Grasping at Belief : Week 1
Yesterday I asked if anyone would be willing to assist me in a journey to see how I might reconcile my lack of belief with my desire for belief. Over the next few months I am taking confirmation classes at my family’s church (Episcopal), and since there is an inordinate amount of knowledge about issues of faith at the League I thought I might at least try using a discussion here to help guide me. I was touched and excited to see so many people say they’d join me in this long-shot endeavor.
Over the next few months I will be using three methods to advance my journey. I’ll use my space here to write down my initial musing on some or all of these each week; please feel free to engage in any or all. To keep my musings on each method straight, I will label each with one of three different parts of the Episcopal liturgical service: Lessons, Communion, and Dismissal.
Lessons will be the reading of specific pieces of scripture. I will not be choosing these on my own. Instead, each week the Episcopal designates four specific readings from the Bible. One from the Old Testament, one from Psalms, one from a non-Gospel New Testament book (which would mean either a History, and Epistle, or a Revelation), and one from the Gospels. Most likely these will not be the texts that I would have chosen to discuss. This is probably all well and good, since if it were up to me to choose it would be all Abraham binding Isaac, God smiting Job and Jesus killing a fig tree. (I like my Bible stories on the dark side.)
Communion will be turning to others more knowledgeable to nourish my learning. This might mean reading some piece of theology, or meditating on a sermon, examining a religious work of art, or reading some secular work such as a religious history.
Dismissal will be my going out into the world to practice my faith. Or, to be more specific, attempting to find out what exactly that means.
In advance, I’d like to offer more thanks than you can imagine to everyone that takes the time to help me walk this path in the wilderness.
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Oy. I’m just barely beginning my confirmation studies, and I’m already screwing the pooch.
The assignment, of course, is to read Samuel 1-10 and think about what the lesson is that this scripture holds for me. But I really like narrative, and I tend to be the kind of guy who at the end of any season of Lost would go nuts wanting to know how they resolved the cliff hanger right now. And now here I’m given a text that teases you with God needing to give Samuel a very important message. (I assume it’s very important – it’s from the Almighty, after all. He doesn’t tend to phone it in with reminders to pick milk up o the way home.) But the reading I have been given ends with this unacceptable cliff hanger. What did God need to say? What holy mission was Samuel about to embark on? I had to peek. Turns out, God’s message is that because Eli’s sons have blasphemed, he’s going to do some heavy smiting on the whole house to serve as a capital “L” Lesson to all.
I wish I hadn’t peeked. Now I have two competing lessons in my head.
Lesson A is the lesson I am pretty sure I am meant to take according to the Church: God speaks to us, but in order to hear Him we must listen and be open to His call. If we are too caught up in our Earthly trappings, His word will fall on deaf ears. But I now also have Lesson B in my head, which is the lesson I feel pretty sure the original story teller wanted me to take away: Don’t blaspheme!
Clearly, one of these message speaks to me more than the other. But which do I choose to take away? Or, more specifically, can I take Lesson A to heart, as it speaks in the voice I most want to hear God in, and jettison Lesson B because it tickles this bit in my brain that says religion can be used as a method to control people – with stories that have morals just like Lesson B? Can I do that? Or does the opening one’s self up to God come with a tacit approval of the smiting?
This reading of scripture thing is going to be tricky.
Additional readings for this week were Psalms139:1-5, 12-17, Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
For my first week of focusing on the learnings of people of faith, I am choosing to reflect on this week’s sermon. This weeks’s sermon was on Corinthians 6:12-20. Of all the readings from this week, I had silently bet myself a Benjamin that the female priest giving the sermons would choose any of the reading but this one as it dealt with fornication:
12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
The priest gave a rather touching and uplifting sermon that was about the sanctity of the human body. In short: our bodies are temples that are given to us by God. They are loved by him even when we believe them flawed. How we choose to use them should reflect our love and honor for Him. Touching on her own battles over the years with body image, the sermon crafted a lesson that loving our bodies was good, and that so was sex. Like I said, it was pretty great. And the way she put everything worked perfectly with the text.
Having read enough of Paul, however, I have some pretty heavy doubts that this was his intended takeaway.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt fairly sure that no matter where you stand on the degree to which sex is sinful, I think you can make this scripture work. Were you to map out all the degrees to which sex might be sinful, I think you can put a pin anywhere you want, and draw a circumference around it where everything in the circle is good and approved by God, and everything outside is wicked – and you can still make this scripture work.
Putting this together with my “competing lessons” from Samuel, I find myself wondering: Is this what you need to be a successful religion that can last for thousands of years? Do you need a text that allows for so much elasticity that as times, situations and people change the text can change too, while simultaneously remaining the same? I think this is highly possible, and in fact I think it might actually be the case. But this creates an obstacle for me in my search to believe. Normally my response to such an obstacle is to say “Yup, dead end.” But I’m trying hard now to find another response, one that can acknowledge this thought I have and still allow for belief. This is my best attempt:
Maybe there is indeed something Holy and Divine about our reading of scripture. But maybe we err in thinking that the Holy and Divine comes from the scripture. Maybe the Holy and Divine are in us. Maybe the “The Word” is just that – words. We could read the first 10 verses of Samuel 3, or the first 20. Or Revelations. Or the Torah, or the Quran, or the poems of Rumi. We look to these texts hoping to find God, and we do – not because God lives in the texts, or even that the texts are True. Maybe it is simply the act of searching for God that allows us to find him; scripture is simply a handy tool we use to seek him with.
I like this thought, especially because it immediately peels away all potential dogma that says this nice, kind and generous family will all go to Heaven, and this nice, kind and generous family will all go to Hell. That’s important to me, because if I’m going to get to a place where I actually believe, I’d like to believe in a God that I think deserves my worship.
There is one major, major flaw in this idea, however: I am seeking God, in scripture and elsewhere.
But I am not finding him.
I know how to read, and I know how to study, so figuring out the first two parts of my journey are easy to map out. But I do not know how to go out into the world with faith. So for this first week, I made an appointment with our church’s rector, or “head honcho priest.” He knows of my lack of belief, is amazingly well-connected in my city’s religious community (he often breaks bread with people that run every kind of house of worship you can imagine), and is by any standard a damn sharp cookie. So I met with him this weekend to ask, essentially, how can I fake it till I make it?
Our talk was long and fruitful, and I came away with four ideas of ways that I might try to go out into the world and walk with God right now – today! – before I even believed. I will be working on all of these over the next few months, and will talk about them as I experience them. For those that have other ways in which they go out into the world and walk with God, I welcome your insight as well. His four ideas were as follows:
1. “Find a group of people with various kinds of belief systems, and start a dialogue with them about God, faith and scripture.” (BTW: This is kind of where you guys come in.)
2. “Don’t limit yourself to just one church, see if another venue speaks to you more clearly. I think you might try the Unitarians.” (He recommended Unitarians for me specifically, though I’m not sure why. I suspect it might have been a kind of “yeah, they’ll take anybody” thing.)
3.“Even if you don’t believe in prayer, try it. See where it gets you, even if it isn’t where you think you want or need to go.”
4. “The best way we serve God is by serving others. Go out in the community and help those that need your help.”
So those are my marching orders.