This is my personal story. You can skip it, if you choose, and go directly to my essays concerning deism, and its historical and theological background. But I feel that an author should tell something about himself or herself so the reader can know “where the author is coming from.”
I am 79 years old. My wife and I have a fine family including two sons, a daughter, two daughter-in-laws, one son-in-law, four grandchildren, one granddaughter-in-law, and two great grandchildren. I have a degree in religion from Baylor University, 1952, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas, 1957. After a very brief ministry in a Baptist church, I was a social worker for 33 years before retiring.
For over 50 years, I have been a student of religion, the New Testament, and Christian church history. My essays are an effort to share what I have learned in my search for an understanding of religion and life.
The first interpretation of the meaning of life was given to me in Baptist churches that I attended as a child. I was taught that human beings are naturally “sinful” (bad) and would be punished by burning forever in a horrible place called “hell.” I was told that the only way that a person could be “saved” from this punishment was to become a “Christian” by believing that God sent His “only Son” Jesus to die in my place to “pay the death penalty” for my sins.
As an 11 year-old child, I was frightened by this but I believed it because adults taught this to me. (Children usually believe what adults tell them.) I became very concerned about people “going to hell” so, at age 14, I decided that I would become a Baptist minister.
After graduating from high school, I entered a Baptist university and became a ministerial student. In my freshman year, I threw myself wholeheartedly into efforts to “save people from hell” by joining other students in preaching on street corners and at the city jail. In my sophomore year, I became overwhelmed by the thought that most people would never hear about Jesus so they would have no opportunity to be “saved” from everlasting punishment in “hell.” This did not seem fair to me. I could no longer believe that God would torture people forever just because they did not “believe Jesus died on a cross to save them.”
I began to question what I had been taught about Jesus. I had been taught that God became a human being, named Jesus, so his death (as a human being) on the cross could serve as a “substitute” to pay the “death penalty” incurred by human beings because of their sins.
The idea that Jesus was God in human form is contained in the doctrine of the “Trinity” of God as “Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit.” I found this idea very puzzling. In one of my religion classes, I chose to write a term paper on the “Trinity of God.” I read the entire New Testament, making notes on the relationships of “the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.” I concluded that Jesus did not consider himself to be the same as, or equal to, God.
As I searched for what I could believe as a Christian, I graduated from the university, got married, and entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I also became pastor of a Baptist church in a very small town. In my seminary class on “Missions,” the professor lectured on the importance of sending missionaries to foreign countries because people were going to “hell” if they did not hear about Jesus. I remember feeling very upset by this.
How could a fair and loving God condemn people to “hell” when they had never even heard about Jesus. This did not make sense to me. The idea of unending torture in “hell” for not “believing in Jesus” implies that God is sadistic and fiendish. Certainly no rational person could respect or love a “God” like that.
I dropped out of the seminary after only a few months, but I continued as minister of the small Baptist church. In the “gospel” which I preached at that time, I emphasized the “resurrection” of Jesus as “evidence” of God’s power to give life, and I emphasized the necessity of repentance to obtain forgiveness of sins. I simply avoided the subjects of “hell” and “being saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.”
But I was confronted again by these subjects during a funeral at my church. I agreed to assist in a funeral for a man who was not a member of our church. The funeral was conducted by an old Baptist minister who had known the family in previous years. In his “sermon,” the old minister made it very clear that he did not consider the deceased man to be a Christian, and then the old minister proceeded to preach an evangelistic sermon about only Christians going to heaven. In effect, the old minister preached the deceased man into “hell” as the man’s wife and children sat in the front pew.
I was appalled by the old minister’s lack of sensitivity. I only hoped that the widow and her children did not hear what the minister said. But I heard it. I had heard this as a child in a Baptist church, I had heard it in a Baptist university, and I had heard it in a Baptist seminary. I finally had to face the fact that I did not believe this, and I would not preach this.
After only one year, I resigned as minister and began my search for a different understanding of life. I was convinced that God cares about everyone, not just “Christians.” This became a guiding belief in my personal religion.
At 24 years of age, I began a new career as a social worker. I obtained a master’s degree in social work and became very involved in family and children’s work, especially child protective services. I also became busy with my own family, as my wife and I had two sons and a daughter during our first seven years of marriage.
Like many parents, my wife and I felt a responsibility to give our children some religious education and identity. We made a decision to join a Methodist church so our children could avoid the experiences that my wife and I had in growing up in Baptist churches. The Methodist church was trinitarian but Methodists did not sing songs like “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb” and I never heard a sermon on “hell” during the 20 years our family belonged to Methodist churches. If I did not believe the words in a creed or hymn, I simply remained silent. From age 30 until age 50, I was a member of Methodist churches.
During these years, I continued to search for what I could honestly believe. At the age of 38 (in 1968), I wrote a little book describing my personal religion which I called “Eso,” a Greek word meaning “within” because I found “truth” within my human nature. My little book was entitled, Book of Eso: A Guide to the Principles and Practice of Natural Religion.
The following are excerpts from my little “Book of Eso:”
“Eso is the oldest religion of humankind. It began when humankind began. It exists wherever people are. It is innate in each human being. It is inherent in the very design of human nature. Eso, which means “within,” is a name given in this world but the name is not important. It would be the same under any other name or no name at all.”
“Considering the apparent intelligence required in creating each human personality, or individual being, and the complex physical body in which each one dwells, as well as the ordered universe which surrounds humankind, it is improbable that such an able Creator would fail to provide some guide which every person can follow in living the Way intended for humankind and for the purpose intended for humankind.”
“This means that people cannot depend upon their environments, societies, or cultures to provide an explanation of life — for these surroundings are not the same for all people throughout all times.”
“It is apparent that all people have only one thing in common, that is, human nature. Certainly this suggests that a person must look within himself or herself — look within human nature — for a trustworthy guide in living.”
“All that we need to know about the way and purpose of life is within us.”
“The gift of life, which we possess through no choice or effort of our own, evidences a Creator, the infinite spirit of life, called “God.”
“People have discovered two important facts about the design of human nature: First, we have discovered that when we live in accord with the principle of love for others, we find joy. From this, we have learned that we are designed to live by love. Our basic human nature contains this guide for how to live.
“Secondly, we have observed within ourselves the fact that the more we live by love, our inner capacity to experience joy increases. But when we fail to love — whether by indifference to the needs of others, or by expressing or demonstrating hatred or hostility toward others –our inner capacity to experience joy shrinks and is reduced.”
“The inner capacity for joy is the measure of the amount of life within each person. As you live by love, you become more alive. As you fail to live by love, you become less alive.”
“Since the way of life intended for humankind is eso, that is, within every person, all possess the truth about life. This means that no one must depend upon any book or teacher or anything outside of himself or herself to show the way. A person has sufficient light within himself or herself.”
“When people follow that which is outside of themselves, they are in danger of idolatry. That is, they sometimes worship a book as “holy” or they deify a teacher by considering that teacher as more than human. This idolatry dishonors God the Creator who provided every person with the truth in the very being or nature of everyone.”
“One of the dangers in religions of the world is that many lead people into idolatry. There is one God, our Creator, and only God is to be worshipped.” (End of quotation)
I did not know that my religion, which I named “Eso” in 1968, had been known as “deism” for three hundred years. I had never heard of deism when I wrote my little “Book of Eso,” but I had read some Quaker literature about being guided by a “light within” and I had concluded that this “light” was inherent in the design of human nature, rather than some kind of “mystical” experience.
In 1980, when I was 50 years old, my wife and I were still members of a Methodist church but I was finding it harder to ignore the trinitarian theology found in worship services, especially in “communion” services where the “wine” (grape juice) represented Jesus’ blood “which was shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”
From what I had read about Unitarian Christianity, I came to identify myself as a “Unitarian Christian.” In 1981, I decided to join a local Unitarian Church that belonged to the Unitarian Universalist Association. The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America had merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
The by-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association stated that it would “cherish and spread universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to humankind.” This statement was printed on the Sunday “Order of Service” at the local Unitarian church on my first visit. At last, I thought, I had found the church that I had been looking for.
But the UUA was undergoing a great change when I joined the local Unitarian church.
American Unitarianism became a structured denomination in 1865 with the formation of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches that identified itself as consisting of “Christian Churches of the Unitarian Faith.”
In 1894, a statement by the National Conference affirmed that “These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man(kind)” but the Conference also stated that “Nothing in this Constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our practical aims.”
In effect, Unitarian churches in the United States became “non-creedal” organizations. During the early 1900’s, the Unitarian Christians became outnumbered by those members who differed from them “in belief,” especially non-theist humanists who appreciated the humanitarian “aims” of the Unitarian churches but affirmed no belief in God.
By 1981, only 30% of the members of UUA churches professed a belief in God. With the majority of its members being non-theists (either agnostics or atheists) the UUA changed its by-laws by dropping its reference to “love for God” in 1985. The UUA voted to become a “pluralistic” organization that included persons of all religious or philosophical beliefs. A survey of the local Unitarian church that I joined showed that only 13% of the members viewed themselves as “Unitarian Christians.”
I was very active in the local Unitarian church, serving as president of the Board of Trustees twice. I had hoped that a “pluralistic” church would be satisfactory for me but by 1994, the UUA leadership was primarily non-theist and the local congregation offered nothing for Unitarian Christians. I resigned from the church but still considered myself a “Unitarian Christian.”
I had never heard of deism until I read Thomas Paine’s book The Age of Reason in 1998. I admire Thomas Paine, and his book led me to explore deism in more depth. After reading Matthew Tindal’s book, Christianity As Old As Creation, A Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730), I realized that Thomas Paine’s understanding of deism was somewhat limited, and that I am a “Christian Deist.”
Most of the early Deists in the 17th and 18th centuries considered themselves to be “Christians” but “unitarian” in the purest theological sense. They agreed that Jesus was only a human being and that there is one God, our Creator. The deists’ beliefs in natural and universal religion appealed to me. I recognize that I have been a Deist since age 38 when I wrote my little “Book of Eso.”
During the past ten years, I have studied the writings of Deists, and it is my intention to make the history and beliefs of Christian Deism better known. I believe that many people may be happy to discover that they are “Christian Deists.”