Every now and then, a traditionalist Episcopalian will ask me something like the following:
- How can you honestly call yourself a Christian, since there are so many parts of the Nicene Creed that you don’t believe? (See my essay Shortening the Nicene Creed for some point-by-point ponderings.)
- Given what you don’t believe, shouldn’t your parish priest refuse communion to you until you repent and return to orthodox belief?
- Wouldn’t you really be happier in a different denomination? (Usually that’s code for “you’re obviously not one of us; please go away.”)
- In view of your beliefs, why don’t you just become a Unitarian Universalist, or even a Jew? 
I’ve tried various answers on for size. I keep coming back to one in particular: My church is something like an extension of my family. Once I’ve become part of a family, I can’t stop being part of it without a really good reason.
Moreover, my life has been changed by finding God — well, sort of — with the aid of the church.
I’d never lightly “walk apart” from my family, and neither would I do so with my church.
In particular, disputes about unprovable matters of doctrine don't strike me as nearly a good enough reason to do so.
The Episcopal Church wasn’t my original church family. My biological family is Roman Catholic, more or less. 
I began pulling away from the Roman church early on. I distinctly remember my mother telling me about transubstantiation. It seemed ridiculous to me; after all, anyone could see that bread was bread. I was about five years old.
Starting as a grade-schooler, I had an intense interest in science. Unlike religion, in science there were no dogmas, no unchallengeable beliefs — and science had a track record in the real world. (This was during the space race of the 1960s.)
In high school, the seeming conflict between science and religion caused me to drift even further away from the church.
I styled myself an agnostic: It seemed to me there had to be something “out there,” but people often jumped to conclusions about what supposedly “had” to be true, and I wasn’t going to make that mistake.
Still, I never entirely severed my connection to the church. 
And over the years I couldn’t help but notice that most of the people I admired unreservedly seemed to be committed Christians.
I was intrigued from afar by the Episcopal Church. It had an appealing reputation as “the thinking man’s church,” to use an expression from those unenlightened times. I liked its willingness to reexamine dogma, to listen to challenges. While I didn’t know much about Bishop James Pike at that time (I later learned that his was a sad case), it impressed me that such an important leader of the church would dare to contradict the reigning orthodoxies. Even after Vatican II, I couldn’t imagine that happening in the Catholic Church.
But would I ever have actually joined the Episcopal Church? I doubt it.
Drifting away from the Roman church was one thing. Joining another would have been something else entirely. It would have been tantamount to publicly renouncing my clan, a prodigal son demanding his inheritance.
As so often happens, marriage changed things. Mutual friends fixed me up with my future wife. We hit it off immediately.
Somewhere along the line, I learned she was an Episcopalian and fairly serious about her faith. I was vaguely pleased — many of the women I had previously dated had been indifferent to religion, and I had been uncomfortable with that, even though I professed to have no religion myself.
Early in our relationship, my inamorata invited me to go to church with her. Love being what it is, I did so, agnosticism notwithstanding. 
After we married,  I went to church with her at our neighborhood parish. Somehow my name showed up on the parish rolls; I assume she did that.
The priests kept asking me when I was going to be officially "received" into the Episcopal Church. I said I had problems raising my right hand about some of the doctrines. They respected that, and let me move along in my own time.
Eventually I reverted to old habits, and my attendance grew sporadic.
Then the kids came along, and that changed things even more. Of course we had both of them baptized; that was never in question. I wouldn’t have had it otherwise, although I wasn’t sure why.
One Sunday morning, as my wife was getting ready to take the kids off to church, our young son asked her, “how come Dad doesn’t come with us?” Not wanting the kids to get mixed messages, I started going with the family every week, and eventually even started going to Communion. 
Soon, my wife was volunteering me to help with some of her or the kids' parish activities. As time went on, I found I was getting more and more active on my own, and that I had an increasing number of good friends in the parish.
So in a nutshell, my being an Episcopalian is largely a family thing: I married in.
This is certainly not a new phenomenon: Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity notes that people tend to conform their religious practices, and eventually their beliefs, to those of a person or social group with which they identify. He cites extensive field research with the Mormons and the Moonies in support of this theory. He also notes that early Christianity’s attractiveness to women invariably resulted in some husbands being converted. 
Finding God — Sort of
I could have continued simply going to church with my family and helping out with parish activities, and just left it at that. But I took the plunge and was formally received into the Episcopal Church.
Doing so required me to stand up and reaffirm the baptismal covenant. That begs the question: Did something change, after years of agnosticism? Or did I lie when I made the required promises and professions?
Something had indeed changed.
- As I mentioned above, it didn't escape my notice how many people I admired were committed Christians.
- One morning my wife and I were out for a walk in the neighborhood. I remember looking up at one of the big live-oak trees on the street and thinking, boy, life is good. I was struck by an urge to be grateful. But grateful to whom?
- Driving on the freeway one morning, I glanced up at a big cumulus cloud and was almost overwhelmed by the majesty of the universe and its complex mechanisms. (Once an engineer ....)
The matter started coming to head one morning. I arrived at the restaurant for breakfast. The rector and I sat down; we ordered and made small talk. He said a blessing over the food. He and I had been friendly for years; I was (and remain) a great admirer. He knew my views about religion and had invited me to breakfast to discuss them.
“So tell me what it is you don’t believe,” he said.
“Well, we can start with the Creed,” I said. “Take the first line: I believe in God, the Father Almighty. Sure, I know about the Big Bang. But I can’t see how that means there was necessarily a God to start it all. It seems to me that we simply don’t know.”
“Well, what about the Second Law of Thermodynamics?” he asked.
His question startled me. Here was this non-techie priest, talking to me in the language of “my” world. The question started me on a path of reading and pondering that continues today.
The Second Law can be oversimplified thusly: Left to themselves, things get disorganized. In some of my early reading, I learned that John Polkinghorne, a leading scientist-theologian, put the question this way in The Faith of a Physicist (page 17; emphasis and paragraphing added):
Why do things get more complex with time? Why do multicellular plants and animals emerge when single-cell organisms seem to cope with the environment satisfactorily?
Paul Davies has called this progressive tendency ‘the optimistic arrow of time,’ in contrast to the pessimistic arrow of the second law of thermodynamics ….
Our recognition that biological entities are open systems … means that we understand why there is not a contradiction between these two arrows of time[. B]ut that by itself does not explain why there is an optimistic arrow….
(For a more-technical discussion of the Second Law, see this Wikipedia article, especially the links at the end concerning the Second Law and evolution.)
I also learned about the “cosmic coincidences” known collectively as the Anthropic Principle. These coincidences suggest that the laws of nature seem to have been fine-tuned to make intelligent life possible.
Gradually, I concluded that the evidence for the existence of God was fairly compelling. Was it rock-solid, ironclad-conclusive? No. Was it enough to warrant my making Pascal’s Wager, namely that belief is the sensible bet? Yes.
(Well-known atheist philosopher Dr. Antony Flew recently reached the same conclusion, from largely the same evidence, namely Big-Bang cosmology and the fine-tuning of the universe.)
I still don’t know what exactly God is. I can’t say I have a personal relationship with him, at least not one that I recognize as such. But I’m persuaded:
- that God exists;
- that he's at least roughly analogous to a loving father;
- that for at least the last 13.7 billion years or so, he’s been building a universe, for some purpose we don’t fathom;
- that we get to help him with that project;
- that he makes use even of our sins and our screw-ups;
- that on the whole — not without exceptions, to be sure — life keeps getting better; and
- in the end, things are going to turn out unimaginably well.
Contemplating this (even writing this) gives me a joyful and peaceful feeling.
Is this view correct? I don’t know. I try to keep an open mind about it, and to stay alert for any evidence that might tend to confirm or refute it. For now, and the foreseeable future, that's the way I’m making my bet.
Building on the Faith of the Fathers
Belief in God, by itself, doesn’t get you past the “entrance exam” to be baptized or confirmed or received as an Episcopalian. You have to profess your belief in the factual assertions of the Apostles’ Creed, the ancient statement of core Christianity.
When I started thinking about being received, I found it significant that this entrance exam was the Apostles’ Creed, not the more dubious Nicene Creed of 250+ years later. What I knew of the history suggested that the Nicene Creed is in many respects a highly political document. It demands that we believe a variety of theological facts not in evidence. Its basis for doing so is that, nearly 1,700 years ago, a particular group of bishops, backed by the Emperor Constantine, decreed that Christians must believe these things. These bishops were the winners in a nasty and senseless theological (and sometimes physical) battle, over matters that seem to be inherently incapable of proof or disproof.
The Apostles’ Creed, in contrast, struck me as much more sensible. It sets out a straightforward recitation of some facts that the early Christians believed to be true.
But even the Apostles' Creed poses difficulties. It asserts things that we simply cannot reconcile with what we now understand about the way God’s creation works.
For example, consider the Creed’s assertion that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary.” We can’t pretend we understand everything about how a child might come into the world. But we can acknowledge that the evidence revealed to us so far  is overwhelmingly against the notion that a woman could conceive and bear a male child without a sperm cell and a Y chromosome being introduced somewhere. 
Here's where my scientific and legal experience came in handy: I could readily envision another possible approach to reading the Creed. It’s not carved in stone that we must read the Creed as a fixed, final, immutable statement of ultimate truth. Instead, we might take it as representing the best the Church Fathers could do to summarize their current understanding of the God in whom they placed their trust.
We have to remember that the Church Fathers were not infallible deities. True, the church believes they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it’s a safe bet that their understanding of that inspiration might have been incomplete, and might even have be mistaken (just as ours could be). That doesn't mean they're any less deserving of our respect and gratitude, and our admiration for their willingness to put their trust in God.
Consider an analogy: Suppose the astronomer Ptolemy were to materialize before us, along with his almanacs and astronomical instruments. Over the next few hours, he goes outside, shoots some sun sights, and announces that the sun will rise tomorrow morning at approximately 6:21 a.m. Our own almanac confirms that this will indeed be the time of sunrise.
In getting to know our new / old friend, we learn he thinks the sun will literally rise in the sky tomorrow morning. That's because in his mental model of the universe, the earth is at the center, with the sun (and stars and planets) revolving around it.
We, on the other hand, have a different mental model; we are pretty confident that tomorrow morning the sun will do nothing of the sort.
I doubt very much that any of us would scorn our visitor just because we have a different explanation of what we (still) call "sunrise."
True, our explanation indisputably works better: it accounts for more of the available evidence, and it generates better predictions.
But we still would acknowledge our debt and our gratitude to Ptolemy and the other astronomers of old. Like us, they sought the truth. Like us, they didn’t have all the answers, and some of their understandings were wrong.
We’ve traveled farther on the path than these ancient astronomers, but only because of the preparatory work they did before us.
We can consider the beliefs of the Church Fathers in a similar light. When we reassess their creedal assertions, we don’t reject them as brothers and sisters. Neither do we disparage their faith.
Quite the contrary, we’re trying to build on the “prep work” they did. Our purpose, like theirs, is to learn what we can of God, his works, and his will, and to enhance our trust in him.
To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, in the hope of seeing a bit farther than they could.
And just as today we still speak in the language of sunrise and sunset, we can likewise speak in the language of the Apostles’ Creed, regardless whether we doubt its technical accuracy.
(No matter whose language we use, we must remember something important: However we choose to describe God, he is what he is. When we describe God as being X or Y or Z, that doesn’t make him so.)
That’s how I ended up approaching the Apostles’ Creed. On that basis, I found that I could readily profess it. (If you’re interested in more-specific details, see my essay on the Nicene Creed.)
In my thinking about being received, I also had to confront the specific promises of the baptismal covenant, because we reaffirm that covenant in the confirmation / reception rite.
Right off the bat I encountered one promise that required some thought. The bishop asks: Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? The candidate responds: I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 415)
Could I make that promise?
Before I could answer that question, I had to explore what it meant to "follow Jesus."
Lots of folks will tell you what they think it means. They’ll point to various scriptural passages and say “this is what you’ve gotta do.”
Some claim that to be "saved," you —
- must have a personal relationship with Jesus, whatever that means; or
- accept the supremacy, and perhaps even the inerrancy, of Scripture — yeah, right; or
- accept Jesus as your personal savior — again, whatever that means; or
- subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion; or
- invite Jesus into your life; or
- be baptized by immersion;
- etc., etc.
But in studying the New Testament, I found that Jesus himself seems to tell us what he wants us to do to follow him.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
This story obviously was significant to the early Christians, because it shows up, with slightly different wording, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, at Matt. 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34, as well as in the Lucan version above.
Matthew's version of the story even suggests that everything else is just details: It ends with Jesus telling his questioners, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Throughout my younger days, I heard these lessons being read aloud at church. But they didn't really sink in until one Sunday morning when my kids were little. As I was idly flipping through the Bible during the sermon, I encountered the Great Commandment story. I had something of a eureka moment on a small scale: "That's what it's all about — it makes perfect sense."
Lord and Savior
What about the lord-and-savior part? I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on that back then, and I won’t do so now.
• The Greek word kyrios, often translated as “lord,” is used in the New Testament in various other ways such as “sir” or “mister” or even “master.” The last brings to mind a master and his apprentices, which certainly seems to fit the Gospels’ description of Jesus and his disciples. It also ties in with the disciples' sometimes calling Jesus rabbi, teacher. 
No matter what Jesus might or might not have been, he seems to have put his finger on some fundamental truths of the universe in his reiteration of the command to love one another.  And he put his trust in God and was faithful to him, even unto death.
That convinced me that yes, Jesus is indeed someone I should follow, as an apprentice follows his master — not slavishly, but as one seeking to learn and emulate.
• Savior required a bit more thought. We don’t really know what “salvation” is, in part because we don’t really know what happens after we die. I've read that the Latin root word has to do with health. In thinking about this part of the baptismal covenant, I chose to stick to what I can know at least something about, namely my spiritual health in the here and now.
I can testify that in the here and now, I've returned to the church and seem to have found God. I’m very much happier that I was. I like to think I'm spiritually healthier too (at least my wife seems to think so).
All this came about in part because of the church, the community that Jesus catalyzed. So yes, I can assent to the proposition that — at least indirectly — Jesus is indeed my "savior."
Standards and their consequences
Let's return to my original theme, that the church is like an extension of the family. Family members try to help each other, including helping each other to learn and grow. We do this in part by holding each other accountable to behavioral standards.
But even behavioral missteps by a family member would have to be pretty severe to warrant the rest of the family deciding to sever ties. And in normal families, you don’t have to hold the proper beliefs in order to belong.
In my own family, we disagree about a lot of issues. At family gatherings we sometimes get into big arguments. And as the father of two teen-agers, I’m occasionally informed that my views are woefully misguided.
But walking apart from each other because of mere doctrinal disagreements? That’s not what families do.
The same ought to apply to churches. As I see it, in the current great debate about homosexuality, the basic dispute is being presented as one about behavior, but it seems to me that it's really about doctrine.
Whichever it is, to my way of thinking, our disagreements clearly are not of a gravity that warrant walking apart from each other — again, that's not what families do.
* * *
Anyway, that’s why I call myself a Christian, and an Episcopalian.
 According to BeliefNet’s Belief-O-Matic questionnaire, my beliefs are a 100% match for Reform Judaism. (Hey, if it was good enough for Jesus ….) But I wasn’t born into a Jewish family, nor did I marry into one. Cf. this three-part BeliefNet diary of a Christian who converted to the Jewish faith of his fiancée. As for becoming a Unitarian Universalist, see this essay I posted last year.
 My parents are both Catholic, and my siblings and I were raised in the church. Now, however, all but one of my siblings and their spouses are Episcopalians too, as are their kids (the other sibling’s family is unchurched). In other words, none of my parents’ grandchildren are being raised in The One True Church. I’ve never heard either of them complain about that, for which I give them great credit.
 From about ninth grade onward, I never went to Communion, let alone confession. I didn’t even say the spoken prayers at Mass. (Looking back, I think it was because I felt it would have been dishonest to say things I didn’t believe. But it’s also possible I was simply a rebellious adolescent, who in ancient Israel would have been stoned to death at the town gates.)
Despite my professed agnosticism, in high school and college I led two different folk-Mass groups, mostly so my parents would check the box that I was going to church. Then after college, as a young Navy officer, I helped out with folk-Mass groups in the towns where I was stationed, probably for the sense of community as much as anything. While touring Paris on leave, I found myself drawn to Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
One holiday season, a shipmate and I — he, too, was a former choir director — knew we would be at sea over Christmas. We decided the ship needed a High Mass for Christmas Eve. The Catholic chaplain agreed enthusiastically. The ship was an aircraft carrier with a crew of over 5,000; we figured there had to be at least a few former choir singers aboard. So we wrote home to get choral sheet music, put out a call for choristers, and held a few rehearsals during off-duty time. At midnight on Christmas Eve, in the foc'sle (a big enclosed space at the bow of the ship), in the middle of the South China Sea, the chaplain celebrated Mass, with a standing-room-only congregation of off-watch sailors and with the ship’s second-in-command serving as the acolyte. Our pick-up choir, 24 voices strong, in tropical-white uniforms, sang the High Mass and led the congregation in Christmas carols, with full four-part harmonies. It was glorious. Our embarked admiral’s chief of staff later told the chaplain he’d never seen anything like it in all the years he’d been at sea.
 I didn’t worry about offending my family when I started going to church with my future wife. In my clan (as in many others), unmarried sons get brownie points for going to church with their girlfriends, even if the church isn’t quite the “right” one.
 We were married in my wife’s home church. A woman priest officiated, which my Catholic parents took completely in stride. One of my maternal aunts wasn’t able to attend; when my wife later showed her the wedding pictures — including one with us standing together with the priest — my wife says my aunt turned to my mother with a look that silently asked, “you actually permitted this?” Until we had kids, we weren’t sure my aunt considered us really married (just kidding, Tetka).
 When the kids were little, at church we would sit in the balcony so they could see. For Communion, my wife would take them downstairs to the altar rail with her, while I stayed up in the pew. On one Sunday, however, my daughter, then probably two or three years old, had taken off her shoes and didn't want to go. No problem, my wife said, stay up here with Daddy. But as soon as my wife and son disappeared down the balcony stairs, my daughter changed her mind — she had to go with Mama. She started crying; I picked her up and took her downstairs. When we caught up with my wife and son, with dozens of people standing in line with us, I didn’t see how I could just stand there holding a child at the altar rail. And so it was that I went to Communion for the first time in probably 25 years. It didn’t seem to hurt, so I kept doing it.
 I agree with the observation of an older friend and mentor, who says that as a general rule of thumb, “the women are what they were raised, and the men are what they married.” Cf. 1 Cor. 13: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.”
 As between spiritual revelations and scientific ones, I see no reason to give the latter any lesser stature. If anything, it should be the other way around, because a purported scientific revelation can be tested empirically, to make sure it’s not just a figment of the revelatee’s creative imagination. Cf. Deut. 18:21-22: "If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it." (Emphasis added.) So empiricism would seem to have a scriptural pedigree ….
 We have no real idea where the tales of virgin birth in Matthew and Luke originated. Nor do we know how many layers of hearsay those tales passed through before being written down. We do know that parthenogenesis of a male from a female is incoherent with our current understanding of human reproduction — and, unlike the tales in Matthew and Luke, our current understanding has passed numerous empirical tests.
 The Septuagint -- the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, uses kyrios to describe God. Some traditionalist Christians try to argue that the disciples thought of Jesus as God because the Greek-language New Testament documents have them sometimes calling him kyrios. That argument seem implausible, first because the word kyrios had other meanings, but even more basically because Jesus and his disciples are thought to have spoken Aramaic among themselves, and we don’t really know what they called him in that language. Except that we do know the disciples sometimes called Jesus rabbi, teacher — see, e.g., Matt. 23:8 (“But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers”), Mark 9.5 (“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’”), John 9:2 (“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi,’ who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’”).
 I was powerfully influenced by the book Non-Zero, by Robert Wright. It's a sophisticated, entertaining, and readable work about evolution, game theory, and social science. The author sticks to the facts, but concludes that the evolution of the human race — and especially its qualities of love and reciprocal altruism — seem to point to the existence of a God and perhaps even a divine plan. Reading it was a milestone event in my faith journey.