Personal Theology – Ruth Wehlau
I was raised as a Unitarian. This was because my father, a lapsed Catholic, indeed an anti- Catholic, had married my mother, who was from a reform Jewish family, and together they settled on Unitarianism as their joint religious affiliation. Thus I was raised in an environment of religious questioning and skepticism, and I cannot remember a time when I was encouraged to believe in either God or Santa Claus. My parents were both astronomers and their knowledge of and appreciation for the universe, and the Earth within it, was transmitted to their children.
We lived in a village just outside of London, Ontario and my friends at school were mostly United Church; the local United Church was really a community centre for the neighbourhood. We were taught Bible classes at the public school I went to, by an Anglican priest, Mr. Jacklin, and if you can hear this, Mr Jacklin, I would like to thank you. My mother occasionally had me removed from this class as part of her resistance to the teaching of religion, i.e. Christianity, in the public schools, but I was always so unhappy that she let me return. Mr. Jacklin taught Bible stories to us by having us act them out, and my recollection of these stories formed the basis of my interest in the Bible, an interest I have followed up over the course of my academic career.
During the sixties, it was unusual not to be Christian, but not unusual to go to church on Sundays. The situation today is just the opposite; I find myself teaching elements of Christian theology to classes of students who have almost no contact with religion of any kind, and I regularly deal with events for my children that are scheduled on Sunday mornings, the assumption being that everyone is free at that time. My mother attempted to maintain the family connection to Judaism by having her children attend a Jewish day camp during the summers, but I never felt a connection to this group, as I was not a part of their community. As an adult, after marrying John, a Judeophile, I settled in Kingston. Here I became involved with the Yr Ha Melech reading group and took Hebrew at Queen’s, but I have always been more drawn to Jewish people and culture than to Judaism and Jewish religious religious practice per se. Judaism remains a part of my identity, but this is more an ethnic than a religious affiliation.
As a life-long atheist, I can still say that my ideas about God and religion have not remained completely static over the years. Unitarianism itself has moved from the very humanist lay fellowships of the sort I grew up with to becoming more “church-like” with ministers and an interest in spirituality. I resisted the move to the spiritual at first, but later I came to realize that it was the word that bothered me more than the concept. I certainly have experiences that might be considered spiritual – a heightened sense of happiness, that everything is just right – mostly when sailing or kayaking on my own. But I don’t think solitary spirituality is enough. I have never liked meditation, at least not in a church environment (knitting works better for me), but there are many times I have needed some quiet as well as a sense of connection and hope, and I have found it during a service.
My understanding of the world has changed over time as well. My reason for not believing in God is that I cannot imagine why God would invent a world such as this, filled with both beauty and with horror. On the other hand, there are two pieces of evidence for the existence of God that I do not dismiss. One of these is the fact many people have had personal experiences of the divine. No matter that I do not believe myself that these people were really in touch with a personal caring Creator, I cannot dismiss their experiences. Furthermore, I find some of the writings of mystics from various religions extremely moving. Their experiences are real, and in this sense the divine is a real aspect of our world.
Secondly, I cannot answer the question of why there is something instead of nothing, the greatest mystery of all. So I find Creation theology valuable. A sense of gratitude and appreciation of what is good in the world, and a contemplation of the immense distances in time and space that are a part of the cosmos, are ways of re-locating myself. Somehow, a sense of my own insignificance is reassuring.
I find aspects of many religions to be very valuable, for instance, the Jewish ability to argue with God, the seeking after joy that is found in Sufi poetry, the via negativa or erasure of the self that is the object of some kinds of Buddhist, Hindu and Christian mysticism. I value the Christian validation of the body, and of seeing suffering not as divine punishment, but rather to make the suffering of Christ a way of connecting with human suffering. Even the notion of original sin makes sense in that it is an attempt to account for the recurring human tendency to do evil. Sin itself is often defined as a separation from God; since God is Love, separation from God means separation from Love. Sin is Unloving.
Lastly, I have come to have more respect for the concept of Faith. It is truly a virtue not to give up, not to lose hope. It is Faith that gives us strength, that serves as a foundation for our actions. At Victoria College, where I was an undergraduate, I found the words “The Truth shall make you free” engraved over the door of Victoria Hall. These words, ascribed to Jesus, came to have a resonance with me over time, although I used to struggle with how there could be one single capital T Truth. It seems less mysterious now that I am older; it is the principle of Truth that is important. Maybe my Faith is based on Truth and Love.