Only when we strip away magical thinking can we see the sacred in everything.
Growing up Southern Baptist, I went to church with my family at least four times a week. A frequent topic over our dining room table was the End Times—when Christian believers would be “raptured” up to heaven, and evil and chaos would terrorize those “left behind” for a thousand years. As a grade schooler, I didn’t have to wait to be terrorized. It was the stuff of my nightmares.
As I grew older, so many things about conservative evangelical Christianity couldn’t be reconciled with what I was learning about the world and my own moral compass: the teachings about women’s roles, judging morality by one’s sexuality, assuming the religion you were born into could be the only right one, proselytizing, and of course, the fearmongering. I left it behind.
Yet I missed being part of a multigenerational community that also took care of one another.
It’s an experience that many Unitarian Universalists share. Roughly 90 percent of UUs were not raised in our tradition, a 1997 demographic survey showed. A large proportion of our converts left Christian congregations and “usually did so because of some sense of disaffection or incompatibility,” the 2005 Engaging Our Theological Diversity report found.
Two recent books tell the journey of people who were raised to take their Christianity very seriously but, through their love of the natural world and science, had to forsake most of what their childhood churches taught. Quite different in style and approach—one a laugh-out-loud, quick-moving, narrative memoir, the other a credo based on a lifetime of intellectual curiosity, natural observation, and spiritual reflection—both have marvelous titles: I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth by Brenda Peterson, an environmental activist and novelist who was raised Southern Baptist; and When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist by Chet Raymo, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College, who for twenty years penned the Science Musings column for the Boston Globe.
A ‘green-diaper baby,’ Brenda Peterson fell in love with primeval forests and especially wildlife at a young age. Her family moved often, following her father’s career with the U.S. Forest Service, which he headed in the 1980s.
Her own childhood career, she says, was the Southern Baptist church, with its “quasi-military marching songs, extravagant potlucks, and serious biblical scholarship made into children’s games,” which she excelled at. She was at church with her family every night. But a Sunday school teacher’s declaration that animals do not have an afterlife set off her crisis of faith. Her love of the earth and science was what really shaped her personal theology: that miracles were really natural events, that humans were simply another animal.
I Want to Be Left Behind is a series of well-told stories of how Peterson wrestles with the conflicts between her conservative religious upbringing and her love of the earth, between the longings of her own soul and her love for her family. Her sharp wit makes the seriousness of her task always entertaining: “I promise not to be myself,” she assures her brother before one family reunion. During a family debate over global warming, she thinks inwardly, “whoever had invented the ‘Reply to All’ in email should be shot. Being on the family distribution list is like having a virus of Fox News invade my in-box.”
She turns her scrutiny on both her chosen world of liberal values and her family’s religious beliefs—finding fault and virtue in both, as well as common ground.
For five years after college, Peterson lived in New York City, rubbing shoulders with the literati, while writing her first novel about snake-handling believers. Her evangelical powerhouse of a mother came by train to pay a visit, determined to find her backslid liberal daughter a church. Find one she did—the Southern Baptist Church in Harlem. Decked out in a pink veiled hat and heels, her mother chatted up the elderly deacon about their Southern “roots,” to the mortification of her daughter, who was warily checking out the reaction of the other congregants. As the roaring preacher quoted Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, and First John’s message of “God is love,” and the organist rocked old Baptist gospel standards, both women couldn’t help but join in with gusto.
Peterson grasped then that her mother just might be less racist and more open-hearted than she. Throughout the book, she considers whether belief in the Rapture may be one response, perhaps even a genetically wired one, to fears bigger than we can handle.
Frustrated by “conservationists who were sometimes as hardline and self-righteous as Southern Baptists,” she drew up a chart of traits she found on both sides: “Enraptured by doom . . . Thou shalt not . . . Holier than Thou . . . humorless . . . blame, shame, judgment,” and so on. “What if both camps simply stopped all their fearmongering and found a new story?” she asks. “We might imagine a future in which all species flourish, along with us.”
Peterson is at her most inspiring when she writes about her own rapturous encounters with wildlife. She is part of a community seal-sitting project on Seattle’s Alki Beach: one hundred neighbors trained by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to watch over seal pups from a distance while their mothers hunt for up to forty-eight hours at a time. In the touching prologue, a fellow seal sitter offers to leave her his worldly possessions when the Rapture comes. Watching the tides, seabirds, and baby seals, she confesses to him what I know is not easy for a Southern Baptist girl: “I really want to be left behind.”
A shadow has been cast over Peterson’s memoir by her sister Marla, who has alleged that many of the personal and family stories have been embellished or made up.
Memoirists always risk offending family and friends, exposing how they’ve misremembered, reconciled their pain, and embellished their stories, unconsciously or not. That is the central problem for this flourishing genre. Memoir is memory, not fact, even though it’s classified as nonfiction. I have been repeatedly baffled, especially by family members who hold a different religious or political worldview, at how we remember incidents that I consider pivotal in my life in factually opposite ways—just as I am mystified that we could have come from the same background.
Many of the facts in question are a case of she said/she said. I have no trouble believing Peterson may have inflated her highly entertaining stories. Yet her telling of the journey of her life, and the lessons learned negotiating her way as a liberal in a conservative religious family, rings completely true.
Chet Raymo also grew up in the “Bible-thumping southern United States, where every other telephone pole along the two-lane blacktops bore a sign that said, ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon.’” He wanted to be a Roman Catholic missionary. Through a stroke of good luck, he says, he entered Notre Dame in a period of liberalization, was taught to think for himself, and got a science education that made no reference to religion.
Now in his seventies, Raymo has spent his career within the fold of Catholic universities. Yet his journey has been anything but static. “What a relief it was when it finally dawned on me as a young man that the whole panoply of supernaturalism was a sham, and that hell was no more to be feared than heaven longed for,” he writes. “The world suddenly became a place of joyous wonders. . . .” Science was the key that unlocked the sacred, his wonder of the natural world, and the miracle of human consciousness.
Raymo’s rejection of mainstream Catholic belief is searing. “Theologically, it’s as if the Scientific Revolution never happened,” he writes. “We teach twenty-first century science in the classroom, and in the chapel we recite a Creed based on neolithic cosmologies.” Catholicism, he argues, needs to reexamine a host of tenets based on an obsolete worldview: belief in Jesus’s resurrection and divinity, miracles, personal immortality, petitionary prayer, among others.
In recent years, a number of books have attacked religion and faith in God, such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. But Raymo doesn’t fit in that crowd. “I enjoyed both performances,” he writes. “God had it coming. But I won’t go where Dawkins and Harris would like to take me.”
Raymo calls agnosticism, or permission to say “I don’t know,” science’s single most important contribution to human civilization, and the essence of wisdom. “As long as our answers to . . . [life’s] questions invoked gods or supernatural agents—as they did for thousands of years, and still do for most people,” he writes, “no reliable public knowledge was possible.”
But agnosticism is a method, not a creed, he says. It doesn’t embrace his reverence of nature or the necessity for moral behavior. And he still loves the church he grew up in: the shared community, the beauty of its liturgy, its traditions of social justice, contemplative prayer, the ideals expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, “the smoky, sexy physicality” that inspired much of the world’s great art.
His preferred term is “religious naturalism,” strains of which can be found in every major religion.
The “itch for God” and transcendent experiences appears to be universal among humans, who have throughout history invented tens of thousands of religions, he says. We need to believe. Like Peterson, Raymo argues that we need a new story, based on what we know to be true about the origins of our universe, citing the work of Catholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry. Only when we strip away magical thinking can we see the sacred in everything. “In a world beset by religious strife, no mission can be more important to our collective future,” he writes.
Wondering whether his beloved and beleaguered Catholicism can rise to the challenge, Raymo lays out three requirements for any religion worthy of humankind’s future: It must be ecumenical, it must be ecological, and it must embrace the scientific story of creation as the most reliable cosmology.
I can’t help but think that a religion with these ideals already exists, although Raymo—while he quotes Charles Darwin at length, as well as Joseph Priestley—does not mention Unitarian Universalism. The challenge for the mainstream Catholic church to achieve Raymo’s goals will be nothing less than radical transformation; the challenge for Unitarian Universalism will be focusing and igniting its already radical message.
One quibble: I would have liked Raymo to address more how corporate profit, research funding, greed, ego, and politics skew science and push people away, perhaps even toward a mystical worldview.
When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy is a collection of fiery gems, rich and provocative. The thirteen chapters in this slim volume read like the best sermons—starting with a story; a central point well-driven; studded with wisdom from poets, scientists, philosophers, and priests; topped off with Raymo’s burnished prose nuggets to take away and savor. I longed to hear them read aloud. Raymo’s thought-provoking and lovely credo is a trove UUs will want to mine for personal inspiration, liturgy, and homilies.
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