That Old Time Religion

12/22/2010 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This time of year my thoughts naturally turn to God and religion. Not because I'm conventionally religious: I'm not. Not because I have any certainty that God exists: I don't. But this is the most religion-oriented season for me: I hear and sing lots of Christmas carols with God and Jesus mentioned; I go to church for Christmas Eve services, and sometimes on Sunday morning as well; I listen to (and sometimes am even asked to say) lots of family pre-dinner prayers; I may well get into family conversations or even debates about theology and faith; and I do think of my religious upbringing and the Bible I read so much growing up, and still do fairly often. Talking politics and religion are two of my favorite things to do. The first one is my job, so I get to do it a lot. The second I mainly get to do with my family (outside of the random blog post), so that is part of why I enjoy this season a lot.

I stopped thinking or worrying much about whether there was a God about 35 years ago, when I was in high school. Once I realized that there was no way to be sure what the answers were to whether God existed, whether there was an afterlife and what kind it might be, whether there was a soul and what that meant, and all those other metaphysical issues, I stopped worrying about it much. I figured if God was the jealous, hot-tempered, unpredictable, sometimes even genocidal God of much of the Old Testament, I was screwed anyway: I have never been very good with that kind of authority figure. And I figured if I had to guess right as to which of the many religious dogmas that claimed to be the only path to salvation, my odds really sucked and I wouldn't make the cut anyway.

However, I did come away from my upbringing with certain core beliefs still intact. The moral teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels have never left me: treating others as I would wish to be treated; loving mercy and kindness and compassion toward those weaker and more vulnerable than I; being generally non-judgmental toward others, but caring passionately about justice. And I was raised to believe that at the end of my days, I would ultimately be judged by how I treated the poorest and most desperate among us: whether I fed the hungry, whether I gave thirsty water to drink, whether I clothed the naked, whether I gave shelter to the homeless, whether I helped those in prison and welcomed the stranger. That belief has never left me, although the judgment I expect does not necessarily come from God, but from my own sense of self worth and from the people I know.

I come out of my upbringing with the sense that something binds us humans together spiritually, with the feeling that we are something more holy than just a bucket of bolts. The humanity we share feels deeper than just a common ancestor 5,000,000 or so years back. I don't know what that common connection is, whether a godly creator, a universal soul, a collective memory as Carl Jung described it, a "force that flows through all things" as George Lucas described it, or something else. So maybe I do believe in some form of God after all, although I sure don't understand what it might be. I do still like to get into all those theological arguments back home, and I think if there is a god(s), he/she/it/they must have made us so we argue constantly about the existence of one mostly for its own enjoyment. I do some theological debating via email with a very conservative, very Christian nephew, and the way I put it to him recently was this:

This arguing back and forth is always interesting and enjoyable. But again, argument is all it can ever be, because the world of spirituality, of the soul, of God if he exists, is unknowable. However, in a sense, I do have faith, in the way the Greek word for faith is originally meant: trust. I trust there is a spiritual force in the world greater than myself, but I don't invest a dogma with that trust, I don't claim to understand what it all means. I have trust in something greater than myself, but I have doubt at the same time, because I don't claim knowledge or certainty about the unseen.

In my view, the Bible from its very beginning never had a single message. When its editors started to put together various books and oral traditions into a scripture, they happily and intentionally included different stories and different visions of God, sometimes literally side by side as in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. And in those early days, writers and editors are known to have edited heavily, written new things to fit the political and spiritual needs of the times, and given entire new meanings and interpretations to the stories. These different visions and ideas and philosophies and interpretations made the Bible more holy in my view, not less. The fact that God casually walked among us in some parts of the Bible, and could not be seen or spoken to in another; that faith was more essential to Paul but works were more essential to James; that man was created before the animals and plants in one version of Genesis, and after in another; that Jesus was in utter despair on the cross in one story but peaceful and accepting in another: these variations and contradictions make the Bible all the more beautiful to me because they show the writers were wrestling with their beliefs about God. There was no dogma that all must follow; there were debates and ideas about what God was and intended all in the same scripture.

And so the debate goes on. We are meant to struggle with it. We are meant to wrestle with it. We become holier when we do so. At the end of the day, I have faith that what we believe has nothing to do with our soul's fate, unless that belief leads us to evil acts. Faith is not dogma or doctrine, it is trust in a spirit of goodness that we all have access to. And if we love our neighbor as ourselves, if we treat others as we would wish to be treated, if we love mercy and kindness, if we treat the least of these as if they were Jesus himself, we can come to the end of our days knowing that we have lived with grace and go happily to our resting place.

So that's my quasi-religious, somewhat-agnostic Christmas message. Let the debate go on, as long as us humans exist, but hopefully we can do it in a way where we aren't killing and condemning each other while argue. And hopefully, when we stop debating and start acting, we can embrace a community where we look out for each other in a way where the weak and the ill and the hungry and the stranger are welcomed into that community as brothers and sisters.

Have a great holiday season and a good new year.