An Excerpt Of Philip Gulley’s New Book
The local Quaker pastor (and longtime IM columnist) publishes his 22nd book this month, a funny personal history of faith called Unlearning God. In this excerpt, the author recalls his Catholic boyhood and the doubts that plagued him very early in life.
My Baptist father married my Catholic mother in 1955. Ecumenism hadn’t been invented yet, so both families were horrified, each certain the other family would roast in hell. Over his parents’ objections, my father signed a document promising to raise my siblings and me in the Catholic Church. I was baptized before my father could change his mind. Water was sprinkled on me, words were said over me, and I was saved, just like that, a member of the One True Church, destined for heaven, along with my family, except my father, which is why I cried when the priest sprinkled me with water, sensing even then my dad was screwed.
The nuns urged me to pray for my father, in the hope he would see the error of his ways, dispense with heresy, and embrace the true faith of St. Peter, the first pope and Jesus’s best friend. I ran the idea past my father, who seemed curiously uninterested in joining the One True Church. Since there was only so much I could do, I handed the problem over to God and let him worry about it.
The One True Church swarmed with children, roomfuls of kids of all ages. Families with eight, nine, and 10 kids. Families so large the parents stopped naming their children and assigned them numbers. Church services were held every morning, and twice on Saturdays and Sundays, to accommodate everyone. A dozen people would cram in a pew that comfortably seated six. Kids stacked two and three deep. In terms of sheer numbers, we beat every church in town. Two nuns ran the show. Fifty kids jammed in a room learning the Catechism, the nuns circling us, rendering us mute with fear.
This was back in the days when nuns wore habits, before they got sneaky and went undercover, dressing like the rest of us to blend in and catch us sinning. It now seems ironic that the priests and nuns populating my childhood wore black and white. I’m not sure which ancient cleric picked the colors, but I wonder now if it were intentional, even sacramental, an outward sign of an inward reality. Black and white. True and false. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. In or out. No in between. No shades of gray. No dash of color. No nuance. No straying from the reservation. So my father was out, as were the billions of people not fortunate enough to be Catholic.
It wasn’t just the Catholics with the lock on heaven. The Protestants were also sending one another to hell in record numbers. I would later become a Quaker, one of the most peaceable denominations in the history of Christianity, and even some of them cheerfully sentenced certain people to hell. But when one’s own father is condemned to hell, it’s hard to think well of the institution sending him there. Not only hard to think well of the institution but hard to take it seriously when it spoke about God and Jesus and love. I wanted to believe in Jesus, in God, in the One True Church, but the One True Church made that nearly impossible.
I was eight years old, maybe nine, and a nun, I can’t remember her name, told me if I hated God, I would die.
“How soon?” I asked, always a stickler for the details.
“God will strike you down that very moment,” she said.
So that night I put her to the test, under my blankets, whispering, “I hate God, I hate God, I hate God.” Three times, one for each person of the Trinity. I whispered because I shared a bedroom with my brother David and didn’t want him to hear me and tell our parents, who would most certainly have done something, even if God didn’t. Besides, if God knew our every thought, as I had been taught, then God could certainly hear my whispers. Or not, because I wasn’t struck down that very moment, which left me to conclude that either God didn’t strike down people who hated him or God couldn’t know our every thought, which meant the nun was full of beans.
And so began my life of doubt. My words seem evil now, when I see them in black and white, like something the bratty girl in The Exorcist might say. I’m surprised my head didn’t spin 360 degrees and I didn’t vomit green goop. Instead, I went to sleep and woke up the next morning blessedly alive.
Maybe God knew I didn’t mean it, that I was testing the nun, so in a moment of grace, as is God’s habit, he elected not to smite me. And I didn’t mean it. Given my inexperience, I neither loved nor hated God. Mostly, God mystified me. Did he live up in the clouds or inside me? Did I disgust him or please him? Did God love everyone, or love some and hate others? Was God a capitalist or a communist? A Republican or a Democrat? A Catholic or a Protestant? A him or a her? And the biggest question of all—did God even exist?
Yes, God existed, my parents said, and was a Republican, my father assured me. And a Catholic, my mother said. And a male, our priest, Father McLaughlin, said. Though I no longer trusted the nun, I was hoping God was a Catholic and looking down from heaven every Sunday morning to see me kneeling at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Catholic Church and thinking well of me. I had since confessed to hating God to our priest, who took it in stride, and told me to say three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers and I would be forgiven, which I did, to be on the safe side.
The safe side defined my early spirituality. After testing God once and surviving the encounter, I decided not to push my luck, so I went through First Communion and became an altar boy, waking up early on Saturday mornings to serve the Mass, hoping God noticed that, too. It was an era of détente. I no longer tested God, and in exchange, God didn’t strike me dead. If Richard Nixon could strike a deal with China, I figured I could strike one with God.
God apparently loved deals. If I belonged to the One True Church and went to Mass every Sunday, I’d go to heaven when I died. Then after the deal was inked, I read the fine print. No eating meat on Fridays, no skipping confession on Saturday night, no attending the Baptist church with my sister, who had jumped the Catholic ship, hooked up with the Baptists, and was headed straight to hell. The nun had mentioned none of this when I joined. I had been hoodwinked, taken for a ride, falling for the oldest trick in the book, one hand moving the walnut shells, the other hand hiding the pea.
“What if I ever leave the One True Church?” I asked the nun.
“When you die, you will spend eternity apart from God, in eternal torment,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m a nun,” she said.
Then she told Father McLaughlin and he caught me alone in the altar boy room and told me I had disappointed God.
“How do you know?” I asked. “Because I’m a priest,” he said.
This was back in the days when religious authorities were widely admired and generally believed, so I prayed every Sunday for God to forgive me and vowed to walk the straight and narrow and become a priest when I was older so I, too, could scare small children and get them right with God. I told no one except Father McLaughlin, one Sunday morning while preparing for Mass, who seemed elated with the notion but failed to mention I wouldn’t be able to marry and would have to sit alone in my house each night trying not to think of girls, which I was just then starting to do.
I decided to talk it over with the nun.
“What happens if I become a priest, then fall in love and leave the Church to get married?”
“When you die, you will spend all of eternity apart from God, in eternal torment,” she said. The Church was nothing if not consistent.
But I wondered how they knew these things. How could they speak with such certainty? Certainty seemed the highest value of every religious person I knew. Their church had the Truth, capital T, and no one else. Joe, my best friend in the fourth grade, was a Jehovah’s Witness and just as certain his church was the One True Church. He gave me pamphlets to read at recess, urging me toward Jehovah, who apparently was opposed to birthdays, Christmas, and Halloween, which I took as a sign I shouldn’t join.
But what if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were right, and the Catholic Church was wrong? What if the Baptists were right? Or the half-dozen folks who had started up a new church, meeting every Sunday morning in a dinky house on the main street in our town? What if out of all the churches in the world, those half-dozen people had nailed it on the head and were the One True Church, the culmination of God’s great plan to save the world? I went to school with one of them, so I buddied up to her on the off chance the world ended and I could ride her coattails into heaven. Then the next year, the pastor went crazy, the church disbanded, and a lawyer bought the house and set out his shingle.
To the best of my knowledge, there were no lawyers at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace, the lawyers in our town having money and the Catholics tending not to. We were the church of labor. One did not join the Catholic Church to get ahead in the community. We had ceded that territory to the Methodists and Episcopalians, both of whom worshipped in new buildings. We met in a flat-roofed building on Main Street next to a Citgo gas station. It appeared we had run out of money while building the church so stopped after one story. It wasn’t the kind of structure to inspire meditation and high thoughts. The windows were painted shut, it didn’t have air-conditioning, and in the summertime, we dropped like flies, fainting from the heat, our heads thumping the pews like watermelons.
What we Catholics did have going for us was longevity, which we believed to be an indication of God’s favor. We were the first church, instituted by Jesus, the Bride of Christ, launched by St. Peter, the first pope. What we lacked in building, we made up for in pedigree. The Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the half-dozen people who met on Sundays in the dinky house, were newcomers, pretenders to the throne. We believed our institutional durability was an indication not of skilled management, historical accident, or strategic political alliances, but of God’s seal of approval.
I didn’t wonder about it then, but I wonder now why it is that God’s favor seems always to be indicated by the one quality we possess in spades. Let a church endure, and it must surely be an indication of its chosenness. Let a church be large and wealthy, and it must surely be an indication of God’s favor. Let a church be small and poor, and it must be surely be an indication of God’s preference for the underdog.
Why this tendency to single out our one defining trait and claim it as proof of God’s favor?
While we’re thinking about that, let’s think also about the spiritual implications of our claims to divine favor. The moment we believe God is uniquely for us, we simultaneously imply God isn’t for others. The moment we claim to be the One True Church, we claim the other churches are not true, that their encounters with God, and their collective life with Jesus, is less than ours. Joe and I would argue about this on the playground, staking out our territory. I was a member of the One True Church. He was a member of Jehovah’s true community. Each of us lowered himself to be with the other. By then, I was serving as an altar boy several times a week and was Father McLaughlin’s go-to guy. Joe was basking in the glow of his recent baptism, working the playground for converts, aiming to be one of Jehovah’s 144,000 elect. Though we were friends, it eventually became clear one of us would have to throw in the towel and join the other. When that didn’t happen, we drifted apart.
Our separation was the nearly inevitable consequence of the exclusive beliefs we had been taught. In our efforts to draw near to God, we learned to mistrust others. When my Baptist father married my Catholic mother, his uncle wrote to warn him the pope would take their children. He urged my father not to proceed with the wedding, that it wouldn’t last. We had a good laugh over that at my parents’ 50th anniversary dinner. I once went to visit an elderly member of my Quaker meeting. He hadn’t been active in our meeting since my arrival as its pastor, but I had visited him several times and had enjoyed our time together. Though I introduced myself, he mistook me for someone else. He was nearly deaf and could barely see.
I was able, after much shouting, to make him understand I brought greetings from our Quaker meeting.
“Did you hear what they’ve gone and done?” he asked. “What who has gone and done?” I asked.
“Our Quaker meeting. They’ve gone and hired a Catholic.” I realized he was referring to me.
“The Catholics sent him to turn us into a Catholic church,” he said.
I didn’t correct the man. He was well past 95 and starting to experience dementia. And he had been kind to me in the past, so I simply changed the subject and enjoyed our time together. But on the way home, I imagined the pope, surrounded by his cardinals, pointing to a map of Central Indiana, saying, “I want that little Quaker meeting. Is Gulley still with us? Send him.”
Yes, I was a sleeper agent for the Catholic Church, worming my way into the Religious Society of Friends at the age of 16, slowly gaining their trust until I was encouraged to become a pastor, then enrolling in college and graduate school, becoming recorded as a Quaker minister, pastoring one Quaker meeting after another, building my credentials, until I would be invited to pastor a meeting outside Indianapolis in order to lead its 120 souls into the waiting bosom of the Roman Catholic Church.
On the day I was recorded as a Quaker minister, I invited my Catholic grandparents to come watch. Afterward, my grandmother hugged me, tearful, then told me I was the first one in our family in over 600 years to officially leave the Catholic Church. Someone snapped a picture of us. It was my grandmother’s first time in a Protestant church and she looked terrified, clutching her handbag to her bosom, fearful God would find her there and strike her dead.
But isn’t this what must be moved beyond—the gripping fear that God’s family is so small, God’s love so narrow, it has no room for others? I understand the appeal of exclusivity, of believing God is uniquely for us. I bet you do, too. It’s flattering when others make the same choices we’ve made. It serves to confirm our wisdom and validate our decisions. But when we do that with religion, we create insiders and outsiders, and before long the outsider is not only wrong, he is our enemy, the one against whom we must prevail.
When I was a kid, a neighbor told me there was only one way to mow a lawn, in stripes perpendicular to the street. After decades of his mowing in the same pattern, his lawn was a series of parallel troughs. It served as a visual reminder that one-way thinking leaves us in a rut. Similarly, single-minded faith renders us entrenched and stuck. And so for me, there can be no One True Church. There are only people who have, by accidents of time, birth, geography, and ancestry, approached God differently. Consider my story. I was born into a Catholic family in a small Midwestern town. By then, the Catholics had been around only 1,900 years, though anthropologists believe humans have possessed the ability to think symbolically, a necessary element of religious practice, for about 100,000 years. The particular Catholic church I attended had existed less than 40 years when I was born. Prior to that, the nearest Catholic church was several towns away. So had my mother’s family moved to town a generation earlier, they might well have decided to attend the Methodist church on the next block, or the Quaker meeting down the street, or the Baptist church five blocks away. Given the many twists and turns my life might have taken, how is it possible God orchestrated events to my benefit? There were tens of millions of people born in 1961, so why me, and not others?
Of course, one could look at the matter differently. One could believe truth isn’t measured by longevity, or status, or obedience to Scripture. One could believe true religion is practiced wherever mercy, peace, and justice flower. One could believe true religion isn’t a matter of correct categories but a matter of compassion. One could believe the exclusivity of the One True Church or the Only Way to God is a gross denial of God’s wide participation in the human story. One could reject altogether our selfish insistence that we alone hold the monopoly on truth and faith.
The nuns and priests of my childhood were like all of us—they were teaching what they were taught. Perhaps as they grew older, they changed their minds. After all, I did. Now I believe there is no One True Church, no One True Faith, no single path to God. There are only compassion and grace, and where they are found, God is present, yearning to know and be known. This God transcends our human barriers, loving and living far beyond the tidy categories we’ve created. This God understands our human need to feel special but doesn’t want that need to come at the expense of others, so in that mysterious, ironic way of the Divine, can love us uniquely, while loving others distinctively, too. Just as I love my two sons differently, and yet the same.
God’s love is a gift to celebrate, not a status to covet. We are on the way to understanding life when we realize God’s love for others in no way diminishes God’s love for us. This love is not predicated upon our church affiliation, our religion, or our spiritual status. It is not confined to the innocent of heart or the doctrinally pure. While it is true that spiritual maturity helps us appreciate God’s love more deeply, it does not increase God’s love for us, which is already infinite. The great truth is this—whether we are Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, or Quaker; whether we are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or Jewish; whether we believe with all our hearts or don’t believe at all—we are members, all of us, of the true community of God.
To buy a copy of Unlearning God, click here.