At age 21, I had the temerity to believe myself called to ministry until I actually grew up to understand that life is not about religion but about individual spirituality. While I do still prescribe to many Christian principles, I no longer view religion in the tradition that I once studied.
With the exception of my mother who gave me my first rudimentary understanding of Christian salvation, I cannot say that I truly know what my extended family believes in despite watching and participating in the religious rituals that make up their lives.
My mother was at home in the emotional pandemonium of Pentecostal practices; my grandmother, in the routine services of Methodists; an aunt, in the legalism of Seventh Day Adventism; another grandparent, into Baptist evangelical fundamentalism; a great uncle, into Catholicism; yet each at home in their respective but divergent practices of ostensibly the same faith.
There always existed a peaceable disagreement amongst the more fringe family religious practitioners to acknowledge each other’s right to their faith but to quietly disavow that the other could attain salvation unless practicing the same way that they themselves believe that they achieved it. And so the fundamentalists prayed for the salvation of the Catholics while the Pentecostals prayed for the salvation of virtually everybody; and so on.
It all made sense to each of them but never to me. It reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” where war ensued between nations over which side of the egg to crack open first. I came to the conclusion that either something was wrong with each of these interpretations of faith or God could not possibly exist in the absolute manner that each perceives Him.
Doctrinal duplicity permeates religion in a way that is far more damaging than everyday politics. It is an irrational affinity toward traditional doctrine over and above enlightenment that dares to question the faithfulness of those who choose to no longer crawl, understanding that they have been given feet upon which to walk. It is the argument akin to stating that had God intended one to walk on those feet, surely one would have been born not crawling but walking like others in the animal kingdom. Thus, it is more spiritual to not defy the traditional doctrine of crawling by standing. As ridiculous as this may sound, much of what exists as fundamental church doctrine today is equally dubious.
One of my all time favorite quotes is by Frantz Fanon. I do not quote many people but this one in particular reached out to me years ago: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission: fulfill it; or betray it.” While every generation has a responsibility to learn from the past, we cannot merely be followers of the paths set by those before us. We must find within ourselves a greater wisdom, a more compassionate understanding, and a mind capable of being loosed from all that we think is right, and embrace the courage to challenge all that we have been taught to believe as true.
Because so much history is full of only the interpretations of the day or lies for the comfort of some and the enslavement of others, we cannot merely be satisfied, complacent or complicit in the bondage of our spirits to that which we cannot also be entrusted to challenge without we ourselves being called less than honorable or spiritual. We are taught so many things that, somehow, do not seem quite right to us but we fail to question them because the lessons come from those whom we believe love us and always had our best interest at heart. But if one was born and raised in bondage, what do they know of liberty?
That is why each generation, out of the obscurity of first hand knowledge of bondage must find it’s own way of living free from it by creating new paths that will never again lead back to it. We can no longer believe things just because our parents believed it. Practice things just because our parents practiced it. Live certain ways just because our parents lived it. Were that the purpose of life, women would be footstools and children seen and not heard.
It is not to say that all lessons of the past should be tossed aside with reckless abandon. It is to say that each successive generation enjoys the luxury of perspective absent the bias upon which many traditions are formed. I remember the first time I wrote an article that spoke candidly about issues of race. There were elders in my community who swore I would meet with an unfortunate end and that I had better stop writing that way. That was 1984. Their minds were bound to 1964 and were trying to bring me to that level of thinking.
The same occurs in religion when we are taught to practice and believe a specific set of rules and behaviors. Man is a spiritual being and religion has nothing to do with spirituality. Religion is man’s attempt at a comfortable understanding of himself and his relationship with God. Spirituality, however, requires that we are never comfortable, that we are always questioning, and striving, and daring to be, and to become, and to grow in boundless ways. I have found few people willing to pay the price for such freedom when they can settle for a comfortable bondage at a discount.
For some it is simpler to believe in a book and an interpretation than to have the courage to write their own future across the pages of time. But we each have a responsibility to be of good courage and to fulfill what our hearts speak to us. Songwriter James Taylor appropriately wrote “there’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway; a song that they sing when they take to the sea; a song that they sing of their home in the sky. Maybe you can believe it, if it helps you to sleep. But singing seems to work fine for me”.
Life is our vessel and enlightenment our sails. Our free will sets the course and challenging traditions gives us insight to the direction before us. We ignore these challenges to our own peril. Nevertheless, it is ours to ignore. There is nothing sacred to the human experience. No history that is of greater or lesser importance- only knowledge to be gained and wisdom to be gleaned. I don’t want to live and die the way that those before me have. I find contentment in the struggle to discover, than to merely be acceptable by resting in what has already been found. By no means am I any great scholar but rather an unapologetic bard of my own observations.
If nothing more, my children will have something that most never attain- a greater understanding of what the world means to he who fathered, them, as I have, likewise, attempted to attain the same of He who created me.