by Phil Thomas
What is faith? Times like these ask us to examine just what it means, especially today.
|In 1980, I failed two of my classes: Religion and English. I hated school. I’d been in Catholic school since first grade. I was not a fan. There were the constant battles between students and stereotypical, ruler wielding nuns. Later, I went to an all-boys high school. The nuns were replaced by priests and rulers were replaced by fists.
I think a good part of why I failed was lack of faith. I hated religion. I got bullied a lot, so I hated my classmates and hated the priests for allowing the bullying to continue. I was a very angry teen who couldn’t wait to get away from all of them. I was never one to take anything as “Gospel Truth”, when I had no faith our church had anything but its own best interests at heart. I remember one priest calling Protestants “heretics”. I think of my friends today. I can’t imagine calling any of them a heretic.
I hated being there. I couldn’t care less about turning in assignments.
So, in sweltering Philadelphia heat, I started summer school with the first class being religion. It was taught by an old nun who looked to be in her seventies. I was prepared to be bored, and then she started speaking. I wasn’t prepared for that.
I smirked, then grinned, then bit my lip to keep from laughing. She sounded like a cross between Curly from The Three Stooges and Jimmy Cagney (in just about any gangster flick he’d ever made). I remember it turned out to be the most challenging class for all the wrong reasons. I tried my hardest not to bust out laughing. There was nothing wrong with her as a teacher. It was just the voice. At the end of each class, I would literally stare at the clock for a good five minutes, beads of sweat on my forehead and the insides of my cheeks all torn to shreds. Finally, the bell! Pray? Oh, I prayed, alright. I prayed I could get out without peeing myself or rolling on the floor in gut busting laughter. I was truly “Saved by the Bell” every day at ten a.m.
However, I wasn’t really “saved” by her inspirational bible classes. She was campier than I could have ever dreamed. I just hated trying to keep from laughing at her. She was a sweet person, in spite of her “thug like” demeanor. However, the fight to behave myself and not make her feel foolish was hell on earth.
Catholicism comes with contradictions: Learn by memory and have faith it’s all true. The Pope is infallible and who are we to question him? He’s got the hotline to God himself, right? Like some article of clothing that no longer fit, as soon as I graduated, I left the Catholic religion for good.
Then in the “new age” 90’s, I found an amazing book. In a large retail chain bookstore, complete with coffee and comfy furniture, I poured over the self-help section. I don’t remember why I was there, perhaps plain old boredom. This was how I filled my free time in the age before smartphones. So, I picked up Neal Walsh’s “Conversations With God”.
The premise is simple: As a struggling writer going through a personal hell, Walsh felt the need to write and directly question God: “Why is my life a mess?” or “When will I find happiness?” It’s very “new age”, but still the book makes many salient points. He claims God used him to write responses to his questions. The book goes on in a conversation format. The reader has to have faith he’s being truthful, that God is actually answering him.
I got a lot out of the book. It reaffirmed my faith in God. The book explains how God doesn’t require your devotion. God, (aka, He/She/It) also doesn’t believe in hell. Why create hell? What would hell be for? In his book, Walsh explains how offending God doesn’t make any logical sense. God created us and we’re part of God. In fact, there’s nothing that isn’t God. God is the good, the bad, and absolutely everything in between. What kind of ego-maniacal God would ask utter devotion of his creations or face being sent to hell forever? Where’s the free will when the only choice is to choose God over an imaginary devil. How can God be all powerful but at the same time losing a war with Satan? If there’s a God, how could there possibly be anything more powerful? He certainly wouldn’t have to wage war with a devil. He’s the creator. God can just will the devil out of existence. It’s more likely that man made up the fairytale of a “Satan” to rule people by fear. It’s an amazingly effective tool. Instilling fear can control others to do anything, no matter how insane it is.
For a new age, self-help book found in some strip mall book store, I felt I was getting real answers to questions I’d had for years. And yet, having faith that God was actually communicating with Walsh brought home the reality of what we’re doing today. We look for a God to solve all our problems. We fail to see how most of our problems are self-inflicted. Since we have free will, we’re responsible to fix our own messes. For a God to intervene like some celestial “helicopter parent”, our free will would have no meaning.
As I read on, another point made sense: God talks to us all day long in a million ways, but we’re usually not listening. His book explains how some feel the bible is God’s word. Since there’s no “Bible II: The Follow-up”, it implies God said all he needed to hundreds of years ago.
We humans seem to put more faith in a book written long ago and re-interpreted over and over versus experiencing God today. We just need to listen. God hears all prayers. God doesn’t forsake some prayers and answer others. A being that created an entire universe is capable of knowing what the questions and prayers are, even before they’ve been asked. His book explains how by not listening and taking other humans interpretations of God as fact, we absolve ourselves from experiencing God.
Instead of listening to the answers God’s giving us, we kill each other over faith in God. We’ve taken the blame out of our atrocities and put them on God. Humans, of our own free will, have decided to kill and destroy the planet, then use the bible to justify it all. If that’s not blasphemy, I can’t think of what is.
Of course, to believe anything in the book ultimately comes down to faith. Even I, someone who doesn’t subscribe to any one religion, can still have faith and believe in God. I feel God was sending me a message in those pages. It made one thing clear, there’s something out there much bigger than us. Just look at the sky on a clear night. There must be a God to create something as vast as our universe.
When Voyager I left earth in 1977, it recorded amazing amounts of information about our solar system. I heard about Voyager I’s last photo, suddenly perspective of a higher being came into much sharper focus.
After finishing its mission through our Solar System, Voyager headed for interstellar space. NASA knew Voyager’s mission to send back data could be extended only if its camera were turned off for good. So, in February, 1990, NASA turned Voyager around, pointed it towards our planet, and took one last photo of us. In the photo, Earth is a tiny blue dot in a vast field of space. Astronomer, Carl Sagan commented about the pale blue dot in Voyager’s last photo: “…That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…”
It's a beautiful statement. Maybe faith is a way humans imagine we’re not alone on this tiny blue dot in a massive expanse of space. Faith becomes a belief there’s something far greater and more complex than what our brains can ever dream of. For me, faith is a force that directs and guides us with a consistent message of love. So, if God is constantly speaking to us, one way has to be through our musical composers.
On September 8, 1971, the curtain went up on Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”. Commissioned by Jackie Kennedy, it was performed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. At the time, critics panned it. However, more recently, critics appreciate it for its complexity and views on religion in the Vietnam War era.
Me? I have faith God’s message comes through Bernstein’s lyrics for, “A Simple Song”. In it he writes, “Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.”
I hope someday, humans can live that truth.