There have been two very moving stories this week on religion and death. The first was an op ed piece this past Sunday in the Washington Post or New York Times by a woman who was brought up as an evangelical fundamentalist— a Seventh Day Adventist—but had lost her faith; and the second was about a young woman in her thirties who died of cancer and who was also a lapsed believer. She was a spiritual pilgrim and the author of several best selling books and a website dealing with questions of belief and doubt that had a following of thousands of people. I could identity with both women.
The theme of the first essay was about the author’s effort to deal with the death of her first child without a firm belief in an afterlife. She compared the experience of losing her infant son to her experience when she was still an ardent believer when her father died. Since she and her family believed that her father was going straight to heaven and would be seated next to Jesus at a heavenly banquet, it was not such a sad time. Surely they would miss him, but her loss was far less painful than it would have been for someone without faith. Her gentle and honest conclusion about the death of her child was that she had to accept reality for what it was and is. She could not return to her old faith in an all-powerful, human-like god. It did not mean that life was not worth living. It did not mean that God does not exist but rather that the Devine is a mystery beyond human understanding.
I could not help recalling the loss of Katherine, our first child, who died of heart failure following what we thought was a routine operation to address a valve defect. She was just shy of her first birthday. We were assigned an evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist chaplain in the hospital whose job was to get Embry and me through the experience. I knew the job of a chaplain since I had been one myself during the summer of 1965 at Boston City Hospital. This was part of my “clinical training” education at Union Seminary in New York. But having a degree in divinity does not mean that you believe in the literal interpretation of the bible or that you do not have doubts yourself. The question in my mind was probably not all that different from what the young woman must have been asking: why do these things happen to us humans on the planet Earth.
Following the chaplain’s introduction of himself, I angrily responded, “Do not give me any of this bullshit about how this was God’s will…” After recovering from the initial shock, to his credit he got the message and provided the kind of gentle support we needed without preaching about an all-powerful, all-merciful God or suggesting that maybe that this was our punishment for not being more committed Christians. In fact I do not recall any effort on his part to try to explain the tragedy in religious terms. His being there with us, however, was very important and made a difference.
I have not read any of the books by the second person but from the article got the impression that she tried to deal honestly with spiritual questions, accepting the fact that there are no absolute and final answers. She had a large following because of her honesty and openness and because she did not provide pat answers to the universal questions of the meaning of life and death.
My own thinking regarding the decline of the Christian religion today in the U.S. and most of the developed world is that the main problem with the Christian Church is not that the gospel is not being preached with sufficient vigor but rather the opposite: the failure of the Christian church to deal honestly with the human condition. Now I realize that there are all kinds of Christian churches and that I am probably talking more about mainstream Christianity, not evangelical or fundamentalist Christian churches, which appeal to people who need absolute answers even if not true.
But pat answers do not ring true to a lot of people asking questions like these: How can God be both all powerful and all good? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people get dealt such bad hands? Why is justice elusive? Why is human suffering so pervasive? What is going on in the rest of the universe that you created and what is the purpose of all that? And how could there be a heaven where our bodies that have been cremated or have rotted in graves suddenly become reconstituted into a totally different kind of existence? There are no easy answers to these questions. In fact I am not sure there are any answers. But asking these questions is what makes us human. Rather than trying to save souls and provide definitive but unconvincing answers, the (mainstream) Christian Church would be far better off doing the best it can to nurture and support people asking these questions and through study and prayer to try to find clues to the answers.
If you have been following my blog, you know that Embry and I, despite our questioning minds, are loyal members of our neighborhood Episcopal church. You also probably know that of all the irritants associated with church, the repetition of the Nicene Creed is at the top of my list. Well, I have good news: I can say that at last I have found a creed that I can say honestly and without crossing my fingers. Actually Embry found it. Two days ago she attended the graduation ceremony of our Afghan refugee family’s three-year-old child at the nursery school at St. Mathews Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland. Here is the creed that the children recited in the surprisingly religious graduation ceremony:
I believe in God above. / I believe in Jesus’ love. / I believe His Spirit, too, / comes to tell me what to do. / I believe that I can be / kind and gentle, / Lord, like Thee. Amen.