The God Question | Part Two

Warning: drug use, scholasticism.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
-John 4:48

The Knowledge Problem, or Doubting & Thomas

Let’s talk about Sunday mornings. Circa 1976, when I was twelve. There was fighting over the bathroom, lots of hollering. Bickering and jostling in the car on the way to church. Morphing from brat to boy, as we went from the car to the sanctuary.

I would sit through the Mass, bored, compulsively fidgeting, and occasionally entranced by the wondrous interior of the neo-gothic building. I would stare at the brilliant stained glass windows, which portrayed the saints, mostly as they were being martyred. I found the St. Lawrence window a little hard to accept. It showed a large grill ornately carved from solid stone, which I was told was the device on which the saint was, uh, fried, I guess. Broiled? Simmered to taste? They burned him. That seemed very cumbersome to me. Once I said out loud, “Why didn’t they just drop that thing on his head?” Very likely I was more suited to making martyrs than being one. The window of St. Stephen, my namesake, also fascinated me. He was being stoned to death. I had no idea who he was.

The Mass is beautiful, smells good and is gorgeously adorned, but I could make no connection between the rite and my life as it was the moment we walked out of the building back to the car to jostle and bicker our way home.

The warm feelings I often felt during the service were, I thought, the most you could experience of God. The only other time I felt anything like that sense of awe and coziness was watching sunset or the ocean. It was nice, but it didn’t answer any of my questions. It may have hinted at it, but it didn’t put me in touch with God.



Confronted with serious questions about the nature and character of the Catholic Church, at 13 I began to wonder how it was that I was to know anything regarding God. I really did not have anything to go on.

The following year I was back in Portland. Perusing my mom’s books, I first reached for the Bible. I turned to the Gospels, looking for the Jesus that so impressed me a few months before in Jesus of Nazareth. What I found seemed to be in a foreign language, incomprehensible. The words on the page were dead to me.

I put the Bible back and pulled another book out. It was a collection of writings by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), derived mostly from the Summa Theologica, his 3500-page exposition of Christian doctrine. There, in Part One, under his treatise on God, I found his reasoned arguments for the existence of God.

Concerning the Divine Essence, we must consider:
(1) Whether God exists?
(2) The manner of His existence, or, rather, what is NOT the manner of His existence;
(3) Whatever concerns His operations—namely, His knowledge, will, power.

Concerning the first, there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the proposition “God exists” is self-evident?
(2) Whether it is demonstrable?
(3) Whether God exists?

-Summa, Q. 2.

I took it to my bedroom, and struggled with it for some time, trying to draw out the answer, the dawning truth, the solution to the problem of knowing.

Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_BartolommeoI answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; …Hence it is necessary that some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height. Now since the natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God, as was shown in the preceding article, it is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace.

-Summa, Q. 12. Art. 5

Thomas holds that apart from God’s gracious intervention, the human intellect lacks the understanding it needs to see the the essence of God. What about seeing, perceiving God himself? How does one obtain this grace?

It seemed like a mirage. I could see the dim outline of what he was saying, but as I looked at it, the tangible and certain truth I needed would fade. I wanted something I could grab hold of, and his logical arguments weren’t giving it to me. His thinking was way beyond my grasping. Even if I could follow him, he could only help if I were trying to reason my way to God.

Too, Thomas was a product of the same medieval church that was so problematic for me. He endorsed one of the singular crimes of the Church, something unique neither to Catholic Christianity, medieval Christianity nor to Christianity at all:

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

-Summa, Q. 11. Art. 3.

People_burned_as_heretics

Of course, not only Christian dissidents but infidels aplenty fell victim to the stake, the sword and the torture chamber: Jews, Muslims, pagans and the falsely accused. Poorly done, boys.

* * *

In the medieval world, called by some ‘the age of faith,’ I noticed that the supernatural was a present reality to those who believed, at times entering the natural realm in the form of miracles, visions and spirits – both good and evil. It seemed to me that if an angel or a long-dead saint, or Jesus himself visited you, your days of doubting and questioning were over. That would pretty much seal the deal. Of course, I doubted whether such events ever took place and did not expect any such visitation, but I did think it would sure be helpful.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that instead of philosophical or theological arguments, what I needed to settle the question of God’s existence and the truth about our faith was an experience, some glimpse of the other side, the eternal, the transcendent – hopefully real enough that my questions would be answered in a moment. It was like wishing I could fly, I sensed, but with a little more hope of the possibility. I was a dreamer, though, and this was likely just another dream. I never even made it a prayer.

In the absence of such a unlikely occurrence, I was left where I was. I wanted to believe, but more, I wanted to know. I remember about this time (eighth grade) reading Thoreau’s statement that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Wow, I remember thinking, I feel like that. I don’t want that to be the way I lead my life. If there was no God, and I never had an answer, and I was left thinking that my life had no apparent meaning or purpose, then that is exactly what my life would be: quiet desperation. The prospect was depressing.

Over the next year or two, I could no longer honestly make any profession of faith. During my sophomore year, Dad had strongly encouraged me, stopping short of insisting, to attend a youth group at the Catholic church that he and Jane had begun to attend. I did so for a few months, but when they stopped attending, so did I. This was the same time that I began to party, drink and use drugs. They were a nice group of kids, and the leader was a guy in his twenties who showed real caring for us but had little to offer someone in my situation. What does an apologetic for the faith sound like from someone who lends little or no authority to Scripture or to the Church? I don’t know. I never heard one.

At 16, I remember telling my girlfriend – who had been raised a Lutheran – that I was an agnostic. I told her my doubts started with the Church. By this time I had undertaken to look beyond Christianity for answers. With my exposure growing up to the counterculture of the 70s, I naturally looked to the East. I read some Buddhist writings. It did not, and never has, made much sense to me. It just did not resonate with me. I was thinking within mindset I was raised with. In fact, it made me skeptical of claims by Westerners to fully embrace and comprehend the traditions of the Eastern mind. It’s really very different. I freely admit: I didn’t get it. But I didn’t give up on it right away.

Further, I was also wary of New Age spirituality. A girl in English class once asked me in a dreamy voice, quite out of the blue, “Have you ever tried astral projection?”

“Have I what?”

“Traveled out of your body to the astral plane.”

“Uh, no,” I confessed. “Have you?”

“It’s like totally intense. You should try it.”

Given my desire for a supernatural experience, you’d think I might be tempted. But I thought she was loopy. I wasn’t entirely sure she had returned from her travels. Besides, I had my own travel plans.

I was going to drop acid. I was very interested, but I put it off for quite a while because I had reservations about it. I wanted to make sure it was safe. After I had already taken two trips, I decided  should consult a travel agent. In the summer of 1981, now 17, I returned to Missoula from Seattle, where I had moved in February. My friend Matt Crowley was a freshman at the University of Montana, studying pharmacy. I asked if he had any information about LSD. He loaned me two or three of his pharmacology textbooks, and I read very word they had about the hallucinogen. There were two things I wanted to learn. One, How dangerous or safe was it? And two, What kind of supernatural experiences had people reported after taking it?

I have only a vague recollection of what I read about the risks, but I concluded that the danger was mostly psychological, and based on my first two experiences, decided it wasn’t a concern.  Instead I fastened onto the users’ reporting they had “seen the face of God” or had some other opening to the cosmos or the eternal. My thinking was right out of the 1960s. What if there was something to it, what Timothy Leary and others have been claiming? What if the effect of LSD is to open an unseen reality to our conscious minds that we cannot see otherwise? Suppose it was the missing ingredient: “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” As far as my friends were concerned we were all doing it for fun. But known only to myself, I was hoping for something more: a spiritual experience that would lead to knowledge.

I never received the experience I sought. But that summer, I took acid with perhaps five or six friends. We were at the house of a friend who’s father was a minister. I found a small icon hanging on the wall near the front door. And I was hypnotized by it. It was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus. I stood and stared. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty – who knows? In their shimmering faces I thought I was understanding something, connecting with something that reached across time, as if persons thousands of years and miles apart were suddenly face to face and knowing each other, smiling at each other, communicating without words. I believed I was looking into the infinite beyond. It made some kind of sense to me, and I told myself I needed to remember, after I came down, what it was I had just been shown or discovered or felt. But I couldn’t. It completely eluded me.

Is that how it is?, I wondered. Is experience always that temporary? Can it be just as much a mirage as Thomas’ logic, or Zeffirelli’s movie? Does it just dissipate like holy incense on Sunday morning? I know it was a hallucination. But how much more convinced would I be by any other sensory experience? Doesn’t every experience fade with time and doubt? Am I hoping for something that won’t actually give me what I need? Am I looking for the wrong thing?

Who knows?

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul,by Caravaggio.

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio.

Part Three…Part Four

The God Question | Part One

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
-Matthew 16:18

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
-Matthew 16:23

From the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen, I wrestled with what to think and believe about God and the Christian faith in particular. This not a polemic or an apologetic or a critique or an argument. It’s just a story. The ending of it is not here; it will be here in a few months.

I was raised in the Catholic Church during a time of considerable change. It was the Vatican II church of the 60s and 70s, and my parents found themselves in the liberal stream of change and reform. Questioning official dogma, institutions and customs was inherent in the liberal tradition. So was a modernist (as Rome called it), skeptical view of the Scriptures. Eden was allegory,  Noah’s flood a fable. Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.

As liberals we accepted the conclusions drawn by the secular world: we believed in Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and Freudian psychology. We went with general drift of the day, and mostly agreed with the cultural shift in values. After all, morality, in some arenas, needs to be updated to modern life. For example, why should premarital sex be considered a sin? Who says birth control or abortion or divorce are always – or ever – wrong? The very notion of sin is archaic. Hell is a preposterous conception in light of a loving God. In fact, psychology, medicine, and political and social progress offered more reliable, rational and scientific solutions to the human predicament than anything prescribed by ancient writ. When we look at the patriarchal, superstitious and pre-scientific worldview that formed the minds of the biblical writers, there is very little of what they wrote that can speak to us today. Yes, there are beautiful passages there, but we have to sift through the text to find what is inspirational and uplifting, and leave the rest. It is not, in its entirety at least, the divinely inspired Word of God.

I have told friends the religion I was raised with was defined more by what we did not believe than what we did. That may sound harsh, but it isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s meant to describe my experience. Though we affirmed many things that corresponded pretty closely with a secular-progressive worldview, when I asked if we believed one Christian tenet or another – the creation, Adam and Eve, the flood –  the answer was often No. But we did believe in God. That was foundational. We did believe in Jesus, and, even if the relationship might be strained, we did believe in the Church.

Where did this leave me? Well, let me spell it out. I have many friends who were raised in more conservative/traditional religious homes, both Catholic and Protestant, including fundamentalist homes. They commonly came to a point in their lives, if not as teenagers or young adults, then later in life, when they had to scrutinize their beliefs – those things that had been bequeathed to them as unquestionable certainties – with a more critical mindset. Usually this will result in walking away from faith or finding it strengthened by making it their own. They might become critical of the way they had been taught their faith, or adopt an easy bemusement toward the quaint backwardness of their parents and their church. I think they might not understand what an alternative would have been like.

So here is one. If the Bible is not a reliable source of information about what I should believe, and the Church is flat-out wrong in some of its bedrock doctrines, then what is my source, my authority? Me? How am I supposed to know anything regarding the faith, or what to believe? What is the truth about the most important things, and how do I discover it? This was at the root of my wilderness wanderings as a teenager.

The Historical Problem, or What if you are the gates of hell?
camelot 67It all began with King Arthur. Over my Christmas break in 1976, I spent a few days with my grandparents. At the time I was living in the country with my dad while Mom was away at grad school. I was 13. I watched the movie Camelot and was absolutely carried away by it. I watched it about three years later in a theatre and hated it, but when I saw it on TV, I was captured by the Arthurian story. When I got back to school, I spent the rest of the year in libraries consuming every book, historical or literary, I could find on the Arthur cycle. This led to an ardent interest in medieval European history and culture that lasted for years. I read up on the Norsemen, the Norman conquest, art and architecture, the Holy Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. I read the poetic Eddas, the chroniclers, and the epic poems. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Again and again I came up against the ugly character of the medieval Roman Church. It was politically powerful, enormously wealthy, and sometimes callous, manipulative, merciless and cruel. It sought to control the minds of people and the fates of nations. In short, it was a complete bummer.

I  began to think of this problem in a whole new light when I saw something else on TV at Easter: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single most important thing I ever watched on TV, and it was a singular milestone on the journey I am describing.

Simply put, this was the first time I ever saw Jesus as real, immediate, relevant or alive. Every Sunday morning I beheld him as a dead man hanging on a cross, and we read a mere few words from the Gospels. In six hours, I heard more of his words than I had in my whole life. The experience was profound for me because it was fresh. There wasn’t anything stale or statuary here. The flesh-and-blood man made sense. He answered something now.

The conclusion I drew from this experience would make all the difference in the next five years: If the character of a loving and compassionate God could be known, certainly no one has reflected that character better than Jesus. I still believed this when I came to question God’s existence. If there was a God, I thought, he was like Jesus.

Now I looked at the problem of the historical Church in light of this television Jesus I had just been confronted with. Now, not only the sins of the Church glared at us, but its very nature didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, mostly poor band of followers Jesus knit together with his message of love and hope. The disparity I now saw made the Church – both medieval and modern – seem that much worse. How was I supposed to believe that this was the same thing Jesus established with his own words 1,940 years ago?

That was about as far as my 13-year-old brain could take the problem. You might wonder why I didn’t simply embrace this new-found appreciation for Jesus and carry on. Because it was movie on TV, a fading memory, and it didn’t begin to answer my questions.  I was left wondering where this remarkable Jesus was in the world. In the Roman Catholic Church? In a book, or a miniseries? Is there a forwarding number?

Is he nowhere, dead and buried, and just a great guy with some great ideas? Or was he everywhere, alive yet unseen and actually God in the flesh?

Or is he just one of many standing in the religion pantheon, with Buddha and Mohammed and Moses? Pick your favorite guy and exit through the gift shop?

Who knows?

jesus of nazarethPart TwoPart Three…Part Four