The land in which I was born lies along the North Sea in Holland. This land is a flat, low land swamped with water from the sea. My hardy ancestors built canals to drain the water, dykes to hold back the seas and terpen (large man made mound of dirt) on which to build their places of worship, their burying grounds and their villages.
An outsider looking on would have thought this to be an idyllic land, where the locals worked hard and played hard. These Friesians developed the world famous Holstein dairy cow and raised their grain and root crops in a harsh climate. They raced large wooden freighter boats on the lakes in the summer and skated the wintry canals in 200 km races from sun up to sun down.
But within that culture, religious strictures laced with large vestiges of ancient superstition ruled their codes of dress, their worship, and their modes of behaviour. Farm wives would go to church on Sunday to show off their family's wealth and status by the size of their gold and lace headdresses. Each church community deemed itself to be more religious at the exclusion of the other communities. Fun for teen-age youths was the weekly Saturday night raid and brawl on a neighbouring village. Children were not allowed to skate or play outdoors with other children on Sundays.
The 1939 - 45 war brought change to this way of life. An invading country was now the common enemy. Village rivalry was set aside. Women stopped wearing their finery for fear that it would be taxed or confiscated. Men knew they had to set aside their religious distrust of neighbours in order to help each other survive.
The war also brought foreign allied soldiers from across the sea. The North Americans were freer in behaviour and spirit. They didn't seem to have the same social controls limiting the possibilities in their lives. Many Dutchmen, including my parents, saw in them a chance for freedom, adventure, peace and greater opportunity for their children.
One of the superstitions brought over from the
Old Country involved the fear of thunder. Lightning strikes in the heat of summer would often hit a farmhouse and barn, quickly burning a life's work to the ground. All work stopped when the dark ominous clouds built up and thunder rolled across the sky. Men put themselves at the ready to run, cycle or buggy ride to a farmhouse and barn on fire. My mother would be terrified and say that it was God talking. He was going to punish someone and she would begin to sing hymns hoping that we would be saved from His wrath.
Religious farm wives did this sort of thing in those days.
I remember the intense fear of the adults. To my youthful mind, the best I could do to help ward off disaster would be to stand outside the door in the rain and, with all the schoolyard bravado I could muster, loudly retort at each clap of thunder with a boombedy boombedy boombedy boom...ie...Go away God, I am not afraid, leave us alone.
My mother, in an anxious fright, would quickly dash outside, pull me by the arm, and plead with me to stop offending God. Something terrible would happen to us, if you don't stop, she would say. This little game was a regular occurrence for us each summer.
By December 31, 1947, we were settled on a farm in Southern Ontario. My parents were doing the evening chores at five pm. Dad was feeding the pigs and beef cattle. Mom was hand milking our one milk cow. I was 8 years old and generally in their way. We had had some warm weather. The ice and snow had melted and now, this New Year's Eve, there was a sudden clap of rolling thunder.
Boomedy boom boom boom, I shouted back. God was talking to me and wanted me to come out and play. I rushed out, sloshing through the mud puddles as the rain splashed onto my upturned face. I beamed with joy, at hearing from my old buddy.
My mother rushed out to shush me and yanked me back into the barn. That was blasphemy, I was told, and I was never to do it again.
It was also the winter that I learned there was no Santa Claus. My parents could not afford him.
Two perceptions from that time have stayed with me: 1) Legends are acceptable only if they are convenient for adults; and, 2) Religious beliefs must conform to the beliefs of those in control. Anything else is blasphemy and subject to punishment.
From this example, it is obvious that the god of my youthful beliefs was not the same as the god of my Calvinistic ancestors. As children we are told that God is good, beneficent and loving. The adults who gave us this message also believed that God was all-powerful and wrathful and decidedly vengeful. He watched over the actions of our daily lives, a bit like Santa Claus, and judged us at death as to whether we would go to heaven or to hell.
I have a wooden plaque, given to me by my mother, which used to hang over the mantel in the living room. The quotation inscribed on it,
Mijn oog zal op u zijn, literally translates as,
My eye shall be upon you. Nominally, one would think that it means to say,
I will watch over you and keep you, as in Psalm 32:8. However, depending on your frame of mind, and if you had done something bad, it can just as readily say,
I'm watching you, better be careful, as in Ezekiel 7:4, 7:9, 8:18, and 9:10.
This is the great oxymoron of the monotheistic Christian belief system. God is a powerful and judgemental being as well as a loving being all at the same time. For me, it is impossible to accept such a concept or even to believe that there may be such a bi-polar supreme chameleon looking over us.
Calvinists are not the only religious groups to have these youth inspired fears. Catholics talk to me about their deep-seated fears of the nuns from their school days. Some can't shake this fear even from their adult life and it colours their very being to this day.
On a recent CBC Ideas Program, philosophers and religious writers were asked to participate in a forum entitled
Walking on the Edge of Reason. The debate was over the relative influences of religion versus reason in regard to our behaviour. Reason, it was said, explains the world of the known and the physical world as we see it. With reason, they say, we can know what is true; and reason is the key that would unlock our potential.
However, other participants pointed out that most of us misuse Reason to support our prejudices. It was said that 35% of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true and use their idea of reasoning to support this belief. Fundamentalists and atheists share similar reasoning thought processes to defend their opposing points of view.
Children understand best the wonder and the awe of our being. To them, the physical world is only a shadow of the natural world. How do we describe the wonder and awe of this world? We are most often at a loss to talk about the true beauty of a sunset (each evening is different), a sunrise, the birth of a child, hoarfrost on a cold winter morning, or something as simple as the real difference between a Red Haven and a Freestone peach.
Descriptions of these natural wonders of our world, which we hold in awe, are said to be Ineffable...that which cannot be explained. The ancient religious scholars said the same about the concept of God. In their view, He was indescribable and it would be offensive to name Him. Any human perception of this indescribable being would strike fear in the hearts of people. He was ineffable, and could not be truly explained.
Yet, name Him we did, with many different names and attributes. Should he be called Yahweh, Jehovah, God, Allah?? And what do these mere words mean to an ordinary person? Think of how many people have died in the cruellest of ways fighting for or against these names and the attributes given to them by man. Can we truly understand the concept of God in an enlightened way? I personally prefer the native concept, as simply,
The children's native story this morning about the return of summer is no more fanciful than the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. We all know that summer and whales exist. What we don't really understand is how they exist and how they function. Their physical presence is a shadow of the natural world, the Ineffable...that which cannot be explained.
Three weeks ago, one of our presenters referred to the word
God as an acronym,
The Grand Old Dilemma. The acronym I like is GUS...The Great Universal Spirit. Non-threatening, non-vengeful, non-judgmental and only seen in the beauty of the natural world around us. That world we try to describe in music, song, poetry and art, or in the imaginings of children.
The little immigrant boy in the opening story rejected the old world concept of God and embraced the new world concept of GUS, the Great Universal Spirit. The fear and trauma of war and religious strictures had been left behind.
The adventures and the opportunities of new horizons now await us. Youthful fears of organized religion should and can be set aside. I believe in living in the present: I am responsible for the physical world around me. In GUS I trust to look after the natural world.
I would like to finish with a short poem that perfectly reflects my sense of optimism, entitled: `The Doors.' (Taken from a friend's memorial program)
You asked me what I would like to have.
More than I would like to have knowledge,
More than I would like to have certainty,
I would like to have a door opening
Into a wide field, filled with the songs
Of small birds, filled with light, filled
With dancing and gladness...
And far across the field, another door,
Opening into summer, into wilderness,
A greening of imaginations.
And, finally, at a great distance,
Another door, opening, opening...