Howard’s Personal Story
My Own Story
[Chapter 2 from Amazon ebook: Figuring Out Your Faith: Discovering Truth Among Conflicting Claims by Howard Pepper]
My own story makes a good illustration of a growing worldview clarity and making gradual changes in it. I will share it partly because I know it better than any other person’s story. And it was my own spiritual life experience that largely inspired the writing of this book. It was the continual asking of questions that eventually led to a radical change for me.
I was born into a family that was serious about their Christian faith, and had been for generations. We lived on a large cattle ranch in rural San Diego County. Incidentally, a certain part of my spirituality as a kid, and to this day, I believe was developed through the many deep connections with nature and natural beauty that I was privileged to enjoy.
Though I felt a special communion with God through the natural world, I recall being taught, and accepting, that one could not make that critical initial connection with God merely in or through nature. My training led me to view God as separate from the created universe, as well as from me and all humanity. I purposely say “training” rather than “education.” The root meaning of education is to bring out from within, so “training” fits better for most of what I received through childhood and adulthood in what is generally called “Christian education.”
Returning to my family situation, I was privileged to live in a now-rare extended family situation. My grandmother and her two brothers (my granduncles) lived just yards away, in the only other house within a quarter mile of ours. While my grandma and one uncle had a strong faith and some spiritual practices, they were not ones to go out to social functions, including church. They were sort of a carry-over of true “hillbillies.” But Mom and Dad would get my two sisters and me in the car every Sunday morning and make the winding trip all the way to little (then population 5,000) Ramona—10 miles away. That’s a short commute for many in Southern Cal these days. But for us then, it was a “trip to town.” One had to have a pretty good excuse for a trip to town! It was not a daily occurrence, by any means, except on the bus to and from school.
Despite that, we often went back on Sunday evening to our little “Bible-believing” church, where that service would often have as few as a couple dozen people. But once my older sister, a grade ahead of me, and I were in junior high and high school, we wanted to be at the youth group, so we probably made our parents more regular than they did us, for the evening service. Then there was “prayer meeting” on Wednesday evening. My parents weren’t quite as regular at that, and they didn’t push us kids to go if we preferred not to. But by sometime in high school, at least the last two years, I wanted to go most of the time. Not that it was that much fun, or that I would see my friends (they didn’t come). My interest was primarily spiritual, not social.
My church taught a brand of Christianity that can best be called generic evangelical. If you are now or have been a part of conservative Protestantism (a slightly broader category, but largely “evangelical”), you may know that there is great variation even within that group—variation in behavioral standards, worship style, and theological specifics around biblical prophesy, free will vs. “predestination,” etc. But here are some of the key points held in common: the Bible is the inspired Word of God (either “inerrant,” “infallible in matters of faith and practice,” or some conception similar); humanity is fallen, separated from God, via the sin of the first man, Adam; Jesus is God incarnate, a unique God-man—born of a virgin, who, having lived a sinless life, was crucified, providing atonement for our sin, and was physically resurrected. After this he commissioned his disciples and future followers to evangelize the world, promising to return to judge everyone and finally set up the perfect Kingdom of God on a remade earth and in heaven—but only for those who have believed in him. All others will be sent into eternal punishment in hell, forever unable to contact God in any way.
This teaching, in basic outline at least, I was able to grasp by the age of six. So I began to ask questions of my parents and wanted to “accept Christ.” This was formalized by the pastor in front of the congregation on a Sunday morning.
As a point of definition, Protestants like Lutherans and Episcopalians (American branch of the Church of England, or Anglicans) are not technically considered “Evangelical” by most because of infant baptism and other theological and liturgical differences. However, for practical purposes, their conservative branches and individual churches are part of Evangelicalism. They hold to the basic core beliefs mentioned above. The church I grew up with was nondenominational.
While I loved sports and the outdoors, I was relatively studious and started a self-motivated and partly self-directed study by about age 15. I read a few Christian books, developed a regular prayer practice, and occasionally screwed up enough courage to “share my faith” with a friend or a teacher. In my circles, the admonition was to be a missionary “where you are planted,” as well as to aspire to “take the Gospel to the fields ripe for harvest.”
Well, I was eager to go full-out and get prepared for some form of Christian ministry, perhaps even as a missionary. The decision to go to Biola University (College then) in La Mirada, CA, for that was an easy one. My sister was starting there the year before I would, and we were the third generation to attend. Biola was also an easy afternoon drive away, so I didn’t even bother to apply elsewhere. It was the place!
I loved it there. As I look back, there’s quite an irony. Biola, in the late sixties particularly, was anything but a diverse, progressive mini-culture, opening one to the broader world like the typical college or university did then or does now. It was one of hundreds of small to medium-sized Christian liberal arts colleges, most of them accredited, as was Biola. Especially given its proximity to L.A., in the “basin,” it was more an island, isolating students from in-depth interaction with the surrounding world of ideas and activities. But to me, it was broadening in many ways. Not only had my religious experience been confined primarily to one tiny church within one narrow segment of Christianity, I was from the “backcountry,” near only a small, very provincial town. Yes, it was California. But if you’ve never lived here, realize that Orange and San Diego Counties have a predominance of conservative thinking—some of it ultraconservative—a world apart from Berkeley, or even L.A.
So I was like a planted fish, taken quite literally from the “farm” to a large lake. I didn’t mind at all that I immediately went from a “big fish” (valedictorian, track athlete, youth leader) to a small one. Though the exploration of ideas was done through heavily tinted glasses, there was exploration. That was exhilarating!
Well, maybe not at first. The first exhilaration was probably the people… okay, the girls! Oh, so many girls—and good, Christian girls. But I digress…. My head was (honestly) primarily on my studies and my spiritual development, though I worked about 20 hours a week as well. What boundless energy at 18 to 22—classes, homework, work, dating, sports, “Christian service assignment,” late-night water fights and wrestling in the dorms, etc. I got good grades, but certainly didn’t let my schoolwork get in the way of my education.
Part of that education was the opening to a wider world of ideas, new academic disciplines, and the exposure to great thinkers, literature, and European and ancient languages (I took both German and Koine Greek, that of the NT). I became a psychology major. My high school had offered no class in the subject. I was fascinated by my psych classes, as well as sociology and, of course, Bible and theology. I wasn’t very fond of history at first. It didn’t seem to connect to anything current or meaningful. But history and the other disciplines all began to connect and everything got more interesting through some extra-curricular reading (where did I find the time?).
I believe it was my mom, not my profs, who put me onto Francis Schaeffer. Though lesser-known now, in the sixties and seventies he was the Christian philosopher and apologist that most thinking conservative Christians were reading and discussing. Now that’s a qualified “thinking,” in that there were significant blinders still on, for me and others, but at least some analysis and interaction with the secular intellectual world was going on. Schaeffer, though broader and more philosophical than most Evangelical authors, was still pretty simplistic, as I now re-read him. But I loved his work, as he was trying to lead us through the labyrinth of the history of ideas—to show how philosophy and the arts influence popular thinking and culture. He thought one could logically and historically demonstrate the truth, the superiority of theism and a specifically Christian worldview. Part of the method was to show the bankruptcy of all other philosophical paths—or religious ones, for that matter.
I appreciated both the approach and the conclusions. I was already convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but it was great to feel that someone who understood the world of ideas deeply could lead the way in demonstrating it. It was a plus that he did it in relation to the systems that critiqued Christianity and the Bible. But even more interesting to me, was Schaeffer’s way of tracing the evolution of ideas and showing their expression in the various arts and academic disciplines. He was the first to help me start seeing how history was relevant to today, and to the things I believed.
I began to get excited about learning and finding deeper meaning in a variety of studies. Though my best “knack” was for the hard sciences, I hadn’t wanted to pursue them. This was giving me a boost, and more fun in the humanities and social sciences, along with theology. (Theology I now view mainly as a mix of philosophy and social science, incidentally—not the “queen of the sciences” it was centuries ago when all fields of knowledge were integrated.)
Through the rest of college I was a sponge—absorbing all the knowledge I could. I had an interest in many things, but grasping the spiritual realm, and how to help people in it was the main focus. My training, both at church and at Biola, reinforced by my own reading, led me to think that a deeper understanding of the Bible was the key. Sure, psychology could help and be a support, but the deepest wisdom came from the Bible. It alone was knowledge revealed by God. And, of course, it was the only reliable guide to establishing and deepening relationship with God. I had begun study of New Testament (hereafter, NT) Greek and was to continue that into seminary, in order to read the NT in its original language. I read theology and devotional books on the side and during summers. Some of that was on theological problems or areas of controversy—free will and determinism, church unity, gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially “tongues,” healing, and prophecy, and other topics.
I always had more questions to be answered—mostly because of my natural curiosity and detective mentality. But the questions were about fine points within the orthodox structure, not things that questioned the core or foundation. There was still too much new to explore and seek to understand to give thought to questioning what I had believed already over a dozen years, and had reinforced dozens of different ways. And it would have been far too psychologically threatening, on a social as well as personal level, to question the foundations, if I had been confronted with serious challenges that brought doubts.
I went straight from Biola University to Talbot School of Theology, which is under the same organization. It was during my four years there that I began, ever so slightly, to question the “received” truth of various theological points. Nothing critical still, but I recall being chafed that, in order to graduate, we had to sign off (literally) that we believed numerous doctrinal points that were the theology of Talbot. That included some that by then, I knew were quite controversial among Evangelicals, such as the interpretation of the prophetic statements and portions of Scripture. I didn’t know what to believe in the area, but didn’t think the “pre-tribulation rapture” position we had to affirm was one that was clear in the Bible.
The quest for clearer prophetic interpretation was to be a serious side-line project of mine for many more years. It was not just peripheral, I came to realize, because it involved central themes in the Gospels themselves—the very foundation of Christian theology. However, it was not those themes that we were asked to support, but specific scenarios based also on brief and often puzzling statements in other parts of the NT. Some have to do with expectations that the rapture (supernatural taking up) of the saints was to take place within the lifetime of the writer (e.g., Paul) and his readers. This kind of confusing data, in a collection of works (a “book”) that was supposedly a theological unity, kept pushing me to look deeper and deeper.
It took many more years before I underwent a radical “paradigm shift” around age 45 and left all the Evangelical church and institutional affiliations I’d built up over the years. I did what is not easy at that stage, with that life history, and reversed my beliefs on core aspects of the Good News—the Gospel of Christ. I did this in a studied, methodical, and deliberate way. Despite this careful transition, and my eagerness to explain my thinking in depth, many of my friends and family members did not understand at all. They were, and remain “concerned,” to say the least.
What new information or insights that far into my life would impel me to make such a drastic, unlikely move? Well, you will hear more of the story, sometimes “between the lines,” as you read on.
What Belief Updates Can Do
Keeping one’s worldview conscious and up-to-date is vital work. It is part and parcel of “figuring out” one’s faith. Not only does personal development bring changes individually, cultural movement “forces” changes in many beliefs and values, including the religious. Of course, church leaders and many lay people resist such changes or even deny that they happen in their denomination or group. The conservative element of religious systems and institutions is heavily tied to the perception that their beliefs are unchanging over a long period—particularly since the time of Christ (or perhaps the Reformation nearly 500 years ago). This is tradition that is highly valued (“traditional values,” “the historic Christian faith,” “Judeo-Christian heritage,” etc.). Longevity is viewed, often subconsciously, as one validation of the “Truth” of beliefs currently held.
Is the conservative, often highly fearful element in America currently re-energized precisely because we are in a period in which changes in our scientific knowledge and our technology are accelerating? (They’d claim the key changes are in values and morality, which also has some validity.) Are recent and coming changes greater or more fundamental than typical through history? I think so, and your reflection on this question is important in your spiritual formation.
What do recent insights and continuing trends mean for you and how you will understand and order your guiding beliefs, your priorities? Are you among those for whom career direction is one of many things influenced by religious or spiritual commitments?
It was so for me. I determined, prior to college, to follow what I considered the highest calling, “full-time Christian service.” And I largely lived that out until about 12 years ago. Then, over a several year period, I dramatically changed my theology and my spiritual affiliations. I believe the acceleration of knowledge and ways of conveying it, such as the Internet, played a major part in why I did that. However, it may not have happened if it were not for the social influences of different kinds of believers, and circumstances that loosened my ties to ministry and personal relationships in my church circles.
That late a change is not typical, and the older one is, the less likely major change becomes. In fact, there is research suggesting that in the elderly (especially as health fails), instability or uncertainty in one’s beliefs—one’s spiritual moorings—tends to negatively impact mental health and coping skills. So I do not recommend giving this book to someone in that situation. Others will also find it unsettling, I realize. I do not believe in tearing down without rebuilding something better in its place. So I do my utmost in the book to also provide at least the beginnings of a guide to restructuring beliefs—a way to re-view what may have become deep-seated. This entrenchment can happen by college years. It tends to just get deeper after that.
Fortunately, the difference between “orthodox” Christianity or Western traditional religious beliefs and ones that may serve people better and present fewer problems is generally minor. Harmonization of seemingly opposite beliefs is easier than most people think, if approached thoughtfully with a searching, open mind. You will see key examples in the book. They have to do with the focus of the evaluation work I’m encouraging—that of how traditional Christian beliefs, specifically, have developed over the centuries and how they share important common ground with their lesser-known alternate expressions.
Important 2012 Post-script
The above was written a few years ago. Since then, I’ve continued to study early Christianity (“Christian origins”) as well as get back some and a bit deeper into Process Theology. The latter mainly just in the last few months leading to now, mid-April, 2012. My recent readings and attendance at the “Celebrating Reenchantment” Conference, April 12-14, at Claremont School of Theology, has inspired and encouraged me that Process Theology, and the Center for Process Studies specifically, has the depth necessary with various resources and networks in development to become the prime “carrier” of the kind of re-visioning and dialog that I speak of in the above chapter fromFiguring out Your Faith, and further at the end of that book.
Not only that but, as I was already coming to accept identifying again as a Christian, Process Thought in general and Process Theology in particular has raised my comfort level in doing that. It provides the only structure and conceptual language I know of that is able to sensibly incorporate all the emerging (and sometimes speculative) physics, biology and other science data as well as core traditional Christian concepts (abstract ones not taken too literally, e.g.). And with this, provide a solid basis for reasonably (not naively or superficially) pursuing grand but vital visions like international peace-making, ecological endeavors to preserve the environment and move toward sustainability, etc. So, I guess I can say, for theoretical as well a practical reasons, “I’m all in” with Process!