Born into a Methodist family in a rural Tennessee community, my first exposure to religion was in a small Methodist country church, surrounded by my parents, my three sisters and one brother, my aunts, uncles, cousins, and a few neighbors. All were decent, honest, hard-working, law abiding people. We did not have well-educated pastors assigned to our remote circuit, as the smarter pastors went to urban churches. We got the uneducated preachers, and listened to many fire and brimstone sermons, based on the threat of burning in hell forever if we sinned.
As a child, I attended many funerals in that church. I looked at a dead relative or neighbor lying in their casket. Then, I stood on the hillside by the open grave and watched as the casket was lowered and dirt shoveled in on top of it. I did not believe that Resurrection Day would come whenever Jesus decided to catch us off-guard by reappearing on earth. I did not believe that those long dead and buried people would come up out of their graves and start dancing around, shouting with joy at seeing Jesus who would then take them to heaven. My nine or ten-year-old brain was thinking “There’s no way that can happen”. I didn’t buy it. No, I didn’t buy it at all, but my curiosity was piqued, and my longtime questioning began.
We were taught in Sunday school that God is love. I couldn’t see how a loving God would force somebody to burn in hell for eternity, just for doubting or having a different opinion. Anyway, wouldn’t your body completely burn up in a day or two? Why would it need to burn for eternity? I saw Christian teachings as contradictory, with so much to fear from a punitive, angry God who we were instructed to love.
In Sunday school, I learned all the Bible stories. I learned about Adam and Eve naked in the Garden of Eden with a talking snake and forbidden fruit. I learned about the baby Moses hidden in a basket in the bulrushes, and later receiving God’s orders from a burning bush that would not burn up, and later parting the Red Sea allowing the Israelites to walk across between the walls of water. I learned about David killing the giant Goliath with a sling shot, Daniel surviving in the lions’ den, Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back, Noah gathering all the animals aboard the ark to save them from the flood, Jonah being swallowed by the whale and surviving three days in its belly, Jacob’s dream ladder to heaven, the virgin birth of Jesus, and the star that guided the three wise men to the newborn baby Jesus in the manger. I learned about Jesus turning water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead, walking on water, and feeding the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes. Those stories are part of our culture, and I am glad I learned them. I accept them as rich Biblical legend and lore.
As a teenager at Murray State College in Kentucky, I participated in Methodist youth groups. It was a safe and familiar social activity. However, in church on Sunday, when we read in unison The Affirmation of Faith, I was thinking “That’s not right. I don’t believe that”. So, I stopped reciting it, though it was permanently etched in my memory.
Church was not big in my life during my teaching and Air Force years. My husband, Mac, and I both came from Methodist families, but didn’t pay any attention to it, and did not train our children in religion. None of them were ever baptized. I had a vivid memory of my own baptism in the Standing Rock Creek Methodist Church at age twelve, when our poorly educated preacher dipped a zinnia blossom in a bowl of water, and placed the drippy thing on my head. The experience didn’t do a thing for me, but I guess it made my family feel better that we were conforming to the conventional way of doing things.
My daughter Clea’s high school friends would not believe her when she told them she had never been baptized. She asked me once, when I picked her up from Siesta Beach in Sarasota, to convince a group of them that it was true. Her friends, in dripping wet bathing suits, gathered around my car and I told them it was true that Clea had never been baptized. They stared at me, not knowing what to say. I think they were scared for her.
While living in Sarasota for eighteen years, I dabbled in yoga and meditation. I took a lot of adult education courses, including one on study of the Bible. I decided to read the Bible in its entirety, using a schedule for reading two or three chapters a day, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis on January 1st and finishing with the last chapter of Revelations on December 31st. I did that, but, like my baptism by wet zinnia, it didn’t do a thing for me. Just for the sake of being well informed, I decided to study all religions. I researched Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Shinto, Southern Baptist, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zen, Quaker, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Voodoo, Scientology, and Zorathustra. Most of the history surrounding those religions seemed to be about political control, bloody wars, power, or fairy tales. I am by nature probably closest to being a Zen Buddhist, a Jainist, or a Gnostic, but even those seemed unnecessarily complicated to me.
Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, I looked into astrology, had a handwriting analysis done, went to psychic fairs, got my palm read a few times, and even took an adult education course in the reading of Tarot cards. The occult does not seem out of place in my overview of religion. I believe, on some level, all religion is occult.
In Sarasota, I started attending the Unitarian Fellowship, largely made up of intellectual free thinkers. After moving to Gainesville, I did the same thing, once again drawn to the Unitarian Fellowship. The attendees tend to be well educated and open to challenging discussions. I loved the fascinating talks by their scholarly minister. He led a dream interpretation group in which I participated and thrived for several months. My dreams were rich with Carl Jung archetypal symbolism and always made good seminal fodder for group discussions. But, when financial strife developed within the Gainesville Unitarian congregation over buying the property on NW 34th Street and building a new building, I gradually stopped going. I didn’t have a dog in that fight and got no benefit from their angst.
I don’t do well in any organized group, but, if I were the type to join a group and participate, the liberal, free-thinking Unitarians would be my group of choice. Some well-known celebrity Unitarians are Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Adams, William Howard Taft, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Schweitzer, Linus Pauling, Clarence Darrow, Herman Melville, Ray Bradbury, Paul Newman, Horace Greeley, Louisa May Alcott, Rod Serling, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Darwin, Ray Kurzweil, Millard Fillmore, Steve Allen, Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, and Alexander Graham Bell. That is not bad company!
I was captivated by Joseph Campbell’s Power of the Myth television series with Bill Moyers. He compared rituals of different cultures who had never had contact with each other and found similarities. Their various methods of honoring the dead were particularly interesting to me as I was dealing with the death of my son, Casey. I studied Carl Jung, and the I Ching, and alchemy. I studied Sanskrit mandalas, which are Hindu or Buddhist graphic symbols of the universe. I was captivated. I read about the Yogi Maharishi and transcendental meditation. My best friend and walking buddy at the time, Alberta Junkin, was a TM practitioner. While walking together and discussing our life issues, Alberta would wind up quoting the Maharishi by saying “problems are seldom solved at the level on which we discuss them”.
A favorite book of mine is The Dalai Lama’s Cat, narrated by the cat who had free rein of the Dalai Lama’s office and met all his guests. When asked who my preferred lunch partner would be, my answer is the Dalai Lama. He and I would have some chuckles laughing at life. When asked what location I would most like to travel to, the answer is the Buddhist palace in Llasa. Once there, I know I would have difficulty walking on the steep mountain streets. Also, I would start advocating for female voices in the chants of the monks, so it is best I stay right here at home and admire the Buddhist life from afar.
Many people complicate their lives with narrow minded religious beliefs that they have never questioned. Families are torn apart due to long-held religious loyalties. Religious seekers are searching for some illusive help outside themselves to answer life’s unanswerable questions. I believe the answers are within us. Admittedly, some churches do wonderful social and community outreach. They provide valuable social structure and network. The architecture can be breathtakingly beautiful. The music transports us, and we benefit by hearing it often. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to find a different church and go inside to soak up the ambience of soaring beauty and worship. The human spirit, and its reach for something higher, is truly awesome.
For myself, some years ago, I came to this simple way of thinking. I assume there is a spark of Divinity in each person I encounter, and I treat each person accordingly. I have no interest in life after death, but instead am interested in living a beautiful spiritual life here on earth. I have great reverence and awe for life on this earth, including our planet’s position in the cosmos. I try to think ‘big picture’. It is comforting to me to feel at one with the universe, breathing with it and feeling an integral part of the whole. I like to think my strength is within me and involves my relationship with the whole. Rather than looking outward for a Higher Power, I rely on my inner Self for wisdom and strength. It is a simple and beautiful thing, which works for me. I suppose this could be called Pattie’s do-it-yourself religion. Plus, I really like not having to get dressed and go to church on Sunday.
One thing I do like is reading Rabbi Marc Gellman’s “The God Squad” article every Saturday morning in the religious section of The Gainesville Sun. I look forward to his weekly common-sense wisdom, laced with a touch of wry humor. The Rabbi’s recently deceased co-writer was a Catholic priest and they were close and loving friends. Together they formed The God Squad, and I have never disagreed with anything they said in those articles.
So there you have an overview of my curiosity-led spiritual journey. I am satisfied with my way of thinking and am no longer searching for further truth in the matter. My worshipful attitude toward the universe works for me. I am definitely not knocking on doors or arrogantly trying to impose my ideas on anyone else. I could never be an evangelist or missionary. I believe each person should find his or her own way to spiritual certainty, and it is okay with me for each person to have a different answer.
Perhaps the answer is in the seeking itself. Long live the seeking nature of the human spirit!
One thought on “MY DO-IT-YOURSELF RELIGION”
Clearly written, flows smoothly. A good piece. the only thing that bothered me was the long list of unitarians. I wish you would name “a few of my favorite unitarians.”