I’d been out of Christian Music for a number of years when I was asked to do an interview for Down The Line Magazine. My beliefs had changed over the course of my journey and some friends had been insisting that I had an obligation to let people know where I stood. I saw this as a good way to do that in a controlled setting, rather than leave the story to the winds. I had opened a Facebook account and had been involved in a number of threads on religion, evangelical Christianity, fundamentalism, Christian music, love and relationships in all their forms, and until I learned better, politics, especially when it collides with religion (and it almost always does). People were rightly a bit surprised by my points of view and how they had evolved, and I think that, and the amount of traffic I was seeing on some of the posts are what led to being asked to do it.
I’ll fill in the blanks by and by. In the meantime, I am still frequently asked the question in the headline. “What happened to you?” One recent thread even had people telling me they were saddened, disappointed, felt betrayed, that I may have been insincere or even fraudulent in my Christian practice, that I am living evidence of the great falling away the Bible talks about. On the other hand, there are those who are encouraged, who feel they are not alone in their doubt, skepticism and questions, who know that life is much more about love than correct beliefs, who have grown through their literalism and for whom life is much better on this side of guilt and fear.
I understand what Undercover has meant to many in their own journey. I know we had a place in the cultural youth revolution within the church. I understand how that can lead to a sense that somehow I switched sides, that I abandoned the team, fell away, backslid. I will have much to say about all that too, but one thing at a time. Following is an excerpt from the interview which appears in Down The Line Issue #7, which you can safely download in its entirety here. I wrote these answers over a number of weeks in the Summer of 2010. Although I have come a long way even since this interview, here I answer two questions: “Where do you stand now in regards to your faith/belief,” and “What are your views on Christianity these days?”
Where do you stand now in regards to your faith/belief?
I am sincere and open in my search for truth no matter where it leads. I know there are many who think that doubt and inquiry are wrong if they do not somehow lead back to the truth of the bible as they see it. I can’t outline my whole process and arguments for what I believe here. But is it really all about correct beliefs? Many think so and I’m certain that to them I am no longer a Christian. To my theologically liberal friends all my questions probably seem like the blinding flash of the obvious. I have had to go through it and I am, of course on a lifelong path but one that has now taken me beyond the idea of the value and potency of correct beliefs and the constructs of Christianity.
On my Facebook page where it asks for religious views, I listed Music, Freethought, and Lovism. To me that means that I value rationalism, I believe in reason unrestrained by deference to religious authority, and I am firmly committed to the cultivation and practice of love. I express this most deeply in music. That’s the framework for what I believe. Again I refer to a discussion I had with Jon Trott who suggested that there are two kinds of knowledge, rational and experiential. The beliefs I held have not stood up well to reason and rational inquiry. I acknowledge and accept the validity of religious experience, although those experiences are unique by definition and cannot be used as a logical defense of any one god or belief system over another. All faiths lay claim to those kinds of experiences. Ultimately, you are going to have to bring that experience into the realm of reason if you want to communicate meaningfully with others.
In the end, the important question is, “What is the basis of what I choose to believe?” I have heard and expect all the arguments because people like to believe that their beliefs stand up to scrutiny. I have been told that mankind is corrupted, fallen, and that we should not rely on our rational minds in spiritual matters, although that is itself an appeal to reason. I have been told that love and a healthy moral code are not possible outside of God, and in fact just the opposite is suggested by research. Many hold that genuine love is not possible outside of Christ, and that somehow only Christians have the truth. I have been told that the secrets and the mysteries belong to God, that we cannot know, and yet I am expected to assent without reason under threat of eternal suffering. I suppose then I am agnostic. I don’t know, and outside peoples’ individual experiences, nobody else does either. It’s necessarily a matter of faith. If one’s faith could be proved by reason and logic, it would no longer be faith. I align most closely in the end with Einstein who said, “If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
When I talk to people about the early days of my journey with evangelical Christianity, they often ask if I really believed all that stuff literally. It’s a good question. I went forward at an altar call at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in 1976. I began asking questions right away, not borne of skepticism, but thirst. I remember driving to Calvary the first week after that altar call and asking anyone who might have been even standing around in the parking lot what it was supposed to be like to be a born again Christian. I had been brought up Catholic.
Now Calvary in the early days for example, taught that the rapture was going to take place no later than 1988. I heard that taught explicitly, that Hal Lindsey line of thinking that the generation that witnesses the second coming would be the generation (40 years in the bible) that saw Israel become a nation again in 1948. Chuck Smith had written books and tractates on the end times and biblical prophecy. There was a nagging question I had about the way one verse in Matthew 24 was used repeatedly with regard to the end times: “So likewise ye, … know that it is near, even at the doors.” Well, the “…” made me curious so I looked up the verse and the missing words, “when ye shall see all these things” seemed important to me. Why omit them? It seemed to argue against the idea of an imminent second coming because the “things” we were supposed to “see” were not at all yet evident. So I asked Chuck personally at a baptism at the ocean. I did not get a good answer and the sense that I had was that I should not be asking the question. To be fair, Chuck was busy with a baptism that day and I was just some kid asking a question, one that he could have possibly interpreted as confrontational, or at least tedious. But that was not my motivation. I wanted to know.
Not having received a good answer led me to explore other explanations and interpretations of the apocalypse and the end times and I stumbled on George Eldon Ladd who had a completely different view than the Lindsey camp, that the end of days and a rapture of the church were not imminent, a view that made much more sense all things considered. I adopted that view quite early which left me at odds with the people at Calvary for whom this was such an important and central issue and I avoided many such discussions. Did I really believe all that, my friends ask?
There were many other such unanswered or poorly-answered questions on crucial matters that I had over those years and coupled together with the decline of my personal life up through our first few albums, my faith necessarily unraveled and changed in many ways. I did feel in the first half of the 1980s like I was “hanging by a thread, out of control,” that I had tried so hard and in the end after years of study, worship, church attendance, travel and evangelism, this belief system granted me no more personal power or sense of transcendence than if I had no belief at all. It was to be then, a matter of complete faith. The rain falls on the believer and the unbeliever alike. I wrote as much on the liner notes to an anthology of our albums in the late 1980s, that I had had to re-evaluate my faith and had chosen to toss out quite a bit of bathwater without losing the baby, those core beliefs of my Christianity. In my disillusionment with evangelicalism, between 1986 and 1990 my entire religious efforts were gradually refocused on Catholicism. I did not accept many of the tenets but had promised to stay open when I made my return to Rome official. Those doctrines seemed no more outlandish to me than many of those I was exposed to in evangelical fundamentalism anyway, and the Catholic church at least had historical accountability going for it, so I thought. There I remained for the next 15 years.
I moved to the East coast in 2007 to teach at James Madison University. I knew nobody and went there alone. I made the acquaintance of a bright and interesting woman and I asked her out. She was a secular humanist and had learned of Undercover and my role in Christian music. She told me that if I believed she was going to hell and if I was going to try to save her from hell, she would not go out with me. That simple exchange gave me pause and I told her I would consider the question and would get back to her on it. It ended up being a transitional event for me. I had not believed in a fire and brimstone hell in some time, although I did believe in a kind of hell, an eternal separation made of our own choice to turn away from God here on earth. Did I really believe all that?
This had lurked in the background, all of these many mental exercises, contrivances and convolutions one must necessarily go through to reconcile the bible with itself, with history, with orthodoxy, with what we know from science and archeology, with our own experience. I had to admit to myself that my own mental exercises, convenient as they might have been, as orthodox as some of them could be considered, were not at all what the historical church, the early church fathers, or the bible taught even though I had long since abandoned the doctrine of sola scriptura. I told her I did not believe in a future reconciliation of the cosmic sin ledgers or a fiery hell and that I would not try to save her from one, although if objective discovery of such a place ever happened, I would make her aware of it and would in fact try to save her from it. I said so half-joking, but she was serious about this, and I told her that the bottom line was that my idea of hell was only my own, that I didn’t know for certain, but that I didn’t believe in a lake of fire. So we talked this kind of thing over, faith and belief, for hours.
The floodgates of inquiry were now open, and in the three years since, I have done an intense amount of reading and have opened myself up to any reasonable question and have demanded adequate answers in exchange. It seems the only responsible thing to do. I have the time to devote to it because I am on the East coast to teach and have very few other obligations there. Once one accepts the validity of scripture as a sacred document it may make sense to have discussions about theological matters, the finer points of doctrine and practice. I watched the documentary “Frisbee” recently and a friend of Lonnie’s in the film said that he had never read the bible before and once he had, it opened a whole new world to him. If the bible is approached like that, it makes sense to have those kinds of discussions.
For the last three years though, I have been in the crawlspaces of inquiry, examining the foundations, backfill, the joists and girders. I read the new atheists, skeptics, scholars of many disciplines, artists, mystics, pastors and theologians, conservative, liberal, and mainstream. Bart D. Ehrman, New Testament scholar and Chair of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina was particularly powerful. At that level the questions take on an entirely different nature. I never knew, for example that there is no archeological evidence at all for the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Millions of people wandering a small patch of desert for 40 years, and there is not a trace of evidence. Why, if there was a worldwide flood with all remaining life on an ark, are there no kangaroo remains between Ararat and Australia, or penguin fossils between Turkey and Antarctica? I never knew that many of the New Testament epistles are pseudonymous, in some cases outright forgeries (not necessarily motivated by malice, but pseudonymous nonetheless), and that we know a good deal about the fascinating origin and evolution of the scriptures, the thousands of manuscripts available, no two of which agree completely, their selection and compilation into the canon in the fourth century, and the early church apocryphal writings that also show what early Christians believed and practiced. This is all well-known by biblical scholars, and anyone who is serious about their practice should know this stuff. These are just some examples of problems for literalists who rarely think through such things because they are like the guy in the documentary who have gone in with the assumption that it should all be taken at face value. Did I really believe all that?
To the believer, it will sound as if I am cut off, down a bunny trail of error and blindness, a heretic, apostate. I feel no such thing. Things make much more sense to me, I am more alive, I feel more connected, I am not worried nor do I fear. I am incredibly grateful to the forces responsible for my existence. No god I am interested in knowing would begrudge an honest and sincere inquiry, honoring the only faculties I was born with. I assume responsibility for it. I know love more than I ever have. I have grown. I am more complete in every way. I have ongoing discussion about all this and my ongoing process on Facebook, and I invite anyone to sit in and continue to grow with me, just as it was with listening to Undercover.
What are your views on Christianity these days?
That’s such a broad question. First, there is no unified or singular “Christianity” that I can really offer a view on. Even within mainstream orthodox Christianity there is so much division and disagreement over so many critically important issues of eternal consequence. That alone is telling. Perhaps we should not have such strong views on things we don’t understand. Also very sad is the politicization of faith. That is not unique to Christianity but it’s rampant within it.
I have two cousins who are retired missionary nuns in the Maryknoll order. They have been instrumental in my growth over the years. I remember talking to one of them around 1990 about the afterlife and she told me she didn’t believe anyone was going to hell. I was surprised and asked if she meant “anyone” like even Hitler? She reaffirmed her answer. Her view of course is way outside the mainstream of catholic teaching but it was obvious she had thought the issue through and I just hid the conversation away in my mind. Sometime later I was in the rectory at a nearby Catholic church (also Tommy LaSorda’s church) that was pastored by Augustinian priests, a conservative order. They still wear self-flagellating belts around their waists although I hope they don’t still use them. I had mentioned my cousins to the pastor whose face went a bit white and told me “Well, you know there are many who consider the Maryknolls somewhat on the fringe of Catholicism, maybe not really Catholic at all.” There is this fixation with correct beliefs, and allowing for certain tolerances, anyone outside those correct beliefs is deemed “on the fringes” or outside the camp altogether, and that has very real daily consequences for how people are treated. That can’t be right.
I’ve experienced a real contrast of practices lately. I’ve been playing guitar for the Dances of Universal Peace. It is an interfaith practice of simple circle-dances with musicians in the center. They were begun by Samuel Lewis, “guru to the hippies,” in San Francisco in the 1960s. A little research will show a number of connections between Lewis and Eastern teachers but again, the point is not dogma or correct beliefs. There is no belief system and no religious affiliation with the Dances, so there is really nothing to belong to. The point is practice, to come together as a people from many spiritual traditions or no tradition at all. It is a practice of renewal and meditation to promote peace, understanding and connection within ourselves and each other through song and movement. I have learned quite a bit about other peoples’ practices this way. This might scare some of the “correct belief” folks away, but even the secular medical and behavioral sciences advocate meditation, breathing practices, relaxation, movement, chant (even the early church), all good for us in a number of ways. Christianity can be overly cerebral. Some sects integrate more activity in the way of practice, but more often in evangelicalism the service is focused on a person and the sermon, usually after the singing of hymns, perhaps prayer, which too often looks and sounds like begging God for favor. I’m not sure about the practice in that kind of model. I don’t mean this as a criticism at all. The difference in practices and the results are just things I find interesting and noteworthy.
I don’t think that religion or faith are necessary for us to become complete human beings, to love, to have a strong and pure sense of morals and ethics. Religion and faith can do a lot of harm. I am told they can do a lot of good too, although I think it’s also possible that the good could just as easily be done outside religion. But good is good, love is love, and wherever it comes from is fine with me. It’s just that love and good so often have to take this long detour through doctrine, dogma, speculation, mental exercises, contrivances and convolutions before it gets to love. I am inclined toward complete acceptance and respect of others’ beliefs. On the other hand over 40% of Americans believe the world was created in 6 days just a few thousand years ago and many of them want to run for public office, rewrite science and history textbooks (as was recently the case in Texas), establish a state religion and enforce a moral code that has no basis in reason but is solely justified because it exists in ancient manuscripts, and in such cases I have a hard time standing by silently or passively.
I don’t believe I will ever be reunited with my mother in heaven. My heart is broken by that loss of hope. We need to love now. We need to live now, fully. We are not going to be rescued someday from the pain and suffering of life here and now. We need to be that rescue, love, to those in pain. Some see this as meaningless. I see it as urgent. There is no reason why the loss of hope, or the absence of meaning or purpose should require the existence of a transcendent belief system. I accept the practices of those singularly committed to love.
I’ve been asked how I reconcile my years in Undercover with my own beliefs and practices now. Was it all a waste? Am I just throwing all that away? What of all the people who listened to us and whose lives were changed in such powerful ways? How can I stand on a stage and play those songs still? These are all good questions. I feel very fortunate to have been in Undercover, to have owned Brainstorm, to have been invited to be part of so many people’s lives, to have been changed by them as they were by us, to have been a catalyst in any way for good. The message in the early days was one of “salvation” through Jesus only. I’ve many times expressed how we were young and the message necessarily simple and simplistic for a church not quite ready to go to the cultural or metaphysical edges. They were also representative of our own growth. I own that and assume responsibility for it. From Branded on, our message was one of self-forgiveness, acceptance and forgiveness of others, tolerance, kindness, wonder, love, all it means to be a complete human being. I was not then at the point where I believed any of that was comprehensively possible outside of Christianity. I know it is now, and that it’s not important what container love comes in.