Thursday, February 15, 2007

Letting Go of God?

by Julia Sweeney
from The Best American Nonrequired Reading

These days it seems as if God and who's a "true believer" or not is on everyone's mind. I suppose I shouldn't say everyone, if who I really mean are the politicians running in the 2008 presidential election hoping to get the religious right votes which ferried Bush into office twice, those people who are the religious right, and those of us deathly afraid that those religious right folks might give us another pean of Bush-style religious sanctity.

But its relevancy to the political environment isn't what makes Julia Sweeney's autobiographical piece which charts the devolution of her belief in God such a wonderful read. It was wonderful because - and I'm being completely subjective here - I related to her journey every step of the way. Step one: The smug superiority Sweeny feels towards the Mormons who come knocking on her door, I've felt that. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, which is as much a fringe faith as Mormonism is but I still felt that sting of superiority when I could question my Baptist friends on the origin of Christmas accutremon and they would come up empty.

But then, Sweeny writes, "I realized that I had been getting a bit lazy about my faith...So I decided to rededicate myself to my church." That's step two, we have in common, except my rededication wasn't a result of missionary Mormons but the consequence of reading a library pamphlet which included an unflattering history of Jehovah's Witness. That's one of the few places Sweeny and I diverge - Sweeny rededicates herself to her faith to prove herself right. I rededicated myself to prove someone else wrong. Our rededications both had the same result though: surprised disgust, growing disbelief, and an undying hope that things are going to get better as soon as we learned a bit more and had a little more faith.

During my own Bible study and struggle, I too had the conversation that Sweeny has with her priest as he tries to explain away her confusion and disillusionment with the Old Testament: "Well, the Exodus story is myth in the sense that it never actually happened. But it's not a myth in the fact that the story was believed by a group of people who shaped their identity in the world based on thinking it was true...You have to read [the Bible] with the eyes of faith," the priest says. That speech didn't work for Sweeny and neither did it work for me. I mean really, if the priest is right then he can't seriously argue that there's any difference between Christianity and Greek mythology if it's all based on myth, nor from any other religion in history of the world for that matter. What religion in the world isn't used by its believers to shape their identity in the world? According to the words of the priest - and according to the words of my own spiritual leader - it's not required that the stories in the bible be true, only that we believe they're true. If that's not the largest crock of bull I don't know what is.

And finally Sweeny and I took that last step together: Admitting to ourselves that we believe there is no God and learning how to live with that. "And I began to see the world completely differently," Sweeny writes. And she's right, you do. Sometimes the world looks better than the way it did before with God in it and sometimes it looks worse but mostly it just is.

"Letting Go of God" is a journey. Like any good journey, there's suspense, drama, love, and loss. I loved it because it's a journey I've taken. You'll love it too because it's a journey we should all take, even if we don't end up in the same place.

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