There but by the Grace of Chris . . .

“For freedom Christ has set us free.” —Galatians 5.1a

I will never forget the second time I read this verse. It was in Fall of 2006. I had been suspended from Johnson Bible College for… relationship indiscretions… and as a consequence spent the fall semester in my hometown of Meadville, PA working for a small church. The elders of this rustic parish listened to my situation and graciously allowed me to work with them on Sunday mornings – the arrangement was mutually beneficial as they had just lost their minister. They instructed me to move through Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians in three months then allowed me free reign of the pulpit – I cussed during the first sermon; the stage had been set for the next eleven weeks.

For the most part, my private life consisted of a lot of free time alone. The work of Sunday’s sermon kept me toiling through most of my solitude, but the days eventually wore on me. I began to sink – I was in a town I did not enjoy, with few people I did enjoy, sleeping on the bed that resulted in my suspension. The Fall of 2006 marks one of the nadirs of my life thus far.

The first time I read the above verse I missed it entirely. I was far too nonplused by Paul’s “great” sermon illustration about Sarah and Hagar. The second time, I read the words in isolation – “For freedom Christ has set us free.” I reread Paul’s words. Then again. The words confounded me. It was then I realized I had no idea what freedom was. I sobbed.

After the tears dried, I spent the rest of my evening contemplating the verse, wondering what it meant to be free. It was then that a still, small voice within me said, “Think.” And so I did. The approaching midterm elections provided me ample opportunity to think about “the issues” for myself. My experiences in the end of Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 opened my mind and heart to the ambiguity of social issues—they gave me the opportunity to experience the lives of others and most importantly to formulate and vocalize my own opinions.

But that night in November allowed me to forgive myself—for breaking the hearts of friends and family, for breaking the pledge I had made to Johnson Bible College, and for sinning against God. That night in November allowed me to forgive myself for so readily following the crowd and for putting so little thought into the world around me. That night in November I, for the first time, experienced grace, and grace set me free.

I continued to experience my world with this newfound freedom as I finished my career at Johnson in May of 2008. In the Fall of 2008 I matriculated at Emmanuel School of Religion where I encountered a historical perspective of the biblical world, and of theology and faith, such as I never had before. Briefly put, my experience with the historical perspective instigated many questions and gave language to many doubts I had held for years previous. I renounced my faith personally in the Summer of 2009 and (somewhat) publically in the Fall of 2009. I am forever indebted to those who helped me find my faithlessness—I thank you for your encouragement and assistance.

Surprisingly, my life as an atheist did not change drastically. For a while I still attended services regularly at the Episcopal Cathedral in Knoxville. I mostly kept to myself. To this day, I still read the Bible fairly regularly. I did not become the hideously immoral person I feared I would. I still give to charities and ask the homeless for their names. I still care greatly for the people around me. For the most part, becoming an atheist was surprisingly easy, though disguising these sentiments from family members is becoming increasingly difficult. Annoyingly, before most meals I still quickly bow my head to pray, even in the presence of my avidly anti-religion fiancé.

As I reflect on my Christian life, that night in November is still so very important to me. I still describe it as the beginning of me as I am now. I struggle with how to define this extremely spiritual experience from a completely naturalistic worldview. In Fall 2006, I knew I had experienced God. Obviously, I am no longer convinced. Throughout my Christian life, I had stood on the mountain’s side and experienced the great fires of revival, the earthquakes of life and the winds of change, but the Lord was not in them. That night in November, I did experience a still, small voice, and for the first time I’m realizing that night in November was the first time I had heard my own voice. And it whispered, “Think,” to me. I was there at first, in my own mind, an individual.

Now, I find grace almost daily. Every time I form my own opinion, or agree with my enemy, or learn more about the world around me (whether socio-political or cosmological), I know I am free. I know I’ve experienced grace when my heart breaks as I read articles about tragedies throughout the world and when I hold a crying friend struggling with his family life. I know I’ve experienced grace when an argument with my fiancé is not simply resolved but creates opportunities for future success. I know I’ve experienced grace when I make a mistake and can forgive myself for my indiscretion. Ultimately, I experience grace in much the same manner I did as a Christian, but now I know that grace is endemic to humanity, not the divine. For me, that knowledge is freedom.

17 thoughts on “There but by the Grace of Chris . . .

  1. “but now I know that grace is endemic to humanity, not the divine.”

    I love that line.

    I didn’t know this about you. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. It was that “sin” in your life (relationship indiscretion) that caused you to stumble dontchyaknow.  You didn’t guard your heart correctly!  I deconverted Fall of ’09 too.  But I didn’t tell my wife and she deconverted Spring/Summer of ’10.  I play the piano for a Presbyterian service each week (I get paid).  It’s all good.

  3. Did humanity come up with the concept of grace on its own or did it learn from God and then distort it?  What does godless freedom really give us if the end result is still death?
    Christopher, God loves you even when you don’t acknowledge him.  “Freedom in Christ” is the act of being released from the punishment we deserve.  That’s real grace.  If we still end up dead and in Hell, then we have not been freed from anything.

  4. First of all, let me say, thank you so much for sharing this with us. Even though I can’t say that I have traveled down the same road as you had I’m still deeply appreciative that you shared something this personal with us and I greatly admire your honesty and sensitivity. And even though I have profound disagreements with you over the issues of God and etc. I just wanted to say that I support your decisions and that I wish you luck in whatever path you decide to go in life. I’m sure God will understand. So once again, thank you so very much for this article. You even when not a theist are still a part of our fictive kin.

  5. I’m not an atheist, but I think I can offer a response to Ty’s “questions.” 

    Did humanity come up with the concept of grace on its own or did it learn from God and then distort it?

    Humanity came up with it on its own. In the ancient world, grace was what a patron gave to a client in exchange for loyalty and increased fame. This concept was coopted by religionists and used as a model for various gods’ relationship to humans. 

    What does godless freedom really give us if the end result is still death?

    Freedom unto death? Freedom from the dehumanizing constraints of fundamentalist religion? Shall I go on? 

    Christopher, God loves you even when you don’t acknowledge him.

    And the FSM’s omnibenevolent sustenance extends even to low-carb dieters. 

    “Freedom in Christ” is the act of being released from the punishment we deserve.

    “Freedom in Chris” is the act of not being afraid of an eternal punishment we supposedly deserve.

    That’s real grace. If we still end up dead and in Hell, then we have not been freed from anything.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv9IvCpiHxA

  6. I don’t think Ty deserved that sort of reply Thom. He/she was just showing concern for Chris and even if you think his/her concern is misguided, it’s still rather inappropiate in my opinion to be so snarky.

  7. Brian, I’m not being snarky. I’m pointing out to Ty that his questions beg questions. Moreover, they’re not really questions. They’re answers disguised as questions, and they are answers which imply that C.J. is going to go to hell. Ty also seems oblivious to the fact that C.J. is well aware of the standard fundamentalist Christian cliches. Obviously, since C.J. went to a conservative Bible college. Ty thinks it’s helpful to simply repeat the cliches which C.J. has already examined and rejected. I think Ty is presumptuous and not a little bit unthinking. And, as it happens, I know Ty personally and have had interactions with him in the past online. Ty isn’t interested in engaging others’ perspectives; he’s only interested in regurgitating the standard fundamentalist perspective uncritically. By way of contrast from Ty’s kind of “response,” see your own comment. :)

  8. Well I do not know Ty personally, so I can’t say if he’s a fundlementalist or not but even if he is, I think your language was a bit too harsh, some well meaning Christians might have even been turned off by it [FSM]. But aside from that, I must agree with you that the last thing Chris needs right now is cliches that give him easy answers, what he needs in my opinion is our companionship [and this does not mean converting him but rather accepting him where he’s at.]
    And I’m flattered that you found my comment more appropiate, though I feel sort of unworthy of that honor.

  9. I know him personally. He works at my alma mater, Ozark Christian College. The last time I interacted with him online, he took delight in telling me that the OCC library was not going to be stocking my book. I could care less, of course, but this displays the mentality there, and with Ty.

    Moreover, he’s already said all of this stuff to me in the past, and I have offered him responses which show why his approach is problematic. He hasn’t learned. I do not think I was very harsh at all. I was offering a response on behalf of an atheist, not as an atheist. Hence, FSM is a typical atheist response, not necessarily my own. If that offends Christians, well, they need to get over themselves.

    But the point of that response was that, since C.J. is an atheist, telling him that God loves him anyway has the same weight as the FSM does to Christians. But then telling him that he’s going to go to hell because he doesn’t love God back, well, that has equally little weight with C.J. (especially since he did much of his graduate work tracing the development of the concept of hell in second temple Judaism and early Christianity!), but it also (as I pointed out with the video) is incongruous with the claim that God loves C.J. anyway. 

    I wasn’t trying to be snarky. I was simply pointing out the many flaws in Ty’s responses and assumptions. I don’t take kindly to answers disguised as questions. To my eyes, that reads as snark too. So whatever. Ty can either learn from his mistakes, or keep making them. Entirely up to him. 

    Your comment was spot on, and is the model of Christian charity. Thanks for expressing it so well. It’s Christians like you that will make atheists want to be close to Christians, and Christians like Ty that will repel them.

  10. (Please note: I did not have time to edit this post before leaving for work. I wanted, however, to respond before too much time passed.)

    Ty:

    Thank you for the time you took to read and respond to my post.

    Personally, I obviously do not believe that the concept of grace originates in the divine. Like many of our “religious traits,” I believe the need for grace and the cathartic result of its reception can be traced to our social evolutionary development. Furthermore, the language of “grace” in the New Testament derives from Roman Patronage, as Thom has already pointed out. 

    Your second question connects to humanity’s most prominent fear, and a fear that religion does quell – death. I, however, do not fear death. I understand that the mere fact that I have lived this long is a great “gift.” My life is precious. That my life results in death does not imply that I have necessarily failed, but affirms to me that I have been involved in a cycle that is larger than me. I am proud to have had my time here.

    Honestly, I am not sure how to respond to your second paragraph. As Thom has already pointed out, I am well aware of Christian beliefs and practices. I’m not sure why you’ve decided to remind me. In a future post I plan on discussing my renunciation of my faith. In that post, I will describe the emotional freedom I received when I left the faith. For me, I received “real grace” when I left the confines of religious belief.

    Thank you:
    C.J. Frisina

  11. Matthew:

    I regret not getting to know you better while at Emmanuel. I hope we can some how remedy that situation.

    Thank you also for your kind words.

    CJ

  12. Ty, if one ends up “dead AND in hell”, will one really care? Dead people don’t know anything Job tells us. Or does “dead”, like so many other words, mean something else when we’re speaking Christological theologish?

    Sheesh, someone should make a fundamentalist dictionary with a preface which justifies this parallel universe of meaning:
    “dead” means “eternal torment”
    “kingdom of God” means “paradise”
    “died for us” means “died instead of us”
    “law” means “anything God commands”
    “life” (Gk. psyche) means “immortal soul”

    Accept these synonyms and you can read the Bible in an ahistorical fundy way…

  13. CJ, could you expand on your working definition of grace?  As you well know, in Christian thought, grace connotes unmerited favor.  What does it mean to you to experience grace daily, and in what way do you experience it? (to whatever extent it’s possible to bottle up an experience, of course).

    Related to your point about patronage, do you see correspondence between charis/grace and the OT concept of “hesed”?

  14. Jeff:

    First, let me thank you for the time you took to read my post and respond.

    When I contemplated “grace” as a Christian, I understood grace not simply as a gift from God, but believed that grace was an act done by God – one was “graced.” For my community, this meant that grace was not only “unmerited favor” but also the act by which God manumitted humanity from sin. Thus in my mind as a Christian, “grace” was closely connected to “freedom.” If we had accepted God’s grace (“were graced”) than we were freed from sin and, thus, free to live a life congruent to God’s will.

    In my post, I attempted to use similar language – that I had been freed from sin – to describe how I am now reinterpreting my experience of receiving God’s grace in a post-Christian mindset. Since I no longer believe I had received grace from a deity, I connected the feeling associated “that night in November” with a feeling I now hold dear – freedom. At the time, my religious argot described my experiences as being freed from sin (or, experiencing grace), though I would now argue that I had been freed not from sin but from the confines of the expectations of others, the mindset of my rural hometown and the herd-like mentality I acquired. In the same way many Christians believe that grace allows humanity to live in accordance with God’s will, I believe that my experience that night in November allow me to be more fully human – one could say “have life to the full.” :)

    Regarding charis, hesed and patronage: We have a few problems. First, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, charis does not replace hesed. Eleos replaced hesed in the LXX.  Moreover, charis never has a theological meaning in the LXX. Secondly, in late antiquity, the semantic domain of charis expanded to describe the relationship between patron and client in the patronage system (and thus in Paul). Further, that are notable differences between their usages in the Testaments: Yahweh demonstrates hesed when the covenant people are obedient, but punishes them when disobedient; Grace, however, is extended to all humanity (Rom 3.22-24, 5.10, 11.32), and humanity may choose to experience or reject God’s grace.

    Thank you,

    C.J.

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