My father, like anyone, was dumbfounded when he found out he had cancer, but the news that caused his foundations was found in the lateness of the discovery. The cancer started in his prostate, and when that kind of cancer is caught early, the chances of survival are good. My father, though, didn’t know he had anything wrong with him until he went to the doctor for his incessant back pain. Because my father suffered a broken back from the steel toed boot of an abusive father, he had bouts of chronic pain throughout the year. When my father complained more of the pain, our family doctor told him it was the sciatic nerves acting up, and he needed to take it easy. The pain did not relent, and when he went in for a check-up, my father discovered he had cancer. The disease began in the prostate, and then spread throughout his bones. The cancer had metastasized in both femurs, his entire rib cage, his lower back, and the back of his skull. For those who are not aware, when cancer is metastasized there is no return, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and go directly to the grave. When my father asked how much time he had, the doctors estimated he had one year.
My father had religion imposed on him by his father since he was born, and after his father died, he decided to live life on his terms. We didn’t start going to church until I was nine, but that had to do with my great grandmother wearing down my mother with guilt trips. My great grandmother, and most of my mother’s family for that matter, are not religious people, but use church attendance as a means to navigate through society without being bothered. Church made you appear God fearing and good, and they made use of that appearance to do all manner of swindling of their family and neighbors. My mother’s lack of attendance exposed their hypocrisy and deception. We lived in my great grandmother’s house so we went because my mother felt like she owed her grandmother something, and my father went along to church to keep the peace in the house. He didn’t like my mother’s family, and the feeling was mutual, but he didn’t want to be hassled any more than usual. My father still believed in God, but he was pissed at God for letting his father die. My father was twenty-one when his father succumbed to leukemia at the age of fifty-four, and did not teach my father anything. Without his father to show him what it meant to be a man, my father had to learn everything the hard way. God left him helpless, so God could fuck off. As he got older and gained a better understanding of life, he got over his anger with God, and went on life as usual.
My father was an intelligent man who never gave himself much credit for his intellectual prowess. He studied and read the bible so much the binding of the book wore thin, and came to the same philosophical and theological conclusions of the early doctors and fathers of the church without every reading them. He had a rational faith that was practical in his everyday life. As an adolescent, the big thing in church was people asking incessantly, “What is God’s will for my life? What does God want of me?” My father thought these questions were ridiculous and responded, “What is God’s will for my life? It’s Monday, so God’s will for my life is for me to get my ass out of bed, and go to work to take care of my family.” When my father realized he was going to die, and to die from cancer, he had to stop. He stopped going to church, he put away his bibles, his theological books, and refused to watch any religious programming—his favorite being the Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley. He wasn’t pissed off at God, nor did he assume there was no God—he needed time to think, to question, to doubt, and determine if he really believed in God and the words of Jesus. “I want to make sure I taught you boys the truth, and didn’t waste my life.” My father didn’t give himself a timeline, but it took him three months to break apart every letter of the bible and doctrines of the church and come to a conclusion. His mind moved that fast, and he determined God as real and Jesus as true.
My brother and I came to very different conclusions than our father, and when we voiced our doubts on God, our father was not threatened. “I disagree with what you believe, but all I care about is that you’re good men.” My brother is agnostic, and takes an indifferent approach, “I don’t know if there is a God, and I don’t care.” Just like me, he is well read and can tell anyone, who ventures to ask, how he arrived to his conclusions. My ignorance, though, is not indifferent. I have this inkling that we are more than chemicals and flesh, and that inkling is like an itch on your back that is a millimeter away from the nail of your middle finger—almost there, but you suffer until you find a tree or a brick wall to scrape off that dry layer of skin. That doesn’t mean I am more “spiritual” than my brother, but that we look at the notion of God differently. Think of our agnosticism in terms of the Kinsey Scale with 1 being a hard agnostic and 10 as one who is not altogether agnostic. My brother would be a 1 on the scale while I am a 6. I find the Judeo-Christian narrative fascinating because the idea of a God taking literally our stories and becoming one of us to help us find our way tickles my inner storyteller; but the reality isn’t there. The absence of the reality has to do with the myriad of terrible experiences I had from churches and many individual Christians. True, it’s about God and not about people, but my father always told me that “you may be the only gospel anyone ever reads,” and the low quality gospels I’ve “read” has made Jesus seem like a distant fairy tale; but, I still attend my friend’s church because I see some substance to the practice that validates their belief in Jesus.
With the probability of the United States experiencing a nuclear strike from North Korea, the matter of my own death meets me eyeball to eyeball like Stephen King’s killer clown, Pennywise cackling as he tells me we all float down here. I don’t know how my father felt when he realized that he would soon die, but I understand his intellectual and spiritual reaction to the matter because I’m doing that, too. Is God for real? Is Jesus true? As we lurch towards midnight on the doomsday clock, I am at a loss for words because I don’t know. On some level I’ve always had that uncertainty, but the threat of extinction has brought that uncertainty out of the dusty cellars of my subconscious to the forefront of my conscious mind. I’m envious of my friends who are atheists and the friends who believe in God. They know. They have looked at all the evidence before them, and they can tell you, me, and their grandmother at Thanksgiving why they think there is a God or there is not a God. Their certainty gives them a strength to face nuclear war with courage while my trepidation will blow throughout the cosmos after my body has turned to dust.
A few years ago while at Blackburn College, my religious studies professor, Dr. Meyer, a brilliant and patient man, started a discussion about a Muslim speaker that came to campus to educate everyone about Islam. The original guy could not attend and sent one of his younger students who is unapologetically conservative. He was nervous and maintained a black and white position that left a bad impression on the female and LGBT students on campus; but when you talked with him one on one his faith was not as exclusive. The next day, Dr. Meyer was livid because he studied Islam, and he thought the speaker only confirmed negative, false stereotypes. I raised my hand to agree with his point, “But I also respect him because he didn’t evade the questions, and we all knew where we stood.” It was a wonderful discussion. After class, I went up to Dr. Meyer to talk with him on the way to his office. While carrying his binders he told me, “You know, that was one of the most peaceful debates I ever had.” I chuckled because I didn’t realize I had started debating with him, nor would I dream of doing so. I began, “Dr. Meyer, I’m jealous of that speaker, I’m also jealous of my friends who are atheists and the friends who are theists because they are certain, and I’m sitting here completely ignorant.” He nodded, “If you were certain, you would be dangerous, but you don’t know, and that’s why I like you.” I went away encouraged. Later, I found out he was a pastor, and I became shocked because he was the first pastor to celebrate my doubt.
This is why I think St. Thomas has been given a bad rap by Christians after Jesus’ resurrection. The account of St. Thomas’ doubt is highlighted in The Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was written close to the end of the 1st century C.E., and as I wrote in a previous post, the gospels are not historical fact, but a highlight of Jesus’ teaching to a specific community. In John 20:24-29, Thomas was not with the rest of the twelve when Jesus appeared to them, and did not believe they saw Jesus, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the prints of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25 NKJV). I’ve heard pastors and other Christians insult Thomas’ lack of faith because he needed material proof, I don’t think they respect Thomas’ perspective, and they have the luxury of being on the other side of the story.
I am not so presumptuous as to demand that God be revealed so I can touch the wounds of Christ as St. Thomas did, but I desire to know the reality of God—if God truly exists. Yes, I am filled with overwhelming dread over the possibility of all of us being turned to ash because Kim Jong-Un wants to prove his dick is bigger than Donald Trump’s, but I don’t want to say God is real because I need a some sort of blanket to provide me the illusion of warmth. For me that’s a regression to an early stage in development. If God is real, then God is real when the sun is shining and the wind blows through the trees and in the shadow of destruction. Sure, turning water into wine after everyone has already had too much to drink will make you a hit at parties, but a miracle doesn’t address deeper psychological needs. There is substance to faith, and I don’t think it takes a suspension of logic to have faith. William James pointed out that people don’t believe based on rational arguments but believe an idea because the idea feels true. They adopt the belief then support their choice with rational argument. The desire for me is something that is real and feels true. At this point in my life, Christianity is a good story I will listen to, but I do not see any substance. Years of abuse in the name of Jesus have created a stumbling block, but I’m not stubborn in my rejection. I don’t want to put my fist into the gaping hole in Christ’s side, but I want to see the realness of Jesus in my own life. Frank Schaffer put out a memoir he titled, Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God, and I relate to the title because I’m an agnostic who prays to God hoping that God is real.