By lex, on December 11th, 2003
One man’s journey from the mechanical through the metaphysical to the spiritual.
My father was a southern Baptist, a merchant sailor twice divorced before he married my mom. She was a member of the Roman Catholic Church from the coal mining valleys of Pennsylvania, where she learned from her mother that “dirty black Protestant” was essentially one word. She divorced her first husband as a drinker, gambler and abuser, back in the days when good Catholic girls from the Pennsylvania valleys didn’t do that – instead they bore babies, and bore up. She took her two young daughters with her when she left, to Washington, D.C. to make her way in the world. The year was 1944, and it simply wasn’t done. In time, my parents met, they wooed, and they wed. And in time, I was born.
He being a Baptist, she Catholic, they compromised and decided that mixture made me Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church had all the ceremony of the Catholic convention, with none of the guilt – it was Catholic-light. My mom could close her eyes and feel at home. For my father, it meant at least that we weren’t Papists – it’s amusing to reflect these days that such divisions and classifications as my parent’s generation felt as viscerally as the air they breathed are nearly meaningless among the faithful today, at least as far as I can tell. Your car is blue? I prefer red. And so on.
I was raised in the “high” church – an incense-filled sanctuary of choral Eucharists and lovely teenage girls in Sunday-go-to-meeting dresses whose chastity and piety evoked in me a response that was very far from sacred in my own teenage years. I was an acolyte, or altar boy – fortunately the Anglican Church allows their priesthood to wed, so I was spared the indignities that have attended such service in other quarters, about which well enough has been said. As an acolyte, you are immersed in the mechanics of faith – just how and when to present the gifts, to ring the bell, to wash the dishes, as it were. A layer of the sacred curtain is pulled back, and you catch a glimpse of the little man at the controls.
And again, there were those lovely young ladies. I was conflicted – try to keep thinking about how He suffered for us and our sins, when what you’re really hoping is that the rays of sunlight arcing through the stained-glass windows might catch that summer dress in just the right way. I felt guiltily like a wolf among the sheep. I considered myself a relatively intelligent, logical young man – and the inconsistencies of faith, all faith, and the arrogance of youth combined in me to create a level of deep skepticism. I spoke to one of my priests, and told him that I was undergoing a crisis of faith – how was all of this to be believed? He told me to read the Bible, to think on what was witnessed therein, to realize that if it all could be proven scientifically, then faith would be unnecessary, and virtue would be mandatory – therefore not virtuous at all, but merely self-interested. Where would free will be in all of that? It seemed to me small beer, pat, perhaps even rehearsed.
My parents died within four months of each other when I was 21. How could a just and loving God have taken them away like that, so quickly? I was angry, and so very certain of my own perfection of thought, and being – what need did I have of these petty-bourgeois sensibilities? I was my own man; I would craft my own morality, and like Ulysses I would drink life to the lees.
It’s amazing what you can rationalize as being moral, when you have cut yourself free of millennia of burdensome restrictions on personal behavior. Even secular humanism is simply the tyranny of some fractionally superior number of people who believe that we should all act in this way, rather than that. Could not 50.1% of the popular vote be wrong? It was not enough for me. Farewell to all that, forever and ever, amen. Life has a way of wearing away at you though – we won’t all be President.
In my 30’s out of mere curiosity I took up the reading of philosophy, which in the beginning at least, with the Greeks, was dedicated to determining, “what is a good life, and how do I lead it?” That was before the modern study of philosophy degenerated into a game of making words mean something other than what they evidently were meant to say, by way of being dense and inaccessible to the masses. So that Sartre could eventually speak of “freedom” and “nausea” in the same breath, and the cognoscenti could nod, knowingly. So I experimented with existentialist philosophy for a bit – who has looked into the abyss, and not felt it looking back into him? Sartre spoke of standing on the edge of a precipice and being afraid – not that you might fall, but that you might jump. An intriguing idea, but as a philosophy of living one’s life, it leaves very much to be desired. You might do as well to blow your head off, than live a life where all the world’s joy and pain are uniquely yours to create or un-create with the opening and closing of your own eyes.
But in reading philosophy, I also came to understand that religion too was a philosophical worldview. It was a way of understanding the world, and interacting meaningfully with it. I had been raised a Christian, and my Weltanschauung was informed by those lessons I only scarcely thought I heard growing up. I was not yet a believer, but I understood.
And the big bang theory didn’t exactly do it for me either. Who lit the fuse? How could everything have come from nothing? How could Mozart develop inexorably from dust, to brilliance and back to dust again? Was there no guidance or intelligence behind this design, just a random collection of cold chemicals that somehow became animated, became alive? A lightning bolt came down to earth and hit a pool of water and created a single cell organism, which eventually became me? Really? Does our science understand how to do this? And what is on the other side of infinity, the place where our finite minds cannot reach? Who lives there? Was this really all there was?
So the questions didn’t go away, they just became other questions, all of them unanswerable. In choosing no faith, I had still chosen to believe in something that could not be proven. It was an anti-faith, existing not because of anything really, but in spite of something. And it was still contradictory.
In time I fell in love, and got married, and along came children of my own.
Suddenly it wasn’t really all about me, anymore.
In my business, I’ve had the occasion to speak to men who spent five, six, even seven years as guests of the People’s Republic of Vietnam in the Hanoi Hilton. They had faced unbelievable hardships in the prison camps, and somehow come through. I asked them how they survived, when all there was to life was torture, pain and suffering, no guarantee it would ever be any different. They all recalled that the one thing that got them through was their faith. Soldiers know that there are no atheists in the fighting hole, when the artillery is coming in. Throughout recorded time, people have used their faith to get them through the hard times; times that most of us will face in our lives, and all of us will face at the end of them.
So could I deny my children this avenue of relief, through my own solipsism? Could I be sure that their lives would be perfect? Anyone raised in the arms of the community of the faithful might one day decide rationally that it is all so much piffle, for the weak-minded only. But who among us, having been denied the keys to this place of internal strength and solace, will even look for the door if they have not been exposed to it in their youth? And all of us, I think, look for some larger meaning and context to our lives – the spiritual in the beauty of the rose, in the sunset, in the love of a good woman, in the smile of your child. Having been denied the collective wisdom of our culture, will they cast about instead for meaning inside the new age spiritualism of yoga, vegetarianism and green tea? Not that these are bad things, for those who choose them – but choice presupposes knowledge of value, the ability to compare and contrast with some degree of perception. The children must learn of faith from the inside, in order to make an informed decision to go out.
So, we went back to church. And in fact, I found that listening to the readings of the old, old books, gave me insights into the physical world and world of people and their interactions that I had not noticed I was missing. I felt a better person.
There was time to reflect upon your week behind you, and make promises to yourself about the week to come. And this was a good philosophy: to love the lord your God (in other words to believe in something more important and larger than yourself) with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, we were instructed, hung all the laws and the prophets. There were nice folks there, too. So I felt a better person, but I did not yet believe.
Some years later I was driving down to Miramar, California from Fallon, Nevada, on one of the more Godforsaken (forgive me) stretches of road in the western United States. I came to a part of this road that had undulating hills, just as a fog rolled in. I was driving far too quickly, but it was late and I had hours yet to go before I could rest. Suddenly, in the pool of diffuse light cast by my headlamps at the crest of a small hill, I saw an enormous and ghostly-gray crucifix rise up from the ground, wheeling towards me – the symbolism was clear: I was about to die, this was my forewarning. And the thing that surprised me even as I felt it was not that my forewarning had come in the sacred form thus presented, but that I hadn’t seen the cause of my death coming – what had I missed? Was I about to run off the road, get hit by a truck, suffer a stroke? I looked around wildly, trying to see what it might be.
It was nothing of course – I am still here, still typing. The “crucifix” was merely a roadside power line truss, the wheeling effect created by the rise of my headlamps as I crossed over the hill in the fog, an illusion. I laughed to myself.
But with hours to go before I got to where I was going, I had this thought to turn over in my head: It was not the symbol that surprised me at all – I saw it and interpreted it immediately, unquestioningly. I knew what it meant. I believed.
There is a kind of logic here too, the logic of faith: It seems to me that taken logically, there are only two possible positions, binary: there either is a God, or there is not. I have said that I cannot believe that everything came from nothing, and concede that we cannot understand that which we cannot understand, what is on the other side of infinity, e.g. So I must believe through faith in that which cannot be demonstrated to be true, God’s presence, and reject through faith that which also cannot be demonstrated to be true – the absence of God. It is a choice I make.
And in this choice, there are only three possible positions: that God loves us, that he hates us, or that he is indifferent. If he hated us, we would know – this would in fact be hell. Between indifference and love, I choose to believe in love.
And if God loves us he loves us perfectly (or otherwise he would not be perfect, therefore not be God), what greater love could he show, than to give his only Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not suffer, but have life everlasting?
No, I am not now a perfect man, a perfect Christian, even a perfect Episcopalian (if there is such a thing). I am a work in progress. But in this faith is my philosophy of what is a good life, and how to live it. It is what I was raised in, and is as good a revelation as any other, far better than some. There is much beauty in it, much that is challenging, some things that I can scarcely bear to think of.
But taken as a whole, it is good.