Monday, November 06, 2006

The Second Thing You May Not Know about Me

Although I grew up believing in God (it’s nearly impossible to grow up in the American South and not to be affected by religion, sort of tantamount to growing up in China and never tasting rice), I went through a period in which I truly, truly had doubts about this belief. During that time, if you’d asked me, I probably would have said, “Well, I’m not sure I’m an atheist, but I don’t know. Maybe I’m an agnostic.” Then, sometime in my late twenties and early thirties, I decided there was just way too much in this world that people couldn’t explain, mysteries that filled me with wonder, things that helped me tap back into the joy of being a child and not caring that I didn’t know everything, accepting that not everything had an explanation that I had to know just yet. I’m sorry. Science is amazing, and I love it, but it can’t answer all the questions someone with an imagination like mine poses. I still want explanations to be there somewhere, though, and believing in a God who has them just makes sense to me. Believing in a God who has them, is a loving parental figure, and who will care for this child who needs guidance in a world she loves but can’t understand makes even more sense to me. Here are some other things I do and don’t believe pertaining to this.

I believe in:

1. the Trinity. After all, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have many, many facets to his/her being. Why should God only have one? Although I don’t believe God has a gender, it’s hard for me truly to imagine a genderless being. God, as presented in The Bible, strikes me as more of a father figure than a mother figure. The Holy Spirit strikes me as being feminine, so I call God “he” and the Holy Spirit “she.”

2. trying to live life the way Christ taught us to live it. The first time I read The New Testament all the way through I was blown away by how much of what Jesus taught is what modern-day psychologists tout as the secret to good mental health. Think about it. Talk to a psychologist about the need to forgive in order to feel at peace, the need to simplify one’s life, how unhealthy worry is. If Freud had lived in 30 A.D. and had seen sinners casting stones at another sinner, he would have called it “reaction formation.” It’s the same thing, though.

3. God has a fabulous sense of humor, that he had lots of fun creating the world, and that, like a novelist, he’s constantly amazed by the things his creations choose to do – sometimes they make him laugh and sometimes they make him cry.

4. that if you look long and hard enough, you can find passages in The Bible (especially when taken out of context) to support any argument you want to make. That’s what makes it such a magical, but also extraordinarily dangerous, text.

5. love really does conquer all, which is why it’s at the core of all the major religions to which I’ve been exposed.

I don’t believe:

1. in a literal interpretation of The Bible. Although much of The Bible is historical (and is rich in historical detail), it’s history as told through the eyes of one population of people. As such, it’s flawed. The rest of it is myth and legend (or call it “fiction” if you want). But, then, I believe much more truth is found in fiction than in nonfiction, and how can I not love a God who speaks to us through fiction and metaphor? I will note a couple of the reasons I think The Bible is so very, very cool. If you read the first (for those of you unfamiliar with Genesis, there are actually two) creation story in Genesis close enough, keeping in mind that we have no idea how long a “day” could possibly have been before there were humans defining it, it lays out a very neat argument for the theory of evolution. And Jacob was experimenting with some pretty interesting early biotechnology when he was raising sheep.

2. God sweats the small stuff at all. He’s got way more important things to worry about than whether or not I swear up a storm or drink a glass of wine with dinner or if two women who love each other pledge to take care of each other for the rest of their lives and would like to have the same legal rights as a man and a woman who decide to do the same thing. However, I’m pretty sure he cries buckets over the fact that so many wars have been fought in his name; that we do so much to destroy his creation; that no matter what he does, we don’t seem to be able to live peacefully together; and that so many of us have so much and share it with so few.

3. this life is just a weigh station, a place to prove ourselves worthy or unworthy of some sort of reward in an afterlife. I definitely believe in an afterlife, but I’m not sure exactly what that means. One thing I’m pretty confident about, though, is that if I could learn to live life the way Christ taught us to live it, I’d be “self-actualized” and would find a peaceful heaven right here on earth.

4. Christianity is the one and only way to know God. It’s what works for me, and I’m fully-aware of the fact that 90% of the reason it works for me is probably because it’s the faith in which I was raised. Because I don’t believe it’s the only way, I absolutely, positively believe in the separation of Church and State. This does not mean I believe politics should be left out in the parking lot when one walks through the doors of a church. Jesus was nothing if he wasn’t political. Oh yes, and I’m pretty sure God isn’t too pleased with that little “In God We Trust” you’ll find on American money (money! The love of which is the root of all evil. Has anyone else ever seen the irony in that?).

5. God thinks in black and white. That’s why he sent Jesus to say, “Well, yes, I know I told you not to work on the Sabbath, but use some common sense here. If by not working on the Sabbath, you’re doing harm to others, then, by all means, work on the Sabbath.” (I don’t think he expected these creatures he created to take everything so literally.)

6. The words “progressive” and “Christian” are antithetical. If he wasn’t the most, Jesus was at least one of the most progressive people of his time, encouraging extraordinarily radical change.

I used to be, because I associate with so many intellectuals in my line of work, one of those people who never talked about her Christian beliefs. The word “Christian” has come to have such negative connotations among the intellectuals I seem to know. Then I read the book Stealing Jesus by Bruce Bawer (written by a homosexual Christian. Horrors!), and I found myself thinking “Dammit (God especially doesn’t sweat it when I swear on his behalf), I’m going to stop hiding the fact I attend a wonderful, inspiring church full of terrific people and that I believe in the teachings of Christ. Maybe it will prove to others we’re not all out to condemn anyone and everyone who doesn’t follow some very rigid set of black-and-white rules, people who know we have all the answers, and who completely lack humor and humility."

Then, Bob went to Union Theological Seminary in New York, home to the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Neibuhr, as well as, more recently, James Cone, Ann Ulanov, and Larry Rasmussen. These are all intellectual giants, who leave my tiny little brain spinning. I find myself thinking, “I should be proud to be amongst these sorts of believers.” And I am (although being very aware that “pride goeth before a fall”).


Amanda said...

I would probably currently categorise myself as a secular humanist maybe leaning towards secular Buddhism. I don't believe in a deity as such but I have very little time for people who cannot concede that there is much beauty and a great deal of wisdom in the worlds religions. I think it is supremely arrogant and also ignorant when people dismiss Christianity, as a whole, out of hand. At its best it represents 2000 years of some of the worlds best minds reflecting on who we are and how we should live.

Even though I am no longer a Catholic as a labour law scholar I have been, and am still, very influenced by the Churches sophisticated social teaching and philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I am left breathless by this post. You verbalize here what I so deeply believe myself, but never had the sophistication to put into words. This is...just incredible, astounding writing, Emily. And I hope this posts, because I tried posting to you this weekend and it

Rebecca H. said...

Great post! I'm always interested in the ways Christians or ex-Christians make sense of their religious histories and backgrounds and find a way to make faith and intelligence and love and open-mindedness and everything work together. I certainly don't believe you can't be a Christian and an intellectual at the same time, and I'd hate to dismiss Christianity entirely -- there's so much richness in it.

Emily Barton said...

Ms. Tea, a secular Buddhist? You're FAR more evolved than I am! And you're right about the Catholic church (now if only we could get them to ordain women...).

Court, you always make me blush when you comment about my writing, but it certainly gives me a boost. Just more evidence, here, I guess, that you and I are related. I had trouble trying to post both yours and Bloglily's comments over the weekend. Hers finally posted, but yours never did. I just tried to post it again, but still no luck.

Dorr, I'm fascinated by how everyone puts all these things together, too. One day I'll do a post on how some of the atheists I know can be likened to overzealous born-again Christians in their desire to convert others.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this breath of fresh air in the incessant strife between believers and non-believers.

If the world should be converted, it would have to be towards an open-minded and tolerant viewpoint - your post does just that (or maybe I am biased because I believe likewise...)

Ian said...

I'm going to make a strange connection. I just finished reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." I've heard it said that a character as perfect as Atticus Finch could never exist.With this in mind, I tried to see Finch as a metaphor for God, or possibly the American concept of a Christian God. Your list helped verify this angle. I could see your God as Finch also. To me, conceptualizing God in this way helps to reconcile some misgivings I have about Christianity.

litlove said...

Extremely interesting, Emily, and beautifully put, as ever. I'm not quite sure what I think, but I find other people's insights into their own faith fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Emily, Do you think there was something in the air, some national pre-election finger crossing, please god let the election turn out okay, thing that turned our thoughts to this subject? Whatever it is, I do think we've been rewarded with the terrific turn the country's taken overnight -- and let's just hope there's more to come. xo, BL

Emily Barton said...

Thanks, everyone, for all your thoughtful comments on what I've realized is still a pretty difficult subject for me to discuss. Meanwhile, Dante, Finch as God, what an interesting idea (P.S. Did I know you were so enamored of Grendel -- just checked your profile? We'll have to discuss our mutual love of that book one day), and Bloglily, you just might be onto something...