For the past couple of days, I haven’t posted anything, mostly because something has happened I’ve been burning to write about, but am reluctant to because I’m afraid of what my atheist and agnostic followers will think (my feelings get hurt easily LOL). I know that’s silly, but if I don’t write about this I feel like I might explode. And I want to keep this blog active. I dearly hope my atheist and agnostic followers can keep an open mind and realize that this is something personal that has happened to ME, and in no way affects anyone else or my views about other faiths including agnosticism and atheism. I have a deep respect for all belief systems (including the right not to have one at all) and atheists and agnostics do make a lot of rational sense and I can understand why they feel the way they do about God and religion. Hell, I more or less felt that way myself until just a couple of days ago, and I don’t see myself as a person who would ever shut my mind off from their all too often very valid viewpoints.
But still. I have to blog about this, so here goes.
When I wrote my post, “I made a little deal with God,” I really didn’t expect anything to come out of it, other than a lively discussion about God and religion, which is what happened and I am grateful to all those who participated, no matter whether they’re Christians, pagans, atheists, or anything else. So after I wrote that post, I put it in the back of my mind and moved on to other things. After a couple of days, I concluded that because nothing dramatic had happened and there was no Saul-to-Paul-like “miracle” or sudden, earth-shattering change of heart, that perhaps the atheists were right and there was no God at all, that He was just a comforting construct invented by humans to deal with the stresses and injustices in our lives. Perhaps Napoleon was onto something when he said, “religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”
But in spite of all that, I’ve always been a spiritual seeker and was never satisfied with the atheistic idea that we are just a random bunch of cells that happened to glom together and gradually shape-shift into our current form. I’ve always believed there was something more, much more, but never found a religion I was happy with. Apparently God saw my post and decided to take me up on my challenge. Because two days ago while browsing the web, I came across a Catholic website, called WhyImCatholic, which is basically a bunch of testimonials from people who converted to Catholicism from other faiths, ranging from born-again (Protestant) Christianity to hardcore atheism. I have no idea how I found this website or what I was looking for, but the subject matter was interesting so I started reading some of the testimonials. Why would anyone become a Catholic, of all things? So I started to read and I couldn’t stop reading. I found that, unlike the many born-again Christians who had tried and tried without avail to explain their faith to me, these stories ACTUALLY MADE SENSE! Imagine that.
More about that later, but let me give you a little background on my relationship with Catholicism. While I’m not Catholic myself, I was raised in northern New Jersey, where Catholics were as common as toadstools after a rainstorm. Almost all my neighbors were Catholic (with a sprinkling of Jews and atheists) and I was sent to Catholic schools (the one thing I’m really grateful to my parents for, due to the superior education Catholic schools usually provide) for most of my childhood. As a child, I remember envying my Catholic friends, because of all the cool stuff and rituals their Church had–such as rosary beads, incense, a new name they got at their confirmation, and statues and painting of Mary and the saints. The Methodist church my family sometimes went to (we were really an agnostic family, and while I was sent to Sunday school and was baptized by my paternal grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, my parents were never churchgoers) didn’t have any of those awesome tangibles and there was no “mystery” to Methodism (or any other Protestant church I ever attended) like there was at the Catholic masses I had the privilege to attend with my friends or at school. As I got older, and learned more about what Catholics actually believed, I found I didn’t agree with their doctrine and also had a number of problems with their stance on abortion, homosexuality, women in the clergy, the celibacy of the priesthood, etc. But despite my issues with their beliefs, and even with my ambivalence about God and Jesus, my attraction to the Catholic mass did not wane. From time to time throughout my adulthood, I’ve attended Catholic services, just because I like the ritual and the formality of the liturgy, the chanting and the hymns. There’s a lot to be said on an aesthetic level about Catholicism, but I never really embraced what they believed and in fact now realize I had closed my mind off to a lot and had developed a lot of preconceived notions (some which are simply not true).
In 2003 I attended a 5-day retreat sponsored by a local Catholic church that also happened to be extremely progressive on many issues. It was an amazing experience (and a lot of fun), and I was surprised that one of its leaders, a Cherokee Indian named Owl, was not even a Catholic. He taught us about Cherokee symbology and mysticism and we spent one golden August afternoon making stone carvings of a “totem animal” we had chosen to represent ourselves. This was Catholicism? It was all so New Age, even Pagan. Of course this was all balanced by a morning Mass, Bible readings and very personal and deep group discussions about spirituality and God. There were other non-Catholics attending the retreat, including another agnostic, two Protestants and a Jew. There was nothing about that retreat to offend the sensibilities of an agnostic like myself, and so I decided to take their RCIA classes (the classes you are required to take to become a Catholic). But in my current spiritual state and embroiled in an impending divorce, I quickly lost interest once the discussions in the classes became too Biblical and religious. I explained to Father Bill (the priest running the classes) that I’d learned a lot but I didn’t think I was ready. He was very understanding and told me he understood and to take my time finding my path. And so I moved on, chalking up this experience to one more thing I’d undertaken but eventually abandoned (my track record for sticking with anything to the end is embarrassing). Other than attending one Midnight Mass about 5 years ago, I never thought about Catholicism again until a few days ago.
So anyway. I was reading the above-mentioned website, and was riveted by the stories of people, many much like myself–intelligent, thoughtful, educated, forward-thinking people who were ambivalent or even opposed to the idea of religion and submission to God and Jesus–who had decided through various means that the Catholic Church was right for them. I found a link on that site to another website that explained Catholic theology in exhausting detail and is set up in encyclopedic form, so that you can type in anything you want to know about in the search bar, and get all the information you need about the Catholic stance on that topic. Sometimes there was just too much to read! But what surprised and shocked me more than anything is all the misunderstandings and preconceived notions I had about the Catholic church. It came as quite a shock to find I agreed with most of their views, or at least wasn’t particularly offended by them when I didn’t agree. For example, while abortion and artificial contraception is still unacceptable, unlike fundamentalists, who preach about sin and what the Bible says/doesn’t say on these issues, the Catholic stance on these things actually made rational sense! Imagine that. I won’t get into their stance on those things here, as it’s not my desire to convert anyone, but suffice to say that there is nothing about their reasoning that offends my rational mind. I’m not saying I agree with them on these things (I don’t), but simply that their stance does not offend me. Nor does it judge opposing viewpoints in the harsh way that fundamentalist Christianity does. Granted, there are a few Catholics who are also very harsh and judgmental (and a few in politics), but they are almost always evangelical Catholics, who are not really any different from other evangelical Christians. There are extremes in any religion. It also holds a great deal of weight for me that Catholics are opposed to killing in general (in spite of their bloody past, which they have publicly apologized for), and while against abortion (for sound reasons to my way of thinking), they are also against the death penalty.
Some of the explanations the site offered seemed to be a perfect reconcilation between spirituality and science. They spoke to ME. For example, their stance on evolution is one that I’ve held myself for a very long time: that evolution is most likely a fact, proved by science (as well as the 3.5 billion year timeframe for the age of the earth), but was divinely inspired by a higher intelligence we call God. Now, they don’t actually take an official stance on this, and there are some Catholics who do buy the Creation story in the Bible, but Catholic theology doesn’t dispute evolution and it is acceptable to believe in it, as long as God is given credit for being behind it all. As for Adam and Eve, you have the choice to think of them as a literal couple in the Bible, or a figurative story about early civilized humans falling from grace. They acknowledge that while humans have probably been around for several million years, and evolved from ape-like ancestors, that shortly after we became sentient, and developed the capacity for self-awareness and the idea there was something greater overseeing things (which happened about 10,000 years ago), we fell from grace (which I won’t get into here as that’s not my aim in this article and it would take too long). Adam and Eve represent tribes of ancient peoples in the near East, not actual persons. I won’t get into all the theology behind that now, but that’s the gist of it, and it actually made sense to my skeptical, science-loving brain. Taken this way, it was possible to read the Bible as truth but realize at the same time that the details in the stories were allegorical, not a literal account of historical events. I always wondered how so many of the world’s greatest scientists could also be devout Catholics, and this explained how that could be possible. The Church’s support of science and encouragement of scientific thought is cetainly impressive: a very high emphasis is put on education and this is shown by how many Catholic-run colleges and universities there are today.
This article is getting too long and unwieldy to contain in one post, so Part Two will be posted later today. I have to run a few errands first.
Next up: Catholic mysticism, the concepts of grace vs. works, the Trinity, Jesus as Savior, and more.
Note to my atheist and agnostic readers: I certainly you continue to read and follow my blog! I value your contributions, and am in no way attempting to convert anyone, just relating what has happened to me in the past few days. I hope you keep reading!