“Well, There, Missy,You Talk a Good Ecumenical Line, But What, Exactly, Do You Believe?”

People who are just getting to know me ask me questions like this one with surprising frequency. Depending on the context of our acquaintance, they’ll make varying assumptions about my values and beliefs. My academic colleagues assume that, like many of them, I’m skeptical; they’re right. People at church assume that, like many of them, I’m faithful; they’re right. What neither group understands until they get to know me better is that my skepticism and my faith are two major branches on the Tree of Me. Both branches get equal nourishment from my roots, and both branches shelter and feed the little birdlets of my creativity.

Not having been raised in a religious tradition, I was nevertheless drawn to sites of Meaning in literature and nature during my childhood. When I was in high school, poetry became holy scripture to me, and classic novels put me in the presence of the liminal and the sublime. (It was these qualities of literature, I think, that drove me to seek advanced degrees:  so that I could read even more books and become qualified to convey these transcendent experiences of literature to students.)  And through riding and caring for horses, I gained the experience of benevolent, physical power that was beyond my own.

I was always fascinated by history, too, even choosing it as part of my dual major in college, because I was obsessed by an ill-defined yet compelling sense of the beyond-ness of the past.  This beyond-ness held power over my imagination; my perennial questions,  “How did this come to be?” and “How did this come to be the way that it is?”, embodied my ongoing curiosity–which had always had spiritual dimensions–about origins.

My curiosities did not mean that I was credulous, however. As a favorite philosophy professor of mine urged his students to do, rather than being satisfied with answers, I loved the questions more. When answers to Big Questions seemed easy or straightforward, I was, and still am, suspicious. Thus, when after graduate school, I moved to a new town and made new friends, and accepted these friends’ invitation to their church, I brought along both my curiosity and my skepticism. After several months of Sunday services and group discussions, during which I tried hard to open my soul to the salvation offered there, I bowed out. My questions (Why do you consider literal interpretation of Scripture to be more valid than metaphoric or allegorical interpretations?  When will we be looking at the political, social, theological, or linguistic contexts in which these sacred texts were written? What allowances do you make for the gaps produced by translation? Why does this Lord bless one group of sinners, but smite that other one?), instead of generating further discussion, elicited hostility. I felt like I was being asked to bring my soul, bring my heart, but leave my brain at the door.  Finally, after one especially tense Sunday-school session of Christianity 101, the instructor’s exasperation with my questions prompted him to tell me, “Jennifer, maybe you’re just not predestined to be saved.”

What this experience suggested to me, rather, was that I was not predestined to be a churchgoer. I did try another, a Presbyterian church that embraced a much broader spectrum of Christian belief, and I did enjoy the welcoming tone and the intellectual sophistication of the minister’s sermons. When that minister left, however, the church’s lay leadership took an alarmingly fundamentalist turn, reverting to Scriptural literalism and making definitive pronouncements about correct and incorrect ways to have sex. I held on there for another year or so, engaging the leadership from an (idealized) stance of loyal opposition, and hoping for a glimmer of the spiritual peace and acceptance I had experienced there before, but I gave up that hope after 9/11.  What if, searching for solace after the national tragedy, a gay friend or colleague were to accept my invitation to join me there for prayer, and heard from the pulpit that s/he was not welcome? My dread of a scenario like that prompted me to leave. I felt burned out, and burned.

Meanwhile, however, Someone was wooing me.  I was being given extravagant gifts–a great marriage, a stimulating job, a beautiful place to live and keep my horses, genuinely wonderful new friends and their wise counsel, and, glory be, poem after to poem to write down. My skepticism was aroused in each instance, and each time was swept aside with assurances and affirmations that showed up in my prayers, my journaling, my nighttime dreams. Several years of noticing these blessings made me more receptive to them. I was being, and becoming willing to be, swept off my feet. Seduced. Loved up.

Still, as I continue to revel in personal and relational goodies showering down as though from some Divine Pinata, I struggle with issues at the meta- level. What makes me more worthy of all these love-gifts, than, say, an office worker trapped in one of the Twin Towers, or a Somali woman unable to feed her children, and in whose conception she had no say in the first place? Why would a Deity who is wise, just, and all-powerful allow such traumas to befall Its creation in the first place? And why do the teachings of Jesus, who supposedly saves that creation from its own cussedness, come across as so maddeningly cryptic?

These questions keep me awake at night, yet I also love them. They energize me, and they provoke me to write. In my poetry–if I were to write rhymed poetry–Christian and question would be rhyming words.

To respond to that FAQ, “But what, exactly, do you believe?”, I answer that I have primarily Christian beliefs, augmented by unitarian suspicions.  Christian beliefs, mostly because it’s Christian metaphors that I’ve been handed.  And, on top of that, suspicions–or, perhaps, intuitions–that while those metaphors are useful, they don’t tell the entire story about this Someone who’s been loving me up.

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5 comments on ““Well, There, Missy,You Talk a Good Ecumenical Line, But What, Exactly, Do You Believe?”

  1. Danny Nettleton says:

    Great essay! I’m a youth minister in the United Methodist Church and I totally get your suspicions about Church culture. My own denomination, though more inclusive then most, still has a long way to go. I have been influenced and inspired by the writings of Thomas Merton and by the theology of the Eastern Churches (who emphasize mystery over dogma). In my teaching, I try to stress that doubt is not the opposite of faith but the doorway to faith. It is when we wrestle the faceless stranger in the night that we find God and ourselves. I also get what you are saying about suspecting a greater reality behind the Christian symbols. I imagine the world’s religions as a series of stained glass windows in a chapel, each with its own set of symbols set in glass, each with varying degrees of dimness and brightness, each varying in their colors, their opaqueness, and their translucence. Standing before the Christian window, looking st the cross, the parables, and the teachings, symbolically rendered in glass, I feel as though I am looking through the window that shines the brightest and offers me the most light. This is not the same as saying that I cannot receive any light from any of these other windows (though some are positioned better than others because they are facing in different directions) or that I cannot look out these windows. This is just the one I am going to return to, because it is the clearest and brightest view of the sun’s light. All this being said, I would be foolish to confuse my particular window for that bright sun which shines through all the others in some way, and which all other windows (including mine) obscure. Shades of plato, maybe, but that’s how I see it. Anyway, great work, and good luck on your quest toward discovering what’s been “loving you up”.

  2. […] by doubt, wrestling, and constant questioning–and is energized by my struggle to square the God who’s loved me up with the actions attributed to God in much of the […]

  3. dpbowman says:

    “poetry became holy scripture to me”
    “I felt burned out, and burned.
    Meanwhile, however, Someone was wooing me. ”

    Have you been reading the diary of my soul?

    It seems there are many of us Aristotilians infatuated with the questions more than the answers.

    Keep seeking and allowing yourself to be wooed.

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