I have been a skeptic for as long as I remember. In junior high, I was the child who asked the assistant minister those difficult questions. I wasn’t trying to be a smart aleck. I was trying to get my head around those unfathomable questions, the whys of faith, trying to true up a teenager’s reality with teachings that seemed to be both the result of selective historical memory and of exaggeration, if not outright fiction. My questions never received proper answers. It came down to faith; that is acceptance of the implausible. When I asked why I should accept these things on faith alone, I was told that faith was not a matter of should, but must.
That answer, the must, seemed to me to be a reflection of the old, jealous, vindictive, and unpredictable God of the Old Testament. That did not seem to square with the teachings of the New Testament, with its stories of good Samaritans and charity toward all. The New Testament God, the God of infinite grace, would never condemn the souls of the kind and innocent but un-indoctrinated masses. This demand for Faith seemed to me to be superfluous and even coercive, a demand for alliance and support. I rejected it. I would not be coerced.
But that was not all. There was also the issue of obedience. Much as the clergy might try to convince me that their concern in this transaction was the future of my immortal soul, I could not help but believe that it was not my soul they were ultimately concerned with. Others might call it arrogance, vanity or hard-headedness, but I couldn’t seem to subrogate the moral superiority of affirmed mystics over my own perceptions, even if those demanding my allegiance were truly excellent and decent human beings.
I decided that I could accept the wisdom and morality informed by the New Testament while remaining highly skeptical of the more implausible parts. The story of Jesus itself then became a parable of love and sacrifice; I had no need for explanation of its inconsistencies or when it strayed from reality. I could acknowledge that the Gospel accounts were selected among many similar writings; they were subject to translation and retranslation and they may well have been exaggerated. Moreover, if I accepted the idea of human frailty, my own inherent flaws, and tried to live a decent and moral life, the question of my mortal soul became irrelevant. Living a good, decent and moral life was enough. The idea of immortality was rendered irrelevant and unnecessary; Faith itself was irrelevant and unnecessary.
Am I then, a Christian? Christ’s teachings and story inform and guide my life yet I remain a skeptic, a person who believes that if Faith is something that someone must have to be a Christian, then I have failed that test. I do not reject religion, so I am not an atheist. I sympathize with William James’ inability to rationalize the existence of God, yet I am not an agnostic. And yes, I pray sometimes, for wisdom, patience, clarity and for others, while I also acknowledge that this practice may also be irrelevant and unnecessary. But somehow it helps me and I still think it is good.