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.
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.
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 Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.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?
It 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?