Every once in a while, when I disclose or discuss my agnosticism, I get pointed little messages and jokes along the lines of “Agnostics are atheists who like bingo.” I hear that more often from atheists than theists, interestingly enough. Some folks consider agnostics to be the bisexuals of religion – like we’re trying to have the best of both worlds. “They should stop straddling the Theological fence,” seems to be the attitude. Shit or get off the metaphysical pot. Pick a side, damn it! This is America and we pick sides.
The suggestion seems to be that I haven’t thought this through because, if I had, I’d be one thing or the other. Charlie Brown probably grew up to be an agnostic. Good ol’ wishy washy Charlie Brown. Or maybe it’s Hamlet – forever philosophizing and never really doing until it’s way too late. The thing is, I have thought about. I continue to think about it, to question it all, including my questioning.
I don’t usually get into discussions about what I believe/disbelieve. These things almost never end well. However, I need a column for this week and this topic comes to mind so…off we go! We’ll start with the usual caveats that one must issue in this civil discourse-challenged era. When I state my position, I’m not attacking your beliefs or unbeliefs, whatever they may be. I’m not trying to insult you, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Odin, Jupiter or whatever church you may belong to or shun. I’m not trying to convince, convert, or proselytize. I’m just stating my position.
I was raised Roman Catholic, in the shadow of the parish church which was across the street. I was a choir boy, an altar boy, I went to RC schools right up through college, including a one year stint in the seminary in my freshman year of high school. I later became a lapsed Catholic (or “Recovering Catholic” as I sometimes styled myself). I married Kim Yale, an Episcopalian (which I dubbed “RC-lite – all the ritual and none of the guilt” – mainly to annoy her; married life can be fun), who was the daughter of a Navy chaplain, thus being both a “PK” and “Navy brat” at the same time.
Kim liked to go to church on Sunday; I sent her off with my blessing while I sat at home in my PJs and read the NY Times. Kim required ritual and an ecclesiastical figure to rebel against. When we moved to New Jersey she needed a new church and found one in Morristown – Church of the Redeemer. Kim was fascinated – this was a church that styled itself as a “Liberation Church in the Episcopal Tradition”. Everyone was welcome and I mean everyone – gays, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals, black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, agnostics, conservative, liberal. And more.
At first, I kept a cool distance, describing it as the “Church of Jesus Christ, Fuzzy Liberal” – except they took, and take, their beliefs seriously. They mean the words they say. They are a community and they support one another. Through Kim, I gradually got involved and then, through Kim’s sickness and death, I found out how much their support meant.
Redeemer has different groups that meet and I wound up going to some. With the Racial Dialogue Group, I learned how little I knew about racism in this country. The main group for me, however, is the Adult Education Group. I was a tad leery at first about going to it – I figured it was a bible study group, sort of Sunday school for adults.
It was that, in part, but it wasn’t there to study and memorize the Bible as Sacred Scripture. It analyzed it in historical, sociological, and even anthropological terms. It studied the Bible as text, as a historical document rather than a history book. We looked at it in context to its time – who was it written for, what was their understanding of it, what elements were borrowed from surrounding cultures, and so on.
As I said, up until this time I was a lapsed RC. While I no longer went to Mass and didn’t listen to the hierarchy, I still more or less bought into the beliefs. I didn’t examine them, didn’t question them, because – especially when I was growing up – that was not encouraged. I remember getting into some trouble with a grade school nun over some questions about the Trinity. The Trinity was represented as Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Ghost – which was represented as a bird, a dove. Conceptually, Father, Son and Bird didn’t make sense to me. Father, Mother, Son – that made sense and I said so to the nun. Having a female incarnation of the deity? Wrong, wrong, wrong! I was bound for hell if I persisted in that heresy andSister Tabernacle Door Half Open was going to send me home with a note to my mother. That made me recant. Hell Everlasting was nebulous, but Mom? That was a reality not to be messed with.
I don’t know how much I believed in what the RC Church taught but I hadn’t really thought about it, never really questioned it. It was all still there. It fueled my writing of The Spectre over at DC. The Spectre was the Wrath of God but it was a very RC God for most of the run. Less so at the end.
The Adult Forum changed all that – challenged all that. Our rector, the Rev. Phillip Wilson, often made the comparison of the Bible to a road map – noting that a road map isn’t the road itself. The Bible’s a depiction of something. It’s a collection of stories and one of the questions that I had to ask myself was, “For whom were these stories originally meant?” It’s a very basic writing question – who is your audience?
The Bible is myth which, for some, means it’s a lie. I happen to hold myth in very high regard, a repository for truths and wisdoms handed down, burnished with each new re-telling. The Bible is also poetry, not meant to be taken literally; indeed, it loses much of its power when read prosaically, when people try to insist on it being literally true rather than having metaphoric truths in it.
I have problems with the notions both of god and satan. They externalize things, both good and bad, that we should find within us. Externalizing something can have its uses; separate from ourselves, we can look at the thing – good or bad – and see it more clearly for what it is. The danger is that by externalizing it we can also distance ourselves from it, deny it as part of ourselves. We have to own both the god and the devil in ourselves.
The recent re-launch of Marvel’s Thor brought back Don Blake and I think that’s brilliant and necessary. The central myth there is the god within the human, the human within the god. At the same time, the Hulk represents the monster within us, taking its cue from Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde. The nice thing about the comics is that I don’t have to believe they’re true; but what they have to say on the mythical level can be true. I can enjoy them and respond to them and they, in the hands of artists who understand what they’re dealing with, can speak truths to me. And, as a creator, I don’t have to believe in the symbology of Christianity in order to use those symbols.
Among other things learned: “Christ” means “Anointed One” and, in that context, can and did apply to many figures not only in the Bible but in history. (Jesus’s last name is not Christ.) Likewise there were several folks who were named “Messiah.” Stories were told about Jesus for decades before they were written down. There were more than four gospels. There was not really one church until the Emperor Constantine gathered all the different bishops together and said they could become the new state religion if they could agree on a single doctrine.
Do I believe in the Virgin Birth? I believe it’s a good story. Do I believe Jesus walked on water? I believe it’s a good story. Do I believe in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes? I believe it’s a good story. Do I believe Jesus rose from the dead, walked the earth for forty days and then rose into heaven? I believe it’s a good story. Do I believe all of them to be literally true? No. Do I believe that Christianity is truer than any of the other religions celebrated around the world? No – nor is it less true. None of them are literally true, so far as I’m concerned; I’m just picking on Christianity in this column because it’s the one I was raised in.
So why don’t I just own up to being an atheist?
Because, as I’ve said before, I could be wrong. I know too many people who do believe who are wiser, smarter, and better informed than I am. Just as I know some atheists who are wiser, smarter, and better informed. I have questions but I don’t have definitive answers. I know I don’t agree with religion but that’s because I’m not a fan of dogma, of mandated beliefs; does that absolutely mean there is not something out there greater than us? I don’t know. Certainly part of my equivocation is a deep down desire to believe in God that is part of my conditioning. I miss God. My heart yearns for what my mind cannot accept.
I believe I’m on a journey, a voyage, that has not yet reached its final destination. Perhaps I never will reach one. I have questions but no conclusions. I know there are formal definitions of agnosticism and I don’t know – or care, really – where I fall within them. I’m simply describing where I stand – for now – and “agnostic” comes as close to it as anything I’ve heard. This is where I am now.
Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and much of Munden’s Bar, new installments of which will reappear anon here on ComicMix. Both for free. His new Suicide Squad mini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.
John Ostrander started his career as a professional writer as a playwright. His best known effort, Bloody Bess, was directed by Stuart Gordon, and starred Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, William J. Norris, Meshach Taylor and Joe Mantegna. He has written some of the most important influential comic books of the past 25 years, including Batman, The Spectre, Manhunter, Firestorm, Hawkman, Suicide Squad, Wasteland, X-Men, and The Punisher, as well as Star Wars comics for Dark Horse. New episodes of his creator-owned series, GrimJack, which was first published by First Comics in the 1980s, appear every week on ComicMix.