Losing Religion, Finding Myself

biblesI worried that my father was going to hell.  It was his bad language. The third commandment clearly states, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” And sometimes he did. I was pretty sure Dad hadn’t broken any other commandment, but rules were rules. I, for one, did not swear. I followed rules, always.

When I annoyed my parents, which was fairly often, it was never out of defiance. It was always because I lived in my own dreamy world where I simply, continually forgot about everything else. So I lost things, left things on the bus, was untidy. Those were not sins mentioned in the Bible as I recalled. I figured I was safe.

Our family went to church occasionally, my mother more often, my father less so. My mother would tie my nickel for the collection plate in a small flowery hankie and tuck it into one of my short white gloves… so I wouldn’t lose it.

While our parents sat upstairs on the hard wooden pews, we’d be downstairs in one of the noisy rooms of Sunday school. Posters were tacked on the bare walls. As I recall, they were always variations of a kindly Jesus watching happy children playing ring-around-the rosie. One white child, one black, one native American, and one Asian. Flowers grew in green grass. Lambs frolicked.

Sunday school was boring, of course, but I was used to boring. Public school was boring too; at least on Sundays I got rewarded for one of my special talents, memorizing. Learn the 23rd psalm, get a bookmark.  Memorize the beatitudes. Get stickers. By the end of each school year, I’d have a collection of stickers, bookmarks, and posters and usually at least one more copy of the New Testament. Fifty years after I stopped going to church, I still remember all those verses.

Although always boring, church was mostly benign. We sang sweet hymns like “All things bright and beautiful” or “Jesus loves the little children” and a few that were just awful, like “Onward Christian Soldiers.” We learned very little except stories out of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John and a few stories from the Old Testament.

I loved Easter. We got dressed up in a new dresses, new straw hats with flowers. short white gloves, and patent leather Mary Jane shoes. We sat upstairs in the church, light streaming through the stained glass windows, the sermon upbeat, and the voices of the choir soaring with Hallelujahs.

We were United Church of Canada, the biggest Protestant denomination in Canada then and now. It’s a plain-minded church with liberal theology. No wine at communion. Lots of activities to help the unfortunate, lots of ecumenical outreach.

Or perhaps I should say I was Army camp/United Church. Mostly we went to the Protestant church on whatever army base we were living in at the time. Every base I lived on had two identical churches. One for Catholics. One for everyone else. The churches looked the same everywhere. The Protestant church served everyone who wasn’t Catholic. (Presumably that included Jews and anyone else with any other faith.)

The church was always plain enough to suit the United Church crowd. The minister was either United Church or Anglican (the second largest Protestant denomination in Canada). When the minister was Anglican, my mother would be in full blown fussy mode. She  strenuously objected to Anglican ministers who wore colored vestments instead of the austere black robe and white collar favored by the United Church. She objected to kneeling. But then again, my mother objected to a lot of things.

The fifties were still a time when children were seen and not heard—at least in my family. But each of us kids were processing what we were taught differently. My sister was challenging everyone; my little brother was ignoring most rules; my older brother was suffering from them; and I was trying to believe everything I was taught and obey all the rules. For it seemed to me, in my black and white world, that if you knew what was the morally right thing to do, you should always do it. And you should never do what was wrong.

As I got to be a teenager, it became complicated. I was glad I wasn’t brought up Catholic. I presumed that in order to be completely true to my faith, I would have to become a nun. But I still worried I’d have to be a missionary when I grew up.

I taught Sunday school as I got older.  I started reading lots of books on Christianity and books about every other major religion too. That habit would continue for many years.

The edifice of faith began to crack. I joined the church when I was fourteen. I remember I had to memorize the Apostles Creed. I scrutinized every word, every idea. A person who takes her religion seriously must know what she’s affirming a belief in.

Did I believe in the communion of saints or not? Come to think of it, did I believe in saints at all? I didn’t think we Protestants believed in saints. Why swear to words that didn’t apply?

The holy catholic church? The explanation was hazy though it was pointed out that catholic wasn’t capitalized. It was broad stroke catholic. It just meant everybody…or something.

The virgin birth. Did I really truly believe in a virgin birth? I had my suspicions.

Admittedly, I went to a liberal church, the Army-Camp-Mostly-United-Church. We were not asked to abandon reason or science at the door. We believed in evolution. We were encouraged to think of many bible stories as metaphors.

Jonah might not have been swallowed by a whale and survived.

Noah might not have taken two of every single animal on the face of the earth into the ark.

But the virgin birth? That seemed to be a key concept. What if I didn’t really believe it? What difference would it make?

pickupsticksMy ramshackle structure of belief started to fall apart. I couldn’t just pull out those beliefs that didn’t make sense to me. It was like pulling out sticks from a pile of pick-up sticks, without affecting anything else. 

The uptight, pompous, self-righteous girl that I was, went into a bit of a panic. At some point in high school, I reluctantly admitted to myself that I could not believe in the religion I’d been brought up on. 

I became a secretive, fervent, wretchedly unsettled agnostic. I would continue to search for a church for years. I would become almost happy enough in the Unitarian fellowship, but not quite.

I desperately wanted something to hang on to, some set of core beliefs: This is what I believe, this is what I will always believe. I set out to find or make my own core beliefs. Beliefs that I had to believe in or I would not be myself.

(A strange thing for a high school girl to be doing, but I was a strange girl.)

I came up with only two. Puny things I thought at the time. Puny things that I could not even define in any sophisticated way. Puny things that didn’t even logically hang together.

1. I believe in reason. If something strikes me as irrational or contrary to facts and science, I won’t accept it.

2.  People matter. Kindness matters. Tolerance matters.

I worried that I could not justify the second core belief from the first. But I could not abandon the second either. I hoped that over the years of my life, I would come up with a more intellectually sophisticated list.

I never did. Over the years I came to realize the limitations of both. I still believe in reason, but I know my own mind is limited.  I still believe in kindness and tolerance, but I am not always kind or tolerant, and I don’t know how to find the proper balance between being kind and standing up to the evil in the world.

But puny as they are, my beliefs have served me well enough for a half century. They will have to do. They are what I believe. They are what I will always believe.

One more thing…by now you’ve guessed that I no longer worry about the fate of my father. When I stopped believing in a personal God, I could stop believing in hell too.

copyright by Margaret French, May 2015