What I Believed Before I Believed
Updated: Feb 14
Given the content of my new website erickampmann.com, it would not be too difficult to figure out what I believe these days. But when did I start to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be? Or to put it another way, when did I shift my focus from institutional Christianity to the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who descended to earth to “save the people from their sins”? (Matthew 1:21)
So, what did I believe before I believed? As I have been preparing to give a talk at a church in Manhattan, the idea crossed my mind that in my earlier years, I enjoyed partaking of a banquet table of beliefs, some picked up during my school days, and some later during my college years, but all of them adding up to the portrait of a creature of the culture, or what I might call a Mini-Master of the Universe, or at least a want-to-be.
Essentially, this assemblage of “beliefs” was half-baked and not at all well thought through, as I would later learn. But by the time I knew that the ice I was skating on was dangerously thin, I realized I had already fallen through and was sinking to the bottom.
What follows is not a complete inventory of what might be called my core beliefs of that time. I am sure there were other influences, but the beliefs I lived by reflect not only what was going in my own life, but what was also going on in the post war culture in and through the institutions of education, business, government and religion.
Here are a few of the core things I lived by when I came to New York in the early 1970’s. Here’s what I believed before I believed.
First, I believed in “Progress.” GE advertised that “Progress is our most important product” and they were right to the extent that technology and science were creating a whole new world of possibilities for the United States and the world. But it is good to remember that “progressives” of an earlier time were the same people that brought about the World Wars and the over 100 million deaths that resulted. Some of the great thinkers of the 19th Century such as Darwin, Marx, and Freud had used science as the foundation for their
theories of how the world worked and they were very effective. They believed that they had uncovered the deeper laws of life, but their optimism may have been premature. If the late 18th and 19th provided the intellectual foundations for a brave new world, the 20th century provided the laboratories. Most of the children flowing through the educational institutions during this time (and even into the present day) could not help but be strongly influenced by these materialistic understandings of human nature and the surrounding cultures. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th Century German philosopher, perhaps as much as anyone else, understood the darker implications of declaring God Dead. Basically, he said that if God was dead, then a new god would be required because man cannot exist without a “higher power”. But his warnings were muffled by those who claimed that through science and technology, mankind had finally found the way to the promised land of a freer and better life. It remains to be seen whether our modern prophets are right. But even if they are not right, they have proved exceedingly influential.
Second, my first job in New York was pretty near the bottom of the rung, but that only meant I strived to climb to higher levels. And climb I did, and I came to think that my career was a one-way escalator to better offices, more money, and more influence. Belief in my own success became addictive and that led to careless and poor decisions that eventually wakened me from my foolish stupor.
Third, on another level, I believed people cared about me as much as I cared about myself. And my assumption about my own nature was the opposite of the biblical truth that separated us from God: all of us are hopelessly flawed and prone to error. I bought into the 18th Century “Romantic” view that we are essentially good, and it is the outside forces of a corrupt society and culture that corrupts. And it was the assumptions behind this belief that I adopted. If something is wrong, it is not coming from me; it is being imposed on me from the outside.
Fourth, I had fallen for the fantasy that I would be forever young and would forever enjoy the advantages of youth. It is the belief that life is forever Springtime and the fountain of youth is forever quenching our vain hope that time will somehow stand still for us.
Fifth, perhaps strangest of all, I believed that others could see my genuine goodness as if they could read my good motives and sincere intentions. In short, I believed in my own self-serving propaganda, but in the end the only person fooled was myself.
How these beliefs shattered on the hard rocks of reality is another story I will tell at another time, but for now I will only say that I am eternally grateful that these shallow beliefs that informed so much of my early life have fled to other places, leaving me to contemplate the goodness, truth, and beauty that is behind what I believe today.