Once a month I visit with my mother who lives a couple of hours away. Typically, we talk for a couple of hours, I take her out to eat and we run some errands. Though I am a minister, spiritual teacher, and a writer, we rarely talk about religion. There is a reason for this.
On a recent visit, I took her a copy of my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. I did this, as I have done with all my books, because she is my mother. And because I am her son, she reads them. She doesn’t read them quickly or easily, but she reads them.
She told me, “They’re deep.” What she really meant was, “How the hell did my son come to believe such nonsense?” She would never admit this. She would severely object to the way I just used “hell,” in her view a perfectly sound biblical teaching. I am joking, of course . . . kind of.
Our conversation turned toward the state of the world. Such a state signals for many conservative Christians that Jesus will soon return. She was reflecting, “I’m glad I am not going to be here. I am glad I will be caught up to heaven.” She asked me initially, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back soon?” Then, she remembered who she was talking to and rephrased the question rather tentatively, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back?” She did not appear too optimistic about my response.
Not really wanting to get into it I answered, “Well, I’m not sure what I believe about that.” She couldn’t understand how I could be unsure when it’s clearly in the Bible. It was time to jump in, no matter how cold the water.
I responded, “Well, the early Christians who wrote the New Testament also believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Paul told the unmarried people at
to stay unmarried because he believed that the world as we know it was going to
end soon (see 1 Cor. 7:27-31). It didn’t happen. They were wrong. Maybe they
were wrong about the whole idea of Jesus returning.” At this point, I thought
about doing an excursion into apocalyptic thought and imagery, but then came to
She said that the Bible cannot be wrong. I responded, “Sure it can. It has been wrong about a whole bunch of stuff. You can find support for genocide, for slavery, for female inferiority and subjugation to men—it’s all in the Bible.” I continued, “The Bible contains both transformative texts and oppressive texts. There are both wonderful and terrible texts in the Bible. The Bible argues with itself on any number of issues.” She wasn’t buying it.
I asked, “Do you know any infallible human beings?” She most certainly didn’t—everyone she knew was full of flaws. I continued, “Fallible human beings wrote the Bible.” Her response was that God made sure that what these fallible human beings wrote was infallible truth. She couldn’t explain how that could be so, but she knew it was.
Then she asked, “You don’t believe in hell do you?” Apparently this was something she wanted to ask me for some time and so she seized the moment.
“No, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place, but I do believe in judgment. Judgment, I believe, can be painful, though I think it is also hopeful. I believe in judgment the way I believe in a purifying fire that takes away all the dross and impurities. I believe in judgment the way I believe in the knife in the surgeon’s hands who wounds in order to heal.”
“But the Bible says . . .” And so we were back to the infallibility of the Bible which I knew would take us nowhere. So I asked, “Do you really believe a loving God would torture people?” She tried to defend God, as most Christians who believe in a literal hell do, by saying that God doesn’t send anyone to hell. “We are given a free will. People send themselves to hell.”
“Really, you believe that?” She did. I replied, “If there is a hell, who created it? If people end up in hell, surely it is because God has arranged things that way. If God knows that a person is evil and will always be evil and will never choose the good, couldn’t God just terminate that person’s existence? God wouldn’t have to torture them if God didn’t want to; after all, God is God right? Why would God do that? You wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t torture anyone. Are we more loving than God?”
She made a decision at that point not to try to reason her way through it. She said tersely, “It’s in the Bible and I believe it.” She also believes that God is a loving God. I encounter this frequently; people who believe in a literal hell and in a loving God are rarely open to consider how utterly unreasonable and contrary to common sense that appears.
She just couldn’t understand how I could believe these things. I said, “Mom, you believe what you believe because that’s what you were taught. All the preachers and teachers you have ever trusted reinforced these beliefs. I use to believe all these things too, because that is what I was taught. These teachings were reinforced by friends, by professors and ministers I associated with, by the churches I belonged to. But there came a point in my life when I decided that I was going to pursue truth wherever truth could be found. So I am on a journey.”
She declared, “You could be wrong.”
“Sure, I could be wrong. So could you. I’m sure we are all wrong about a whole lot of things. I am very comfortable admitting that. But you don’t seem to be. Why do you think that is?” She couldn’t tell me.
This went on for a while, then she instructed, “When you preach my funeral, I want you to make it simple. Don’t preach all this other stuff.” I assured her, “I will make it simple.” I am assuming that “simple” is subject to interpretation.
Please understand that I love my mother. I tend to avoid religious conversations because this is typical of how it goes. However, I have some ground to hold a glimmer of hope. She knows what it is like to swim against the current.
In a conservative Southern Baptist church, my mother is a democrat. Before the 2012 election, it had become something of a sacred tradition in her Sunday School class to spend a few minutes bashing President Obama before beginning the lesson. She endured this for many weeks. Finally, she could take it no more. One Sunday she came out of the closet, “I’m a democrat and I voted for president Obama and will be voting for him again. Church is no place for partisan politics.” There are still a lot of elephants in the room, but now they make less noise.
If I write another book, I will give my mother a copy. She will read it, as difficult a task as that will be for her. And I hope that she might lock on to something that will give her the courage to risk the movement from knowing the right answers to asking the right questions. I wish for her the courage to think and move beyond the certitudes that she was taught and explore other possibilities.
Thomas Merton captured it well: “In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not be clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”
Without the capacity to live and love the questions, a spiritual life becomes stagnant. We become stuck in a rut. Most of us don’t just fall into ruts, we dig them for ourselves. Then we curl up in them and settle in. There is no doubt that such places offer emotional security and comfort, but growth is sacrificed.
I wish for my mother and others like her the fortitude to confront their religious insecurities and fears, and to discover the Christian path as a journey into the mystery and wonder of a God too great and glorious to be encapsulated in a particular belief system.