I have a lot of opinions. That’s usually the case with someone studying the humanities. I have opinions about everything. The best and worst cuisines. The greatest books and movies. The ideal form of government. The best country to visit in the month of January. Coffee or tea? Country music or EDM-tinged opera-pop? Everything is fair game. Nothing is completely true and life is entirely subjective. I have to admit: it’s quite exhausting.
If you’ve met me, then you might know, out of all the opinions, questions, and uncertainties floating around in the sea of thoughts within my thick skull, there is one subject that I struggle with more than any other: Christianity. Christianity, for much of my life, has been both a thorn in my side and a saving grace in times of stress. I don’t want to overwhelm you with my religious preachery (I’m allowed to make up words right?), so here’s the condensed version of my views.
I have relied on my belief in the God of the Christian faith to guide my life. Most days, I firmly believe in his existence, his creation of our world, and the sacrifice of his only son for the redemption of the human race. Most days, I believe every word of the Bible and I strive to be the best example of a young, Christian man that I can be. At the same time, there are many days when I question every aspect of God’s existence; from his treatment and punishment of sinners, to the inexplicable love that he pours upon us. Many days, the methods, laws, and views that God and, subsequently, most Christians practice feel wobbly at best. Call it weak faith or misunderstanding, but the brick and mortar of the Christian faith is simply too unstable for me to feel comfortable putting my full weight against it day after day after day.
In the past few years, I have been introduced to countless different views, faiths and ways of life (Luther, surprisingly, is a great place for this kind of exploration). As I have learned about the different views of Christianity, some entirely different faiths and many non-religious perspectives on life, I have realized that, at the root of my questions and uncertainties is the entity known as organized Christianity. Organized Christianity, the dominant presentation of the faith worldwide, is the evangelical church in every small town across America, preaching various interpretations of the Bible with a focus on sharing the good news. Organized Christianity is the innumerable denominations within every sect of faith. Organized Christianity is the mega churches and televangelists everywhere, vomiting quasi-gospel in the name of more fame and more money. Organized Christianity is the hate-spewing, blatantly racist and homophobic individuals and cults who claim their love for God but exemplify the exact opposite.
Essentially, organized Christianity is present in almost every aspect of the faith worldwide. To me, it’s an infestation. Due to organized Christianity, there is no room for experimentation in faith. Any questioning or uncertainty is seen as unfaithfulness, a weakness. When I ask a question or express my doubt to those I trust and respect in my faith, I often feel guilty and defeated—like I’m always missing the point. As a person with so many opinions, this is hard to swallow. But, as exhausting as it is to always struggle with my faith, I wouldn’t trade my uncertainty for anything. Sometimes I must remind myself, but I know that it is okay to not know anything for certain.
So, where is this going? I just spent 500+ words speaking to an audience I don’t even know on a subject that is intensely opinionated, personal, and controversial. Why would I do this? I thought this blog was about the Frankenstein J-Term Trip, you are probably thinking as you check the URL to make sure you clicked on the correct link. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. Well, here’s the deal: These uncertainties in faith that I have, questioning the guidance of the church and it’s organized Christianity, are qualities I share with the Romantic poets we’ve been studying. Percy Bysshe Shelley was known for his radical atheist views. John Keats was vocally uncertain about his belief in any greater being above us, controlling how things turn out in the end. Earlier in his life, Byron rarely bothered with religion, instead chasing after sex, money, and fame. To use math terminology, the lack of Christian views was a common denominator in the British Romantic Circle (forgive me if I misused that term).
But, that isn’t the only reason I’m forcing you to read about my religious quandaries in order to receive an update on the trip. As you may well know, we have spent a significant portion of our time in Europe visiting many different churches of both the Protestant and Catholic Christian faiths. In London, we visited Westminster Abbey, a place of worship dedicated not only to those of the Christian faith, but also those who are esteemed in Britain’s history. Throughout the Abbey’s many chapels, kings, queens, saints and even poets had shrines dedicated to their achievements. In Geneva, we spent a few minutes in St. Peter’s Cathedral, the main house of worship for the Protestant reformers during the reign of Queen Mary I. In contrast to the Abbey, the décor and feel of St. Peter's was much more simple, reserved, and gray. It aligned perfectly with the protestant belief that artful worship had taken precedence over real worship in the Catholic tradition.
It was in Italy where we visited the most churches and discovered just how deeply the Christian faith ran into the construction of Italian culture. In Venice, the walls of St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace were decked from top to bottom with gold, marble, and delicate frescos. In Florence, St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Duomo stood well above every other building in the city, demonstrating the power that the faith acquired within the city.
But, in Rome, the full force of the Christian faith was demonstrated. We visited five different churches during our scheduled activities for the course and, while each one had its specialties (Caravaggio paintings, famous sculptures, frescoed domes, ancient tombs, etc.), they all felt ominous, powerful and, quite frankly, holy. The Pantheon, with its elegant open-top dome, conveyed the beauty of faith. In St. Peter’s Basilica, even the smallest sculpture’s towered over its spectators—the vastness and expanse of the place made me feel next to meaningless. In the last church we visited, The Sistine Chapel, with its beyond-famous frescos by Michelangelo (The Creation of Adam, The Last Judgment), intense dedication in faith and art was on full display.
In looking at all of the spectacular art and fantastic dedication to saints, popes, and others throughout the many churches of Rome, the uncertainties and doubts I have about the Christian faith came to the forefront of my mind. Everything we saw, every single display of art, was beyond beautiful. But, as I walked into these giant cathedrals, the first thought to enter my mind was not of the grandeur and magnificence of God. Nothing, it was the display of power and wealth that overwhelmed my senses and sent my mind careening off the edge. This focus on wealth, on power, on tradition; this idolatry of Mary, of the popes, of architecture, of worldly things—is that what Christianity is? Is Christianity simply a story made up to explain the inexplicable that slowly transformed into a pseudo-sales pitch for the wealthy and powerful? Honestly, as I gazed upon Michelangelo's Creation of Adam and the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, I didn’t have an answer.
But, it was at that moment in the Sistine that, amidst the crowds of people, something beautiful happened. A young man, not much older than I, got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend in the presence of the Almighty. He was shaking like a wind-stripped leaf in autumn and she trying her best to hold back her tears, but the look on their faces was one of pure joy and excitement for the future ahead of them.
As they hugged and kissed, I looked back up at the frescos on the ceiling. A new thought entered my mind. Maybe, just maybe, this is all true. Every single bit of it. That’s what I'm supposed to believe, right? Maybe, behind all of the glitz, glamour, greed, and vanity of these churches, there is a God who looks down on us with love in his eyes. Maybe, he was looking down at that couple and applauding their love, proud of their accomplishment. Maybe, he was also looking down at me, telling me to observe their love and let me know that he loved me just the same—with all the passion of his heart. As the group exited the Chapel, I looked at the Last Judgment and received one final glance at Jesus. Maybe it was just a trick of the eye, but I swear he was smiling at me.
And, with that, I must say goodbye. The group is back in the country we call home! Thank you for reading! I know this blogging experience hasn’t been a traditional one and I’m glad you all stuck around for the ride. I hope you enjoyed what I had to share! I'm sure your son, daughter, friend, colleague, secret crush, or whoever you know who went on this trip, will share plenty more with you! In the spirit of Romanticism, I will leave you with a short selection from John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:
“Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades / Past the near meadows, over the still stream, / Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep / In the next valley-glades: / Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: -- Do I wake or sleep?”