Seeking balance: a complicated relationship with the metaphysical

Charles Simmons

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While most of my friends spent their Easter weekend relaxing with their family at home, I was visiting a different type of home. I attended three different church services in the span of two days.

I live in the threshold between three different worlds: the church, the home, and the school. My relationship with Christianity is directly influenced by all three spheres. It was born in the church, nurtured in the home, and challenged in the classroom. As I grow older, I find myself more often challenged within the classroom. Horace Mann’s environment is focused on making us “critical thinkers.” This critical thinking does not exclude religion, and as I have grown, the way in which I understand my faith has grown concurrently.

In eighth-grade history, we had a unit called Living Color in which we studied Eastern and Western religions. I have vivid memories of recounting the Bible, almost as if it were  second nature to me, and paraphrasing my father’s sermons, thinking that I too was a priest. Looking back, I spoke from a place of dogmatic faith. This caused me to treat the material as a “Sunday School refresher” rather than an exercise in critical analysis. I was more concerned with proving I could remember the four gospels than I was with seeing how the larger themes of reincarnation and the afterlife connected with Eastern religions, or even with the other Abrahamic religions. I had not developed the maturity or perspective to look at Christianity as anything but the truth. This inability to reason was largely driven by my emotions regarding the topic.

Faith is something near and dear to my heart, and as the line between personal feelings and the actual material blurred, I felt as if my spiritual life and my academic career would not be able to co-exist.

I’ve learned from my father that part of my job as a Christian is accepting the fact that a large part of Christianity, and religion in general, is clouded in mystery, and it is based on something that you cannot confirm. You must trust something you cannot see. Faith is largely based, in part, off of this struggle. It is not meant to be easy. It’s not true faith if you can confirm it. It is meant to be challenged.  You cannot read the Bible with a scientific mind or you will miss the point. The Bible says that Moses split the Red Sea, but there is no way to confirm that. Looking for confirmation of biblical miracles takes away from the stories. This is what it means to have faith, to stare into the abyss and hope that the isolation and loneliness you feel is only a small part of a much larger plan and there is a being that understands what it means to be you. Faith seeks understanding.

Faith can be mistaken for dogmatic belief, and if it is not sufficiently tested, it very well may be. For me, the moment when I truly challenged my faith came last year. My friends and I were discussing whether the English department should read Brokeback Mountain, a novel focused around the emotional and sexual relationship between two cowboys. At the time, I was apprehensive, silently wondering whether or not my reading of the book would force me to question my religion beyond my regular level of comfort. I think the uneasiness stemmed from a much larger discomfort. No longer being able to say with absolute certainty that there was a God bothered me and I was becoming more defensive in the hopes of salvaging my faith. As the questions grew more direct, the answers became more and more abstract and my inability to provide a concrete answer led me to doubt my faith. It felt as if my worlds were coming into conflict and sooner or later, I would have to make a choice. I felt as if I was drowning.

I’ve replayed that conversation in my head countless times, trying to reason and reconcile with a former version of myself.  In my English 11 class this year, the opportunity to engage with this discomfort and test my faith presented itself. We had read a play by Mikhail Horowitz titled We Cannot Know the Mind of God. While bizarre and witty, the play touches on the profound relationship between the individual and God. I remember going home to ask my father what his thoughts were, hoping for some desperately-needed closure. He simply told me that faith seeks understanding.

I wrestled with this advice for some time, asking myself, “What does it mean to understand?” Understanding means empathy and contemplation. A true Christian cannot be close-minded. Jesus displayed kindness and compassion to everyone. A true Christian does not succumb to the “us vs. them” mentality but rather looks for commonality and cooperation.

I was too frustrated at the time to truly appreciate the complexity of his answer and I found myself asking what the purpose of religion is. The most common answer I received was that it was “a way to explain the unknown.” Until recently, I found nothing wrong with this definition and I accepted it as the “right answer.” By this time, I had begun to teeter the line between casual Christian and casual agnostic.

It wasn’t until I recently visited my old parish community that I began to fully understand the real power of religion. I had gone to attend a recital hosted at the church, and from the moment I walked in, it felt like I had never left. It was incredible how comfortable I was; I felt like I was truly home. I cannot tell you what the primary purpose of religion is, and the history of religion is a violent and discouraging one. But, despite this saddening history, one of the purposes of religion is not only its ability to bind people with their god, but also with one another to create a community. In fact, the word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religio,” meaning to bind together. Seeing familiar faces for the first time in years helped me recognize just how important these people were to me during my time at church and how their unconditional love still made me feel like family even after years apart.

I hope that by continuing to grapple with the discomfort of the unknown, I will begin to understand that the mystery of faith is not something to be looked at as a burden.There is beauty in the unknown, and faith seeks to understand this beauty. I do not know the mind of God– I am only sixteen, after all– but I do know how important religion has been to understanding who I am.