Story of Recovery: Jim Moyers
From infancy onward, I was immersed in Adventism and "the Conflict of the Ages," the cosmic war between the forces of good and evil around which traditional Adventist theology revolves. While Adventists are known for their adherence to dietary and lifestyle restrictions, my family was stricter than most other Adventists of my acquaintance. We never ate meat (I am still a vegetarian) or went to movies. Our TV viewing was strictly controlled. Card games being suspect, I still don't know the makeup of a standard deck, let alone how to play anything with it. I cherished "Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories," which provided examples of how good children should think and act. I was thrilled when my parents, stretching their very limited budget, at my urging bought the multi-volume "Bible Story," a children's version of the Adventist interpretation of Biblical stories. I particularly liked the stories of Joseph and King David. I did, however, have some difficulty fitting David's dancing "before the Lord with all his might . . . uncovered in the eyes of the handmaids" (2 Samuel 6:14, 20) with what I had been taught about proper church behavior! Books written by the Adventist prophetess, Ellen G. White, filled our bookshelves, and I had read most of them by the time I reached my teens.
I mastered the Adventist jargon based on rote phrases from the Bible or Mrs. White that referred to our particular beliefs as "a peculiar people." Questions tended to be answered with "We have been told" followed by a reference to the Bible or, more often, Ellen White. If there was no readily available response from those inspired sources, I was told that the answer would be forthcoming when "we get to heaven," an event that was "soon coming." It seemed that we had been given all the knowledge that was necessary for navigation through "this world." As "God's chosen people," the spiritual successors to the Jews who had supposedly rejected Jesus, we were promised a special place in "the world to come" provided that we were faithful to "the Third Angel's Message." I was suspicious of "worldly" neighbors, most of whom I avoided. I remember feeling disappointed when my attempts to read White's "The Great Controversy," a book describing in much detail the cosmic "conflict between Christ and Satan" along with an extensive depictions of "latter day events," to a couple of neighbor kids failed to produce any converts.
I attended Adventist schools from first grade through my junior year in college. Looking back, it is hard to remember much that was positive about my SDA educational experience. Being supported by a relatively poor local church organization, the Missouri junior academy (elementary through tenth grade) and boarding academy (grades eleven and twelve) that I attended were apparently unable to recruit capable teachers. With very few exceptions, my teachers did a poor job of instructing, and some were in no shape to be doing anything, much less teaching school. My eighth grade teacher had to leave midyear due to a psychiatric crisis, and was replaced by a woman who seemed to be in the midst of a psychotic break.
As is true of most people who went through the Adventist educational system in those days (I believe things have improved somewhat over the years since), I learned next to nothing from my schooling about literature, art, non-SDA religions, philosophy, or modern thought. Everything, including the Bible, was carefully filtered through Adventist preconceptions. We even had special Adventist editions of the "Dick and Jane" readers (I'm still curious as to what it was in the regular edition that we had to be protected from). I took it all very seriously, never questioning "THE TRUTH" that had been given to us alone of all people on the earth.
I was also utterly miserable, especially as an adolescent tortured by "impure thoughts" that no amount of prayer would take away. For a period of several years I was terrified by the idea that Satan or one of "his angels" would appear to me, as I knew from stories I had read in Adventist literature and heard in church youth groups often happened to people who were not "right with the Lord." At times, much to my utter terror, I seemed to catch glimpses of demons out of the corner of my eye. I had repeated nightmares in which I encountered demonic figures or discovered that I had been left behind on judgment day. Looking back, I realize that I was seriously depressed and more than a little disturbed, but no one, including myself, seemed to recognize that anything was wrong.
In early adolescence, following a suggested daily reading plan, I read the Bible through from cover to cover, and was surprised to find things that had not been included in the Bible Story volumes, and which didn't seem to fit into what I had been taught about God and his Word. I was troubled to come across stories, like the soap opera account of the sexual misadventures of Judah and his offspring (Genesis 38) or the raped and murdered concubine of the Levite (Judges 19), that seemed completely amoral. While in Adventist boarding academy, I came across some of Mark Twain's anti-Christian writings that had somehow found their way into the Sunnydale Academy (a place that was far from "sunny" in my experience of it!) library. I was at first shocked, then set to wondering by the questions Twain raised about the justice of a God who, during the Israelite conquest of Canaan, ordered the slaughter of people whose primary sin seemed to consist of not worshipping him. I also came across a book by the well known Biblical archaeologist, William Foxwell Albright, that seemed to indicate that there were other ways than the one I had been taught of thinking about the Bible and its origins. Other than that, I can recall no conscious doubts about what I had been taught to regard as ultimate truth until I got to college. I continued regularly reading the Bible throughout my adolescence, although I tended to skim through books like Leviticus and Numbers after the first time through. But, looking back now, I am sure that there were many doubts taking shape that I simply could not yet admit into my conscious awareness. Questioning "the Truth we have been given" simply would have been too much of a threat to my already shaky sense of self, something that was almost entirely based on my inherited identity as one of God?s favored people, his "chosen remnant." When my doubts finally became conscious, the experience was devastating.
I began Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University) as a premed chemistry major in the fall of 1967. As my parents, who had for years struggled to keep four children in church school and academy, were unable to help me with tuition, I went to work making Little Debbies (now there's a fine product for people with a "health message" to be sending out into the world!) at the McKee Baking Co. which was, and still is, by virtue of the wealth generated by the junk food business, closely associated with the college. At the bakery, for the first time in my life, I came into regular contact with a lot of non-Adventists. I was more than a little taken aback to discover that, contrary to my lifelong belief, they were not actively evil!
At Southern I was exposed to a somewhat more sophisticated view of the world than I had previously encountered, and had some teachers who actually knew something about the subjects they taught. One day my world history professor made a passing remark in his lecture about Mrs. White's writings on history having been based on a nineteenth century understanding of history that was no longer accepted as valid. Having always been told that her writings were divinely inspired, this threw me for a loop. My "Daniel and Revelation" teacher, an ordained minister who managed to get in trouble with the college administration by coming back from summer vacation wearing a beard, began the class by saying that no one knew for certain just what the various symbols in those books meant. Having read through many extensive Adventist commentaries on Daniel and Revelation, attended I don't know how many revival meetings featuring projected colorful depictions of the prophetic beasts each of which was assigned a specific historical meaning (I still have the Bible that I highlighted during one revival series), read White's "The Great Controversy" from cover to cover more than once, and memorized the 2300 day prophecy of Daniel 8 (a key text in Adventism) with all its ramifications, I had no idea what to do with this bit of information. By the end of my sophomore year, my faith had been seriously shaken, but not knowing what else to do, I continued going through the motions of being an Adventist.
In the summer before my junior year, I took a class in "The Spirit of Prophecy" (as Adventists designate the work of Ellen G. White) from a man who was reputed to be a great theologian, and a very tough professor. I almost immediately realized that his reputation was based upon extremely shaky ground. He seemed to me to be almost desperately trying to hold his own doubts at bay with a convoluted pseudo-intellectual apologetic that had little relation to the questions that it supposedly answered. Most of his students were apparently so dumbfounded by his posturing as to mistake it for profound truth beyond human understanding while they struggled to get a passing grade. Having figured out his formula, I made the highest grade in the class almost without trying. At the same time I was painfully aware that I no longer believed what I was expounding upon in my A+ papers.
That fall, the college Week of Prayer featured a speaker whose mission it was to point out the failings of modern philosophy. It was the first time I had heard of existentialism, situational ethics, and other such topics which were at the time being hotly debated in liberal theological circles. The speaker's descriptions of these new (to me) ways of thinking aroused my interest while his attempts to invalidate them seemed less than persuasive. I also took a biology class in which we studied the strange life cycles of parasites, many of which are extremely specialized to live on only one particular species of host animal. The existence of such life forms seemed to me to be very hard to reconcile with the Genesis creation account. But that was never brought up in the class. There was no one to whom I could turn with my increasing confusion about what was and was not true. Even those people I knew who, unlike me, seemed to be cheerfully engaged in every form of prohibited behavior they could think of, seemed to have no interest in questioning basic Adventist beliefs. Or at least they were not discussing any doubts that they may have had. Perhaps, like me, they simply didn't know how to go about a critical examination of the only paradigm they had for understanding themselves and the world.
I changed majors two or three times during my junior year. My grades took a nosedive, and it became apparent that Loma Linda University (the Adventist medical school) was no longer a viable option for me. I made a few feeble attempts to talk with faculty and administration members about my fading academic career, but no one expressed much concern or even seemed to recognize that I was in trouble. Perhaps the fault lay in my inability to find adequate words to express how lost I was coupled with a reluctance to reveal doubts that I wasn't supposed to have. At the end of the year I dropped out, sure of nothing beyond the fact that I no longer believed in what had been the very foundation of my life. I continued going to church off and on, mostly out of habit but perhaps also in hopes of finding some way out of my confusion. But it only got worse. I felt increasingly ill at ease and isolated in the Adventist community. My last Adventist church experience was during Christmas season. True to the Adventist tradition at the time (a stance many SDAs have now relaxed) of distancing themselves from supposedly "pagan" religious holidays, the sermon made no reference to the birth of Jesus, but expounded at length on the evils of women wearing pants in public! I don't remember if I stayed to the end of the service, but I do know that I left determined never to go back. Except for a few family funerals and weddings, I have not been inside the doors of an Adventist church since.
At the time, it never occurred to me to try other churches. Having been conditioned to regard Adventism as the only true expression of Christianity, I quickly came to the conclusion that Christian belief in general was at best misguided. Looking in what I took to be the opposite direction, I began to avidly read everything I could find on Eastern religion, and decided that I was a Buddhist. I suppose this was fairly safe, actual Buddhists being few and far between in Collegedale, Tennessee! Since there was no one around who knew anything about Buddhist belief and practice, it also enabled me to totally confound any Adventist who might try to argue me back into the fold. I actually found myself feeling sorry for the poor assistant pastor who came to visit in response to my letter of resignation from the church. He apparently had never before encountered anyone who had made a conscious decision not to be a Christian, let alone someone who viewed Buddhism as an alternative.
But, in contrast to my certainty about what I did not believe, I had very little in the way of positive beliefs. The decade of my twenties was spent in a more or less wandering quest for something that I could once again regard as true. Being as it was the 1970's, it was an interesting time for such a quest. It definitely had its ups and downs. I actually lived for a while in a self described "Zen Macrobiotic Commune" in Brooklyn. One summer an obsession with suicide led to a six week stay in a state psychiatric hospital. While I can't say that the treatment I received there was very helpful, the experience was definitely an interesting one, and indirectly set me on the course that led to a career working with the sort of terribly afflicted and marginalized people I first encountered there.
Shortly after my hospital stay I met a (non-Adventist) woman whom I married a few months later. We were both pretty lost at the time. Looking back at the apparently disastrous course of events in each of our lives that led to our meeting, it seems like a miracle. I have been blessed in having had her at my side through all the various twists, turns, and occasional dead ends my life has taken in the more than almost forty years we have been together.
Sometime after my marriage, I signed up for a yoga class at the extension branch of a state university. It was taught by a minister. Having known nothing but Adventist ministers, I could not imagine what connection a minister might have with something as non-Christian as yoga. I learned that he was the pastor of the local Unitarian-Universalist Church, and talked my then Episcopalian wife into visiting to find out what this strange religion was all about. Much to my amazement, at the end of the service, the congregation sat back down to discuss the sermon topic, and actually challenge the minister on some of the points he had made. In Unitarian-Universalism I discovered an open form of spirituality that actively encouraged dialogue about controversial issues, something I could not have imagined as an Adventist. I very quickly became an active member of the Chattanooga Unitarian-Universalist church.
After moving (fleeing?) to California from Tennessee, and another very dark period, I went into psychotherapy with a therapist who recognized the spiritual dimension of my dis-ease. Through him I became acquainted with the work of the Swiss psychiatrist, C. G. Jung. In Jung's voluminous, very deep writings I found a connection between psychology and spirituality, as well for the first time a coherent way of understanding my experience as a spiritual journey. Jung's many references to esoteric spiritual traditions opened new doors for me. Jungian psychology became the foundation upon which I began building a new perspective of the world and my place in it.
In my late twenties, after a few aborted attempts to do something "practical," I entered the University of California, Santa Barbara to finally finish college with a degree in religious studies. For the first time in my life, after years of education in small Adventist schools, on a state university campus of over fifteen thousand students I encountered teachers who seemed to be my allies. Having dismissed Christianity along with Adventism, I initially planned to focus my studies on Eastern religions. But then I took a course in western mysticism in which we read several medieval Catholic mystics. I was astonished to discover a vital facet of Christianity totally unlike the tradition in which I had grown up. I also took several classes on early Christianity to discover that the historical origins of Christianity differed greatly from what I had been taught in my many years of Adventist indoctrination. (As an Adventist, I had the idea that, except for the robes and beards, Jesus and the disciples were very much like the Adventist elders who led weekly church services!) For the first time since my disillusionment with Adventism, I began to see in Christianity a valid expression of spirituality and ended up taking more classes on Christianity than Eastern traditions.
After finishing my BA, I went to graduate school to become a psychotherapist with a special interest in the interplay of spiritual and psychological issues. One of my areas of specialization is doing psychotherapy with former members of fundamentalist-type religions (which by my broad definition includes SDA), and have published a few professional papers on the psychological issues such a background tends to produce.
My continuing spiritual journey has taken me to many different places, most of which I would not have regarded as having any valid connection to spirituality back when I was an Adventist. There have been memorable visits to native Hawaiian sacred sites as well as a number of ancient Native American sites. I've participated in Native American sweat lodge rituals and Eastern meditation practices. In 2001, I was fortunate to spend a week in an organized retreat at the Cathedral of Notre Dame ("Our Lady") in Chartres, France. Chartres Cathedral was a major center of the cult of the Virgin which flourished during the High Middle Ages. It is one of the most outstanding extent examples of medieval sacred art. Stepping inside its massive doors is like stepping back through the centuries into a world vastly different from ours. The cathedral is filled with wonderful sculpture and stained glass depicting figures and stories from Christian tradition, an intricate sacred text in stone and glass. Spending much of a week in such a place was an experience very far removed from anything I could have imagined back when I was an Adventist.
As deeply moved as I was by my experience at Chartres and other European cathedrals I have visited, I am very far from being in any danger of converting to Catholicism or any other particular religion, Eastern or Western. My Adventist experience has made me wary of organized religion. This perhaps has been to my advantage in some ways. I insist on my right to think and feel for myself. I doubt that I could ever be taken in by some cult-like group or charismatic guru. But it also holds me back from deep involvement with any group. Even when moved to tears by what I feel in a place like Chartres or Canterbury Cathedral, my doubts hold me back. I feel an affinity for the liberal Christianity expressed by the Episcopal Church. But I cannot bring myself to say the Creed, even when I tell myself that I understand it in symbolic rather than literal terms. I am very moved by the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and the sense of the sacred expressed in that rich and ancient tradition. A Russian Orthodox midnight Easter service I once attended in an candle lit, icon filled cathedral remains a spiritual high point for me. But I very much doubt that I could ever find a place in that community or wholeheartedly agree with their beliefs. Over the years I have been involved off and on with Unitarian-Universalist churches. The radical insistence on individual freedom of belief that is the core of Unitarian-Universalism greatly appeals to me. But even there I find it hard to make a lasting commitment.
I don't consider myself a Christian in the sense of accepting Christ as my personal savior or elevating the Bible to a position above the scriptures of other traditions. The notion of a personal deity watching over the world from some place on high and actively intervening in human affairs is for me far too limited, a vestige from simpler times and less sophisticated world views. Many years of studying the history of the Bible have convinced me that it is a product of human imagination, not divine revelation. As a depth psychotherapist, I certainly do not denigrate imagination or the wondrous things that emerge from it to enrich human life. But neither do I elevate it, or anything else, to a position of infallible authority.
Yet, despite all my doubts and misgivings, Christianity continues to be very much alive as an undeniably strong force within my psyche. While I am fascinated by Hindu mythology and iconography, and find Buddhist ideas about the nature of existence match my experience very well, Eastern religious symbols don't evoke the same kind of deep emotional response that I have to the particular set of symbols that are mine by virtue of having been born a Christian. Encountering for the first time a number of years ago the great cathedrals of England and France with their vivid symbolic representation of the Christian story in glass and stone, was an overwhelming experience of Something so much greater than myself that I am still at a loss for words adequate to it. But I also catch glimpses of that same Something wherever I might be, whether at the seashore, playing with my cat, making love with my wife, walking on a beach, being witness to the ongoing creation and destruction all around me, and those fleeting moments when I am simply aware that I am. The concretely literal God that I once believed dwelt in a region somewhere beyond the sky is far too small to encompass all this. Rather than "God," I prefer to call it "Mystery," "the Ultimate," or, borrowing from the great medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, the "Godhead Beyond God." These days my primary spiritual exercise as well as involvement in organized religion consists of the monthly labyrinth walk at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. (It was with a group from the Grace Cathedral Veriditas labyrinth project that I made my 2001 pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral.)
In my better moments, when I am open to it, I know beyond all doubt that life in all its beauty intermingled with moments of undeniable horror is an ongoing revelation of the Divine. The best representation of this that I know of is the Hindu image of Shiva as Lord of the Dance, simultaneously creating the cosmos, maintaining it, and destroying it. In one of his four hands Shiva holds a drum that represents the primordial sound that brings creation into being. In another he points to the demon he tramples underfoot, a representative of the ignorance that leads us to mistake the changing moment for ultimate reality. His third hand is extended in the gesture of reassurance. In his fourth hand is the fire that returns everything to the primal oneness from which the universe once more arises in the never ending creative/destructive dance of eternity.
I also find a lot of psychological truth in the Gnostic interpretation of the Fall of Adam and Eve. According to these early opponents of what became orthodox Christianity, Adam and Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil really did bring an awareness they previously lacked. Far from being the disaster represented in the orthodox reading of the story, for the Gnostics eating from the Tree was the beginning of insight into the true nature of things. So the gaining of knowledge can be disorienting in challenging previous assumptions about what is true and what false. I certainly fell deep into despair with the realization that things were not as I had thought them to be. But I don't think it would be going too far to say that it was also the beginning of a degree of enlightenment for me. While I was much less than certain of it at the time, I'm more than glad that, rather than turning back to the security of my former beliefs, I chose to follow the labyrinthine path to which my so very painful doubts led me.
I don't entirely regret my Adventist upbringing. Without it, I doubt that I would have the deep appreciation for things spiritual that I do. Through early and constant exposure to the Bible, I acquired a wonderful source of age old wisdom and archetypal stories that I am repeatedly startled to find many people know little or nothing about. I do regret that my indoctrination made it so difficult to find a way that was my own, and that it continues to come between members of my family, who have no understanding of the path I have chosen (or perhaps it has chosen me?), and myself.
I am not interested in trying to expose the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a "false religion." In my opinion, all religions are imperfect attempts to express the ineffable. To argue about which are "true" and which "false" seems to me pointless. But some spiritual traditions more clearly acknowledge the relative nature of the truths they convey than do others. It is here that the multitude of faiths that claim special access to truth, seem to me to fall short. Paradoxically, the more strident the claim to ownership of "the Truth," the farther the distance to real truth seems to be.
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Moderation Status: approvedShare My Story
- Recovering From: Seventh-day Adventist
- Hometown: USA South & Midwest
- Current Belief System: Open to the possibilities
- Current Location: San Francisco Bay Area
- Date: January 26, 2010
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