No Doubt

The mind inclined toward doubt is in for a rough ride in an evangelical childhood.  I recall vividly my many, many hours struggling against doubt, trying, crying, praying for certainty and faith.  Many, many dark nights of the soul.  Attending college and seminary I learned of the others in history who struggled the same way, or at least similarly.  I also learned that doubt is natural and healthy, it protects us from falling headlong into the many snares and traps the world continually sets for us.  Blind faith, as I recently quoted from Kurt Vonnegut, is dangerous to everyone.  I was thinking about this again the other day as there was something I fervently wanted to happen but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe would actually come to pass.  My mind isn’t built for blind faith.

Given that, it probably isn’t any surprise that I went into religious studies as a field, even though it’s a dead end.  I still believe it’s vitally important, but that’s a belief much of the world doesn’t share.  It’s one of the few fields of study where a doctorate leaves you without job prospects if you don’t get a teaching post, if you’re not ordained.  And should doubters be wearing clerical collars and preaching to those who want to believe?  Belief is malleable.  It changes over time and it does so via its constant interaction with doubt.  It leads to a life of second-guessing and constant reassessment.  I suppose that’s why I’m baffled to see politicians with less education being so cock-sure that they’re right about things.  I doubt they know what they’re talking about.

Institutions take on lives, like people do.  Although I disagree with the treatment of corporations as individuals by law, still, I understand the thinking behind it.  The church, for example, grew to be a very powerful force in the fourth-century Roman empire.  These collective individuals had vested interest in keeping that power as the church grew more and more influential.  That dynamic still exists where even a small, non-denominational group gathers and asserts that it alone is right.  All you have to do, it tells its members, is believe.  Don’t doubt.  And if you do doubt you’ll be excluded.  Exclusion is difficult to bear.  But even doubting Thomas has hundreds of churches named after him.  Each, no doubt, has many true believers as members.  And on the outside mingle the doubters.

Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.

Patriarchal Faith

One of the dynamics we see in present-day America is the worship of belief itself.  This is nothing new since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  It’s hard to trust in what you can’t see.  Trusting in trust may be tautological, but it’s also a natural development for something that evades proof.  If it goes too far, however, such religion becomes an idol.  Its teachings become secondary to its very existence.  Its rules, no matter how contradictory, must all be followed.  And those who believe are encouraged not to think too deeply about it since, if they did, this inherent inconsistency would be obvious.  The knee-jerk reaction of “the Bible says” is one such defensive measure.  I saw this all the time while teaching in seminary.

The other day I heard the melody of “Faith of Our Fathers” playing on the local church bells.  Interestingly, this is a Catholic hymn adopted by Protestants.  It’s kind of an anthem to this idea of worshipping the faith rather than the deity to which it points.  Consider the chorus: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith!/We will be true to thee til death.”  Originally a celebration of martyrs—those who found the courage to die in their steadfast belief—the hymn survives into an era when the perils besetting what used to be Christianity are less political and more scientific.  We live in a universe compellingly explained by science while politics has appropriated religion and counts on it to keep worshipping faith as an entity, regardless of distorted beliefs.  The hymn plays on.

Many public intellectuals are wondering about how evangelical Christianity could so easily divest itself of Jesus’ teachings and accept Trumpism.  Some have already begun to suggest that Trumpism is a “cult.”  (Religionists would say the proper term is “New Religious Movement,” since we no longer judge religions, no matter what forms of mind control they might prefer.)  The problem with experts on religion is that anyone can claim that sobriquet, bona fides or no.  Some of us have documented decades of official study of the phenomenon—those who paid attention in seminary and continued to pay for many years for a doctorate in this elusive field—but we’re are easily outshouted by those who take the words of this hymn literally, as they were meant to be taken.  Martyrdom comes in many varieties.  As I listen to the bells, I consider the implications.

Without Precedent

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a national treasure. So many of his Op-Eds make such unwavering good sense that it is difficult to believe he’s not a household name. His recent piece in the Miami Herald concerning Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he has cancer is a case in point. Many reporters would be quick to point to the tragedy since, although the Carter administration is generally undervalued, nobody would ever say that Carter is less than a true gentleman. Pitts, however, takes us deeper. He looks at this understated announcement in terms of faith. Faith, as he points out, in a world where it has taken on an unsavory, if not downright evil, flavor. We do indeed hear about faith that moves mountains, but it is with the power of fully fueled passenger jets. We hear about the faith that builds mega-churches while the homeless and hungry sleep in the city streets. Pitts is quite right, our faith requires a shot in the arm.


I sometimes wonder how we have come so far down what seems to be obviously the wrong road. Our religion has become a charade and it is used for people to get what they really want rather than to make the world a better place. I always thought true religion was putting others before yourself. Nothing like working in Manhattan to show you how totally off-base such sentiments might be. Jesus can sell books, but his teaching is definitely passé. Yesterday. Old-school (but not in the good way). We have faith in money because immortality, or at least the antidote for mortality, is readily for sale. There’s one born every second. This, we are told, is what gives life meaning.

Of the presidents who’ve retired, we generally hear very little. They sequester themselves and write their memoirs to gain even more money for themselves. Carter has been known to be out there building houses for the poor, living what presidents all say they believe when they ask us to cast our votes in their direction. I’ve always been proud that the first president I ever voted for was Carter. Of course, it was in the beginning of those recent Dark Ages known as the Reagan Administration, and I had voted for the underdog. My faith in the political system has been severely challenged since then. I have seen stolen elections treated as legitimate by those who can’t possibly do too much for themselves. And I remembered my first lowly vote given for a man who, perhaps more than any other, showed Americans their misplaced faith after he had been denied a second term in office. Although Pitts doesn’t say it, I can see it in his pen: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Trial and Error

DivinityOfDoubtI’m not a fan of true crime. It seems that daily life has enough drama for me without reading about the truly dark aspects of human behavior. Nevertheless, I appreciate those who spend their life taking on perpetrators of evil. I haven’t read any of Vincent Buliosi’s true crime books, but I was curious about how a famous trial lawyer would treat the question of God. Bulgiosi’s recent book, Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, is a glimpse into an active, agile mind that is innately curious about the issue of the divine. Neither believer nor atheist, Bugliosi makes a strong case for agnosticism. He has no time for the nonsense of many religious beliefs, and like a lawyer, won’t let shoddy excuses such as “it’s a mystery” justify unacceptable answers. Many Christians (especially) would find his unrelenting logic a little distressing. If we accept reason, he fairly demonstrates, the God of traditional Christian design is not possible. Still, he acknowledges that religion has very positive aspects.

Before the angry atheists can begin laughing, however, Bugliosi turns his sharp mind to the arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris to show how none of them really make a strong case for atheism either. He notes, as Dawkins does at one point, that proving the absence of God (or anything, for that matter) is not logically possible. There’s always the possibility that, beyond the edge of what you’re arguing, the object in question may lurk. Nevertheless, a strong case might conceivably be built, but Bugliosi declares that it hasn’t. Many atheists attack religion and think they’ve destroyed God. Not that Bugliosi is a friend of God. Indeed, to borrow a title from one of his nemeses, C. S. Lewis, he might have called his book God in the Dock.

Divinity of Doubt is one of those books that throws many questions open. Being an agnostic, of course, Bugliosi is fine with that. Although the book is enjoyable and thought-provoking, there are a few uneven parts. It is difficult to keep logical rigor at fever pitch continuously. Some, no doubt, will find his doubts about evolution puzzling. Others (or the same) may find his understanding of death a little under-developed. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read a clearly thought-out account of how the proof and disproof of God are equally problematic. Some things you just can’t know. Don’t say that it’s a matter of faith, however; Bugliosi won’t let you get away with that. At times funny, written with verve and wit, this account keeps the reader moving along, even though most people will find something to seethe at along the way. Don’t let it lead you to crime, though, because you wouldn’t want Bugliosi on the prosecution against you.

Sweet Something

SweetHeavenWhenIDieAs an observer of religion who always struggles to get published, I found a companion soul in Jeff Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between. Although the book is a collection of very disparate essays, it shows the subtle faces that religion frequently takes. We’re used to hearing religion described in bombastic terms, but Sharlet is more attuned to its soft rhythms than that. Yes, an essay or two may have a strident believer, but most of the faith found here is so deeply woven into the lives he examines that you might not even notice it was there had Sharlet not already warned you. Here is a man of no particular religious conviction showing us how it is—not judging, not ridiculing, not pandering. Religion, despite the gleeful proclamations of its detractors, is not likely to die out. It is more likely just to go unnoticed.

A number of the essays here gave me pause. In the first Sharlet notes of a friend, “She was fascinated by the thought that God was entitled to kill you at any time.” This friend is, of course, of Christian persuasion. I had never thought of the biblical paradox in that way before—divine entitlement. It is so like Job; the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Christianity, historically, comes with a whole cartload of guilt: not only is God entitled, but we deserve to be killed. The Christianity in which I grew up was explicit about this—we live on borrowed time. As a child I heard more than one evangelist thunder this good news. We really deserve to die. Once we are good and vulnerable, the preacher offers us a way out. Pass around the collection plate. God is entitled; I shall not soon forget that.

Toward the end of the book another of Sharlet’s interviewees declares that doubt is a calling. Again, the professional religionist is stunned. Many religions eschew doubt as somehow evil—wickedly questioning the divine. Doubters, however, seldom cause religious trouble. Those whose convictions lie deep and untested will burst open like a spring-loaded trap at various provocations. Those who survive are left to weep and wonder. The doubter, the friend of Thomas, does not seek to harm, but can’t live without discovering the truth. This is true religion.

There are any number of stories here of persons of various levels of faith conviction. You’ll find few clergy or specialists among them, but you’ll find a book whose honesty cannot be doubted. At points I struggled to find an implicit religious, or faith-based theme. It is there. You just have to listen. And trust that Jeff Sharlet will not lead you astray.

Substance of Faith

Every once in a very great while, faith is rewarded. I’m not talking about the faith that is bound up in black leather, inaccessible to realists who struggle daily to keep going. No, this particular faith is human based, based on my fellow citizens who saw it necessary to do the right thing. Although I have to rise before 4 a.m. to get to work, I tossed all night wondering what was happening at the polls. Obama’s reelection meant more to me than I guess I even realized. You see, I look at elections symbolically. Not as overtly black and white as Dark Vader and Luke Skywalker (neither candidate is pure good or evil), but I see that candidates stand for something. I don’t care what religion a president claims, but I do watch closely for what they value. Money, to my way of thinking, is not the way to build a society. Once in a while the rich need to be reminded that no, money can’t buy you everything.

Politics went off the rails when conservative religious issues were mingled with unfettered entrepreneurial aspirations during my formative years. God, I hope those days are over! People often vote with their emotions and studies have repeatedly shown that even conservative religionists like George W. Bush did not deliver a more productive, biblically literate nation after eight years of fumbling in the dark. The legacy was a national debt that should have been an embarrassment and a deeply polarized society. I was glad for the GOP nomination of Mitt Romney—it was a chance to test if the privilege of wealth had a chance of winning without the evangelical interests who see Mormonism as a “cult.” My faith in the American people paid off.

No, Obama’s first term was not a picnic, but every time I peeked, it sure looked like hard work was being done. Prolonged vacations to the ranch seemed to be a thing of the past. Difficult thinking was given a place in the nation’s capital again. If we want the one percenters to get the message, we must shout loudly. They live far, far above the rest of us in sound-insulated penthouses and never have to wait in line four hours just to buy gasoline. There is work to be done, and it has to start at the street level, if not below. This is faith. Quoting the Bible while bombing your enemies and protecting the wealthy elite is disingenuous in anybody’s ethical playbook. Thank you America for showing that giving in is not the only option. Tonight I will be able to sleep.

Movie by Faith

Yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger carried an article by film critic Stephen Whitty entitled, “Where script meets scripture: Recent films take a leap of faith.” The phenomenon he observes is that mainstream, big studio-backed film-makers are more and more turning to plots and scripts that emphasize faith. It is not always standard, revealed religion-type faith, but a belief that there is something else. Something beyond that with which our daily lives presents us. People are seeking, but traditional religions are having a hard time convincing them that they have the answers.

In a striking contrast, films that present a spiritual danger frequently revert to the stock image of a Catholic priest as the means of deliverance. When is the last time a Protestant exorcist took on a demon on the big screen? Torn though it is with its long and checkered history of imperialism, exploitation, and scandal, the Catholic Church with its obscure rituals is effective where the machinations of the Protestants are not. This too is a leap of faith, one that believes in the efficacy of ritual despite its origin or lack of scientific theory. Science provides a way of understanding the world that many people experience as cold and comfortless. Even many scientists choose simply to trust in what their spiritual guides teach them.

Over the weekend my wife and I watched Sleepy Hollow. It is an annual tradition; it is our October movie. In this film Tim Burton plays off the superstition of Sleepy Hollow – in fact real, in the movie – against the science of Ichabod Crane. In the end, Ichabod has to face the supernatural on its own terms in order to bring the world back to science. Having sent the headless horseman back to perdition, Crane once again returns to a New York City at the start of a new millennium, full of the optimism of science. It is the dilemma of the modern western world. People are tugged, torn even, in two diametrically opposed directions. Our experience leads us to believe in a “demon haunted world” while science placidly informs us that all can be explained. Movies do reflect the human outlook in many respects, and the end sequence has yet to be shot.