All the sects and peoples worship their own thought; they create a god in their own minds and acknowledge him to be the creator of all things, when that form is a superstition — thus people adore and worship imagination. – Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 561.
When I was born, my Norwegian grandparents extracted a solemn promise from my mother and father — that they would raise their firstborn in the old Scandanavian Lutheran tradition.
The problem? Neither of my parents really believed in God. My father had gone through hell as a combat Marine in the South Pacific in World War II; and my mother had gone through hell as the daughter of an alcoholic Catholic mother with a brutally abusive approach to child-rearing. Their harsh experiences at young ages had driven any notion of a loving Creator away, and made them agnostics. They had no desire to be a part of any organized religion.
But my dutiful folks made the promise anyway – my grandmother Helga, a force of nature, was hard to say no to – and so I trundled off to Sunday School and Church once a week. Without my parents.
At first – maybe four or five years old — I remember liking the feelings of awe and mystery I felt inside the church on Sundays. The high ceilings and the stained-glass windows and a few hundred voices lifted in harmonious song all made me feel reverent and somehow emotionally moved. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt something in my heart that made me want to believe in God.
But as a child, I only had one image of God. I learned what the adults – the ministers and preachers and pastors and Sunday School teachers – told me about him. They said he was a very wise old man with a long white beard who sat on a cloud in heaven. I saw pictures of him in my Sunday School books, and he looked ancient, and mad, and maybe even a little mean. He never smiled. In fact, he looked downright scary. Vengeful, our pastor told us, God is vengeful, and if you cross him, he will send you to hell forever!
This frightened me. I trembled at the thought that God could read my every thought, and that even a bad thought would get me in trouble. God had a big book, the pastor said, and every day he would look down from heaven and see me, little David, and put a check mark in his book. If he saw me doing good things, like helping a little old lady across the street or diligently doing my chores, he would put his mark in the “Good” column. But if he saw me doing something bad, like being lazy or goofing off or even thinking about playing marbles for pennies (which I loved to do), he would put a mark in the “Bad” column. You could never know when he would look down on you, either, so you had to be good all the time. This struck me as unfair.
As I grew I continued to go to church, and as I learned more I would often have intense talks with my grandmother about God. My grandmother, bless her, had the most sincere and deep faith. I loved her because I could sense that we saw the world in the same way. Once she called me “her little disciple.” I knew what she meant. I could feel something spiritual stirring in my soul, but I didn’t know what it was or how to really express it.
Then one day, in my Lutheran confirmation class, I asked a question. The teacher had just told us, following up on a fire-and-brimstone sermon from the week before, that everyone who didn’t accept Christ would go directly to hell when they died. “But what about the people in Africa who’ve never heard of Christ?” I pleaded. “Them, too,” the teacher told me, stern and unyielding. I began to wonder if I could believe in or even like this God, who seemed so arbitrary, unjust and needlessly cruel.
That question was, when I look back on it now, the first evidence of a new intellectual curiosity starting to develop in me. I began to read, not just the things they wanted me to read in church, but other things about faith and belief. I discovered the library, and started to read the philosopher Nietzsche, the psychiatrists Freud and Jung, the scientists and thinkers who questioned the existence of God. And gradually I began to lose my faith in that guy with the white beard and the scowl.
And of course that made me ask more questions in church — which eventually got me kicked out. “Your son,” the youth pastor told my mother when I was twelve, “disrupts our classes with his disrespectful questions. He is no longer welcome here.”
“Have you tried answering his questions?” my mother said.
“I can see where he gets his disrespect!” the pastor said.
That was it for me and church – and that moment began my lifelong quest to try to understand the unknowable, to try to get some sense of what this whole concept of God really means.