My wife and I recently enjoyed a winter “staycation” in the Loop, where we got a wonderful room on the 12th floor of the historic Reliance Building–very comfortable, with not one, but two plush and clean comforters, fluffy bath robes, and soundproof engineering.
- gourmet meals (at Aba and The Gage restaurants)
- the spectacular view at night from atop the Chicago Athletic Association
- practicing my mandolin across the huge mural by Brazilian Eduardo Kobra of the King of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters
- the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth at Symphony Hall
- the minute and a half stroll from our room to the Gene Siskel Film Center, where we saw well-made, challenging documentary about life now in China, Ascension (2021), and
- being positively provoked by the Barbara Kruger exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In mind, body, and spirit, last weekend, we enjoyed epicurean delights.
- this life can be beautiful and worthwhile just as it is; apart from any religious framing, each life has meaning
- there is value in seeking out and enhancing beauty, and leaving the world a nicer place than you found it for all living things seems a good legacy
- there is value in learning and argument, which allow us to be wiser in our conduct (to the extent that our conduct is within our control)
- sharing our experience with others enhances contentment; I believe that love is the mojo of the universe, and that “happiness is something that is multiplied when it is divided” (Coelho), and
- after experiencing our life, we will not be judged and sent to heaven or hell by a punitive God. While there is no definitive evidence for what happens after death, I believe that if a person’s sense of self/existence does “go on” after death, it will be very different from the “self” it was in this incarnation. After all, a “law of return” rules entirely in the natural realm. And humans are part of nature, not separate from it as in Genesis. The idea of us retaining personality eternally seems kind of hellish, to me now.
- memorized scripture, l
- earned the Sunday school lessons,
- sang the hymns, and
- prayed “the sinner’s prayer” at a Billy Graham revival at McCormick Place in June of 1971.
I very much lived in a fundamentalist Christian world for my entire pre-teen years, enjoying summer camping at Lake Geneva Youth Camp [LGYC)], where I won achievement badges and a Bible memorization contest [top prize: a Scofield Reference Bible].
During these years, I was hungry for constant, uncomplicated love. I also wanted miracles.
He’d pause dramatically. “Well look closely,” he’d continue, “and you’ll see it.”
He’d nod his head to a church attendant, the lights would go out, and there, miraculously appearing on the canvas with the hidden ultraviolet light that hung above his easel, glowed a brilliant image of the Shield of Faith and the Breastplate of Righteousness spoken of in Ephesians 6:10-18.
- Once the salesperson has gained the audience’s attention, a dramatic need, or dissatisfaction is introduced. The audience didn’t know it had a problem, but now it fears negative consequences if it persists in doing what it’s doing.
- It feels motivated to address the problematic/dissatisfying situation.
- The salesperson then gets the audience to visualize the satisfaction that his/her product or service will provide.
- And because the audience’s strong aversion has been leveraged through these motivating images, the sale is almost certain.
The awful prospect of being “left behind” is deep in our social species. If I were not a Christian when the next, inevitable dispensation happened, my truly Christian friends and family would be “raptured” up to heaven, and I would have seven years of Tribulation under AntiChrist with no hope of sure salvation and a guillotine awaiting according to the Chick comics:How scary this world given over to Satan was! But at the same time, how reassuring to count oneself on Jesus’ side. The plausible-seeming and intimidating vision of what my parents, grandparents, and siblings told me would certainly happen left me feeling cornered, peer-pressured and frightened into a commitment to Christ.
Through the late 90s and into the new century, this series’ readers and viewers felt that they, like its fundamentalist Christian protagonists, were not on the runaway train of history, but in its front car, and bound for certain glory.
Fans of this fiction imagined themselves as agents of God Almighty’s will. One critic described the heroes in these novels as “God’s Green Berets,” bravely outsmarting and outfighting the forces of darkness in Tom Clancy-like adventures. Modern-day Christian survivalist works of fiction have a similar appeal, and the cult of Donald Trump as God’s secret agent exists in the same worldview. An exiting story ending with wickedness damned and happy-ever-afters for the righteous/me on the winning side? What human acquainted with how bad it feels to lose wouldn’t want in on that story?
Though this in-group of “saved Christians” let me know I now had “Blessed Assurance,” and that I was now safe from hellfire, it wasn’t a very pleasant in-group experience for me.
No one at my church, other than my relatives and one or two Sunday School teachers, was very friendly. And as stated before, because of God’s mysterious will, a sinner could never feel entirely certain of his/her status as a saved Christian.
The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 24 [emphases added]
36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. 37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, 39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 40 Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 41 Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. 43 But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. 44 Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
Yet because it was sufficient to “scare the hell” out of sinners and kids like me, the dispensationalists could leave it at, “Repent, for the end is near!”
As soon as I was able to understand the implications of the Plymouth Brethren Christian story, I was induced to “man up” and make a choice between “everlasting beatitude and everlasting horror.” Watts calls it “a colossal gamble,” and one totally at odds with the Buddhist and Hindu view that the individual human’s life is relatively inconsequential in the cosmic scale.
The “oriental religions” I first studied at a Methodist liberal arts school assert that all life forms are part of God, and therefore the concept of individual lives or souls is an illusion. “You,” in this worldview, don’t matter, since there is ultimately no “you” making decisions with permanent, eternal significance. “You” are just part of the unfolding of life, which is God, and which went on before you and will continue after you’re gone.
The contrast with my received religion could hardly be starker.
Even after I made it, the “choice” I made for Christ felt somehow wrong to my young mind. I had been frightened into making the correct, and ostensibly voluntary choice. How honest was that? And after all, wouldn’t God, the Good Shepherd who kept his flock from anxiety, want me to make the choice for his kingdom without duress?
And wouldn’t He want me to be fully present intellectually before making the choice, aware of the alternatives to this life-changing decision? Apparently not. Along with St. Paul (Philippians 2:12), my religion told me I’d have to just “work out my salvation in fear and trembling.
I found my belief in dispensationalist Christianity wearying: it seemed God had left us in a perpetual state of watching and doubting. A further difficulty of this exhausting belief system was the way its focus on the next life depreciated this one, which alienated young people like me who had aspirations to work in a secular capacity among my sinful fellow Americans. It wasn’t a religion you could have much present hope in, since this world and its societies were so transient. The fulfillment of all hopes was relegated to the after-life, and this world could ultimately only offer sorrow.
Ultimately, my dispensationalist beliefs did not withstand my growing knowledge and skepticism. By age 11 or 12, I knew that “heathen” faiths–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–existed. My Oak Park school had taught me how adherents of these religions cumulatively outnumbered Christians around the globe. I also knew that we were killing lots of Buddhists in Vietnam, and that thousands of un-churched Biafrans were at that moment getting slaughtered or starving to death in Africa, and it troubled me.
My instruction assured me that each one of these dead sinners would go straight to hell for eternity. How could they go elsewhere? Only being washed in the sanctifying blood of Christ could saved a soul from hellfire. There was no other way out.
How fair was that, my young adolescent brain wondered? Those poor Biafrans and Vietnamese had probably never heard of Jesus, much less the Gospel. How could an allegedly compassionate God punish them eternally for something entirely out of their hands?
I remember asking my LGYC counselor in 1971, “Why would God condemn to hell all those people? Isn’t He a God of Love for all?”
The counselor said something along the lines of, “Well, we are merely humans, a little lower than the angels. We cannot understand all of God’s plan. We take it on faith. But in the meantime, we do God’s will and reach out to those benighted people. Once they hear it, God’s commission is fulfilled and the choice of eternal life or death is on them.”
I heard his explanation, but ultimately, and fatefully, I could not quite believe it.
The dissatisfaction I felt kept me seeking a faith that was more consistent with what I felt inside: that this life could be good, that love was the highest form of expression, and that one could enjoy the pleasures of this life with one’s friends, without fear or guilt.
I have been part of Christian congregations since, and when I have felt happiest has been in Episcopal or Unitarian sects, where the focus is not on grand eschatologies but on practices that increase community and social justice right here and now. And in those churches, if one’s conscience suggests to one that other faiths might have validity, one is not condemned as a heretic, but drawn into conversation.
Although my grandmother would even consider these denominations Christian in name only, my path has led me through them, and the life informed by them has included loving, pleasant experiences that my family’s belief system would never have sanctioned.
In an ironic twist, I don’t believe that my pleasant epicurean and spiritual life could have been possible without the indoctrination I received as a boy. Its stark dichotomies (good/evil, light/dark, truth/falsehood, heaven/hell) made the gloriously splendiferous, many-hued panoply of life on earth all the more precious and meaningful to me.
If I could today, I would thank my Grandma for setting me on the path toward a larger, more loving, and more connected religion, though she probably wouldn’t appreciate my appreciation.