While I can look back to many general time periods in my own past and wish I had done something differently, it’s a strange feeling to pinpoint an exact moment that would have caused a paradigm shift if only I had acted.
The quotation above is from my journal, written during my second year of college. It was followed eight days later (24 years ago today) by the poem “Dead Leaves” (just 20 lines, worth your time), the most “atheistic” expression I was able to come up with in those days.
My wife says I too often dwell on the “What If I Could Go Back?” conundrum, and I’m certain she’s right. It’s not a real conundrum, of course, because I can not go back in time. The conundrum is merely part of the thought experiment: “If I could go back to being my younger self, knowing what I know now, what would I change?” It’s an insoluble dilemma because there’s no way to determine the consequences of any particular deviation from the already-written timeline.
A few movies have picked around this subject, but The Butterfly Effect is the best one I know of in which a person goes back to specific dates as his former self, carrying future memories. (Groundhog Day doesn’t really count, since he only goes back one day, and does it repeatedly, but it’s a similar idea.) In X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Wolverine goes back as his former self in order to change history, but the story doesn’t explore the vast possibilities — it’s primarily a blockbuster adventure story.
The conundrum arises when I think about the long-term consequences of any change in any action. Let’s say the thing I wanted to change was the way I acted toward a certain person; I want to be kinder to them. Being nicer in one moment might not have the long-term positive effect that I’d hoped for. Perhaps my unkind behavior led that person to be more wary in the future, thus avoiding a run-in with a truly dangerous person. This is just an example, of course, but the same thought process can be applied to any action of mine in the past that I might wish to change. (And, perhaps frighteningly, it can be applied to current and future actions as well.)
But today, I sit in wonder at what I wrote 24 years earlier, almost startled to read how close I was to leaving religion for good in those moments.
Either way I read that line, it points toward a near complete lack of faith. Either “the Truth” refers to my beliefs, and I’m saying I never really believed it, or “the Truth” refers to the fact that my beliefs were false, and I just hadn’t come to accept that yet.
The fact that I intuitively understood a “cross road” was approaching is now mind-boggling to me. What happened in real life is that I stayed on the path I was on. I woke up the next day and went about my life as if I’d never had such doubts. I pushed them down so far inside that they didn’t fully resurface again until four years later, and I didn’t fully sort through them until 2014.
But 1992 was clearly the year in which I could have broken away and saved myself tons of grief down the line.
In March of that year, in my journal I briefly mentioned “spiritual exhaustion” and added that “I am probing back into my heart, searching out some things”. Two days later, I wrote “So It Seems“, which is in much the same vein. It was the strongest expression of doubt I had ever penned up to that date, including the following lines:
Clearly, I was starting to look behind the curtain and finding little-to-no evidence of what I thought I’d always believed. Six weeks later came “the call“, which included another expression of doubt:
Some time in early fall, I wrote “Untitled“, which is more about apathy than doubt, but seeing as it was followed in December by “Dead Leaves” and the journal entry quoted above, I was clearly ready to have the scales pulled from my eyes. Very ready. “Dead Leaves” in fact sounds very clearly like I had already abandoned belief.
This is an exact moment to which I might return in my “What If I Could Go Back?” scenario, knowing what I know now. Twenty-four years ago today, I was as ready as I would ever be — until much later. Right then, that very night, I could have walked myself through the logical nightmare that is Pascal’s Wager, pointed out to myself that absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence in many scenarios — especially God, looked at the biology of unintelligent design, or even simply perused the illogicality of my religion itself. (It posited an infinite punishment for finite (and sometimes silly) crimes, says God loves us enough to save us from those rules — but admits he’s the one who designed the game, and God didn’t tell anyone about Hell for many thousands of years. Weird, huh?) I could have examined the assumptions on which all my faith was built, and realized that I only believed it because I’d been told all my life it was true.
So why didn’t I? If I was that close, why didn’t I walk away?
It’s really very simple: I could not imagine a universe in which my particular religion wasn’t true. Even in the times when I couldn’t feel God, and could find no evidence of him, my brain had long been bent to know He was there.
Three days before I wrote “So It Seems”, my journal records that I had preached in chapel (at Bible college) and that “the Holy Spirit moved in the worship service”. The next day, I wrote about a powerful time of prayer in class. The next entry after writing “So It Seems”, I’m again talking about the ministry, prayer, and Bible study. There is no mention of the questions.
Journal entries surrounding “the call” are similarly disjointed from my poetry. I wrote about God as if he was tangible and as if I had no doubts.
During the summer of 1992, I wrote about how frustrating it was to live with my family after nine months away: “It has been very tense, very defeating, to live here, and I’m not sure if I could do it again next summer.” In July, there was this: “Am I no longer a believer?”
As the fall semester began, my journal returned to normal, regularly mentioning God in a very real sense. The whole time, I was writing and publishing a Christian newsletter that was mailed out to hundreds of teens and a dozen youth groups. I was Vice President of the sophomore class in Bible college.
In October, I wrote: “And, even worse, lately, when I pray, I start to feel like God is not real.” Another close call! But I quickly re-convinced myself that God was real, and went on. I led services at a downtown mission, preached several times, counseled youth. Then in late November came the journal entry quoted at top, followed by “Dead Leaves”.
But the next day, all was fine. The journal entries immediately surrounding the date of “Dead Leaves” show that I was reading E.M. Bounds’ books on prayer and drawing great inspiration from them. Nothing else indicates I was experiencing any doubt about the reality of the spiritual world.
Whatever the reasons for 1992’s big dent in my faith, the dent was not strong enough to break childhood indoctrination. I wrote almost no poetry the next few years, and my journal goes on to mention nothing more about doubt. In 1993-95, not all was well, but I never once questioned God’s existence, or even the fallibility of the Bible. It wasn’t until the year after leaving Bible college, some time in 1996 that I finally began to chip away at the armor that had kept me so long.
Related: Signs In My Writings (quotations about belief, doubt, atheism)