My Journey Beyond Christianity
by Harry Willson
Excerpt from Part I: How God Died
Why this hesitation, this difficulty putting down the first word—the inclination, stopped in mid-air, was to write, "I"— I'm doing the thinking, the remembering, the writing. Didn't I make the decision to undertake this examination? Isn't it my life that is to be exposed here?
Not really, perhaps. Not entirely my life—it's not something one possesses. It was not my decision, exactly, either, this writing, which is now begun, ready or not.
I shall have to use the word "I" in order to do this. It's false modesty, and annoying delay, to pretend otherwise. Circumlocutions have their place, I firmly believe—I'm convinced we should insert long and cumbersome ones wherever others so glibly insert "God," for instance—but I'm not going to take the trouble to circumlocute "I." Not at this stage of the examination, anyway.
I recently passed my sixtieth birthday. I began using the phrase, "Second Half Journey," ten years ago, when I was fifty. I gathered a file of observations with that label. Think of life as a circle, a large flat wheel. You ride along on the wheel. As you ride you can look across and see, dimly, the other side of the wheel. When you're twenty, you can look across and see forty—sometime in your future. When you're forty, you can look across and see eighty, and you'll go ahead and assume that that's in your future. I did, anyway. When you're fifty, you're not so sure. My great-grandmother lived to be 101. My father died of emphysema at age 89, and he and all of us believed he could have reached 100 if he hadn't smoked for seventy-five years. Now past sixty, I look across that wheel of life, which turns faster than it used to, and the other side is a point in the past, not the future. It happened when I wasn't looking. I got into the second half.
When I passed fifty, I was aware that I had lost a crutch that I'd been carrying since childhood. I had found it in the Bible— I learned that book when I was very young. I fully mastered the content of the stories before I was twenty. Then I learned the original languages, Greek and Hebrew, before I was twenty-five. One way or another, the Bible has been an important element in this life that is now going to be examined.
Anyway, when the Pharisees and the Sadducees were cross-examining Jesus, he kept referring to God as his father, and kept implying that he wasn't going to die.
"Are you greater than our father Abraham?" they asked. "He died!"
"Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day," Jesus said, and one may wonder what he meant by that. "He saw it and was glad," Jesus added.
"You are not yet fifty years old," they said, "and have you seen Abraham?"
Then comes the famous answer, which makes this little section memorable to most readers and critics. Jesus said to them, "Before Abraham was, I am."
Well, my little crutch, which I used for decades, was that earlier phrase, "You are not yet fifty years old…" I used it to justify failure, procrastination, and a thing I then called laziness but now no longer do, since I have come to regard the impulse to-never-rest, which I had, as a form of serious mental illness. I used my little crutch, saying to myself, justifying myself, getting myself back into motion, "You are not yet fifty years old, Harry. You still have time. The clock is ticking, however. Get going. Get at it."
Then one day, more than ten years ago, it was no longer true. I could no longer say to myself, "You are not yet fifty years old." Gone was that crutch, that excuse, that whip. Now, at last, it feels like good riddance.
At sixty, I'm enjoying very much this stage of my life. Far more than childhood, which is supposed to be so carefree and peaceful, and in my case wasn't. Far, far more than adolescence, which was no fun at all. I like being one of the elders; I like the slower pace. I don't feel that the pace is being forced on me by a deteriorating physical condition. Instead it feels like I'm smartening up a little. I don't need to push so hard. My effort is not what turns the great Wheel of Being. Good things happen without my effort, almost in spite of all my contriving. All the wasted effort—for a while I thought that's what it was, but I feel that less now. Maybe I'm accepting the fact that all that fruitless, thankless work helped make me what I now am, and since I'm beginning to accept and like the person that I am, all that effort wasn't wasted or bad. But I push less now.
I used to resent the notion that what was happening to me, what I was going through, was preparation for something that was pending. "Well, when am I finally ready? I feel ready! Why not now? If not now, when? Why is it always delayed, while I prepare more?" The good things I thought I wanted then aren't so important now. A larger income. Payment for work done. Some recognition. What I have now, and what I am now, is very fine—and I've translated the old it's-all-just-preparation notion into the writer's comment, no matter what he's experiencing: "It's all copy." If nothing else, I'll make a story out of each adventure. The people I feel sorry for are those with no adventures. I feel sorry, but I stay away from them. Don't tell me you're bored!
This enquiry will be full of stories. Incidents I remember. Wisdom that I've been exposed to, and am now at last old enough to appreciate. Insights I've come to by examining my life. "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates said that. It's not in the Bible, and most church activity discourages self-examination, really, but I subscribed to the examined-life idea somehow, early on, and still do.
I am not going to recount everything that happened to me. I mean I'm not even going to try. I did spend one year, fifteen years ago, trying to remember and record every pre-teenage memory I could dredge up. It did me good. But this examination has a theme—and here again I find myself hesitating—sorting words, weighing one against another—what is this theme? Faith, maybe. Myth and Truth, maybe. Are they in conflict? Most think so. I do not think so.
My wife, Adela, and I were discussing our disappointment in the behavior of a certain person after a recent public confrontation. "I thought he'd speak up," I said. "I can't believe he didn't say anything." "It's no surprise," she stated. "No tiene credo." Adela uses both languages, all the time. The wishy-washy, undependable behavior could be accounted for, she thought, by noting, "No tiene credo." It could be translated, "He has no creed," but it's not exactly a creed, like the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. It doesn't necessarily mean a historical official belief system. It could almost be translated, "He doesn't believe in anything." Or even better, "He doesn't know what he believes." His undependable behavior, which triggered this discussion, is due to the fact that he lacks a well-thought-out set of convictions.
This enquiry has to do with that, as it pertains to me. I was born into one of those old official belief systems, The Presbyterian Church, and bought into it as a child. I then spent decades working myself, and thinking myself, out of it, or on past it, as I would now say. I am a post-Christian, not an ex-Christian. For a while I was really "out of it," and resentful of the time and effort wasted. More than three decades! Half a life! But I have come to believe that one cannot be faulted for starting where one did, and that liberation, at any age, is better than continued bondage. "The only thing that we done wrong was stayin' in the wilderness too long! Keep your eye on the prize!"
I have observed that some, when they get to this stage on the Path of Liberation, look back and dismiss all of that which they needed liberation from as crap, nonsense and worse than nonsense. I felt that for a while, but now do not. I find myself living, as never before, "by faith." I find the sense of wonder alive and well within me. I find myself more submissive to—to what? Words fail me. I choke and gag on the word "God," as we shall see. But there's something—not an Entity, even—maybe simply The Whole Thing—what is It up to?
I do not believe that existence is meaningless. I see order and purpose everywhere, except in the behavior of organized human groups. In atoms, in galaxies, inside myself, in those beautiful people with whom I share life and thoughts like these—I see something. Not that I've come back, like a Prodigal Son, to Authority. I have not done that, and cannot foresee doing it. But I've been made aware, like I never was when I was a faithful, loyal, official, professional holy man. What is this?
I asked several of those closest to me, "Do you regard me as a man of faith?" At first they stalled. The phrase sounded churchy, and they knew I didn't have any contact with organized religion anymore. Their stalling made me stall, too. Could it be said of me, "No tiene credo"? No one I have asked thinks so. So then, Harry, if you don't believe that, that old system, but you do believe something, what is it that you do believe? That's the theme of this enquiry. And related to it is this question, "How does what you believe affect what you do?" Not what you say, or even what you write (writing is a form of saying, and one can lie…), but what you do!
My life, and this enquiry, have to do with myth, from Parsifal to Faust, from Trickster Coyote to Indira's necklace. I find myself in all of them.
As a boy I loved the Norse myths, and then the Greek. I learned the Bible stories as Truth, and became alarmed when it was first suggested that they, too, were myths. The fact that I was able to accept the fact that Christianity was myth during my college studies, before I ever went to seminary, meant that I stayed with it longer than I would have otherwise. I could have rejected Christianity, from a rationalist scientific point of view, as simply false, and never learned the Greek and Hebrew and all that horrible, horrifying church history. At this point I'm glad that I did not reject it then, too early and too easily.
Instead I went all the way through it. At the time I was born, my parents were serious church-going people, caught up in the Oxford Movement of the early 30s. My father was from English Quaker and German Pietist stock in Pennsylvania. My mother had come from Scotland and the Presbyterian Church. I came into awareness taking quite for granted a conservative sort of Protestant Christianity. Fundamentalism was around, in Bible Tabernacle summer episodes and some summer church camp counselors. I flirted seriously with a fundamentalist group, called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, during one year in college. I separated from them with the conclusion that they were really mean-hearted, cruel and unpleasant people, who ballyhooed a god that I found to be unjust and immoral and unkind. In seminary I learned the history of the fundamentalist movement, and my study of the original languages made the fundamentalist teaching of the inerrancy of Scripture totally ridiculous. The only reason I think fundamentalism is worth bothering to refute is that they have grabbed political power in many places, and are therefore dangerous as well as ridiculous.
In seminary we studied what the fundies called Barthianism, after Karl Barth. It was also called Neo-orthodoxy. It feels extremely conservative to me, now, but was hopelessly way-out and "liberal" from the fundamentalist point of view. In classes we studied Emil Bruner's books even more than Karl Barth's. God was sovereign, utterly. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer illustrated "radical obedience." I tried to illustrate it, too, in my life, and became a Spanish-speaking Presbyterian missionary in New Mexico.
I kept reading and thinking, and I noticed that some of my colleagues did not. Others of us met in small informal groups and conferences. I became involved in the local community and found myself championing "liberal" causes, in the name of the gospel I was preaching.
I opposed the bomb-shelter craze of the early 60s, convinced that it was a way of sanctioning nuclear war. No Christian would build a bomb shelter and then defend it and its contents with a rifle. He would give all he had to feed the poor and then die—and meanwhile he would preach and protest and scream that nuclear war was an evil abomination, totally unapproved by God and the Prince of Peace. This was the message I kept proclaiming—in a town that made its living from a nuclear weapons laboratory.
I found myself caught up in the Black Liberation Movement. I came to believe that Martin Luther King was the last best hope for humanity and for Christianity. Nonviolent insistence on justice for all could head off the pending revolution—if it didn't, Christianity was going to be irrelevant, I thought. I watched the churches reject Martin Luther King and his cause, until after he was murdered; then they helped build and adorn the tomb and monuments of one more dead prophet, per usual. And I observed that standard-brand Protestant churches became more and more irrelevant to daily life in this world.
I opposed the Vietnam War from the very first, since the days of Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. Most Presbyterians were proud that Dulles was a fellow church member, but I was not. My opposition to the war led me into more and more activism: protests, marches, sit-ins, teach-ins—I became known in town as the radical, hippie, Commie, even black (although I'm not an African American), angry young preacher.
Meanwhile I was reading and thinking, and finding myself not believing more and more of what I was supposed to be teaching. "Americans had better be hoping that there is not a just God," I thought. "What will happen to Albuquerque if peace breaks out?"
I attended a summer session at the Presbyterian Seminary in San Francisco. Thoughts I had been feeling guilty about thinking were pronounced aloud from the lectern. The relation of early Christianity to myth was spelled out, and parallel stories carefully read and compared. I was left with a kind of homemade gospel of human solidarity, but not much of a God. The doctrine of God became the crucial question for me. The doctrine of the church had never amounted to much in my thinking, and was long gone. I lasted only one more year, pretending one could continue to "bore from within." I found out that I, at least, could not.
I found myself outside the institution—starved out by a non-supportive congregation. That part was hardly any wonder. I was sliding through the history of Protestant theology, and exposing it to the people, or them to it. I noticed again that most pastors did not do that. Neo-conservative, liberal, social gospel, demythologization, remythologization—it was all too much, too fast. Parishioners complained, very candidly, "We don't want to hear about the prophets and their message for our time. We want comfort!" That particular statement came from a woman whose son was at that very time giving himself cancer by dumping Agent Orange on the rain forests and the peoples of Vietnam. What comfort could I give?
It was hopeless. I had found the God-is-dead theology during that summer in San Francisco. I preached it, lectured about it, including on local TV, and became known as the local God-is-dead theologian. Actually, the more famous God-is-dead theologians (Altizer, Hamilton, Vahanian) puzzled me. I took the key phrase to mean, "What we thought was God, isn't. What we were worshipping is an idol made by us. That God is dead." But those guys seemed to be saying, and meaning literally somehow, that the sovereign God who made heaven and earth and ruled all things had put in and died and that we should have a funeral. I was as puzzled as anybody, really, but one phrase from Hamilton was not puzzling: "The faith is flawed, but the love is not." I coasted for a little while on love, and then found myself outside, and more alone than I had ever been.
from FROM FEAR TO LOVE|
© 2012, Harry Willson