I remember going to my local book store as a kid, eagerly seeking books that would teach me about God. I remember the bitter disappointment I felt when, time and time again, the “Jewish” shelf contained The Diary of Anne Frank, a handful of other Holocaust books, and little else – nothing pertaining to the study of the faith itself.
So I’d reluctantly go to the “Christian” section, which never had a shortage of devotionals and what seemed like spiritual “self help” manuals. I remember flipping through the books that seemed to be written for a teenage audience, trying to figure out which ones contained the least amount of references to Jesus so it would be applicable to me. Sometimes, after I purchased them, I’d go through each book with a pencil and cross out “Jesus,” and squeeze in “God.” But the references to dying on the cross weren’t such an easy fix.
You can see how Christianity was sort of a default for a young kid who wanted a relationship with God. As much as I’d love to say I was being lead on a path to discover The Truth, the reality is, if I grew up Jewish in Utah, I might have found “truth” in Mormonism, or maybe in Hinduism if I grew up in India.
I didn’t choose Christianity because it was convenient (although it was) – it was a religion with a community ready and waiting to help me and guide me. As introverted as I am, it’s pretty difficult to do faith in complete isolation, with no communal guidance whatsoever. Growing up Jewish in Hudson, Ohio, there was no one to build me up when I doubted, no one to pray with me or for me in the only language I knew. No youth group, no Bible studies (Torah studies?), no field trips. It was a frustrating spiritual journey. A lonely one.
Today, I frequently turn to the words of Lauren Winner, the only Jewish-to-Christian writer I’ve been able to identify with, in her memoir Still: “Maybe it’s not that my faith is riddled with doubt, but that my doubt is riddled with faith.” I can’t think of a better summation for the place I find myself now.
For the last several months, I’ve felt a pull toward the Anglican church. The liturgical structure of the service, the call-and-response participation from the congregation, and dependence on ritual reminds me of the synagogue (which was, for years, a borrowed church) where I grew up. I’ve missed being part of a tradition that spans back thousands of years, threading the past to the present, refreshing the words of saints and sages that, despite the antiquated language, are still relevant today.
I recently purchased the Book of Common Prayer, and have found a spiritual intimacy there that I just wasn’t finding in the evangelical church I’d been attending with my husband since I moved to northern Colorado.
But even discovering a new tradition doesn’t take away the lingering question, Is this even true? It doesn’t take away my questions about projecting antiquated ethics on a modern society. It doesn’t take away my doubts about this way being the only way, and that everyone who does not follow it is doomed to eternal punishment.
It is for that reason why, even though “Anglican” feels like a more appropriate spiritual label than “Christian,” it’s actually “agnostic” that better describes where I am spiritually. Not because I doubt the existence of God. Not because I have any issues with Jesus. Only because some aspects of this faith I’ve chosen make perfect sense to me, while others border on disturbing and obscene. I don’t know how to reconcile all those things: redemption with hell, human decency with original sin. I fear turning into the sort of cherry-picking believer that I used to despise.
But if “agnostic” is my identity now (the word still tastes a bit like chalk), I’m a very unusual one. I still participate in small group at my former church, the one my husband still attends, because theological discussions are what I live for. I still snatch up every commentary, every spiritual memoir, every new devotional I can get my hands on, because I’m still enchanted by the message of redemption; still fascinated by a God in human skin; still, more than anything else, clinging to the hope that eventually, the spark of faith will return. I still write in my prayer journal on a regular basis. Still read my Bible and attend a Bible study.
I guess, to quote my friend Laura, I still have the heart of a Jesus-follower even if I possess the brain of a skeptic. And it’s Judaism that produced my inner skeptic, I think: the best rabbis and scholars have mastered the art of debate and disagreement when interpreting ancient texts. A tradition that is genetic as it is spiritual can’t be etched out like lasering off a tattoo. The drive to ask questions and refuse to settle for easy answers is in my blood.
For that reason, I don’t think I could ever become an atheist – I don’t think I could ever comfortably believe that all this spiritual stuff is nonsense when there’s no hard evidence either way. I do still have faith. Shaky faith, but even a faint pulse signifies life.