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As noted in my last post, I was officially disillusioned with megachurchdom. My family was understandably tired of trying different communities, so it was time to strike out on my own, Lone Ranger style. Since I didn’t care about the music or the surface-level social interaction, I’d just listen to great preachers on podcasts and online. Get the good word from the big names and avoid the stuff I didn’t like. (Which included waking up before Noon.)
This went okay for a while. Friends told me about liturgical Protestant options, which definitely drew my interest. But the closest option was a tiny place 30 miles away and the family wasn’t down.
The previous few years had been rough. Laid off, stepdad died, dog died, mom died, laid off again — that was a fun 15 months. Both of our girls experienced a wide spectrum of apparently undiagnosable behavioral issues and the resulting violent mood swings and school crises. Add in our own health and financial issues, and it made for a bleak time.
I kept reading contemporary Christian books and one or two vaguely discussed the importance of suffering. That message was nowhere to be found in the many churches we had attended. The unwritten rule was to plant a broad smile on your face, follow the three sermon tips of the week, and all will be well. Seemed to work for the other shiny, happy congregants but it didn’t help this guy.
Researchers coined the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe a major current running through American evangelicalism. Their study focused on teens but it was evident in many megachurches. Be good, however that’s defined this month, and you’re moral. Pop into church where the pastor will focus on your happiness, providing therapy. God won’t require too much from you or unduly interfere in the day-to-day, i.e., Deism.
No pastor came out and said any of this, but when you’re delivering TED talks from the pulpit, it’s hard to deny. They planted churches in upper-middle-class suburbs and gave the target market what it wanted.
“This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”
— Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
When no one was looking, Christ was pushed off the throne and replaced with the self. Okay, the passive voice there is weaselly — I pushed Him off the throne and took His place.
My actions followed accordingly. I drifted away from the boring online sermons and studied philosophy of the West and East. I read wisdom literature old and new. I listened to scientists and historians who were often skeptics “debunking” Christianity.
I’ve always had doubts, but was a poor candidate for agnosticism, let alone atheism. I already went through my college doubting phase. Even decided to “live as an atheist” for a month to see how it would work; made it about three days. Agnosticism makes sense to me in the abstract, but I never had enough faith to be an atheist.
I would still dip into Christianity, but wasn’t living it. I was increasingly selfish, morally indifferent, and cut off from those around me.
My wife would dutifully attend church and the kids, getting older, would join her less and less. There I was, sleeping in and doing my own thing like a big, dumb jerkface. It made me feel guilty, but I couldn’t get myself to listen to “three weird tricks to be a winner.”
The kids were disaffected as well and Dad wasn’t setting much of an example. Again, I felt bad, but many “children’s ministries” seemed designed to entertain and distract kids so they would think church was cool. Competing with iPhone screens is tough business.
My personal funk (i.e., lifelong clinical depression) was deepened when my dad was diagnosed with dementia. We’d always been incredibly close and now he was drifting away for good. I really had to find a silver lining to the suffering every one of us endures but kept coming up empty. Others were going through far worse and were handling it fine.
Finally, my philosophical dabbling began to bear fruit in the form of Stoicism. I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and The Enchiridion by Epictetus. Of course, they offered no reason for suffering outside of “life sucks” but provided an effective toolkit for enduring it.
Much of their advice could have come straight from the Book of Proverbs but any gods were pushed to the margins. Virtue alone wouldn’t save me, but it was a helpful route out of my selfish jerkfacery. I still craved the transcendent.
Around the same time, I became obsessed with “The History of Byzantium” podcast, which followed the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the West. I knew nothing about this Christian dominion and was fascinated by its history and unique religion. A vast world of secular and church history opened up.
Add to this my eldest daughter’s classical education. I couldn’t abide a child more well-read than myself, so I stole her reading list and got to work. Homer, Xenophon, Virgil … I couldn’t get enough.
After finishing the Greek and Roman tomes that interested me, I scoured the web for another classic. All the myriad threads I mentioned above converged in one little book.
“The answer is this. The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.”
― St. Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation
Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the fourth century, clearly and succinctly explaining some of the deepest theology I had encountered. The 100-page book featured a wonderful intro by C.S. Lewis, who I already loved, and addressed the then-unified church with an undistilled message about Christ. No three tips on getting the next promotion, the latest trends in ministry, or new jargon to impress your congregation.
It was just … Christ.
I needed more.