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Threads: The Non-Threat Spiral

Letters written by me, updated December 2004
to include the period 1965-1969

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Background:  Shortly before I enrolled at Oberlin College, I received an invitation from Barbara Bowman, president of the Wesley Fellowship there.

Dated August 18, 1965, it was on the letterhead of the First Methodist Church in Oberlin, Ohio.  That caught my eye, because in my hometown of Richwood, Ohio, I was a member of another First Methodist Church.  There I played the organ and (along with my mother) sang in the choir, and I had been active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship.

Here are excerpts from the letter.

Dear Prospective Student:

Unfortunately, as you may already have concluded, this is only one in what will become a long series of form letters which you will receive from Oberlin during the summer.  For those of you who are still reading, let me say that this is your introduction to the Wesley Fellowship of Oberlin College.  That name would indicate that the orientation of the group is Methodist.  It is really rather interdenominational, but we use Methodist facilities.  In hope that you may be interested in joining us this fall, I'd like to tell you a little about the group and what we are doing.

The regular program is composed of weekly Sunday-evening meetings.  If you belong to a high school church group, I must say that Wesley is nothing like your present fellowship.  The programs grow out of the interests and needs of the members; this lends a certain dynamic flexibility to the group.

The whole meeting really doesn't take much time since we meet during and after Sunday night supper.  Now there is a good deal to be said for Oberlin's food service, but one of its weak points is Sunday night supper.  So aside from the fun and thoughtful discussion which Wesley provides its members, it also rescues us from SAGA at its worst.

I do hope that you will find time in this busiest semester of your time at Oberlin to get acquainted with Wesley.  You will need a break from your work when it gets started; remember us.

Our first get-together will be after the "Y" Vesper on Sunday evening the 19th.  This will be an Open House giving you the opportunity to meet the upper-class members of the group.  On successive Sundays the meetings will begin at 5:30 P.M. with supper.

See you when you're unpacked,

Barbara Bowman

After I did get unpacked, I attended not only that evening Open House on September 19 but also the 11:00 morning service at the First Methodist Church, which is located just below Oberlin's Conservatory of Music on South Professor Street.

2004 photo

I mailed home a copy of the program, including comments about the organ and choir music.

I noted that organist Dr. Mark Siebert (from the Conservatory) "knows how to play and doesn't drag hymns at all."  The "choir" this Sunday was actually a quartet including Russ Hurd and Mrs. Robert Longsworth.  Mrs. Longsworth's husband, an English professor whom my parents and I had met during freshman orientation, read the scripture.  The pastor was James F. Cope.

The Wesley Fellowship was a regular subject in the letters I wrote home to my parents.

I told how we rotated our meetings between the parsonage (the home of the church's pastor) and the homes of our two faculty advisors: Robert Longsworth and his fellow English professor Robert Pierce.

The Wesley meetings, and my other experiences at Oberlin, gradually grew into an exploration of religion in general.  But first I had to report on my research into reds — specifically how Oberlin's school color of crimson compares to Ohio State's color of scarlet.





Monday, October 18, 1965

Crimson is a deep red, blood color; scarlet is a bright red with an almost orangey tint.  Oberlin's colors are supposed to be crimson and gold, but scarlet and bright yellow is the usual combination that's used.

Wonderful fall weather up here the past few days.  Barbara Bowman gave the sermon at church yesterday — Layman's Sunday.  Then the Wesley Fellowship meeting was held at the Longsworths' house, where we ate in the back yard.

Next weekend Wesley is going to have what's called a Group Relations Conference.  This is some sort of informal group psychoanalysis, which is supposed to make us understand ourselves better; it will run from Friday evening through Saturday evening.  (Next weekend is Homecoming, and there aren't any classes on Saturday).  That's about all I know about it now; I'll tell you what it was like in my next letter, if I can get it written before the end of the month.  I've been having a little trouble finding time for everything I should do or want to do.


Monday, October 25, 1965

Friday afternoon was rather busy, and I never got around to checking my mailbox until just as I was leaving the dorm to go to the Group Relations Conference.  Finding your letter, I stuck it into my pocket.  On Saturday afternoon — the conference was overnight, from 7:30 pm Friday to 10:00 pm Saturday — on Saturday afternoon I opened the letter and read it.  It was Sunday by the time I got the card mailed.  It probably won't get to Oklahoma until a week after Aunt Ethel's death, but I think they'll understand the situation.

The Group Relations Conference didn't accomplish too much.  We were slow in getting into the swing of "expressing our feelings," so not a great deal was expressed.

The conference took place at the lodge (a bare 20x50-foot room with a fireplace) of the Oberlin Country Day Camp, a few miles west of town between routes 10 and 20.

Common Ground now owns the camp (2004 photo).

I recall at one point being accused of being "defensive" about myself.  What's wrong, I thought, in defending your own personality or way of life?

After the conference, I jotted down a quote from Barbara Bowman:  "Great minds inhabit the same rut."

We had four two-hour sessions of "relating" — sitting around in a circle in front of the fireplace and talking about ourselves and our reactions to others — at 9:00 Friday and 9:30, 2:30, and 7:30 Saturday.

Between meetings we cooked our meals, washed dishes, played cards, walked around outside, chopped firewood, and otherwise diverted ourselves.  Sleeping was by means of sleeping bags or bedrolls:  I took a sheet from my bed in the dorm and my two blankets and folded myself between them.  (Of course, I also took my pillow.)

Even if the conference didn't accomplish much itself, at least it kept me away from the Homecoming football game.  Not only did we lose, but I hear there was quite a rainstorm.  Homecoming at Oberlin isn't much of an event.


Sunday, November 7, 1965

With this week's letter, I enclosed the program for the November 2 service at the college's Finney Chapel.

I even sketched the stage arrangement:  chairs for student leader Joyce Hunter, college president Robert Carr, and professor of classics Charles Murphy, who gave the talk on "Lost Sheep."  The Chapel Choir was directed by Hugh Johnson, and student Edwin Domb played Pachelbel on the organ.

They've been having these chapel services every Tuesday noon, but last week was the first time I went.  Not too many there, only two or three hundred in a hall that holds 1500 or more — and usually is filled for Thursday noon assemblies.  Also, since lunch is at 12:30, the speaker had only about fifteen minutes to try to put his point across.  What it amounted to was a short, middle-of-the-week church service.


Sunday night, January 16, 1966

Wesley Fellowship's project of writing a sermon about the church we would like to be a part of is getting pretty interesting.

Having agreed on the purposes for our church, last week we ran into the problem of whether we should say the purposes were based on God or whether they came from general principles about what is best for mankind.  It may seem self-contradictory to talk about a church without God, but quite a bit of thinking has been going on along these lines among theologians recently as they realize that the traditional concept of God no longer seems real to many people.  But there were a few in our group who wanted to keep the idea.

Then tonight we discovered that this split wasn't as divisive as it seemed.  The atheists wanted the theists to be a part of their "church" because the theists have a good outlook on life and are a good influence on people.  The theists (that is, the more liberal and non-traditional ones) wanted the atheists to be part of their church because of the opportunity this offered for the sharing of ideas.

We found that for us, at least, the creed was relatively unimportant so long as we all had a common purpose, namely to share our experiences with each other in order to give each other strength for meeting the world.  And as we simply and openly discussed all of this, Mr. Cope, the minister, said that this was one of the most exciting things he'd heard in years.  "Imagine the Womens' Society talking like this!"

We aren't exactly sure where we're heading at the moment, but we're certainly getting to understand each other better.


Spring was the time of year when some Methodist ministers moved on to other towns.  At my hometown church back in Richwood, Rev. James  Wagner was replacing Rev. John  Wagner, and there was going to be a change in Oberlin as well.  Perhaps the new minister would not be as open to our "openness" as James Cope was.

It was also about this time that Robert Pierce, one of our faculty advisors, and Barbara Bowman, the senior who was our president, announced that after she graduated, they would be married!

On May 15, This Week magazine featured Barbara on a page headed "Graduating Class."

Barbara Bowman, Georgia-born, Pennsylvania-raised Oberlin College senior, is madly in love with a world she cannot see.  She doesn't consider the handicaps she's faced, since beginning to lose her sight in grade school, as handicaps at all.  She considers them as opportunities.

Her high marks, for instance.  Because of her blindness, Barbara takes all her class notes in Braille and organizes and transcribes them, immediately afterward, onto recording tape, which she plays back for study.  "Going over everything while it's still fresh," she says, "is an excellent learning technique."  Evidence:  she's consistently in the top 10 per cent of her class, winning the 1966 Meacham Prize in English, her major.

Blindness, she points out cheerfully, sharpens her other senses.  She has a keen ear for music, is a skilled ice skater, knits complicated multi-colored sweaters, and is an expert at recognizing individual bird calls.

Her lack of sight causes her to make an "extra effort" to be a whole person in other ways.  On campus she's an active student counselor; on vacations she works at Pittsburgh's Vocational Rehabilitation Center.  She plans a master's degree in English because she "loves teaching and loves the subject."

In a world where too many people see only the dark side, it would be hard to find anything Barbara doesn't love.

That same week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story about a May 12 ceremony, headlined "Blind Oberlin Coed Is Honored by LBJ."

An Oberlin College coed was one of three blind college students honored yesterday by President Johnson in White House ceremonies.

Barbara Ann Bowman, 21, of Bethel Park, Pa., is a Phi Beta Kappa and attends Oberlin on a tuitional scholarship.  She won freshman, sophomore and junior class honors, ranking 17th in the latter class of 424.

She has been a public speaker for community organizations, was active in a sight-saving group and spent two summers as a social case worker for a vocational rehabilitation center, aiding emotionally disturbed, mentally retarded adults.

The ceremony called public attention to the courage of blind young people, who surmount their handicap to become educated citizens capable of following creative, independent careers.

Here's a 21st-century biography from the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio.


Saturday, May 21, 1966

I've got a lot of little details to write, so I think I'll start the letter now but not mail it until after Wesley tomorrow night.  By the way, I don't have the refreshments tomorrow night; one of the girls wanted to take them.  And tomorrow is the last meeting, since "finals period" apparently begins as soon as classes are over next Saturday noon.  So I get out of the refreshments responsibility, for this year at least.

The Pierces will remain in Oberlin; he'll teach as usual and I guess she'll just be a housewife, although I can't imagine her not doing some special counseling work in the Dean of Women's office or something like that; Barbara isn't the type who'd want to cut herself off from other people.

Reverend Cope is leaving, so we too are wondering what new pastor we're going to get.  That will determine whether or not we'll meet at the parsonage part of the time.  At any rate, the English professors Pierce and Longsworth will still be our advisers and we'll still meet at their homes.

This means that Barbara will still be with the group next year, but in a rather different capacity.  She said something last week about how she'd have to keep kicking herself the first part of next year to keep from talking very much, since she won't actually be a member of the group.  This year we've pretty much looked to her for leadership and guidance, not so much as one who brings up new ideas as one who clarifies the ideas of others, sees the essential points and the attitudes that led to the ideas and thus helps us to think clearly about them — sort of a moderator.  She'll have an urge to do the same thing next year, and we may want her to, but an adviser's wife isn't supposed to say much.


Monday, May 23, 1966

Scott Weir will be president of Wesley next year; he's the sophomore from Oklahoma who's a physics major, and ought to do a good job (he's responsible).

A few more details on Barbara:  The wedding will be September 3 in Pittsburgh.  My present English professor, Mr. Harden, and his wife are leaving Oberlin, and the Pierces will move into his house rather than that little Pierce apartment.

Dave George, who's one of the leaders in the anti-war movement on campus (he's a sophomore), was at the meeting last night for the first time in a few weeks.  Mr. Cope was telling about a stranger to town who asked him about a good place to eat; the minister suggested the Oberlin Inn, commenting that people come from eighty miles around to eat there.  Then the man said, in all seriousness, "Do you suppose we might see them demonstrating while we're eating?"  Dave's comment on this was "That's a good sign; it shows we're at least getting through to people and they're noticing what we're doing."  Saturday morning there were about a hundred students walking around in front of Finney in the rain, just walking around in a circle.


Sunday, October 2, 1966

So far the new minister hasn't impressed me too well.  His name is Forrest J. Waller, a young fellow, blond, crew-cut, dark-rimmed glasses, about 5'11".  He seems to know what he's doing, but so far his sermons haven't said too much.  In the first one I heard, he just related the story of Moses, occasionally inserting a comment but never really drawing any conclusions from the story as a whole.  Maybe I'll like him better as time goes on, though; that's what happened last year.

We've been using orders of worship that are going to appear in the new hymnal, I think; I hope Reverend Wagner doesn't decide to use them at Richwood.  The Doxology does not follow the offering, and there seems to be a rule about not praying while standing.  For instance, after the first hymn we're still standing as the minister says, "The Lord be with thee."  We answer, "And with thy spirit."  He says, "Let us pray," and the next thing you hear is clunk-plump-clunk as we all sit down.  This seems to destroy the mood entirely.  Another thing I don't particularly care for is that in our communion this morning (which was taken in the pews, by the way), the minister several times knelt facing the altar and prayed aloud.  Nothing special wrong with that, except that it reminds me too much of a Catholic priest.


Saturday, January 21, 1967

Both the Longsworths and the Pierces mentioned the candy you sent and how nice it was.  Mrs. Longsworth especially made a point of telling me.

I've been becoming a little disenchanted with Sue [a Unitarian friend].  One point is a small religious disagreement we have.

I gather the Unitarian church doesn't have any well-formulated set of beliefs; they feel that no one religious doctrine is any better than any other, and it's up to the individual to decide what he wants to believe.  Oh, there's one exception:  the name "Unitarian" means they don't believe in the Trinity, which I had always assumed to mean they considered the three as one.  I guess that isn't so; the reason they don't believe in the Trinity is that they don't consider Jesus to be the son of God.  They call him a prophet, as the Mohammedans do, but nothing more than a man.

So what do they teach in their Sunday school?  Sue told me they studied a book called "Jesus, the Carpenter's Son" and also studied about all the other religions, with the emphasis on the idea that each person was to decide for himself what he wanted to believe.

I said that because of the type of church I had been brought up in I would prefer that the children be taught to believe something, a catechism that their elders believed was a good faith to follow, to at least give them a start in the right direction.  Of course, they could change their beliefs as they grew up and got more experience about the world, but at least they'd have something to start on, rather than just being set free to drift and ending up believing nothing at all.  To which Sue replied, "What's wrong with that?"

By the way, her family is apparently no longer going to the Unitarian church in Columbus.  The ministers in the Unitarian faith don't preach much (since they don't want to advocate any one particular idea about God which might offend someone else, I suppose), so most of the sermons are on secular topics, including politics.  The last minister they got down in Columbus turned out to be a Communist, so they stopped going.


Oberlin was a small enough town that I could walk everywhere, but this was a longer hike than usual:  the Longsworth home on Shipherd Circle was a mile and a quarter from my dorm.

Sunday, February 26, 1967

It's been pretty cold here the past couple of days, but it got up into the thirties this afternoon under clear skies, which was good news for me:  Wesley is all the way out at Longsworth's tonight.


Sunday, April 16, 1967

Wesley is beginning to run down.  The active membership is down to eight, with only five present last night.  We're working on plans to rejuvenate it, perhaps by turning it into a Bible-study group or just a study group or something; we'll probably spend the rest of the semester figuring out just what we want.


We'd grown away from the local Methodist church and eventually would drop the name Wesley entirely.  What to call ourselves?

A member of our little group could freely discuss his thoughts, no matter how controversial.  Even when those thoughts contradicted the prevailing wisdom, they were not immediately shot down by the other members.  So the first member, feeling less threatened, opened up even further.  Openness encouraged even more openness, in a process we dubbed the "Non-Threat Spiral."  And that's what we named our group.

The NTS survived for several more months.  In the meantime, I switched churches.   

The First Church in Oberlin dated back to 1834, shortly after the founding of the town by members of the Congregational Church (descended mostly from the Pilgrims of New England).  In the 19th century, it was a local center of the movement to abolish slavery.  The denomination was now called the United Church of Christ.

The UCC made news in 2004 when two TV networks refused to air its commercial, deeming it too controversial.  Here are excerpts about this issue from a column by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald.

I joined the UCC about five years ago.  It was the first church I'd ever seen that seemed to take seriously the idea that inclusion is a Christian value.  It was also the first that actively sought to resolve divisions of culture, class, race and sexual orientation.

So you can imagine how I feel about Wednesday's news that CBS and NBC have rejected a new UCC commercial celebrating just that characteristic:  I am appalled.

The ad shows two bouncers working a rope line in front of a church.  They turn away a gay couple and what appears to be a Hispanic man and a black girl.  A white family is allowed to pass.  The text onscreen says, "Jesus didn't turn people away.  Neither do we."

A narrator closes the ad, speaking over a montage of old people, white people, black people, Hispanic people, lesbian people, human people.  "The United Church of Christ," he says.  "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."

A commercial that says only that God's love includes us all is too controversial to show?!


And yes, I know where this is coming from.  Gay bashing under the guise of religious conservatism is on the rise.  Those folks would not be happy with an ad showing gays become welcomed anywhere, much less in church.

A love larger than human bigotry:  I consider that a goal worth seeking.

Apparently the networks do not.

Saturday, April 29, 1967

I'm planning to go to First Church tomorrow morning.  They're going to have some special musical service.

First Church in Oberlin, 2001 photo

That will be an occasion to break the habit of going to First Methodist, where I haven't been getting much at all out of the services lately.

Maybe a change will do me good.

Monday, May 22, 1967

If your choir is through for the summer, maybe you could come up Sunday morning and go to First Church with me to see what it's like.  They have a very good choir and the bell choir may be playing this week, in addition to the fact that the minister impresses me favorably so far.

The service is quite similar to Methodist services.  This particular church still uses the same building as in 1842.


Sunday, October 1, 1967

Mr. Montgomery, Mr. and Mrs. Warner, and Mr. and Mrs. Richards (the men are all members of the physics department faculty) became members of First Church this morning.  We had reception of new members in conjunction with World-Wide Communion Sunday.

Incidentally, one unusual part of First Church's communion service is that it comes at the very end of the hour and has not a great deal of ceremony connected with it.  Following the third hymn, we had the invitation (in the Methodist Hymnal, #830, sixth page:  "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins"), a congregational prayer (bottom of ninth page:  "We do not presume to come"), the Sursum Corda and Sanctus (eighth page, the Sanctus being sung by the choir), a prayer by the minister, the distribution of the elements in the pews, a brief sentence for the taking of each, a congregational prayer, and the benediction.  Sort of ties in with the theme of this church, "Go forth to serve"; the communion is a sort of consecration, and immediately thereafter we "go forth."

Mr. Schumacher [the pastor] mentioned a couple of weeks ago, for the benefit of new students, that First Church had been a combination of Congregational and Presbyterian at the same time for 124 years.  The United Church of Christ was formed only in 1957 from two other denominations, one of them Congregational and the other something like Evangelical Disciples.  Oberlin's church must have been a leader in the formation of the UCC, as the second general meeting of all the member churches was held in Oberlin in 1959.  Others may have been held here as well.

Actually, the other denomination in the 1957 merger was called "Evangelical and Reformed."  Click the logo to go to the UCC website.

Both UCC and Methodist congregations can trace their ancestry back to the Church of England, from which they split centuries ago.  Their communion liturgies both retain the time-honored phrases that I quoted above.  These formulations were published in English for the first time in The Order of the Communion (1548) and The Book of Common Prayer.


Sunday, October 8, 1967

I got a letter Friday from Reverend Wagner, thanking me for playing the organ in Richwood this summer and apologizing for not thanking me sooner.

He says he's going to try to visit all the campuses where First Methodist kids are going to school and at least eat lunch with them "within the next several weeks," and that he'll write more about this later.  Sounds like a pretty ambitious program, considering how scattered we are.  Even if he went to OSU in Columbus he probably couldn't get more than two or three together at the same time.

I guess this is an extension of his policies of calling on everyone in the congregation, and it might be a good idea.  The ministers in Oberlin don't call on college students, that's for sure.


Sunday, November 5, 1967

I'm already beginning to plan for playing for church in Richwood on the 26th, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Back on September 10, I used a good arrangement of "Now Thank We All Our God" for the prelude.  Knowing our congregation, I doubt if very many would know it was a rerun if I used it again, and since it's appropriate I don't think they'd mind anyhow.  Do you agree?


Monday, March 11, 1968

You can tell whomever makes out the bulletins that I'll be playing three pieces by J. S. Bach on March 24:  prelude "Jesus, Priceless Treasure," offertory "Aria," postlude "Hark, a Voice Saith, All Are Mortal."  If they run out of space, the last title can be shortened to "All Are Mortal."  (They used this very chorale-prelude as the postlude yesterday at First Church, so I figure it's all right.)


Saturday, July 27, 1968 (to an Oberlin friend)

As the occasional organist at Richwood First Methodist, I married my eighth couple last Sunday.  It was the second wedding for both (a widow and a widower, each with children), so they didn't want a great deal of music; I therefore planned to start playing at 1:10, since the ceremony was planned for 1:30.

The church was absolutely empty when I arrived about one o'clock; not a soul in sight.  But I started playing at 1:10 anyway, because the day before, I had spent a couple of hours timing the music very carefully so it would come out to exactly twenty minutes.  When there was still no one there at 1:20, I began to think they'd called off the engagement, but I kept on playing, all by myself.

The wedding party finally did arrive, however, and the ceremony came off on time and with only one hitch.  The planned one.


In 1968, the Methodist Church became the United Methodist Church.

New members were asked, "Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?"

Monday, September 9, 1968

Jan joined the Methodist Church on August 25 [before returning to college for the fall semester], so she and I went to the First United Methodist here in Oberlin yesterday.  After all, she did promise to uphold the church by her attendance.

However, we found that the local church is still pretty much the same as when I left it.  What I disliked mostly was the lack of depth to the sermon.  She was bothered by that, too, but also by the fact that it apparently made little difference to the people sitting there.  Although they undoubtedly didn't agree with everything in the responses, they still repeated them without thinking.  Having gone to church all my life, I'm used to that, but she hasn't gone since junior high school.  Her church at home is a smaller, more personal one, without this ritual formality.  On that point I'm afraid First Church may not be much better, but I may talk her into going there for a while if she doesn't want to return to the Methodist.


Sunday, November 3, 1968

Yes, I would like to play the organ in Richwood Sunday.  I hope it'll be fairly simple to figure out what and how the choir is singing; maybe I can go over it with Rev. Wagner on Saturday to make sure I know what's happening.  If you want to put them in the bulletin, here are the titles:


Jesus Shall Reign!

Van Denman Thompson


O Blessed Emmanuel

J. S. Bach



Felix Mendelssohn


Monday, December 9, 1968

If they'd like me to play the organ on December 22, here's the music:


O Come, Let Us Adore Him

Roger C. Wilson


Variations on a Noel

Theodore Dubois


How Brightly Shines the Morning Star

Roger C. Wilson

If, however, the first hymn is "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (which would be the same as the prelude), change the prelude to "Tidings of Comfort and Joy" by Ellen Jane Lorenz.


One of my nominally Methodist friends in Oberlin was seriously considering marrying a Catholic.  How to reconcile the different types of Christianity?  Perhaps they could meet in the middle by both becoming Episcopalians.

Christ Church in Oberlin represented that denomination, so one Sunday in January, 1969, my friend invited me along to sample an Episcopal service.  However, as it turned out, no one became an Anglican.

2002 photo

Later that year, I graduated from Oberlin College and moved on to graduate school at Syracuse University.  I reported home about the nearby Methodist church.


Monday, September 22, 1969

I've been to the church down the street both Sundays, and I found it better than I expected.  The minister is much better than the one they ended up with at Oberlin after the first year, at least to my way of thinking.  The church is recently remodeled inside and quite comfortable, and the music is passable though not good by Oberlin standards.  The only problem is, although the church itself is quite convenient to where I live, I still have to walk to the other side of the campus to eat afterwards, so I don't save anything there.

Let me close this thread with a couple of longer, serious letters that I wrote to a classmate, Jan Olson, in the summer of 1968.  You can read her thoughts here.


Saturday, July 27, 1968

I am not so amazed to discover that you bought a Bible.  You're not nearly as anti-religious as you may have thought you are.  Your interest in ESP, for instance, indicates more than just a scientific interest, I think; I'm guessing it involves a hidden desire to believe in something "supernatural."

The Bible (Old and New Testaments) and Christianity and Judaism are fascinating, definitely, whether you agree with the basic assumptions they make about God or not.  I don't think either of us do, as of now.

When you decided eight years ago that God was no more real than Santa Claus, because of the lack of any visible evidence of his existence outside of stories that people had apparently made up, you decided to have nothing more to do with the church because it was all based on superstition as far as you were concerned.

When I came to the same conclusion about God at about the same time, I decided to stay in the church and continue considering the problem.  I wasn't sure I was right, and besides my parents would have been upset had I "rebelled."

Let me try to fill you in on where my personal theology, as a non-believer listening to what the church has to say, has gotten to in these past years.

You asked me last spring, "Are you a Christian?", to which I replied, "More than anything else."  I now explain briefly.  I think Jesus was the Messiah (the Christ) that the Jews were expecting, but I don't think he was divine (because I don't believe in God in the usual sense of the word).  I don't think that he himself thought that he was God, either, or that his "resurrection" (which had to occur if the prophecies about the Messiah were to come true) would be brought about miraculously without some effort and planning on his part.

In The Passover Plot, Dr. Hugh J. Schonfield hypothesizes that Jesus planned to be given a drug on the cross (John 19:28-30) so that he could be taken down for dead by a secret friend (Mark 15:43-45) and restored to health in the tomb.  But something went wrong (John 19:34) and Jesus died.  To make it seem as though he had really risen, the secret friend posed as Jesus to the disciples, who didn't recognize him until he implied that he was Jesus and their eager minds accepted this (John 20:14-18, 21:4-12, Luke 24:13-32).  And the Christian church was built on this delusion.

Well, no, not entirely.  Some of the early Christian writers liked to dwell on the resurrection and on God becoming man, and this is interesting theology.  They probably got most of the idea from Greek myths.  But as a man, a mere mortal who believed he had been called to be the Messiah, the great prophet and spiritual leader of his people, Jesus was one of the greatest preachers in history.  He had great insight into the problems of life and what was wrong with the religious practices of the people, and he was able to put his teachings into memorable form.  And it is one of his statements that forms the basis for my present idea of what God is:  John 4:24.

God is not a being on "this mountain" or an old man on a throne in heaven, wherever that is; he is a spirit.  Or better, it is a spirit.  Just as Santa Claus is not a being, but rather the spirit of giving other people gifts to give them happiness, so God is not a being, but rather the spirit of love, morality, kindness, justice, humility, et cetera.  "God is love" should be taken literally.  I've tried replacing "God" by "good" in the teachings of the church, and most of the time it works remarkably well.

There are times when it doesn't .  Also, there's absolutely no evidence for life after death, so I'm of the opinion that life ends with death.  The myth that it doesn't is merely escapism, both for those who don't want to die and for those whose present life isn't worth living.  Therefore a sermon about life hereafter is meaningless to me, except in a highly symbolic sense.

But for the most part, my abstract "spirit-God" is described very well by what the church teaches about its quasi-concrete "being-God."  Take some examples from hymn titles.

"This Is My Father's World"

translates into

the world is basically good.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"

translates into

right makes might.

"Now Thank We All Our God"

translates into

let us consider how fortunate we all are to be living in this world.

It all sounds wonderfully optimistic, doesn't it?

Maybe part of my problem is my optimism.  I've never had any really black days when the only way I could go on was to put my trust in God.  Maybe if I had had such days, I would have discovered how hard it is to put one's faith in "good" (the assurance that everything will turn out for the best eventually), compared to putting one's faith in an unseen Father watching with concern from heaven.

But although having faith may be harder, believing (intellectually) for me is easier this way, and I think it is a better way.

Jesus's God, I'm convinced, was spirit.  Read Matthew 25:31-46 literally, and you come away worrying whether your record of doing it to 37 of the least of these his brethren and doing it not to 22 is going to be good enough to assure you eternal life rather than eternal punishments.  Read it with "good" substituted for "God" (that is to say, figuratively), and you get from it what you're supposed to:  all men, even the poor and unfortunate, are of equal worth, and we therefore ought to do our best to help our brothers in the backward countries and in the ghettoes.

Well, enough of that for now.  This wasn't intended to be either a sermon or a detailed personal confession; I just wanted you to know where my belief stands after several years of quiet reaction against the common mythological, anthropomorphic concept of God, which you have also reacted against.  I hope I haven't adversely affected any budding belief you might have in such a God; actually, I think that those who can believe this way are better off than those who must believe in an abstract noun.  But I think the former are incorrect.


Friday, August 9, 1968

Some semi-random thoughts and comments on our discussion of religion:

(1)  The "other manifestations" of God which you mention (moments of extreme happiness, peace, well-being, beauty) are things which I too would consider manifestations of God.  You call them unexplainable, though, while I feel that they're psychologically perfectly explainable in principle.  Other types of manifestations of God, such as health, laughter, exhilaration, pleasure, and many other miscellaneous items, all could be called "good."

(2)  Prayer does in certain cases get results, as for instance in faith healing and the "miracles" of Lourdes.  I don't dispute that.  But I would hesitate to say that prayer works, as you do, because that implies that the mechanism that the praying person believes to be operating is actually operating, namely that God or some benevolent spirit is suspending the physical laws of nature to make things turn out in a certain unnatural way which the praying person has requested.  I prefer to believe that the laws of nature are not suspended, but that the mechanism is a psychosomatic one.

(3)  Okay, here's Thomas Edison, nearly 85 years old, sick, lying on his deathbed, probably drifting in and out of a coma.  Isn't it possible that he wasn't completely in control of his faculties, that it was a dream or hallucination that caused him suddenly to sit up and say, "It's really very beautiful over there"?  (You've said things in your sleep, haven't you, that seemed irrational when related to you later?)  Billions of people have died without having said anything about what they see lying beyond; the statements of the few who have made a report can reasonably be explained as death hallucinations.  It all depends on what you want to believe.

(4)  Finally, your statement that you find it necessary to believe in a loving, personal God — something which I did not expect you to say, by the way — is quite illuminating to me, since it makes me realize that I don't have to believe in a personal God.  As an introverted, bookish, non-athletic only child, I always played by myself and learned to be quite self-sufficient and self-contained emotionally.  I didn't want personal relationships because of the uncertainty inherent in them, so I learned to live my life alone without the emotional help of other people — or of God.  I've tried to face any crises that came along (and there haven't been many) like a good Stoic and to make the best of a bad situation, and so far it's worked out pretty well.  I haven't needed a personal God and haven't wanted his interference, and it's only been in the past few years that I've begun to take notice of my impersonal "spirit of good."



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