Much like you, I have religion etched in my soul, whether I want it there, or not. My father is a minister, and being a preacher's kid, I was immersed in the church until the age of 18. When I came out to my family, they basically disowned me, and told me that they could not support me because I was gay and the Bible says this is wrong. Now, I was already having some doubts about the church. Being a preacher's kid, I got to see all the dirty politics of the church up close and personal, and knew, that like anything human-made, the church is a political institution at its core. The disowning by my parents, folks who are supposed to love me regardless, because of their belief in the Bible, basically sent me on a ride down the Agnostic train.
Now, I still have lots of friends that are very religious, and I really envy them. I would love to have the faith that when we die, we'll go to Heaven and it will be a giant Atlantis Cruise for an eternity, but I just don't buy it. Also, after being a religion major, I know the politics behind how the book we call the Bible was put together, what was left out, and why. So, I just can't buy that the Bible is the word of God. I want to, but the whole religion thing just seems intellectually dishonest.
Faith in God and the sexy acid test
As much as I believe there is no hell, whenever I'm having moments of doubt, that whole fire and brimstone bullshit comes back and I wonder if I don't want to hedge my bets, just in case I'm wrong.
So my question to you, is how can one get faith when they don't have it? I would really like to believe that there is a nice God up in the sky monitoring everything, and that when we die it will be a wonderful la-la land where we get to see all of our friends and cotton candy and bunnies abound. I want to believe, but I'm just not buying it. It feel intellectually dishonest, to say the least. So what do I do?
Dear Doubting Thomas,
To answer your question, may I ask you first to wade through some personal bits about me? They are a necessary prelude to my thoughts about you and God. I'll conclude with a link to a modern parable if you are still with me.
I envy your desire to believe in God. I never really had that. When I entered the seminary at the age of fourteen, I was already skeptical about the existence of God. I saw so much evidence to the contrary. The priests who taught me theology often said that faith is a gift. I actually felt relieved that God had not given me this high-maintenance gift, because not having it gave me license to pursue my own pleasures.
During Mass, I would look around at the faces of my kneeling classmates. Frowning and shut-eyed with strenuous effort at prayer, they tried to feel God. Tried to hear him. To see him in all of creation. I would rest chin on hand like a Raphael cherub, assuming that if God wanted to visit me, he certainly knew where to find me.
Many years went by. I did not seem to be on God's radar screen. I decided that I was probably not the only invisible child happily scampering about in His house. I felt that being gay made me (and my kind) rather like God's illegitimate children. Lucky to be raised with the others, but with a dirty little secret, the proclamation of which would eventually force me to make my own bed in this world.
During the ceremony in which I was ordained a priest, I felt very much like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. A self-made man kneeling before his favorite Vatican Cardinal who traced with Holy Oils the sign of the cross onto my outstretched palms. Like Mildred Pierce, who learns that no matter how much of a fine lady she has become she'll never get the chicken grease off her hands, I have never been free of this indelible sacramental stain despite my disdain for it.
Oddly, despite my Godlessness, I have never once felt abandoned or judged by God, and those judgments of men, even popes, are insignificant to me because I have seen the church, as have you, from the inside out, in all its silliness.
Here's my recommendation for you. If you are going to seek God, begin by forming his/her image in your mind. God is your creation just as you are God's, for you are part of God. Give God only the highest attributes but allow God to be rather unscripted, and appearing to be no bigger than you. Those who will deny you a personal God and who think that they have God figured out, and who will demand your adherence to their rules, claiming that they are God's rules, are to be politely ignored. Once you've made the decision to be faithful, you are certainly free to construct your God from the ground up. You can't go wrong if you do this. Look at the surly faces of the many false gods thriving in our midst. Will yours be any less durable or valid?
I know this sounds very "Yes Virginia, there is a God and he lives in the hearts and minds of yadda yadda", but I think that if there is a real God, there is no other way to get even a piece of him, and small pieces, remnants and echoes are all we are allowed.
Because the God that I believe in is entirely forgiving and wise and oversexed, I bind myself to him so that I might be a better man. My atheist friends will call this "efficient humanist foolishness", but it gives me comfort and direction and makes me a better lover of people. I am no longer bothered by the fact that this faith is still not a gift from God, but something I have given myself. It feels right for me and I embrace it without obligation and open to the possibility that, as Kansas sang, "all we are is dust in the wind".
I can't explain disease and mayhem in the context of a real God. No one can. Original sin is a facile and limping approach. Have you ever looked into the face of an animal that has been struck by a car? You can see the pain but nothing deeper, for they are not tormented by thoughts of heaven, hell, mortality and redemption. I hope someday to die simply, like an animal blinded by looming headlights or at home asleep and well fed with my partner beside me when a sudden fluctuation of the heart means I will not wake up here again. OK, I'll say, I had a great run and what's next? All our worries and speculations about the nature of God and the terrain of heaven or hell haven't gotten us an inch closer to the truth than are those expiring animals.
There is one final test of your faith that I would advise you to perform once you have constructed the face of the God in which you will believe. While you are having sex alone, or consensual sex with another adult (or a group of them), and when you are at the peak of the most depraved thing you like to do with yourself, or with that person or those persons, when you are almost breathless and about to explode, picture your God sitting on a chair next to you, watching you with hands folded in his/her lap. Is there a smile on the face of your God? If so, your faith is off to a good start. Is there a smile on your face? If not, write again soon. You may have some other more pressing problems.
PS: Once you make a self-directed leap of faith, you may want to pick a church. Go here for a parable about this. Also, I hope to meet you someday on that celestial and eternal Atlantis cruise. Look for me among the gay clergy. We are the guys still wearing black socks while lounging by the pool in our speedos.