By Faith Hamby
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment I went from a Catholic-raised schoolgirl to something more.
When I was younger, I was so affected by the stories told during Catholic services that I’d often cry when I thought of the pain Jesus had gone though. I know now it wasn’t because he had sacrificed himself for my sins, but because he had always seemed like a real person to me, God’s son made flesh, true, but no less human because of it. He was, on a basic level, a man who had died horribly for his beliefs. Beliefs that, regardless of Catholic doctrine, set him aside as a kind, decent person—someone who looked out for those who couldn’t look out for themselves. Whether his teachings were moral or ethical, in my mind, he stood for what was right, and he was willing to suffer greatly for it.
As I got older, though, I couldn’t understand why there was so much suffering preached in the Catholic mass. Jesus wasn’t the only one to suffer; we all did. And we had caused his suffering. Despite this, or perhaps, because of this, the relationship I felt toward Jesus began to intensify until he was someone I felt I knew in my heart, someone who eased suffering, but who didn’t encourage it. I began to move toward a more personal understanding of God. Maybe a childhood of emotional and physical abuse helped. I wanted to hold to the omnipresent image of God as a Father to all children, and I cherished a plaque on my wall that showed God’s outstretched hand, holding a child safe within His care.
It wasn’t until I became familiar with Emily Dickinson that I began to understand that I wasn’t the only one who had developed a personal relationship with God, something the Catholic Church didn’t condone. But even as the Catholic Church couldn’t understand me, Emily Dickinson did:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least —
I’m going, all along.
It was this specific poem that cemented for me the idea that I saw God everywhere around me, not just within the confines of a pew and a church. The miracle of nature struck a strong chord with me. I began not just to question what I’d been previously taught, but I also came to a quiet acceptance that I could believe and appreciate God in other ways. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t mind attending a Jesuit college. Of all the different approaches to Catholicism, the Jesuits believed that it wasn’t just okay to question their religion, it was necessary, and it was an approach that I, for the first time, could respect.
Being at a Jesuit college, however, I was forced to take two theology classes: one on both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I was lucky to have a Jewish professor with a unique perspective. She left me flabbergasted and excited when she first pointed out that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally, that it was a historic document, written over hundreds of years, and not even by the same authors, though they often shared the same names. For an English major, this made sense. The Bible consisted of stories. Moral stories, but stories none-the-less. They were no different than fables or myths or legends. They taught lessons that were useful—but not doctrine.
Since then I’ve spent a great deal of my life studying subjects from philosophy to psychology, and I’ve even delved into the shamanistic religions of the American Indians, trying to find spiritual connection in their respect for the Earth and all of its creatures. Eventually, I became engrossed in Joseph Campbell’s work on Jungian archetypes, comparative religions, and comparative mythology. And what I found there thrilled me. Regardless of race or religion, we all tell the same stories. We all have the same questions about why we’re here, how the world works, and what our purpose is in life. Our gods are our myths, the moral of the stories our attempts to answer the profound questions that all people ask.
And so it was easy to move from the idea that the Catholic religion I grew up in was not the only religion, or the right religion. In my reading, I began to feel as if the question was more important than the answer. Answers, like my relationship to God when I was a child, were personal things, revelations of self. Even as religion and science began to occupy an overlapping place in the world, they began to occupy a similar space in my mind. Both asked hard questions, and both tried to answer them in their own way. One relied on faith, and one relied on facts. But both seek.
Given this understanding, it might seem sensible that I would become an atheist, eschewing religious doctrine as outdated. But in truth, I think it holds an important place in the educated psyche. We must connect to the stories that run through our collective unconscious as humans. This is often most visible in our religious beliefs. And yet, we have to be open to the scientific answers that become clearer and clearer with each discovery made. To my mind, there has to be understanding and balance.
For this reason, I consider myself an agnostic. Not because I can’t choose a side, but because I find value in both sides. Religion is our past. It’s our subconscious. It’s where we go to find an understanding of the human condition. Science is the study of the world around us. It attempts to answer the questions we have always asked. The answers make the questions no less valuable. And yet, even science has its limits. Every day we learn more about the world around us. Once we thought the earth was flat. Now we know that the universe is so fluid it’s almost impossible to grasp.
Who is to say that someday science and myth won’t connect, or that myth holds in itself concepts that science has yet to prove or find words for. With so much further to go in our understanding of the universe, I think it would be a form of vanity and ego to claim that what we can’t see might not be there. We’ve only begun to see further into our galaxy. We’re only now beginning to understand subatomic particles, things we couldn’t even see 100 years ago. There’s no guarantee that the future doesn’t hold a more definitive answer for us. And until then, I’ll continue to believe that I can’t know whether there’s a god or not, whether god is an idea or a scientific principle we have yet to understand.
The single most important thing to me is that I remain open. There can be no new discoveries if our minds are closed to the endless possibilities of our world.