I was at my parents’ house this weekend when my father, out of the blue, asked me “Do you go to church where you live?”
“Not really,” I answered. “Sometimes.”
“Oh, so you view it via the Internet.”
“Not, really, no. I mean once in a while,” I again replied, in a matter of fact tone.
“Do you at least believe in the Bible?” he again asked. Now he looked worried.
“Some parts,” I told him. “I’m not sure I agree with everything it says, though it seems that most people can’t agree with each other when they say they agree with what the Bible says, anyway.”
I started explaining to him that some things, like the concept of Hell, an infinite punishment for a finite wrong, didn’t make any sense to me, since how can you judge someone for eternity (trillions and trillions of years) after a mere 70 year existence? I also told him that I don’t believe God is small enough to fit within one religion, and that the belief that you had to be a Christian in order to not be sent to Hell forever and ever didn’t sit well with me. In fact, it makes no sense.
“Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?”
“That’s a tricky question. I believe Jesus was a son of God, and that while the teachings may be true, much of the magical mysticism surrounding it–”
“Then you’re going against the Word of God,” my father answered, shaking his head and smiling.
And this was when my sister, the Fundamentalist Christian, jumped into the conversation. From that point on it wasn’t a matter of trying to find out what I believe, so much as trying to tell me why I believed wrongly. “You haven’t studied this deeply enough” was one I heard often, even though I’ve spent more time in theological books and speaking with teachers than both combined.
My “favorite” part was when my sister began with the following:
“See, you’re trying to apply logic to all of this, and you just can’t. You just have to have faith.”
“How can I believe in something [Hell, in this case] which I not only find illogical, but so deeply and horribly abhorrent that only the mind of a sick man could have been able to conceive it?”
“You’re thinking way too hard about it. And feeling bad has nothing to do with forgiveness or repentance. Salvation only comes by grace,” she stated.
“But that’s my point: grace is afforded only to those who believe like you do? What about Christian mystics? What about Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims? What of people who simply are confused about this and just do the best they can?” I asked.
“You’re thinking about this too hard,” she again said.
“Don’t confuse my questioning with your lack of willingness to. The difference between you and me is that I’m willing to accept that I may be wrong, that no one will find this answer for me, and that I have to seek myself.”
“See, that’s what you call not having faith,” she retorted.
“Then define faith!” I yelled. I’d had enough by this time, I didn’t care to be grilled by people who hadn’t taken the time to see the world through other points of view. “Your idea of faith seems to be that I have to accept something which seems so wrong to me that it doesn’t stand up to questioning, something with which I disagree, can’t possibly understand, and find nothing short of sickening. If that’s faith, then I don’t care to have it.”
I continued. “To answer your previous question…” I looked at my dad, then my sister “…I do believe in God. However, we differ in what our ideas of God are. You believe in the God of your church. I believe in a God which is much, much bigger than that. And I can only believe in that which I can observe, and have faith in that which after study I may not understand, but I feel is right. I cannot believe or have faith in something seems so wrong that I have no choice but to disbelieve. And I seek for myself because I can’t unquestioningly take someone’s interpretive hand-me-down. To see it through their filter simply has me looking at their God.”
“You’re trying to make God fit into your own box, and that’s your problem,” my sister answered.
“I could easily say the same of you: what about those who don’t believe in the one strike, you’re out rule? What about things like reincarnation?”
“Alright, now you’re just getting weird,” she said.
“What, weirder than if I don’t believe in something then I’ll burn in Hell forever and ever? Sorry, but the Jews and Christian mystics all believe in reincarnation, and scientific studies are actually going on in that field, so it may not be all that far-fetched. Seems like you’re running away when someone confronts you by saying that God may be much bigger than you can possibly imagine.”
She started walking away at this point and I added, “And if faith in God means that I have to believe someone will be tortured without the hope of redemption — everlasting life in hopeless agony and fear — if they don’t believe like me, though they may be good people and peacemakers who make the world a better place for others, then that’s a God I don’t wish to worship, a heaven of which I don’t care to partake.”
At that point I turned to my dad, who asked me, “So you do believe in God?”
I answered “Yes,” then added. “However, I also understand that in order for me to truly believe I have to be able to understand. I understand that some of this will result in me not being able to logically understand, and I’m fine with that, since the logical part of the mind is only one part, and some things I can only understand via things like emotions — love, and empathy, for example. However, if I feel something at my gut is wrong, then how can I be asked to violate my ethics in order to believe something I find not only nonsensical, but also wrong, just so in the hope that one day I get into a heaven filled with people and a God I disagree with?”
“Just don’t doubt yourself,” he said.
“I won’t,” I answered. “But neither will I ever cease putting my beliefs up to scrutiny based on new observations or evidence. It’s here that I believe Mystics have it right: whenever something new comes into the picture, it’s not a matter of fighting it, but understanding it and seeing whether it’s simply another missing piece, something we’ll need from now on.”
“Of course,” I then added, “I might be entirely wrong. And I’m willing to accept that.”