Saturday, May 14, 2011

We Trudge On

I don't guess we can ever know what will happen on a given day to create an attitude of reflection. There were several things for me this week-weather, weddings of the century, conversations with friends, the suicide of a 19 year old second cousin. The thing is, when one is from a background like mine, from birth in a Southern Baptist home, it is hard to let go of the idea of God. Even though I never, ever felt very believing, and it took me years to say the word "atheist" out loud, I still struggle with how to define myself, my values, what I believe in. I always wonder, when my heart breaks for a friend who has suffered a loss, does it seem as valuable to them when I say, "My heart goes out to you," or "My thoughts are with you," as it would if I said, "I'm praying for you?"

There is no question that that my mother's use of God to explain the unexplainable, or shut down conversation about anything bigger, is part of the reason that I continue to struggle. I do believe that simplifying a complicated world is the reason for some to believe that everything on earth can be explained with a simple, "God did it." In conversations about evolution, it is often said by those who don't accept it that "The world couldn't have been created by accident because there is too much order and beauty in the world." There is indeed beauty. But there is also ugly and dangerous, and there is no order. Apart from the simplest level, there is only chaos and suffering. The only order still visible to me is that night follows day; moon cycles are twenty-eight days. Any deeper than that, and the order disappears. There are the seasons, but when was the last time that winter cold was followed by a spring warm up, then summer heat and a fall cool down? That order is gone, and the warmer the climate becomes, the more that order will be lost.

There are genetic diseases which cause great suffering for innocent children, there are complications of aging that make getting older hurt for some people. I'm aware of people only in their 60s and 70s who are bedridden, and have feeding tubes because of diseases of aging.  Believers quote the bible and say that God "visits the sins of the fathers to the seventh generation." What kind of loving god would do such a thing to an innocent baby? Genetic mutations happen, but are almost always harmful to an organism. It is by sheer accident that an organism ever benefits from a mutation, but it happens sometimes, unpredictably, and when it does it may improve the survival chances of that organisms offspring. How can a loving god that planned and created everything explain that away?

So, how is all this connected? I guess the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and all the hoopla over it in the US started me thinking. Some of my friends wanted to watch the wedding, to see the clothes and the whole fairy tale aspect of the event. I, who have been accused of taking some things too seriously, was angry about the whole thing. First of all, news organizations have been laying people off, they only print stories off the wires, and say they have no money to fund investigative reporters to root out government corruption, but they can send entire staffs to London for a full week to cover the wedding. As if that were not unconscionable enough, there were riots in the streets of Britain just a month or so ago because the economy has hit them so hard that they have enacted "austerity measures," which affect the lower classes of the British public. But the British people paid fifty-million pounds for this lavish wedding? My friends did convince me that it is okay to look at the positive side of the affair and find something happy in it-and there is that. No question, this young couple seems very much in love. But this happy affair is being talked about as the marriage that will save the monarchy. Who benefits from that? They have no political power, and they cost the British taxpayers an obscene amount of money every year. I've read the original versions of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and they aren't pretty. Neither is this wedding once you get past the facade.

It doesn't help that on the day of the wedding, I learned of the suicide of the youngest son of my cousin. She and I were born the same year, and during our teen years we had much in common. She'd had a tragic life-her father, my mother's brother, was killed in Viet Nam when we were 6. Her step father died when she was a young adolescent. She descended into drug abuse and promiscuity, and then was 'saved.' Our common religious beliefs at the time made us close, and I never shared with anyone my doubts. She met her first husband at a very famous fundamentalist college in the deep south. They were married a long time, but he was an abuser, and she finally left when he nearly let her die in a suspicious fire in their home. They had six children. The night before the  royal wedding, she found his body. When I called, she was under sedation, understandably. But another family member was able to talk to her, and she said "nothing but God will get me through this." I know all the answers of believers when the great "Why?" is asked. But it seems that instead of getting a mother through such an inestimable tragedy, "He" might have acted to prevent this event from happening to a woman who had devoted her entire life to Him. Maybe this is where I get off track; I think there should be an answer to the great "Why?"

I remember in the mid-1980s, when my professional and social life took me out of the sheltered circle of other white, southern baptist southern conservatives I'd grown up with. I worked with people from other countries, who practiced other religions like the "evil" Catholicism and Islam. And they loved their families, and worked hard to provide decent lives and education for them. I've not seen a single one of those people turn up on the news with bombs strapped to their chests. I became friends with these people, and when I had them to my home for dinner, we talked about religion and politics and movies-almost like "good Christian" people I grew up with. As a result of these relationships, and conversations about religion, I learned how similar our religions were, and I began to question the notion that there is only one right and true religion. And one night, I was at my youngest sister's home, and sharing all these new feelings I began to just sob because, "...if anything we were ever taught was true, "I'm going to hell now."

From there my evolution became complete to atheism, as I observed more and more of the behaviors described above, and studied to a degree with a minor in biology. Some in my family have never heard me say the "A-word;" some have, and one of them sent me an email this week saying, "I don't mean to be on a soapbox here, but don't give up on God, he hasn't given up on you." Now, I know that this person loves me, and that she is doing what she believes her "job" as a Christian is. But it is also someone who has never once asked me why my journey brought me here. I work hard to respect the views and beliefs of those I know who believe in anything, and it is exhausting and painful at times that I do not receive a modicum of respect in return for my beliefs. On some level, I know why she never asked me. She is a woman in her 60s who has never questioned what she was taught is the true and correct way to believe, she just accepted it. My mother is the same way. She not only never, even now, questions anything she was ever taught, she gets angry when questioned. Normally I would reply to that email  with an unemotional,  "Thank you." This time I didn't respond at all. I was emotionally drained and  honestly didn't know what to say. 

8 comments:

kelly said...

wow

Anonymous said...

Many years ago during the Lottie Moon fundraising drive for missionaries I remember sermons about how important it was to send missionaries to China and deep dark Africa to take the Word to those who were in darkness and to present them with eternal salvation. I was disturbed that people who never had the chance to hear about Jesus were going to Hell. Just didn't seem fair. I asked a Sunday School teacher about that and was told that you only went to Hell if you reject the Word. You have to have the opportunity to accept Christ as your savior first...but you damned(literally) well better make the right choice. Well that didn't make any sense to me. If all those people were already living in a state of ignorant grace and would go to Heaven, then why in Heaven's (again literally) name would we send people to put them all in jeopardy of eternal damnation? I was maybe 13 yrs old, but I knew there was something rotten in Denmark. Then, when I was about 21, I was one of 2 westerners on a crowded train in India. It turned out to be a very long train ride and my friend and I had not taken and food or water with us. A middle aged Nepalese couple took us under their wing. They had a daughter studying in the US and said that my friend and I reminded them of their daughter and they hoped someone would help their daughter if she ever needed it. They shared their food, drink and blankets with us and we talked for hours. They were Hindus on a pilgrimage to do ritual bathing in the Ganges. Like your friends, they were good moral loving devout people. I remember looking around that train and thinking how supremely arrogant it was to think that my friend and I were the only ones on that train (or continent almost) who held the secret to salvation. Does salvation really come down to a matter of the luck of where you were born(without getting into the niceties about whether you can still get into Heaven if you lived close enough to hear and accept the Word but had the misfortune to be merely sprinkled instead of being dunked)? Are we really supposed to believe that the vast majority of the population of this planet are damned for eternity because they were not born within 5 miles of a Baptist Church? [more to come...]

Nancy said...

Although it is still a work in progress and I don't claim to have figured much of anything out, I sorta see the world religions as fingers on a hand. The fingers are all connected at a source and are different ways of trying to get to the same place...whether you call it God, enlightment, the Star Wars "force" or whattheheckever. I think the personification of that concept as a fatherly figure with a beard (who did inexplicably cruel awful things in the Old Testament..wtf?) is a result of people trying to find a way to wrap their minds around something that we don't understand. The my religion is better than your religion thing is an engraftment onto this journey by imperfect humans because it's what we do. My dad can beat up your dad. My school is better than your school. And my god can kick your god's ass. I disagree with you about the randomness of the universe. I believe the universe, with all of the interdependent systems is anything but random. It is amazingly complex and predictable...which is not the same as saying that it is "fair". The world clearly is not a fair place. But I do believe there is design and purpose in the universe, and I have very personally convincing reasons of my own for believing that there is some sort of existence after this life. What that existence is, how the universe was created and what the meaning of it all is? Still working on that. I don't pretend to know, and I am totally skeptical of people who claim that they do. The "you just gotta have faith" thing doesn't fly very far with me either. It sounds too much like a rationalization. People can convince themselves to believe most anything if they want to badly enough. (Try talking to a battered wife who won't leave the relationship.) But I feel such respect for and kinship with other searchers, people who aren't willing to buy into the party line just because it's what they were told. I'm so glad we met up on FB, and I hope you keep writing. Btw, my husband just walked in and we started talking about this. He said: "Tell here that randomness doesn't have a sense of humor." Good point. -Nancy G.

Nancy said...

The beginning that says "Annoymous" was me, too...but I'm sure you figured that out. I'm just figuring out how to work this site.

Vonnie Hix Shallenberger said...

Thank you so much, Nancy, for sharing your wise journey and comments. I guess it's all about the journey, eh?

Brian Terrell said...

Vonnie, Nancy - both of you make good points and ask good questions. I just wish I could sit down with each of you and talk about some of these things. But please, don't give up on Christ because some haven't had a chance to hear the Good News and some have and reject it or because some who are not Christians act better than some who are. Diligently seek Him through the Word and through prayer! Draw near to God and He will draw near to you! I know He loves you very much and He is pursuing you!

brian said...

One other thing: I know it sounds like the height (or depth?) of boredom, but a systematic theological study of such things as "common grace" and "saving grace" could go a long way in clarifying and answering your questions. Of course, it could just raise more! LOL! -B

Steve Bumgarner said...

Vonnie, I too share the affliction of growing up in the Southern Baptist church. It wore off pretty soon after high school. I don't tell my family I'm an atheist; it would crush them and cause them to feel the need to "witness". I just say I'm a freethinker. Anyone else wants to know - I'm an atheist.