This post is part two of a series on the development of my religious beliefs from childhood in the 1950s and 1960s to the present in the 2010s. In the first of the series, I wrote about my childhood belief that adults were privilege to knowledge that was hidden from children. They also made up stories which they wanted children to believe even though they knew the stories to be false.
This part of the story commences in 1957, shortly before I turned eight. My father was not religious. He was probably agnostic, but he may have been an atheist. Religion was a topic he avoided at all costs. However he had a dislike for organised religion.
My mother was not a practising Christian at the time — perhaps she could be described as a closet Christian. She encouraged me and my siblings to attend Sunday school in part to encourage me to interact socially as well as the more obvious objective to broaden our view of the society we lived in. There was no pressure to attend Sunday school, and I was the only child that continued to attend longer than six months.
My motive for continuing to attend was not because I believed the stories we were told, or that it was necessary to attend to be a good Christian. I was sure that the real truth about God was being hidden from me, and by continuing to attend I was convinced that I would discover it.
Children’s books with illustrated bible stories were accessible at home, school and Sunday school. God was usually depicted as a wise old man with a long white beard and wearing flowing white robes. He was usually carrying a staff, and was often shown as standing on a cloud-like surface (heaven sitting on the clouds?). Strangely, while I was sure the truth about God was being kept from me, I never questioned his appearance and accepted he looked and behaved like the kind and gentle being depicted in the illustrated biblical stories. Keep this in mind as I describe a turning point in my religious journey.
At that time, my school provided one hour of religious studies each week. In truth, it was more like Christian indoctrination by whichever church happened to take your class each week. The woman who took my class had beliefs that would approach those of a modern fundamentalist church. During one lesson she decided to illustrate the power of God by telling a story, which I have paraphrased as follows:
One Sunday, a Christian wife persuaded her nonbeliever husband to accompany her to church. After service was finished, the minister stood by the exit, as was his practice, to enter into dialogue with any member of the congregation who might wish to do so. The wife decided to take a moment to thank the minister for the informative sermon which was about the infinite power and mercy that God possesses. The minister, being the kind man he was, tried to encourage the husband to join the conversation. The husband stated that he saw no evidence that God possessed any power at all, and in fact he didn’t exist. However, if he did exist, he was clearly an evil god as he allowed so much suffering in the world. The wife was shocked at the husband’s blasphemy and warned him that he risked God’s ire for his foul words. The husband retorted that there was no God, and there was nothing short of God striking him dead that would convince him that God existed. At that moment the husband fell down dead. This, children, is proof that God exists and has the power to do anything he desires. So remember what he could do to you if you make God angry.
I was appalled by the story. The God depicted in the story was nothing like the loving God I knew from the stories I had heard and read. Was this the real God that adults had kept from children? Was he someone who we should be terrified of? Was he not the gentle loving Father we had been lead to believe?
I can remember sitting at my desk in shock and disbelief. It was almost like the foundation of my belief in the goodness of creation had been swept away. To this day, I can recall clearly crying out silently “You wouldn’t do that, would you God?”
Being a seven year old, going on eight, with an unquestioning belief in the existence of God, what happened next should not be a surprise. Today I can explain it away as a neurobiological reaction to a traumatic event, which was influenced by social conditioning. However, what I experienced had a profound effect on my trust in adults and a realisation that God was able to be comprehended in multiple ways. What happened is just as vivid now as it was then, almost fifty years ago. It neither proves the existence or nonexistence of God. It does illustrate that the mind is capable of strange and wonderful interpretations of reality.
My plea to God to affirm his goodness was answered by what I can only describe as the sounds of a heavenly choir rising in glorious harmony as a brilliant light grew before my eyes. The light transformed into bright clouds through which a clearly wise and gentle man with white beard and robes stepped. The face was kindly but tinged with sadness. This was clearly God, and the sadness was due to my doubting his goodness and that our religious instructor has so misrepresented him. He answered my question by asking one of his own, which was “What do you believe?” It was immediately clear to me that God could never contemplate harming anyone as told by our instructor. With that realisation, the vision quickly faded,and I was back in the reality of the classroom.
Now before anyone calls the men in white coats to come and take me away, I am describing what I experienced at the time. It was how a child’s mind was able to make sense of a confusing and traumatic event using his knowledge and experienced wisdom in his relatively short life. To this day it is still my most vivid memory, even though I no longer believe God exists in that form. That experience was the start of a long journey that is yet to be completed.
The next post in this series will reveal how others reacted to my telling them that God spoke to me, and my response to those reactions.
16 Jul, 2014 at 3:54 am
If you believed in God, the vision would be an appropriate response of God communicating with a child who had certain beliefs and understandings. Course if you don’t believe in God, it could also be a product of the imagination. That’s the problem – it isn’t possible to trace the origins of visions. The same is true for our feelings (i.e. hunches, precognition, dreams, etc). The only way to verify them is to follow what they suggest and see if it works.
16 Jul, 2014 at 6:24 am
I think someone fed you a dose of window pane acid at communion. Sounds like a vision I once had while on a bad LSD trip back in the 60s.
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:07 am
Never had communion, so it couldn’t have been that 😇
I gave up LSD when NZ converted to decimal currency in 1967. I remember the day — tenth of July…
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:10 am
Oh,you mean LSD the pill, not LSD the currency? Never experienced it.
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:32 am
Ah, okay. LSD is an acronym for currency. I see. I was referring to LSD as in lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as “dropping acid.”
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:17 am
Haha! I am always amused by the numerous meanings of acronyms. I’ve tried the tabs that Doob refered to but gave them up decades ago. I was in the fuel business fo years and LSD is low sulfur diesel. I wasn’t sure what your LSD was so I looked it up. ( http://www.acronymfinder.com/LSD.html ) I assume it is monetary pounds but I was taken aback by the fact that there seem to be over 300 other “LSD”‘s out there. Whew! The things you learn.
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:28 am
Okay, I’ll bite. What does NZ converting to decimal currency have to do with LSD?
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:31 am
Don’t read the other comments much, eh Doob? 😀
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:34 am
Timing is everything. Our comments must have “crossed in the mail.”
16 Jul, 2014 at 11:57 am
There’s quite a good description of the LSD I was referring to over on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/£sd
BTW, I was fully aware of your meaning of LSD, and guessed you wouldn’t know my meaning. But as I’ve never tried any recreational drugs (unless you classify caffeine and alcohol as recreational drugs), I couldn’t resist the urge to confuse.
16 Jul, 2014 at 12:04 pm
Well, you certainly had me tripping!
16 Jul, 2014 at 7:24 am
See Barry I’ve had visions like that occassionally over the years and soon learned you don’t tell anyone – you shrug ’em off and move on. As Stevie Nicks says in Dreams: “I keep myvisions to myself.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x9GZv50BKY Doob’s reaction is pretty normal.
16 Jul, 2014 at 12:12 pm
Ah, Fleetwood Mac. One of my favourite groups of the ’70s.
One of my all time favourite instrumentals is their rendition of Albatross
16 Jul, 2014 at 12:46 pm
Yeah, Fleetwood is one of my favorites as well. Albatross was during Peter Green’s time with the band. I’m not as familiar with their work in the UK.
16 Jul, 2014 at 12:20 pm
That experience as a seven year old has been my one and only “vision”. I don’t want to give away the details of the next installment of this series, suffice to say that it felt real at the time. I no longer believe that God is a “person”, but it hasn’t diminished the impact that the event had on me.
16 Jul, 2014 at 12:41 pm
I think a lot of people have that happen at least once but it doesn’t fit with our understanding of how the world works, so we set it aside and even won’t allow ourselves to think about it let alone mention it. It always brings censorship. Basically we ignore a common reality because it isn’t convenient to the model of our understanding.
17 Jul, 2014 at 2:45 pm
As you’ll see in the next installment, I very quickly learnt to keep quiet about the event. I have avoided mentioning until the last few years. I’m now considered “elderly” and can get away with making statements that would be unacceptable for the younger set.
19 Jul, 2014 at 4:19 am
I’m sure that a vision like that would have a long-lasting effect. I have never had one. Obviously God has no interest in trying to convince me of his existence 🙂
I believe that your statement “I was sure that the real truth […] was being hidden from me,” is common to many religious believers. Please don’t take offence at this, but people who believe in UFOs and conspiracy theories say similar things. Religious people often say things like “I’m sure there’s more than just what we can see.” I say to them, “Isn’t what we can see enough? What I know, feel and see already blows my mind. I don’t need more.”
19 Jul, 2014 at 5:38 am
Remember I was not quite eight years old at the time. Just as I was sure there was more to sex than the information I had been given at that time, I was sure that information about God was being kept from me. I felt adults kept a lot of information from children, and while I believed I would be let in on the “secret” at some stage, I wanted to know more NOW.
I don’t believe the vision was from God. I’m sure what I saw was of my own creation conjured up from my understanding of God at that time. However that doesn’t lesson the effect the experience had on me. Even though nearly fifty years has passed since then, it is still one of my most vivid memories.
12 Mar, 2015 at 2:39 am
Enjoying your writing. I had a similar experience of seeing Jesus in a mirror as a child and being confused why neither my religious parents or siblings took me seriously or were amazing by my religious experience. With hindsight, the Jesus I saw looked exactly like a picture of Jesus we had in the house. I had the imagination of a child to project the image and make it feel real, but didn’t take it any further than a clearly western contrived image of Jesus.
28 Apr, 2015 at 11:14 pm
Barry this was quite a nice read. I will make a point to read the other entries in this series
28 Apr, 2015 at 11:23 pm
I should get my A into G and complete the series.
28 Apr, 2015 at 11:26 pm
That would be nice