We begin in Ohio, where I was a middle school science teacher. I was 30 years old, living alone, and I was bored. Bored to death. Or almost to death.
What had begun as an exciting career teaching biology to thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds had deteriorated, over the course of nine years, into a depressing mess. I know some of you have wonderful careers that continue to inspire and excite you, year after year. And I’m quite happy for you. But you are definitely in the minority. I was not so fortunate, and I know many of you are in the same boat I was.
By the time I reached the age of 30, I was done with teaching. Or at least teaching science. I had lost my passion for it. I was still curious about it, but not passionate. Not enough to get up at 5:30AM every day and make my way to a classroom full of tired teenagers who didn’t give a crap about science. It was fine in the beginning, but nine years later it came to be a chore. A miserable chore.
As my enthusiasm for my career faded, I found myself more and more drawn to history and philosophy and religion. Perhaps I was looking for answers, or a new interest to pursue. I really can’t say for sure. And I found the whole thing odd at first, because I had all but abandoned religion as a teenager, and I had never taken any interest in history before. Yet there I was, avidly reading books about every religion under the sun.
I said in the previous chapter that I stopped going to church when I was sixteen. But up until then I had been a rule-following, card-carrying Christian. I attended Sunday school every week and was involved in church outings, youth activities, the whole gamut. For my family, and for many other families, church was a big part of our social life. Not our entire social life – there were still neighbors, friends, and family. But an active church life brought about constant interaction with others of similar faith, of similar perspective.
God and Jesus Christ were there every Sunday, a fixture in my reality. And all of that was well and good until my teenage years arrived. But once I began to question things, many aspects of that stable church life fared poorly. They didn’t hold up very well against an angst-filled, disillusioned young person looking for something real to hold onto. All that church stuff went out the window when teenage reality began to kick in.
In amongst the arguments with parents, the confusion of girls, the lure of doing something different and exciting with the guys, Jesus was nowhere to be found. Quite frankly, he seemed kind of boring by contrast.
How is some nice guy preaching barefoot to a bunch of ignorant people two thousand years ago supposed to be relevant to a 16-year-old whose only priority is sneaking out of the house late Saturday night to share a few cans of beer that his buddy managed to steal from his dad’s fridge without getting caught?
Jesus had no relevance to me and my friends at that time. He was never mentioned, and if one of us had brought him up it would have been awkward and out of place. True, I still attended youth group meetings on Sunday evenings from time to time, but my friends in youth group were almost as mischievous as my non-church friends. All in all, religion served no role in my life at that time, and I eventually stopped attending church altogether.
One of the things that bothered me about church was the fact that no one questioned anything. Everything was to be accepted and believed, never questioned. I would often wonder how people could possibly believe that the dialogue quoted in the scriptures happened exactly as it was written. Every word. The pastor would quote scripture and then proceed to analyze the quote word for word, as though there had been someone there writing down every single word, and those words had somehow made it through two thousand years and multiple translations without being altered in any way.
Really? I doubted it. And to look around and see all the people in the congregation listening intently and believing everything they were told, something felt wrong about it all. How would those people know if they were told something that was incorrect? They wouldn’t. They were in believing mode. Everything the pastor said must be true. Everything written in the Bible must be true. The whole thing bothered me.
Nobody questioned anything. Growing up, I was told what was true, what to believe. No one ever said, “Think about it, Harry, and decide for yourself.” Never. Not once. It was always, “This is the truth, believe it. This is the word of God, believe it.” No one ever questioned anything. And that bothered me to no end.
Let’s take the Santa Claus issue as an example. We’re told growing up that Santa comes down the chimney while we sleep on Christmas Eve and delivers presents to all the good girls and boys. And if we question the logistics of that (such as the fact that people living in apartments have no chimneys), we are given some excuse and dismissed as if it were no big deal. No big deal? My parents are telling me something that I know is wrong, is untrue, and yet there they are, the most trustworthy people in my life (supposedly) telling me otherwise.
Perhaps I was scarred from the whole Santa thing, who knows. But by the time I began to question what the church was telling me, I had grown accustomed to doubt. I kept my doubts to myself, however, because no one else around me was questioning anything, at least to my knowledge. So I gradually detached myself from the church experience, paid less attention during services, and finally, at the age of sixteen, stopped attending church altogether.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who question things, and those who don’t. I was the former, surrounded by the latter. And that is no easy position to be in, I assure you. Not only do you miss out on the comfort of believing what everyone else does, but you have no one else to share your perspective with. You are either ignored or thought of as weird. And you tend to feel alone. At least I did.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because it was another one of my patterns. The biggest, in fact. The one that would eventually culminate in my confrontation with God. Religion tends to instruct you to worship God, to follow His laws, to stay on His good side. Well, that approach never worked for me. First of all, I didn’t see such laws as God’s laws, I saw them as man’s laws, attributed to God. I didn’t see some big hand extending down from the sky and writing His laws with a 40-foot fountain pen. No way. These were man’s laws. I saw that clearly. But no one else did.
As far as worship goes, who was I suppose to be worshipping? God, I was told. Well, who’s that? Where is God? God is everywhere. Really? Where? Show me. But no one ever could.
No one knew. As far as the Christians in my life were concerned, worshipping God was a matter of praying, attending church, reciting creeds, participating in communion. Those kinds of things. They were things you did. I wanted to understand God, but all I was told was what to do. As if having a relationship with God was all about doing things. And that never felt right. Whoever and wherever God was, I was pretty sure He would be more interested in what was on the inside than what was on the outside. Once again, I was questioning things. And once again, no one else was.
One thing that really bothered me was this idea that God was to be feared. That God sometimes grew angry. That God would punish you for your sins. Why would God give me the ability and even the tendency to sin, and then punish me for doing so? What kind of God would do that?
Why would God give me free will and then punish me when I used it the wrong way? How much sense would that make? Not a lot, to me. But no one else saw any problem with that. It was the way things worked. It said so in the Bible.
So that was my teenage experience with God: I wanted to understand, and that required me to question. But no one else was questioning anything, presumably because they weren’t actually trying to understand. They just wanted to make sure they were doing it right. Believing the right things, reciting the right creeds, praying the right way. Got to get into heaven, you know? Got to be on God’s good side.
But what about the other religions? They’re not saying the same creeds. They’re not affirming the same things. They’re not accepting Jesus as their savior. What about them? What about the primitive cultures around the world who have their own spiritual beliefs? Are they out of luck? Oh, that one bothered me. I came back to it over and over again: If one had to accept Jesus as one’s savior in order to get into heaven, did that mean that those who never heard of him were kept out?
No one had an answer for me. No one even seemed to care. It was like everyone was asleep, and only I was awake. I wanted to wake everyone up, but nobody would budge. Glassy eyes. But steadfast in faith.
If being on God’s good side meant accepting what you were told, never questioning anything, then something was amiss. Either God was more like a human than anyone cared to admit - petty and controlling, just like us - or the image we had of God was all wrong.
I went with the latter. And I’m glad I did.