Talks with Pauline

Grandpa and Great Grandpa, Church of Christ preachers
I’ve been blessed of late to make a new friend, Pauline, the chaplain who is teaching my class entitled “Grief, Loss, and Peace.” I never anticipate becoming friends with clergy because they’re spread too thin socially, but Pauline has shown herself open, and I have responded in kind. In what you are about to read, I only quote from her last letter in order to introduce my own thoughts, and this makes it appear that she had little to say when, in fact, she had a great deal to say, but to quote it all would double the size of this post.

PAULINE: “I wondered how God could possibly exist. After living with that question for the better part of the year, I decided that it was impossible for God NOT to exist.

ME: Perhaps you’ll agree that God’s existence isn’t something that a person can give convincing proof for, which makes belief a matter of personal experience or the acceptance of authority. As for myself, the more I thought about the same question, the less likely God’s existence seemed. First, there was the absence of evidence, and second there were the contradictions between the universe being governed by a God of love and the misery which surrounds us. Father Brent says that he never experiences God, yet he’s both devout, and attentive to living a life of love and giving. Since the only way I could believe in God would be through personal experience, I can’t understand how someone like Brent carries on.

PAULINE: That year taught me that God is playful with a sense of humor!

ME: I’m astounded by your claim that God could laugh while so many are suffering, many of them due to God’s failures. After all, God could speak to us from the sky or within our hearts in such a way that we would all know what was expected of us, but God didn’t, so even as I write, there are people who are killing and torturing other people in order to please God! Surely, a good God would want to correct this situation, and wouldn’t find laughter appropriate in the face of suffering that he caused and could easily eliminate. Being God, God could make a world in which everyone enjoyed everything that was good without anyone ever experiencing anything bad.

PAULINE: I was in a Baptist college feeling rebellious about God, and, the dorm girls elected me to be their chaplain.

ME: I’ve been a chaplain in lodges, and since I grew up with good men who were ministers, I still have a slight regard for the ministry that I don’t believe is justified by the evidence. I have a similar respect for medical doctors, although I’ve seen enough of them to know that they’re like the people in every other trade or profession in that half of them are, by definition, below average. It’s people who warrant respect, not their job descriptions, and I no longer believe that most ministers are either good people or good ministers. Still, a good minister is a blessing that is to be cherished and supported even by me, an atheist.

PAULINE: Now, I see faith as that which allows the head to accept what the heart knows.

ME: I am honored that you share this, but please understand that our views are very different and are likely to remain so. In particular, this statement makes no sense to me since those who say it so often contradict one another. If God communicates through people’s “heart,” then surely the hearts of believers would be as one.

PAULINE: And since I was 7 years old, I did indeed "know in my heart" that Jesus, that God, loved me.  Even when my intellect doubted and put God on trial.”

ME: I never knew such a thing, although I wanted to know it. My earliest memories of God are of cowering under the bed to get away from him after a fire and brimstone sermon. On one occasion, Dad and I stayed home from church and were playing checkers while a hard rain fell outside, and I became convinced that God was going to drown us for skipping church. When I was twelve, I cursed God for not revealing himself to me, became convinced that I had committed the unpardonable sin, and lived in morbid fear throughout most of my teen years. My thoughts of God were a mixture of terror and hatred, and the less I believed he existed, the more the hatred could appear. My sister, Anne, still thinks that it’s not God in whom I don’t believe, but rather the cruel and depraved God of my childhood, but this is not true because the reality I see around me leaves no room for any just and compassionate deity.

PAULINE: Now -- I firmly hold that God is love.  Pure love.  And that when this life is over, we'll discover that he loves all people so much that no one will be exiled to that place called "hell".

ME: There is no way that a deity can make up for injustice on earth except to not allow that injustice to occur. In other words, if a child is subjected to war and starvation, lives a life of hopelessness and terror, and dies at age seven from malnutrition, sarin gas, or a barrel bomb, there’s no way to make that right because it never should have happened. Yet, this is not what the Bible teaches. God allowed Satan to take everything from Job, but since God gave Job more than he originally had, justice was supposedly done, but justice would have required that Job never would have suffered. God’s view is like that of our judicial system in which if someone kills your child, the court might award you a huge financial settlement, but this isn’t justice, it’s the replacing of something of supreme value with something of far lesser value. Perhaps, you believe that suffering comes with a lesson, but if God is indeed all-powerful, he could instill us with every lesson he wants us to know, but without causing us to suffer. It’s also true that suffering doesn’t always come with a lesson, and while it can strengthen a person, it can also break and destroy him, this through no fault of his own. Christians are fond of saying that God never gives us more that we can handle, yet people blow their brains out everyday because they can no longer bear their misery; and what lesson is learned by a toddler whose short life consists of sexual torture followed by death with a blowtorch (a man in Cottage Grove was recently arrested for burning a three-year old's genitals)? How can the concept of a truly good and all-powerful God be reconciled with injustices so enormous that a person is rendered speechless upon hearing of them?

PAULINE: Even in my teen years, I felt set apart by God, for God.

ME: I just felt mad, yet I tried desperately to believe because I so wanted to replace my hatred of God with love. I prayed fervently for something, anything, that would allow me to believe. With my eyes closed, I would open my Bible and point to a verse that I hoped would constitute a message, but I so rarely hit upon a verse that  applied to me that I couldn’t trust it when one did, and so I only became more cynical. I often walked to a graveyard near my house and prayed to a large concrete statue of Jesus, but I never felt God’s presence. No matter what I did, he wasn’t there for me. Still, I preached sermonettes, and I even improvised a pulpit in my backyard, decorated it with wisteria, and preached to the neighborhood kids. I accompanied preachers on revivals to distant states; studied my Bible thoroughly; and built my social life around the church. When I got to college, I took classes in Bible and theology; visited over 50 denominations and one synagogue in my search for one that I could believe in; and went door-to-door with some Jehovah’s Witnesses who were trying to start the area’s first Kingdom Hall (my Church of Christ preacher put an end to that). Yet, after age eleven (when I read that God commanded the Israelite army to commit murder and rape), my faith was at best hovering over the toilet, and much of the time, it was desperately struggling to climb out of the toilet.

ME: On one occasion, I optimistically tried to liberate the Church of Christ by writing essays for its newsletter, but my essays weren’t printed, and when I stopped attending church at age nineteen, no one asked why I left, and people who had been my lifelong friends would glare at me without speaking when we chanced to meet. Yet, what had I done but to give up trying to believe that God gave a rip as to whether the Church of Christ used a piano, or baptized by immersion, or had weekly communion, or forbade women to speak in church? I likewise gave up the belief that God would send all of us to an eternal fiery hell if we got even the tiniest commandment wrong, there being nothing trivial to the Church of Christ. Any deviation from its teachings was said to come from the sin of willful rebellion, the very sin that Satan committed and had caused a war in heaven. As the Church of Christ saw it, there were but two ways: its way (which was God’s way) and the road to eternal hell, with nearly everyone on earth choosing the latter because they were in league with Satan and therefore in rebellion against the commandments of the “Most High,” commandments so simple that “even a child could understand them.”

ME: Your belief that God has a sense of humor is appalling to me in light of the way his people have treated me. I was once struck on the head when I wouldn’t stand when the district attorney led the Grand Jury that I was on in prayer, and I’ve also been cursed and had people flip me the bird because I didn’t worship their God of love. I also know of people who have been run out of their homes because they were atheists, yet the worst that we suffer in America is nothing compared to atheist bloggers in the Middle East being beheaded, hacked to death with machetes, or imprisoned for decades, this for writing things that were less critical of religion than what I have written for years. I never have much confidence that the day won’t come when I too might be in danger, and that day draws nearer every time a Republican is elected to office because Republicans would take their version of sharia law and impose it on us all.

ME: In a sense, the entire human race is in Auschwitz. Sure, most of us—in this country anyway—have enough to eat, yet we are surrounded by misery and death, in the presence of which Christians would hold that the love and guidance of their Supreme Being is available to anyone who asks for it, but for how many decades is a person expected to ask when he gets absolutely no answer regardless of how desperate he becomes? If God is such a great lover that he personally died for us (that’s a hard one to get my mind around!), why doesn’t he love and guide me, and why doesn’t he tell those millions of fanatical Moslems that he really doesn’t approve of honor killings, genital mutilation, car bombs, gas attacks, the rape of “spoils of war,” and knife beheadings on YouTube? Do those who do these things not also think they’re under the guidance of God?

ME: My first college was run by Independent Methodists, and most of the Methodist students planned to go into the ministry, but they weren’t necessarily religious, so I got along with everyone. We had compulsory chapel, and there would often be an invitational given, so I would regularly go down to the altar to renew my “dedication to Christ.” Dr. Howard, my theology professor would always meet me there, and look disappointed because he could see in my eyes that I didn’t believe. No matter how much I wanted to believe, I couldn’t, yet Dr. Howard blamed me for my unbelief, but what was behind his disappointment? Was it that I couldn’t get God’s “plan for salvation” right, or because I didn’t want to believe badly enough, or because I committed the “unpardonable sin” at age twelve and was eternally damned? Clearly, he—like my former blogger friend, Joseph—felt that I was to blame for not believing because that’s what he had to do in order to maintain his own beliefs. Joseph could only hurt me because no matter how hard I tried to communicate the truth about myself, he, like Dr. Howard, didn’t believe me because he couldn’t allow himself to believe me without throwing his own beliefs into doubt. Like Dr. Howard, he said I was too proud and too arrogant to open my heart to God, and he continued to maintain this no matter how desperately and for how long I told him that I wanted to believe. His position was tantamount to calling me a liar, and when he said that he thought that people like myself shouldn’t be allowed to spread “atheist lies,” I pictured him holding a machete, death being the only sure way to silence people like myself. The faith that you obtained so easily, I have spent decades trying to achieve, and I simply can’t do it. This raises, in my mind, the question of how you can.

ME: I can but assume that, for whatever the reason, there is something different about the brains of believers versus those of nonbelievers because how else can people believe so strongly in that for which they cannot offer a smidgen of evidence, and which seems utterly absurd to people like myself. Rationally speaking, I cannot see the difference in believing in Jesus and believing in leprechauns. Sure, a lot more people believe in the former than in the latter, but this suggests nothing to me regarding the reality of the former.

PAULINE: Those were the years (1969-early 70's) when culture was fascinated with transcendentalism and the metaphysical, and the simplicity of "hippy" life.”

ME: I read Alan Watts and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass, in the hope that, even if I couldn’t be a Christian, I could at least be something, but it all rang so hollow to me that I was eventually forced to admit that I was only pretending to believe any of it.

PAULINE: I resented for many years the judgmentalism of the Baptist tradition in which I was raised.

ME: What kind of Baptist were you? In my area, nearly everyone was Southern Baptist with most people who weren’t Southern Baptists being Church of Christ (my church) with the role-call of churches going downhill from there. The C of C was more conservative than the Southern Baptist, and even taught that the Baptists (along with everyone else on earth who didn’t belong to the Church of Christ) were going to hell because “they followed the ways of men instead of the clear commandments of the eternal God.” Since it was Baptists who controlled the elections in Mississippi, it was Baptists who didn’t repeal prohibition until I was finishing high school (I never actually graduated), and it was Baptists who, at the same time they voted for prohibition, allowed bootleggers to sell their wares openly right there in town. The advantage—or so it seemed when I was a teenager—of bootleggers was that they didn’t care who they sold to, so every weekend, my young friends and I would go to some bootlegger’s house, tell him how many fifths we wanted (the bootleggers in my area didn’t make moonshine; they imported brand name liquor from Louisiana), and then drive around, drunk out of our minds. The next day, I wouldn’t remember who I had been with; I would just observe that my car was filled with empty bottles and puke. I don’t know how many young men—and one young woman—died in car wrecks while I was in high school in that “sleepy Southern town” town of 12,000 people. Many of these kids died drunk, yet no effort was ever make to clean the town of white bootleggers—the black ones didn’t fare so well. Such were the values of Baptists.

PAULINE: My folks were not so rigid, fortunately.

ME: Mine weren’t either. My mother feared God so much that she wanted to think of herself as religious, but she only attended church sporadically and took no interest in anything related to religion. My father flip-flopped between being religious and being an atheist. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade because he wouldn’t let a teacher spank him for fighting, so his reading skills were poor, but I can picture him sitting up in bed at night, running his finger along the page and mouthing the words as he struggled to make sense of his King James Bible. Dad was morbidly shy, a transexual and a trans-dresser before it was cool, had a personality disorder, had severe anger issues, and possessed few social skills, all of which left him socially isolated despite his pathetic efforts to make friends. My father’s life alone is reason enough to reject the concept of a compassionate God, because Dad surely never received compassion from God or from Christians, but was instead met with scorn, rejection, and loneliness. He finally became so weird around religion that he would tell Peggy and me over breakfast (he came to live with us when he could no longer live alone) what God had told him during the night. He then started giving cards to strangers that contained his name and address, and identified him as a “Prophet of God.” He told everyone to whom he witnessed that they were to come to our house if they needed anything (we immediately told him that we weren’t okay with that, so he stopped doing it).

ME: Dad’s second biggest problem regarding religion (I’m coming to the first) was that he decided that God favored the King James version of the Bible and would send anyone to hell who didn’t use it. To convey this important message, Dad would interrupt services in the various Churches of Christ he visited, and tell them that God wanted them to throw away their other Bibles. This made him instantly unwelcome since these churches had no compassion for the mentally ill, at least for the ones who couldn’t keep their mouths shut. What he did that brought Peggy and me the most pain was to enter sweepstakes, and be informed by God that he had won. When he didn’t win, he would explain that God had postponed him getting the money because he had failed to persuade the Church of Christ to use the King James Bible.

PAULINE: Having friends who are "open-minded theologians" who believe God will gather everyone into his kingdom…

ME: I know that there are Christians whose hearts are open to atheists, but my experience has been that those who are open to religious views other than their own nearly always maintain that atheists are undeserving of anything more than a brief and awkward show of politeness. This has created in me a suspicion of religious people because I don’t always see their bigotry until I’ve known them for awhile. For instance, it’s not uncommon for atheists to hear such things as, “You’re not like other atheists,” or “You’re too sensitive to be a real atheist,” this from people whom the atheist had considered a friend. To understand how such things feel to atheists, substitute the word black for the word atheist: “You’re not like other black people,” or “You’re too sensitive (or intelligent) to be all black.” Such statements are also why I so value those few religious people with whom I’ve been friends for a long time. I can accept a certain amount of suspicion on their part, but I also need to trust that, if I hang in there, they will eventually see me as a person and not a hated category. Sometimes, as with my blog friend, Joseph, I end up feeling like a moron because I gave someone my trust. I tell myself that I should have seen it coming, and that I should be more careful next time; basically that I made a mistake that requires me to hold religious people at arms’ length until I’ve known them for a very long time. Such feelings are like poison, but they’re impossible to dismiss because no one likes to be kicked in the teeth because he opened his heart to someone who claims to worship a God of Love, but is not himself loving except to those who agree with him.

PAULINE: I often find that even the most "dogmatic" often have holes in their armor, vulnerabilities, doubts, and woundedness that they try to hide.

ME: I wonder which religious people are more solid in their faith, the hardcore dogmatists or the liberals. It’s often true that those who profess the most rabid hatred for gay people score highest on tests of homoeroticism. In the case of religious dogmatists, could it not be that their rigidity is likewise built upon a fear of finding within themselves the very thing they most hate; and that in persecuting those who disagree, they’re really trying to destroy their own doubts? I suspected as much of Joseph, because no matter how hard I tried to reach him, he never came a hair’s width closer to understanding anything about me. I reflected that, since he had said that his primary reason for belief is that he couldn’t face life without it, he had strong grounds for closing himself off from me, although doing so implied weakness rather than strength, this from a man who described himself on one occasion as a wall and on another as a rock.