AgnosticismI don’t know. Do you? One day I’m a believer, ecstatic and awed, the next day I’m a barking mad atheist. I have lived my whole life in a holding pattern, caught between sublime insights and the void, between making joyful noises and whistling in the dark. I have waged all-out war with God over the trauma of non-being. I suffer from an obsessive fear and loathing of death. I despise God because death was his idea. If he exists. Which he probably does not. Which is what makes death intolerable. My priest once told me that he had never met anyone who wanted so much to believe.
St. Augustine stated that it’s only in the face of death that man’s self is born.
Michel de Montaigne recommended that one’s writing studio should overlook a cemetery to sharpen one’s thinking.
To vanquish ego, attachment and fear of death, Buddhist monks meditate in charnel grounds among human bodies in varying stages of decomposition, from the freshly dead to bones.
Although in my youth I spent hours writing, picnicking and playing the drama queen in graveyards, it did not sharpen my thinking so much as presage a life that would be undermined by catastrophic thinking, terror management and an insistent hunger and existential ache.
The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between
the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison
we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.
We are just an advanced breed of monkeys
on a minor planet of a very average star.
But we can understand the Universe.
That makes us something very special.
And when from death I‘m free,
I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free,
I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free,
I’ll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity,
I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity,
I’ll sing on.
American folk hymn, c. 1835
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Despite my unbelief, I attend services every Sunday at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Why? What compels me to participate in a God-centered liturgy and faith-based community when I consider myself an atheist? (Most of the time.)
A history of my early religious life reveals both indoctrination and reason for skepticism.
My parents built their marriage out of two different worlds. My father’s father came from Slovenia by way of Ellis Island at the turn of the last century. He headed for the steel mills in Western Pennsylvania, married a Croatian girl of 15 years and settled in Bridgewater, about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh.
As for my mother’s family, the English side arrived shortly after the Mayflower, or so we were told, and the Scots-Irish side arrived shortly after that. My mother grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, a model of small town America that was geographically but not culturally close to Bridgewater.
My father grew up with 8 siblings in a two-bedroom house a stone’s throw away from the railroad tracks. There were two certitudes in their lives: the stark want of the Great Depression and the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
My mother grew up without want in a handsome, comfortable house overlooking the Ohio River. She was Presbyterian raised. Her grandfather had been a Presbyterian minister and religion was a foundational force in her mother’s life, a matter of constant reading, careful thought and good works. I cannot think of my Scots-Irish grandmother without seeing her pamphlets of daily meditation scattered about the handsome house overlooking the Ohio River any more than I can think of my Bubba without recalling the framed, sentimental pictures of Jesus and Mary in the dining room a stone’s throw away from the railroad tracks.
Which of the two was right? How could they both be right? An idea took root in me, a notion that while they couldn’t both be right, they could easily be entirely wrong.
My father gave up his faith, if not in God, then in Catholicism, during WW II when his battleship was blown out from underneath him. To give you an idea of how devoutly he had been raised, his decision to leave the Church prompted one of his sisters, an intelligent, vibrant, radiant woman, to atone for his transgression by becoming a cloistered nun.
When the Presbyterian minister’s granddaughter and the lapsed Catholic started having children, they shopped around for a tradition that would satisfy them both and found an intelligent compromise in the Episcopal Church.
I was raised Episcopalian. I liked church. I liked wearing my white ankle socks and patent leather shoes on Sundays and shopping for a new spring coat and straw bonnet at Easter. I recall gleefully memorizing the Nicene Creed in a precocious plan to impress the bishop at my Confirmation.
I remember walking solo down the aisle dressed as the king who brought gold to the Nativity Scene while singing verse two of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” I remember feeling profoundly moved by music, especially at Christmas: Amahl and the Night Visitors, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, medieval Gregorian chant and overwrought soundtracks from Biblical epics like The Robe and King of Kings.
I don’t remember thinking deeply about my faith. I was a child and it was all a show.
In high school, I abandoned church for the illusion-shattering disciplines of the East that had flooded the countercultural movement. I shrugged off God altogether while under the influence of Nietzsche and Freud’s vigorous denunciation of religion in Civilization and Its Discontents.
For the next 20 years I remained indifferent to God, content to dabble in the casual mysticism and undemanding pantheism of the 19th century Romantics. But then one day, quite suddenly, all trappings of the supernatural fell away from me. In the way that Saul was felled by a flash of light on the road to Damascus or C.S. Lewis felt eased into an acceptance of Christianity during a seemingly uneventful ride in the country, I was alternatively struck by a bolt of atheism.
Suddenly, God could not be. The universe was just too big. The stars, galaxies and light-years of space that ran into the billions of billions and billions more created a soul-crushing impression of annihilation. The universe was unmanageable. It was empty of all thought except for the delusional assertion of human beings on Earth that they were meaningful.
My absolute atheism lasted a few years. Then one summer, I succumbed to a severe episode of a lifelong panic disorder. Despite my unbelief, I survived this harrowing marathon of panic attacks by supposing that Angels were steering me through a whirlwind in their endeavor to make me well and strong.
By the end of the summer I asked whether one of the reasons I had gotten so lost was because I had no God. When it occurred to me that perhaps I could not live in a godless, therefore meaningless, universe, I shopped around for a church I could respond to and, like my parents, found beauty and reason in the Episcopal faith.
For months, maybe a year, I sat in the back of the church next to the door so I could easily flee the faithful should I feel overwhelmed by their absurdities and I wept. It was therapeutic. I began releasing 42 years of trauma, grief and existential anxiety. I felt too embarrassed to speak with anyone, but one Sunday, as I came out of the church still weeping, as I brushed hurriedly past Father Paul Thompson, he called after me. “Look here,” he said, “are you all right?”
I stopped, turned and sobbed, “I want to believe in God, but I don’t! I can’t!”
Father Thompson broke into joyful laughter, threw his arms around me and cried, “That’s okay! God believes in you!”
I have loved St. Michael’s ever since.
I don’t think of myself as agnostic. I feel like a victim of metaphysical multiple personalities. One day I am a raving atheist. A day later or maybe a week, I am a true believer. Sometimes it’s the difference between waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Perhaps it’s a matter of mood swings, hormonal shifts or a sudden drop in blood sugar. Sometimes it’s the difference between a barren silence and sublime music.
St. Michael’s was under the leadership of Thomas and our Associate Priest Jean when I found myself caught up in another whirlwind. A mild heart attack had kicked off a colossal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual midlife crisis. I had been a member at St. Michael’s for 12 years and I felt comfortable making frequent appointments with both our priests to interrogate them, beg them and dare them to convince me absolutely that Jesus had lived and God was real. Thomas had a certainty about things that I envied. Jean had doubts and powers of discernment that I could trust. Still they did not convince me. The universe was too big.
Even a series of revelations, including the entrance into my life of a presence I intuitively call Jesus, a radiance that stays ever and always at my side, cannot convince me. The universe is too big and cold.
No matter how many epiphanies I may have, I can turn my back on them as soon as the spine-tingling moment passes. We live in a vacuity of space and a spiritual void. Nothing more happens after we die and because of that, life has no value. I am not a happy atheist. A world without God is wrong and unbearable. Nor am I a happy believer. My belief can be overturned in an instant.
Why do I go to church? Because I want to believe. Why Christianity? Because there is something charismatic and profound in the Christ story, something achingly human and maddeningly subtle: sorrowful but defiant, concrete but ineffable, contradictions that, for me, sit at the heart of the human experience.
Why do I go to St. Michael’s? Because it tolerates my doubt. There is enough faith, hope and love there to hold all of my uncertainty. St. Michael’s does not fear my bewilderment. We are diverse enough to accept even our atheists.
None of us comes into this life knowing. We learn what matters to us by interacting with the world, responding to its wonders and gravitating toward specific communities. St. Michael’s leaves me in peace to confront my confusion while I anchor my search for meaning, maturity and transformation in its fellowship.
Why do I go to church? Because I’m human. It’s the Christ story that draws me in, a story so intimate and yet so large, so simple yet complex that the fusion of its events and core message makes it easier for me to feel comfortable with the Mystery. Despite my unbelief, I find grace in its ultimately transcendent tale of suffering, sacrificing, steadfast human love.
Why St. Michael’s? The fellowship grounds me, the story uplifts me and the music, thanks to a brilliant music director and dedicated choir, sweeps me into the presence of something called God.
But this above all: When I turn my back on St. Michael’s, it does not turn its back on me. If I cannot truly know, if all I can do is fumble for the higher truth, the greater life, the one reality behind the stories and tradition I have chosen, and if I happen to decide that there is no higher truth or greater life, I have the security of being surrounded by people who don’t feel threatened by my unbelief and pain.
I think of that trust exercise often used to build confidence in a group when, in my moments of belief, I let go and fall backwards, and find helping hands to catch me, people who, in emulation of Christ, will let me down easy and treasure me no matter who or what I am.
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Last week I finally heeded numerous doctors’ recommendations to undergo an ablation at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in hopes of correcting my benign SVT tachycardia (periodic rapid heart rate).
I had been spending too much time in the ER at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, usually at two or three o’clock in the morning, where the quickest way to get me back into normal sinus rhythm was to inject me with a drug that stopped my heart and re-started it, an event that stayed frightening and physically strenuous no matter how many times I experienced it.
For seven years I resisted the advice of all concerned to get the ablation done. What was described to me as a simple procedure sounded incredibly invasive, risky and just plain fearsome.
When the electro-cardiologist who just couldn’t wait to get inside my heart and start poking around decided that because of my sleep apnea, I should be under anesthesia (instead of just heavily sedated), my fear intensified. The ablation had been known to take from six to eight hours to complete. That’s a lot of time to be under anesthesia.
I am alone in life, childless, partner-less, with family members who live at some distance from me, some of whom wouldn’t rally to my side anyway and some who couldn’t. Also, within the past year, my four closest friends had left town for one reason or another and all peripheral friends had fallen away.
Because of the anesthesia, I would be kept overnight at the hospital but forbidden to drive home even the following day. So I needed a ride up to Dartmouth-Hitchcock (a little over an hour from Brattleboro) and a ride back. But most of all I needed support.
If I had had any previous doubts as to why I had been a member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for the past 20 years, they have evaporated. I hope that my thank you notes convey this.
Dear Ed and Jane:
I am still marveling over your kindness. Due to the early hour, lack of sleep and mounting terror, the events of last Monday morning feel sketchy and slightly unreal. What is concrete and indisputable is your success at getting me to where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there and your presence in Ambulatory until they wheeled me away. You cannot imagine what it meant to me to have you there, with your medical background, your patience and your quiet, reassuring air. I am ever and always grateful.
Dear God: Please don’t let me die. Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die. Please.
Not only was it fun riding in your very smooth car and getting to know more about you and your strong inner moral compass, I also think it was fitting that it should be one of my ER buddies from Brattleboro Memorial to pick me up and bring me home. I am deeply grateful.
To the people of St. Michael’s:
Words cannot adequately express my appreciation. The gratitude I feel to the people of St. Michael’s is purely a matter of heart.
I give special thanks to Jane and Ed S, who picked me up at 4:15 in the morning, got me through the admission process at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and then stayed with me until the scary medical people wheeled me away, to Linda R for bringing me home the next day, to Mary L for coming over and administering Communion on a rainy Thursday afternoon and to the St. Michael’s Episcopal Church Women for knitting the prayer shawl I love and keep close by.
Thank you for your phone calls, your expressions of care and concern and your prayers. It must be powerful magic, powerful faith indeed, because when Mary gave me the bread and wine in my own small living room on Western Avenue, I felt intensely that every single one of you was there.
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Every Sunday at church the parishioners at St. Michael’s Episcopal have an opportunity to step forth during Communion and receive sacramental healing from an extensively trained layperson. I never miss the opportunity. If I’m in church, I go.
For me, healing is not a sometime thing. It is an everyday need, a constant longing to feel well, whole and unafraid. You don’t have to be traumatized or in trouble to ask for healing prayers; you don’t have to be looking for miracles for yourself or someone else. You can be, but you don’t have to be. There is therapy in mere presence and medicine even in sharing joy or giving thanks.
There is restoration in the knowledge that someone else hears your cry for help or call for blessing. To qualify, all you have to be is a hungry, searching soul. To find peace and feel renewed, all you need is to be heard from and then drawn in to something larger than yourself, whether it’s the twosome created by you and the healer or the whole congregation or your belief system or God.
Dr. Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, whose current research concerns comparing the outcomes of secular and spirituality-based therapies, notes that religious involvement with a strong spiritual component can actually alter the structure of the brain in people at high risk for depression. There is equally strong evidence that faith can result in reduced risk for anxiety, substance abuse, poor lifestyle choices, heart disease and memory loss.
Dr. Koenig says, “It turns out that belief itself doesn’t mean much. It’s whether the belief is carried out through some sort of action.” This includes gathering with others in a faith community. It includes, for me, the laying on of healing hands.
At St. Michael’s we have eloquent and gifted healing ministers. More often than not, I approach filled with doubt and misgiving. Sometimes I feel embarrassed. But owing to their active listening, genuine compassion, firm but gentle touch, intimate yet deeply respectful intercession, and caring, thought-full words, I feel a powerful presence emerge from our shared experience. Together, we have created a sacred space and perhaps conjured the spirit of the one who made example for us. The anointing at the end, receiving the sign of the cross on my forehead with consecrated oil, has become as much a part of my Sunday worship as singing a favorite hymn, eating a wafer or trying to fathom the meaning of it all.
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In the Biblical story of Pentecost, as the Twelve Apostles receive the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages. “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because every man heard them speak in his own language.”
And because everyone there – Cretans, Arabs, Medes, Jews and Romans – can understand what the Apostles are saying, they realize that that which connects them is stronger than that which divides them, that there is a reality more radiant than their small, dim definition of the world.
One of our Associate Priests, a man with a gift for progressive, challenging sermons, recently brought up this story to make a point.
“God is not a Christian,” he said. “But I am.”
He said he is a Christian because he needs to be part of a story of flesh and blood people trying their best, falling down and starting over and over again. He needs to place his understanding of the sacred into a story larger than himself. But the Pentecost narrative reminds him that the experience of God is universal and that Christianity is not the one true or only way to encounter the divine.
I have no trouble believing that our most lucid and powerful experiences of God pour forth from the unseen, unknown side of whatever doctrine we employ to describe him. God is not a Christian, or anything else restricted to one point in time and space, because God is greater than anything we can imagine.
Think of how vast the universe is. That is how large God’s mind must be. I don’t think that in all of Andromeda there is an object of worship and emulation called Jesus Christ. Or Mohammed. Or Buddha. And Andromeda is just one galaxy, our closest neighbor, another impossible sweep of gas, dust and a trillion stars.
Clearly, in a universe of 200, possibly 500, billion galaxies, we are not made in God’s image. We have made him in ours. And the more we try to reduce him to our own level, define him solely on our own terms, cram him inside the limits of our ability to comprehend, the further we get away from him. God is not a Christian. He can’t be. He is a mystery. He must be. I am a Christian because the Christ story sometimes embodies that mystery for me.
Moses may have seen the Promised Land, but he did not gaze upon the habitable planets of Alpha Centauri. If all people who subscribe to organized religion could separate their path from their truth and acknowledge their truth to be the inconceivable Source we all share, we might find enough common ground to live in peace.
If we could say God is not a Christian but I am, or God is not a Muslim but I am, or God is not a Hindu but I am, and be content with the knowledge that whatever God is, his great mind holds one galaxy for every star in the Milky Way, we might discover the missing link between the secular and the spiritual, between the hard facts of life and the attainment of an ideal.
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