Goodbye Dad, part four: A Theology of My Own
Moving on from childish things
My dad died in June of 2015 on the day after my wedding anniversary. I think about him every day, and I sometimes wonder what kinds of stuff we would be talking about if he were still here. I wonder what he, a lifelong Republican, would think of Donald Trump. I wonder if he would be excited about the Rams returning to Los Angeles and having a surprisingly good start. I wonder how he would have felt to see two more grandkids get married and to hold his first great-grand daughter. Sure, we might have gotten irritated with each other when it comes to politics, but once your dad is gone, you realize that those little conflicts do not matter very much. I would love the chance to get irritated with him a few more times.
My dad was not a believer in any particular religion, but my mom raised us kids to be Catholics. After my conventional Catholic upbringing of Sunday masses, catechism, and sacraments, I went off to college and became an evangelical Christian during my first year. Abandoning the religion of my youth was a difficult, guilt-laden process to go through, but I did not think that it made any sense to accept without question the religion that I happened to be born into. Eventually, however, I was able to get over the feeling that God was disappointed in me. By going straight to the Biblical source, I had come to conclusions similar to Martin Luther five hundred years ago: the Catholic Church had drifted away from the Word of God.
Just as Martin Luther opened up a can of worms when he encouraged Christians to read the Bible for themselves, I had also gone down a dangerous path. Once you allow yourself to question some of the fundamental beliefs of your youth, the tendency is to take this questioning even further. I rejected Catholicism because it conflicted with the Word of God, but what if the Bible itself was not entirely accurate? What if Jesus was just a typical human being who died 2000 years ago and the God of the Old and New Testaments does not exist? What if no God exists, and death is simply the end? So long as I was enjoying being a part of my college Christian community, I was unwilling to take my questions this far. But after college, for a variety of reasons, I was eventually able to consider the possibility that Christianity itself was not the ultimate truth. The path that I had set out on when I took my first steps away from Catholicism had led me to this point, and today, as a member of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, I am a part of the first religious community that I truly chose and where I feel like I belong.
There are always lingering doubts of course. What if I am wrong and the Christians or the members of some other religious group are right? What will happen in the next life if I have chosen the incorrect theology? Have I allowed myself to be led astray as so many Christians would claim? Even now, decades since I have considered myself a Christian, I still have the lingering sense that a single God is watching me and is disappointed when I behave badly. It can be very difficult, and may be downright impossible, to shake off completely the worldview that we absorbed as kids.
This brings me back to my dad. His health had been deteriorating for a few months, and we knew that he probably did not have much time left. When I went to visit that day, it was clear by the early afternoon that this was going to be his last day. My mom, sister, and I were in the room with him as he took his last breaths. But among the many thoughts and emotions swirling through my head at that moment, I was not worried at all about where he was going – if he was going anywhere – in the next life. At that moment, it was clear that I no longer thought like a Christian, and more importantly, I no longer felt like one either.
Many of my reasons for rejecting Christianity are intellectual. Some of its core beliefs seem irrational, and the Bible is filled with strange stories, odd statements, and blatant contradictions. But my objections are also deeply emotional. It just doesn’t feel right, and the evangelical Christian conception of the afterlife is one of its most offensive and ridiculous pieces of theology. Now if some people disagree with me, fine. Maybe the idea of eternal, divine punishment makes perfect sense and provides some degree of comfort for them. Maybe Christians like the idea that they will be rewarded someday for their devotion to Christ and all of those non-believers (without the same moral restrictions) will be proven wrong in the end.
They can also go ahead thinking that my dad, upon his death, got a quick ticket to eternal torment for the sin of choosing the incorrect worldview. But I am glad that I was eventually able to move on from that black and white, simplistic, childish nonsense. And if you are a Christian who someday finds yourself at the bed side of a dying, non-believing loved one, you might be asking yourself it you really believe that nonsense too.