Imagine that you were born into an exclusivist sect of fundamentalist Christianity, as was a certain “brother in faith” whom you have known for years, possibly a lifetime. He raised his numerous children there along with yours, wrote articles about Luther for the church’s monthly newspaper, taught Bible Class and Sunday school, frequently offered comments during church discussions, occasionally stood in the back of the church at a microphone, leading the congregation in its singing of the beloved old songs.
All was well until a few years ago, when you heard some whisperings about doubts he had expressed. But a meeting was held and the gospel of forgiveness was preached. Carry on; offer the greeting of “God’s Peace,” if a bit hesitantly.
Then, suddenly, this brother does the unthinkable: self-publishing a book that candidly and irreverently examines the teachings, history, and problems of “God’s Kingdom,” in hundreds of carefully referenced pages. He turns out not to be a mere doubting Thomas, but a Judas.
If you’ve had doubts of your own, you may be tempted to sneak a peek or two at the book’s online version, as thousands of people have now done. You may come back to the website from time to time, checking out this or that issue that has nagged at you, confirming with morbid fascination that, yes, it is a real problem and not just a doubt arising from your personal failings as a weak believer. If your doubts go far enough, or if you have completely left the faith but remain interested, you might go so far as to obtain a full copy, in ebook or print.
But what you almost certainly will not do–cannot do–is accept the book as an honest assessment of your faith, not if you want to retain it unscathed. The claims you have grown up hearing as a “child of God” (what a self-designation!) are sadly incompatible with the facts outlined in the book, on point after point.
So, if you wish to remain “believing” while lacking any substantive response to these points (and I have heard none), you basically have three options. You can avoid reading any more of the book, ignoring its existence as much as possible. You can resort to the old catch-all excuse that “faith” cannot be understood by reason. (In other words, anything goes!) And if none of that helps, you could just dismiss me and my research.
People who feel threatened by the justification they lack for their professed beliefs have a strong need to point at an enemy. Since writing An Examination of the Pearl, along with a few blog postings critical of Conservative Laestadianism here and on extoots.blogspot.com, I’ve been called plenty of things by the faithful: blind, crazy, false prophet, tool of the devil, and a pretender at being another Luther.
Regarding that last one, let me assure my former brethren in the Laestadian Lutheran Church, which takes its name from two upstart leaders of rebellions against the established church of their day, that one Luther was quite enough. I have no interest in trying to be another. Certainly, I admire the man, though not so much the grim and creepy Laestadius. But there are some pretty unsettling things about Der Reformator, too. He labored under a slavish devotion to biblical literalism. In his later years, he oozed anti-semitism and authoritarianism.
I’m just some guy who knows how to research and write, and is no longer subject to being intimidated out of saying what I think. That’s it. Unlike Luther and Laestadius, I’ve never been at risk of my life or career, claimed divine revelation, had visions of the devil, or started a rival religious movement.
All that I’ve offered is the honest product of devoting a year of my life to full-time research of my inherited religion. After thousands of hours of effort, after the gut-wrenching anguish of seeing a once-cherished faith crumble to dust before my eyes, would you expect anything less than my candid assessment of things?
Today is Reformation Day, the holiday on which Protestantism celebrates its founder doing something most Protestants would never tolerate in their own churches anymore. As the story goes (possibly apocryphal), the young monk nailed a list of issues he had with the church to its door. It was an invitation to debate. Now, of course, debate has become a dirty word in church. That hypocrisy actually started with Luther himself: Once his heterodoxy become a new orthodoxy, he expressed vicious contempt for those who dared to disagree with it. Reformations don’t waste much time getting settled in and saying, “That’s enough. We’re good. No more changes.”
But look past that parochialism for a moment, and ask if you are any less deserving of the truth about the most important matter of your life than the poor residents of Wittenberg who stood in line paying for indulgences five hundred years ago. I certainly don’t think so. Call me whatever you want, but my book was written with the same motivation that Luther expressed in his 95 Theses, “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.”
On this point, at least, I am willing to let the church’s defenders claim that I want to be compared with Luther. Perhaps they should consider where they stand.
So, to those selling the modern-day indulgences of forgiveness for manufactured guilt, and to those handing over their valuable currency of intellectual honesty and a lifetime of foreclosed options, I present my own 95 Theses. You are free to write your own. Grab a readable Bible translation and some history books, and go to it!
As a bonus, here is the entirety of my “religious” teaching, which is hardly original: Proportion your beliefs to the evidence you have for them, and expect no less of others. As with love, if you doubt something, set it free. If it finds a footing in the spaces of your mind, it is yours to believe with true conviction and joy.