Over MLK Weekend 2022, my wife and I enjoyed a winter “staycation” in the Loop, where we stayed in a wonderful room on the 12th floor of the historic Reliance Building, arguably the finest remaining skyscraper of the First Chicago School of architecture. The accommodations in the room were clean and very comfortable: not one, but two plush and clean comforters, fluffy bath robes, and soundproof engineering all around.
- gourmet meals (at Aba and The Gage restaurants)
- a spectacular night view from atop the Chicago Athletic Association
- getting to practice my mandolin across from 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 our thinking was challenged by a world-class documentary about current living conditions in China, Ascension (2021), and
- being positively provoked by the artwork of Barbara Kruger exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In mind, body, and spirit,we enjoyed epicurean delights.
that this life can be beautiful and worthwhile just as it is, on this earth and in the here-and now; apart from any religious framing, I now understand that each life has meaning and value
that there is value in seeking out and enhancing beauty; leaving the world more harmonious and pleasant than you found it? That now seems a fine legacy for all living things.
that 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)
that after life, we face no eternal judgement; I no longer fear a one-way ticket to heaven or hell handed out by a punitive creator God. We cannot be sure what happens after death, but I now believe that if a person’s sense of self/existence persists after death, it will be different from the “self” it was in this incarnation. Since in the natural realm a “law of return” rules, and humans are part of nature, not separate and superior to it as claimed in Genesis. The idea of us retaining personality eternally, even in heaven, now seems hellish to me.
- memorized scripture,
- 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, going to church at least weekly, and enjoying summer camps at Lake Geneva Youth Camp (LGYC), where I won achievement badges and a Bible memorization contest (top prize: a Scofield Reference Bible).
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” terrifies members of 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 waiting me, 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.
As an aside, the same dispensationalist narrative that scared me into religion as a boy went on to make inroads into American society through the popular Left Behind (LaHaye & Jenkins, 1995) series of books and movies.
Through the late 90s and into the new century, this series’ readers and viewers could vicariously feel that they, like its fundamentalist Christian protagonists, were not on the runaway train of history, but in the 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 exciting story ending with wickedness damned and happy-ever-afters for the righteous/me on the winning side? What human who knows how bad it feels to lose wouldn’t want in on that story?
Though this in-group of “saved Christians” assured me that I now had “Blessed Assurance” and protection 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 a boy, as soon as I could understand the implications of the Plymouth Brethren Christian story, I was persuaded to “man up” and make the “colossal gamble” between what Watts calls “everlasting beatitude and everlasting horror.” This high-stakes description of human choice is totally at odds with the Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu views, which see an individual human’s life is relatively inconsequential in the cosmic frame.
The “oriental religions” I first studied at Illinois Wesleyan University (a Methodist school) assert that all life forms are part of God, and therefore the concept of an individual, autonomous life or soul is just an illusion. “You,” in this worldview, don’t matter, since ultimately there is 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 which will continue after you’re gone.
The contrast with my received religion’s emphasis on personal responsibility could hardly have been more obvious.
Even after I had made it, the ostensibly voluntary “choice” I made for Christ felt wrong to my young mind. It felt dishonest. I had been frightened into making the correct decision. But how honest was that? Was it really a choice at all? Wouldn’t God, the Good Shepherd who kept his flock free from anxiety, want me to make a choice for his kingdom without duress?
And wouldn’t He want me to be fully present and mature intellectually before making this choice, fully informed of alternatives, since its consequences were so dramatic and permanent?
Apparently not. Along with St. Paul (Philippians 2:12), my religion told me I’d just have to “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.
Still another difficulty of this exhausting religion for me was the way its focus on the next life depreciated this one. The Plymouth Brethren denied any meaning or value could come from mere existence, outside the faith, on this fallen earth. That alienated young people like me who had aspirations to work in a secular capacity among my sinful fellow Americans.
Finally, my growing knowledge and skepticism fatally undermined my faith. By age 11 or 12, I knew that “heathen” religions–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–existed. My Oak Park school had taught me how adherents of these creeds cumulatively outnumbered Christians around the globe. I also knew that American guns and bombs 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. These facts troubled me.
My religion assured me that each of these dead non-believers would go straight to hell for eternity. Unwashed in the sanctifying blood of Christ, how could they go elsewhere?
How fair was that?, my 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 all those people to hell? Isn’t He a God of Love for all?”
The counselor said something along the lines of, “Well, we are mere 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 with the gospel. 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 didn’t leave after his explanation. It persisted, and got me seeking a faith that matched better what I felt inside: that this life could be good, that love was its highest expression, and that people could righteously enjoy the pleasures of this life with no fear or guilt.
I have been a member of christian congregations since, and the closest aligned to my feelings–and thus places where I feel I’ve been the most spiritually nurtured–have been Episcopal or Unitarian, where the focus is not life under threat of hellfire and damnation in the future, but on direct actions to increase community and social justice right there and right then–the social gospel, it’s been called.
And at St. Christopher’s or Unity Temple of Oak Park, if a seeker’s conscience suggested that other faiths or traditions might have validity, one would be drawn into conversation, not seen as a heretical threat.
Although my grandmother would consider these denominations christian in name only, my path has led through them, and the life they influenced has included loving, pleasant experiences that my birth family’s belief system wouldn’t have sanctioned.
In an ironic twist, I believe that the epicurean and spiritual life I am grateful for today would be impossible without my early indoctrination. My family religion’s stark dichotomies (good/evil, light/dark, truth/falsehood, heaven/hell) made the gloriously splendid, many-hued panoply of life on this earth all the more precious and meaningful. As I explored the “in-between” spaces of existence, I found them more interesting and generally satisfying than the black-and-white categorical filters of my youth.
If I could today, I would thank my Grandma for setting me on the path toward a larger, more loving, and more connected religion than the one I inherited (though she surely would not appreciate this appreciation). Beyond all her dogma, and after all her proselytizing, Mae Bendelow was a kind and loving grandmother to me and my sisters. I would mostly thank her for that, and for her admirably disciplined character.
The only person in my family-of-origin who espoused a view differing from the Plymouth Brethren dogma didn’t communicate it until I was in my early 20s, already disenchanted with the faith of my fathers.
Raymond Edward (“Eddie”) Van Natta was my dad’s cousin, a warm and eloquent man who happened to have been born homosexual. He lived with his life-partner Frank in a townhome near me on Northshore Avenue in Rogers Park.
All through my youth, no one in my family even suggested anything amiss with Eddie. No one acknowledged his de facto homosexuality. Eddie had grown beyond the belief system that he and my father had been raised in, and was living his own life apart, from what his parents and relatives would have deemed acceptable or moral.
I remember visiting him when I was working down the street as an adjunct professor at Loyola University of Chicago. Eddie encouraged me to keep the Christian faith, but not the narrow one we’d been taught. He thought I should see as he did–beyond just scripture–in ways Grandma would have seen as heretical.
He recommended J. B. Phillips’ Your God is Too Small (1952) to me, and I read it. The author suggests that the God of Abraham, Moses, and the New Testament could be worshipped by modern christians who had moved beyond a rote base of scriptural interpretation. Phillips’ bottom line: Jesus was still the best description of God’s character for humans, and the church simply needed to allow for advances in modern physics and science.
I thanked Eddie for his bold words, and enjoyed the book.
But my mind had already moved beyond his and Grandma’s certainty that only Christ held the answers to life’s persistent questions. But I was still a long way from having the guts to say so out loud.
The memoir that follows is in large part me saying out loud what I did not have the courage to say before–words that would horrify my forebears and make me an outcast.
I feel more expansive and confident, at last, before it is too late.
What is “too small” for me now, in my 60th year? A life limited by tradition, doctrine, and the needless fear of honest self-expression.