I heard myself today saying out loud to someone “I don’t believe in God”. Nothing particularly odd in that remark. Many, many people say the same every day. But for me it was an important statement. An acknowledgement of where I am today and have been for quite a long while. (I love the cartoon by the Naked Pastor at the head of this blog. It sums up my experience.)
Let me give some of my religious history. I’ll begin with St.Paul. In his letter to the church in Philippi he sets out his Jewish pedigree. “… if anyone else thinks he has reasons to have confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin,a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:5 NIV)
Let me add my own religious CV. Born and raised an Anglican. Baptised and Confirmed. “Saved” at a Billy Graham Rally. Destined for the Priesthood (C of E) Read Theology and English at college. Taught R.E. Eventually joined a fundamentalist christian community (Or commune. Or cult. Depending on your point of view.) Here we had all things in common and met for prayers twice daily. (Trying to chant metrical psalms at 6:30 in the morning is overrated as an activity!)
I can add to that list that I have preached, prayed,prophesied. Spoken in tongues,fasted and cast out demons. I’ve also struggled to strip down a car engine, milk cows and plant potatoes. Quite impressive, I think. I can trump many of my christian friends with that list. All they do is go to church on a Sunday and, possibly, once mid-week. Milksop christianity!
For many years I was a true believer. Quiet times, prayer meetings, long Sunday services. Very little conversation with my inner self .This conversation began when I went into therapy and had a space in which to Think. I worked out how much my religious beliefs were a defence against anxiety. It didn’t matter what happened to me, I could trust that it was all in God’s plan for me. Many highly disturbed psychiatric patients prefer being in a locked ward. The boundaries are very firm and very clear. The patient feels very contained. I look back on my experience of Christian fundamentalism as serving a similar purpose. It gave me clear and firm boundaries. A sense of containment. (Prayer as an anti-psychotic?)
So, therapy. I began here to articulate my reservations about Christianity. Or the version of it I had encountered. Like so many before me, I struggled with the reality of suffering. All the standard objections rang true. If God is Benevolent, why does he let some people have utterly miserable lives? If he is omnipotent, why does he not intervene more often? And if none of these attributes are true, what right does he have to call himself God? There are limits to how much one can change the established definition of a word. Surely the word “God” has to have some definable limits. (Although three years of theology at college taught me that, like Alice, “words mean what I want them to mean. So God is Wholly Other, Holy Other, Numinous, Ground and source of my Being, Beingfulness, Spirit, Energy, Divine Energy. the list is endless! But for now I’ll assume that most people’s idea of God is roughly the one they see in the Bible.)
So, I began to ask questions about my own beliefs. The clincher was working in an acute psychiatric admission ward in South London. I met some lovely people (the staff were pretty good as well!) There were alcoholics, drug users, manic-depressives, schizophrenics etc. Standard fare for this kind of place. And I liked them-mostly! I looked at their histories and found nothing in my religious vocabulary that could mean anything to them. If Wendy was manic, she loved me, hated me, feared me, wanted to have sex with me-all within the space of a minute. If John had been drinking he could be violent, abusive, obnoxious. A real pain! But when Wendy was well, she was charming. When John was sober he was witty and fun. Both these two used their illness to defend against loss, sadness, anxiety, depression , fear. They needed a hug. A nurse who liked them and did not judge them. A ward they could come to for sanctuary. Good medication. (All of which we did our best to provide.) Jesus was not the Answer here. But if Jesus was not an answer here, where on earth or anywhere else could he be of use? Thus began the questions.