Let Us Pray | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Let Us Pray

Here I am, a spit and polish away from 30, and I still can't figure out what the hell that means.

I remember that time when I was 5 or 6 years old, sitting in my Southern Baptist Sunday school class, as the teacher told us about the parting of the Red Sea. And I turned to the sweet old lady and said with a big smile: "It was magic!" No, Tommy, it was a miracle. Only the devil does magic.

A few years later, I would be reading Odyssey, Astronomy, Sagan, Camus. Phrases like "the benign indifference of the cosmos" rolled off my 9-year-old tongue like a starlight mint, but I watched Bert Felder preach his Galloway sermons on my TV set every Sunday morning at 11. I had been diagnosed the year before with chronic fatigue syndrome, which was my doctor's way of telling me that I was an 8-year-old with arthritis, swollen lymph nodes, and a low white blood cell count, and he couldn't figure out why, but the latter kept me out of church because I would always catch whatever virus was going around. So I watched Bert Felder. My family had gone Methodist a couple of years earlier for reasons too complicated to get into here, but it wasn't a huge switch. My mother was already Methodist before she met my father; she started attending Southern Baptist services because my father was a preacher's kid. She, in turn, was a Congregational Methodist preacher's grandkid who had been attending Roman Catholic services for a little while. Still a Methodist, but she wore her doily and she loved her early-morning Latin Mass. This was not conducive to marrying a divorced Baptist, so she never became a Roman Catholic.

I still remember my favorite Bert Felder sermon. Called "Is God Smiling?," it raked the comfortably upper-class Galloway parishioners over the coals for their, and the white Christian world's, insensitivity to suffering, sin, judgment, redemption. It means absolutely nothing to call ourselves Christians in a world where perhaps a half dozen children will die of preventable malaria between the time you clicked on this link and the time you got to this paragraph, and yet we do. Repent, ye sinners, repent. He didn't mention hell--conscientious preachers never have to, because they bring out a living purgatory in the hearts of their flock--but apparently he scared the big pledgers, because the next Sunday's sermon, titled "When God Smiles," began with an apology for the previous week's gloomy content.

That's about the time I discovered the sixtysomething Scottish minister who spoke on First Presbyterian's televised services. I thought I remembered his name being Ligon Duncan, but that couldn't have been him because I was maybe 14 when I watched this stuff, and Ligon is still a young man, new to the church, now. I couldn't agree with the very Calvinist/PCA theology, but I could dig his passion, his intellectualism, his earthiness, and the Scottish accent was icing on the cake. By then I had already discovered C.S. Lewis, had spent a depressing winter meditating on whether my atheism or agnosticism (I had difficulty distinguishing the two at the time) would put me in Hell--which is really kind of ironic, when you think about it--and had come out of it all a Lewisian Mere Christian, confident in the intellectual foundations of the faith. Over the next year or two, my faith in the infallibility of Scripture would waver, but I would remain a theological Christian for a little while until I settled into a vague commitment to philosophical theism that was Christian almost by cultural default. It was not until 2001 that I started calling myself an agnostic from time to time, not until earlier this year that I began to describe myself as one when people asked me what I believed.

There is a point to this story. Friday night, I went to a party and met someone I had known online for some time; he works for the Jackson Catholic Diocese, and he was considering that Jesuit Master of Theological Studies program offered locally through the diocese by Spring Hill. I had taken two courses in the program myself, circa 1999-2000, and recommended it wholeheartedly. In the course of all of this I realized our kind of shared heritage, because the church he attended was the same church my childhood best friend attended, the church my childhood best friend's family still attends, a church that, I slowly came to discover, many of my present-day friends attend. It's called Christ the King. It's on Lynch Street.

I wonder, sometimes, what it means to be an agnostic who believes in God. Because I do believe, in my own way--oh, not in an "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth..." sort of way, but I pray ceaselessly whether I mean to or not, I see cosmic value in things whether I mean to or not, and I have a natural kinship with and affinity for the sincerely religious. I get along famously well with ordained clergy and monastics--and it seems sometimes like the more traditional and restrictive the tradition, the better. Do I believe that there is an omnipotent being who allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die as a result of the tsunami, but has still done good things in my life and the lives of people I care about? Not really, but I thank him anyway. What does this mean? That I've been programmed, brainwashed? That I'm some kind of hypocrite?

"It is right to give God thanks and praise. It is a right, and good, and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks to you..." The words of the Eucharistic liturgy, that I picked up at St. Andrew's, still sound crisp, new, like I just heard them this morning. But what do they mean? Probably something literal, hammered out over a series of BCP revisions by theological committees. But what they remind me of is something else, something else an Anglican once wrote.

"Joy," C.S. Lewis said, "is the serious business of heaven." Let's leave aside the literalist metaphysical concerns over divine agendas and what happens when our bodies rot and focus on the more central statement, which is that for Lewis, faith is a response. Joy. Gratitude. Penitence. Mercy. It is a right and good and joyful thing, always and everywhere--

I have spent 15 years distancing myself from the lacquered-on literalism of my 13-year-old nominally Methodist mind. Now is the time to ask myself what I got right, and what I got right is that I am a creature, a being, who feels these emotions, these sensibilities, and that I should let them flow through me even if I'm not sure exactly how the universe is stacked up. Because I will never know, I will never understand. As long as I'm Tom Head, ape-descended creature who subsists off plant and animal corpses, I will never know and I will never be capable of knowing. But I will also always believe and always be capable of believing.

There is a reason I understand the sensibilities of sincere religious devotion, of those who take on vows of celibacy or fast on holy days on the basis of a theology I will never be able to literally accept. It is because, our abstract beliefs aside, we feel and channel the same emotions, we have the same thing to say to the cosmic Thou, and that is thank you, and that is I love you, and that is that I repent, and that is that I am giving my life over to you to be an instrument of your peace. I am sending a letter with no address, with no real idea whether or not the intended recipient will read it. Orthodox believers are sending a letter to what I believe is a misspelled name and a vacant building, but perhaps there is a forwarding address. Their hope, that the contents of the envelope will ultimately be correctly delivered, is no less realistic than mine. I may have a secular worldview, but I am a deeply religious man. It's time--indeed, it is well past time--for me to own up to that, to stop feeling superior to the religious world as if these abstract concerns really mattered to me, and to humbly recognize our shared primal commitment to our Lord.

Previous Comments


Tom after reading your article I am comforted that I am not the alone in the struggle "jihad" with religion and self.

wade G.

This is beautiful Tom. I don't have your skill at writing, but I see much of what you describe reflected in my own life. Maybe where I differ is that I still can't write the summary. I know my need for God -- because I know I am not natually a very good person at all, and most of the things that are good about me are there because I prayed a lot and received instruction from Jesus' teachings. But, despite that need, my belief and faith (so to speak) are still entirely unreconciled. I generally either teeter on the edge of despair, or (maybe worse) put it out of my mind and try to just live my life. A lot of people have been hurt because of this. People trust me to have the same faith in life that they do. I tell them that I don't, but they don't seem to believe me. When they do finally come to understand it, it is too late. They have already invested themselves in me, and they are devastated to discover that I really don't believe in the future -- that is, I don't look past the next few weeks of my life. I tell them all along, but no one ever hears. Also, when I teeter too close to despair, I start doing things that are unloving, in a sort of deperate act to try to fix things that are not fixable except by faith. So people really get hurt then. Anyway, I don't mean this to be so depressing. Despite all this, I am still somehow one of the happiest people I know. Ironicaly, that REALLY depresses me {:) Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for this beautiful column.


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