Losing my religion: from dispensationalism to pantheism

 

My wife and I recently enjoyed a winter “staycation” in the Loop, where we got a wonderful room on the 12th floor of the historic Reliance Building–very comfortable, with not one, but two plush and clean comforters, fluffy bath robes, and soundproof engineering.

Among the rich cultural fare we took in:

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

In itemizing these events, I am not showing off my excellent ability to plan such a weekend. It was my wife’s plan; I only helped execute, though we do work well together!. Nor am I looking for social validation as one does on social media: “Look at this cool stuff I’ve been able to do! I must be pretty worthy/wealthy to be so extravagant, right?” 
 
No, I bring this catalog of privileged entertainment before you to draw a contrast: to reflect on how far my life has failed to fulfill the hopes of Mary “Mae” Gibson Bendelow, my fundamentalist Christian Grandmother. Because she loved me and wanted me to be happy, she believed that I would need to devote myself to her version of the Judeo-Christian God. Otherwise, true contentment would be impossible.
 
Read her concern in the closing of this letter, written when I was a strapping 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, as described in Psalm 1. Only this way, she believed, could anyone find real satisfaction, an abiding sense of peace and purpose about this life. 
 
Forty-five years later, my wife’s and my epicurean staycation shows just how far my ideas about a good life have strayed from the Plymouth Brethren mark I briefly espoused for some time in my youth. I am a member now of no organized religion, but I I do have a few tenets, basic beliefs about life, the universe and everything. I have faith that:
  • this life can be beautiful and worthwhile just as it is; apart from any religious framing, each life has meaning
  • there is value in seeking out and enhancing beauty, and leaving the world a nicer place than you found it for all living things seems a good legacy
  • 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)  
  • 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
  • after experiencing our life, we will not be judged and sent to heaven or hell by a punitive God. While there is no definitive evidence for what happens after death, I believe that if a person’s sense of self/existence does  “go on” after death, it will be very different from the “self” it was in this incarnation. After all, a “law of return” rules entirely in the natural realm. And humans are part of nature, not separate from it as in Genesis. The idea of us retaining personality eternally seems kind of hellish, to me now.
I’m quite sure that Grandma would see in our staycation the fool’s errant way described in Proverbs; she’d recognize pitiful souls attached to the pleasures of this world and destined to 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, likely blasphemy. She would see that her prayers for me had been in vain, and thus that her grandson would not be joining her and all real Christians in heaven with the Savior forever. 
 
My grandma prayed that I would chose as her children (and my mother’s whole Plymouth Brethren/Southern Baptist family) had chosen: to wholly accept myself as a miserable sinner worthy of perdition, and to ask for redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He would then forgive my sins and invite me to spend eternity in heaven with Him, the angels, and all of the redeemed. And on earth, I would become part of a Bible-based assembly of fellow believers, and thus find joyful, sustaining community on earth. 
 
My grandmother hoped that as a saved Christian, I would commit myself to growing personally as a Christian and advancing Christianity til every human on earth had been reached with the life-saving message of the Gospel
 
This was the path of my family’s righteous forebears. 
 
Hadn’t my 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, helped found 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, enjoying summer camping 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 to be 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 the way that lay before us as young Christians, the straight and narrow path Jesus told us about, one beset with difficulties (and also opportunities for spiritual victory) at every turn.
The colors on their canvases would be brilliant, and when he got to the part where the devil and his human helpers would certainly come for us, he would say, “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 a lot of credit to the youth ministers. Their version of Christianity was complicated, since it was rooted in a vast and somewhat contradictory holy text, and it took 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 expostulated in my Scofield Bible.
The Bible was the word of God the Almighty given to men, inherently inerrant, and the Scofield, through its running commentary and marginal internal references to other scripture, allowed studious Christians to make scriptural claims regarding’s God’s plan for His universe .
One assertion it made 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 has prepared for mankind a chronological series of eras, or “dispensations,” Only when certain conditions defined in scripture have taken place will God give a new dispensation to mankind. When a Christian looks at the record of human history in the light of Old and New Testament prophesies, one sees God’s invisible hand shaping events of the past. And on that same biblical basis, one can predict the God-ordained future.
 
One of the most important prophecies that dispensationalists believed would be fulfilled before the really scary stuff began (the Rapture, Reign of AntiChrist, and Tribulation) was the return of the Jews to Israel. Author Hal Lindsey, whose book I read (more below), said it was “the most important event of our age,” and “the most important prophetic sign to herald the era of Christ’s return.”  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” comic tracts, I saw corroboration for my family’s belief system. They described 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. 
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. 
One of the influential works coming out of this eschatology was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). It dramatically presented what the Bible foretold: a struggle between heavenly and hellish forces on the stage of this earth (an earth that would be “late” and “great” because transformed into a New Heaven and a New Earth when that dispensation arose). 
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 wasn’t I? 
Truth be told, I was never 100% sure that I had been “saved,” since my family’s religion qualified salvation. The doctrine of predestination 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” is deep in 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 awaiting 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.

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 felt that they, like its fundamentalist Christian protagonists, were not on the runaway train of history, but in its 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 exiting story ending with wickedness damned and happy-ever-afters for the righteous/me on the winning side? What human acquainted with how bad it feels to lose wouldn’t want in on that story?

Though this in-group of “saved Christians” let me know I now had “Blessed Assurance,” and that I was now safe 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 the other side of the fear/faith ledger, all the people I looked up to in my family, like my grandparents and Uncle Tom’s family, had 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 mind. If this choice were a gamble, shouldn’t I make the best possible bet, given the eternal stakes?
At the end of my Sunday school and LGYC experiences, the indoctrination worked. I did not think outside my family’s reality yet, and so felt I had to make the choice for Christ, and against the Devil. 

It would be ten more years before I discovered Ram Dass and Alan Watts and a more satisfying “big picture” of existence. Both these teachers showed me the eastern worldview that had sprouted at around the same time as the ancient Hebrews thousands of miles away from Israel, where my family’s theology was rooted. The writings of the former Richard Alpert and Watt gave me critical perspective on my pre-adolescent training.
 
But 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 soon as I was able to understand the implications of the Plymouth Brethren Christian story, I was induced to “man up” and make a choice between “everlasting beatitude and everlasting horror.” Watts calls it “a colossal gamble,” and one totally at odds with the Buddhist and Hindu view that the individual human’s life is relatively inconsequential in the cosmic scale. 

The “oriental religions” I first studied at a Methodist liberal arts school assert that all life forms are part of God, and therefore the concept of individual lives or souls is an illusion. “You,” in this worldview, don’t matter, since there is ultimately 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 will continue after you’re gone.

The contrast with my received religion could hardly be starker.

Even after I made it, the “choice” I made for Christ felt somehow wrong to my young mind. I had been frightened into making the correct, and ostensibly voluntary choice. How honest was that? And after all, wouldn’t God, the Good Shepherd who kept his flock from anxiety, want me to make the choice for his kingdom without duress?

And wouldn’t He want me to be fully present intellectually before making the choice, aware of the alternatives to this life-changing decision? Apparently not. Along with St. Paul (Philippians 2:12), my religion told me I’d have to just “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. A further difficulty of this exhausting belief system was the way its focus on the next life depreciated this one, which alienated young people like me who had aspirations to work in a secular capacity among my sinful fellow Americans. It wasn’t a religion you could have much present hope in, since this world and its societies were so transient. The fulfillment of all hopes was relegated to the after-life, and this world could ultimately only offer sorrow.

Ultimately, my dispensationalist beliefs did not withstand my growing knowledge and skepticism. By age 11 or 12, I knew that “heathen” faiths–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–existed. My Oak Park school had taught me how adherents of these religions cumulatively outnumbered Christians around the globe. I also knew that we 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, and it troubled me. 

My instruction assured me that each one of these dead sinners would go straight to hell for eternity. How could they go elsewhere? Only being washed in the sanctifying blood of Christ could saved a soul from hellfire. There was no other way out. 

How fair was that, my young 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 to hell all those people? Isn’t He a God of Love for all?” 

The counselor said something along the lines of, “Well, we are merely 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. 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 kept me seeking a faith that was more consistent with what I felt inside: that this life could be good, that love was the highest form of expression, and that one could enjoy the pleasures of this life with one’s friends, without fear or guilt.

I have been part of Christian congregations since, and when I have felt happiest has been in Episcopal or Unitarian sects, where the focus is not on grand eschatologies but on practices that increase community and social justice right here and now. And in those churches, if one’s conscience suggests to one that other faiths might have validity, one is not condemned as a heretic, but drawn into conversation.

Although my grandmother would even consider these denominations Christian in name only, my path has led me through them, and the life informed by them has included loving, pleasant experiences that my family’s belief system would never have sanctioned. 

In an ironic twist, I don’t believe that my pleasant epicurean and spiritual life could have been possible without the indoctrination I received as a boy. Its stark dichotomies (good/evil, light/dark, truth/falsehood, heaven/hell) made the gloriously splendiferous, many-hued panoply of life on earth all the more precious and meaningful to me.  

If I could today, I would thank my Grandma for setting me on the path toward a larger, more loving, and more connected religion, though she probably wouldn’t appreciate my appreciation.

Beyond her dogma, and post-proselytizing, Mae was kind and loving to me and my sisters. And I’d thank her for that, too.

One response to “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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