Despite My Unbelief
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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