Seeing my old religion with new eyes

By Phynnodderee

Recently I was sorting through an old box of junk and I came across something I hadn’t seen for years. It was a ‘My Beliefs’ card, a preaching aid produced by the Christadelphians in the 1990s. Looking at it again for the first time since leaving the community, I suddenly found I was seeing it – and my old religion – with new eyes.


Bible and beliefs
It’s the size of a credit card, with four fold-out flaps, allowing it to fit in a wallet and be distributed to ‘interested friends’. On the front is a picture of an open Bible. This is the first thing I now see differently, because now I realise how unusual Christadelphians are among Christian groups for their intense reverence for the Bible as a text. Since they believe there is no other source of knowledge about God available in the world, and that understanding it properly is vital to salvation, they are very ardent Bible readers and much of their activity revolves around studying scripture. Where other churches use a cross or a dove of peace, they use the symbol of an open Bible. This intense preoccupation with the Bible as a book used to seem perfectly natural to me. It’s only now that I understand how unusual this Christadelphian fixation is and how it has produced the intensely studious, anti-emotional nature of the religion.

When you open up the first flap, you read:

“I endeavour to read the whole Bible at least once every year, and as a result of these studies I hold the following beliefs.”

I used to see nothing odd about this at all, but now it stares me in the face: the possibility is not allowed for that one’s studies might lead one to different beliefs. In theory Christadelphians arrive at their beliefs as the result of reading the Bible impartially and without the baggage of creed or tradition. In practice the Christadelphian’s beliefs are predetermined for them (by… well… creed and tradition) and the idea that the individual believer reaches their own conclusions freely through independent study is an illusion.

Focus of the faith
This is followed by a list of 15 key Christadelphian teachings, each supported by proof texts. After opening all the flaps and reading all 15 doctrines you come to the main point:

“The return of Jesus to this earth to establish the Kingdom of God and to rule all nations of the world, from Jerusalem.”

This is the focus of the Christadelphian faith, the main point they want to get across to the would-be convert. The thing that now strikes me is how strained this seems after nearly 170 years of expectation of Christ’s imminent return. The religion has not adapted to the prolonged wait by offering other focuses or purposes; the emphasis is still on an imminently expected event. But a sense of nearness and excitement can’t be maintained for that long, which is perhaps one reason why Christadelphian preaching so often has a half-hearted feel: the whole thing has simply outlived its energy.

The idea of the imminent Second Coming is then reinforced by a list of prophecy-based pronouncements, including the gradual worsening of the global situation (“God’s wrath will be poured out on mankind”) in preparation for God’s Kingdom. What seems so distasteful to me now is the strange, unfeeling detachment with which the author of the text anticipates the end of the world as we know it. I can see the disturbing lack of awareness of the reality of world events and the real, flesh-and-blood human beings caught up in them.

“Simple, direct and logical”
Finally you turn over to the back of the card, where it says:

“In a world full of uncertainties I enjoy a simple, direct and logical faith offering peace of mind and contentment now; and the promise of everlasting joy to come. May I share this hope with you?”

As a child I never questioned that the faith I was taught made complete sense – that it was “simple, direct and logical”. Now this strikes me as a bizarre claim. The reality is that Christadelphian theology is convoluted stuff and the community has been beset by doctrinal disagreements ever since it was first founded. If the Truth is so simple, why so much argument?

Whether the faith offers “peace of mind and contentment” is a matter for personal judgement, and may be true for some people – but the opposite was true for me, and for others. To be honest I find it hard to believe that such a rigidly intellectual faith can truly provide emotional fulfilment. Maybe it’s just me, but I also find it off-putting that the author should presume to put these words into someone else's mouth. 

Changed perspective
This little card encapsulates the essence of the Christadelphian faith as I was taught it. Once upon a time everything in it seemed so clear and reasonable.

Now I can see its oddness and detachment from reality.

6 comments:

  1. I think the principle of independent Bible study and searching out the truth for yourself was there, but (as you say) the expectation was that that would inevitably come to a BASF-compatible faith, and I think in the back of my mind there was always the knowledge that there would be serious consequences if I came up with any ideas that were a little too different.

    Perhaps it is rare to have quite the same focus on the Bible, but I know plenty of people from other denominations where there's talk of daily Bible readings, weekly church services, small groups, prayers for every meal, etc.

    I feel that when I was growing up it was frequently stated or at least implied that the reason we could come to The Truth was because we read all the Bible and others just left their priest/pastor to tell them what they believed. Similarly, that we would attend church weekly while they might only attend Christmas and Easter.

    Of course, I found that in reality that wasn't so. I thought I had fairly good Bible knowledge for a Christadelphian, yet I knew people who knew it way better and still managed to have a completely different understanding from me. Some of them also had significantly better theological training than anything we had, and while some dismissed that as "the wisdom of the world" it just seemed too glib a dismissal to me (after all, if Christadelphians thought they could interpret from the original language without understanding it, why should I ignore original language scholars who did understand it?)

    TL;DR: I think "Christadelphian exceptionalism" and demonising other denominations gets used way too often to try and defend how a minority group could be the only ones correctly interpreting scripture.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The full text of the "My Beliefs" card can be read at:

    http://www.newportchristadelphians.org.uk/our-beliefs/

    I will call back later to discuss Jon's excellent comment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Isn't it really strange to be given a card, created by other people, that claims to be a record of your beliefs?!

    Like you I probably would have seen this card as normal and perhaps even a good idea, back when I was a Christadelphian. But now it just strikes me as weird and controlling.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Like most cults, it's members are told what they should think. Woe betide any christadelphian who reads their Bible and questions this pocket sized rule book.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I remember that card. Cool! When you think John Thomas pointed thinking people in the direction of Russia, Iran,Turkey, Libya etc 170 years ago this year and their future conflict with Israel and it's supporters... USA, UK, Saudi Arabia it's obviously just luck he was writing the headlines from 2018 wasn't it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Come on now, be specific.

      Please give us the actual prediction from John Thomas and tell us which 2018 headline(s) are the fulfilment of it.

      Meanwhile, why 2018? Why not 2017? or 2005? or 1900?

      In fact, why don't you try to find a year when prominent middle eastern countries were NOT in the news...or are you just going to claim that your vague "prophecies" were fulfilled every year for the last couple of millennia?

      Delete

These comments require moderator approval. At present, it may take a long time for comments to be approved.