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Archive for the ‘Wheaton College’ Category

a cautionary tale

College professors like to tell stories about past students to their current students.  For the most part, students like to hear them.  At Wheaton, in addition to the regular stupid student stories about extreme acts of procrastination, single-digit exam scores and laboratory mishaps, professors also like to tell another kind of story: the one about the students who lost their faith.  These are often accompanied by their rhetorically close relative, the one about the students who laughed in the face of the Community Covenant and smoked weed on campus.

This has irked me for so long, I don’t even know where to start.  While I was at Wheaton I only came out to 2 professors, and it took both an extremely long time and a big leap of faith for me to trust them with my story.  What a shame, because most Wheaton professors are kind, intelligent people with whom I would have really liked to discuss my deconversion.  The reason why I didn’t talk to more of them was because of the demeaning way in which many of my profs talked about past students who had fallen away from Christianity.  I’m talking about students who went to their professors with serious questions of faith, and five hours or five years later, those professors turned that serious matter into a cautionary tale or an exercise in mockery in front of a class.  Whenever possible, a story of a fallen-away student would be accompanied by a story of a stoner student, one who gave everything the finger and didn’t give a damn enough to even care about whether Christianity was true or not.  This would give the impression that serious questioning and flippant disregard were analogous, and the storytime would end with everyone glad that they were better off, and the implication that as long as you were paying attention, you would never end up like that.

To make it even worse, this happened most often in bible and theology classes.  The very people who were most knowledgeable about faith and doubt were the ones who themselves ensured that they were the last people I would ever talk to about it.  But even less-pompous professors undermined my trust in other ways.  The most common was the prayer request for a student or former student who was questioning or leaving Christianity.  These prayers were inevitably accompanied by pitying tones and entreaties that we never end up like that.  More to the point, if I revealed something to a professor in confidence, I would be mortified if it became a prayer request to the entire audience of his next lecture, even if no names or details were given.

Even before I had any inkling of doubt in my faith, I was inwardly mortified every time a professor told a serious story about a student in a flippant, cautionary, or mocking manner.  I was embarrassed for those students whose stories were being told, most certainly without their knowledge.  It happened so often that it severely undermined my trust in all Wheaton professors.  When I began having doubts of my own and finally left Christianity, I chose my confidantes carefully.  The only professors I ever talked to about my doubts and deconversion at Wheaton were those who I had known the longest, who had never shown less than the highest respect for students, and never used them as cautionary tales.  The way professors talk about past students is how they will talk about you to future students.

The irony is that now that I’ve gone public with blogging, I probably will become a cautionary tale.  I hope at least that when bible professors mock me, some student will inwardly cringe and be embarrassed for me.  And I hope even more that people at Wheaton who read this will see me not as an object of ridicule, but as a resource and a voice for the ridiculed.

You can comment on this at peaceful atheist, where it’s also posted.

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My friend Grant is a Wheaton alum and a political scientist who is writing a book about student culture at Wheaton. I met him last year after I began this blog, upon which I found that not all Christians are complete morons.

One of the chapters in his book-in-progress is about atheism at Wheaton, and my experience as chronicled here. Reading his synthesis of my blog posts was a great gift for me, and helped me understand my own experience better. You can read a description of the book with a link to the chapter on Grant’s blog. He also has another chapter up about homosexuality at Wheaton.

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This week passed the anniversary of the day I was baptized.  I was baptized while I was a student at Wheaton, and it was a big, big deal to me.  I saw it as more than a symbol.  For those at Wheaton, I’ll just say that my thoughts on baptism were very heavily influenced by professors Gary Burge and Mark Husbands.  I don’t remember much of the theological terminology.

Anyway, I regarded my baptism as the best day of my life.  From that day on, whenever my faith failed, whenever I struggled or doubted, I remembered my baptism.  It was like a jewel that would always be there, never tarnishing no matter what the state of my life or my faith.  Every time I thought of it I was filled with a sense of goodness and peace that reached deep into me like a well.  It was the core of me.

Of course, I no longer feel these things.  I had to reach deep for these memories.  In fact, one of the ways that I knew I was really becoming an atheist and not just ‘falling away’ from Christianity was when I realized that my baptism was no longer sacred to me.  When I remembered it and realized that I no longer felt a sparkling core that was the essence of my identity.  When I remembered it and it seemed like any other memory, like a memory of a wedding that I attended a long, long time ago.

At first, it felt like a loss.  In addition to the loss of community and belonging and cultural identification that came with deconversion, there was also a deeply-felt loss of memory.  I no longer had such a memory to depend on, to reach back to whenever I needed confirmation, strength, assurance of who I am.

The feeling that I had when I thought of my baptism as a Christian was similar to what I see in some Christians’ eyes of their love for God.  It’s similar to what I witnessed in Francis Collins when he talked about Jesus, his voice and expression cradling something holy.  Sometimes I have wondered why I have never seen anything similar in atheists.  Why haven’t I met any non-Christians with that sense of peace and tenderness in their countenances?

But I’ve forgotten– I have seen it in atheists, but not when they were talking about atheism.  I’ve seen such pure expression of love in the eyes of a friend talking about her beloved.  The fierceness by which her entire being told of her love for the person standing next to her rivaled that of any Christian boasting their love for Jesus.  I’ve seen passion and complete certainty in someone as he called for the protection of the earth and the raising up of the next generation to do good, tangible good in the world.  The pillar of strength that I saw in him resembled the well of strength that the memory of my baptism gave me, and that was what inspired me to enter my current line of work.

Atheists have every measure of peace, love, reverence and conviction.  They just direct it towards what is really worthy of being called holy.  I don’t derive my worth as an atheist from a memory or from someone telling me it is so.  My life is a continual making of myself into something, something that I think is special and worth remembering.

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This is the story of how I got to Wheaton and my first year there. This is all Christianity; not even an inkling of atheism yet, but every story has to start somewhere.

I did not actually spend my entire college career at Wheaton. I transferred there at the beginning of my sophomore year, after spending my freshman year at an elite secular liberal arts college that I loved.

I went to Wheaton for one reason only: because God told me to go there. I remember it quite vividly. I was sitting in my dorm room at my desk, and suddenly the idea popped into my mind: I’m going to transfer to Wheaton. Like all ideas that popped into my mind in those years, I attributed it to God. I was convinced that this was God’s will for me, but, as always, you have to give a little test just to be sure. So I told God I would apply to Wheaton, and if I was accepted, I would go. I prayed that if God didn’t want me to go to Wheaton, then I shouldn’t get in.

I got in, as I knew I would academically– but I had hoped for some fluke by which I would be rejected. As my freshman year ended, I really didn’t want to leave my beloved school. I didn’t want to go to Wheaton, and I started a series of mental gymnastics by which I tried to reason out a loophole to disobey God. Because, no matter what I felt about going to Wheaton, I never doubted that God wanted me to go there. To me, it was exactly like the commandments God gave to people in the Old Testament to leave their homes and go to a place where he would lead them.

By the end of the semester, I had done enough reasoning that I could have stayed where I was and been fairly confident that God wouldn’t smite me. For awhile there, it looked like I could go either way. I sought the counsel of my Christian friends and mentors, and all of our discussions seemed to weigh in favor of me staying.

I sent in my deposit, figuring that I could stand to lose $200 if I decided not to go to Wheaton. But I knew, all along, that I was going to go. I couldn’t stand disobeying God. So against all my better judgment, against all my desires to stay with my friends and professors in a thrilling academic environment and a part of the country that I felt connected to, I withdrew from my school and committed to going to Wheaton, sight unseen.

Luckily, when I first saw Wheaton I thought it seemed an idyllic place. At the time, going to a college on a hill with a big sign in front that declared “For Christ and His Kingdom” was a dream come true. I missed my old school, but Wheaton was so different and challenging in its own way that I didn’t feel the loss too severely. My first semester, I took Introduction to Christian Education with Jerry Root. To be honest, I now can not remember a single thing about that class, besides the fact that Jerry quoted C.S. Lewis a lot. But at the time, and for several semesters afterwards, I regarded that class and its spiritual insights as the highlight of my Wheaton life. For awhile, I was enamored with the idea of majoring in Christian Education.

There was no shortage of spiritual highlights at Wheaton. By spiritual highlights I mean both highs and lows, because struggles and anguished fights with God were as important to my spiritual development as the days of spending all my free time reading the bible or praying for hours in the chapel while fasting. The amplitude and wavelength of my spiritual highs and lows were intense enough to keep me occupied during my first year at Wheaton, making me ignore completely all academics aside from religion-oriented classes, which were the only ones in which I learned anything anyway. I grew a lot as a Christian that year, and I even had time to go through sophomore cynicism, a stage that most Wheaton students experience of being disenchanted with the church and with Christianity. It’s the spiritual version of sophomore slump. I fell deep into cynicism and then emerged from it, my faith stronger.

Wow, I wasn’t planning on telling this much of my story. Still, there’s a long way to go before hitting atheism. To be continued, maybe…

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I had hopes that my evangelical regurgitation would be detected. I had a crazy idea that someone would call me out on it, that after listening to one of my class devotions or reading one of my papers, a professor would pull me aside and say, “nice try, but this isn’t real.” That would have made me feel better about Christianity and Wheaton.

But no such luck. When I give class devotions and write papers about my personal Christian beliefs, I get good grades and people thank me for my sincerity. It makes me feel terrible. And it makes me wonder whether the people who I admired for their sincerity really were.

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There are two weeks left in the semester, and I’ve been writing papers. Not to belabor a point that I have probably beaten to death already, but writing in the evangelical Christian voice is not my favorite thing. I was reminded of this quote from C.S. Lewis, talking about his ease of writing in the diabolical voice for The Screwtape Letters:

Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. The ease came, no doubt, from the fact that the device of diabolical letters, once you have thought of it, exploits itself spontaneously… It would run away with you for a thousand pages if you gave it its head. But though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical [evangelical] attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality [critical thinking, truthfulness to my nonbelief, any trace of my actual self] had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.

(from the Preface to the 1961 edition of The Screwtape Letters)

The fact that I remembered some random portion of a preface to The Screwtape Letters while writing final papers probably tells you what kind of Christian (or what kind of Wheaton student) I was– the kind who was constantly reading or re-reading one C.S. Lewis book or another. Anyway, I remember that when I read The Screwtape Letters as a Christian, I had the same kind of reaction as a reader that Lewis said he had as a writer– I really liked it, but there was still something about it that crept under my skin and made me feel depressed. Like a good dead baby joke. (Yeah, I’m an atheist. I like dead babies.)

I wonder if my professors can tell, when I write in the evangelical voice, that it’s not my real voice. So much of evangelical culture is like that anyway, requiring fluency in the language, that they probably can’t. Like people who stand up and raise their arms during worship at all-school communion– some of them are just regurgitating choreography. But you can never tell.

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“Do I believe in God?” I ask myself this question several times a week– sometimes several times a day. It can be easy to forget the answer, when I’m caught in the moment in the atmosphere of Christianity. Like when I’m at all-school communion. Or when I’m reading a particularly well-written work of C.S. Lewis’ (currently reading The Four Loves). Or even sometimes when I read the bible (which I don’t do often, but sometimes it can’t be avoided). But the easiest way to forget the answer is by assuming you already know what it is.

For me, the question of which ideology or worldview I “follow” is something that I choose every day. I don’t want to get so caught up in being an atheist that I forget whether or not I am an atheist. I’m not committed to atheism, I’m committed to following what I think is the truth. I’m constantly re-evaluating the truth, and I’m constantly choosing atheism.

On the other hand, I saw Christianity as more of a commitment than a choice. Commitment is also something you can renew every day, but the actual question of “do I believe in God?” or “do I want to follow Christ?” was something I only asked myself occasionally. When I did ask myself that question, and answered in the affirmative, I made a commitment to live by it. For example, my decision to attend Wheaton was a result of a commitment to Christ. It was the first time in my life when I asked myself, “is Christianity really something that I want to follow for the rest of my life?” It was the first time I considered Christianity in the long-term, as more than something that I adopted from others or something that I was just trying on for size. I decided then that the answer was yes, I decided to take responsibility for my life as a Christian, I made a commitment to follow Christ for the rest of my life, and I decided to come to a Christian college to learn to better understand and carry out that commitment. That was not the last time I chose Christ before my answer started to change, but that’s ancient history.

The whole structure of Christianity, of being a Christian, demands commitment. I don’t see it being any other way. There is nothing about atheism that should demand commitment, and I would be very uncomfortable if it did. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with commitment. I think the worst possible thing is having neither commitment nor belief, but following something anyway.

I’ve been calling myself an atheist for over six months. During those six months, I’ve asked myself almost every day whether I believe in God– and really thought about the answer. I’m an atheist today, and I will probably be an atheist tomorrow. But I’ll probably ask myself again tomorrow, just to make sure.

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