I've been at this for two years now and I'm getting buggy with all my time alone, keeping this all to myself, so I'm letting it out. My raw notes. As I go. Once I catch this blog up with real time, that is.
So, who am I and what have I been doing?
When my sons were six and four years old, they were arguing in the back seat of my car about whether or not God existed. Pretty soon a voice from the backseat asked, "Mom, what do you believe?"
All I could answer at the time was, "I don't know. I'm still working on it."
I am a blank slate. A tabula rasa. I come to the table with the fewest possible preconceived notions about any religious tradition because I was raised outside of any. Although there were rudiments of some religious traditions in parts of my extended family, my parents considered strong religious conviction the source of wars, hatred, and division among people. At the dinner table, on more than one night, they said religion was a crutch for those unable to handle the truth: that we're mortal, that “after life” we simply revert to the chemicals from which we're made. Nothing more.
Just chemicals? That's all we were? It didn't make sense.
One night, when I was twelve, I said, “I think I might want to, uhm, go to church.”
Forks clattered to the plates. "Well,” my mother said, “if you think you need that."
So, growing up, I knew nothing of any religious tradition. I tried to learn how to live, how to have a meaningful life, by reading books. Biographies were best; I was obsessed with them. Maybe if I could see the choices people made, and how it worked out for them, I might know how to live. The Bible was little more to me than a collection of stories that I learned about, one-by-one, when a teacher would point out allusions to them in novels or plays.
When it came time to get a job, I found one that allowed me to continue my obsession with the lives of others: I became a journalist. But my spiritual dissatisfaction didn’t go away. I just tried to ignore it. On occasion, a story would give me an excuse to learn about a religious tradition. A profile about the Archbishop of San Francisco introduced me to Father Miles Riley, who specialized in over-exuberant press management for the archdiocese at the time. We didn't get off to a good start. I thought all public relations people were only there to prevent me from doing my job with integrity. Our awkward beginning was made worse by my lack of experience with clergy of any sort crashing up against the vaudeville character of Father Miles, with his light yellow Cadillac convertible, his show-tune personality, and compendium of dirty jokes about his fellow clerics. He was not what I expected or even imagined as possible in a priest. We became friends, sort of. As friendly as one can be with someone wont to exclaim: “Oh, I love hanging out with the heathen!”
After that, I spent a bunch of years working on television newsmagazines which aren't very efficient tools for exploring faith.
Finally, in 2000, I decided to take two courses at a local college: an introduction to the Bible and a survey of world religions. By the end of the term, I felt relief: I had a basic grasp of what other people believed. I thought I'd taken care of this part of my life.
But I hadn't. I had factual knowledge but I found myself wondering what it felt like to actually practice a faith, to truly live by one. I went looking for books by beginners, people walking into a faith who might tell me what it felt like to learn how to practice it. I couldn’t find anything like that. And nothing came close to explaining the mystery of how a devout follower of any of those traditions could get from their faith, could get from the Golden Rule - some version of it is in every major religious tradition - to what I saw happening between people of faith all over the globe. If the faithful of different religions all believe they should do unto others as they would have people do unto them, if they were actually living lives based on doctrine, how could there be so much hatred and bloodshed in the name of those faiths? But, for all my newly-acquired, very basic understanding of the fundamental beliefs of various traditions, I wasn't one step closer to really understanding a thing I wanted to know.
Then I got one of those ideas people get while driving around or in the shower, the ones most people are sane enough to leave right where they found them. I began to wonder what would happen to me if I went through the conversion training - not to convert but to learn what a convert would learn - in the seven major religious traditions as identified by Huston Smith in his seminal work, The World's Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Would I know something I couldn’t possibly imagine? Or might I end up at war with myself by the end, a riled nest of ideas, beliefs and practices in conflict?
Well, it's fine to have an idea, but actually doing this? I kept imagining my parents' reaction so I put it out of my mind and just confined myself to taking care of my two sons and doing my day job which was, at the time, running a regional public television newsmagazine.
Then 9/11 happened. My parents were the only people I knew who didn’t seem surprised at all; it was just one more item to add to their list of the damage religion has caused. But that act, and all that followed, finally made me feel like I had no choice any longer, that my personal confusion wasn’t something I could continue to shrug off as just that, personal. There was a life-and-death argument going on over the role of religion in our lives and I was disqualified from participating because I was an ignorant outsider.
And there was that question from my children, "Mom, what do you believe?"
So that's what I'm doing. I've decided to find out.
A note: If you're just joining up with me, especially for you first-timers to blog reading, it's in reverse chronologic order. You'll be grateful for this when you catch up to the most current post because the newest will always be what you see first when you come here but, if you've missed a lot, you might have a better idea of what's going in if you start with the oldest post and work forward.