Why does it take a crisis such as 9-11 or Katrina to bring people together?
I grew up in a Catholic household, and though I did not consider myself outgoing or confident, I was always analytical, questioning everything to the point of frustrating adults. In our small town church, it was not uncommon to hear comments from others if you missed a day at church or other church activities. As time passed, however, the scope of my inquiries grew to questions such as “Why would a truly loving God send my god-parents to hell, just because they did not believe in Him?” “Why, if we want to attract people to Christianity, was there a statement in the missalette denying invitation to participate in the Eucharist to those who were not Christian, and offering only a half-hearted invitation to those who were not Catholic?” “Why does the priest dislike children, when Jesus loved the children?” “Why do we have this rule? Who told you so? Who told that person?” “What if I don’t interpret that passage the same way you do?” When someone would criticize, I explained that it is our duty to question everything, even telling one friend’s parent that at least “I didn’t leave what I learned at the door prior to walking out of church.”
In my teens and twenties, I tried other denominations, always searching for what felt right, going to bible study groups, asking questions and trying to find answers that did not bring me back to the same uncomfortable conclusions. During my twenties when I was in the Army, I did not feel that I could find my “next chapter,” and this part of my life remained in limbo for many years; the military has traditionally provided pastoral or chaplain services only for Christians. Despite this fact, the cliché that “there are no atheists in foxholes” is untrue, and the military is acknowledging in recent years that not all of its members are Christian, and even among Christian members, beliefs and practices vary greatly.
Over the past 15 years, however, I have learned the actual history behind Christianity, which is eye-opening and includes great pagan roots, tragedies, atrocities, and incredible examples of humanity (Mother Teresa, who was a devout Catholic who never tried to convert those to whom she provided aid, and who seemed to believe that all religion leads to the same god). I have also studied other cultures and religions and belief systems and thoughts; Christian denominations, paganism, shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, atheism, Judaism, and many other ideas of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and spiritual leaders. What I have discovered is that I adore everyone in this wonderfully diverse world and all its ideas; I do not believe that any one belief system is right or wrong.
I have learned that though I do not personally believe in deities to be worshipped, anthropology and sociology explain the benefits that established religion and spiritual beliefs can have for societies. However, I have also learned that not only does religion have the ability to comfort and guide, it also has the ability to cause great harm. Similar to some politicians who, rather than representing all of their constituents, choose who they deem worthy, some religious doctrines and institutions also choose who they deem worthy. It is interesting that Ghandi and Mother Teresa, arguably two of the greatest civil rights and spiritual leaders of our time, never discriminated against people based on their beliefs, innate value or worthiness, nor does the Dalai Lama.
I have also learned that we all have more in common that most people think we do.
After watching the struggles of non-Christians over the years, their fears, I also found myself afraid when I came to the realization that, though I was still searching for answers, I had to admit to myself that I am not a Christian, and perhaps, in my heart, never was.
There are open struggles, as non-Christians seek to openly be who they are, to ensure separation of church and state, and as Christians fear “wars” on their religious beliefs. I watched in disbelief as the supposed “war on Christmas” manifested last winter, stupefied and bewildered, trying to understand how anyone was being denied the right to observe Christmas in their homes, and as groups of non-Christians struggled with long-time local, state, and federal practices of decorating for the holidays, with some politicians even trying to legislate holiday decorations and the title of the tree (Christmas tree versus holiday tree). I do not believe this is what we are paying politicians to do. It is interesting that there did not seem to be any public advocacy on behalf of those who celebrate the other December observances of Kwanzaa, Hanukah, or the Winter Solstice.
I do believe, after much pondering, that a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, despite the fact that I celebrate Christmas only secularly, and despite its pagan origin, since there is no other holiday that uses a Christmas tree that I am aware of. But I also believe there is a deeper issue here, one that goes beyond semantics.
If I say “happy holidays,” that is my way of wishing something positive to the other person, and if the other person says “merry Christmas,” that is his/her way of wishing something positive to me. It should not matter what words we each use, if we are able to look at the deeper intentions, especially since such huge population in America celebrates a December holiday. If a person says “God bless you,” after a sneeze, it is that person’s way of wishing you positive health, in the same way that Spanish speakers say “Salud” when someone sneezes (“to your health”).