We are all a product of our experiences. Two people can react to the same experience in very different ways, but nonetheless they are both formed by what they felt at a particular time. At times I’ve been accused of being a “super-Catholic,” because I never really fell away. I’ve been pondering this lately, and I think I know why.
My freshman year of high school, a non-denominational organization called Youth For Christ rocketed into prominence. I thought that meant it was for all Christians, and indeed, it seemed to cross boundaries. The most popular kids in school and plenty of the invisible majority walked the hallways wearing snappy black T shirts that proclaimed, “Jesus loves U2. Jesus: if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”
One night they brought in a high-powered speaker. They filled up a large room with teenagers: in folding chairs, standing at the edges and the back. I don’t remember much about the talk itself, except that it scared me. It was about “almosters,” people who are almost good enough for Heaven, but not quite, and who thus will burn in fiery damnation for all eternity.
I started thinking of my faults, of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and what would happen if I forgot to confess something. I got more and more scared…but alongside the terror grew another, quieter sense of discomfort, one I couldn’t put words to.
Then came The Altar Call. You know: “If you want to profess Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, get up and go to the back, where we have people waiting to speak with you.” And suddenly, the shuffling chairs, the whispers and sniffles and scraping sneakers all around me, made me realize something that cut the legs from beneath the fear.
We were being manipulated. Manipulated, in the name of religion.
That moment of clarity changed everything. I sat in my hard folding chair with my eyes closed, my arms folded, and prayed. Prayed that I wasn’t imposing my will on God’s. That if this was truly from God, that I would be open to it, even if it felt wrong. I kept praying as the speaker backed off his altar call: if you feel like you want to make the profession, but you need help to do it…if you feel moved, but need more information…if you simply want to ask questions…
At this point, I felt a stab of disgust. I realized he wasn’t going to be satisfied until the room was empty, until every person had gone to get “saved.” And I knew, with absolute certainty, that this wasn’t how God worked.
I sneaked a peek. The holdouts were me and one other girl—also Catholic. At this last, shameless call, she gave in.
I did not.
When it was all over, the last holdout and I went to the leaders to express our displeasure with how non-inclusive this experience was, and asked if we could bring in somebody to offer another perspective on being not quite good enough for Heaven. Oh, no, they said, we’re not going to get into doctrines of individual denominations. That’s how you tear groups like this apart. I hadn’t really expected a Protestant to buy in to the idea of Purgatory, but still, it irked. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized why: their entire presentation represented a sliver of Christianity, and not the whole.
I never went back.
It’s tempting to impose the more mature faith of my thirties on my fourteen-year-old self. Of course I didn’t have it worked out then like I do now, just as I’ll have it worked out better when I’m sixty than I do today. But I do believe that experience sensitized me to emotional manipulation in the name of God. Maybe that’s why my TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) two years later fell so flat, and made me so suspicious of retreats in general: that entire weekend felt like a giant emotional manipulation.
I know that many people have found their faith bolstered by such experiences. No doubt true conversions have happened off of altar calls employing fear tactics. God can use any circumstance to achieve His purposes.
But mostly, I think it harms Christianity. Because when you get back out into the real world, that amazing little thing called intellect kicks in, and you start to see the flaws. You realize that you’ve been manipulated. And then what? What saves a fledgling faith when it realizes it is based on manipulation?
True faith is based on love, not fear. True faith is not contrary to reason, but incorporates it. True faith recognizes that God doesn’t take sides, that He exists in the middle, above, and all around every point of view in our petty human concerns.
This is the basis for my faith. What experiences have shaped yours?