Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Holy Week.

Here's a piece I published in the Oak Leaves recently titled "My Spiritual Journey":

They say you’re not supposed to discuss politics or religion, but since I’ve already made some comments on the former in my earlier columns, why not tackle the other subject as well?

I was born in Oak Park to a typical Irish Catholic family. My father grew up there and attended Ascension and Fenwick; my mother was raised in Austin and went to St. Lucy’s and Trinity. Until they were 18, neither had lived beyond that small patch of land in the Midwest.

I was the fifth, and last, of my parents’ children. I read once of a psychologist who maintained that birth order was a big determinant of one’s personality. While the oldest hewed closest to the parents culturally, the youngest tended to rebel more. Now, to look at me you would never think of me as a rebel, but sometimes I wonder if he was on to something.

Growing up, we all went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. My parents, devout Catholics, never missed Mass – even on all the various holy days of obligation – and adhered to all the rules of the Church. (To this day, I love spaghetti on Friday nights. It’s a carry-over from the days when Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. My mom – a good but not especially imaginative cook --  served it with marinara sauce until Vatican II; then she simply added ground beef. It was a big favorite in our house.) And while the rest of my siblings (and my extended family) followed suit, I couldn’t help feeling just a little skeptical even at an early age.

To give you an example, I figured out for myself that Santa Claus was probably a myth. After all, I reasoned, how could one man deliver presents to every kid in the world in one night? It just couldn’t be possible! So, I wondered, what else was I being taught that wasn’t true?

My latent skepticism was reawakened one day in a religion class in my junior year of high school. The seventies were a somewhat progressive time and my lay teacher began the semester with the question, “Why is there a universe?” I don’t remember what his answer was, but to this day it still haunts me. And the best answer I can come up with is, “I don’t know.” Why would a seemingly perfect being, i. e., God, have a need to create a universe? And why would He create Man? I was taught as a child that it was because God loves us. But how could someone love something He had yet to create?

When I got to college and learned about evolution I wondered, is this all some existential accident? E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist, once told Charlie Rose that evolution implies “no designer.” Whoa! Could that possibly be true?

Now, some Catholics like to square that circle by saying that God “guided” evolution. But that sounds just a little too convenient for me. Why, then, did He take millions of years to do it? And why did it take millions of years – and the extinction of the dinosaurs – before He got around to creating Man? What was He waiting for? I know, I know: It’s a mystery.

But if Wilson is right and evolution is true, then what of the Catholic faith in which I was raised? If there is no God then Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God, right? What am I supposed to do with that?

A few years ago I checked out a book from the library about the historical Jesus. Never mind what religious leaders tell us, what do historians think? And I found out there’s a whole spectrum of thought on the subject. Some historians believe in the literal interpretation of the New Testament: Jesus, born to the Virgin Mary, was the Son of God and rose from the dead three days after being crucified on the cross. Some scholars, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, don’t believe Jesus existed at all, but was more of a legend, an idea. And, of course, every other conceivable historical interpretation lies somewhere in between.

What do I think? Well, Jesus is mentioned by at least one Roman historian of the time. He didn’t appear to have an agenda, but was merely noting the life of an important individual in Palestine. Do I think Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and rose from the dead? Fifty-five years of experience on this planet tells me both are impossible. Was He really the Son of God? Boy, that’s a stretch for me. I would need a lot more evidence than just the writings of Paul and the Gospels. After all, Paul never even met Jesus and the Gospels were written decades after His death. What’s more, historians tell us that the Gospels were written more to inspire than to enlighten.

So, again, what do I think of Jesus? Well, I guess he was a Jew who lived in Roman-occupied Palestine and preached a revitalized form of Judaism. But my main takeway from the study of the historical Jesus is that it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is Jesus’s message, which can be distilled down to three words: Love thy neighbor. Really, what more needs to be said? And isn’t that the basis of all religions on earth?

To sum it all up, do I believe in God? Do I believe in the Divinity of Jesus? It doesn’t matter. Why are we here? What follows this life? And why is there a universe? I still don’t know. And I’m not sure it matters either. If I can just be a good son, brother, friend, husband, father, neighbor, business colleague – a tall order, to be sure -- that’s all I can really do. All the rest of it is beyond my pay grade. What exists beyond our experience? How should I know? I don’t have the tools to access that information. (And neither do you.) All I have is my five senses and none of them can help with the supernatural.

So I guess you could say I’m agnostic. Not only do I not know any of the answers to life’s Great Questions, but I also maintain that they can’t be known. So why bother? Just try to be a good person. Isn’t that hard enough?

Now what time is that game on tonight?

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