Adventures in Heresy

For most of my life, I didn’t have a close relationship with my father. But in my younger years I enjoyed spending time with him. I remember the smell of his workshop, our garage: the scents of motor oil, dirt, dampness, and the distinct odor of metal. And the images of it: those banged-up trash cans to my right as I walked in, next to the big overhead door, open in warm weather, closed in cold; half of the two-car bay empty but for tools and stuff lying on the cement floor, the other half occupied by an old truck I’m sure he tinkered on for years, a truck I don’t think I ever saw run. The room was lit by fluorescents and natural light filtered through dusty windows onto cracked pegboard walls holding tools over a workbench with its jars and coffee cans of unsorted screws, nails, and bolts, and my father’s breakfast beer, fizzing by the radio speaker. It was like Sanford and Son, but without the catchy theme music.

One day in the garage, he told me about his work in a tone that made clear he had no love for it. “I crawl into a hole and stare a light all day. Then I come home.” He was a welder, and on weekends he found ways to put his main vocational skill to use at home. He had a welder at home, and would use it on our old cars and wherever else it was useful. The first time I saw him welding, he warned me, “Don’t look at the light—you’ll go blind.”

Dad wasn’t exaggerating about the danger of staring into the light. Over the years, I did glimpse at it a few times, deliberately or accidentally, and even from yards away it caused a dull ache in the center of my skull. The brightness, apparently, could cause permanent damage and even blindness, so he wore a shield over his head and face with a small, nearly opaque rectangle to see through.

He reached into a tool box. “You have to look through this,” he said, and gave me a piece of glass like the one in his face shield, so black I could see nothing through it at all. But when he started working again, I saw the glow, still intense but not painful, and a shower of sparks. This was the light he looked at for hours on end, mending and building ships and submarines at a job he disliked to support his family.

I like Sunday mornings. I get to sleep in. When our travel schedule allows, I get to attend a church service where everyone is so nice and welcoming, and the music is great, and the message is interesting and not too long.

I didn’t always enjoy Sunday mornings, though. When I was young, I would wake up in the room I shared with my older brother to the sound of a hateful voice (it sounded hateful to me). On any given Sunday, I’d wake to the sound of an angry sermon. Dad favored Jerry Fallwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Vernon McGee, and their voices echoed down the hall from the kitchen into my room. My father turned the volume of the radio or TV up high so he could hear it wherever he went in the house. Many Sunday mornings he wasn’t even in the house when I woke up, but he had the sermon on so he could hear it if he stepped inside from the garage where a second radio or TV blared the same broadcast. I grew to really dislike that sound, but somehow it comforted him. I think Sundays were his favorite downtime.

I grew up Catholic, but my dad rarely went to mass with us, and when he did he brought his Bible and didn’t pay attention. Mass bored me. I believed in God, and I just figured… God likes boring stuff. And I believed what happened in mass was a miracle — or magic, at least, with the whole bread into body of Christ thing. And then eating it… I wondered does this make us cannibals? The devout, I learned, do not appreciate that question.

I went to Catholic school taught by nuns, who offered well-meaning but terrible council on a range of subjects. My favorite, from a visiting nun lecturer: “You may be asking yourself why I, a celibate, should be teaching you about sex. But think of it this way: If you had cancer, you wouldn’t tell your doctor he couldn’t treat you because he doesn’t have cancer.”

And can anyone explain all the felt? Remember the felt boards? I’ve heard from non-Catholic friends that their churches were also big on felt. Walls or cardboard covered in felt to which you could stick other pieces of cookie-cutter felt. Felt Mary,, felt Joseph, felt crosses, and entire felt landscapes, a cornucopia of iconography rendered lovingly in felt. Eventually I got it: obviously Jesus loves felt.

At church, I fidgeted in the pew, my butt itching from sitting on the hard bench, watching the clock, waiting for it to be over. And while the priest droned on, blah blah blah — I couldn’t pay attention even when I tried — I talked to God. I prayed constantly, even outside of church. And I mean that literally: constantly. Every thought passing through my mind I addressed to God, like an ongoing conversation. The subject of a thought made no difference. When I felt thirsty, I would think, Dear God, I’m going to get a glass of water. In my mind, I spoke all of my observations, feelings, desires, impressions, fears, questions – everything – to God, who I believed listened to my every thought. And I felt comfort. I felt safe, and held, and protected, and valued. I felt loved.

But this God, I was taught to believe, was the same one that my father’s favorite evangelical preachers claimed to be experts on. And in their sermons, they were so angry, so self-righteous in their convictions. They seemed always to be talking about hell, about damnation, fire, and sin. They believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, and they by God were here to tell us what to believe, what to think, and how to live. I felt no love in their preaching, only fear and judgment. They spoke of “the fear of God” as a virtue to be clung to. And in spite of my resistance, their message sunk in.

Eventually, I understood that if it was true that they had this understanding, that this religion was the One True Faith, that God was judging me and keeping a tally, and that sinners would be cast into Hell… then there was no hope for me. I do not conform, because I cannot believe what I have been told I must.

This means that I am a heretic. A heretic is a baptized Roman Catholic who willfully and consistently rejects any article of faith. “Willfully and consistently.” Yeah, that’s right in the money. More generally, a heretic is a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.

I know in church circles heresy is something to be shunned, it’s not a word one embraces.  I like the word. I also like the words discombobulated, gargoyle, and nougat. But “heretic” I really like, less for its sound than its meaning. It’s a much more powerful word than “nonconformist.”

“Heretic” comes from a Greek word meaning “able to choose,” and choosing one’s own beliefs was —and still is — a practice that many powerful religious and political leaders find objectionable. They would much prefer that we all believe what we are instructed to believe, so much so that some have been known, both in the past and in the present, to threaten scary eternal punishment, or mete out earthly penalties—to this day, in some places in the world, people are fired, ostracized, shamed, beaten, tortured, and even killed for the audacity of choosing one’s own beliefs.

It is strange to me that in the church in which I was raised – and I realize this is an extreme example – I could do anything, commit literally any sin, and still be welcome in the church, still be given the church’s stamp of approval and entry into heaven if I believed and did the proper rituals. On the other hand, I could lead a life as sinless and flawless and Christ Himself, but if I were to publicly declare my disbelief in accepted dogma, I would be excommunicated.

It took me a long, long time to shake the belief that because I can’t change who I am that I am worthless. I don’t believe that anymore. What I do believe in is the power of Love. I value kindness, and charity, and sharing. I value freedom of thought, and unfettered scholarship, and science, and peace, and compromise, and negotiation, and respect, and compassion, and responsibility, and fairness, and equality.

I believe that it’s better to give, knowing that some without genuine need will “take advantage” than to not give and allow people to go hungry or uncared for.

I believe in erring on the side of kindness and compassion.

I believe in taking care of the planet; in the Golden Rule; and that we are all in this together.

These values and beliefs do not make me a heretic. Here is what does: I don’t believe in Hell or eternal judgment. I think the idea that God would be offended by disbelief is ludicrous. And I don’t believe in the devil as an entity seeking to drag us all into damnation. And because I know that the Bible was written and assembled by men with agendas, I cannot believe for a second that it is the literal word of God.

It seems to me that the stories of the Bible are not meant to communicate history; they are meant to transmit faith. The story is not the message; it is the vehicle for the delivery of the message.

In my understanding, the Jesus depicted in the gospels invites us to open our hearts and minds to the Love of God. Because he is human, he embodies an archetype that we can identify with and emulate. An archetype is a symbol; a symbol represents something, points to an idea. But as the great world religions demonstrate, we can become so enamored, so identified with and focused upon a symbol that we can lose site of thing to which it points.

I left the church when I came to recognize that its love was inherently conditional. I returned when I found a community that reaffirms not just in word but in action and in practice that God is Love; where the message of Love is more important than the system that delivers it; and no religion has a monopoly on the love of God.

I’m sure my father wouldn’t have liked the services here because they’re not based in “Scripture,” which he seemed to value more than anything else in his faith. He accepted without question the notion of God as a being we must all fear. But then again, he spent a significant chunk of his life looking out at the world through a very dark lens.

He had good reason to wear that shield when he was working, so he wouldn’t be blinded or burned. It offered real protection. And those sermons he studied also shielded him. They limited his view of the world and that was all he wanted to see. He even told me once, when I challenged the idea that we should unquestioningly accept these preachers interpretation of the Bible, that we were not meant to interpret it ourselves, that we weren’t qualified, that we could get it wrong, so we must be obedient, and anything else would be heresy.

I’m proud to be a heretic, to think for myself. I am happy to be a part of my new church community, because there the message I receive says, “We welcome Christians, and Buddhists, and atheists, and Muslims, and Jews, and all others, exactly as you are. Let us cultivate a community together, based on our shared values of compassion, respect, kindness, and goodwill. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s be responsible. And let’s share ideas about how the power of Love can transform our lives.”

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