This is the eighth part of the story of my conversion to Catholic Christianity together with my wife Judith and our three sons.
In 1976, I became the Episcopal priest in a small town. Some of the members of the church wanted a priest to live in the town to help the church grow, and some did not want to pay a priest to live there, and they were bitterly divided. One of them told me that the best people in the town came to their church. The church did grow after I came there, but the newcomers were not the best people in town.
During this time I said the communion service every day. One day at the altar I felt strongly that God was my father. It was an experience of his love for me as one of his children.
Some things I said offended the Episcopalians very much. Once I said in church, that we should follow Jesus. This is not an unusual thing for a priest to say, but I must have talked too persuasively, because one of the members of the church told me I was talking like Jim Jones. Jones was the leader of a cult who took his followers to South America, where nine hundred people committed suicide. This is a very bad reaction, and I need to explain where it comes from. The fantastic hostility of the little congregation broke my heart.
The bad reaction came from what has happened to Christian belief in the modern world. The schools and the popular media have taught for a hundred years that science explains the physical world. As a result modern people think that religion is an inner experience, but not an outer reality. The effect of this idea is to move God inside each person, and to make God's traditional outer position as King of Creation something old-fashioned or poetic. In the older Christian idea, a person could learn what God wanted, from the Bible or the teaching of the church. But in the modern idea, the only way to know what God wants is to look within oneself, and whatever one finds in there, is only for oneself.
Of course not all Christians in the modern world have such a simple modern idea, but it is common among the more educated people. It was also the common view at the Zen Center. Among people in places like California who do not go to church, it is almost the only idea, and they essentially worship themselves. It is very hard to explain to my friends, for example, the difference between following their heart and listening to God. If I talk about God's will or God's law, my friends say, "That's your God." They mean they do not believe in any God outside in the physical world, and they think I am describing something inside myself.
This explains why the man in the congregation was enraged at me for preaching that we should follow Jesus. In his modern idea, a priest of the church had no authority to tell him what God wanted. He thought I had found something within myself, that I was asking him to follow. Everything about Jesus that Christians believe, such as that he is alive and reigning in heaven, was senseless to him.
Some years later the Episcopal Church took a nationwide survey of the beliefs of its members, and published the results. While most Episcopalians said they believed in God and in life after death, only ten percent said they would do something they did not want to do, if they thought it was what God wanted. When I saw the survey, I knew why the man had been so angry with me. Ninety percent of Episcopalians thought the question described inner experiences, like hearing voices, and thought the idea that God wanted something, meant the person was crazy.
After I left the Episcopalians, my family and I attended another church in town. Once a visitor came to speak, a former Catholic priest named Vince O'Shaughnessy, who had started a church of his own. After his talk, he said a friendly, "How are you?" to Judith. She had been feeling fine, but burst into tears and they talked six hours. In that long time he asked her to renounce Buddhism, and the old priest whom she remembered and loved.
In 1980 at the age of 39, I began studying computer science at the California State University in Chico. Chico is in the great central valley of California, surrounded by orchards of almonds and peaches. I became an instructor at the university, and when I finished my master's degree in computer science, I started teaching at a community college in the mountains to the east of Chico.
Both Judith and I were brought up with evolution, the theory that human life originated accidentally over an extremely long period of time. Judith thought it was an ugly idea, and says she never really believed it, although it was the way she was taught in school to look at the world. When we moved to the mountains in 1984, her Women's Bible Study Fellowship was studying Genesis, the book in the Bible that describes God creating the world and living creatures. Some railroad tracks near our house run across a stream and through the forest. Judith walked along the tracks one day, thinking about Noah and his ark, and about the way she had been taught to view the world, and said to herself, "These are just thoughts." She felt a shift in her experience of the world around her, and saw the natural world as God's creation, and as a gift, rather than as a product of blind, impersonal activity. Once in Chico she was painting almond blossoms, saw some beautiful clouds in the sky, and felt as if God were saying, "See what I can do!"
I believed in evolution, because I love science. When I became a Christian, I did not know how to understand God's creating the world. Around 1985 Judith and I read in a book that the layers of rock, that are supposed to have been laid down in sequence, each over tens of millions of years, in fact occur in a different order at different places on the earth. The book also had a photograph of a fossilized tree trunk that extended up through three such layers, which could not have taken millions of years to form. The book explained that the long time span of millions of years is a philosophical idea, to give enough time for the accidents. People who believe in evolution, and who know that the rock layers are out of order, believe that they moved into their present position later, by unknown causes. Science books and science teachers do not tell their students that the rock layers are in the wrong order almost everywhere, because they do not want their students to have doubts about evolution.
Because I love science, and because I care about truth, I am interested in the evidence for scientific theories. I was shocked that no one ever told me that the rocks were out of order. Since it was not the first time I had found out that things I had been taught were not true, I could see that the beliefs of my parents and teachers were not based on careful study, but were popular ideas that they liked. I felt that a great weight of darkness was removed, when I learned that the evidence did not support the theory of evolution. It freed me from the modern idea that God was a subjective experience inside me, and I took him seriously for the first time as the Creator of the physical world.
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1. By a special arrangement with the bishop, they paid me one-third of the minimum pay in the diocese at the time.
2. The decisions we make in life, should be different when we follow Jesus.
3. I read somewhere that a cloud hangs over the Catholic seminaries in the United States, consisting of materialism, rationalism, reductionism, and relativism. And I read recently that in the Episcopalian seminaries, they regard with the very greatest contempt, people who believe what Christians have always believed.
4. Maybe that is why the Unitarians painted over the Scripture that said, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God." (See Making a Creed)
5. The author was Josh McDowell, but I forget the title. Judith regrets that I gave the book away in China. It was a volume in a series about the Christian religion.
6. For example there is a rock layer in Wyoming sixty miles across. Any force that could push it for a distance of sixty miles, would crush and crumble the rock. But the rock is not crushed, and is a sedimentary layer. It's in the Scientific American in the 1940's.