My journey began with the Bradleys. Mrs. Bradley lived down the street and she was our sometime sitter when my aunt wasn’t available. They were a church-going family and they took me along with them to the South Bay Church of God in Torrance. I went to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” Red or Yellow, Black or White, They are precious in His Sight. And oh my goodness, I loved the songs.
I glued cotton balls on paper lambs, and glitter on Stars of Bethlehem. I colored Joseph’s coat with a rainbow of colors using broken crayons from the crayon can. I even got bitten by the theater bug when I was cast as a scolding teacher in our play about the life of Jesus.
I loved going to church. I loved the people and the songs and the stories. I loved dropping my nickel into the offering box. I loved praying to my heavenly Father who I was sure heard my prayers. After all, He loved me. The Bible told me so. Or was it my Sunday School teacher?
When I was five months shy of my 7th birthday, my mother transported my younger brother and me to Hawaii. While mom was getting settled in and finding a job and a place for all of us to live, my brother and I lived with a Filipino family who attended church every Sunday. Until mom found a house that we could visit on the weekends, he and I were in church every Sunday. Lather, rinse, repeat the aforementioned scenario of Sunday School, singing, crafts, not to mention, cookies and punch! I was, if you’ll pardon the expression, in heaven.
I was, in a word, hooked. And like a junkie always on the prowl for their next fix, I spent the next several decades of my life looking for that high.
In grammar school I made friends with kids whose parents took them to church. I tagged along whenever I could. In an August 2008 post on the importance of Church and State separation, I gave a brief history of my Christian bona fides.
My mother must’ve been feeling some guilt over her single-parent status, so every-once-in-awhile she made a stab at finding us a church. It never came to much. Still, I kind of missed the “happy god feeling” of attending church. In my teen years my best friend became a Christian and since I spent a lot of weekends over at her house, I went to church with her. Her Sunday School teacher was a lady so happy and loving, what was not to like? At fourteen I was “born-again.” This was at the height of the Jesus Movement and it dominated the rest of my high school years and much of my early adulthood as well. I moved from church to church and finally settled on the Pentacostal side of the Christian bandwidth. (The Wikipedia link above was a trip down memory lane for me!)
And when I use the word “dominate” I really mean it. I wasn’t a Sunday morning Christian. I was there every time the doors opened. I sang in the choir, played in the bell choir, taught Sunday School. I street witnessed. I wrote rapturous letters about Jesus to my family. I read my Bible every day and underlined and highlighted constantly. I memorized scripture, participated in Bible Studies and intercessory prayer. I fasted and spoke in tongues. To this day I can ace most every Bible category on Jeopardy! In college I was involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, was baptized in the warm Hawaiian ocean (twice!), and attended Calvary Chapel in both Honolulu and San Diego. I hung on the words of my teachers and pastors, wept with emotion in our services and felt connected to God.
I wasn’t a slacker. And I believed. Being a Christian gave my life meaning.
Everything in my life was suffused with meaning. And I mean everything, from knowing where I was going to go when I died, to finding a parking spot in a busy shopping center. I praised God for everything because I was told, and believed, that everything works for good for them that are called.
But there was a problem. I read The Book.
And, non-slacker that I am, I needed to reconcile what appeared to be contradictions. Simple stuff, really. Nothing my pastor couldn’t clear up for me, or so I thought. For instance: I belonged to a “spirit-filled” church – that is, a non-denominational fellowship that believed in the baptism of the Holy Spirit as manifested by speaking in tongues. And we did it. All the time. Individually and collectively. Our church services were filled with the harmonies of believers lifting their voices in “heavenly languages” unknown to any, and to this day, I remember how beautiful it sounded. But I kept tripping over Paul’s admonition to the church at Corinth that the church shouldn’t all speak in tongues at the same time, because a stranger might come into the church and think the believers were all crazy. One person, or at the most, three, should speak in tongues, and only, Paul said, if there was someone to interpret. That wasn’t what we were doing, and in fact, this little fellowship was pretty out there when it came to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so, in my earnestness, I popped into my pastor’s office and asked him Why? Why are we doing something that we’ve been exhorted [bluelyon: 'exhorted' is a word that gets tossed around a lot in fundie circles] not to do?
After trying to explain why we could do what was so clearly a violation, and finally tiring of my but it says heres, my pastor dismissed me with this answer: You just have to take it on faith.
Huh? Wow, was that the wrong answer. I wanted my faith to be strong. I wanted it to be clear. And I wanted it built on a rock, not sand. And, if the Bible was the Word of God, I wanted to make sure I was following it correctly. And clearly, we were missing the mark, according to Paul, whose words we hung our hats on All The Time. There were other contradictions too.
On the one hand, we were told that we were saved by faith alone, and on the other, faith without works was dead. In the same book. Jesus himself told us that just because we looked like believers and did mighty things in His Name, it didn’t mean we were going to get the golden ticket. On the one hand, we were told to turn the other cheek, but at the same time, Jesus told us he came to pit family members against each other, and that he didn’t come to bring a peace but a sword.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39 NASB)
So much for the Prince of Peace.
I let it go. I kept attending church. By then I was married to a fellow in the Navy. Church was where I did all my socializing, and when my (then) husband was deployed, they provided me with comfort and friendship. I worked in the ACE school they founded. At the end of his enlistment Then Husband left the Navy, we moved to Oregon, and struggled to find a church that “fit” us - but eventually did – and we settled into the routine of Sundays, Wednesdays and Bible studies. I pushed away my doubts. We lived in the Portland area for two years, and it was there that I suffered a miscarriage and had my open heart surgery to correct my congenital defect. Then, when the economy started tanking, Then Husband re-enlisted in the Navy and off we went to San Diego. It was the summer of 1982 and I had just discovered that I was pregnant with my daughter.
At about this time, I was recognizing that there were some problems with my marriage. Okay, even before that, but it’s a truism that bringing children into an already weak marriage will not make it stronger. The problems: Then Husband was not as devout as I was. Oh, he talked a good talk when around our Christian friends, but when they weren’t there, pfft. He smoked, he drank, he stayed out late. He spent money like water. So there I was, thinking that God had brought us together and since what God has brought together let no man put asunder, I was stuck. And yet, it appeared it was my very own husband doing the sundering, so to speak. It was clear to me that we were not on the same path with the same goals.
Two years later we moved to the Bay Area., Then Husband had an old friend from his BC (Before Carissa) days who was a strong believer and belonged to an Assembly of God church. Easy as pie we started attending, and like the church we belonged to in Hawaii, the fellowship became my social center, especially when Then Husband was deployed.
Church was good, and yet, stuff kept happening that would trip my BS detector. But my belief in God, regardless of what others thought or believed, still held strong.
But the marriage didn’t get better, and it finally fell apart after ten years of trying (at least on my part). I am convinced that my religious mindset kept us together much longer than we would have had we not been believers. Heck, I doubt we would even have gotten married because there would have been no belief that God had brought us together.
And then came The Divorce. After years of trying, I finally gave up. And in doing so I let go of church too. My marriage had been, I believed, ordained by God, and here I was telling God, “No.” Further, I knew what every single person at my church thought of divorce, and it was easier to just stay away rather than having well-meaning people (or just busybody types) coming up to me, holding my hand, and (sigh) offering to pray for us, exhorting me to stick with my marraige (there’s that word again). And yes, I was disappointed. I’d followed all the rules. I’d done it just the way I was told God wanted me to do it. I held up my end of the bargain. WTF?
And so, I just walked away from anything “god” for a few years. But I still believed in the idea of god. I just didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Or her. Or it. Whatever.
But addiction repressed doesn’t mean addiction removed. And I was still hooked on the idea of god and oneness with him/her. I loved the idea of finding peace outside myself. And so, I continued my search to find that place where I fit. Over and over again, I’d been told that God is Truth. God is the ultimate answer. God was looking out for me and wanted the best for me. All I had to do was tap into God and all would make sense.
I never expected that life would be all roses and song, but I believed that if I worked at it long enough I’d find that inner peace that everyone kept telling me was findable. I began to look beyond my fundamentalist world. I embraced the idea that God was in everything, but that didn’t seem satisfactory. If god was in everything, then where was the everlasting protector and answerer of prayers?
For awhile I studied A Course in Miracles. I liked the idea that everything is an illusion and that the only thing that was “real” was Love. But pretty soon my BS detector was going full throttle. A Course in Miracles teaches that there is no Evil in the world, just that we perceive it as evil and that if we could look beyond the smoke, we’d see the love. Or something like that. Everything is an illusion? We create our own reality? Even the poor little starving child in Africa? Now, granted, ACIM’s proponents push the idea that if we all tapped into the love and pushed aside the smoke we’d all live in happiness and plenty, but the premise that everything is an illusion, smacked of denialism to me. Nope. No good for me.
I tried matching my inner morality to an individual church. I cast about and finally found a Methodist church that was everything I wanted. Liberal, gay-accepting, big on social justice, etc. And yet… I was really having a hard time with the whole God thing. Even this church, which strove so for social justice and openness, still pushed the idea that God is all-loving and doesn’t want to see humanity suffer. So, I had to ask, why does he continue to let it happen? When does our cosmic lesson end and he waves his magic wand to make it all better? Is this all we have? A lifetime of striving, with what appeared to be no help from the man upstairs? How was I to reconcile my belief, my hope, with what I was seeing with my own two eyes?
Around that time I attended the inaugural meeting of the Network of Spiritual Progressives held in the fall of 2005 in Berkeley, CA. It was a direct answer to the religious right who had co-opted religion for their own political ends. At that conference I heard Bishop John Shelby Spong speak. He electrified the place, and me. Immediately after the conference I raced to Borders and picked up A New Christianity for a New World: How Traditional Faith is Dying & How A New Faith Is Being Born, in which he pretty much decimates every myth of Christianity, up to and including supernatural theism yet still embraces the concept of God:
I have moved into dangerous and religiously threatening places. I have walked beyond theism, but not beyond God. . . . I begin a search for the words that will enable me to talk of a post-Theistic God, the God who is not a person but the source of that power that nurtures personhood, not a being but the Ground of Being, the source from which all being flows.
Shelby concludes that we can still go on as Christians, but in a new way.
When our understanding of God shifts, so will the moral ground beneath our feet. The traditional basis for ethics will disappear. For if there is no theistic being who rules the universe, then there is no law-giver, no dispenser of eternal ethical principles, no fiery finger that inscribed the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone or wrote unchanging laws into the texts of holy scripture. So all those claims must also be abandoned. Those who have simply quoted the Bible to solve ethical problems will discover that the moral compass is askew, and rampant anxiety will result.
. . . Those claims, which evolved as coping devices to deal with the trauma of self-consciousness, no longer keep our fears under control. There is simply no theistic deity whose will we must seek to obey in order to gain divine protection. There is no heavenly parent whose goodwill and blessing we must seek through virtuous living, who will reward our frightened, fragile, yet obedient lives. So the ethical debate must find a new ground to which it can be moved and a new context in which it can be viewed.
. . . In this new morality mindless prejudices can no longer be affirmed by quoting sacred sources. . . . The persistent theological search for truth is of God for it expands life, while religious claims to possess exclusive truth are sinful because they thwart truth itself and allege that God can be boxed inside our thought-forms.
I liked that. But then, Spong goes on to say how he basically keeps all the outer trappings of his Christian faith, while at the same time giving them a completely different meaning than what is commonly accepted by everyone else about what constitutes Christianity. So, why bother? Why not just be an ethical human being? From my link above:
After years of searching, reading, deep thought, looking for God everywhere, attending “liberal” Christian churches, and desperately trying to link my already existing personal morality to a “faith-based” morality I finally came to realize that I didn’t need any religion to validate my internal morality.
And so I kept reading.
It was Sam Harris’ The End of Faith that did it for me. Followed by Dawkins, Hitchens and freethinkers across the blogosphere. Finally, with sadness, I gave up on looking for god. I see no evidence of a god who intervenes in human affairs or even in the universe. The world operates just as one would expect if there were no god. I am an atheist.
Leading my life with the conviction that this is all there is and that it is up to me to make this world a better place to live, makes me all the more committed to working for social justice, to being kind to my fellow human beings, to being truthful and ethical. I have no hope of heaven, nor any fear of hell.
I am at peace. Finally.