Today, September 5, is the anniversary of my “becoming a Christian” in 1948. I was ten years old—about what my denomination called the age of accountability—when I decided to walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn that Sunday morning, profess my faith in Jesus, and be baptized. My baptism was by immersion, of course, since sprinkling and pouring were considered counterfeits. And arising from that watery salvation, I was born again, years before Jimmy Carter helped further popularize the term.
Merely accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior was not enough. The Church of Christ (this one in the Brainerd area of Chattanooga) believes that the act of baptism based on declared faith forms the initial demarcation between heaven and hell. Before it, a believer is a non- or pre-Christian, not a real Christian. For believers such as those in my religion-of-origin, this was a momentous occasion, a theologically critical rite of passage.
The trappings of dedicating my soul thereafter to Jesus was quite easy in some ways, quite difficult in others. The easy part was to continue my Bible learning (it had begun at my mother’s and sisters’ knees), my Sunday School performance, and later even a few sermons. The hard part was dealing with my growing interest in the mysteries of girls (also beginning about at the knees, as I recall) and fascination with the forbidden potency of cursing. Much of that smoothed out by high school graduation and my reaching adulthood—not outgrown, mind you, but smoothed out.
While Jesus set a lower accountability age, the state of Tennessee figured 16 for driving and 18 or 21 for most criteria of adulthood. Those ages were their own passage points not for the soul, but for practical things like driving, contracting, and going to war. Had I died without being “saved,” though still a child in the eyes of the state, I would have been sent by God to hell for a pyrotechnical eternity of pain. In my innocence, I failed to notice that my God’s cruelty far surpassed Tennessee’s or that of any tyrannical regime or sadist in history, in fact, of all monstrous humans and their systems added together.
But pre-destined (to coin a phrase) for Christianity, in fact for a particularly small sect of Christianity, I did exactly what was expected of me. We were so exceptional that not only atheists, Muslims, and despots were going to hell, so were Catholics, Baptists, and everything that wasn’t Church of Christ. We even proudly corrected others who mistakenly called us Protestants because doing so lumped us together with the Devil’s counterfeits. As an example, we stayed clearly away from the Billy Graham campaign when it came through Chattanooga; Mr. Graham, after all, despite his hype was not a Christian.
How could I possibly leave or even deign to question that kind of specialness, the unfathomable good fortune of having been born into the Truth? We were usually humble enough about that, but acted sometimes like persons born on third base certain they’d hit triples. We were special; it would be an insult to God not to keep that in mind. You don’t relinquish being a neo-chosen people easily. However, while resistant to looking a gift horse in the mouth, I had a nagging concern that I’d never honestly sought the provenance of this good fortune for myself.
It seemed certain that if I had been born into a Muslim or Hindu family, I would not be spouting memorized Bible verses. I would not have, as I did through a few teenage years, regularly had a New Testament in my pocket. And so the apostasy began: questions, questions, and still more questions. Was it really a proof of God that planets stayed obediently in their orbits? Was it proof of God and Christianity that we have a book without contradictions, an inerrant source, or so we said? Was the proof of our denominational supremacy demonstrated in its motto (“We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent”)? Questions like these and many more, when actually spoken aloud, were often met with a condescending treatment that one would give a child who simply hasn’t learned to recognize bad questions. At other times, answers were given that if expressed on any topic but religion would have been seen as illogical, sophomoric, or even hostile. Needless to say, those reactions did not reign in my inquiry, but energized it.
Was there any evidence, any evidence, for my church’s core propositions sufficient to convince a mind not already determined to believe them? Was there any reason to conclude that my religion was more likely to be true than the beliefs of primitive tribes (or 21st century Georgians) dancing for rain? (It would be many years before I learned that we want so much to believe in belief that we are willing to forsake our cerebral beauty to get it.) For several years I honestly questioned every belief I formerly had. Only a few came through unscathed, and it turned out they were and are the values of humanism: kindness, truthfulness, intellectual integrity, good will, and even courtesy. But Christianity did not invent those things; to the contrary, it violates them repeatedly while pompously claiming to be the font of morality (as the Old Testament and centuries of Christians’ behavior testify).
Still, despite more than fifty decades of finding neither consistent truth nor coherent goodness (that is, goodness not diluted with sheer evil) in my former religion or those of others, I yield a certain ironic recognition to that day sixty six years ago when I gave myself to Jesus, even if only to find out later it was just a loan. It took those two decades to discover the foolishness and malevolence of humanity’s addiction to supernaturalism and dogma. But I am contented and comfortable that after that September, belatedly and happily came what Christians would call the Fall.
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