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Mental Gymnastics


I was a strange child. It wasn't apparent to those around me because my behavior was normal, for a very shy, quiet child, that is. It was my thoughts that were unusual. I didn't like fantasy. Even as a very young child, I was quite pragmatic. I never did believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. I knew they were just stories, but they were okay stories, and sometimes a little bit of fun. At Christmastime, when there were Santas in the department stores, I would get in line, sit on their laps, and tell them what I wanted for Christmas. I knew they were just men in Santa suits, but it was a fun game. When I lost a tooth, I would put it under the pillow at night and in the morning, there would be a nickel or a dime there. I knew that my mom put it there, but it was still fun and I could buy a Fudgsicle. Even in my daydreams, I had to make things feasible. Times and dates and ages had to fit with reality. I just couldn't do fantasy. I never had an imaginary friend, well, except the one "up there" whom I was taught to believe in. And herein lies the paradox. How could someone who, even as a child, disliked fantasy and even fairy tales, continue to believe in a god until well into adulthood? The answer? Mental gymnastics.


The first case of mental gymnastics that I can recall, happened when I was about eight or nine years old. In Sunday School, we were told the story of Jonah and the whale. Now, I knew that no one could live in the belly of a whale for three minutes, more or less, three days. I knew that it was ridiculous so I tried to figure out what really must have happened. Here is the scenario that my eight-year-old mind came up with. So, Jonah was thrown overboard in a severe storm. He was obviously frightened and expected to die. Then a whale grabbed him, scaring him even more. Minutes seemed like hours. The whale must have chocked, or something. Maybe the storm caused it to bump into a huge rock near the shore. For some reason, the whale forcefully spit Jonah out and he was close enough to land that he made it onto the shore. It was such a terrifying experience, that it seemed like it must have lasted for at least three days. We all know how fishermen exaggerate. My mental gymnastics had begun.


As a child, some of the bible stories that seemed ridiculous later, did not bother me at the time. The mental gymnastics on stories such as the creation story, and Noah's ark came a little later. However, some of the practical, contemporary issues did bother me. When I was in my early teens, the entire story of a man, born of a virgin, forgiving our sins, and dying to save our souls, seemed rather bizarre. I didn't give it a lot of thought until another teen was converted. This teenager's family did not attend church, so she had not been raised in a religious home. I recall the time when she went to the altar to pray after an evangelical service. All of the typical emotions were stirred during the altar call. After she had prayed, she stood up and proclaimed that she had been "saved" and was now a Christian. I vividly remember the thought that passed through my mind, "How could someone who wasn't raised to believe the story of Jesus, possibly believe something that seems so absurd?" I suddenly realized the implications of what I was thinking and quickly applied some mental gymnastics by telling myself, "but I'm so glad that I was raised in the church so I can believe in the truth about Jesus."


I need to emphasize, here, that I never discussed these thoughts with anyone. In a sense, I lived almost entirely inside my own mind, without talking to anyone about my questioning. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Probably the main reason is that I was very shy and introverted. As well, I was always very independent. I didn't feel the need to discuss my thoughts. I've been called an "independent little cuss" more than once in my life. A second reason that I didn't talk about my thoughts was that, talking about personal feelings was something that my family simply didn't do. We would talk about events, what happened at my parent's work, or what was happening at school. We would tell jokes and laugh. But we never discussed personal thoughts or feelings. But we always knew that we were loved and accepted.


In my late teens, I started analyzing another idea which resulted in a conundrum. I was becoming aware of computers and their potential for the future. I was also learning a little bit about genetics and inheritance. So, I put them together and proposed, that, if it were possible to put everything about a person’s genetic inheritance, and every experience that the person had ever had, as data into a computer, you could then predict that person’s response to any situation that ever occurred. I had no idea at the time that there was a name for that position. Later, I discovered the term, strict determinism. Anyway, one day, as I was mulling over the proposition in my mind, I suddenly realized that I had eliminated free will. Oops. Okay, how could I fit that idea into my religious teachings? I encountered a conundrum that, once again, required some mental gymnastics to resolve. I was a real stretch but I came up with an explanation. The only real choice we ever have in our lifetime, is whether or not to accept Christ as our savior and give our lives to Him. I’d call that ingenious, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe not.


By the end of high school, I had developed a passion for science. So, when I started college, a Christian college, of course, I started to major in chemistry. I eventually changed it to physics and graduated with a degree in physics. I still hadn’t taken any biology. In grad school, however, I majored in biophysics and took many biology courses, including genetics. It was utterly fascinating. Of course, I hit evolution directly in the face. Interestingly, that was easy to resolve. God created man by using the evolutionary process. No problem. This is a position now known as theistic evolution. I never was quite sure how or when God injected a soul into humans, but I didn’t really care. Now, how does one accommodate theistic evolution with Genesis 1? Most theistic evolutionists consider the "days" in Genesis as eras in time, and consider the scripture as analogies. One question I proposed and then answered, with some mental gymnastics was, "Why didn't God simply dictate to Moses exactly how evolution occurred and assure Moses that, although he didn't understand what he was writing down, that eventually people would understand it?" My answer was simple. Moses didn't even have the vocabulary to write it down. The language at the time didn't have words that would be needed for even the simplest explanation of evolution. Therefore, what Moses did write down, was the best description possible for the time. I was satisfied with that explanation and put it aside and continued to learn the science that I found absolutely fascinating. Of course, we now know that Moses didn't really write Genesis, but that is another subject.


While in grad school, I met another grad student who was majoring in near eastern languages and literature. He was preparing for both the ministry and for teaching at a Christian college. He could read the original Hebrew Old Testament and he understood the culture of the time. I "learned" a lot of mental gymnastics from him. We would discuss things like the parting of the Red Sea for Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. He explained that what we call the Red Sea was sometimes referred to as the "Sea of Reeds," and it was more of a bog, or a wetland, than a sea. Thus, the children of Israel could have walked across it but the horses and chariots of the pharaoh's army would be stuck in the bog. Another topic of discussion was Noah and the ark. My friend discussed the idea that most people living in Old Testament times never travelled very far and when there was a flood, it appeared to them as though their whole world was flooded. He suggested that this was the case with the writer of the Noah story. Clearly, he did not read any of the scriptures literally and he was fine with that. It became very easy to consider the scriptures as allegory but still believe in God and salvation.


After graduate school, I began teaching at a Christian college. I absolutely loved teaching and I developed a good rapport with my students. Questioning and analyzing beliefs was encouraged at the college and I was in many discussions about a variety of topics. Of course, we always got back to the church doctrine and agreed that it was right. I found a career that was very fulfilling and I built some very solid friendships with other faculty members. I settled in and grew comfortable with the whole situation...for a while. What could possibly go wrong? I had developed my "skills" at mental gymnastics very well, over a long period of time. Contradictions in the scriptures couldn't possibly cause doubt. So, what happened?

Life happened. My pragmatism kicked in. Prayer didn't work. "God's will" didn't work. There were no mental gymnastics that could make it work. After twelve years of teaching, I packed up and left, no longer able to believe. If you read my blog, The Altar Call, you know some of the details of my deconversion so I won't repeat it here.


But don't ever underestimate the power of mental gymnastics. Nearly everyone that I knew at the college where I taught, and from the college that I had attended, and from the church in which I grew up, continued to believe. I'm glad I didn't.


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