Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Faith Reviewed

Warning: Unbelievable as it may seem this is actually a serious article. Move on to the following post if are looking for humor.

For many Americans, our faith is the center of our existence, a moral code that informs everything we do. We live, however, in an increasingly secular society where religion does not exert the force that it once did. I grew up in a household that was split in the center, between these two poles of religion and secularism. I was raised by a devout Lutheran, in the form of my mother and a non-believer, to whom I refer as dad. Mom has attended St Matthew’s Lutheran Church on a weekly basis for many years and has been closely involved in campus ministry work at the College of Charleston, the academic bastion where she has toiled as a professor and now dean for over thirty years. My brother and I were brought along to hundreds of services and Sunday school classes at St Matthew’s. We participated in the youth group there as well. Mom describes her relationship with religion thusly, “I guess I would say that religion to me has always meant the social gospel. I remember one of Cam's (former pastor at St Matthew’s) first sermons:
"When Jesus said love your neighbor, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, he didn't qualify; e.g., love your neighbor unless he has AIDS, feed the hungry who share your political beliefs, and clothe the naked if they agree to get off welfare." If you're a Christian, you show it by your deeds. And they should be "random acts of kindness."
She continued; “you don't get brownie points with God. In fact, the thing I most like about Lutheranism is its emphasis on grace. You don't have to worry about saving yourself – this has already been done. God's love is truly unconditional and the world could certainly use more of that type of love. God's presence has really been incredibly comforting to me and I guess that's why I've been so happy and feel so blessed.”
My father, who is also a long-time professor at the college, grew up occasionally attending Catholic and Protestant churches and found he agreed with the tenets of neither. The hypocrisy he saw amongst his peers during his early church experiences bothered him. According to dad, “I remember some of fellow church goers stealing candy from the Jewish shop owner across the street during the break between Sunday school and the late service.” During my childhood, dad attended church with us sometimes, but was not terribly involved in my religious upbringing. It was only as an adult that I realized he did not believe in traditional Christianity
My parents were married for thirty-five years before divorcing a little over a year ago. I had long ago moved out and into my own independent existence, but what I learned about spirituality from them still affects me today.
So that is the kiln where my religiosity has been fired and scorched into existence. Now I don’t want you to get the idea that I was torn between religious zealotry and atheism. The extremes were not quite that great. My mother is by no means a firebrand trying to persuade the world that her version of religious truth is the only conceivable road to salvation. She believes that religion is personal and that church and state should be separate institutions. Dad, in turn, never pushed his beliefs upon myself or my brother, feeling that such decisions should be made on our own as free-thinking adults. Nor does he consider the Bible to be a worthless document. He points out that, “I do not toss aside all the Bible’s possible truths, as I agree with some of its ethical precepts and metaphorical lessons in the parables. I do reject all the supernatural stuff, of course.”
I am a grown man of thirty-two years now, so what shape has my faith taken as a result of these influences?
Not surprisingly given the open intellectual atmosphere which I grew up in, I have chosen none of the above. I am not a regular attendee at church nor am I willing to toss aside all the possible truths of Christianity as my father has. Like my father, however, I did ask for the church to rationalize itself to me. When I read the Bible I looked for it to be consistent and I also look to it as a document that can help me make sense of my existence. When viewed through my eyes the Old Testament does not pass muster. The God in that portion of the holy book comes across as a vengeful God, very different from the one seen in the New Testament who sends his son to die in order to forgive humanity’s sins. Although I remained skeptical in regard to the miracles Jesus is said to have wrought, I fell in love with the parables he told and saw in them real lessons that are applicable to humanity even two thousand years later.
My Sunday school and church experience also influenced my view of organized religion. I saw the behavior of many of my peers to be starkly hypocritical – they would act like bullies and jerks for the entirety of the week and afterward they expected that a couple hours in church would forgive all they had done. I do believe strongly in forgiveness, but I personally found their behavior to be a bit too cynical for my tastes. It never seemed to me that my fellow Sunday students took the teachings of Jesus to heart at all.
In summary, I am a believer in a personal religion rather than an organized one. This stance does not go over too well in many portions of America and it certainly does not in Greenville, South Carolina, the buckle of the Bible belt. I don’t hold my beliefs in order to make friends or impress others, though, they are just what I feel is right. A very rational argument, don’t you think? Or is there something inherently superstitious about going with your gut? I do know one thing, it sure would be nice if there were an afterlife just to have a chance to know the answers - and to see my friends and family again - I can never get enough of them, of that I am sure.


Melissa said...

This a topic that Mark and I are struggling with now. We have been forced to really look at our beliefs now that Will is coming. My father's death also made look at religion and what it means to me. I have not attended church reguarly since elementary school. Some of the churches I have visited seem too concerned with what you are wearing and where you live. (Maybe that is just my perception) I consider myself to be a religious person, but not in an organized form. I pray for others and I truely believe that there is a greater plan for all of us. I do not understand the people that drive around with little fish on their car then cut you off and honk at you. Basically I agree that everyone has their own way of expressing their religious beliefs. It is shown in the way you live your life and impact the world around you. Yikes, you were right this really was a serious post.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Melissa. Mom is now struggling with trying to find a new church as well. The pastor quoted in this entry, who she really admired, has been forced out by the congregation for being too liberal in his beliefs.

R. Mera Velásquez said...

Whoa! This was a serious subject, bud. I too find myself somewhere in the personal religion realm, although I very much appreciate the grandeur of Catholic churches (must be the baroque in me). Still, you'll never see me going to mass. There was a time when I found all things religious distressing and simply stepping into a church made me feel weird. All this changed after I had my accident. My belief in faith and the power of love and care from other people brought me back and saved me. It is this fact alone that made me the somewhat religious person I am today.

Alastair McCandless said...

Oddly enough, I was thinking about your experience just a little while ago Robert. I was alone in the hospital waiting room with your mom for one hour and it was the most spiritual experience I ever had. Because of her overwhelming faith and love for you (not to mention that of your friends) I found myself praying for the first time in many years. My cousin Al and my great friend Ken (Dirty Pirate from the football league) went through similar experiences that they were not supposed to have lived through. I don't know whether to call these occasions or divine intervention, but I like to think that the love their family member's had for them helped to carry them through - it is reassuring to think that we have some power in that area. On the other hand, a teenage relative of mine died recently - why could she not have been saved? These are the questions that drive us towards religion in search of answers. I would not say I am superstitous, but it would be a lie to say that circumstances don't make me stop and think sometimes.