Sunday, October 30, 2005

Time to go to church

The comments to my last post led me to one of those "ah-ha!" moments where so many things fall into place. One of the bigger stumbling blocks I've been facing is the sheer density of the Bible. I just cannot get through that thing. I thought the way you should become a Christian is to sit down and read the Bible like a John Grisham novel and God will reveal himself to you through its words. So far the only thing that has been revealed to me is that I don't understand middle eastern Iron Age culture.

So I've been gravitating to books about the Bible (C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, et al). These books are the only things that have allowed me to have any understanding of the Bible (Old Testament in particular), so I've found myself hanging on each author's every word...only to realize that I am now putting my faith in some random dudes. What if they don't know what they're talking about? What if they're leading me astray? So then I go back to reading the Bible for myself, only to get bored and frustrated and put it down after a couple pages.

The whole endeavor left me with the sinking feeling that either I'm missing something or the tenets of Christianity are just too nebulous and complicated for me. I don't want to structure my religious beliefs solely around random writers' opinions, yet I can't drop everything in my life and start reading and researching the Bible all day every day.

And then I read the second comment to my last post. I think I might have actually said "ah-ha" out loud. This is the information I needed. I have avoided Christianity all my life to the extent that I even shunned academic investigations into the subject, so I didn't fully understand the distinction between Protestant and Catholic approaches, particularly regarding Sola Scriptura. I didn't realize that my mindset and approach to Christianity is a product of the (predominantly Protestant) American culture in which I live. I didn't really know that there's another way to go about it, an approach that involves discovering God and Jesus and the Bible through a religious authority rather than just opening the book for yourself.

If you had asked me what approach is more appealing to me a couple years ago I would have immediately answered Sola Scriptura (well, actually I would have laughed and said all of Christianity is silly, but if I had been open to anything it would have been the Protestant approach). I'm naturally distrustful of authority in the form of large institutions, and I would have thought that letting someone tell you what to believe is just asking for trouble.

But now that I've actually tried figuring out if God exists on my own and attempted to understand the Bible by just picking it up and reading it from beginning to end I see that I need help. To fully understand the stories and instructions of the Bible would take a lifetime of research and learning, and that's not an option for me. So I'd like to have some experts at my disposal who have devoted their lives to Christianity and can give me guidance on matters of God and the Bible. But not just anyone. It can't be someone who has kids and family and tons of social obligations but has just read the Bible a lot. I might be very interested to hear what that person has to say, but I couldn't accept them as a religious authority since they're in no better position to be an expert on the Bible than I am.

But a priest...that's interesting. That's someone who's life *is* Christianity. A priest has the time I don't to fully understand the Bible. He doesn't have PTA meetings and college savings worries and diaper duty and all the other distractions that come with having a family. He can spend his days wrestling with tough concepts, drawing on all the priests who have come before him for insight into difficult issues. I could base my beliefs on what a person like that has to say.

This is an exciting realization for me because a) it clears the way for me to make much more progress on my religious pursuit and b) I really wanted to be Catholic. I've wanted to be part of the Catholic church even before I thought I'd ever believe in God. My mother comes from a big Irish Catholic family and I feel like it's somehow in my genes (my mom actually had me baptized Catholic "just in case" -- the only time I've ever been in a church for a religious event with my parents).

So next week I am going to go to a local Catholic church that I've heard good things about. Because of major baby sleep issues and general laziness on my part I actually have not been to church yet since I started this religious investigation. In fact, I've rarely been in my life. I probably went about five times with the Southern Baptist friends I grew up around, then once after my husband and I got married (we were not married in a church), and that's when I was still in the phase of thinking that you didn't really have to believe in all that resurrection stuff to be a Christian.

So I am going to church next Sunday. It will be the first time I've set foot inside a church since I've started to think that Jesus' resurrection may have actually happened and he may have really been God incarnate. No more bringing in other books to read and yawning and staring off into space like I did when I was a kid. I'm serious now. I've been trying to resolve a lifelong spiritual crisis on my own with little luck and I need help. And I think the Catholic church, the church that my maternal ancestors have been part of for generations, might be just the thing I need.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A deal-killer?

I finished my last book (the very excellent Galileo's Daughter) before any of my new Amazon purchases arrived, so I headed out to Border's and picked up Who Wrote the Bible. As I delve further into the Bible I struggle to put it into historical and cultural perspective -- all those years of sleeping in while my friends were in Sunday school have left me constantly thinking, "What on earth is this guy talking about? And who is this guy anyway?" as I try to get through its text. So I've found Who Wrote the Bible to be invaluable in bringing these cryptic texts to light for me. Suddenly all the different versions of stories and little contradictions in facts make sense.

But the book is not necessarily pro-Christian. It's not anti-Christian, but the goal is to present accurate historical information moreso than to uphold Christian traditions. (I should note that this author seems to be one of the few people who is actually balanced on this subject rather than having a hidden anti-Christian agenda.)

So far I've only gotten through the first couple of chapters where he's talking about the Pentateuch. As I was reading his riveting case for who the books' likely authors are, I realized that I am just never going to believe that Moses wrote these books. I am also never going to believe that all of these Old Testament stories are literally true. I think some of them were written for personal or political gain.

Personally, I can probably find a way to reconcile this historical data with Christian beliefs, but I'm not sure if that's contradictory to being a Christian. So my question to those of you who are familiar with the Bible is this: is this a deal-killer? Is there anywhere in the Bible that specifically says something like, "All the stories in this book are 100% true and you are not a Christian if you don't believe them." I know there are a lot of people who hold that opinion, but what does the Bible say?

Any verses you could direct me to would be helpful.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Signs from God

I spent my free time this morning re-reading the comments to my last few posts along with that excellent How to Find God guide over at Chez Joel. This afternoon I went to run errands and decided to take the long way home to have some more time to think. As I drove around the scenic rolling hills of the beautiful outskirts of the city I pondered the question of signs. Where is my big sign from God?, I wondered. If he's so all-powerful and wants us to believe in him and can do whatever he wants, why doesn't he just give me one big sign and get this over with?

That brought me to a question that turned out to be a pivotal realization for me: What would I even accept as a sign from God? Here are some options I came up with, along with their likely effectiveness:

  • Lightning striking right in front of me right now. This would certainly be compelling. And for the next day or two I might be certain that it was the sign I was waiting for. But after a few weeks I could easily write it off as coincidence, just a freak act of nature.
  • A big sign on the side of the road saying, "Hi, Jennifer, it's me God. I exist!" Nah. I'd write it off as a prank, meant either for me or someone else.
  • The sky opening up and a chorus of angels appearing (or something else totally surreal). Ironically, I'd probably be most likely to write this off. I'd eventually rationalize it as a dream or hallucination.
Thirty minutes of intense thinking on this subject yielded few results. There was almost nothing I couldn't eventually rationalize or explain away. So in all this whining about wanting a sign from God, I never did take the time to ask myself what I would accept as a sign.

So I set out to define some parameters of what it would take for something to fall into the Sign From God category. And my thinking went something like this:

It'd have to be something big. BIIIIIG. Like not-of-this-earth big. Something like, I don't know, the cosmos. Something with seemingly infinite complexity, one of those things where the more you explore it the more you realize how much you don't know. Sort of like the physics behind the universe. And I feel like beauty would be involved as well. Probably beauty of a level that makes your jaw drop in wonder, like mine did that time I saw the NASA photo of the Orion molecular cloud that's a few light-years wide. And, finally, it would probably be best if it worked within some sort of system that I'm familiar with. Per the angels in the sky example above, if it were too surreal I think I'd write it off as hallucination.


After pondering this for a while I started to think: maybe God overshot the mark. I could sort of see him thinking, "OK, I give you people quasars and galaxies and comets and shooting stars and supernovae and planets and stars all for your amusement (and you haven't even discovered a fraction of the cool stuff that's out there) and you use this as proof that I DON'T exist?"

Maybe I'm living in the midst of one big, massive sign that I just can't see.

Trying to see the light

Earlier this week I was doing some thinking about this whole God thing as I was stuck in traffic. I was pondering once again the fact that I rarely if ever feel anything that I would describe as "God's presence," and that if he does exist I don't feel like I'm in touch with him at all. I had been making an effort to "see God" in the everyday world but wasn't really coming up with anything.

Then I looked up past the road construction, exhaust fumes and traffic and saw that somewhere behind all that the waning light of the sun was bursting through the clouds in a spectacular sunset. I took a picture of it with my phone:

I paused to try to enjoy the moment but the truck behind me honked because the light had turned green, and I needed to change the song on my Eminem CD that I had blaring. As I hurried through the light and got onto the cluttered freeway my view of the sunset faded away behind billboards and road signs. I thought of the dilemmas I've had about making yourself open to the possibility of seeing God and creating an environment conducive to feeling God's presence.

Imagine if I'd seen those same rays of light bursting through the clouds while sitting in a remote cabin in the mountains, or while on a hike around the lake. I think I would have felt in awe at the beauty of nature, perhaps taking a moment to close my eyes and open myself to God. But as it was I was stuck in traffic with some guy honking at me over the blare of my Eminem CD.

I think that all our modern conveniences -- air conditioned houses in the 'burbs, cars, malls, computers, ready-made clothing, etc. -- have put up a huge barrier between people and God. I think that being out in nature, seeing its beauty and feeling your own insignificance against its power, is an important aspect of staying in touch with your spiritual side. Our ancestors who lived without electricity or running water and who lived off of the land around them felt the power of nature every minute of every day, and their society was much more religious than ours. I don't think that's a coincidence.

So I need to remind myself here that it's possible that God's having a hard time getting through to me. He's offering some awe-inspiring sunsets, but I just can't see them through the power lines and exhaust fumes.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A plan

I technically don't have time to update at all, but I wanted to say a couple of quick things:

- The comments to my last two posts have been truly mind-blowing. Thank you so much Colleen, Steve G., and Jeff. I think that if I ever do end up believing I will look back and be able to point to your comments on the posts from 10/1 and 10/5 as the catalysts that started pushing me in the direction of faith, just when I was starting to lose hope that I'd ever believe.

- I've mentioned before that I can pinpoint when my spiritual quest began in earnest: Friday, July 22 of this year. I had been meaning to look into the whole Christianity thing since it's important to my husband, and since I knew I didn't want to raise my child to be an atheist (or, worse, to be "spiritual but not religious"). But I just didn't know where to start and, frankly, wasn't all that interested in it.

I had taken my mom to an appointment with an aesthetician for her birthday and headed over to Border's to pass the time while I waited for her. When I walked in the door, it was strange. I immediately saw Strobel's book The Case For Christ and walked right over to it. What's odd about this is that I have always actively avoided the Religion sections of bookstores, assuming they're just filled with books like "Let's Cry About How Amazing Jesus Is -- For Teens!"

I always assumed that every book in the Religion section is not something I'd be interested in. But for whatever reason I gravitated to The Case for Christ. I devoured it in two days (no small feat for a busy mom) and it completely changed the course of my life. For the first time ever, I actually considered the possibility that maybe Jesus was something more than just a nice guy with interesting things to say.

In the past few months since then I often wondered what would have happened if I had not seen that book in Border's that day. Just a week before I'd purchased a book for fun summer reading, Galileo's Daughter, that I was very excited about and was adamant about not getting anything else to read until I'd finished that one. Many times I've thought about how different my life would be right now if I had just stuck with my plans to read Galileo's Daughter instead.

Then, last week, after finishing every Lee Strobel book ever written, a summary of the Bible, and Mere Christianity I decided to give myself a spiritual break and go back to Galileo's Daughter. A funny thing happened after I got about 20 pages into it: I found it to be the most compelling case for Christianity I've come across yet. The stories of how Galileo personally balanced his beliefs as a sincere, devout Catholic with his passion for science kindled in me an interest in being a Christian that I had not yet felt.

It strikes me as interesting that even if I had missed Strobel's book and gone back to Galileo's Daughter, I still would have started on my path toward Christianity at the exact same time. It almost seems like it's part of some sort of plan.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Pills for spiritual crises

I just came across this post from one of my favorite bloggers, Finslippy. My heart goes out to her because I know exactly how she feels. Exactly. I dealt with the feelings she describes in that post -- the sleepless nights, looking around at everyone else thinking, "How can you act like you don't know!", the total despair -- for seven years. Eventually intellectual laziness and getting a crazy job pulled me out of it, but I still fight those feelings occasionally. In fact, having a recurrence of these feelings is what threw me into an urgent search for religion.

Reading her post now, it strikes me as a good old fashioned spiritual crisis. It's bound to happen to smart people who aren't particularly religious. It says a lot about our culture that she was encouraged to see a psychiatric professional who diagnosed her with a syndrome and put her on medication to make her feel better. There was a time when she would have been encouraged to see a priest, which surely would have been a better call. Even if you're not Christian, what people in those situations need to do is have deep, intense discussions about the meanings of life and, most importantly, death. Taking a pill may make you forget for a while, but it doesn't change the facts of the situation, and the feelings will bubble up again sooner or later.

The heavy, heart-sinking feeling that Finslippy describes is what keeps me going in this little spiritual quest of mine, even when it seems hopeless. Because even if I never end up believing anything, I must find something that I can raise my son to believe. Even if I'm not sure it's true, it's better than the alternative. I never want him to feel that way.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

An impasse

I read one of many great, eloquent points in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity last night:

When you come to know God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others -- not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.
This resonates with me. I think that some people would disagree with this, but it sounds right to be that God will not -- or possibly cannot within the system he chose to create -- show himself to people who do not want to find him. For example: I know for a fact that loudmouth atheist Bill Maher is not going to have any glimpses of God any time soon. It could be because there is no God. Or perhaps it's because people like Mr. Maher have closed themselves to the possibility. To borrow Lewis' example, the likelihood of experiencing God as a cynical, anti-theistic person is about the same as the likelihood of learning about the stars while observing them with nothing more than reading glasses. You are your own instrument for seeing God. Whether you have the power of reading glasses or a massive telescope is up to you.

So this all sounds plausible to me. As I've mentioned, I've been frustrated lately that I've still never "felt" God's presence, even since I've been pursuing it in earnest. I'd slowly started to start to explain this to myself as, "I guess there isn't a God. Question answered." But then I came across this idea above. I believe now that I cannot rule out the existence of God until I have tried making myself the type of person to whom God can reveal himself by a) going to church regularly and becoming a part of the Christian community and b) trying to act Christ-like, even if I'm not sure I believe in him.

This sounds like a good plan. But here's the problem. When I hear that in order to discover God I need to make a leap of faith and sort of force myself to be convinced by assuming he exists and acting like he exists, it starts to sound sort of cult-like. It seems like I'm hearing, "Yeah, that's ok that you personally see no evidence of the God described in the Bible and don't feel on a gut level that he exists. Just force yourself to believe and then you'll see him!" While the C.S. Lewis quote above does ring true, so does this counter-argument that it's just an eloquent case for brain-washing.

I mean, don't Sciento1ogists and other shady "religions" use a similar argument? There is probably some person out in L.A. right now struggling to believe in Sciento1ogy and being told, "Just open your mind and act like all this is true and you'll eventually believe it."

So I'm at an impasse. I don't want to feel like I'm brainwashing myself into religion, that I'm so desperate for some sort of God to exist that I'm just going to act like he does until I believe it to be true.

So I turn to you readers: any insights here? Any suggestions? I'm excited to hear your thoughts.