A Crisis of Faith
On reflection, school was kind of weird here in the UK. Or at least, it was for me in the 90s.
Starting from Reception at four years old, right the way through to year six at eleven years old, we would have daily assemblies. Perfectly normal talk about school achievements, upcoming events, words of warning to would be naughty kids.
And about 15 minutes of Christian hymns.
Granted, we were a predominantly white neighbourhood, and Britain still clung to the notion of being a deeply Christian nation, but it didn't stop there. For the first few years, there would be the annual Harvest Festival trip to the local church (and it was always freezing cold). Most of our Religious Studies class would be focused on various aspects of Christianity. And then there were the prayers at the end of assembly.
These assemblies and events weren't mandatory for kids, if their parents objected. I only ever remember two kids getting out of it; one was Jehovas Witness, the other came from a pretty strong athiest family, so completly opposite ends of the spectrum. But it wasn't an option we could just go for, or at least it was never presented to us. We just went along for the ride.
Don't get me wrong, we loved the hymns. At least, we love the ones where we got to shout at the top of our lungs, phrases like "LET MY PEOPLE GO" echoing across the hall/canteen/gym/indoor playgound. For the most part, though, the subject matter was completely unimportant. The words were the driving force, the focus point. The words were what kept us singing.
And that pretty much encapsulates my relationship with God.
Christianity has been in the background throughout my life. My mum was never particularly religious, but my nan on my dad's side was. I grew up with a copy of the Hosana Bible, a picture book version of the Bible that probably covered things it shouldn't have done, considered it was aimed at kids. Like Cain killing Abel, brother killing brother. Or the whole God telling Abraham to kill his kid, only to pull a 'LOL JK just testing you, kill this sheep instead'. Maybe that speaks more towards the child unfriendliness of the Bible at large, thinking about it.
But I absorbed that book at a young age, and still remember a good chunk of it. The fall of Jericho, Tower of Babel, Christ trashing the temple. Mum would help me on to sleep by reciting the Lord's Prayer to me, although using the old English 'thee', 'thy', and 'thou' in a way that makes modern readings of it grate on my soul.
There was no real substance behind any of it though. It was just a thing we were doing, another book I was reading. We'd go to the Cathedral every now and then, mostly because mum was trying to figure out things to do, and there was usually an exhibit on or something. I remember one time, mum swore whilst inside it and I instinctively apologised to God for the blasphemy, having grown up watching various TV characters get told off for blaspheming in the house of God. They laughed at me for that.
It comes down to the environment. To all the lip service we give faith and Christianity here, a good deal of it based in thinly vieled racism ('we're a Christian country not a Muslim country!'), we don't actually promote or encourage worship. As long as we can still send our kids to sing hymns, use Christmas and Easter to refer to the Christian holidays, and have a label with which to justify our views, British society doesn't seem to really care about the concept of actual faith.
So I had nothing to really guide me on any religious path, no real incentive growing up to be anything more than cynical of it, as teenagers are. I didn't see a compassionate, benevolent God looking aroudn the world. The Iraq War, invasion of Afghanistan, Hurrican Katrina, the Japanese tsunami, the Boxing Day tsunami, all on top of the sickness, the pain, the despicable acts being done in some God's name. It didn't seem like faith got you a whole lot other than bias.
Until it did.
I met Reverend Michael at exactly the right point in my life, where I was feeling lost in a sea of self-absorbed depreciation. I'd drifted so far away from what I thought I was, academically, professionally, and as a person. I had no answers, no clear way forward, and no way of finding one.
I was leaving the gym in town one day when Michael said hello. At the time, he and his colleagues were offering prayer and chats in the marketplace. His cheeryness took me off guard; walking off felt rude, and it wasn't like I had anywhere in particular to be, so we got to talking.
There's a few times in my life that I've felt an almost spiritual call to action, for lack of a better phrase. Just a deep instinct that I should pursue a path laid out in front of me. Talking to my wife when we first met on the bus home, and later sticking with it despite my fears having just come out of a mental health crisis, were two such times. This was another.
The idea of forgiveness had been on my mind. I'd been re-evaluating my actions, my behaviour towards people in the past. Deliberately hurtful, toxic, selfish. None of which were unique to me, but the concept of forgiveness is fundamental in Christianity, and I couldn't quite grasp how. How does one believe that a being either incapable or unwilling to directly communicate with them through means other than signs and events forgives them for their sins?
So I asked the Reverend, and he responded. 'We believe. We put our faith in Him that what he told us through the Bible and his son, Jesus Christ, is the truth. That he forgives those who truly repent.'
I don't know if it was the right words at the right time, or if his position added credence to an idea I previously decided was nonsense, or maybe it was his faith that shone through his words that convinced me, but it did. It was like the final piece of the puzzle just clicked.
He gave me a copy of the New Testatment, suggested that I should read the Gospel according to Matthew, and invited me to his Sunday service. Mum nearly fell on the floor when she heard, and immediately threw cold water on the idea. I'd never go, she said, let alone make a regular thing of it.
I went the next day. And the week after.
It was a strange experience. The closest parallel I have for it is a small town rock gig; a couple of hundred people all congregating for the same purpose, sharing in each others joy and love and togetherness. It took me a while to get the hang of the service, the pattern of it. Especially the peace, which to a socially awkward New Believer was horrifying. But I grew to love it, and my place there.
I started helping out every other week with the car park, marshalling people in and out. A couple of times, I was asked to do one of the readings, and help bring in the bread and the wine. I hung around after for the coffee mornings, and actually spoke to people I didn't know. I prayed for others, I went to an occasional Wednesday service as extra. Before long, I was open about it with others, who gave me pretty much the same reaction as mum did. I wasn't exactly known in my circle for being open minded on the topic.
But it was a hollow faith, just like it was growing up. Oh, I believed. I went to Church every Sunday, I prayed, I sung the hymns with full faith. I even got confirmed by the Bishop in the cathedral, and I swore that I felt it lift my soul.
But there was no actions behind it. I wasn't open about my faith with those I didn't know. I didn't really discuss wit with those I did know, fearing the embarassment. I didn't give myself to charitable works. If anything, I was actively pushing away from them, citing time, or money issues, or work. Most daming of all, I actively avoided reading the Bible as a whole, because I knew what I'd find.
Misogynies in the Old Testament (a lot of blaming women for stuff, or portrayals of them as schemers), differences in translations (the tree which bore the fruit Adam and Eve ate was either the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Good and Evil in the transaptions I'd read, which opens up a whole other can of worms), some down right weird stories (like the time Job got black out drunk on his own wine and cursed the children of his youngest son who laughed at him for passing out naked), and then of course, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
It's not that I didn't try to read it, but I actively gave up when I met such a stumbling block, because I was afraid I couldn't rationally believe it. Even with the concept of faith, I was more concerned with being Right. Provably, definitively, undeniably correct, and I couldn't be so if I couldn't believe in the words laid out before me. If I avoided it, however, I could go on believing.
I was the proverbial man building his house on sand.
I stopped going church when my then girlfriend, now wife, asked me to stay with her Sunday mornings. We'd not long started her sleeping over at mine at the weekends, and leaving to go to Church left her feeling alone first thing. She had no interest in joining me, and I had every interest in remaining with her, so that was that.
Little by little, the rest came crumbling down. I stopped praying so much; first in the evenings, then during the day, then at all. The last time I was in a church was my wedding (done at my old church by Michael, who was perfect for us, a fact not lost on me). I did eventually keep a promise I made to start donating more when my finances settled down, but that was more out of guilt than faith.
When I look back at it, I can see why it ended up this way. I went into it looking for a solution, a way to heal my pain. I was looking for a place in a world where I felt lost. I was looking for meaning where I could see none. I was searching for answer to questions I didn't fully understand how to ask, and when I got all of this, I was looking to maintain the steady flow of it to keep myself steady.
It's not that I don't believe. Outside of those instinctive spiritual pulls I mentioned earlier, I've had some bizarre experiences. All explainable or able to be dismissed as coincidencental, but still enough to make me question. For example, I had my first panic attack outside of the church one Sunday morning. I'd had an already dark morning, got intensely suicidal, and came close to just walking in front of traffic. Instead, I found myself in the hall after being spotted by a friendly face, and hyperventilating on the chair I had an out of body experience.
I could see myself from above, completely separated from the panic, almost serenly so. I couldn't feel my body struggling to control my breath. I was almost amused by it all, especially when the curate came in, dressed in full robes and ready to start the service. He came over, laid his hands on me, and prayed. I was incredulous, and then I stopped, shooting back into my body. The seal had broken, and my hyperventiliation replaced with tears and pain.
There's half a dozen ways to explain it logically and scientifically. Yet, I can see the attraction in the faith based argument that he broke the spell through his faith, through his prayer. Going further, I can't help but feel the comfort and love that comes with the idea of there being a being such as God behind the curtain, pulling the strings, ever loving.
Believe it or not, the problem of evil has never really been a problem for me; our concept of morality doesn't necessarily have to match up with a being such as one beyond our plain of existence, and should there be a plan, the pain caused by that which we call evil could realistically figure into a plan that spans millenia, all winding towards the same 'good' end. You can't prove it conclusively of course, but it seems as good an argument as any.
So what's my problem?
My need to be Right. To be Correct. If I'm going to spout beliefs around a man born to a virgin who was the Son of God and went on to die so that we may be forgiven through belief in him, a very large part of me would like to be able to back that up. And while I'm at it, reconciling around the concept of gay marriage being ok, of homosexuality and the rest of the LGBTQ+ spectrum of sexuality and gender as a perfectly valid and ok way to live, and God knows what other social and political issues span Christianity that make me fearful of being tarred with the same brush as a gay bashing, trans hating, overly bigoted believer sharing the same pew and shaking my hand during the Peace.
Ironically, then, fear is preventing my belief, or at least calling myself a believer, rather than causing it.
I'm not really sure what the conclusion here is. Can I see past my need for provable truth? Am I able now to give back after not being able to back then, either down to my means or through selfishness? Are Sunday services an option? Am I looking at the wrong flavour of Christianity, or even the wrong religion? Do I need an organised religious backing to have faith? Does any of this serve a purpose?
Am I just overthinking it all?
I don't know, and I don't know how I'd know. I'm no clearer on a way forward, or if there even is one. But maybe that's up to me to create one, to find my own way.
God helps those who help themselves, after all.
Words - 2,451
Running total - 9,924/50,000 (19.8%, 1,589 over target)
Thanks for reading! This month, I'm challenging myself to write every day, with the aim of writing 50,000 words by the end of April. If you want to follow along, you can subscribe via email or RSS.