Finding the time to write this article was incredibly difficult, and what I have to write is even more so. I have no doubt that there will be friends and acquaintances who will read this who will find what I have to say here surprising. Maybe it will be a little confusing or disappointing to you as a reader depending on your religious persuasion. Nevertheless, this is an article I’ve held off for far too long. This article is not typical of this blog. I’ve done the best I’ve could to keep most of my personal life out of the majority of my writings here, but considering the topic of faith and doubt, it would be difficult. In light of recent scholarship I’ve read in the past couple months on the topic of composition pedagogies in relation to understanding differences (see my post on Roland Barthes for a better understanding of where I am coming from in this regard), I am finding that it’s okay to incorporate my own story into this exercise. In writing this, I reflect on years of cherished religious beliefs, but also have found that I would have no choice but to challenge them in order to truly live a self-examined life. By this, I am not merely writing an article where I am exploring the philosophy of religion or making any declarative theological statements on faith. Since this blog is geared toward my graduate studies in rhetoric, it should no surprise that I will treat this subject from the standpoint of how it relates to my studies in rhetoric. I am, of course, aware that some of what I have to say stems from my own biases, as well as from my own personal experiences. I also am aware that what I have to say is based on what I know, what I’ve been taught, and what I’ve read. Many of the conclusions I will present in this article are my own, and I have no expectation of anyone agreeing or disagreeing with what I have to say; I only ask that you the reader at least make an effort to understand and not pass judgment. I make no claims to having any expertise in any of the topoi I discuss in this article, nor am I making any attacks on religion or religious thought. In fact, I would be first at the front lines in defending the validity of religious thought, as well as be the first to encourage any kind of religious exploration for anyone who believes it is something that provides them answers to some of life’s most important questions that almost all of us struggle with at a particular point in time.
In light of all this, I am making the conscious effort to describe what my religious views are at this point, carefully reflecting and laying out the terministic screens of how I comprehend this topic in relation to my own perspective, as well as making the best effort I can to describe as accurately as possible the abstract notions I have floating in my head. For some who know me, it may not surprise you as to how unsystematic I tend to be when it comes to my own thought processes. Because of how apprehensive I can be when it comes to labels, talking about this topic in an abstract way is difficult, if not impossible. I’ve maintained (and still maintain to this day) that labels get in the way of meaningful conversation, but it is unfortunately a necessary evil for some. Instead of outright stating what my religious beliefs (or lack there of) are, what I will do instead is lay out a brief history (or at least as brief as I can) of my experiences with religion, what views I held at what particular time, and what my views are now today. To make this process easier, I will provide a narrative of my experiences that help explain how I’ve obtained the views I hold today (as of writing this article March 14, 2015). Some of the names of people I met and places I’ve been to have changed for the sake of privacy, but the core structure of my story is 100% true, from my perspective, to the best of my recollection.
I will start my story when I was a young little boy. A month before my 13th birthday in 2001, my father passed away at the age of 51. He died of a heart attack, which was ruled as a result of the years of stress that piled on him from the PTSD following his tour in the Vietnam war in 1968. The cliche goes that one remembers something as traumatic as that like it was yesterday, but in my case it was definitely true. I remember the night my mother came home and broke the news to me about my father’s death, and I remember losing it and breaking down completely. When 9/11 happened, I was still in mourning, and as a young 13 year old little boy, with the nation being in a state of shock over the terrorist attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor, the death of my father was (from the perspective of a young little kid) understandably more traumatic than the death of 3,000 strangers. Losing my father at such a young age I will admit is something I never truly got over, and because of how close I was to him, I do not believe it is something I ever can. When I reflect on what happened 14 years later as of writing this, I remember growing up in an environment where I found myself becoming more and more apathetic about religion as a result of my father’s passing, despite my mother’s insistence on raising me and my siblings Christian, and even had me be “born again” after watching a play on the book of Revelation at a church somewhere in San Diego. Growing up as a young teenager, I accepted the label of “Christian” because that was the religious tradition I was born into, despite me not caring whatsoever about God or religion.
When I started my first full-time semester at community college in Fall 2008 (I was part-time for the 2007-2008 year for reasons that are unrelated to the topic of this article), I met a girl (who I will call Elizabeth) in my Spanish class who would later down the road have a big influence in my decision to go back to church after years of not going. Elizabeth, I would find out later, was a devout evangelical protestant with a loving and accepting personality with a huge love for Christ. I admit that I did not think much of her (except that I thought she was cute but completely out of my league) until I found out that she was an English major and had an interest in writing, just like me. I later added her on Facebook and struck up a friendship, and it was through her that I found out about a Christian group she was trying to organize on campus. This eventually resulted in her inviting me to a rehearsal at her church (which I will call Grace Fellowship Church) for a play she wanted to put on for the community college campus. I got to meet some of Elizabeth’s friends and even got to know some of them, who in turn became my friends as well. In addition, I eventually found myself joining Elizabeth’s home fellowship, being accepted by the group as someone interested in going to church again. I began to study the Bible again, reading (almost to the point of obsession) the whole book. I felt a sense of belonging and acceptance, and I felt that I was loved by my new found church community.
In the Fall 2009 semester, however, I began to struggle with doubt, and it did not help that the American Literature class I was taking had a professor who (I mistakenly thought at the time) was anti-religious. This was the kind of doubt I’ve never experienced before, and it was hurting me. The beliefs that were engrained in me since childhood were challenged in ways I did not know how to handle, and the experience of going to church again and taking Christianity more seriously earlier in the year made this doubt worse. The church I was attending and the type of Christianity I was engrained in did not prepare me for the intensity of this doubt. I was scared to admit I had doubts until it got to the point where it took me to write a note on Facebook and send to church friends I trusted. I had friends who I got to talk to, who recommended a few books here and there (such as some of the books by Lee Strobel and Frank Turek). I would read these books and study more about the Christian scholarship behind the Resurrection of Jesus. I was introduced to the idea of Christian apologetics, which was something I never heard of prior. I remember one of my favorite books at the time were J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City and Frank Turek’s I Do Not Have Enough Faith To be an Atheist, and with these apologetics books, I would eat up as much apologetics I could get, establishing early on some of my early Christian terministic screens. I also read a lot of C.S. Lewis (I remember Miracles being my personal favorite), which also helped a lot, but the most help I received was from the church family who prayed for me and talked with me about my doubts. The support I received helped a lot, and while it took some time, I eventually to have more faith than I had before. At this time, I described myself a faithful Christian who held all the tenets of Protestantism. While I considered myself an Arminianist rather than a Calvinist, I felt at the time that I was still accepted by my Calvinist brother and sisters who attended the Grace Fellowship Church. I continued on with my life in the Church, going out to feed the homeless, attending fellowship meetings, reading my Bible, and arriving at regular Sunday worship.
However, my doubts did not go away. As I studied more Christian theology, more and more questions about the religion began to surface. I’ve asked my pastors, youth leaders, and even some of my friends many questions that began to bother me about Christianity, whether it be questions about Church authority, church teaching on divorce, sexuality, understanding of justification, abortion, same-sex marriage, prayer, the nature of God, and so on. The questions I had were plenty. One friend in particular (who I will call Hal) was also a student at the community college I was attending and aspiring to attend a Christian University in East County with a goal to become a pastor. I asked him certain questions pertaining to Christianity and he didn’t have an answer to some of my them, and the ones he did answer I felt were unsatisfactory. By this time, many of the answers to some of my questions regarding topics such as the Christian understanding of church authority, the relationship between faith and science (particularly the science of evolution by means of natural selection), and where the Bible came from left me wanting, and it was getting to the point where I felt the church community I was felt more like a place to “hang out” with friends rather than to challenge me intellectually as a Christian.
When I eventually transferred to San Diego State University in Fall 2010, I knew at the time I needed to find another Christian group I could be in fellowship with. Due to time constraints and the proximity of distance from where I lived, as well as where Grace Fellowship Church was located, I knew I needed to find another Christian group. I had told my old home fellowship that I would be back, which was something that later never happened. I went to different Christian groups, attended various worship services, and was even sat with a mentor from one Christian group going over questions about the Bible. Long story short, I eventually discovered the Catholic Newman Center, discovering Catholicism and experiencing what it was for the first time. However, I was scared to try out Catholicism because of what I have been taught my whole life about the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, I was curious by the practice of the Mass done at the Newman Center, and made a conscious effort to attend. In early 2011, I found myself attending Mass for the first time and falling in love with it, but I still had questions about “the Catholic religion” (as my mother and grandfather have unfortunately described it in condescending ways).
This led me to befriend the director of the Newman center (who I will call Mark), and I set up regular meetings to discuss questions about Catholicism. I remember asking every hard question I could think of in the book, and he would get back to me with almost satisfactory answer. In my the beginning of my search for answers, I remember typing into the YouTube search bar “Catholicism” and one a video by Father Robert Barron appeared. What Father Barron had to say about Christian theology was incredibly refreshing to me. Here was a level headed priest who presented the Christian faith in a way that not only answered my questions about Christian theology that was nuanced and sophisticated, but it also challenged me to think beyond what I had been taught about Christian theology. In one video in particular, Father Barron talked about the issue of authority. When I was a devout protestant, the ideas expressed in this video I would have scoffed at, but as someone expressing doubt about Christianity, these ideas were refreshing to me, and it made me realized that there were ways of thinking about faith I had not thought about before. Long story short, it was in my later readings and studies where, exploring both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, where Mark’s answers to my questions started to finally made sense. After taking the time to attend various Catholic and Orthodox masses and reading about the ecclesiastical claims of both churches, I came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was the best place for me. In a way, I felt “called” to the Church I came to believe was the “one true church” started by Jesus Christ. I even attended RCIA and got confirmed into the Church in April of 2012, with Mark the director of the Newman center as my sponsor. It was one of the best moments of my life, and even in my current state of mind, I still look back on that memory with fondness. It was a wonderful moment of my life; a memory of hope and having the feeling of acceptance that all was going to be wonderful. I was a member of God’s family, and part of an ecclesiastical body that made me an intellectually fulfilled, spiritually re-awakened follower of Christ!
All this unfortunately came at a price. Many of the friends I made at my old evangelical church no longer kept in touch with me. Over time, I expressed more and more of my newfound Catholic views as I grew to feel less fearful of what others had to say. On my own Facebook, I used to regularly posts stuff either related to Catholicism, my acceptance of evolutionary theory, quotes from the Church Fathers, and so on. Over time, many of the people I used to regularly talk to from my old church slowly started to fad away. Hal, for example, for reasons I still do not understand to this day blocked me on Facebook. Finding this out was hard as he was a person I grew to respect and look up to as a fellow Christian. Eventually my relationship with my old church grew more and more distant. It was during this time that I made more of an effort to be more involved in the Catholic Church. After I graduated from San Diego State with my BA, I took time off to work various jobs, and I would later volunteer at my parish as a high school youth facilitator for an after school program. My job was to help organize various activities for the high school students involved in the church. While this was not a paid position, I enjoyed what I did and it gave me a reason to go into education as part of my future career path, and planted the seeds for my decision to go to graduate school for the Fall 2014 semester.
The next year of my faith as a Catholic went normal. I was still regularly going to Mass, and I still found myself holding to what could be described as traditional, but mainstream Catholic theological viewpoints. As a Catholic, I fell along the lines of what I would describe as a Catholic who accepted the vital tenants of Catholicism. In other words, I refused to become what is known as a “cafeteria Catholic” because I truly and sincerely believed in what the Catholic Church stood for. As time wore on, I developed terministic screens that were deeply informed by my Catholic faith, which affected the way I saw others. In comparison to former Protestant faith, my Catholic faith was more nuanced and accepting of the differences, even though I still held onto a faith that viewed unnecessary dichotomies in human behavior. What I mean by this is is the fact that I would view non-Catholics as heretics, the big “H” word. No doubt that traditionalists who are reading this will decry at my criticism of throwing around the big “H” word, even if it is supposedly deserved. In 2012, I no doubt would have called non-Catholic Christians heretics. Now I am not so sure, due to my changing prepositions about faith in general.
Which leads to the overall point of this long (and possibly convoluted) article, and the main thrust of everything I’ve said here. My perceptions on religious faith (and religion in general) have changed as a result of further life experience in the following two years after graduating with my BA, and in the time I was accepted into the Catholic Church. Though I do not consider myself an atheist, the way I would currently categorize my current religious persuasion (or lack there of) is a mixture of intellectually accepting ideas important to Catholic theology, but describing myself as what I would call an “emotional agnostic.” Since the term “Catholic” is simply another name for “universal,” I am fine with the term, though I admit that I am not sure at this point if I can truly embrace the simultaneous identity of what someone may simplistically describe as an “emotionally agnostic Catholic.” That being in said, I am still open to the possibility that God exists. My belief leans in the direction of “God” as a name we use to describe the very nature of being itself. I’m sympathetic to the Catholic notion that God is not A being among beings, but truly is being itself. To describe God as A being among beings is to anthropomorphize God, and to do that is a massive mistake. That, however, does not ignore what I describe as the agnosticism I have that comes at a conflict with the Catholic faith I grew to embrace.
In relation to this, someone I met recently told me about a concept she described as “living in tension.” As I understand it, it where there is conflict between your ideals and reality we are a part of because of how we all take on multiple roles. I recall her describing it to me as a positive thing because it forces us to confront not just our own biases, but the cognitive dissonances all of us have. Rather than ignoring it, we should instead confront it and acknowledge it in order to lead more fulfilled lives. As of writing this, I honestly do not know what to make of that, but perhaps there is merit to it. In my time as both a devout evangelical Protestant and in my earlier days as a Catechumen in the Catholic Church, there has been many instances where there has been conflict between what my religious ideals were versus what I was actually experiencing and believing about reality. I remember wanting to truly believe in the idea of the golden rule, only in one instance desiring the urge to want to punch someone in the place for minor offenses that in the long run did not matter. In the time being, I hope to eventually find a way to face that tension and face it head on, acknowledging the cognitive dissonance I may not realize is there.
The doubts I’ve expressed I admit are not part of a systematic understanding of how many people of faith have to have their faith eroded. Similar to Kenneth Burke, I’ve grown to be me more sympathetic to a less systematic way of approaching ideas, not just religion. As a result, I’ve grown distrustful of having a systematic way of understanding and presenting complex ideas. I hesitate to use the word “deconversion,” as even I’m not sure that would accurately describe my current thought process. Perhaps for the time being it may or may not be an appropriate term, but I instead would use the phrase “lost in the sea of uncertainty” to describe my current thought process in regards to faith. Even with my intellectual acceptance of many of the beliefs in Catholicism does not erode the emotional agnosticism that has cultivated in the past while. In my time reflecting on how let down I feel by religion and how religion, when used to suppress people, I’ve tried for a long time to continue on with the notion that it does not matter if Christianity is true. In the past few months, I’ve grown to realize that ideal and the reality I’ve experienced were in dire conflict, reminding me of the times I’ve screamed out to the abyss of emotional turmoil, crying out to a god who never responded to me. The threat of hellfire does not hang over me as much as it used to, as my agnosticism about the existence of a possible afterlife became more and more present with the passage of time. In a way, perhaps this is a good thing as it forces me to face my doubts head on and embrace whatever conclusion I come to, even if it means facing an eternal hellfire.
I have no doubt that people who have a more conservative religious persuasion will read that last line of that paragraph and be horrified. It would not surprise me that someone who is of a strong religious background will read that and think of me as mad. I acknowledge the possible hyperbole, but I argue that it is important to keep in mind the state of mind that I am in as of writing this article. If you believe truth is important, than it would be prudent that prayer and understanding would be far more appropriate responses to what I have said there rather than telling me that acknowledging the willingness to face an eternal hellfire for seeking truth is akin to being mad or having dire issues. The multiple religious rhetorics I have encountered over the years have lead me to think about the way I’ve seen many religious people respond in this way, and it makes me truly think about how many religious people don’t really think about a truly authentic pastoral approach to addressing many of the emotional doubts people like myself have.
In reading this, I have no doubt that you will probably have questions as to what exactly has caused me to come to the conclusions I have made. Were they based on arguments? Were they based on failed expectations? Growing disagreements? A sense of growing individualism? The answers to those questions are complex, and they are answers that I unfortunately do not expect many people to understand. People who are of a more conservative religious persuasion will no doubt argue that my growing doubts are based on a growing sense of what I want, rather than serving what Christ wants. I do not believe that is the case because how can you have this growing sense of want you want out of the church when you already have doubts as to what the church is? In this regard, the rhetoric behind this line of argumentation makes little to no sense to me, as it ignores the fundamental human element of struggling to find meaning but never finding it, even in symbolic religious systems that tout themselves as “the ultimate truth.” The answer, ultimately I’ve found, boils down to what I mentioned previous as the growing tension between the ideal and the reality, the belief and the practice, and having doubts as to what this ultimate truth when there are a multitude of competing truths that showcase the noticeable inconsistencies I’ve seen with many religious beliefs and practices. Do I expect people to understand what I mean by that or to agree with that? Not at all, but it comes closest in describing the abstract thoughts about my views on religion that have swirled in my head in the past few months.
In the meantime, I have no doubt at the current moment that the journey I have been on in the past few years has been an interesting ride, but one that has taken a turn where I need to face my doubts head on. Maybe I’ll continue to live in tension between the intellectual acceptance of religious thought with some of the more predominant agnosticism that has been growing as a result of the conflict I’ve seen between the ideal and the reality. Perhaps in due time I will truly figure out if I was correct in following a truly “traditional” Catholic approach, or maybe I new path for me to explore, or I will be on this journey through the desert, hoping to find my way. Maybe I’ll be that emotionally agnostic Catholic. Maybe I’ll become that person who sees religion as a force for good but find that religion as currently practice has caused harm for people in ways I do not find acceptable. In the end though, I hope to look back on this article in the future and see the kind of intellectual progress I have made. Will I be better? Will I be worse? I do not know at this point, but what I do know is that regardless as to how I settle these doubts, I do know that it will be one hell of a journey, regardless of the outcome.