Monday, April 24, 2006
From Doubt to Doubt to Faith - My Story
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
On one nice day, we climbed a hill on the outskirts of
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
When I turned nine, my father was posted to
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.
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
I got a job and enrolled in high school.
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
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.
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.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Belief and Faith
As children, we absorb beliefs from our parents, teachers, church and peers. We learn and correct these beliefs as we go. We know we don't understand much, and our brains soak up information like sponges.
As adults, we know that beliefs of other adults can be odd, misguided, ill-informed, poorly conceived, misbegotten, peculiar, funny, goofy, patently false, wrong, or even evil and malicious. But most of us never think these things of our own beliefs.
We think what anyone believes is beyond control. As a friend of mine said recently, "You either get it or you don't."
On this view, if we believe we must fly an airplane into the Capitol and blow it up, we cannot be held responsible for this belief. We should neither be blamed nor praised for this belief, any more than we could be praised for blond hair or blamed for brown eyes.
Also, then, faith or lack of faith deserves no judgement. "You either get it or you don't."
We do hold people responsible. We do say it is wrong to think you should use a jet as a weapon, it is wrong to kill innocent life. Even when a man claims his religion teaches this belief, we hold him morally and legally accountable for it.
The progress of science consists of refining and sometimes completely changing beliefs about the way the physical world works. We progress from a demon theory of disease, in which disease results from possession, to a germ theory of disease. Our beliefs as a culture both evolve, building on prior belief; and undergo revolutions.
As individuals, we can continue to learn and grow in our understanding. We can choose to take responsiblity for that progress. Or not.
Sadly, the end of adolesence marks the end of mental and spiritual as well as physical growth for the multitudes.
When we grow up, we put our families and loved ones first. Other interests, while important, become secondary.
Consider the formidable task of going to school, to Sunday School, to lessons and classes as an adult. Think about the challenge of fitting a decent reading schedule with good books and articles into an already full life.
Then there's the temptation to watch tv, to go to the movies, plays, games, concerts, clubs, dancing, drinking, poker, casinos, boating, golfing, etc., etc., etc. Any of these activities may increase wisdom or uplift the soul, but mostly, they don't. These entertainments have their place, but all too often their place is to displace other, more important activities.
Now, a word from Jesus: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Mat 7:7-8.)
And: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mark 4:9.)
What could be more important than wisdom?
We Americans strive to own the biggest house, the shinest new cars, the youngest looking, most perfect bodies. We work hard to conquer our competition, and reckon our success in piles of lucre. Always, we want the best.
We know also, that beliefs guide our actions. Beliefs carry moral consequences.
Why then, do we not struggle to form the best beliefs? If beliefs form on the basis of evidence, of learning and thought, why don't we put real effort into forming the best beliefs?
A belief can be rational, clear, well-thought out, internally consistent, consistent with other knowledge and belief, helpful and good. We predict the future based on our beliefs, and can check the accuracy of our ideas by examining the results.
We must be open to the possibility of error and ready to change our minds when presented with sufficient evidence.
We must become schooled in the arts of logic and rhetoric. We must identify fallacies when confronted with the writing and speech of those who seek to deceive us.
We should take as much pride in our mental conditioning as we do in our physical conditioning. We should praise what is wise and condemn what is foolish, and struggle to become wise enough to know the difference.
Faith that grows out of this effort is hard won faith. Faith that results from work and study, from seeking wisdom, is the kind of faith I believe Jesus challenges us to earn.
If you simply soak up faith from your upbringing, how is that worthy of praise? You might as well take credit for having the right parents, or being born into a peaceful country. Those things reflect good fortune, not merit.
Of course, it is blessed to born into faith, a blessing like the grace given to us by God.
But it is also blessed to ask, and be answered; to seek, and to find; to knock, and to watch the door open.
It is blessed to have the ears to hear; and then to hear.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
What Immigration Reform Must Include
It hasn't been long since the smell of burning cars drifted out across the Atlantic. Recall that the rioters in France had nothing to lose. They were children of immigrants, at the table but with no stake with which to play.
To say that we did not invite the millions of immigrants who are here illegally is absurd. We hired them, gave them jobs and looked the other way. If you employ a worker, not only are you inviting them, you are paying for them to stay and help with your business. We, all the people of the United States, benefited from this cheap source of labor. But now their numbers are too great to be ignored.
Whatever reform the Congress passes, it must give the people who are here a stake in the peaceful progress of the United States. Otherwise, the burning cars will be Fords and Chevys, not Peugots and Renaults.
I dealt with immigration issues last fall, when I invited speakers to my Sunday school class. Reports are here and here.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Faith and Its Opposite
What does it mean to never know doubt? It is like sleeping with the lights on and never going out after sunset. It is like never seeing ugliness, only beauty.
But the night follows the day, and the day follows the night, eternally renewing each other. And how can anyone truly avoid the darkness? At times, the lamps lit by men fail, and darkness falls despite heroic efforts to keep it at bay. To see only the beautiful is to close the eyes; for these times are ugly. To hear only truth is to deafen yourself to evil; for lies are ever on the lips of those who steal from the multitude.
To proclaim faith and ignore doubt is to spread the Gospel blindly. It is to speak the Truth without understanding the difference between the Truth and what is not true; and without knowing why men need to hear it.
Suppose the lamps lit by the man who keeps the dark at bay never fail? When his children ask him, "What is night?" what will he answer? If those children leave home and make their own way in the world, they will surely seek out darkness.
Why would someone keep the lights on at all times? Perhaps so as to never be lost, and always find the way? Or is it fear?
But with the armor of faith, fear is overcome. If there be faith, then doubt need not create fear. Doubt is a natural state, as is the night. Doubt renews faith, doubt complements faith. Doubt and faith are like the two sides of the same coin. We say the opposite of night is day, and the opposite of faith is doubt.
But the true opposite of faith is fear.