The church was on fire.
Not literally. But there was a heat and energy I simply could not comprehend, and I was just as afraid as if there were actual flames at the pulpit. Women in floral-print cotton dresses fanned themselves in the late-spring heat and waved their hands to the sky, many speaking in a language that was not exactly English. It was going on midnight, I was tired, and the scene I was witnessing showed no signs of stopping on that April Saturday when I went to my first, and last, Pentecostal revival. I was only ten, but I knew: my mother's faith was not going to be my faith. Her faith was scary.
That was her last revival, too. My mother was a fervent believer, but only a sporadic church-goer. The revival had been the suggestion of a friend, and Mom went, hoping to feel God's presence in her life, which had been a rather bleak existence while we lived in Knox County. When the revival ended, in the wee hours of a muggy morning, we did not speak much of it and we did not go to that church again. Instead, I talked to her about the bible stories I was reading in a book my grandmother bought for me from some travelling Jehovah's Witnesses and we prayed together when we felt we needed some extra help. And that's pretty much how things went for us for years: we tried different churches at the suggestion of our friends, either together or separately; we came up with a laundry list of reasons why we didn't like those churches; we slept in on Sunday mornings and simply talked to each other about God and prayed for each other instead. I loved my God with my whole heart but I did not need a church to tell me how to live a good life.
And all was well until I went to college, took a Philosophy of Religion class, and realized I didn't know what the hell I believed any more.
It was a lively class. I learned that several of my new college friends were agnostic, a term I had never heard before but which, when explained, made a lot of sense. It was wise, I thought, to admit that you don't know if God exists. Perfectly sane and reasonable.
And then I sat alone at my desk in the wee hours of the morning and found myself trying to write a paper arguing whether or not the arguments in a book we read called Atheism: The Case Against God were valid, and my own not knowing made me feel the exact opposite of sane and reasonable.
As I wrote myself in circles, discussing something I had just learned about called Occam's Razor without really discussing it, in that way college freshmen are wont to do, I saw my mother's disapproving face. I was basically saying the arguments in the book were valid, and I had nothing to come back on except that I believed in God because I just DID, damn it, and there was my lovely Christian mother shaking her head every time I closed my eyes to clear my head.
There were several camps in the discussions we'd had in class about this book. There were the Believers, with the most vocal among them being a guy who started every single comment he made with, "I always thought that..." He had been taught well in Sunday School, and he was sticking to every lesson he had ever learned about faith in his church basement. I admired him for this, because I was sore afraid of the other camp: the Non-Believers. They were the first people I had ever heard who openly admitted to not believing in a higher power of any sort. This even went beyond the Baha'i girl I knew at Governor's Scholars, who had totally rocked my WASP world. Their arguments against God were grounded in logic and reason and science, things I had previously been a really big fan of, but which I found myself hating ever so slightly because some in the class made it seem I had to choose between those things and God. And God and I, we had been pretty close up to that point.
Another camp were my agnostic friends, and they could argue from both sides because they didn't really have a dog in that fight. I sat with them and just nodded every time they opened their mouths, and hoped that by doing so the professor wouldn't actually call on me to have an opinion of my own. Because I was a part of the last camp: the quiet few who were so overwhelmed by all this passionate open-mindedness that we avoided eye contact with the teacher and thanked God/Supreme Being/Earth Goddess/Nothing that this was only a six-week course.
The night I hit my spiritual rock-bottom alone in my room writing my take-home final essay, I resigned myself to my new status: I couldn't find a logically false argument in the book called A Case Against God and therefore I was an atheist. (That shaky logic right there is why I didn't take another philosophy class in college.) I was about ready to call my mom and break this devastating news when I ran into a classmate, an upperclassman I had met through Jason's new fraternity, in the computer lab. He listened to several minutes of my spiritual existential angst and offered to take me to Spivey's, a 24-hour dive that specialized in hangover food for the very brave. He encouraged me to get the cheese sticks with my burger, listened to me beat myself up over my paper, told me not to give up on my faith just yet, and let me in on a surprising secret:
Our professor was an esteemed member of the congregation of the local Presbyterian church. The one right on campus.
Well. I would have bet money, based on what the good Doctor had said during class arguments, that he was on the Non-Believer side of the room. It occurred to me that maybe he was just trying to get those of us brought up in tent revivals, who had been taught that the Bible was the infallible word of God and that all truths were contained within, who had never actually met anyone who did not believe in the supremacy of the Judeo-Christian God, to...think. To actually sit down, hear the other side, and come up with a reason for our faith besides, "I always thought that..." and "Because my mother told me so."
What, exactly, DO you think about God? I asked myself. I know you want to believe. So do it. Write this final. Make an argument. And then let's put this whole thing behind us and continue to only go to church on Easter Sunday like all the other lazy Christians in your family.
Yet I went back to the lab, cracked my tired knuckles, and continued to write that I had to sort of agree with the author of the book because I could find no solid reason not to agree with him. Because it was 3am, I was tired, and I just wanted to pass the class and go home on break.
We filed into the classroom to turn in our finals and have one last class. I had come to peace with my struggles with the following statement, which I had thought right before my pre-dawn nap but had not put on paper:
I believe in God, a Supreme Being, something that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds us together--you know, like The Force. But I don't really know why. It's not because my mom does, or because I was raised that way. I believe...because I want to believe. And it's not logical. And it's not scientific. But I feel it's there. And that's faith--believing when everything and everyone around you points in the other direction. Because you have felt things you, personally, cannot explain otherwise. I could be wrong, though, so I will never push my beliefs on another and I will respect everyone's point of view. With God/Supreme Being/Earth Mother/Nothing as my witness, I shall never discuss religion again.
The professor finally came in and told us a story from some time he had spent in Africa studying tribal religions. This tribe teaches their children from a young age that the gods are out in the jungle, and that they are fearsome creatures. The children believe this because their parents and the elders all tell them so. Then, when the children come of age, the elders put on masks and costumes and take the children out into the jungle. They behave as the fearsome gods, and the children believe they are seeing their deities in all their awesome majesty.
And then the elders take their masks off, show that they've just been tribe members all along, and beat the crap out of the kids.
"I am afraid in this class I may have done this same thing to some of you," the professor said. He appeared to be almost crying. And he turned and left.
In retrospect, it's not surprising that I needed counseling that spring.
If I'm being completely honest, I still don't always know what I believe. On paper, I am a Catholic. After all those years of not knowing the nature of my own faith and having moments of agnosticism and something awfully close to atheism, I felt God's presence in a little Catholic church my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew attended. I converted and led quite a happy religious existence for several years.
But doubts do come, and the masks of the fearsome gods are stripped away, and I feel the sting of the elders' lashes against my spiritual backside.
It doesn't take much to rattle my faith. An example of Catholic hypocrisy here (you don't have to look real hard to find these, sadly), a "Where-was-God-when-this-happened" tragedy there. And I'm right back in that classroom, trying hard not to make eye contact with anybody.
Every so often, I come back to an online quiz a friend sent me several years ago that allegedly tells you what religion you truly are. I re-take it every time I have a crisis of faith. I've never expected Roman Catholic to be my first match; I love the serenity and beauty of the Catholic Mass, but only up to the point that the priest begins the homily by talking about the horrors of books in public school libraries that teach it's okay if Heather has two mommies. (True story. I know the church's stance on gay marriage, but do we have to attack school libraries while we're at it?) Yet my fairly consistent top-five religious matches make me wonder what, exactly, I am. Unitarian Universalist. Quaker. Buddhist. Even (gasp!) Neo-Pagan and New Age. Bring on the Yanni and Enya, kids. Apparently, I've gone granola.
Sunday night found me reluctantly going to a Vespers service, the first service I've been to since the homily that made me flush red with anger. The kid was asked to be a server, so off we went. It was a lovely service; there was no homily, just call-and-response and prayer and long moments of respectful silence led by the parish's newest priest, a Ugandan man whose speaking voice could bring peace to the Middle East. More of this, I thought, could get me firmly on the Believers side of the room. I like God best when people get out of His way.
And when the elders don't wear masks.