An Agnostic’s Encounter With God, Part 1

This post was originally an article on the Support4Change website. Because if its length, it will be broken up into 4 parts, and posted over the next 4 Thursdays.

This personal story describes the gradual movement from religious faith to agnosticism to spiritual awareness.

Exploring What the Word “God” Means

I was a preacher’s kid. Raised in the Lutheran church, I belonged to Luther League when I was a teenager, attended the fine Lutheran college of Wittenberg in Ohio, and came to California as a parish worker for a Lutheran church. My first two children were baptized in that church. But like a number of preacher’s kids I’ve known, I left the church in which I was raised.

By the time our twins were born I had begun questioning the precepts on which my beliefs were based. It started with trying to understand just what people meant when they referred to God. I knew it wasn’t possible to get my mind around the concept of an all-powerful, all-encompassing, ever-present being, whether one called it “God” or some other name. But I tried.

I thought of the verse in Genesis which said that man was created in the image of God. Well, I reasoned, if man was made in God’s image, then I should be able to look at man and get an idea of what God was like. After all, if we say a child (of any species) looks like his parents, we have some idea of what the parents look like. Of course, I didn’t believe God had a physical form, but perhaps I could explore the qualities of humankind and discover something about God’s qualities.

That’s when I ran into a problem. At least it was a problem for me. Although the Lutheran church doesn’t focus on hell and damnation, I had always been told that I needed to believe in Jesus in order to be “saved.” Being saved meant avoiding hell. But what does hell say about the loving qualities of God if such a Being assigns someone to spend eternity in pain and suffering? What kind of parent would do that just because his child didn’t have the opportunity to hear the message of a book called a bible, to interpret scripture in a certain way, and then to decide that Christianity was the only way to avoid that fate?

To my way of thinking, such a God was very unlike the people I knew. I had never heard of anyone, except perhaps someone who was certifiably crazy, who would force a child they had lovingly created to spend endless time in misery. We humans might — in great frustration over a child’s poor decisions or even for some petty, egotistical reason — cut a child out of our will. But we wouldn’t make them suffer as the “God of love” apparently wanted people to suffer, at least according to a prominent interpretation of the bible.

No, I decided, I couldn’t believe in such a God. At least I couldn’t believe in hell. And if I didn’t believe I needed Jesus to save me from hell, what was my reason for continuing to be a member of a church whose creed affirmed that belief? Nevertheless, I recognized that following the basic teachings of Jesus could contribute toward making a person loving and kind. However, believing in a historical Jesus was not essential to leading a life of great loving kindness.

So I left the Lutheran church and for a time joined the Unitarians. Later I discovered that’s what happens to many people who leave the traditional, more formal churches in which they grew up, but who still enjoy connection with others who enjoy exploring life’s deeper meaning. The Unitarians seem to function as a “decompression chamber.” Since that church didn’t preach about a judgment of heaven or hell, I fit in.

That is, I fit in for a time. After a couple years I wasn’t as interested as I had been and gradually drifted away. I knew what I didn’t believe, but was very unsure of what I did believe, especially concerning experiences people claimed came from some kind of spiritual realm. Just because someone said they saw auras, or felt “led by the Spirit,” or were guided by an angel, etc. didn’t mean it was true. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it wasn’t. There was no direct evidence I could see and simple faith wasn’t solid enough for me.

I will admit that people with deep unquestioning faith had a sureness of which I was somewhat jealous. It would be wonderful, I thought, if I could simply say, “I believe!.” I couldn’t. I had been taught that faith is a gift of grace. Well, apparently “God” or “grace” wasn’t inclined to give me faith, because I sure didn’t have it.

On the other hand, the reasoning of my mind, a mind that “God” supposedly did give me when He, She, or It created me with a brain, prevented me from accepting something that others claimed was “right.” What made it even more confusing was the fact that the world was filled with a multitude of religions, each claiming to be the “right” one. If God wanted his creation to believe in Him in only one way, he could have done a darn better job of making it clear which particular path people should follow.

Every once-in-awhile I would sit quietly and pray to “whatever” (I didn’t use the term “God” because I sure didn’t know what that meant). I would ask this “something” if I should believe in Jesus (or in any other particular form of religion) and the answer I sensed in my heart always seemed to be something along the lines of, “No, you don’t need to believe in Jesus to be okay. One day you’ll figure out what’s right for you.”

There are those who will say I didn’t get the answer THEY think I should have gotten because I (A) didn’t pray correctly, (B) didn’t listen correctly, (C) didn’t pray long enough, (D) didn’t listen long enough, or (E) shouldn’t have trusted myself to find the answer. I needed a more experienced person to guide me. But by doing it my way I was following the advice I would later hear from Sam Keen, author, psychologist, and philosopher, in Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening The Spirit In Everyday Life.

It seems improbable to me that God would have whispered the meaning of my life into the ear of some guru or authority. Likely, my best chance to hear the still, small voice is to listen carefully for a sacred echo in the voices and silences that resound within my mind, my body, my heart.

I hadn’t yet figured out how to listen to sounds within my own mind, body, and heart and I was as skeptical of anyone who claimed they alone had the answer to life’s perplexing questions — especially if they were referred to as a “guru.” They were as much a barrier to creating a spiritual foundation for my life as were those you claimed they knew what “God” wanted me to do.

Consequently, when someone would ask if I believed in God, I would usually say “yes” just to avoid a long discussion on why I wasn’t saved and how I needed to follow their brand of religion. Even more, I avoided going to any seminar where a guy in white flowing robes spouted simplistic platitudes.

Although always questioning authorities and figuring out things for myself has caused numerous problems, that’s my modus operandi. I’m not well suited to following what someone else tells me is true.

Come back next Thursday for Part 2 of An Agnostic’s Encounter with God.

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