Two weeks ago was holy week for millions of Christians, the week believers celebrate the death of Jesus Christ because, according to the Bible, his death and resurrection assures them everlasting life as long as they have faith and follow a few other rules. Holy week along with Christianity in general hinges on suspension of disbelief. Every year during this time I thank my lucky stars ( as opposed to God) that my parents raised me to question everything, particularly authority and those selling religion in all forms.
Ironically, at the age of five I was enrolled in a private Lutheran primary school. My parents believed it offered a superior education to that offered by the public school system. The religious instruction intrinsic to the curriculum was something that my mother averred would give me a good foundation "on which to determine my own set of beliefs."
The majority of my classmates came from devout Lutheran Missouri Synod homes -- read "strict" and "spare the rod spoil the child." They attended church every Sunday along with Sunday School, Summer Bible School and Bible Camp, and belonged to something called Junior Fellowship. They prayed before meals, knew how to pledge allegiance to the cross as well as the flag and owned clothes that were reserved specifically for church. Before my first day of Kindergarten I had only attended holiday church services at the local Presbyterian church. My mother liked to sing in choir there and twice a year, for Christmas and Easter, she made my brothers and I go because, I now have figured out, she liked the theatricality of the ritual of religion and wanted us to get a glimpse of it. We regularly attended the "real" theatre, much more regularly than church, and so I often felt while sitting there in my good clothes on the hard wooden pew "why would anyone go to church to sing or be entertained when the theatre was right across the street?"
Don't get me wrong, my mother had religion. Or perhaps more specifically, she had spirituality that was rooted in romanticism. She wanted to believe that something was holding it all together and that whatever that something was had the best in mind for her and those who orbited around her.
By seventh grade my science teacher, Mr. Grothaus, had dubbed me "Ms. Depth" because I dared to ask questions about Darwin's theory of evolution, the Big Bang and Einstein's time/space continuum. These were taboo topics in a school that held the mission to provide a Christian based education. Luckily, Mr. Grothaus was open to the idea that his God may have created the world but it was our guess as to how. As a result our class did discuss the possibility that God created the firmament with a big bang, or that the Universe he created was so vast and complicated it was beyond our imaginings.
My real conflict with the church became apparent when I began to investigate Eastern thought around eighth grade. During that time my mother had encouraged me to take confirmation classes at the Presbyterian church in order to counterbalance the instruction I was receiving on the catechism in my everyday religion class at school. Presbyterians are a very heady group. They investigate, they analyze, they discuss. In confirmation classes we took field trips to places of worship outside the Christian fold. We attended services at a Jewish Synagogue, an Islamic Mosque, a Hindu Temple, a Buddhist Temple, and Unitarian, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian Churches. In some regards it was like being taken to shop for your first car - take a close look at all the deals, test-drive, figure out in which vehicle you seem most comfortable.
Without a doubt, I came out of the several weeks of investigation feeling like I most belonged with the Buddhists, Hindus or Unitarians. I gravitated to their shared belief in something like Karma - that human intention is at the heart of salvation. A life lived with the intention of growth, learning and spiritual development is rewarded not only in this lifetime but also, if you believe in an afterlife or many lifetimes, in the next. The salvation is found within, not without.
In fact, I began to even think about humanism as a very possible theory, that collectively we human beings comprise God. We have the power within us to do great things or destructive things.
Needless to say, my new found openness to Eastern philosophy was not exactly popular with my Lutheran school teachers. One day we were discussing the New Testament book Matthew and a passage about the prophet Elijah that could be construed to mean that Elijah and John the Baptist were one in the same via reincarnation. My religion teacher did not construe it that way, but my mind went down the road of most resistance every time. I, unabashed, raised my hand and asked, "does this mean that reincarnation exists in the teachings of the bible?" The silence that followed was deafening. Then the requisite response, "No. Absolutely not."
That moment was indeed life altering for a few reasons. One, I found that I was strong enough to pose what I knew was a highly unpopular question in a room full of people who, with a few exceptions, did not think like I thought. The moment also illustrated a general hubris I have since seen exhibited by many, though not all, Religious leaders. How, after all, could any one venture to believe they knew, beyond a doubt, absolutely, how to interpret the Bible or any other religious tome other than God, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, him/herself? And finally, I realized that I was not willing to take no for an answer, so I raised my hand again and asked, "so then what DOES it mean, exactly?" A satisfying answer was not found that morning or on any morning since.
To be honest, I have read that same passage in preparation for writing this blog and, despite it being used again and again by believers in reincarnation to prove that reincarnation exists, I find that while it may elicit the idea of reincarnation it is a vague illustration at best. That said, who are WE to say?
The question for me becomes, how do I, an Agnostic, encourage my two small boys to be open-minded about religion without discouraging them by my non-religion? My husband and I questioned whether or not to Baptize them. Neither one of us wanted to appear hypocritical given the fact we do not nor do we intend to regularly attend religious services. The rite of Baptism, however, was so overwhelmingly important to certain members of our family that in the end we Baptized them in the Presbyterian Church I attended as a child and where my Mother had sung in choir. At least the Presbyterians will be open to taking them on a whirlwind tour of Mosques, Churches, Synagogues and Temples someday. Until then, I tell my boys often "don't be afraid to question everything and everyone."