Phil Gulley: Beyond Belief

When it comes to faith, I think we need a little more skepticism.
I recently took a test on Facebook to find out what my vocation should be, and was informed I should be a writer or spiritual leader. It was nice having my careers confirmed, but I wish I had taken the test when I was 18 and fretting about what to do. The test asked me what my favorite book was, and I picked the Bible. I think that’s why it said I should be a spiritual leader. The Bible isn’t really my favorite book, but it was one of only four choices, and I hadn’t read the other three.

I suspect a lot of people say the Bible is their favorite book because it makes them sound virtuous. If, in 1938, we had asked the Germans what their favorite book was, most of them would have said the Bible, even as they set about exterminating the race that gave the text birth. I’m a minister, so I might get fired for saying this, but the Bible isn’t even on my list of top 10 favorite books. There are parts of it I appreciate—the Jesus stories, the books of James and Proverbs—but the rest of it doesn’t merit the accolades we heap upon it. In fact, “sacred” literature of any sort doesn’t do much for me, probably because I’m skeptical of anything I’m told I must believe. If someone told me I had to believe in gravity, I’d find a reason to doubt it.

A big problem in our world is that too many people believe too firmly, too blindly, in “sacred” literature, whether it’s the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon. The best way to read such texts is at arm’s length, eyes wide open, with mind engaged. I once heard a man say the Bible should be approached in a spirit of adoration, but I don’t agree. Adoration can’t be demanded, only earned. It didn’t help that the same man then cherry-picked a few of his favorite verses and insisted I swallow them whole. I’m perfectly capable of forming my own creed, thank you very much, and will pan for golden truth from any stream I please—any faith, any discipline, any person, any culture.

My thoughts often turn to religion as Easter approaches. Among other things, I wonder whether religion, on the whole, has had a positive or destructive influence on the world. On the plus side, religions have established hospitals, schools, and universities. They’ve inspired beautiful art, acts of charity, and personal transformation. There is no doubting the good religion has done. On the downside, it has also started wars, generated hatred and suspicion, and given the world jihadists and televangelists.

Somehow we got it in our heads that people need religion in order to be good, a rumor likely begun by people in religion. People who wouldn’t otherwise darken the door of a church drag their kids there thinking it will make their children moral. We took our sons to church, but we didn’t expect the church to make them ethical. That was our job until they were capable of thinking for themselves, then it became their jobs, and it will be their jobs until they die.

Thirty-one years ago, I became a minister, hoping to save people. Then my theology changed, and I had to discover another reason to pastor. It’s a bit like my dad, who, when he was growing up during the Depression, fished to help feed his family. Later in life, whenever he caught a fish, he released it. But his fondness for fishing didn’t end when his reason for fishing changed. That’s what happened to me. My passion for pastoring remains, though my reason for pastoring has changed.

People who think religion is about saving people don’t understand how someone like me can be a pastor. Obviously, I don’t agree with them. In fact, I feel a lot more useful since I gave up trying to save people, which was always about persuading them to be just like me. But one of me is enough, indeed sometimes too much. Now I’m happy to help people discover themselves, and if in the process they discover a beautiful, ineffable Truth, then all the better.

I once worked at a group home for mentally ill adults. Though diverse in age, race, intellect, and personality, the residents shared one trait—a fascination with religion. Several of the men had messianic delusions, and most all of them claimed to have regular conversations with God. Many healthy people speak about having a relationship with God, but if that relationship includes frequent dialogue, a trip to the psychiatrist is probably in order.

A Methodist acquaintance of mine recently mentioned how much he liked “our” new pope. Pope Francis isn’t his pope, since he’s Methodist, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard a non-Catholic claim the pontiff as his own. I got to wondering why that is, and think it has something to do with this pope’s obvious compassion and humility, which transcend religious boundaries. Whenever those traits are evident, we hurry to claim as kin any who possess them.

But did religion make Pope Francis the way he is, or would he have been that way no matter what? When he was a teenager in Buenos Aires, he fell in love with the girl next door. He said if she didn’t date him, he would become a priest. She didn’t, so he did. But let’s suppose they dated and married, and then he became a businessman and never went to church. How would he have turned out then? Would his priorities be different? His personality? If religion made him who he is, why aren’t more religious people like him? I’ve heard more than one person say he was an accidental pope, that the cardinals who elected him had no idea he would carry out his calling with such liberality. Isn’t it odd that the church is surprised when its leader lives like Jesus?

If it were up to me, I’d advise a psychiatric evaluation before subscribing to a faith. Some people shouldn’t take up religion, and you know the kind of people I mean—folks who are a few biscuits short of a breakfast, who join a church and suddenly think God wants them to run for president, buy a gun, or become the governor of Alaska.

I understand the human need to belong, but some men and women should join the Lions Club and leave it at that. That way, if they go overboard, the worst that will happen is they’ll collect a bunch of eyeglasses and send them to Africa.