Like many of you reading this, I was raised to believe many religious things. Much of that stuff, however, I no longer believe today.
Make no mistake, I’m still a believer. And, what I believe today is very important to me. But what I believe has been and continues to be subjected to rigorous questioning and self-reflection – which, of course, all beliefs should. As you will read what follows, some of you will recognize many of the beliefs, as beliefs you perhaps held as well or maybe still hold today. In either instance, I hope it will be helpful to you, as you look at what you believe and ask your own questions.
The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe
For the most part, I grew up being taught to believe the following things:
1.The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: God is up above you and me, somewhere in the heavens but beyond the clouds. I had no idea where heaven was and I was sure nobody else did either. Anytime I asked about where heaven was I got the proverbial “deer in the headlights” response. In other words, almost everybody I knew pretended to know and called their pretense “faith.”
I also remember the day I learned just how big our universe is. Or, more accurately, I remember the day I began to sense the vastness of outer space. Nobody has the capacity to conceptualize just how big this universe is. It’s so big in fact, no one has the capacity to even imagine it.
Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, for example.
“So?” you say.
Well, wrap your head, if you could – but you cannot, around this one thought. The little galaxy we live in – which we call the Milky Way – is so vast itself (and, it is a small galaxy compared to the billions of other galaxies astrophysicists have seen), if you were to travel across our galaxy at the speed of light, it would take 85,000 years to cross the Milky Way.
85,000 years. I repeat the number because this number alone is hard to conceptualize.
When I first learned this fact about our Milky Way, I remember wondering whether that meant Jesus was still traveling to reach heaven. For example, when Jesus ascended from the earth two thousand years ago in what the Church celebrates as the Ascension, if Jesus were traveling at the incomprehensible speed of light, he has by my calculations about 83,000 more years of travel before he will ever be able to sit down “at the right hand of the Father in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3). I hope he remembered to bring along some scraps from the twelve baskets of leftovers (Mark 6:43).
What Do You Believe?
I was an adult before I became aware of the vastness of outer space. Like most religious people, I just didn’t think about it. I know now it was because such thoughts are too scary to think…too frightening to imagine. Such thoughts raise serious questions like, “Where is heaven?” Or, worse, “Is there a heaven?” Or, worse still, “If there is no heaven, does that also mean there is no God?”
I have always had an interest in the moon, stars, and planets I can see. I never thought much, however, about the infinity of space I could not see. Then, one day I realized that outer space is more about nothing than it is about anything, more about emptiness…nothingness…than it is about the few stars or planets we can see on a clear night. Oh sure, what we can see is interesting, intriguing, and invites our study. What we cannot see, however – the darkness itself – is infinitely more mysterious. And, unimaginably more infinite.
2. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: God was like a cranky grandfather who was hard to please. But I never ceased trying, largely because I was afraid that, if I did not, I might just offend him and he would reject me.
Even after all these years, it is still hard not to think of God as a kind of Santa Claus who lives above the sky and watches us like a principal monitoring a playground of school kids.
“Better watch out, better not cry, better not pout I’m telling you why…”
Do You Question the Stuff You Were Raised to Believe?
I know those lyrics are in a Christmas song we sing about Santa Claus. But, the truth is, I was raised to think about God in much the same way. As a kind of parental monitor in the grade school cafeteria who dared anybody to step out of line, misbehave, or disturb his neighbor.
So, I spent much of my early life trying to please God. I never felt too successful either.
3.The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: Heaven was somewhere “up there,” or “out there,” too, and that’s where all the “saved” people would go. I was never fully certain whether I was among the “saved.” Not surprisingly, many raised in a similar environment are not either. I was especially concerned about this when I discovered there were other people beyond Baptists, the group within which I was raised, who said they were the ones instead who were actually going to heaven.
I was taught that Baptist were right in their theology and beliefs.
- Episcopal folks were liberals and, therefore, could not be trusted. They were likely secret Communists, too, and should be viewed suspiciously.
- Presbyterians were rich people and owned local banks in town, as well as many of the businesses.
- Methodists were too much like Catholics.
- Catholics were ritualistic and we thought the statues inside their churches proved they were really idol worshipers.
We were certain, therefore, they worshipped many gods. We blamed their idol worship on the fact that none of them really “knew” the Bible like we Baptists did. It never occurred to us that the Bible was our idol. We regarded it as an infallible, inerrant book written by God himself and in the King James tongue. For all practical purposes, therefore, we regarded Catholics as lost and in need of saving. So, whenever a Catholic made a conversion in our Baptist church, it was like a Superbowl win for God.
- Pentecostals were ignorant country people…snake-handlers, too, and they were those who lived in uninhabitable shacks in the hills and valleys and cooked by a potbelly stove.
We held a lot of strange ideas about people inside our own religion. Which explains why most Christians today have a hard time not stereotyping people of other religions or the religions they believe.
4. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: “Saved” people were the ones who had been “convicted by the Holy Spirit” – which was the only way you could be saved – and they were the ones who responded to that inner conviction by stepping out into the aisle at invitation time and making that long journey to the front of the church during an altar call.
Picture a Billy Graham crusade and the choir singing “Just As I Am” and…well…you’ve got the picture.
The “saved” were those, therefore, who agreed with the pastor or “counselor” that they were terrible sinners, deserving of hell because it was their sin that sent Jesus to the Cross. But, now that they had repented, they could be forgiven, provided of course they asked Jesus to come into their hearts.
Which I did. I did several times, in fact. Not publicly, but at night, lying in my bed and all to just make sure that, “if I die before I wake,” I’d be sure to make it.
I do not mind admitting I never quite figured out this whole salvation thing. It never made much sense to me that God hated sin so badly that he had to punish something, or Someone, in order to feel better about things. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, his own son stepped up and said “I’ll go. Kill me. I’ll be the sacrifice.”
From there, the story only got more convoluted in my thinking.
I never quite figured out how any father, much less a “loving” Heavenly Father, could kill his own son and avoid prosecution. It did not help me to question this, as my religious superiors would look askance at me for pointing out such unexamined inequities in our religious story. Instead, they would just look offended by my questions and reminded me that “God’s ways are beyond our ways,” and that “there are some things we just have to accept by faith.”
Really? Then, why did God give us a mind to think with…and a moral code written into our genes that makes us to know deep down there are some things that are just wrong?
Like killing your own Son.
I always found it odd that what I regarded as their fear of questioning things they did not understand, my religious superiors called “faith” instead. I remember many times asking myself, “How is believing something you’re afraid to question an act of faith?”
Mark Twain didn’t help. He’s the guy who laughingly said, “Faith is believing things you know ain’t so.”
If You Don’t Question What You Believe…
Nobody had the guts to answer my questions. At least in my memory.
I always felt, had God been placed on trial for murdering his own son, what jury would have ever accepted his alibi for doing so, “My ways are beyond your ways…” “Somebody had to suffer and die…” “Sin had to be punished…” “Trust that I know best.”
I don’t know about you but those alibis sound Hannibal-like to me.
As soon as I thought such things, however, or raised questions like the ones I’m raising here, I felt my religious teachers viewed me as a troublemaker because they would say things like, “You’d better watch yourself!” “Don’t question God.” You keep that up and you’re likely to end up in…you know where!”
They would never say it because “hell” was regarded as a curse word. But I knew what they were thinking.
5. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: Hell was the place where bad people go. Murderers, except God of course, and rapists and disbelievers and people who believed or followed other religions and we were pretty sure the Catholics were all going there, too. Except for the ones who had repented and joined our church.
And, where was hell? It was “down there” and, although like heaven “up there,” I had no idea where “down there” was, again I was sure nobody else did either. I knew one thing for sure, however: I knew I didn’t want to go there. Which was largely why I got saved. I am also pretty sure that’s why everybody else around me got saved, too. Salvation was to rescue you from hell and take you to heaven when you died.
And, that was all there was to it.
Is What You Believe Worth Believing?
Every summer, we had Vacation Bible School. Since every parent in the neighborhood looked for something that would get their children out of the house, and out of their hair, everybody’s neighbor brought their kids to our church for VBS. I figured out early on that the real reason we had Vacation Bible School was not because anybody really liked it. They didn’t. It was a way of getting the neighborhood kids “saved,” however. Their parents did not have the fear of hell in them like we did in us.
All that really mattered in life, you see, was that people get “saved.” In so many different ways, this was all that was important about anyone’s life.
Which never made much sense to me, either.
I remember thinking, “If what’s important is that we get ‘saved’ so as to avoid hell and spend eternity in heaven, why does everybody bother to get an education, compete for the best jobs, concern themselves with getting married, or having children, or buying a house and cars or saving for their retirement? If this is all there is to this life – getting saved – why does everybody pretend this is what’s important while they’re in church, but then spend the rest of the week trying to get to the top?
The top of the social ladder, that is?
(End of Part One) Originally published on Dr. McSwain’s blog.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith diversity and respect or charitable living and giving.