A few years ago, I found myself sitting in a World Religion class. The end of term was near and the teacher gave the class a question to ponder.
“Now that you’ve learned about the religions covered in this class, which one do you feel appeals to you the most?” The teacher asked the class. He gave us a few days to think about our answer.
Now to most of the class, that question was a no-brainer. To a few, who were not particularly religious, it gave them an opportunity to consider some options. To me however, the question was a very profound one. The reason was, I honestly did not know how to answer the question.
The denomination I grew up in was not necessarily of the mainstream variety. It was a blend of Seventh day Adventist, Judaism and a few other odd concepts like the belief that Great Britain and the United States were among the lost tribes of Israel. There was strong focus on end-times theology, a general dislike for any religion other then that denomination and plenty of places to place guilt.
I eventually left that church and had moved to the mainstream evangelical faith, particularly a small Southern Baptist church where I found myself serving as church pianist and worship leader. I’d spent a year in self induced comparative theology between my old church and my new. It was a study full of surprises as I discovered much about the bible that had been carefully avoided in the denomination I grew up in. I vividly remember reading the parable of Jesus and the Rich Man for the first time. I had never known of its existence until I was in my thirties. You see, even though the old church claimed they followed the bible, in reality, it was more a set of passages with a lot of church based commentary bearing the stronger burden of proof about the church’s tenets. I learned a great deal, and for a time embraced this new chapter in my faith.
However, a lot of questions remained. I’d always been one to have a lot of them, even if I didn’t always express them. One of the things my old church did not encourage was asking questions about church teachings, and I’d harbored several over the years. I now was having some of them answered. At the same time I was finding myself discovering more and more questions to ask. Finding a receptive audience to those questions was a challenge. I remember the dressing down I got when I dared question, at a business meeting, why it was assumed that Muslims went to hell. I never got an answer, at least not at that time.
During this time and the years that followed, I tried to do what I could to get as close to God as possible. I read books on faith, I attended bible studies, I listened, and I began writing, as I tried to figure things out. Yet something was missing, that personal connection. I was told I needed to pray more, read the bible more, study more, have more faith. I tried it all. Although, as all religious devotees experience, at least I think, there were times where I felt God was right there close to me. I didn’t understand them, but delighted in the experience. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to understand God, what it was about God that was so appealing to people, why there was so much difference in beliefs just within Christianity, much less in other faiths. In other words, my curiosity seemed to be overwhelming any supernatural, esoteric experience.
By the time I found myself in that classroom, my life was at a complete crossroads, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I was in the throes of a horrible divorce, which was ringing the death knell of a worse marriage. It was a devastating time, and I was trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. Attempting to get a degree was one way to do so. I had received some support from the church I was now attending following a move to South Carolina a few years prior, but I felt like just a person in the pews. Maybe it was me, but I felt that the church didn’t have much to offer to women who were divorcing abusive husbands who had long-term addiction. As a Christian I felt isolated, something actually not new, as people in my situation aren’t exactly forthcoming about what is going on in their life. Added to that was the feeling that God just didn’t really care enough. I’d certainly prayed enough, over the years about my marriage, my faith, my finances, the health of others, asking, begging for answers, direction, anything, and felt that I was meeting with the usual silence. I’d reached the point where I wondered if this whole God thing was real or not.
This is where I found myself as I was asked that question in class. I was also taking an Ethics as well as a beginning Sociology class during the same term, so I immediately saw how the three disciplines, religion, ethics and social structure intertwined. I decided to go into the class being as objective as possible. This a mindset was made more interesting when I discovered that the teacher was also a Baptist preacher who just couldn’t quite separate himself from his beliefs to give each faith an examination on its merits alone. That disappointed me a bit as well as another classmate. We played devil’s advocate during question and answer session, which likely drove the man slightly insane. However I needed to ask those questions. I was looking at religion from a fresh perspective, and was, for the first time finding some surprising similarities between them. I concluded that all of us are simply trying to connect with the divine, trying to do what is right to please God and to live with our neighbors peacefully. It is in the construct and practice where things differ.
Which brings me back to the question. I looked at all the ones studied, and settled on three, Baha’i, Buddhism and Christianity. The first I rejected for being a bit too idealistic. What they hope for is beautiful, a Utopian existence. But I found it, knowing humanity, unrealistic, and would ultimately be frustrating for me. That left Buddhism and Christianity.
It was a tougher choice then I had at first assumed. There was some strong similarities between the teachings of Buddha and of Jesus. Both taught that a devotee should strive to be peaceable, to be forgiving, to be considerate of the needs and plights of others., Buddha urged not only care for people but also our environment, which I also believed were compatible with biblical principles. It was in the differences where I needed to decide. Buddhism taught a life circle with multiple chances to get life right. Christianity taught one as well, but the circle was essentially complete upon death, which was in the singular. Buddhism wasn’t concerned so much with looking outwards to the divine, but rather inwards. Christianity taught the opposite. It is in that where I found my decision.
The one difference that mattered was in divinity, or one’s quest for connection with God. All other faiths, at least the ones we studied, had man working to please God. I’d grown up with that in the denomination of the first half of my life, and in many ways it existed in the denomination I was currently aligned with. Yet, when one stripped away all the dogma, theological renderings, denominational leanings and interpretations of scripture, one prime teaching in Christianity remained. God loved me. I didn’t have to jump through any hoops to earn that love, it was already happening. To me that was the most important belief to hold on to.
When I gave my conclusion, my reasoning was as I just stated. Thus began a quest to really examine my faith, to strip it down to its bare bones, and decide what was going to work for me and what wasn’t. That meant that everything was on the table when it came to the religion I settled on. It also meant that I was destined not to be your typical Christian.