Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Religious Odyssey Part 1

I've always considered myself to be a Christian. My mother's family was Southern Baptist and my father's family was Methodist. Early on we attended Baptist churches and my first memories of Sunday School are from a Baptist Church in Indiana. Later on when I was about junior high age we switched to attending Methodist churches. I never knew why. I always assumed that it was simply Dad's turn to pick the church after that move.
I went through the confirmation program at a Methodist Church in Victoria as a pre-teen and was baptized. I'm pretty sure I was baptized as an infant as well. I also served as an alcolyte during that period and lit and extinguished the candles before and after the service.
When we moved to Premont just as I was starting high school we joined another Methodist Church and my mom became the leader of the Methodist Youth Fellowship group. I served as president of MYF on and off for most of the time we were there. I also attended church camps several times during those years. One camp, I believe was at Wimberly. I remember at one church camp some of the kids were distributing these evangelistic comic books with graphic depictions of the author's interpretation of Revelations depicting the rapture and the tribulations to follow. I remember thinking they were just awful. I couldn't believe God could ever be so cruel and so arbitrary about casting people into a pit of fire. More significantly at that camp, one of the counselors gave me a copy of an essay entitled "Developing Your Own Personal Theology." I was intrigued and comforted by this reassurance that I was not locked into any particular church's dogma and could essentially chart my own course. This would prove to be key for me later on.
When I went off to college at Texas A&M, I joined the A&M Methodist Church and found it to be a nice refuge from life in the Corps of Cadets every Sunday morning. I was majoring in Speech Communication at the time (I would later switch to journalism) and took a course in Persuasion. For one assignment I had to write a persuasive essay and I chose to write a defense of belief in God. I was quite proud of the results and that summer I mailed a copy of it to my best friend Eddie Shearer who had been my debate partner in school and was studying engineering at Texas A&I. I was taken aback when he resonded with an essay of his own, every bit as long as mine, critiquing my essay and making his own case in favor of agnosticism. I responded with a lengthy critique of his critique and we went back and forth like that for the better part of the summer. I still have copies of our little exchange in my file cabinet.
While I was not dissuaded one bit in my belief in God, I was deeply disturbed at first with the thought that my best friend would go to hell according to the church. That just couldn't be right, I thought. My friend may have been saying that he was not a Christian, but he certainly lived his life as though he was. He was one of the most decent, caring, thoughtful people I knew and the notion that he would be punished for all eternity because he wasn't jumping through certain theological hoops according to the church didn't seem right to me. And it wasn't just my friend, either. There were billions and billions of people throughout time who were never Christians and yet did not deserve damnation in my opinion. How is it that I could be more merciful than God? Something wasn't right.
So I had a conundrum in that there was this major tenant of the church that I suddenly found myself at odds with. The seeds of doubt had been sown and now I was looking for some answers. I had the essay about a personal theology in mind, but I needed some guidance and I found it in the works of Hans Kung and C.S. Lewis. Both were major influences on me in college. Kung, in particular, noted that Heaven would likely need to be walled off to keep some groups of people from knowing that other groups of people were in Heaven too.

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