Peggy served as a principal of a public elementary school for several years and would occasionally be confronted by people who wanted to limit what their children were being taught. One day a man stomped into her office infuriated that his child had picked up a book on dinosaurs at the school library. She calmly asked what the problem was. After all, most children are fascinated with dinosaurs.
“Dinosaurs,” he told her with barely controlled rage, “are not in the Bible. They never existed. My child is not going to learn about dinosaurs.” Apparently Peggy was to immediately remove all books on dinosaurs from the library and to instruct all of her teachers that they could not teach about dinosaurs.
She opted out. “I can’t dictate what you teach your child at home,” she explained. “It is also your right to pull your child out of this school. If he remains here, however, he is going to learn about dinosaurs.”
Limiting the flow of information has been a powerful form of control over what people think for thousands of years. Political, social, and economic dominance have all been maintained by controlling access to knowledge. Religions have historically used a similar approach in influencing what people believe. The anti-dinosaur man is a modern example.
In 1961 I picked up a Barnes and Noble book on comparative religion and learned about Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. I caught a glimpse of how much our great monotheistic religions are based on earlier belief systems or mythologies. The strong religious convictions of my teenage years began to crack. Studying history didn’t help. In reading about the Roman Empire, I learned that the nature of Christ’s divinity was determined by vote at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in a bare knuckled political battle, not the most holy of environments. My rock that was Peter made a dramatic shift and relocated itself to an active fault zone.
So, I stopped going to church.
One day I ran into Father Baskin, my minister at the Episcopal Church. I liked him and his family. He had been a photographer and was well into adulthood before deciding to become a priest. His wife, a joyful, hug-you-on-sight type of woman, had grown up with a missionary family in pre-communist China. They had two sons slightly younger than I was.
“Curt, we’ve missed you at church,” Father Baskin jump-started our conversation. “Is something wrong?”
“Well, Father,” I stammered as my mind scrambled for excuses, “I’ve been having a slight problem with original sin, virgin birth and resurrection.”
“Ah, that,” he responded knowingly. “May I share something that might help?”
“Of course,” I replied, preparing myself for a lecture on the importance of having faith.
“I don’t accept everything in the Bible as the literal truth either,” he said in a low tone that caught me off guard. I half expected lightning to strike or at least candelabra to fall over. “But,” he went on, “I do believe that the Bible and its stories point us toward a deeper understanding of God and the meaning of Christianity.”
Wise words: they could be applied to all of the world’s great religious writings. Deeply inspired visionaries strive to understand and explain their visions within the context of their cultures and personal experience. Disciples then come along to interpret and reinterpret the messages to keep them relevant, reflect their own inspiration, maintain control over the flock and win converts. Divine revelation and practical considerations walk hand in hand. We end up with metaphorical truths that point us toward the original source of the vision. And we end up with religions, the keepers of the metaphorical truths.
Unfortunately, it is hard to sell a metaphorical truth, even to our selves. A Christ walking on water and granting everlasting life is infinitely more satisfying and reassuring than a Jesus struggling with the nature of his humanity. This is where faith and miracles enter from stage left. When I walked through the door of the Church, I would still be expected to profess my belief in virgin birth and resurrection. Modifying the Nicene Creed to fit my sophomoric understanding of theology was not an option.
Even if I managed to silently slip in the word metaphorical, I still had original sin to deal with. I could accept the fact that I was petty, dishonest, and wrong at times— that I needed forgiveness. But I couldn’t accept that I was inherently sinful or evil. Since we are 98.8 % chimpanzee, genetically speaking, what seemed sinful to me was to blame Eve (woman), or even the snake, for our monkeying around in the Garden. Father Baskin’s wise words gave me much to think about, but I wasn’t ready to rejoin the flock.
While I was learning about Christianity’s connection to mythology, I was also learning about Crusades, Jihads, Inquisitions, and various other ‘Holy’ wars. Doing unto others in the name of God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. seemed close to a commandment. For all of the good religion had done down through the ages, and there is a great deal, it had also been a factor in much of the world’s violence and intolerance. I came to the conclusion that there was a fly in the ointment, a fatal flaw in religion that may yet bring about the Armageddon that so many fundamentalists believe in. This flaw is tied to two of religions most powerful driving forces: the concepts of exclusivity and faith.
Exclusivity in religion is tribal theology. It is the belief that there is only one way to pass through the Pearly Gates and that our particular brand of religion holds the key. It gives us special status. One doesn’t have to travel very far down this road to assume that other people are less blessed or even evil. Exclusivity can be used to justify wealth, dominance, missionary zeal, Holy War and almost any other thing we want it to.
The idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise being would have a chosen people seemed like a contradiction in terms to me. That He would send these people out to kill in His or Her name was inconceivable. Exclusivity appeared like one more human rationalization, a clever ploy to recruit members, fill coffers, and benefit specific groups at the expense of others. Limiting interpretation of ‘God’s Word’ to selected people and adding unquestioned faith to the equation created a recipe for power and control that was far too tempting to ignore and, unfortunately, abuse— over and over again.
Faith allows us to plow forth in the face of adversity and often gets us through the dark night. It can be a powerful force for good, but it is also the underpinning of exclusivity. You can’t get there without it. How else could we convince ourselves that our particular brand of religion has found the one true path to God? We leap before we look and then work backward: the greater the leap, the greater the faith. I believe, therefore it is true. Rational questioning is not allowed.
Our Founding Fathers, the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a profound understanding of the power of religion to be corrupted. They had seen Holy Wars tear apart Europe and kill millions. They wanted to protect the newly formed United States from a similar fate. There would be a strict separation of church and state. The state would no longer use the church to control the masses as it had for millennia. The church would no longer use the state to eliminate competition. People would be free to worship as they chose, whether it was a brand of Christianity or some other religion. Several of the Founders were actually Deists who believed that spiritual truths could be reached through reason alone. Revelation and miracles were not necessary. Thomas Jefferson followed this logic to the point of going through his Bible and snipping out the miracles.
I decided to let time sort out my own belief system. There is no doubt that religion is an important part of who we are. My negative thoughts did not eliminate my need for having some type of spiritual grounding. I was in complete agreement, however, with the importance of letting people worship as they choose. It is wrong for one religion to force its viewpoint on others of different beliefs.
NEXT FRIDAY’S ESSAY: I conclude my series on religion with my 80-year-old father and I discussing God while sitting around a campfire in wild Alaska with snow falling gently from the sky.
34 thoughts on “My Rock that Was Peter Ends Up on an Active Fault Zone”
Loved reading this.
Thank you Sylvia.
Curt – I enjoyed reading about you wandering through time and place on, around and away from the solid rock.
Under the gentle snow in Alaska would seem to be a good place to contemplate these matters. See you next Friday.
Glad to have you along, Bruce. Friday it is. –Curt
A great start.
Another interesting read. I like questions- if we don’t question how will we know, and yet I’ve found that an answer doesn’t have to be logical to satisfy me.
Choice, whether in religious, political, or social spheres is a thing to be guarded. Sometimes exercising my choice means that you might not get an opportunity to exercise yours- this fact transcends religion. In a democracy, the ‘majority’ chooses for everyone ….
See you at the campfire! 🙂
It’s the old question of majority versus minority rights, Timi, and how you maintain some type of balance. See you at the campfire. 🙂 –Curt
Just as an aside, the parent questioning “dinosaurs” did decide to leave his child in our school. We had a strong population of fundamentalists as well as 19 languages and a wide range of cultures including a variety of religious beliefs……great education for our students and staff!
It is an amazing story how Peggy was able to take the school, which was low achieving, and turn it into one of the highest achieving schools in the district.
Your admiration for your wife is clear (and warranted!). I love that kind of demographic in a school, Peggy. What an opportunity for everyone. 🙂
I’ll pass this on to Peggy. 🙂
I love your blog Curt and it is hard to share any opinion about church without getting everyone up in arms. I think about this a lot as you know. I have realized that the church and state have been working together for a long long time to oppress the citizens of this and other countries. The state sets rules and threatens jail and fines if we don’t follow them, then the church comes along and says, do what the state says as long as it is a little moral, and if you don’t, you will go to hell. This is so much more scary and the state can’t say it.
So I think that when you hear people saying church and state can’t mix because of the constitution (a document we rarely reference these days) then I think they are in cahoots and trying to oppress us together.
I think that churches are a corporate entity and that they are trading on the most powerful force int he universe for money and power. It is brazen at the least and can be evil as well. I think modern religion is the burned out crust of the beautiful love and mercy of the God who made us.
I do read the Bible and remember what St. Augustine said about it. He suggested that we do need to make a leap of faith at the outset of reading the Bible, and once we do then we can benefit from the book deeply. When I read the Bible I am comforted, instructed, and chastised. You cannot let any religion interpret the Bible for you because they all have an agenda and selectively teach what is in there.
That is how it works for me anyway. I believe in God and the Holy Spirit and Jesus and think it is brilliant and wonderful. I also know that there isn’t a church I know about that would accept me if they knew me.
Thanks for sharing so much of yourself, Brian. I’ve come to see how important this subject is to you. Thinking back on the good I got out of church reminded me of the one prayer which resonated so powerfully with me, that of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
I am not sure about the eternal life. This life may or may not be all we have. But every other word still rings true to me. If we could but follow those words. –Curt
I don’t know about the States but in Australia the church have had a spate of sexual scandals that must turn off many previously religous people. It is astounding. And hardly a week goes by and more people come to the fore accusing abuse by the church and its leaders. The most dreadful thing to emerge is how the hurch tried to hide this abuse, even when it was well known and documented.
I think personal belief and church are separate things and the twain don’t mix very well..
Even the church I went to was tainted with a sexual scandal, Gerard, but I didn’t hear about it until years later. I think the thing about religion is it is an all too human institution that can often do bad things utilizing people’s faith and personal beliefs while pretending to be something other than a human institution.
A wonderfully written piece Curt. It expresses well exactly how I feel about religions, and the reason I’m wary of them. I think all the great religions have a spiritual truth at their core, and that we are more than we seem, but I have great trouble with any group of people who use threats and/or promises to control other people, which is basically what all religions do.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments Alison. It’s a tough subject. I know lots of people, several who follow this blog, who are serious about their religion and are really good people, who reflect what is good about religion and what it can be. But, as I noted, the temptation to abuse religion is great, and it is far to easy to do. –Curt
I too know people who are deeply serious about their religion, and reflect all that can be good about it, and are really wonderful people. Actually one of the more recent books I’ve read was Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards. He’s a devout Catholic priest who pursues the inner mystical path of Christianity.
Forgot to mention in my first comment there are several books in your collection that were also at one time in mine 🙂
The inner path has always fascinated me and combined with my love of the wilderness. But my mind has always been too active to take that path. Too many things fascinate me. 🙂 –Curt
Alison, you said this well.
Yes, she did.
Curt this is deeply personal and it is brave of you to talk so frankly in your blog. I appreciate being invited into your intimate thoughts with the rest of the blogosphere. Your journey is fascinating to me, and your reasoning resonates. Kudos to all your commenters who have responded with thoughtfulness and open-mindedness. I truly believe that people are good at the core.
I certainly debated with my self over whether to blog about religion, Crystal. I didn’t want to appear anti-religion, I’m not, but I think the issue is too important to ignore. I’ve thought a lot about it over the years. Religion isn’t the bad guy in my story. It is the abuse of religion. The truly tough part is that it is the nature of religion that makes it so easy to abuse. Is their a solution? Certainly the best would come from within the religions themselves. The ecumenical movement has shown promise. Beyond this is some type of societal solution. I’ll discuss this more thoroughly in my next essay.
One reason for deciding to do my Friday essay series was to be able to explore issues that concern me in more depth. I decided to tackle what is probably the most controversial first.
I sincerely appreciate the well thought out comments I have received. I am quite fortunate to follow a number of bloggers who care deeply about the world we live in.
And it’s obvious you care, as well. The Friday essays are a great idea.
I’m with you most of the way.
Who could ask for more… 🙂 –Curt
Proud of Peggy for standing up for ALL learning rights no matter what! Amazing on a good controversial topic!
I am a little prejudiced, but I think the kids were lucky to have Peggy as her principal. It was always fun to visit the school and watch the kids flock around her. And thanks for you comment on my essay. Appreciated. –Curt
Wow Curt! The most difficult of subjects tackled with your characteristic good humor, historical accuracy, interesting, comprehensive points and most especially — you defend your stance brilliantly. I agree with very much that you put out there, especially your last paragraph. And again, as always and increasingly, I feel privileged to know you and have access to your blog. That cousin of mine is a lucky girl. Can’t wait for next week’s.
Thank you Alice for your very generous words. As for your cousin and lucky, I am the lucky one— no doubt about it. –Curt
So very interesting to read of your journey with yourself over what to believe, what to support, and even what to say about religion. I’m proud of Peggy for standing up to learning about a number of topics — even dinosaurs! — and for you for talking frankly with Father Baskin. I’m with you in many respects, but mostly just enjoy reading your humor, your open comments, and your dilemmas we’re all facing. Your post is especially poignant in light of the events surrounding ISIS and their beliefs – or non-beliefs. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you Rusha. ISIS is an excellent example of what I am talking about, almost beyond comprehension, certainly mine at least. But it has happened over and over down through history. –Curt