Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Capricious Grace

So after the talk last night (part of the “Theology on Tap” series sponsored by the Chicago Archdiocese’s Young Adult Ministry), I waited to talk to the speaker, Fr. Bob Rohrich. Since I’d missed out on most of the lecture series, I wanted to know where I could go to find a forum where I could ask questions like “Why should I believe in ‘God?’” A woman overheard my question and spoke up. She talked about believing in love even if you don’t believe in “God” and began to explain how believing in love was related to believing in “God.” I said, “I don’t believe in anything.” Fr. Rohrich then offered the idea that I probably believe in myself. I said, “No, I don’t believe in myself either.” Later, after I’d moved on to a conversation about Kerry vs. Bush, Fr. Rohrich passed me on his way out. He thrust into my hand a cassette tape and his business card. The tape contained one of his lectures on self-esteem.

The woman who had become a part of our brief discussion of my lack of faith wanted me to attend another lecture tomorrow night given by a speaker who addresses this kind of question. Fr. Rohrich's talk had been on “The 10 Most Important Issues in Building Healthy Relationships,” and I imagine she thought I wouldn’t be able to find the relationship I’m looking for until I believe in their god.

The problem is that I’ve gotten into a lot more trouble believing in a god than not believing in one. From birth to age 19, I swallowed everything the Catholic Church taught me and believed in my unchangeable sinfulness as a human being, plus extra sinfulness for me as a girl because of Eve. I believe part of my low self-esteem came from being Catholic and learning that I was pretty low on the religious pyramid of children, adults, nuns, priests, bishops, cardinals, Pope and Jesus.

Catholicism just felt like a lot of rules followed to please a judgmental and unpredictable god. From earliest childhood Catholicism gave me little to feel proud of, and in it I found nothing to support myself, emotionally or otherwise. Mass always felt like an empty ritual and I could never find anything in any of it that made my life any better. I rarely even made friends at church. There was some comfort in thinking about a loving god that always protected me, but it was balanced by the whole sin/wrath/penance thing. And I found the concept of a person having a relationship with this god person baffling.

Unable to make Catholicism work for me, I pitched the whole thing at the age of 19 and spent years not caring if any of it was true. It was when I started to rebuild a belief system ten years later that I got into trouble again because I seem only able to conceive of a god that judges, tests, manipulates, and exercises capricious grace.

Why is this the only way I see “God?” Because people often conceptualize their god as an anthropomorphic super-being who can do many of the same things we can, like love or want or plan, but who also has divine capabilities like omnipotence. Our culture anthropomorphizes its god and that personification of divinity is based on a human model. And I don’t trust humans. But at least as angry, vengeful or punishing as anyone gets, another human being has a finite ability to affect me. But ascribe human qualities to a supreme being with infinite power over everyone and everything? That’s scary as hell to me.

I’m not saying that human models for divinity are bad for everyone. Just for me. If someone believes that humans are fundamentally good, they might not have any trouble believing that a human-like divine being will be good. Sadly, I have apparently learned that humans are fundamentally bad. So a human-like divine being is the worst thing I can imagine.

So far, the best conceptualization of divinity that has worked for me has been divine power as light or energy. This is the least threatening way for me to imagine divine power because light and energy aren’t human-like at all. They’re just forces or resources. If you want to talk about “Divine Light” working through us or “Divine Energy” directed towards healing us, that doesn’t bother me quite as much as a personification like “Heavenly Father,” or “Lord.”

New Age ideas of divine power, such as “light” and “spirit,” worked for me for quite a while, and those are the concepts I used to re-approach religion in my 30’s. But, with some differences, my New Age belief system was quite similar to my old Catholic beliefs. I just changed all the terms. Eventually I realized I had the same sense of there being a Right and a Wrong and I'd better get it right. In my New Age religion, the danger wasn’t Hell, but just being unhappy, out of place in the world, isolated from “God,” etc. Seeing my problems and challenges as "lessons" was better than seeing them as sins and punishments, but it was still exhausting and overwhelming to imagine that a mechanistic universe was consciously sending me more and more “lessons” until IT Decided I had learned enough. And there it was: now I was ascribing human intention and action to things like “spirit” and “light.” I was screwed.

Thus was I unable to stop imagining divine power as human and willful. Plus I finally just got tired of there being a right and a wrong. I'm tired of the idea that if I can't make the right decisions for myself, there will be no end to more and more and more “lessons” with the reward with-held until I get them all correct, as if life is an unending, Sisyphusian class and I never quite make it to recess. I'm tired of the task of figuring out how “spirit” works, and the task of how I can make the best use of my life, and the task of learning how to "let go and let God," and the task of trying to achieve a workable concept of divinity. Oh, the tasks are endless when you have a religion. It's too tiring.

So, I'm done. My life is simpler and easier without a belief system. No capricious god, no hard questions. No rules, no sins, no penance. No deep thinking and no divine state to reach. No god, no hard work.

No god, no hard work. Thus my inability to conceive of a nice god and my unwillingness to wrestle my way towards holiness, seal my faithlessness. And my freedom.

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