels to lose wouldn’t want in on that story?

Though this in-group of “saved Christians” assured me that I now had “Blessed Assurance” and protection from hellfire, it wasn’t a very pleasant in-group experience for me.

No one at my church, other than my relatives and one or two Sunday School teachers, was very friendly. And as stated before, because of God’s mysterious will, a sinner could never feel entirely certain of his/her status as a saved Christian. 

Even Hal Lindsey‘s claims could not give you much certainty. Apparently the members of the Trinity do not share the same knowledge. No one, after all, not even the Son, knew exactly when the end would begin:

 

The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 24 [emphases added]

36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. 37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, 39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 40 Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 41 Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. 43 But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. 44 Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.

Yet because it was sufficient to “scare the hell” out of sinners and kids like me, the dispensationalists could leave it at, “Repent, for the end is near!” 

On one side of the fear/faith ledger, I could look up to trusted people in my family, like my grandparents and Uncle Tom’s family. They had each made this same choice for Jesus. And with all its connections to previous scriptures in the Old and New Testaments, the PB‘s analytical interpretation of Revelations seemed trustworthy to my ten-year old brain. Given the eternal stakes, shouldn’t I make the best bet possible in this choice?
So, for a time in my youth, my Sunday school and LGYC indoctrination worked. I couldn’t yet think outside my family’s reality frames, felt I had to make this choice for Christ, and against the Devil.
For my choice, I received a fitful comfort. 

 

It would be ten more years before I discovered the writing of Ram Dass and Alan Watts and their more satisfying “big picture” of human existence. Both of these men introduced me to the “eastern worldview” that had sprouted thousands of miles away from Israel around the same time as the ancient Hebrews. Their writings gave me critical perspective on my pre-adolescent training.
As I look back today on the choice my 10 year-old self made, I see that I was coerced into placing my bet at the cosmic roulette table, in what Watts calls “the gambler’s religion.” 

As a boy, as soon as I could understand the implications of the Plymouth Brethren Christian story, I was persuaded to “man up” and make the “colossal gamble” between what Watts calls “everlasting beatitude and everlasting horror.” This high-stakes description of human choice is totally at odds with the Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu views, which see an individual human’s life is relatively inconsequential in the cosmic frame. 

The “oriental religions” I first studied at Illinois Wesleyan University (a Methodist school) assert that all life forms are part of God, and therefore the concept of an individual, autonomous life or soul is just an illusion. “You,” in this worldview, don’t matter, since ultimately there is no “you” making decisions with permanent, eternal significance. “You” are just part of the unfolding of life, which is God, and which went on before you, and which will continue after you’re gone.

The contrast with my received religion’s emphasis on personal responsibility could hardly have been more obvious.

Even after I had made it, the ostensibly voluntary “choice” I made for Christ felt wrong to my young mind. It felt dishonest. I had been frightened into making the correct decision. But how honest was that? Was it really a choice at all? Wouldn’t God, the Good Shepherd who kept his flock free from anxiety, want me to make a choice for his kingdom without duress?

And wouldn’t He want me to be fully present and mature intellectually before making this choice, fully informed of alternatives, since its consequences were so dramatic and permanent? 

Apparently not. Along with St. Paul (Philippians 2:12), my religion told me I’d just have to “work out my salvation in fear and trembling.”

I found my belief in dispensationalist Christianity wearying:  it seemed God had left us in a perpetual state of watching and doubting. 

Still another difficulty of this exhausting religion for me was the way its focus on the next life depreciated this one. The Plymouth Brethren denied any meaning or value could come from mere existence, outside the faith, on this fallen earth. That alienated young people like me who had aspirations to work in a secular capacity among my sinful fellow Americans.  

Finally, my growing knowledge and skepticism fatally undermined my faith. By age 11 or 12, I knew that “heathen” religions–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–existed. My Oak Park school had taught me how adherents of these creeds cumulatively outnumbered Christians around the globe. I also knew that American guns and bombs were killing lots of Buddhists in Vietnam, and that thousands of un-churched Biafrans were at that moment getting slaughtered or starving to death in Africa. These facts troubled me. 

My religion assured me that each of these dead non-believers would go straight to hell for eternity. Unwashed in the sanctifying blood of Christ, how could they go elsewhere?

 

How fair was that?, my adolescent brain wondered. Those poor Biafrans and Vietnamese had probably never heard of Jesus, much less the Gospel. How could an allegedly compassionate God punish them eternally for something entirely out of their hands? 

I remember asking my LGYC counselor in 1971, “Why would God condemn all those people to hell? Isn’t He a God of Love for all?” 

The counselor said something along the lines of, “Well, we are mere humans, a little lower than the angels. We cannot understand all of God’s plan. We take it on faith. But in the meantime, we do God’s will and reach out to those benighted people with the gospel. Once they hear it, God’s commission is fulfilled and the choice of eternal life or death is on them.” 

I heard his explanation, but ultimately, and fatefully, I could not quite believe it. 

The dissatisfaction I felt didn’t leave after his explanation. It persisted, and got me seeking a faith that matched better what I felt inside: that this life could be good, that love was its highest expression, and that people could righteously enjoy the pleasures of this life with no fear or guilt.

I have been a member of christian congregations since, and the closest aligned to my feelings–and thus places where I feel I’ve been the most spiritually nurtured–have been Episcopal or Unitarian, where the focus is not life under threat of hellfire and damnation in the future, but on direct actions to increase community and social justice right there and right then–the social gospel, it’s been called.

And at St. Christopher’s or Unity Temple of Oak Park, if a seeker’s conscience suggested that other faiths or traditions might have validity, one would be drawn into conversation, not seen as a heretical threat.

Although my grandmother would consider these denominations christian in name only, my path has led through them, and the life they influenced has included loving, pleasant experiences that my birth family’s belief system wouldn’t have sanctioned. 

In an ironic twist, I believe that the epicurean and spiritual life I am grateful for today would be impossible without my early indoctrination. My family religion’s stark dichotomies (good/evil, light/dark, truth/falsehood, heaven/hell) made the gloriously splendid, many-hued panoply of life on this earth all the more precious and meaningful. As I explored the “in-between” spaces of existence, I found them more interesting and generally satisfying than the black-and-white categorical filters of my youth. 

If I could today, I would thank my Grandma for setting me on the path toward a larger, more loving, and more connected religion than the one I inherited (though she surely would not appreciate this appreciation).  Beyond all her dogma, and after all her proselytizing, Mae Bendelow was a kind and loving grandmother to me and my sisters. I would mostly thank her for that, and for her admirably disciplined character.

The only person in my family-of-origin who espoused a view differing from the Plymouth Brethren dogma didn’t communicate it until I was in my early 20s, already disenchanted with the faith of my fathers.

Raymond Edward (“Eddie”) Van Natta was my dad’s cousin, a warm and eloquent man who happened to have been born homosexual. He lived with his life-partner Frank in a townhome near me on Northshore Avenue in Rogers Park.  

All through my youth, no one in my family even suggested anything amiss with Eddie. No one acknowledged his de facto homosexuality. Eddie had grown beyond the belief system that he and my father had been raised in, and was living his own life apart, from what his parents and relatives would have deemed acceptable or moral.

I remember visiting him when I was working down the street as an adjunct professor at Loyola University of Chicago. Eddie encouraged me to keep the Christian faith, but not the narrow one we’d been taught. He thought I should see as he did–beyond just scripture–in ways Grandma would have seen as heretical.

He recommended J. B. Phillips’ Your God is Too Small (1952) to me, and I read it. The author suggests that the God of Abraham, Moses, and the New Testament could be worshipped by modern christians who had moved beyond a rote base of scriptural interpretation. Phillips’ bottom line: Jesus was still the best description of God’s character for humans, and the church simply needed to allow for advances in modern physics and science. 

I thanked Eddie for his bold words, and enjoyed the book.

But my mind had already moved beyond his and Grandma’s certainty that only Christ held the answers to life’s persistent questions. But I was still a long way from having the guts to say so out loud. 

The memoir that follows is in large part me saying out loud what I did not have the courage to say before–words that would horrify my forebears and make me an outcast.

I feel more expansive and confident, at last, before it is too late.

What is “too small” for me now, in my 60th year? A life limited by tradition, doctrine, and the needless fear of honest self-expression.


2 responses to “Memoir introduction: Losing my religion–from dispensationalism to pantheism”

  1. […] of dispensationalism became one of the core beliefs of 20th century fundamentalist protestantism. (A previous post has an overview of dispensationalism’s influence, in case you’re […]

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  2. […] Although I no longer profess a religious faith, my family’s anti-clerical religion left its mark on me. To this day, I feel that the best criterion of a belief’s veracity and validity is one’s own felt experience, and not necessarily received, authoritative opinion. Very unscientific. Very prone to wrong conclusions. […]

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