by Nathan Elliott
1. Childhood & Adolescence & Unforgivable Sins
What do you believe?
This simple question has so shaped my consciousness that I find myself stumbling into middle age with complicated opinions on the very definition of the word believe.
This question was asked—implicitly and explicitly, in a thousand different ways—in the fundamentalist and evangelical circles in which I was raised. I put that last sentence into the passive voice because I’m not really sure who asked it. The question came out of the evangelical air, fully-formed, yet not completely articulated, on the lips of preachers, parents, Sunday School and Christian grade school teachers, as well as well-meaning friends. I can’t really recall a specific instance of anyone asking it, and yet everyone seems to have been asking it all of the time.
It was a very strange non-question, a question of intellectual dishonesty and violence: it was a not a question meant to elicit the actual state of epistemic affairs with the person being questioned. An opening gambit, the question demanded two interrelated things: first, to allow the questioner to tell you what he or she believed, and second, to allow the questioner to either confirm that you already believed the same thing, or, if not, bring the conversation to why you should believe the same exact thing.
Aside from that intellectual inauthenticity and epistemic violence on the part of the person asking, it was a question impossible to answer with intellectual honesty. I felt that there were a hundred different replies, depending on how you interpreted the non-question. What do I believe? As in, what do I actually think is the case when it comes to Jesus, and Heaven, and God? Or, are you asking me to confirm what we both know I am supposed to believe? What I—because of overwhelming social and family pressure—try desperately to force myself to believe, some days succeeding, other days failing?
Theological orthodoxy of any variety demands at least the appearance of static belief. As a result, there was so much pressure on the question What do you believe? that it threatened to fracture who ‘I’ was, as that ‘I’ couldn’t seem to find that stable ground of orthodoxy. Beliefs on any subject are constantly evolving, and religion is no different; sermons, books, stray thoughts, that essay by Thoreau I read last Tuesday, they all had their effects on the current state of belief. When what you believe is so utterly crucial to who you are, the inevitable fact of these beliefs changing, shifting, and evolving threatens the very core of your being.
So the question itself—with its absurdly simplistic emphasis on a juvenile understanding of personhood—drained out the possibility that what I believed wasn’t determined by my physical, social, and historical circumstances. And clearly what I believed was determined by the accident of history that placed me in a twentieth-century American family in the Rocky Mountains in a Southern Baptist enclave. Much of what I ‘believed’ was determined for me long before I was born, by historical forces that will remain, no matter how much research and reading I might do, beyond my ken. Even the effect of my growing, evolving body within that historical moment is subtracted out by a question that assumes a unified ‘I’ that has some control over what it believes.
Sometimes, when I look back on my childhood and adolescence, I become convinced that what I believed on a given day was determined by something I had smelled, or how I felt about a girl.
I am seventeen. I attempt to impress a girl at my high school by memorizing the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians. It doesn’t work, and for the rest of my life when I hear that passage (which turns up like a bad penny at clichéd weddings) my embarrassment and sense of rejection returns no less painfully than when it shamed me the first time.
I am thirteen. I lie awake late at night, in the dark, my mind wandering. A dark chain of thoughts takes my mind to strange places, and I find myself, for the first time, really doubting the existence of God. The specter of the unforgivable sin haunts me, and any thought of sleep disappears into the night. I find myself sitting at the bottom of the stairs, destined for a hell that is—with damnable belated irony—all too real to me. My mother comes out of her bedroom to use the bathroom, and startles when she stumbles across me brooding in the dark. She asks. I do my best to explain. She, in turn, explains why the 31st and 32nd verses of the twelfth chapter in the Gospel of Matthew do not apply to my shadowy doubts, and gives me an answer that lets me find sleep.
Yet the feeling of that night never completely leaves me, not for the rest of the night, the rest of the week, the rest of the year, the rest of my life; that feeling still resides in the corner of my consciousness, making me doubt and fear a universe that seems too big and indifferent to understand.
I am eight. I have just been baptized in the oversized bathtub that stood—most of the time hidden—behind the pulpit of the Baptist Church of Post Falls, Idaho. A slender, gentle man with a Missouri accent has just dunked me into lukewarm water in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now we sing hymns. Some of them are my favorite hymns, (and yes, I have favorite hymns) chosen by the Preacher’s wife, who makes it her business to know such things. As we sing tremendous joy and relief elevate my young boy’s body:
Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves
He will lift you by his love, out of the angry waves.
He’s the master of the sea, billows his will obey
He your savior wants to be, be saved today.
This must be what redemption feels like. Like John Bunyan’s pilgrim—who I have been reading about at school—I feel a heavy burden lift off of my back. I am right with God, right with the world.
I am seven. Summer warmth, the smell of Idaho pine trees outside the window and the accent of the Missouri preacher lulls me into a gentle sleep in my mother’s lap during a Sunday night prayer meeting, where I dream of Jonah and ships and whales.
And suddenly I am reeled back gasping into consciousness by the preacher pounding the pulpit, shouting “WAKE UP JONAH! WAKE UP JONAH! GOD SAYS TO US ALL: WAKE UP JONAH!”
My audible waking start at the back of my church makes the small congregation laugh. The preacher smiles.
Later that summer night, outside the church, fully returned to his normal, lovely, soft-spoken, non-preacher self, he apologizes to me.
I am six. I walk back and forth between the kitchen door and the top of our stairway. I half say, half chant, in a rambling way that demonstrates that I only half understand what I am even saying: The lord is my shepherd I shall not want he maketh me to lie down by still waters he leadeth me through green pastures lo though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil . . . The archaic English of the King James Bible rolls out of me, and I like the language’s thick texture on my tongue. The Preacher’s wife promised me a small chocolate pie all to myself provided I can recite the passage for her from memory. Along with the peculiar flavor of Renaissance English, I can taste the chocolate and Betty’s light pie crust. I see the still waters next to a man and a sheep in a pleasant green vale from the Bible picture book as I chant. I wonder what rods and staffs actually are, and how they would protect me from the evil if I ever came across such a thing.
2. Early Adulthood & Creed & Doubt
What do we believe?
We never recited the creeds in the Baptist and ‘Non-Denominational’ Bible Churches that made up my religious upbringing, and so—even though I have no specific memories of when I first heard the creeds—I must have first heard the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed at my evangelical college in the Chicago suburbs when I began attending more liturgically traditional churches.
The creeds were, and are, clarifying: they tell us what we, as Christians, are supposed to believe. When I first encountered them, I was upset I hadn’t had them as a guide before. Most people of most Christian variations can affirm most of what is stated within them. I’m not precisely sure why we didn’t say them in the churches I attended growing up, but an aversion to explicit ritual, as well as some nit-picking objections to words like ‘catholic,’ and ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ were most likely the damning justifications. The absence of these creeds explains the obsession we had with ‘belief’ in the churches of my youth; in the absence of an explicit creed, we tortured each other with implicit creeds.
In the more ancient creeds, everything that one is supposed to believe is stated clearly, and these ideas are not up for dispute. The charitable interpretation of that weekly act is that it is an act of corporate faith, recognition that your faith is bigger than your individual doubts. The less charitable interpretation of that weekly act: a desperate attempt on the part of the doubting to make themselves believe; its continued reassertion of “I believe” can be read as a growing list of all the things that are most difficult for any rational modern day person to believe.
The really shitty interpretation of that weekly act: a brainwashing technique.
I am twenty, and I am sitting in a class covering the Philosophy of Religion. We read the teleological, ontological, and cosmological arguments for the existence of God, and discuss the various historical circumstances that undermined those arguments. I become familiar with the way that Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas shaped and crafted the God I know from the raw materials of scripture, tradition, and cultural necessity. We discuss the Problem of Evil; can a universe consistently contain Hitler and an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God? Or does the existence of a dangerous fool like Eichmann mean that God or god or gods cannot contain one or more of these ‘o’ qualities? We debate the possibility that extremely different religious and mystical experiences might point to a common reality; are the blind Buddhist monks really feeling a common elephant, or are they merely blind?
These cerebral debates have real and practical consequences. One girl will quit the class—and even school for a time—when she finds it difficult to retain her faith; the conversations have proven too dangerous. A boy grieving the loss of his mother to cancer will confront the problems of pain and evil and death and ultimate meaning outside the bounds of textbooks and classroom discussions.
In the midst of a bad breakup and a gathering depression the class is the one thing I look forward to. I can’t find the energy to shower, but I can find the energy to attend this 8am class. I feel joy and light release in this crescent shaped seminar room at the top of a tower in chilly suburban Chicago. I ask all of the questions I was never supposed to ask; I talk about everything that was supposed to go unsaid. I find contentment for the seventy minutes of each of the thirty-two class sessions, and I mourn the class when it concludes in December.
I am twenty-four, and a fellow graduate student is insisting that the virgin birth was a myth; that the incarnation did not happen. Her atheism is dogmatic and intolerant and bullying. I am fairly confident she does not know what the word myth means, as I agree with her that the virgin birth is a myth but not that it is untrue, or false. She appears desperate: determined to have the last say in something that the universe will not let anyone determine or control. All around me are graduate students proclaiming they will be the ones to get their rural students to think beyond the bounds of their backward religious upbringings—in doing so they sneer at a rural space that I am actually from—while making simplistic and inaccurate statements about a complex two thousand year old religion they have neither practiced nor studied.
Then they talk about preferring other religious traditions—native traditions, pagan traditions—religious systems they know even less about.
I am twenty-five, and I have passed my foreign language requirement for my Master’s Degree, by translating selected passages from the Vulgate. My teacher—an elderly sardonic Japanese man who cultivates orchids in his office, speaks twelve languages, and dresses in impeccable suits complete with gorgeous flower in the buttonhole—informs me that I have passed my exam with flying colors. His dry-aged voice inquires if I was raised on the King James Bible: my translations bear the unmistakable stamp of that peculiar Renaissance English.
This small moment stays with me for the rest of my life; it sums up everything about the way my faith has shaped me, what it has given me, what it has taken away.
I am thirty. My dissertation research has led me to the lesser-known corners of Charles Darwin’s career; the day’s reading included an exchange of letters between the famous British natural historian and prominent Harvard professor Asa Grey. Could not God, the pioneering botanist questioned Darwin, have ordained and guided evolution? Cannot evolution and a belief in the divine coexist? Darwin’s generous, thoughtful, yet ultimately devastating reply rings true. Darwin does not convince me that God does not exist, he articulates in three pages all the reasons I have been gradually jettisoning my faith over the past several years.
I do not believe in God.
My shoulders feel light, relieved of a tremendous burden.
I am free and honest.
3. Adulthood & the Sublime & Fractured Belief
What do I believe?
The question never left me alone, even after the creeds, even after I gave up believing. When Heaven and Hell and your eternal soul, as well as questions of the nature of ultimate morality, are presented to you from the time you are born, perhaps it is inevitable that you will always be asking yourself what you believe, and why, even when you supposedly believe nothing. For much of my thirties, I found myself trying to make it clear to myself why I didn’t believe in the God I no longer believed in.
No doubt the fundamentalists I grew up with would say that it was my very awareness of the reality of God that made me struggle so much to be clear about why I didn’t believe in God. I know this, because I might have spouted such specious bullshit myself at one point.
The reason I needed to know why God didn’t exist was that I didn’t quite know what to do without God after living in a universe shaped by his presence for so long. At times I truly wanted to believe in God, again, and even tried—tried very hard—to flex a muscle of faith that had atrophied into nothing, and again and again and again I was left with what I actually believed in: nothing.
Yet non-belief proved as difficult to sustain as belief. It was as if the very act of belief—however one defined it—was too complicated for me to master. Even if I didn’t believe in the dogma of the Judeo-Christian God (and let me be very clear: I did not) I still found myself frightened by dogma wherever I found it, even in my own newly discovered atheism. The very insistence on certainty, on the part of anyone, became anathema to me. Even my own occasionally dogmatic non-belief made me feel like just another fundamentalist, pounding on her holy book, and insisting on her epistemic correctness.
And there were these troubling moments, moments when I felt tempted to believe. It was almost as if the church itself had taken on the role of the serpent, offering up the fruit of forgetfulness and ignorance.
There was community, which requires humility.
There were encounters with the sublime, which demands worship.
There was love, which always demands faith.
Belief fractured me into a thousand different parts, and the different states of my life—contradictory, confusing, strange, awful, and joyous—are all what I believe.
I am thirty-nine years old. She tells me she doesn’t believe in a god with a white beard up in the sky. I laugh and point out that no sensible adult—including the most orthodox Catholics, the most reverent Protestants, the most devout Sufis and Sunnis, the most detached Buddhists—has believed in any such absurdly literal thing for centuries, millennia, if they ever did. Both Mohammed and St. Francis already got there, baby.
She laughs at herself and at my sexist pomposity and her generous, seductive laugh makes me believe in a guy with a white beard up in the sky laughing with her.
I am thirty-eight. I read passages from the journals of Flannery O’Connor excerpted in The New Yorker. Her dogmatic, playful Catholicism is infused into every word. Religious devotion greets me like a lover I have not seen in decades. O’Conner’s faith allows her a certain level of spiritual and intellectual insight. She stands back, with the help of an ancient faith, and sees all the vanity, materialism, and foolishness of her own twentieth-century place in history.
I am thirty-six and I am trying to teach selections from the Qur’an to undergraduates at a regional university in the Deep South. My students are mostly indifferent Baptists with varying levels of rote church involvement. They have already been surprised when I mentioned some of the non-canonical gnostic gospels and their odd takes on the Christian story, Christ-legends repressed out of existence for millennia by the emerging dogma of the Catholic Church. Now they are confronted with yet another version of the birth of Christ, and his role in human history. They are also surprised to see women playing such prominent roles in the founding of Islam. I try to discuss literal and figurative translations of the word jihad and how many times it actually appears in the Qur’an. In another week we will experiment with gorgeous Sufi mystic poetry.
And yet many can only see ‘problems’ with the Qur’an, as they cling tenaciously to the warm, comforting, simple, ugly stereotypes that CNN and Fox News so graciously reinforce every day.
They refuse to see beauty.
But I cannot judge them, for am I not turning away from the beauty of the religious tradition that I grew up in?
In another section of the same course, I defend St. Augustine’s Confessions in the face of their adolescent boredom, and grow frustrated that they cannot see his intellectual and spiritual honesty.
I reread The Bhagavad Gita at thirty-five and Arjuna’s dilemma screams into my consciousness as real and difficult and what we all face every day. Kirshina’s solution is imperfect the way that each life and incarnation is imperfect and messy and raw. We cannot act without causing pain and suffering, and we cannot not act without causing pain and suffering. We cannot let ourselves off the hook, we cannot find a place that is morally pure, and yet we must continue to try to find something better, despite that fact.
I am thirty-five. I spend a summer and a fall and a winter making constant love to the woman who will become the mother of my son, and I feel that I have lived this life before. A foreign religious belief invades my body. I have met her, I have done this act with this body, I have cared for this soul, I have fought with this woman, I created children with this force of life, perhaps ten thousand times before. We have found each other again. We will dance this dance again. We will do it for a while, before we lose each other in those vacant parts of space-time between lives, and then find each other again in the next incarnation after we have been lonely for a while.
I am not a lapsed Hindu or Buddhist, for Jesus’s sake. I am a lapsed Protestant Christian with Anglo-Catholic sympathies. I think.
At thirty-six, I look down at the baffled face of my baby son, who is not yet five minutes old.
Joy rips me in half.
It will take me months to name that emotion that covered my usual ways of thinking with a veil of unknowing. The child—and the child’s mother—regularly fill this agnostic before and after this birth with religious reverence.
Gratitude so sublime and overwhelming demands an idol, or a god, or a pantheon of gods; it demands I sacrifice goats, that I burn incense, that I fall down flat on my face and worship.
Do I believe in God, god, gods? No. No. But. No. Yes. Maybe. No. Yes.
Especially when he laughs, or she tells me she loves me.
NATHAN ELLIOTT grew up in logging and paper-mill towns in the panhandle of Idaho. The vagaries of love and academia have brought him to a paper-mill town on the island of Newfoundland, where he can occasionally be found teaching at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland (when not spending his time in less frivolous pursuits such as snowshoeing or biking). He has published creative work with Creative Nonfiction and Tahoma Literary Review; currently he is at work on a book about his move to Canada. His aesthetic preoccupations and leftist political positions can be followed in real time on Twitter @writeronabike.
Photo: “Fracturing” by Nathan Elliott