Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Religious Odyssey Part 2

Many people go through periods in their life where they begin to question the religious beliefs that they were exposed to as they grew up. When they suddenly find themselves confronted by a complex and diverse world that doesn’t seem to fit with their simplistic, childish faith they find themselves in a quandry. Some people lose their faith at that point, or become indifferent to it.
Others embrace their faith more fully and some become overly zealous and fanatical.
In college I was looking for some way to reconcile my notions of faith with the real world that was unfolding before me. During my lengthy diatribes with Eddie, I had made the argument that life without God was empty and meaningless, and I still believed that. What’s more is that it did not make sense and that was the real key for me.
It had to make sense and life without an afterlife did not make sense. To believe that our consciousness, our very existence, was nothing more than an illusion created by a complex series of chemical reactions and electrical synapses firing away in our brains seemed less reasonable than the belief that the world is flat and resting on the back of a giant turtle.
All of our knowledge, our understanding of science and nature, our philosophy, our appreciation of beauty, art and music, our capacity for love --- that all of these things were inconsequential accidents of nature and thus void of meaning was too much. And so it would seem, as someone once said, that if God were not real it would be necessary to invent him.
So atheism, I determined, was just an inverse form of religion, requiring just as much faith to believe God is not real as it does to believe that he is. At the same time, agnosticism - where someone claims to not know one way or the other if God is real or not or asserts that we cannot know for sure one way or the other - seemed to me to be philosophically lazy.
I kept going to A&M Methodist Church and eventually met my wife there. She was raised a Methodist in Houston attending St. Paul's United Methodist Church all of her life. We were married in that church by one of the preachers who had taught her Sunday school classes and both of our children have been baptized there.
Shortly after we were married, my wife and I moved to Connecticut and began looking for a new church to attend. We didn't like any of the Methodist churches we found for one reason or another and eventually settled on a Baptist Church on the green in Branford.
We learned that the American Baptist Church was much different from its Southern incarnation and we both fell in love with our new church. The thing we liked most about the church was how the congregation lived by Christ's message. It was the only church on the green (and there were several) that had a soup kitchen in the basement where they served meals for the homeless. The church was built in 1840 and stood out from all the rest because it was clearly missing the top of its steeple. According to church lore, the early congregants had a fund set aside which then intended to use to purchase a steeple, but ended up using the money instead to support veterans returning from the Civil War. And that scenario repeated itself again and again. The church would raise money for a steeple and then spend it on other needs - the Great Depression, WWII, and so on to the current day.
Susan and I volunteered to teach a youth Sunday school class and went on several out of town mission trips. Leaving that church was one of the hardest things about moving away from Connecticut and coming back to Texas.
In Kerrville, we once again had a hard time finding a church that we liked and ended up for a time in a Presbyterian church. When we moved to Lubbock we attended the same Methodist Church that Susan's aunt and uncle went to. Then when we moved to San Antonio we were very sporadic about going to church.
For several years we were probably going to St. Paul's in Houston more often than anyplace else. Then once the kids were born we had a new excuse for not going for at least the first couple of years. But as the kids started getting a bit older, Susan began pushing to go back to church. She found a Baptist Church with a day school program and both kids went there for most of their pre-school. But we never joined that church and instead ended up going to University Methodist.
At first, we were put off by that church because it was so big, but this past year we decided it was time for a full committment. Since Nathan was out of church pre-school and attending public school we wanted him in Sunday school at least once a week. And UUMC turned out to have a very good Sunday school program.

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.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Republicans' history of getting it wrong

Why would anyone believe Republicans when they predict doom and gloom resulting from the new health care reform bill?
If history is any lesson, it should be clear based on their past track record that Republican predictions in these debates should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism.