“Human inheritance is both blessing and curse. And in religious inheritance this paradox is acute…. What curses do we need to shed, in the process of growing up? What can we hold to as blessing? “
Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
The discovery of Mennonite history was exciting and welcome. But the strong positive feelings I felt for the Mennonite people did not carry over to the Bible. Mennonites saw a refusal of violence when the read about Jesus, but though Jesus refused violence in his own life and reprimanded his disciples when they tried to defend him with swords, Jesus also spoke of Gehenna, a place of burning for sinners. And what about the stories in the Old Testament that spoke of God ordering the destruction of Israel’s enemies, even to the killing of women and children? I wholeheartedly believed that violence was wrong, but why wasn’t what was wrong for people not wrong for God as well? It didn’t make sense. It was morally inconsistent. I was glad my Mennonite people had heard the message of Jesus as one of love and nonviolence, but I could also see how those who tortured and killed in the name of God would have felt their actions were legitimate. They were trying to save people from being tortured by God for eternity. I could not see how God could truly be called a God of love, nor could I honestly embrace Christian identity the way I embraced being a Mennonite. I did call myself Christian. I did try to believe all that I was supposed to believe. But it was a matter of ‘have to’, a heavy necessity. The consequences for not believing were terrifying. I could burn in Hell for eternity.
Doubt, fear, moral outrage. I tried to dismiss them from my mind, tried to bury them. When I was with other people I managed it. I could deliberately set it all aside, have fun, enjoy life. But whenever I was alone, whenever my mind was unguarded those doubts and fears insisted upon being heard. My times of solitude were times of depression, darkness, despair. I was haunted by the vision of Hell, and it wasn’t just fear for myself. The idea of anyone burning forever and ever horrified me. And my daughters, what of them?
I had sheltered both my daughters from the vision of Hell. Everyone at church did. Children were told only about a God who loved them, about Jesus loving little children and welcoming them into his arms. But a day was coming, coming soon, when they would learn about Hell. I could not shelter them from the dark side of God forever. How would I answer their questions when I could not answer my own? I had to do something. I must find the courage to face my own doubts and objections. I must not let them face the darkness alone.
The decision to face my doubts coincided with another major event in my life, the decision to go to college and get a teaching degree. I had married right after high school graduation and had always thought that decision foreclosed forever both college and teaching. Then one Sunday, when my younger daughter was in kindergarten, I learned that a woman at our church, a woman about ten years older than me who also had children, was attending college with the goal of becoming a teacher. It was possible to go to college when you were married and had children! Soon after that I read in the newspaper that Phoenix Junior College had started work on a new campus on the west side of town where we lived. Classes were already being held at the Jewish Community Center, which was just a few miles from our house. I looked into it and found that full-time tuition was only $18 dollars a semester. Even I could manage that! A door I thought closed had opened.
The old dream of becoming a teacher came alive again. I began to ponder the possibility, looking carefully at what it would mean for my family’s life. It would mean the end of being a full-time mother and wife, the end of days free to visit with my mom, go shopping with her, sew with her. It would mean the end of quiet days when the girls were at school, of being free to pick up and go places with Ben when was off in the afternoon, but it also meant that I would eventually be able to get a job, earn real money. Money was not only very tight, Ben was also unhappy in his work, felt trapped in jobs that paid little and went nowhere. If I had a teaching job he would be able to look for a different kind of work, work that he could enjoy. The payoff seemed well worth the price. I talked with Ben, and he was all for it. The thought of my eventually bringing in a regular salary was a glimmer of hope for him that offset any changes made to our family life. I began the process of finding out what I needed to do to enter community college, scheduled an appointment with an advisor, read the material she provided, took the ACT test.
Starting college was exciting, energizing and scary. I had gotten decent grades in high school, but had heard how much harder college was and felt anxious about my ability to do work at that level. But it was not just concern about my ability to do the required work that troubled me. I was also concerned about the subject matter I would confront in my classes. All the young people I knew who attended public colleges eventually left church and did not return. I did not want to become alienated from the people I loved. I did not want to dwell in the secular world. I saw nothing in the lives of the people I read about in magazines and books that appealed to me. Their lives seemed empty and pointless. However, I also knew that my questions and doubts were real. I knew deep down that the ideas and beliefs on which my church world was built were inadequate. And not just inadequate. Some beliefs like Hell were pernicious, terrible. I loved the people at church, but deep down I knew I hated their theology. Deep down I knew I didn’t want to believe—but what if I were wrong? The consequence of being wrong was Hell, which made genuine questioning almost impossible. Yet somehow I must do it. I prayed, “God the Bible says you are the God of truth. If I face the truth of what I truly believe and am wrong, then show me.”
My fears about being capable of doing college level work soon evaporated. The nine years between high school and college had been nine years of life experience, and I soon found that those nine years gave me a distinct advantage over traditional students. What I was learning was not just “some more stuff” jammed on top of what I’d learned in high school. What I was learning was real, and it was exciting. It was as if a whole new world had opened up, one so much larger than the world I had been living in. Looking back I can see how intellectually starved I’d been. I’d exhausted all the material available to my brain, and now I had an abundance of new material to work with. New vistas stretched out in all directions, luring me on. Learning was not work, not drudgery. It was stimulating, satisfying, exciting. College felt like a huge banquet, an infinite variety of different dishes on which I was free to feast. And my teachers responded to that eagerness, encouraged me, believed in me as a learner, a thinker. –Enlightenment, yes. I felt like the light had suddenly been turned on.
Not all was sunshine, however. The confrontation with my religious doubts and objections that I’d feared did indeed take place. The first challenge to that belief came in the Art History and History of Western Civilization classes that I took the first semester. The Art History class saturated my vision with images of beautiful Cro-Magnon cave paintings; small carved female fertility figures, then progressed through time to Mesopotamia—Summer and Assyria, then to Egypt, Greece and Rome before moving on to the development of Christian art, first in the Mediterranean lands of the Roman Empire, then into northern Europe, presenting the progression from sturdy Romanesque churches to soaring Gothic cathedrals. Every class was a visual immersion in art and architecture, showing how visual ideas were taken up and developed through time.
Paralleling this visual history was what I was reading and learning in my Western Civilization class—reading about the history of conquest and trade, seeing how idea were transmitted through the movements of people. Suddenly I had a context in which to place the Bible, its people and its ideas. The Bible no longer existed in supernatural isolation. It now looked like a product of its time. Its language, symbols and ideas were no longer unique. The belief in one God existed in Egypt about the same time that it did in Israel; the idea of a dying and rising God was there in the myth of Osiris long before Jesus was born. I could see development in religious ideas, not just in art.
It was primarily my history classes that led to my realization that I did not truly ‘believe’ in the Bible. I could not believe in the miracles, nor could I believe that the Bible was the Word of God. It now looked like simply an ancient book that reflected the ideas and beliefs of an ancient world. However, there was another very important factor that entered into my theological wrestling: the reading I was doing on General Semantics for my English class, a subject that was very big in the colleges at that time. The major theme of that theory is summed up in the phrase the map is not the world. Language is only the attempt to articulate experience and describe the world in which humans live. Words are not the reality itself. That sounds obvious, but in fact we reify abstract concepts all the time, act as if they are concrete physical entities. We fight wars to defend our honor; we take revenge on others because we have been shamed.
Suddenly I saw that the words sin, guilt, salvation were words, human words, human concepts. Were heaven, hell and God simply words, too? Simply human concepts? It was as if a whole new perspective had opened up, as if I could suddenly see the mechanism of the huge edifice that was human language. It was like the unveiling of the wizard in the movie The Wizard of Oz. Suddenly the words Sin and Hell lost their power to terrify. Suddenly I was free, truly free to consider what I did and did not truly believe. I was now free to say “I don’t believe.”
The Evangelical Christian world in which I lived taught that the Bible was the direct “Word of God”—literally, word-for-word true, its teaching and beliefs unique. They also taught that everything in it must be accepted as true, that if one thing in it were proved false then the whole thing fell apart—what has been described as “the balloon theory of inspiration.” One effective pin-prick and the whole thing explodes. And that’s what happened. The whole structure of Evangelical theology crumbled before my eyes. I was free, free to live in a world without Hell. –Relief, such incredible, overwhelming relief.
A world without God
Winter sun. Blue, blue sky. Dry leaves skittering across the sidewalk next to the bench where I am sitting, leaves from the mature ash trees set among the tall palms in the wide lawns surrounding the buildings of Arizona State University. I have a break in my schedule; I am waiting for my next class to begin. I have time to think, to ponder, to absorb the world of new ideas in which I am immersed. What I am trying to absorb is a world without God, a world where death means extinction. I am haunted by death. I no longer fear Hell, but what is the point of living if the time between birth and death is all there is? I wish I could just sit in the sun like my cat, completely in the moment, oblivious of death. –And I decide that’s what I will do. I will set death aside, set abstract thought aside, focus on the concrete moment, enjoy the beauty that is around me, make being in the present my rule for living. And that helps. I am able to laugh. I can enjoy my daughters and friends, enjoy my classwork.
However, the decision to live in the concrete moment works only part of the time, those moments when it is beautiful, when I am outside walking, or when I am talking with friends, absorbed in conversation, or listening to lectures. When alone inside my house, at night when I cannot sleep, emptiness threatens to over whelm me.
In Memoriam O life as futile, then, as frail! O for thy voice to soothe and bless! What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil. Alfred Lord Tennyson [from In Memoriam A. A. H. (c.1833-42)]
I am an English major, reading English and American literature from its earliest beginnings in Beowulf up through the modern period. In my nineteenth century literature class we are reading the work of the Victorians as they wrestle with the vision of the cosmos emerging from the burgeoning scientific literature. Their Christian vision of existence has been overturned, and what they see causes despair. I am not just reading their words, I am living them.
Even before On the Origin of Species was published, poets and other writers were reacting to the vision of existence that was opening before them. They were chilled, horrified. Nature had become the womb and the tomb, destructive and creative, equally indifferent to the joys and suffering of humanity, human life just a by-product of nature’s endless and pointless creativity. This was a world in which the individual was absolutely alone, facing an indifferent and hostile universe. My original giddiness has become a long, long hang-over. The world I’ve wakened to, a world without God, is a very dark place. What I have found is the Specter of the Void, the fear/belief that beneath the surface of reality there is Nothing—not the ecstatic No Thing of Buddhist thought, but a yawning abyss of meaninglessness, a black hole that sucks in and annihilates all meaning, all value.
The nineteenth century specter of reality as ultimately pointless gave birth to the art and literature of the twentieth century. Order, meaning, value, were proclaimed as illusions, simply human impositions on cold, valueless matter. This was the Truth, the hard cold truth that ordinary humans were unwilling to face, did not have the courage to face. Ordinary, self-deluded humanity must be stripped of its illusion, must be made to face the Truth as defined by the prophets of the Absurd Universe, the serious writers, artists and painters.
I graduated from Arizona State University in 1968, four years after starting course work at Glendale Community College. I started teaching at the high school in Monroe, Washington the following fall. I had been a good student, enjoyed learning and expanding my mental world. College had been exciting, confidence building. I was good at it. I’d looked forward to teaching, thought I would be good at that, too. But I wasn’t. I was not a successful teacher. A deep sense of failure settled in. All the time and expense, all the sacrifices Ben and I had made, all our dreams for the future had been built on my becoming a teacher—and now this. I hated teaching. I wanted to quit, tuck my tail between my legs, slink off and hide. But I couldn’t. I’d made the commitment; my marriage was now dependent on my having a job, bringing in a decent salary. I had to somehow hang on to this teaching position even though I dreaded getting up each school day, had to force myself to get dressed and head off to school. This was now my future. This was the fate I’d created for myself. It was all my own doing. I had only myself to blame.
I was not just a failure as a teacher; I felt a failure as a mother as well. I had always thought teaching was a perfect fit with motherhood. My hours would be the same as my daughters. I would be on vacation when they were. What I found, however, was that teaching took all my energy. There was almost none left for my own children. When I got home from school all I wanted to do was retreat into solitude or be with other adults. I was not a good teacher; I was not a good mother. I had failed my children, and that was anguish. The joy went out of my life, and that made Ben angry and resentful. I could not talk with him about what I was feeling and experiencing. I felt too ashamed by my failure to talk with anyone about it. Ben grew angrier and angrier; I grew more and more depressed. I saw no hope. All I could do was try to endure, endure for my children’s sake if not for my own.
In September of my fourth year at Monroe High School Ben and I finally gave up on our marriage. This was perhaps the lowest point of the depression that had become the stubborn fact of my life. The decision to divorce was an acknowledgement that our marriage had become destructive for our daughters as well as us as individuals. We had tried and failed. Our marriage would not get better. Our only hope was to end it, go our separate ways. Whether I could build a better life for my daughters and myself I didn’t know. But I was desperate. I had to keep going, somehow find a way forward. Failure. A dream had died, the dream of the marriage and family that led to my marriage to Ben, the dream that had animated our years together had failed. I had failed.
Then, one evening while in the kitchen with my daughters, I looked at them, and I felt what a gift those girls were to life. I was overwhelmed by the fact of them, how loving and responsive to life they were. In spite of all my faults and shortcomings they had become beautiful people. The world was lucky to have them. No, I had not failed at everything.
Threading life by a new clue
It seems like such a simple thing to say that love is real. But that is not true in the world of secular thought. Among Western intellectuals and artists the concept of love had become problematic, often dismissed as just a self-flattering word for what is actually self-interest, something that makes us feel good. I didn’t really buy that when I first heard it expounded when I was in college. But I’d had no defense against the idea, and it simmered quietly just below conscious thought, part of a vision of existence that looked increasingly bleak. Then, while looking at my daughters as we cooked together in the kitchen, I felt a sudden silent assertion—Love is real!
The love I felt for my daughters, the love they showed to me was more than just a survival mechanism, an emotion that increased their chance for survival, or the survival of our genetic material. It did that of course, did definitely enhance physical survival, but that love could not be reduced to just that. Love was something science could not even begin to comprehend, could never approach to giving full justice. The love that came into being when my daughters were born was not about me, it was about them. It was the full realization that they were utterly, utterly real—real and terribly valuable, a value which could not be fully comprehended, infinite value, a value that reverberated out to eternity.
I could not articulate all of this back then, but it is what I felt. That assertion, that sudden assertion of the reality of this love when I was at my lowest point, was done over-against the vision of a valueless, meaningless universe that I had entered when I rejected belief in God. The assertion of the reality of love was a NO to the totalizing claims of the secular tradition, an assertion of the inability of the secular intellectual tradition to speak the full truth about existence. I was not rejecting science. What I was rejecting was the claim that ‘science’ had a stranglehold on truth. What I was asserting was the limits of science, its limited ability to do justice to life in its totality, the limits of its authority to define what is real and what is ‘not real’.
The stranglehold of the Absurd Universe was broken with that assertion. I was free now to re-build, free to explore, examine and selectively rebuild. And I was not starting from scratch. The reality of the love I felt between my daughters and myself was my pole star, the standard by which I would evaluate that which was asserted as ‘true’. I began to explore, to look around, read and reflect on books that came across my path—Jung’s Man and his Symbols; Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By; James Michener’s The Source; Chaim Potok’s The Chosen—books, fiction and non-fiction, that took religious ideas and intuitions seriously.
A conception of God began to grow, a possible God that took seriously the Biblical image of God as a parent, an image that had been distorted by the vision of Hell and judgment. A loving parent, a truly loving parent would suffer with creation, experience the pain of creatures just as I experienced the pain of my own children’s pain, only more so. I could only share my children’s pain from the outside. A parent-God would experience that pain from the inside, would not be able to escape from it. Such a God would give creation freedom to grow and develop just as a good human parent would—only more so. If there were a God, that God could not be morally inferior to me or any human parent. Such a God could not be less loving than myself or my parents or grandparents. I did not know if such a God existed, but I knew that yearned for it to be true.
This time of private searching took place during another search, the search for a way forward after the divorce, the need to build a new life. I knew I eventually wanted to remarry, and I began dating soon after the divorce, an experience that was originally exciting, but quickly became just ‘the dating game.’ Then, one Sunday evening driving back to Monroe from Seattle after one of those dates, I realized that the relationships with the men I was meeting were going nowhere. I asked myself, “What do I want? What do I really want?” An answer came back almost instantly, “I want to worship.” Surprised, I objected, “But I don’t believe in God!” Yet the desire was there, and it was deep. I decided to act on it, follow that desire and see where it led.
The church I decided to visit was University Presbyterian in Seattle. I loved church music, and I knew that this one had a strong music program. It was also a big church with about 4,500 members. I could attend anonymously. I would not have to talk to anyone. I would not have to answer any questions. So one Sunday morning I got up early enough to dress and drive into Seattle to attend the 11:00 service. Parking in the garage across the street, I got out of my car, walked down to street level, waited for the traffic light, then crossed the street and walked up the steps into the large foyer where I was met by an usher who escorted me into the sanctuary. Stepping into that vast space I was greeted by the sound of a trumpet perfectly played coming from above and behind me, reverberating around the walls and ceiling, filling the space. And then, a pipe organ. I almost cried with the beauty of it. YES! My whole body said Yes! And that Yes continued throughout the service as I sang the beautiful old hymns, bowed my head during the prayers, listened to a sermon that was thoughtful and intelligent, one that felt like it had been lived, not just thought out. Something was flowing into me, feeding my spirit. Nothing was demanded; nothing was required except to sit there, letting myself be filled with—what? Energy? Hope? I did not try to put words to it, simply let it in, knew that a deep emptiness, a vast void that sapped my energy and will to live was being filled. It was no specific words or ideas—it was just being there in the midst of the congregation, joining my voice with others, being washed by beautiful music. And sitting there, just sitting there on that pew in that large, light-filled space, I decided I would come again, that even though I did not believe I needed this. I needed worship.
Worship: sitting in the context of eternity; feeling myself part of the whole of existence, all there is in a way that did not obliterate my identity, nor make me feel utterly insignificant the way I felt when I contemplated the stars and the infinity of space. Sitting with the congregation in that beautiful building made everything feel more intensely real, more significant, more valuable. I went back to church the next Sunday and the next, fed by the music and the chance to sit in the midst of the people. I listened to the prayers, the Bible readings, the intelligent, thoughtful sermons, and I was truly fed, my spirit nourished each time I attended.
Yet the old words that had been such a source of pain—sin, salvation, redemption—were still there, and the memories they evoked still disturbed me. I decided to stop attending. Then one evening at a party put on by the singles group to which I belonged, I began talking with a man who mentioned seeing me at the church. I said that yes, I’d been attending, but probably would not continue. He asked me why, and I told him that I liked the church very much, but it was still the same old language I’d rejected years before. “Are you sure you know what those words really mean?” he asked. And it hit me. No, I did not. I’d heard those words through old experience. I’d assumed I knew what they meant. I would give those old words another chance, go back to church, listen again, listen for the experience that gave birth to those words, be open, and simply listen.
And that’s what I did. I returned and simply listened. Then on Palm Sunday 1976, sitting in a pew near the front, singing the opening hymn, children dressed in choir robes began walking down the aisles waving palm fronds, and I was shattered. Something here was true. I didn’t have words to explain what it was, but something was true. I didn’t rationally know what it was, but I knew that it meant caring about the world; it meant letting the suffering and pain of the world into the shell I’d built around my daughters and myself. I joined the church and attended each Sunday. Over the course of the summer, as fall drew near, I began to realize that I would never be able to answer all my questions about God and the Bible simply by sitting in church and listening to the words I heard there. I needed something more.
I was in the midst of a job search at the time. Even though I had finally learned how to be an effective teacher, I knew I didn’t want to teach high school for the rest of my working life. I wanted something different. In the October after the Palm Sunday I had decided to join the church, I received a job offer that looked promising. Accepting it, however, would require breaking my teaching contract, a big, big step. Sitting in church the following Sunday morning I asked myself if this job was something I really and truly wanted. The response was, No. I then asked, “What do I truly want?” And the words came, “I want to go to seminary.”
“A world shot through with signs of mind”[i]
In being ourselves we are more than ourselves; … our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet sounds the utmost depths of reality. Alfred North Whitehead.[ii]
The school I chose was the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a consortium of nine seminaries: Presbyterian; Episcopal; Lutheran; Baptist; Unitarian; the independent Pacific School of Religion; three Catholic schools—Franciscan, Jesuit and Dominican; as well as a Center for Jewish Studies. My time there was golden, one of those rare times when reality exceeds hopes and dreams. At the GTU I found people who were unafraid of any of my questions and doubts, were never shocked at the things their students might say. No foreordained answers were required. I was free to reach my own conclusions without fear of disapproval or rejection. I was accepted and included without condition. There in the golden weather, walking the Berkeley hills, attending classes that fed mind and spirit, my spirit healed.
At the GTU I found a new way of looking at both the Bible and my religious heritage. I also found a vision of God that satisfied my mind—the vision of a God who participates in all creation, a God who enters into the joys and pain of all creatures, a God who lures but never forces, never violates the freedom of any part of the universe. This vision was the culmination of the clue for threading life I had chosen when I silently asserted that the love my children and I shared was real. This is what I had felt embodied in the music, the ritual, the physical presence of the people surrounding me at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. This was the God who had presided over my childhood before the revival that plunged me into the theology of the fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian world. There was a difference, however. The God of my childhood had been a given, something that had been told to me, part of my childhood fund of ideas, accepted without question. God now became a consciously chosen part of my mental world, the alpha and omega, the foundation that grounds my vision of existence in its totality.
Yes, the word God is only a word, yet I am convinced that the word helps us perceive something real within existence that we would miss without that word. I am convinced that God is a legitimate starting point for thought, a fruitful, productive foundation on which to build a life and a trusting relationship with the Unknown.
~ ~ ~
However successful our scientific explanations may be they always have certain starting assumptions built in. For example, an explanation of some phenomenon in terms of physics presupposes the validity of the laws of physics, which are taken as given…. Sooner or later we all have to accept something as given, whether it is God, or logic, or a set of laws, or some other foundation for existence. Thus ‘ultimate’ questions will always lie beyond the scope of empirical science as it is usually defined
Paul Davies, The Scientific Basis for a Rational World.[iii]
God is a legitimate starting point for thought. However, God was not a given when I started the journey that took me to the Graduate Theological Union. The decision, God, was a conclusion, a deliberate choice made after the long intellectual wrestling following on the defiant assertion made back when I was at the lowest point in my life, the assertion that love is real.
© Loretta Willems, October 2021
[i] “The universe in its rational beauty and transparency looks like a world shot through with signs of mind,” John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, & Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion (New York: Crossroad, 1994), p. 25. Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and Fellow of the Royal Society, was Cambridge Professor of Mathematical Physics and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.
[ii] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925), p.18. Whitehead (1861–1947) was a British mathematician and philosopher best known for his work in mathematical logic and the philosophy of science. In collaboration with Bertrand Russell, he co-authored the landmark three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913).
[iii] Paul Davies, The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (Simon & Shuster, 1992), p. 15. Davies is Director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University. He won the 1995 Templeton Prize for his work on the deeper meaning of Science.