“Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.” 1
~ Richard Rohr
The desert can be a scary place if you are not accustomed to it. Water is scarce. Food sources are sparse. Human population is non-existent. Incidentally, it is a perfect analogy for when thinking about our spiritual journeys. My guess is that anyone who has even begun the journey understands just how fitting the analogy is. In the spiritual desert, you have little to sustain you. And you are essentially alone, with no direction and no particular place to go. So all you can do is wander, and wander, and wander.
That is exactly what I did.
When I first stepped into the desert, I carried with me the rawest of emotions—anger, bitterness, and depression. I felt betrayed, lied to, deceived six ways from Sunday. I would become especially irate any time I reminisced about the nightmares from my youth. Countless horrifying dreams, all over something I could no longer bring myself to believe in. I thought: I could have avoided all the terror and pain, and could have gotten some better sleep too, had I simply never become a “believer.” I could have lived without the fear that my deceased friends and family were burning in God’s eternal torture chamber had I never been told these “harsh biblical truths.” I could have lived as a child should, without all the terrifying dispensationalist eschatological hocus-pocus.
On and on thoughts like these went. Yet dwelling on them was not at all helpful. They just made me angrier. Moreover, the past was just that, the past. And there was nothing I could do about the past. The only thing I could do, then, was move on and attempt to figure out what this universe was all about. So to start, I looked to those who had the strongest critique of religion, especially Christianity, to see what their solutions to life’s biggest questions were. What I discovered frankly scared the shit out of me, as it was the atheistic philosophers who seemed to have the most rational arguments for what the nature of reality was. And if they were correct in their assessments, then that meant little case could be made for a God at all. In one way, this was a relief, for, at minimum, the angry monster God in the sky seemed preposterous. Yet, in another way, no matter how much I despised Christianity—and religion altogether—I was not quite emotionally ready to face a universe without a God. But, intellectually, that is what seemed true the more I read and listened to folks like Christopher Hitchens, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins, Stefan Molyneux, Neil deGrasse Tyson, et al. Considering I was so torn, what was I to do?
For a time, I simply wavered. I straddled what was for me the uncomfortable fence between agnosticism and atheism, where my more atheistic days were my more cynical. These were the days I would figuratively shake my fist toward the sky—to a God I did not even really believe in—and mockingly ask: How can you sit up there and allow children to get cancer and AIDS? Or allow 9/11? Or all the other evil that exists in this messed up world? The only answer I received was silence. Yet, there were also those days where something would hum inside me (to use Rob Bell’s language). Some still small voice would “speak.” I knew not what it was, but it was, for lack of a better word, something. This something is what kept me straddling that torturous fence, gathering splinters in places nobody wants them.
Now, while this theological grudge match was taking place in my mind, I began to take a strong interest in political philosophy. I gravitated toward libertarianism and folks like Ron Paul, studying what is known as the non-aggression principle as much as I could. It is more complicated than this, but what this principle essentially states is that one cannot initiate force or coercion against another (including their property), and contrary to what the church taught about how humans should behave, this teaching actually made sense to me. Almost ironically, it even sounded similar to Jesus’ command to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). So I began preaching it, thinking it would make sense to others in the same way it made sense to me. Boy was I wrong. In fact, most people did not take too kindly to it at all. And because I was still pissed off about all-things-church, I made sure to let those folks really have it—in the form of debate and argumentation. I did it with a chip on my shoulder too, allowing the hurt to dictate how I would approach situations. This caused my split with the church to grow even larger, from a crack to a chasm.
The chasm that was only exacerbated by my politics seemed to grow exponentially any time I questioned Western theological doctrines. And while I may not have had any theological answers, I certainly had questions—and lots of them. To my Calvinist friends, I asked how a Father could choose which of his children to save. I asked how they justified the New Testament claim “God is love” in light of their soteriological and eschatological beliefs. I asked why their God’s justice had to be juxtaposed against his love and defined as even harsher than pure retribution. I asked why their God failed to look like Jesus. I asked how they could claim God had Jesus killed in order to forgive our sins, while Jesus preached forgiveness while he was yet alive. I asked and I asked and I asked.
And I failed to receive any satisfactory answers.
My questions for the Arminians were just as abundant. If Jesus came to save everyone, did he fail in his mission? Are we certain that human beings possess the sort of libertarian free will that this argument hinges on? From the looks of things, can we really say that people are, on the whole, behaving as if they are free, or rather, freed from sin? So for instance, does an insane person have free will? Does a severely handicapped person? Does a person who has suffered so much abuse in life that they fail to understand why they habitually cut themselves have it? Does a child born addicted to methamphetamine? Does a soldier who comes back from war with PTSD have it? Does a woman who has been serially raped since her toddler years? And all of these people and many more have to “freely” choose Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior or they will suffer eternal punishment in a burning lake of fire?
Frankly, for all intents and purposes this God seemed no better than the monster God of neo-Calvinism.
Again, so many questions and not many satisfactory answers . . .
Even worse yet, my questioning pushed friends away. It was not my intention though. My intention was to get answers to life’s toughest questions. My intention was to figure out what the hell this experience was all about. Why are we here? If there is a God, what is he, or she, like? Etc. Nonetheless, people scattered. And frankly, I do not really blame them. I was coming from such a different place in life that it would have been impossible for people to understand me unless they themselves were on a similar journey. That is just the way the desert works. (I just wish I would have realized that then.)
Now, I cannot recall exactly when—perhaps it was around 2011/12—but everything theologically begun to change for me when I stumbled upon this little known philosopher from Oregon named Thomas Talbott. The first piece of his I read, entitled “Universalism, Calvinism, and Arminianism: Some Preliminary Reflections,” smacked me in the face so damn hard that I can remember grinning from ear to ear for days. I will quote the portion that floored me the most:
- It is God’s redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;
- It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;
- Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.
If this is indeed an inconsistent set of propositions, as I believe it is, then at least one of the propositions is false. Calvinists reject proposition (1); Arminians reject proposition (2); and Universalists reject proposition (3). But in fact we can also find prima facie support in the Bible for each of the three propositions.
I had never heard of anything like this. Apparently neither had Sam Harris! Not from a Christian at least. God? Saving all? No, it couldn’t be! Yet, that is exactly what this very logical, philosophical, and rational Christian theologian and philosopher was saying. So I had to know more. I had to give this guy, as well as others like him, the same type of attention I gave the atheistic philosophers whom appealed to me because of their strong sense of reason and logic. Perhaps this newly discovered thinker could be a beacon of light to this lost ship at sea. Perhaps he and others could help my logical mind attempt to understand the hum that still buzzed inside of me. Perhaps this grin that his work gave me meant something more than even I currently knew.
We were about to find out.