If there’s one thing in the world that can crank the God volume up to 10, it’s a crisis. And there have been crises aplenty over the past year. Being a person of dubious faith, I’ve largely sat on the sidelines while believers discussed whether recent events heralded a new era of salvation, or the coming apocalypse. The presidential election back in America only served to intensify this divide. I don’t write about faith often, if at all. But I do find it fascinating and instructive, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that for all of my ambivalence about faith, I can’t imagine a world without it. Anyway, I hope the words come out right….
For all practical purposes, I left organized religion behind on my 16th birthday. That’s when my parents told me I had the choice of continuing to attend Sunday school if I wanted to, or opt out. So, I opted out. It was a no-brainer for a lazy teenager who just wanted to watch TV, listen to music, play ball, hang with my friends, and bide my time until adulthood set me free. I was as indifferent to religion as I was to most everything else in those years. All I know is, I sure as shit didn’t want to wake up on Sunday morning, throw myself into a suit, and trudge off to Sunday school if I had a choice.
I didn’t necessarily have anything against the church I grew up in. It was a large Methodist church with a pretty tolerant attitude, at least by the standards of a Protestant church in the American South in those days. Sunday school classes often focused on the plight of the less fortunate, the need for us to do more to help them, and the importance of being more understanding of others. I don’t remember any feverish rants about how quickly you’ll descend into the fiery embers of Hell if you don’t start living your wicked little lives according to the word of God.
Sunday school might have bored me half out of my mind, but I still value the fact that my early exposure to Christianity came at this Methodist church rather than somewhere else.
But, I just didn’t feel the faith. It never embedded itself in me the way it does with other people. And truth be told, I had developed a fair amount of skepticism about religion in general, based on how often so many people of faith preached one thing and practiced another.
This has been on my mind a lot lately, the seeming disconnect between religious principles and the words and actions of people who proclaim to adhere to those principles. You can see evidence of it back in America, where certain Evangelicals hitched their wagon to a man whose life prior to holding public office seemed to revolve around divorce, sexual conquests, tabloid headlines, questionable business deals, and hilariously fabricated “reality” TV, and whose life since holding public office will one day be examined by historians in much the same way that scientists examine cancer cells.
Many white Evangelicals believe this man was sent by God to rid America of its various evils and put it back on the straight and narrow. Most Hispanic Evangelicals are doubtful about that, and just about all black Evangelicals reject it out of hand.
The man stepping out of power probably couldn’t name a Bible passage if you spotted him the “Jesus” and the “wept,” but white Evangelicals love him. The man stepping into power is by all appearances a devout Catholic, but white Evangelicals fear him. If you ever wonder why I’m skeptical about organized religion, this is as good a place as any to start.
According to a recent article on the Intelligencer website, no two groups are further apart in terms of the political candidates they support than white and black Evangelicals. That’s an amazing statistic, considering that both of these groups presumably worship the same God and read the same Bible. But where one group sees a savior, the other sees an oppressor. Where one sees deliverance from evil, the other sees the perpetuation of evil.
This is a problem for me, how two people of the same faith can use the same scripture and beliefs to arrive at two such opposite conclusions. It’s not just a Christian phenomenon, either. It extends into just about all faiths. Just look at the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or between orthodox and liberal Jews.
Many true believers are quick to assert that there is only one genuine path to salvation and righteousness, apparently unaware that there seem to be numerous paths even within the same faith. The gap between what one person believes and holds sacred, and what others believe and hold sacred, is so deep and wide that I doubt there’s a bridge big enough to cross it.
I can’t say I am a person of faith. I pray occasionally – usually when a plane takes off, or when a loved one is in some kind of physical peril. But I’m not sure who or what I’m even praying to. I’m basically saying, “Look, I know I don’t deserve this. But could you protect my family during this flight, or save my loved ones from harm? Amen.”
I’m not a faithless person, either. I’m pretty sure I believe in something, even though I can’t pinpoint what it is. An eternal soul? A cosmic presence? An innate spirituality that can’t be explained away through molecular science?
Our daughters are being raised as Catholics, mainly because my wife and I want them exposed to religion as kids so they can make an informed decision about it later in life. She does all the heavy lifting in this area. I usually hang at home and do chores while they attend mass. They’ve learned the usual Biblical lessons, along with specific Catholic lessons I have no clue about.
I see faith through my young daughters, who have somehow managed to develop moral codes independent of anything they’ve been specifically taught. Our youngest daughter looks at homeless people on the street and wonders why they have to be cold and hungry, and where they can go to find solace. Our oldest learns about endangered giraffes, and gets upset to the point of tears. So, we show them where they can make donations to homeless shelters, or how they can contribute to wildlife protection programs.
My wife and I are decent parents, but our daughters didn’t learn those emotions from us. They developed them on their own. Which makes me wonder where it comes from. Is it simply a matter of molecular physics? Or are humans graced with the gifts of compassion and empathy? And if so, why do some feel it more than others, while some seem to feel it not at all?’
I have personally dabbled in certain spiritual exercises as an adult, mostly to calm and educate myself. I used to do a dozen different yoga poses about three times a week, followed by a few minutes of meditation. I bought and read books about Buddhism and Zen. I didn’t adopt any of the teachings, though I did find comfort in many of the words. I still do a couple of regular yoga poses, but I rarely meditate. I probably should. It works, you know. It relaxes you and lends some perspective.
I occasionally read Biblical and Christian texts, just to widen my knowledge. When I lived in Charlotte I would make regular trips to La Shish Kebob – a delicious Middle Eastern restaurant on the east side of town – and would read the free Islamic texts they kept there. I learned a lot about Judaism just by watching YouTube videos of interviews with Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi death camps, and spent the rest of his life warning others that it can always happen again.
I find spiritual fulfillment in exercise, in riding my bike through urban landscapes. I find fulfillment knocking a tennis ball back and forth against a backboard on a warm, sunny day. My soul is at peace in these moments, focused solely on the ball and the racket. I am the ball. I am the racket. My life is centered – until an errant shot travels over the backboard, in which case I curse myself for not keeping my GD head down and my GD arm extended.
I find spiritual fulfillment in travel. There is something metaphysical in visiting a strange, new city, walking its streets, peeking into its stores, sitting in a plaza and watching the human parade waltz by, just like travelers did a thousand years ago. I am rarely more fulfilled than when I’m in a village somewhere for the first time, experiencing something new, seeing it all through new eyes. It’s like a rebirth.
I sometimes wonder if I lived prior lives, and if one of them was as a jazz musician in some smoky mid-century nightclub. I am immediately calmed by the sound of jazz music. I can’t play a lick of it myself, but I know exactly how it’s supposed to sound. I can predict the next chord change, and tell when the trumpeter has missed a note by the smallest fraction. I might see a grainy old photo of a long-defunct jazz club and find it comforting, oddly familiar.
Well, this is probably due to some molecular function that we’re not advanced enough to understand. Or, maybe I used to be a hep cat in a silk suit, blowing pretty notes for the in crowd – until I got run over by a speeding taxi and got born into the dude typing these words.
Hey, life is a series of trade-offs.
I should take the time to meditate on all this. Or just meditate. In the Year of our Lord 2021, with so much sound and fury, any deeper dive into the spiritual is probably a good idea.
Note: The headline comes from a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”