Between the ages of 10 and 12, I was mentally committed to the church, to being a Christian, but there were still things that troubled me. I was worried about how you could know it was all true. How could I know God really existed? How could I know Jesus was more than just a character in a story I liked?
The obvious answer — you can’t — never seemed like a possibility in church culture. The assumption was that we were all there because we just knew. There’s a hymn we would sing, "Blessed Assurance." It was all about certainty, conviction.
So how did we know? I assumed it was one of those things, like driving and sex, that would all make sense to me when I was an adult. There was something adults knew that I didn’t, something that allowed them to be certain, and I would eventually figure it out.
Because I worried, I constructed elaborate fanwanks to try to make it all fit together.
(Fanwank, or fan wank is the term for a fan-generated extra-textural explanation for an apparent inconsistency in a work of fiction, used to help sustain the illusion that it’s a true depiction of a self-consistent universe, rather than a story somebody made up. Of course, one person’s fanwank is another person’s legitimate literary interpretation.)
Sometimes I fell for the fanwanking of others. For example, the little joke called Pascal’s Wager. This is a construct suggested by Pascal, a French philosopher, who reasoned that living your life as if God exists is logical because if he does not exist, you have lost nothing, but if he does exist you have gained eternity.
It’s a logical flaw, of course. It’s a false dichotomy — it assumes only the existence or non-existence of one particular God, whose desires we can know. It’s the Christian God against nothing, not the Christian God against an infinity of possibilities. But I fell for it, because it seemed so reasonable and logical.
I had another problem. The Bible is full of contradictions. This was something I could clearly see just by reading it. And yet, I was told by church that the text was true and perfect in every way. So I did a lot of fanwanking. Maybe it wasn’t a contradiction at all if you just found the right way to look at it. That was my job as a Christian, right? To find the right way to look at it? To force it to make sense?
One example: "Nobody comes to the Father but through me," a statement attributed to Jesus, which was often trotted out as why it was important to, so to speak, introduce people to Jesus by converting them to Christianity. So, I was very troubled by the implication that people had to know Jesus by the right name or they would go to hell. That just seemed so arbitrary and unfair I couldn’t believe in it. I couldn’t believe in a God who would work that way.
Also, elsewhere in the Bible (I can’t remember the exact wording well enough to look it up) Jesus makes it sound like the important thing is to do what he says to do, and that you can sort of know him in your heart even if nobody has ever said the word "Jesus" to you. So my fanwank was to assume that there is a difference between Jesus, this one guy, and Jesus, a mystical universal force of love, and the "nobody" quote is referring to Jesus the universal force.
(Yeah, I was a closet universalist, it turns out.)
Another disturbing inconsistency for me was the way the character of God the Father changes over the course of the Bible. He starts out being a whimsical psycho with superpowers — more like Zeus or Odin or somebody like that. Then eventually he evolves into this kind of all-encompassing force of universal love which is also Jesus.
Now, I believed the universal love force was correct and the whimsical psycho had to be a distortion. So my fanwank was to assume that the portrayal of God the Father was, er, technically true, but incomplete, especially toward the beginning. That the Bible reflects a people who came to understand more of the truth as time went on, until Jesus, and then the truth was complete.
Like a lot of Christians, I felt obliged to justify my ethical and mystical beliefs according to what could be supported by the Bible. But the Bible isn’t all that clear-cut in a lot of areas, especially when you consider how things might apply to the modern world. And even if it were very clear-cut and modern, the different interpretations would still be legion.
(Trust me, I have an English Lit degree, I know these things.)
There were things in the Bible that I couldn’t quite fanwank into clarity. And there were things I couldn’t fanwank entirely into harmony with my own conscience. So I followed my conscience.
Yes, I worried that I might be wrong. But if I went against my own conscience, just because that seemed to be what the Bible had to say about it, then I would have been even more worried that might be wrong. After all, if there really is a God, and he really does communicate with us humans, doesn’t it seem reasonable to assume that the moral compass is what comes most directly from him? Without the potential for details being mis-represented, mis-translated, misunderstood?
It seemed to me I had no choice but to follow my conscience and assume that if I turned out to be wrong about something, God would understand.
I believe this is, actually, when you get down to it, more or less, what everyone does. They try to find a way to justify their internal sense of right and wrong in the context of their society, including their religion.
This is why I don’t have any use for the "just following orders" excuse that some religious people use for their bad behavior. You’ve heard it, I’m sure. "Oh, it’s not me who wanted to blow up those schoolchildren! It’s my god! He told me to!" "Oh, I’m not the one who hates gays! It’s my god! He told me to!"
I simply don’t believe it. Period. I don’t believe that people have faith in a god unless they find that god reflected somewhere in their own heart. People who really, deep down, believe in a god of hate — I’m not sure what is to be done with such people. Shunning, I suppose, unless they actually break laws such that they need to be locked up. Maybe they can be redeemed, although it’s hard to imagine someone like Fred Phelps repenting.
However, I do believe that people can be socially intimidated by other members of their community into going along with a program that violates their internal sense of right and wrong. Call it the lynch mob principle. People can find themselves in situations where they are rewarded for working hard to realign their internal moral compass to be in keeping with the group. They are actually working to stifle their own internal sense of right and wrong. They have given their own moral agency up to the will of the group, and they call that will "god."
When we look back into the past, at the Salem elders or the Inquisition, it’s easy to see this as wrong, and a violation of Christian ethics.
It seemed to me that you could use Salem as an ethical rule of thumb: which side would have condoned this behavior? Witch-burning elders, or accused witches?
As a young Christian at North Orange, I felt fairly secure that most of the time our church was on the side of the accused witches. I was vaguely aware that there were other churches out there on the Salem elders side, but we didn’t go to one of those churches. We didn’t approve of those churches. We didn’t think that was the right way to be a Christian.
So I thought. I was a bit naive, it turns out.