After I graduated highschool, I immediately entered University. I chose Early Modern European History as my major, and Political Science as my minor. I soon dropped Political Science, when it became clear to me that my personal philosophies often clashed with mainstream politics. I took Philosophy and Religion and Culture as a double minor instead.

I was lucky enough to have formed friendships with several very intelligent Philosophy majors, who challenged me on several levels. They were much better read than myself, although for my school work I quickly caught up since all my classes required of me to read classical philosophy and literature. Philosophy required intimate knowledge of the tenets. History required of me to place the tenets within the current political, religious and cultural context.

On another level, all of these Philosophy majors were Atheists. They did not, could not, allow me to use religious frameworks around arguments because they are not based around reason, but around faith and personal experience. I was forced to acknowledge that the religious arguments I had been acquiring since childhood were not built upon solid ground, and were in no way unique. I saw how the religious myths I had grown up with were  similar threads of a great web of religious ideas that had grown up all over the globe, but I didn’t know why. My God had the same attributes of other gods. My morality tales were respun from previous morality tales. My Religion and Culture studies confirmed this for me. I read, in cultural myth after cultural myth, the same creation and flood stories, mores and ethics, justifications and rituals. Perhaps this meant that all religions held truths? I had no concept back then of religion as a natural byproduct of human evolution.

At this point, I think the best description of my religious beliefs were Agnostic. I simply just did not know anymore. I didn’t really understand what Agnosticism meant, and figured that the odds were 50/50 for or against God. However, I meant the Christian God of the Bible. I still had not branched out beyond the deity I knew. I didn’t understand that I should have been questioning Religion itself, not the specific God I had been worshiping since I was a child. So, I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to be able to really appreciate the finer nuances of philosophy at this stage and it’s no wonder I didn’t get very far, or come to any personal conclusions. It didn’t rid of me the burning desire to find richness and meaning in life within the confines of a spiritual framework. The idea of abandoning religion itself didn’t occur to me, so I searched around within the religions to find one that better defined my beliefs. I read about every religion and spiritual philosophy I was even briefly introduced to. I wanted to know everything about every religion. Like the fabled Russian medieval princes, I went shopping for the “right religion”.  Unlike the Russian princes, I didn’t find one. All I did was learn more about them, and saw in all of them something that spoke to me. Rather than understanding that it’s natural for humanity to accrue similar stories because we are hardwired to do so, I just became confused and drawn to them all.

I graduated University three years later, more educated about History, Philosophy, Religion and Culture. Personally, I was still searching for the spiritual side of life I had  read about in books and had formerly known within Christianity.

I also graduated with $25,000 worth of bank loans, that had funded this education. I put my name out on the internet, seeking an international teaching position. A recruiter from South Korea called and weeks later, I was on a plane to Seoul.

I had already spent four months backpacking and camping around Europe (Spain, France and Czech) so I knew travel was something I really wanted to do. I acclimatize to other cultures well, and settled into Korea right away. I immediately began to study more about Buddhism, and even attended Buddhist ceremonies and learned chants and rituals. I traveled the entire country, visiting shrines, temples and holy sites. I had a University gig, which meant 3 months of work followed by 3 weeks of vacation time, for each trimester. I traveled to other Buddhist countries  –  Japan, China, Thailand, Cambodia. I studied their branches of Buddhism. I studied the walls of the great temple of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the Palace in Bangkok. Carvings and paintings of Hindu gods infused with Buddhist mythology. It was a side of Buddhism I had not learned about in school, which tended to focus on traditional Buddhism of the Near East. I learned about Confucian doctrine and Zen principles. I traveled to the Philippines, and learned more about colonialism and the impact of missionary work on a traditional culture. I was learning as much in the world, from the world, from it’s living history, as I had learned theoretically from books.

So it’s natural I think  that I began to appreciate Buddhist philosophy. And not just because I was young and impressionable. Buddhism itself is incredibly complex and beautiful. It is embracing, and positive  despite it’s reputation as being negative in it’s portrayal of life and death. I think it’s very misunderstood, especially if you don’t venture beyond the “All life is suffering” principle. Buddhism is accused of being everything from Pantheist, to Atheistic, to Pagan, to Monotheistic with the confusion surrounding the reverence of the Buddha. I appreciated the emphasis on the wholeness of life, the acceptance of the cycle of life and death, and (since I had already been a vegetarian for 4 years before moving to South Korea) the way animals and all life forms were treated with respect rather than dominated over. A Christian often finds this concept very difficult to understand, just as the concept of a heliocentric universe was difficult to accept. It’s such a completely different way of viewing one’s place in the world, and too humbling.

I was not a Buddhist, to be clear. I just found much to admire, and found I already had embraced some of it’s principles in my own life. Just as equally, I could have claimed Paganism or Panentheism as dominating influences in my life.

As I write this now, I wonder if my life really has been so concerned with spirituality and religion as much as it seems. And I realize that, yes it has. At every stage of my life, I’ve been concerned with these matters and never stopped learning and searching. I wonder why that is, and I think it was my early introduction to Christianity and the huge role it played, which is pretty ironic. I think if I had grown up without religion, I would not be nearly so interested in it or how it influences people, much less myself.

I had arrived in Korea in the summer of 1999.  In 2002, I met and married a Greek American engineer, and that changed the course of my life. When he was transferred out of South Korea in 2004,  I went with him and closed a chapter in my life, in more ways than one. I was no longer on a single journey through life. But after 5 years in Asia, my spiritual journey was not over. We left Korea for Croatia, and I was thrown back into the Christian world hard and fast. But as the saying goes, you take your mind with you wherever you go. So this time, my participation was very different.

I get asked a lot about my (lack of) religious beliefs, because immediately after telling people I’m Atheist I note that I used to be a former Christian Apologist.

If you don’t know what an Apologist is, I suggest you read through this link. Here is a list of 100 Christian Apologists (former and present) and I’ve read through the work of a lot of them. More on Apologetics later.

I understand the Christian point of view, and I know that one of the first responses I will get from a Christian is that I was “never a Christian then to begin with”. So first, let me establish some street cred.

I was born into a Christian family. My mother is a very devout Christian, and my father professes (despite his reluctance to discuss religion or his feelings in general) to believe in the God as the Bible portrays Him. From when I was a small child, we attended weekly services at a Free Methodist church. Before church, I attended Sunday School. During the service, all us children were sent out to attend Children’s Worship Service. After church, we got together in the church basement for more worship and praise. All holidays were spent at church. Sunrise Services and Pancake Breakfasts for Easter. We participated in Lent, for 40 days, each year. Evening candlelit service for Christmas. And each summer, our church held a Marketplace, which was a fun revival type event where we re-created the time period Jesus lived in, replete with Roman soldiers (my father had fun carrying his tinfoil sword), crafts for sale, and games and activities that we imagined (or the Bible hinted) that might have taken place at that period in history.

I attributed everything good in my life to God. We didn’t have much when I was a child. We were poor, and lived simply. I specifically remember one incident that stands out. I had a new pair of shoes for school, and that was a big deal in our humble home. They were purple (my favourite colour) and had zippers on each side. One zipper got stuck and I was in tears that I had ruined my new shoes. My mother always said, ask God and you will receive. So I prayed to God to unstuck that zipper. And lo and beyond, the teeth came together and my shoes were “healed”. I gave thanks to God for my blessing.

My father was on the board for our church, and my mother was an active member as well. She was a Prayer Chain participant, and even took a two week missions trip to Jamaica when I was in middle school. I don’t remember her absence much, just that she left a smoker and came back smoke free and completely rejoicing in the Lord. My mother is a true believer, and beautiful soul. She epitomizes everything I think a Christian *should* be, since it’s pretty clear the religion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. She speaks to God regularly, prays daily, takes part in soup kitchens and charity drives, attends Bible study regularly, and donates much time and money to her present church. I think she’d make a great Buddhist.

She also has what is known in the Christian world as “gifts of the spirit”. These are special gifts, given to certain believers, from the Holy Spirit. My mother has had visions since she was a child, and has seen events before they happen. After she saw the death of Matthew Shepherd the night before he was murdered, she prayed to God to take the visions away. She had one more vision after that, of a local child who was killed by a train. She prayed again, and stopped receiving visions. She also firmly believes she healed me as a child. My mother is a great caregiver. She raised her 4 siblings and is widely known as a lover of animals, taking in stray dogs, cats, horses, goats, all manner of animals into what my father calls her “menagerie”. She is, not surprisingly, a nurse. When I was very young, I suffered constantly from ear infections and tonsilitis. One year was particularly bad and I was very sick in bed. Something told my mother to go upstairs, lay her hands on me, and pray. She did and returned back downstairs. Something told her to do it again. So she did and one hour later my fever had broken, my infection was gone and I was fully recovered. Our doctor was pleasantly baffled. To this day, I still have my tonsils and have never gotten a throat infection again.

Back at church, each week, I attended AWANAs. If you are not familiar with this group, it stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed” and it’s a study group aimed at young children and teens. Emphasis is on Bible study and evangelism. When I was a teenager, I became a leader and taught AWANA classes for younger children.

I also attended our church Youth Group weekly. Our pastor at that time was fun, hip and young, and took us on field trips. He made “Christian living” much more fun than I believe most other youth groups make it seem. We went to Petra concerts, put on plays, played spooky games throughout the four stories of our huge church, played instruments, and once took a trip down to Huntington, Indiana to check out the Bible College, which I was actually considering applying to after high school. That trip now is memorable only because two of the girls in our group got caught shoplifting when we stopped at a local mall, and having to hear our Pastor’s name called over the loudspeaker to pick up the offenders was quite a shock. The drive home was…quiet.

From middle school to high school, I also attended Church Camp for two weeks each summer. It was boring, to tell you the truth. Focus was on Bible study much more than fun and games, and I hated it. The tuck shop was the highlight of the day. I did meet some some fun friends who shared my budding girlhood passion for New Kids on the Block and we plastered our cabin with teen magazine posters, only to be told to take them down. I kept one poster of Joe under my pillow though, but it too went missing a week into our stay. The most memorable event from the four summers I attended camp was the final year I was there. Three of the older boys (who really were too old to be in Church Camp, so I kind of don’t blame them)  got caught smoking dope behind the boys latrine, and were immediately sent home. The next year, one of those boys killed another driver on the road, in a drunk driving accident. Perhaps Church Camp after all would have been better than leaving him at home.

Of course, this goes to show that you can participate in all the church and religious events you are forced to by your parents, and still not care one way or the other about religion. But I did. I cared. When I was 13, I made the decision to be baptized. It was a big deal in our church, and you had to take classes for weeks before the event, to make sure you understood what you were doing, and what baptism meant. Our church emphasized that baptism was a commitment, a statement between you and God that you were pledging your life to being a Christian. It does not “save your soul”. It’s a pledge of good faith that you will work towards emulating Christ. I stood before the entire church congregation, swore my oath to God, and believed with all my heart that Jesus was my Lord and Saviour, sent to die on the Cross for my sins. I wanted to live a Christian life, and make myself worthy of His sacrifice.

Then something happened, as it does to all teenagers. I started to question life, myself, and my place in the world. I wanted to “find myself” and it had nothing to do with religious beliefs for the first time. My entire childhood had centered around the church and I was firm in my love for God and Jesus. But now I begin to think about my own personal philosophy on life. In high school classes, we started to branch out and learn about history and the greater world in a deeper way. I have always been an eager Honour Roll student, and soaked up history, which would later become my major in university. I took a Politics class which introduced me to a social awareness that made me realize how naive I was.

When you grow up in a small Canadian town, there isn’t much to do. I was our school’s Environment Club coordinator, and worked 2 jobs while keeping my Honour Roll status. I found time to win an essay contest and play on our school’s track and field and badminton teams. But time was still long, and we hung out on the beach with little to do but drink beer and whiskey, smoke pot, and listen to the Doors. Jim Morrison was a poet and philosopher and I hung on his every word, reading all the books he had read, and thus my introduction to philosophy, particularly Nietzsche. And here planted the seeds of doubt and discontent, because you can’t be a clever girl and read philosophy and history, and still believe the world is only 6.000 years old and that every word written in the Bible is true.

If you are a Christian, in order to take one sentence in the Bible as truth, you have to take all of it. It’s kind of a package deal, if you truly believe it’s “God breathed”. Moderate Christians today, who (buffet style) pick and choose the “good parts” and overlook the silly ones, try unconvincingly to prove that all Biblical and modern concepts are compatible. I can’t believe in their heart of hearts they truly believe it, and it seems sad to me, their desperation to cling to their beliefs. I was once there, so I know the mental gymnastics it takes, and it’s emotionally exhausting. At this early point though, nothing made sense to me and I was too new to connecting metaphysical dots to put a cohesive personal philosophy together. All I knew was, things were not adding up and it was very discomfiting. I also had the slightly arrogant and alarming feeling that I was a little too intelligent not to question when so many great thinkers felt the need to. I owed it to myself to put away faith and focus on reason.

So one night, out on my second floor bedroom balcony staring at the moon, I thought it as good a time as any to have a heart to heart with God.  This is a painful memory for me, and I wrote it in my (now sadly lost) journal immediately afterwards, with the guitar strings of CCR in the background as mood music, because I knew it was a seminal moment. Basically, I told God that I was going away for a while. But that I’d probably be back because my faith was strong enough to find the light again. I felt a lot of guilt. I felt even guiltier because I didn’t get an answer back, and I thought that right then and there, God left me. And He did. For years.

I did find my way back though. But it took ten years and travels across two continents.

A favourite poem by a favourite poet.

 

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colours
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so helplessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs —

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.