Meeting with people who know God personally has proven to be something of a challenge. It turns out that I am not willing to hate people and things enough to be in the club. How could I have gotten it so wrong?
When we go poking around other people’s belongings, or when we ask people for honest answers to our questions – given that the other has consented to allow us to pry – we have little right to be shocked and offended by what we discover. Dismay and disgust on our part is only likely to discourage the trust that made the search or interrogation possible in the first place. We owe it to the other to be responsible with what we find. Over the past few days I have continually had to remind myself of this advice as I have conducted a number of interviews with people who identify with or belong to fringe Christian communities in Dublin. Like so many others, I have become used to the polite and tactful mainstream (as weird as that can often be), and so an open and frank encounter with people on the peripheries of the faith has been something of a shock to the system.
Putting this in as much context as I am permitted at this point in the research, we are talking about people who believe, and sincerely so, that the Bible is the literal word of God delivered to humanity; a work that is both a scientific textbook for understanding the world, and an inerrant account of what is to happen in the future. As I had assumed to be the case these are all incredibly nice, decent, and committed people. They look and sound no different from the countless other normal, everyday people we pass in the street every day. I would have no problem going with them for coffee or living in the house next to them. They are, for all intents and purposes, completely normal folk. Everything about them is normal, except for certain of their religious convictions.
Theirs is the faith, when it is set out in plain words, of the zealot and the fanatic. By no means do I intend to suggest that they are zealots, fanatics, or indeed bad people. All that I will say is that their ideas – or some of their ideas – are fanatical and dangerous in the extreme, and in this assessment there is no exaggeration. I have listened for hours with a video and tape recorder running to men explain just how God’s love demands a nuclear holocaust, and how it is God’s plan to annihilate everyone who does not conform to a rigid and impossibly narrow understanding of scripture and obedience to a God who they associate more with hatred of difference than with anything approaching love and compassion.
This god hates Islam, Catholicism (which are one and the same according to the “prophesied” one-world religion of the antichrist), and all other religions other than “Christianity (‘Bible-believing’ Christianity to be precise)” and a soon-to-be-converted Judaism. This god loathes sex, sexuality, homosexuality, cross-dressing, and Harry Potter. This god hangs over his devotees like a seriously psychotic jealous husband, waiting for every infraction, every occastion of sin, and every moment of guilt, in order to pounce and condemn the “fallen” to an irredeemable eternity of darkness and suffering. This god is sadistically watching as billions of people fester in their own sinfulness and descend into moral putrefaction before blowing a trump that will begin the final destruction of a spoiled creation and herald the reward of the “elect,” – the chosen.
My response was one of deep sadness. My job is to collect interviews, to listen – without judging or debating – to their inner working out of their faith. All the while the pastor within me wanted to reach over and tell them a different story, one about grace, the passionate love affair between heaven and earth, the mystery of a God who made people for no other reason than that he or she is pure and boundless love. How can so mush darkness and anger and rage be wrapped up in the myths people choose to cherish as holy and wholesome? At some level I do believe in this god they worship, but I refuse to worship him. Faith, be it Christian or any other religion, is the very human response to the wonder of life and the reality of death. We don’t have the time (really we don’t) to chase after suffering. My God; the God of the mainstream and the one who knocks at the door of the fringe, is our first perception of love, and the glory that lights up our end.