Faith and Doubt and a Prelude to Dealing with Religion

November 9, 2008

As I begin to write articles dealing with Christianity and alternative viewpoints to traditional “moral” issues, I’ve begun to think about my personal history with organized religion and Christianity. Typically I keep my blogs as depersonalized as possible, and although they’re often from my own first person perspective and they reflect my opinions, I try to keep them more topic orientated rather than have them seem like journal entries. But, I felt that writing this particular essay would help me organize my thoughts and give a prelude to a few of the religious articles that will appear sporadically on this site in months to come.

Until the time I was 16 I attended a conservative Southern Baptist church three times a week and rarely missed a service. After I had a license and was driving, I found out I could get away with just a single Sunday morning service without taking to much of a verbal punishment from my mother. My earliest memories of church-going are of a feeling of fear. Fear of hell, fear that I was constantly committing sins, fear that I wasn’t really “saved.” As I grew older and moved into my early teenage years, that emotion evolved into anger. By this point I was reading and thinking about issues for myself a bit more, and I was angry when a preacher or youth pastor ignored the other side in a debate, ignored the alternative view or simply spent too much time railing against popular culture. For a young music, book and film lover like myself, it was unfathomable that a beautiful, moving and inspiring song might be wrong simply because it didn’t specifically mention the Christian God. One particular youth pastor began by simply criticizing “inappropriate” or “obscene” popular music but by the end of his career was labeling all music that didn’t specifically praise God as a sin and/or a waste of time. This led me to research and build my debates before each class (as a side note, a music critic I like once noted that religious musicians sometimes fail by trying too hard to invoke the prescence of God whereas the best moments when God’s presence is made known through song come when the God-given talents of the musician shines through when they weren’t intentionally seeking God). So ironically, my love of rock and roll music led me to develop an open mind about everything. If my church leaders could be wrong about that, they could be wrong about much more.
My parents meant well. I know my mother wanted me in church as much as possible because she wanted what was best for me. I know that the church was full of good, faithful and caring people. I know that the pastors were good men with hearts in the right places. It simply wasn’t the right place for me, and I know now that spirituality and worship should be practices that do not result in the emotional expression of fear or anger. One excellent thing that I gained from my time in that church was a love for theology, philosophy and debate. One of my Sunday school teachers, who was also a family friend and a later employer, infused his classes with bits of philosophy and debate. He exposed us to basic philosophic concepts and terms, and invited healthy debate. Although I was usually on the opposite side of him in discussions, he always treated me with respect and the things I learned in that class spurred me to enroll in philosophy and world religion courses when I got to college.

So while my earliest emotions in regards to religion were fear and anger, my late teenage and early twenties were marked primarily by doubt. I ended up minoring in philosophy at college, and I found it much easier to look at and think about religion from an academic standpoint. I do not downcast that either (the doubt perhaps, but not the academia). Philosophy and Religion are wonderful things to study from an academic viewpoint and it’s not impossible to gain faith in such a way. My doubt wasn’t so much a result of study but more so a cause for study. I looked at alternative viewpoints because I doubted, not vice versa.

I’ve only been out of college a few years. I spent a few years in a new city and occasionally attended church. I’ve tried most Christian denominations at one point or another in my life–Baptist, Presbyterian, Christian, Methodist and Episcopal. I eventually found myself drawn most to Episcopal and recently, in another location once again, I’ve begun semi-regular church attendance for the first time in about 6 or 7 years. My wife and I attend an Episcopal church about 2 or 3 times a month. What initially drew me to the Episcopal church was it’s focus on social justice issues. I knew that more conservative churches criticized the Episcopal church for focusing more on addressing the problems of poverty, sickness, AIDS, civil and human rights and problems than on evangelizing. I knew that there had been debate in the Episcopal church but that ultimately they had been the denomination at the forefront of the gay rights issue, and the first openly gay clergy in America is an Episcopal minister. For me, being involved with a denomination that left room for debate, for different opinions and lifestyles and one that provides hope and community, and works to provide peace, justice, love and forgiveness for it’s congregations and the world was perfect.

I’ve heard quite a few sermons in Episcopal churches now. The other day I realized that as of yet, I’ve never heard a sermon in one about hell, damnation or judgment. I’ve never heard a bishop or minister rail for 30 minutes on our sins and shortcomings. In short, I’ve never heard the types of sermons that I heard regularly while growing up and I’ve never felt the focus was the same. But where those conservative sermons sought to promote right action and right thought by making us fearful of sin and hell, the same right thought and action is promoted at more liberal churches through different means. If I’m challenged to meditate and pray multiple times daily in seeking what is best for myself, my family and the word, if I’m challenged to focus on the bigger picture and do what I can to combat poverty, sickness, fear and injustice, if I’m challenged to be Christ to the world around me (something in my stage of Christianity I can’t even fully fathom), well if I follow through in actions that seek to meet those challenges I don’t have time to do things that the conservative churches might be railing against and I never have to hear such things mentioned from the pulpit. I heard an Episcopal minister recently make the point that Christianity has no dietary laws, which is different than many word religions. Christianity does not prohibit the consumption of pork, alcohol, or vegetables that “grow in the ground,” as many world religions do (ah, that alcohol thing is different than what conservative churches teach but that’s another issue altogether). He made the point that many religions maintain these dietary laws as a way of unifying their group, a way of “standing out” and “separating themselves from the world.” Christianity does the opposite, because it doesn’t aim to separate it’s followers, it aims to be an inviting and welcoming, inclusive group. Christ hung out with tax collector’s, prostitutes and the like–this is not an exclusive club, it’s one that any who seek peace and understanding should and can join. Well, that type of message is something I can relate to, something I can feel strong for. As for my new history with the Episcopal denomination? I like the issues and the standpoint of the overall Episcopal denomination in the world. On local levels, I’ve always heard inspiring, uplifting and challenging sermons and felt positive after leaving the service on most occasions. I still feel that I’m a searching and doubting type of Christian in many ways, but I think real faith leaves room for that. I’ve heard that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt but rather certainty. If you know something to be true factually then there’s no need to have faith in it. I recently begun reading a bit more theology again, something I’ve pushed aside for years. I turned most theology away in favor of a broader study of philosophy so as not to lock myself down into one religious viewpoint (that of Christianity) but rather a study of the viewpoints that come from around the world, from those world religions and especially those philosophies that underlie and predate most all religions. I still enjoy and love philosophy but I’m finding it possible and even necessary to study what alternative viewpoints are present in the realm of the Christian religion. What really brought me back into reading Theology again were books by some of the most liberal and radical theologians out there. I’ve really enjoyed books by the Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong. I know even many liberal leaning moderates reject Spong’s later work as going to far outside of convention to truly be classifiable as Christian. He also has no degree or doctorate in Religion, Philosophy or History (but to be fair it’s obvious he’s spent a lifetime reading, studying and exploring his faith and the history of Christianity). A later article I will post here details some of what Spong has to say on certain issues, but to be brief, although I don’t think writers like him have all the answers and I don’t agree with all they have to say, it’s writers like that that have caused me to once again look at Theology. I can now read some of the other viewpoints and go back to the original scripture in new ways to think about it, so I have to give credit for that.

So that’s my journey so far. I think Christianity has room in its fold for doubters, questioners, and people of every race, color, personal philosophy, sexual orientation and gender. I think Christianity is about peace, love, equality and hope rather than judgment, shame and exclusivity. I also think that for Christians, Jesus is the “I Am,” the way, truth and light–the entry point to God and positive global service but I think the world is large and other religions offer an “I Am” entry point to their followers to reach the same goal. In short, Christians aren’t the only ones that are “right.”

Future religious articles will be posted here, off an on. The next of which will probably deal with Spong and Midrash and it will be available sometime in the weeks to come. Another forthcoming religious article I’m working on deals with Hell. The most troubling and somewhat unfathomable concept of Christianity for me was always Hell. If God is fully loving and forgiving and if God only punishes us so that we can learn and grow, how could God send any of us to a place of eternal punishment and why would he do so when there’s no room to learn and grow because there’s never an end to the pain? I believe now that such a viewpoint of hell is a scare tactic used by evangelicals to persuade unbelievers to convert, because I think such a concept is inconsistent with the Christian God. But what really is “Hell?” An article concerning this and “Sheol,” will be on this site in a month or so.

Thanks for reading. Next up is my review of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” in the continuation of my “10 Examples of Comic Book Literature” thread and it arrives just in time to nod towards the 20th anniversary of the series first arrival.


One Response to “Faith and Doubt and a Prelude to Dealing with Religion”

  1. adintan said

    hi there, just happened to stumble upon your blog.

    just like to say that i believe that all our sins have already been forgiven when Jesus Christ died on the cross. and that the new testament is one based on forgiveness of sins, of his grace, and, like you, I believe that instead of focusing on the 10 commandments and our obvious shortcomings when we compare against them, we should fully accept that we have been saved.

    It is only when we truly believe this can we act in a way pleasing to God – to do the right things out of love and gratuity instead of fear

    all the best in your walk with God! =)

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