I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts in which I explore what I believe, and why, and in which I will do my best to make an honest accounting of my perspectives on things, as well as describe the experiences that have led to the formation and solidification of particular views to which I ascribe. I’ve had a number of discussions with bloggers online in which I’ve attempted to offer what I feel is, in some ways, a unique viewpoint, but it is simply too difficult to offer much in a few comments to a particular post. So I thought it may be interesting to take a somewhat more thoughtful look at where I am, and how I’ve gotten there.
At the time of my conception my parents were Catholic. I believe that my mother was involved in a Cursillo group, which I do not know much about, other than to say that I sense it is a somewhat mystical and perhaps marginalized movement within the church to transcend rote dogma and morality, and focus on the sanctity of personhood, and of living a life of Love. My father grew up in a small town in rural Nebraska in which the church served as far more than an instrument of morality; it was the communication network that stitched the farming community together, one of the primary means by which persons in a small community understood the needs of others and how best to meet them, and so it was at least in part an aspect of citizenry almost. The church provided aid to those who needed it, linked those who could afford to help with those who needed it, and provided a certain global orientation to the community that kept folks rowing in a common direction.
I offer this to note that I was born into a Christian family, but also to note that it was a unique one. My mother could not have children after nearly dying when I was born, and my parents chose to adopt to expand our family. One of my sisters is an African American from a family in Ohio that likely had been on welfare for multiple generations. My other sister is from South Korea, and her mother was a pianist who for various social pressures could not keep a child. So we were a family of many races, and we lived in the deep south of the United States, in Alabama, from when I was a first grader until I graduated from college. As a child you think what you know is perfectly normal, but we were far from it.
So the idea of God was present in my life from my earliest memories. I have memories of being a three year old and saying nighttime prayers with my father in which I was encouraged to ask the guardian angels to position themselves around the house. I always asked that one take a station on the roof, one occupy the backyard, and one keep an eye on the front door. I also asked how they could be protecting other people, too, if they were at our house, and was told that angels can be everywhere they are needed, and they can answer everyone’s prayers at once. I thought that was pretty awesome. I never felt awkward asking for their guardianship after that. It felt pretty natural, like hanging out with friends.
Three decades later when my wife and I were take a tai chi class together, in a private session with the instructor, the instructor said to me once, “There is a really big angel who is near you often. He has a big sword. He watches over you.” I was an adult of close to thirty years old at the time, and it was one of those unsolicited moments when time collapses, and of course, I felt it was one of those angels I had spoken to every night when I was little. Since my name is Michael, I always felt a kindredness with Archangel Michael, but who is to say? Is this real? My tai chi teacher didn’t know anything about me when she offered this vision of hers. We’d never talked about angels, and I seldom thought about them save for certain times when I was in difficulty and remembered the idea of asking for help. I thought it was interesting, though, that this person would come up with this out of the blue.
When I was probably seven or eight years old I was in the car once, riding somewhere with my mother, when I asked: would God really send people to hell? She immediately told me no. God would never do that. God loves every person, she said, and she felt that human beings often projected their fears and judgments onto God, and that the church had many ideas inside of it that were flat out wrong. So I learned from an early age to think for myself, and that it was okay to question anything I was told and to square it with the findings of my own heart. I learned that some Christians have a very simplistic view of things—e.g. they believe the Bible literally—and there are other Christians who don’t believe that at all.
My parents chose to send me to Catholic grade school for most of my elementary education, although I did spent three or four years in public schools as well. They felt that the quality of education in the Catholic schools was good, and it was important to them that I learn the Christian catechism, even though I wasn’t obligated to believe in particular ideas that did not square with the idea of a loving God.
When I was in the eighth grade, Catholic children spent the year preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation, which is when you make a decision to affirm your upbringing and say that, yes, you would like to be a member of the Catholic church. My father told me I didn’t have to do it and that it was important that I truly felt within my own heart it was something I wanted to do. He felt that really it was probably too early in my life to make a decision like that, so he wanted me to know that he and my mother wouldn’t put pressure on me to move forward. But I thought about it a little, and I felt I wanted to do it. I think he was glad of my choice, and of course there was an unspoken pressure. It was one of those moments when I wasn’t certain I wanted to be Catholic, per se, but I did want to commit to being connected to a loving God somehow. So it was a choice that I made.
That said, I never enjoyed going to church each Sunday. As soon as I left for college, and was living more or less on my own, I chose not to attend mass anymore, but I did continue to yearn for a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a human being, in a world supposedly created by a loving God.
I had many, many questions. Of course I did, I was a physics major.