Across our line of vision, a pair of deer appears in the road. They stop to watch us coming at them. We stand still . . . waiting. We and they hold silent. Then, effortlessly, they clear the berm, push airborne over the edge of the lake, and disappear across the soybean field into the distance. The dog looks to me for assurance. Her raised brows question, “Good to go?” I nod and we move on. In my head, I say, “Thank you, God, for the dog and the deer this morning.”
It’s odd that I offer this prayer of gratitude, for in truth, I am not a religious person. I have a hard time accepting as real, as truth, that of which my reasoning, scientific, research-oriented mind typically needs tangible proof. And yet, on the rare blue morning when the deer appear, the idea of God seems logical, rational, and absolute. There can be no doubt, in moments like that, so simple, that something created the deer, the dog, and me. We are incredibly complicated beings; there can be no way, in my mind, that we just arrived without something working in the process of creation. Boom and we were here?
My problem with religion has always been a matter of two things: the prolific male definition of God (and the results of that: male dominated societies and, in some cases, the exclusion of female clergy) and the way of organized religions to use the prescriptions of their faith to condemn nonbelievers and to justify violence and oppression both of those within their faith and of those outside it. These beliefs and their adjoining behaviors have been why I have kept religion at arms-length for so long.
It is ironic that my new-found confidence in my questioning kind of “faithfulness” is due, in large part, to the Vatican, a bastion, in my opinion, of patriarchal and judgmental religious doctrine. If not for the Vatican’s assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I would not have had the chance to listen to Sister Pat Farrell speak (in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program last week) on the idea of God as a genderless, but no less magnificent creator who welcomes our wonder and does not rank us according to sex, race, class, or sexuality (etc.). Her idea of God emphasized a unity, permitted query, and gave women equal value and place in the church.
This struck home with me. My heart left the Catholic Church years ago when, despite my great desire to serve the church, I was told I could not be an “Alter Server” because I was a girl. Now, this was before canon 230, and I was only seven, so who knows where my desire to serve would have gone, but I do recall the emotions that followed my rejection based on sex. First, I was ashamed for having been born a girl, an emotion no girl should have to wrestle. Then I became angry – how dare the church reject me for being a girl? Did not the church teach me that I was special simply because I was female and had the awesome God-granted ability to procreate? How did all of this hypocritical thinking come together? I could not make sense of it and I still can’t. But Sister Farrell’s words last week gave comfort; she helped me understand that I was never alone in my belief that God (not a man) created all of us with the same value – in an image of wonder and that is reason enough to believe that I (like all women) are worthy of being teachers of all faiths and worth being heard.
For over ten years now, I have been talking with my sons about God and teaching them that the wonder of faith is, well, just that, wonder. That is, faith is both believing and questioning. In her interview on Fresh Air last week, Sister Farrell also articulated what has been the way of spirituality in my life. She wondered if you can be faithful and still question, can both religious leaders and their followers “raise questions openly and search for truth freely, with very complex and swiftly changing issues in our day?” To this, her answer, my answer is we should, we must if we want God in our lives. If we want faithfulness to be a positive guide for the next generation, there must be room for wonder.
For some, any kind of religious questioning negates faith. For others, any kind of doubt in science negates reason. Neither is true.
I question the popular notions of God and, yet, I am profoundly faithful. I condemn religious teachings that oppress and persecute and, yet, I am intensely spiritual. I believe in something larger than myself and yet I seek reason and, sometimes, proof -- like the dog and me walking and the deer crossing.