In the first chapter of her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference, Eileen Flanagan invites readers to examine the influences in our lives that assist or deter them from knowing and doing God’s will. She deals with family, cultural and religious influences. I think that if a person truly wants to be free they will eventually have to delve into these three. They comprise the soil in which our seed, which is ourselves, is planted. Jesus pointed out in his famous parable that the environment surrounding a seed has everything to do with how well it flourishes.
Jesus was particularly conscious of the impact of being raised in the Jewish Temple religion of the time. This, after all, was the soil he himself would have had to consider in his spiritual search. Had he not freed himself of the image of the distant God, would he have discovered the new image that he passes on to us, that of a loving, ever present, and intimately engaged Father?
To demonstrate the task of examining one’s early life influences, Flanagan tells the stories of several searchers, one of which I so identify with, I would like to share it here. “Hilary Beard grew up afraid of God, particularly God’s ability to judge and inflict punishment.” Okay, I am already hooked. This was my beginning. Even as a small child, I was caught in the fear that if I were to die, I would go to hell. There were so many rules in the Church, that I couldn’t help but trip up. Hal went through a fundamentalist stage, which I did also. It was a great consolation that I could be assured of salvation and I left the Catholic church in favor of a fundamentalist bible study group, led by a Baptist elder who first introduced me to the bible. After a while, however, I began to get wind of some negative attitudes in the community in the form of harsh judgment about those who did not believe the way they did. They justified their attitudes by calling it “concern” for the unsaved. Of course, they saw their condemnation as simply a reflection of God’s condemnation…they were just the messengers. Meanwhile, I was beginning to question the whole idea of God being so condemning at all, no matter what the bible said. I asked myself whether I could send someone to hell just because they hadn’t come to believe in Jesus and decided that, no, I couldn’t. That became somewhat of a heresy…I was more loving than the God I was supposed to be worshiping. So be it, I finally decided. I defaulted to honesty about what I was realizing.
Hal came to the same place. Flanagan shares his words: “I remember praying, ‘God, I really have been trying to believe, but my doubts often outweigh my belief. I have decided not to try to believe everything in the Bible.’” Even though that seemed like sure hell-fire, he admits that after his honest confession, he felt a deep sense of peace. Here is the part I really appreciate: “After that he decided that he was still a Christian, though not in the narrow definition of his family.” When I abandoned the community that told me what it was that I had to believe about Jesus Christ in order to be saved, I too felt peace. It is as thought I had finally found out what it is to be Christian, but I didn’t dare admit it to anyone. For sure, neither those in my Catholic upbringing nor those in my new bible study group would agree with me. So, I kept it to myself. I continued to read the scriptures but felt free to ignore or reject portions that I knew in my heart Jesus himself would reject. I loved the bible. I even went on to get a bachelors degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis in the Scriptures. It was a liberal Catholic institution where I was fed scholarly information about the history and theological development of the bible.
Eventually I returned to the Catholic Church where I had a 20 year career coordinating religious education programs in several different parishes. I liked the work but eventually I grew just as disillusioned with the heady theological doctrines of the Church as I had with the rigid theology of my fundamentalist friends. Neither seemed to fit real life. Neither seemed to have a pulse on the suffering in the world. Neither seemed to offer any solutions.
I began to explore Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Buddhism is not a theistic faith, but rather a way of looking at life. I did not find a conflict with my experience of Jesus. In fact, I began to see parallels between Buddhist thought and what Jesus taught. I never really said to myself, “I am not longer a Christian”, but I could clearly see that how I related to Jesus was different than others around me.
Hal explained the change in his understanding of Jesus. He said that he came to believe that he can meet Jesus in any person, so he had to always be on the lookout. “In a way, I didn’t give up (the idea of) the return of Jesus. I put a different spin on it.” One of the parishes in which I served, there was a beautiful group of elder free-thinking adults who were always watching out for me. These were the most supportive among the parishioners when I decided to leave my work. One day one of the women said to me concerning the second coming of Christ: “He has already come again…inside each of us.” She seems to have discovered what Hal discovered.
The idea of seeing God in each person is what eventually attracted me to the Quakers. It appeared to me that they, more than any Christian group I had ever identified with, understood what Jesus meant by love of neighbor and enemy. It is the foundation of their non-violence testimony. I no longer worship with the Quakers, but I still hold their beliefs in my heart.
The long explanation of my journey may lead a person to believe that I am bereft of any theology. Well, in a way, this is true. Quakers taught me to “hold theology like a loose garment.” They were humble enough to know they don’t know everything. They are always in tune to further leadings by the living, always-active spirit of God both in the community and in their own hearts.
I have moved on, yet again, to another Christian community. I needed to find more personal direction in my prayer and practice. But even as I attach myself to this new group, there is something within me that continues to open further yet. As theological formulas fall away, more and more the original image of the distant, judging God fades. I cannot say much about where I will go after death. But I can say that my relationship with myself and with those I love has been transformed. Whatever God intends for me to be and do here in this life on earth is my only concern. I am still a Christian, for there is no one who has been more central to my understanding of what God wants of me than Jesus.