For my Growing in the Life of Christian Faith class I have to write a spiritual autobiography. I just finished it, and much of it has, I'm afraid, fallen victim to deadline pressure. What should have been a promising story turns into a series of poorly articulated cliches in the second half. So I refuse on principle to publish here the half that I forced out despite my literary constipation.
That said, the first half of the story is pretty good. So, here it is, under the tentative title The Death of Faith:
December 3, 1988. That date, that day, is burned indelibly on my mind. I remember waking up early that morning, too excited to sleep. We were going to King’s Island, an amusement park just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, you see. For WinterFest. At the time I didn’t know what WinterFest was, I just knew that an activity that had once been reserved strictly for the warm, sunny months had now expanded to include even December, the most magical month of the year.
The rest of the day is a series of stills imprinted on my memory, and it is difficult to weave those stills into a coherent narrative. Not because the memory is insufficient to tell as story, but because it is too deep, too pronounced to be reduced to a single story. Rather, it is a string of isolated sense perceptions that I can relive to this day. The hard, cold ice that leapt up to smack me as I fell while skating on the frozen over fountain turned ice rink in the middle of the park. The crisp, clean smell of the winter air all around me. The taste and texture of the sweet junk that masquerades as food at every amusement park and carnival I’ve ever known. Each memory a slide, isolated from all of the others. Each sense perception sharp and pronounced, tinged with melancholy, tainted by irrational guilt.
Why tinged with melancholy? Why tainted by guilt? Because while my brothers and I reveled in WinterFest, sipping hot chocolate and skating on ice, my grandfather was dying alone, in the Toyota pick-up with the 8 track player that would always play Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” for us. “Road Again,” Papaw, “Road Again!” we would squeal in unison. And Road Again! Road Again! he would play, no matter how sick of it he was.
My grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor, a fierce man of God who taught me both the joy and the fear of the Lord. He represented God to me, and was God for me, and when he died, God died. When I was nine and a half years old I had never heard the word “atheist,” and so surely didn’t know what it meant. Even if I had heard it, I doubt that I would have claimed it as a label for myself. But, whether I would have claimed it or not, when my grandfather died, in my heart I became an atheist, for my God was dead.
My twin brother had more faith than me. When Papaw died he didn’t mourn at first, like the rest of us did. As surely as I knew that God lay slain next to my grandfather’s corpse, my twin brother was convinced that both still lived. Papaw had, after all, always been the merry prankster of our world. He never met a joke he didn’t like, and he never missed an opportunity to pull a leg. This prank, of course, had gone a bit too far, but my brother knew that at the funeral Papaw would jump out of the coffin and scream “Gotcha!”, laughing at us and with us as we celebrated his glorious joke.
But Papaw didn’t jump out of the casket, and when we walked up to it his rubbery skin and his unnatural make-up more than creeped us out. And when they put the body in the ground, I buried my childhood faith. No sign of God would resurface in my life for over five years.
If there is a single symbol that can describe my spiritual journey, it is a symbol that has for too long been misappropriated as a trite, counter-cultural cliché. Long before it came to San Francisco to lose its identity, the yin yang was used in the Taoist/Laoist school of Chinese philosophy to represent the dynamic interaction between two apparent opposites. That dynamic interaction between opposing forces typifies my journey to truly know God apart from any ideas or beliefs about God. When my childhood faith was buried with Papaw’s corpse, against all odds the necessary conditions for resurrection were met. Doubt was working its magic to pave the road for a deeper, more critical and more abiding faith.
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