Losing My Religion: How Seminary Set Me Free (Part Two)

(If you missed Part One, or need a refresher, please check it out here.)

    I remember a strange moment in the first semester of my master’s program in theology. It was in a New Testament survey course, and the professor was lecturing on some verse or verses about the resurrection--not Jesus’ resurrection, but the resurrection of us regular humans--and where our souls and/or bodies go post-life. What I had been taught growing up was that when a person dies, his or her soul is released from his or her body, and it ends up in either heaven or hell. In some versions of the story, there’s a waiting room of sorts--a foyer, if you will--just outside of the ultimate destination, wherein God lets you know which door to walk through. Some denominations even believe that the soul does not immediately ascend to the afterlife, but waits in a kind of sleep until Jesus’ return to and judgment of the earth (often called “the Second Coming”) at some indeterminate time in the future. Clearly, there are a number of variations within the doctrine. There was always, though--always--some kind of immortality.

    What this professor said in class, to my quiet astonishment, was that he did not really believe in an eternal soul. He said, ‘I think, maybe, when you’re dead, you’re dead.’ It wasn’t that it didn’t make logical sense. I mean, yes, scientifically, empirically, that is exactly what happens. But how could a Christian--a theology professor, no less--just not believe in heaven or hell? He acknowledged that it’s not a popular view among Christians, and that the notion a person's loved ones are still “living”, joyfully and pain-free, in another dimension is clearly quite comforting to many people. So, he said, I would never tell my mother that my father is now only a decaying body in the ground. But do I personally believe that there is a version of him existing in a supernatural place, unseen? No.

    In that moment, though my curiosity was indeed piqued, I was not conscious of any instantaneous worldview changes. Still, I think the experience planted in my brain a number of ideas: that one could, using one’s own intellect and observations, choose not to believe certain parts of a doctrine if one saw evidence to the contrary; that one could be open and confident about one’s divergence from orthodoxy; that one could, within the divergence, still have understanding and compassion for those who continue to stand by the things you no longer hold true.

    I was fortunate enough to have a number of similar learning experiences over the course of my seminary studies. True to the rule of diminishing returns, with increased frequency they became less stark in their impact, but through the overall process I was able to participate in an incredibly honest exploration of what I, personally, believed (or did not).

    I can see how it might sound like I was ruined by seminary, like the people there did something wrong and turned me off. On the contrary, I was enlightened. I was not exposed to the worst of Christianity; I was exposed, most of the time, to the best of it. And thus I was, eventually, in the perfect position to make the most authentic decision about my true convictions once I was ready to take the leap.