Monday, April 24, 2006

 

From Doubt to Doubt to Faith - My Story

From the age of four, my parents called me "Doubting Thomas." Before I turned five, my father was stationed in Germany.

This synopsis, this disjointed, terse narrative, tells only the most critical events that influenced my beliefs. I omitted volumes. I left out the transitions. I traveled from the most profound, ingrained doubt to sublime hope. I offer this to share faith.

We took the train from Bremerhaven to Stuttgart, pulled by an old, well preserved steam locomotive. We moved into a Guesthaus. On my fifth birthday, I got a little wind-up boat made of tin. The tiny, shiny propeller spun very fast. Figures painted on the upper half suggested a pilot and passenger. I cruised my boat in the small ornamental fountain out front.

On one nice day, we climbed a hill on the outskirts of Stuttgart. It seemed very tall, but was probably no more than 300 or so feet high. It was a perfect, grass covered cone with a narrow road spiraling up the side; huge pieces of rubble and fragments of broken buildings lay exposed at the top. I leaped and jumped from concrete block to marble facade to jagged stone, pretending to climb Everest. My mother worried. I pretended to be a billy goat. After the war, the Germans had piled up the shattered remains of allied bombing into a huge monument, and that was my mountain.

I remember visiting a death camp. The name escapes me -- I would have been about six years old. In one room, black and white photos of living skeletons watched me as I studied them in return. Their eyes seemed huge because the skin, shrunken from starvation, stretched so tightly across their skulls. I saw a big shower room, like a boy's locker room at school, with drains in the tile floor and showerheads along the wall. My mother or father explained that poison gas, not water, came out the shower heads. I struggled to understand. I saw a lamp. A parent explained that the lampshade had been made of human flesh. We stood outside, looking into a ditch. The Nazis forced people into the trench and machine gunned them. They buried the victims in mass graves. My child's mind struggled with the enormity of the horror.

My father told me no one can prove or disprove God. He said the world and the things he'd seen undermined any faith in a merciful, loving God. He saw enough innocents suffering and dying to cause him to doubt the Methodism he grew up with; to doubt seriously the very existence of God. He said he was agnostic, leaning towards atheism.

We never went to church.

We owned a small black-and-white television, but all the programming was in German. After six months, we moved onto an American military base and I started school. I learned to read. I made friends -- my best friend, whom I loved with all my heart, was a little black classmate of mine named Jimmy. In first grade, we would hug and even hold hands. Older boys made fun of us because we were so close. I didn't understand why until much later.

In the third grade, I began to read a lot. I read every biography and every science book the modest library at our little American school contained. My family traveled Europe. We spoke German among ourselves, English in public. Once, in a hotel in Rome, an Englishwoman complimented us on how well we spoke English, although, "Sometimes we sounded like Americans." We were highly amused.

When I turned nine, my father was posted to Ft. Monroe, VA. The island, though small, had a decent library. With no close friends, I began to read voraciously. I graduated from children's books to novels. I enjoyed science fiction and mysteries. I discovered Ayn Rand and read all her works. I continued to read science non-fiction. During the summer, I read six or seven and sometimes ten books every day. When school started, that reduced to two or three. My nickname morphed, but I remained a puzzled, skeptical child.

I went on long, solitary walks on the beach. I studied the moods of the sea. I pondered and played. In hot weather, I swam every day, often for more than a mile. I made friends. I played chess competitively. I started dating.

In 1968, we moved again. San Antonio was muggy and slightly cool in winter, wet and hot in summer. I read; read and read some more. I dated. I joined the debate squad. I read and acted in MacBeth; read Hamlet and King Lear. I read the plays of George Bernard Shaw. I fell in love with poetry. I published essays in the school literary magazine.

The "National Honor Society" made me a member.

(It occurs to me that each incident, described with barely any detail, deserves full treatment. But this is already a long, boring story.)

Early in the school year, we took some kind of big test. After the results came in, my English and science teachers asked me to attend the library every day instead of going to class. They did not really want me disrupting their work. They said as long as I kept up a perfect "A" average on tests and assignments, I need not come to class. That suited me. My English teacher gave me a self-study book of 10th grade grammar. She told me that was my assignment for the year. I finished it in a week or so, but didn't turn it in until it was due. That way, I could continue to read what I wanted to.

The "National Honor Society" booted me out.

One day the principal called me in. He handed me some papers, "You might be interested in this." So it was that I helped organize the first ever Earth Day celebration.

My father retired. A military band played. I met a good number of general officers, with one, two and three stars on their lapels. There were medals, a ceremonial sword, and, I think, a salute involving guns or artillery. We moved to the Kansas City area.

I got a job and enrolled in high school. Lee's Summit, Missouri, though a hateful little town at the time, did have some good high school teachers. Special science "classes" were set up, one of which included a handful of other students. So long as I got advance permission for my experiments and filed good reports, I could do what I wanted. I weighed air. I did a trigonometric analysis of the results produced by adding two ac currents of various voltages and frequencies together. I did lab tests on bacteria cultures to identify the germs. I dated. I went to the art gallery a lot. I scored a couple of scholarships.

The "National Honor Society" inducted me again.

In college, I read Freud and Plato and Aristotle. I read Kant and Wittgenstein and Maslow. I read Russell and Achinstein and Rom Hare. I wallowed in Hume, Locke and Hobbs -- especially Hobbs. I struggled with Foucault, and laughed at McLuhan. (Sorry, I can't list them all -- not in one post.) I'd originally planned on majoring in psychology, but one day I wandered into an upper level philosophy course and realized I had no clue what they were doing. First real challenge I'd ever faced in school. So I decided to add it to my major.

I was one of eight philosophy graduates out of a class of over 2,500. I remained the doubter, still seeking wisdom. I went back and studied economics. I discovered Samuel Barber, Debussy, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Gershwin.

I fell in love and married; had six months of real happiness and fourteen and a half years of pure misery. I divorced. I kept on reading, and writing. I sold a little good poetry here and there and a lot of really bad fiction. Kept my day job; started teaching various technical subjects at work. My employer banned all writing on the side for money, so I stopped.

I met the true love of my life and remarried. I followed her to church -- I'd follow her anywhere. I got interested in the same problems that troubled my youth. We went to Sunday school. For her sake, I played the part of a believer. I tried to overcome 35 years of skepticism.

We decided to take a Christian Disciple class. Then we took another. And then another. After years of intensive study, I became familiar with the Bible. I learned what Jesus actually said and did - so different from the shrill, hateful, divisive theology I had gleaned from reading newspapers, magazines and books. I learned what the Bible really teaches us about God - so very different from the spiteful supermaniac the television preachers worshipped. I learned that for Jesus' first miracle, he turned water into wine: proof He could not be the relentlessly grim, anti-fun God my high school friends had worshipped.

After 40 years of skepticism, I learned, and began to believe.

I began to believe, and joined the community of faith.

St. Paul says, "Act as if you have faith, and faith will be given to you." Amen.

It still bothers me to hear so much hatred uttered in the name of Jesus. It saddens me to read snippets of scripture used to rationalize greed, injustice and fear. Most disturbing is the abuse of the Word in the relentless pursuit of power.

I still work on understanding theology. I remain troubled by doubts.

Yet, by the grace of God, I do believe. Thanks be to God.


Comments:
A great testimony Mike.
Thanks for sharing it.
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you better.
Your fear that a longer more detailed account would be boring is unfounded. I am sure personal insights into the meaning of your life experiences would be fascinating.
Please feel free to develop and present a fuller version some day.

God Bless
 
our stories aren't boring - and yours wasn't either! The trouble is that our stories are too interesting and don't fit neatly into a 10 minute slot.

I'm glad you remain troubled by doubts - it's the best gift of all in a way, and takes us to the heart of God, if we let it.

Thanks for sharing.
 
I've been quietly reading your blog for a few months now. I appreciate your life story. I find it interesting where people come from and how they've become who they are. I find great value in your perspective on faith from a rational and progressive view, as it is often difficult, as a rational and progressive person, to put my own views into words.

Peace and Balance.
 
Hey Mike. I wanted to comment on something I read here but after going through the whole sign up process I can't remember what it was. Sheesh.
Kinda cool reading some of your history. Ich mochte kennen viel. Something like that. Tough to write Deutsch without the umlate above the letters. Just pretend it's there.
 
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