“Has your situation changed how you think of God?”
It’s an interesting question from my last hospital visit. A volunteer asked me. I think it was a volunteer, though it was more likely a chaplain. Not the Charles variety, of course. He was one of those wonderful people who sat with me when I was alone. We chatted about life, literature, and how my situation changed my ideas about life, the universe…everything. Then he asked that question, slipping the record needle in a way.
I vaguely remember my answer.
“As we are so more complex than the smallest, simplest forms of life, and so young we are as a species, I can imagine that there are forms of life just as advanced beyond us, ancient beings that may even be part of the Earth. But we diminish what you describe as The Infinite by assigning a gender, giving it a face, and speaking for it as though a bedbug could decipher your simplest thoughts. You give us rule books, highly quotable tools that only select people can understand – so they say – to get us to act or not act a certain way. All that is the work of human beings. Perhaps they work through The Infinite, but no one – not even the craftiest, wisest scholar could really know what no one here can agree on.”
Of course, I’m paraphrasing. I was not exactly lucid at the time. I know I’ve gotten drunk and posted something similar in the past 30 years of BBSes, Usenet groups, AOL Message boards, Livejournal, MySpace, blogs, and Facebook. I don’t think my opinion has changed all that much.
But I see things this way. Just looking at Christianity, there are Eastern and Western belief systems. These can be broken down into six branches – Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian. That isn’t even agreed upon as there is often a seventh branch – Restorationism.
Within those divisions are between 30 and 40 THOUSAND Christian denominations. Of course, even this is up for debate as some Christians choose to call them “organizations” generally aligned with some larger church. Christianity Today claims there are 33,830 denominations, which is pretty specific. The Complete Pilgrim makes an astonishing claim that there are 300 thousand worldwide.
Another YouTube source points to an academic who wrote a book after traveling around a lot. That guy, David Barrett, produced the World Christian Encyclopedia in 1982 claiming 20 thousand denominations. A decade later, the book was revised to list over 35 thousand. In 2019, it claimed 45 thousand. It estimates that by 2050 there will be over 65 thousand different places that try to explain The Infinite. One of Barrett’s rules for defining a denomination was by nation. So a Baptist church in Nigeria is distinct from one that may preach the exact gospel as one in Kenya or Canada. The video then deconstructs the encyclopedia as contradictory and an exaggeration of a more united Christian church, perhaps implying there are only the six.
Or seven, depending on who you believe.
My feeling here is that if there is no one definition of “denomination” and some folks claim one number over another based on arbitrary rules, it’s just a silly word game attempting to sound like legitimate discourse.
The thing about faith is that proof is not required. While this is great when dealing with The Infinite, the sum of all Time and Space, the Creator of all things we understand, think we understand, and cannot remotely fathom — it means we can make up whatever we want and enforce what we FEEL to be true. A church based on the teachings of a character that probably existed but who has been mythologized by millions of people over 2000 years can’t get together on what is True(tm).
For example, the Anabaptists of central Europe were a product of Protestantism, which was the first big break-up from Catholicism. Protestants disagreed with the Papal version of Truth and established their own rules. When the Anabaptists decided that people should be allowed to grow up and experience the world before being baptized in faith (a totally reasonable idea) the larger church literally murdered them, forcing them to flee to more agnostic climes, including America.
Oh, and the Anabaptists split up into Amish, Hutterite, Mennonite, Bruderhod, Schwarzenau, Apostolic Christian, and other denominations. Note that these names refer to the mortal humans who convinced other mortals that their ideas about The Infinite were more accurate than the other mortal Anabaptists claiming to know it.
I grew up with a tenuous connection to a Methodist church. Methodism is a form of Wesleyism based on “a methodical approach to Christianity” which I witnessed as a dedication to mandatory bake sales and a very specific way of lighting and extinguishing candles during Sunday services.
My church was a Calvary United Methodist Church. What do those extra words mean when distinguishing them from the larger church? I had no idea as I was never a part of them. But, there is the United Methodist Church (as opposed to the Random Methodists, I guess), the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Primitive Methodists (who are old school/back to-basics Methodists inspired by John Wesley, but not enough to call themselves Wesleyan), the Methodist Church of Ireland, the Fellowship of Independent Methodist Churches, the Free Methodist Church, and many more across the world. All of these different organizations are fragments of fractions of a shattered whole.
There are churches that were either absorbed by larger denominations or just died out for lack of attendance (or bake sales, I don’t know). The United Methodist Church was formed through a hook-up with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. A quick check of the Holy Wiki reveals that the United States has a number of small Methodist denominations that split from the larger churches for whatever reasons, including the Free Methodist Church, Global Methodist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, Congregational Methodist Church, Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection and Bible Methodist Connection of Churches, etc.
That’s a lot of Methodists with differing opinions of what being a Methodist means, so how am I to know which knows the mind of The Infinite? Spoiler alert: They Don’t.
In 2022, the United Methodist Church (which does not seem all that united given what I’ve written above) 1831 churches broke away over how the church handles LGBTQ+ issues. Granted, that’s out of 30 thousand Houses of God(tm) but it is a significant number and demonstrates how mortal humans love challenging other mortal humans over what The Infinite has to say about things. The UMC cannot even agree if this constitutes a “schism” in their larger body.
Personally, the ones who left the UMC were resisting change to a more progressive and inclusive attitude toward LGBTQ+ communities. Those more conservative and traditional churches have since joined the GLOBAL Methodist Church.
Again, my church was a Calvary United Methodist Church. Did we get it right? What is “right” when it comes to interpreting the morality and righteousness of The Infinite? And are those rules guidelines or are there real hellfire consequences? Your mileage may vary because some of those fire and brimstone concepts did not come directly from the source of Christianity but from self-proclaimed witnesses and prophets and especially by those who needed to keep the peasants in line so they could continue to rule in luxury.
We’ve ventured so deep into the weeds that this little bullshit narrative doesn’t even cover how other Protestant offshoots have split up over things as stupid as the color of the church carpet. Of course, the carpet schism is anecdotal, covering the true, probably political split in allegiance to one pastor/priest/minister/evangelist over another, but all this demonstrates – at least for Christianity – that nobody knows anything. This is about Earthly power converting people or people converting power.
We haven’t covered my other issues like how Americans used the Bible to “prove” that people of color are subhuman and should be treated as slaves. Documents declaring state secession before the American Civil War specify that slavery was not only an obligation of the white man but mandated by God as a just practice based on the book’s “care and feeding” of slaves in the Old Testament. Ephesians was very popular in the south, as were certain passages of Colossians (3:22-24), 1 Timothy (6:1-2), and elsewhere. It’s been used to justify intolerance, inspire fear, and fuel hate in order to exert control once over the once-illiterate and uneducated and now over those who cannot think critically and need someone to tell them what is “right” and “wrong” in a world that now treats faith like fast food. If your tastes are for wings, go here. Burgers? Go there. Believe gays must be murdered, go here. Think they should preach and be married, go there. Assemble among like-thinkers. Listen to the Word of God as you wish to hear it. If you don’t like it, you can even start your own and express your own personal Gospel.
Hell, I was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church back in 1997. I took the attitude that every human is a “church” and their life is a pilgrimage to find The Truth(tm) as much as we can about The Infinite. But your mileage may vary. I don’t expect you to follow that or even believe I’m right. That’s the point.
These are very flawed, mortal traits when you think these words were not the direct address of The Infinite, but the words of Kings, priests, and prophets trying hard to tie Earthy rules and laws into The Infinite, a logical fallacy from the get-go, folks.
If you believe that slavery is wrong, you must reject those elements clearly written into the book. Once you acknowledge that one Earthly mandate is wrong, you must question it all.
But you’ll always have someone to tell me that none of this matters because they have “faith”. Fine. You do you, folks.
My attitude for most of my life has been to respond to questions about my “faith” with a simple answer.
“When you all can get your shit together and figure out what the one entity at the center of your faith wants, text me and we’ll chat. Until then, I wish you joy, wellness, and peace.”
Unless you’re an asshole. You guys can just knock that shit the whole way off.
I believe that The Infinite is a body we seek to discover and understand. That small bit of it we understand falls under the purview of “science” and everything else in this scary, seemingly chaotic universe is The Infininte we like to call “God” and in between, there may well be advanced yet finite beings that look over us, maybe just one big one that happens to be ancient and nurturing. Perhaps it is the planet itself. Perhaps L Ron Hubbard wasn’t bullshitting rich rubes about aliens and midichlorians or whatever. Perhaps it’s some guy named Jeff who works a big machine that controls this great simulation.
It’s fun to make up stories to explain the unexplainable, isn’t it?
I am not an atheist. I think these ideas put me squarely in the camp of the agnostics – a group that doesn’t agree on anything because we don’t KNOW anything. And it’s cool to admit that while continuing to seek our own personal Truth(tm) and come to our own conclusions, likely when we expire today, next year, or a century from now.
Thanks for reading. If my memory returns and I can track down that wonderful, charitable person who spent their time comforting me (in a very Christlike way, I feel) I will share it with them over coffee and maybe I’ll learn something.
Maybe we both will.