Doubt as a Grain of Mustard Seed

I have not been a skeptic all my life, but I left my faith behind so long ago that it is hard now to remember clearly what it was like. All I know is that, judging by certain dim, imperfect memories from fifty years ago and more, I must have had it. I worried about prophecy. I prayed. I went through episodes of religious emotion. I observed ritual taboos.

It is also hard to retrace the steps that led me away from faith. No sudden revelation ever struck me blind. No single book, no sermon, no debate made me say, “Aha! Now I have become an unbeliever!” I fought no mighty struggle to deny faith and justify that denial. For only two reasons do I write about it now: retirement gives me a little leisure to look back, and my words may give you, as a reader of The Painful Truth, a little strength to go forward. If you simply must have a tidy explanation, I guess you could say I suffered a congenital case of spiritual apathy. No wait, that probably gives me too much credit. It could have been just a run of good luck.

I remember a few details from Herbert W. Armstrong’s prophecies in the earliest World Tomorrow broadcasts my parents listened to. When I was six or seven, my father would turn to me with satisfaction at the end of a broadcast and say, “He sure says a lot in that length of time, doesn’t he?” I would smile and nod, but truth is I never could follow Armstrong’s reasoning or remember the gist of his message. Some details had been affecting me deeply, though, from the start. At the age of four I would huddle under the covers in my little cot, trying to keep from breathing so that no one would notice me. I was practicing for when the Germans invaded America and went door to door yanking little children out of their beds, tossing them into the air, and catching them on their bayonets, the way Armstrong said they would as soon as they got through conquering Europe. Even when the Germans failed to conquer Europe and lost WWII, I couldn’t rest easy; Armstrong predicted they would soon rise again and lead a whole new United States of Europe across the ocean to our little cabin and impale me then.

My father interpreted every crash on the highway, every report of a rabid skunk, every case of polio, every scandalous news story of sordid immorality, as a sign foretelling the soon-to-come End Times, when Germany would ignite Armageddon, virtually destroy the U. S. and Britain, and bring the surviving remnant under cruel subjection. The grotesque booklet 1975 in Prophesy made this fate loom even more imminent and horrible. On that basis my father warned me several times in my teens not to bother making any plans that stretched beyond 1972. That was the Armstrong side of the story.

The “worldly” side was just as terrifying. The USSR would shoot nuclear missiles at us, we would launch our counterattack, and the devastation wrought by all those hydrogen bombs would bring Civilization as We Knew It to an untimely end. Responsible homeowners built bomb shelters; responsible teachers taught schoolchildren to cover their eyes and huddle under their desks. No question about it; we were all doomed to die, some way, some time. Opinions differed only in respect to exactly how and when.

I can’t recall exactly when or how I reached the decision, but at some point I just said, “The hell with it. I’m going to arrange my life as if I expected to live a normal life span. I’ve just got to strike a balance. I won’t sacrifice too much now in order to guarantee a rosy future, because the future might never happen at all. If death should come tomorrow, I want to be able to say, ‘Oh well. At least I was doing something satisfying right up to the end.’ At the same time, I’ll plan for the future, just in case I live to be ninety or something.” By this time I had developed strong doubts about the Lake of Fire that Armstrong said unbelievers would be plunged into after Armageddon. That risk, I figured, was negligible.

I remember the first prayer I prayed without being prompted. Once when I was five or so my father forgot to give me some money he had promised—fifteen cents, I think—and I was too timid to remind him, so I asked god to do it for me. I had overheard my parents discussing what Armstrong said about the power of prayer and thought it was worth a shot to beg of the creator this small request. A few hours later my father said, “Hey, I almost forgot!” and gave me the money. Funny thing, though: even at that age I knew it was possible that the money might not represent an answered prayer. Daddy could merely have remembered on his own, or Mama could have reminded him.

After that I didn’t pray so much. When I would try, I couldn’t force myself to kneel, fold my hands and speak out loud. It all seemed just too silly and artificial. And merely thinking a silent prayer to god seemed so much like just plain thinking that I couldn’t force myself to believe it would pay off.

In fact I began to doubt that any prayer at all would pay off. Once when I had a fever or a headache or something as a little boy, my father prayed over me to make me well, and I looked up and said, “I feel better already.”

He said, “Yes, that’s how it works, sometimes.”

At once I realized that I didn’t feel better, really, and decided it was really stupid to lie about it. So then years later, when my father fetched a minister at the Feast to pray for me after I came down with the flu, I thanked the preacher for the anointing and the prayer but said nothing further—not out loud. What I thought was, “Yeah, right. It takes the human body a week to throw off the flu. That’s when I’ll start feeling better.” And that’s when I did.

I never confessed this lack of faith to my family, but in my teens I sometimes failed to suppress the irreverence that came of it. While Mom was attending summer school, my sisters and I would eat lunch by ourselves; they insisted we take turns asking the blessing on the food. This was after we had been attending Worldwide services for a while, and after Mom was baptized. I was okay with bowing my head when my sisters said grace, but I hated to say it myself. One day we were almost out of milk; there was only a little more than one glass of it, which we divided among the three of us. My sisters insisted it was my turn to say the blessing. I gave thanks for each of the dishes on the table, then concluded with “And thank you, Lord, for the milk—what there is of it.” We all got so tickled we couldn’t even say “Amen.” After that, not even my sisters could regularly achieve a properly reverent mood for saying grace, and we abandoned the practice.

I remember religious emotions. In the early days, lacking any Armstrong-sponsored congregations, my father would take us to whatever fundamentalist church was close by wherever we were living at the time. (We moved frequently before my parents divorced, after which my mother established domestic stability by returning to her former career as a
schoolteacher.) At the age of maybe eight or nine, I brooded over the local preacher’s fire-and-brimstone sermon for two or three days and finally confessed to my mother that I felt like I was one of those members of the congregation he charged would be “convicted” by his words. I didn’t know exactly what “convicted” meant, but in my confession I burst into tears anyway. She called the minister and asked what should be done. I don’t clearly recall what came of it all,
but I’m pretty sure she prayed with me about it. In any case, the feeling faded over the next few days.

Then when I was twelve, in response to an altar call in the Baptist church where my mother’s brother was a deacon, most of the kids about my age broke down in tears and began streaming toward the front to declare they had been saved and to schedule baptism into the church. I cried too, but when somebody started to lead me to the altar, I shook my head and said I wanted more time to think about it. In this case too the devout feeling faded after a few days, but even now my Baptist kinsmen, following their doctrine, believe I was saved that morning for all eternity.

I never felt saved myself, not really. Part of the problem was the same as with being “convicted”: I never could quite make out what “saved” meant. Oh, I understood it would get me into heaven, but that was pretty remote. How would it improve my earthly life? No one ever cleared up that point to my satisfaction. Another part of the problem was what I had discovered in trying to pray: I could not conceive of god as a personal being. Some people lacked that deficiency; many of my friends and most of my relatives held sincere faith, and apparently they did benefit from it. It’s just that I did not.

Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God (WCG) scorned the word “saved” in its ordinary Protestant sense. What they offered as salvation was more understandable because the condition held profound consequences for the near future. Converted persons would be whisked away to an earthly “place of safety” during Armageddon, and after that they would be spared the Lake of Fire and eternal death so that they could spend the Millennium correcting the behavior of generations of people who had not yet had a chance at conversion. I contemplated my lack of such salvation with equanimity because the idea of playing hall monitor for a thousand years held little appeal. To tell the truth, it made me shudder.

I remember following the laws of clean and unclean meats and the other dietary strictures imposed by WCG. These memories are not early ones, because when I was very young and the church was still called the Radio Church of God, my parents didn’t keep the dietary laws. In those days my father would hold forth on the evils of white flour and refined sugar, but his favorite meal from the river was catfish—scaleless and therefore unclean. His favorite meat from the woods was squirrel—unclean because it lacked cloven hooves and didn’t chew its cud. Later on, when Mom began taking us to WCG services at Springfield, Missouri, we did follow the rules, but the restrictions did not seem especially irksome. I liked bass and venison better, anyway. The rules did raise doubts, however.

Or maybe I should say high school chemistry raised the doubts. I learned that a sucrose molecule is C12H22O11, and it makes not a whit of difference whether it is refined or raw. The bran in brown flour may make it more healthful than white, but that does not mean raw sugar is better for a person just because it too is brown; what makes it brown is dirt. Armstrong’s and my father’s reasoning pointed to the unstated premise that everything brown is good to eat, and that is an idea one does not care to pursue very far. So then I wondered about gelatin. Was the pig protein in Jello truly so much different from the cow protein in Knox gelatin that the creator of the universe would justifiably wax exceeding wroth if I ingested the wrong one? Doubtful. My doubts extended to methods of raising food: why did my father and the church teach that nitrates out of a fertilizer sack would nourish a plant less effectively than the same molecules from a turkey turd?*

Oddly, none of these doubts about details made me question the basic premise that some kind of god existed. In high school I could conceive of no explanation for the universe except that an omnipotent, omniscient will had constructed it. From time to time I would try to work up faith that I could actually get involved on a personal level with that being, but I never could trick myself into actually believing it. Eventually I gave up.

Who said it and in what context I do not recall, but someone once declared that there’s no use straining to work up faith, anyway; it comes as a gift. A comforting idea; I could just relax and wait for faith to settle on me. Never happened. After some years, I began to feel that doubt was in fact preferable to faith, and I came to treasure it as a greater gift. Nothing bestowed that gift in greater abundance than Ambassador College; it was there that I learned to doubt the very existence of god. Some of my previous posts to this site give insights into how the process unfolded. So, I hope, will future ones.

*Nowadays I realize that manure actually is superior because it adds moisture-retaining humus to the soil in addition to nutrient chemicals. However, my teenage doubts were not misplaced, because the ministers merely issued pronouncements about how wicked farmers were to use commercial fertilizer, neglecting (out of ignorance?) to explain the agricultural principle. Besides, the nitrates that plant roots take up are inorganic in either case, so if we consider just the chemicals themselves, it truly doesn’t matter which source they come from.


Blast from the past…. Article by by Retired Prof.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.