December 22nd, 2010


It's all in the text

I was raised Presbyterian. I was, for a while, a Buddhist monk, and still believe in the moral an philosophical precepts of Buddhism as a pretty good answer to how to live a good life. But, when I don't consider fear or need, I have to admit that I'm no longer a Christian, or really a deist of any sort. There is no god, or magic, or spirits, or any world other than the physical world in which we reside.

That is not, even in the slightest, a diminution of the infinite glory of existence. This universe is magnificent and sublime in its complexity and grandeur. That we have a conscious, perceiving place in it is extraordinary and wonderful, and fills me to the top with awe. The universe is, literally, awesome. No god needed.

It's hard, though, to feel too badly about Christianity and Christians. I know that the worst of the lot, many of whom are in positions of power, get a lot of press. But that's not my personal experience with faith, not at all. In fact, if you were to describe a community meant to inspire a sense of happiness and joy in worship, the one in which I was raised would be a pretty good choice. I mean, if you're a WASP, and excessive displays of emotion in public are sort of icky - otherwise the rollicking funk-for-Jesus church near my old house in Manayunk had to be the absolute best show in town on a Sunday morning.

Anyway, I was raised just outside of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and we went to a church called First Presbyterian Church of Port Kennedy. It was a simple chapel on a graveyard, next to Valley Forge - its lines were elegant and sparse, and the interior matched. The walls were unadorned, the pulpit a simple construction of white-painted and neatly trimmed wood. Behind the pastor, a simple cross of brass. In the tower, a bell. It was beautiful in a stripped-down way - Presbyterians don't believe in icons or statues or embellishment of any way. Still the space was lovely and quiet.

And the community of parishioners matched the church, too, as is so often the case. They are friendly and welcoming, quiet in their faith but broad in their smiles. Sober and conservative in the best ways - which is to say, risk-averse but very generous and loving to friends, family and neighbors. Not conservative in the way that it's come to mean today - telling other people what to do with their bodies, denying rights to people they don't like, transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. Not that kind at all, but instead the salt-of-the-earth kind, the beaming families around the table, the firm handshakes and sincere inquiries after well-being. The pastor, too, was a very portrait of kindliness. When I was very young there was a fire-brand preacher who was promptly run out on a rail after performing an exorcism in the chapel. He was replaced with Reverend Underwood, who was the most gentle, kindly person I can recall. He was devout, but very much of the "set a good example" school of leadership. He had a talent for telling anecdotes about the lives of other men and women of faith that demonstrated quiet strength, rather than showy passion. And what's more, he was an avid fan of Tolkien, who was himself writing a fantasy epic based on his love of obscure languages, word play, and collection of maps he'd hand-drawn.

It's impossible to know that church, know those people, and think of them as anything other than sincerely good people attempting to do their best in the world, be grateful to their creator, be kind to each other, and live the best and most moral life they can. I am very grateful for the lessons I learned there - even without a spiritual element, the teachings of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Kennedy was a place to learn right from wrong, empathy, generosity, and faith that is inspirational rather than shouty.

But I can't get past the text. I can't get past the Bible - even in a church where it's understood not to be the literal truth - but rather a useful parable transmitted by God, and meant to inspire a life-long struggle towards ever greater truth. The bible in that church wasn't an instruction manual - but a hint book, full of clues and suggestions. I mean, other than the ten hard-and-fast rules, of course. Those were understood to be the literal word of God - all else was the work of man in attempting to tell the story of the divine, with flawed results not meant to be taken as infallible.

And even so. I can't live with the notion that in one life, we're expected to either pass or fail a test set up by God in a world of temptation - and if we fail, spend eternity at BEST not existing, or at worst in eternal suffering. I can't reconcile the problem of evil with an omnipotent God. I can't reconcile God's past overt work in the world with His current silence. Where once flaming bushes and carven tablets spoke The Word, so it can't be that an overt gesture demeans the value of faith - it used to be good enough, right? So why 2,000 years of silence.

Too, what does it mean that nearly every other faith on earth also claims sole ownership of religious truth. If they're right - I'm out of luck, you know? But if they're wrong, they're going to Hell forever and ever, despite a lifetime of attempting to do good. Meanwhile, a Christian who lead an evil life but repented at the end and surrenders to Christ is eternally redeemed? There is no justice in that - not justice as I understand it. And I understand justice to always include a measure of mercy, and always allow for the possibility of being redeemed; otherwise it's hopeless.

I just can't get past the text. I think the religion vs. atheism debate gets a bad face in the press on both sides, due to the loudest and least restrained of both sides getting the lion's share of attention. But when I go to primary sources ... I find science and reason compelling, and religious dogma repellant, no matter how kind and generous the acts of some of its proponents might be.

I'm sorry, God. It turns out the pastor of your church was a better template for a loving god than what's in your holy book. So I'll put my faith in mankind, and what we're capable of when we try to do good. We're here in this amazing universe, that for some reason exists and we perceive. If it turns out I'm wrong, I'll still have tried to be good, to do good, and to live well.
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