God and Me – The Early Years

Mr Duffy has set me thinking about religion and the way it seems to persist in human thought. One theory is that we are biologically disposed to believe in something beyond our ordinary, material world despite what some people would consider to be the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I feel that tension in my own life.

I come from a family of believers. My father’s father was a staunch Methodist who signed the pledge at eighteen and took the Bible literally. To his mind, Charles Darwin was an agent of the Devil. My mother’s brother was born again during the thirties, possibly at one of the many revival meetings led by the pentecostalist George Jeffreys, and spent his working life as a pastor in the Elim Church. My mother met my father through Sunday School, where he and his first wife were teachers and she a pupil.

God was always around when I grew up. I remember the chapel in Cottingham, which the family attended until I was six. I remember kneeling by my bed at night to say my prayers and the grace that we all said at meal-times. I guess I was susceptible to this atmosphere. In one of my earliest dreams (I was maybe five or six years old) I drove an ambulance up to Calvary, lifted Jesus down from the cross and took him away. I was impressed by the strangeness of this grandiose experience and kept it to myself.

Even at that age, though, there were tests of faith. One of the verses of the Christmas carol Away in a Manger, has the lines

‘Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
 And fit us for ever to live with thee there.’

To my young ear, the last line ran ‘And fritters forever’ and I was convinced, in consequence, that I knew what Heaven was going to be like (and it was all right by me). I felt distinctly cheated when I discovered the truth.

I don’t remember where God figured when my father died. Religion certainly offered me no consolation or relief. I suppose people told me that my father was now in Heaven with God and the angels but, if they did, none of it registered. It was irrelevant to what I was feeling. It did me no good but, on the other hand, it didn’t seem to affect my sense of the spiritual or mystical. Perhaps it even heightened it because not long afterwards I had a vision.

We were visiting my uncle, the pastor, who at that time had a congregation in Suffolk, at, I think, Gorleston-on-Sea, near Great Yarmouth. I shared a room with my cousin, David, and one morning I awoke in bright sunlight. David was still asleep but above his bed I saw a hand. It was beckoning to me. I took this as an obvious sign – I was being called by God. I felt a strong emotional charge, a pull into something beyond myself. Again, I didn’t tell anyone. I was sure the call was genuine but somehow it seemed a private matter, as emotion often was in our family – not really anyone else’s business. Perhaps this was just a sign of an innate caution. Or perhaps I was already operating on a principle that separated the public world of everyday from the inner world of my imagination.

I don’t think I was an especially devout child in my daily life. I wasn’t a goody-goody. I did as I was told but I wasn’t averse to a judicious bit of stealing and lying if I could get away with it. Still, I went to Sunday School every week and, when I was  eleven, I entered an exam for a bible scholarship in Hull, where we were living. I had to learn Psalm 121 by heart and then answer a bunch of questions. The result was a book token for what then seemed a large amount of money. I was excited by the prospect of what I could buy. There were a number of books of science and technology I had my eye on. I was surprised, therefore, when my mother pointed out that the money ought to be spent on something more in keeping with the spirit of its source – something devotional, in other words. In the end, we compromised.  I got a copy of A Man Called Peter, which was the biography of a Scotsman who finished up as chaplain to the US Senate, plus The Observer’s Book of British Aircraft. I had no interest in the first and it was years before I finally got around to trying to read it.

 I had always had a fascination with the natural world and was subject to the usual boy-passion for machines. Insects and railway engines were my main interests but by now my curiosity was reaching out to scientific theories and the way in which they embodied reason.   

My last unequivocal religious experience occurred when I was thirteen. I suffered a new bout of religious fervour and decided I ought to become a missionary. For once my feelings were so strong that I had to tell someone about them. I confessed them to my younger sister and told her about my vision of the hand. Unfortunately, my description was so graphic that it freaked her out. She started to scream and ran to my mother, who took the matter quite seriously and gave me a little talk.

I had never before discussed religious belief with an adult and I suppose I had always assumed that they all thought the same way. Instead, I found my mother’s views were different from her brother’s. She told me she had gone to the same revival meeting as he had, along with their younger sister. Of the three of them, my mother was the only one who had not been touched by the pentecostal flame. It seemed that the other two had given her a hard time because she had not found Jesus. In fact, they told her she was bound for Hell. She concluded that, when it came to God, too much enthusiasm was a bad thing. Belief was all right. In fact, it was necessary. But you should avoid going over the top. It might lead to what she called ‘religious mania’. In short, the missionary business was a bad idea. God should be a component of a sensible life, one that was focussed around a good career.

I listened to this lecture determined not to heed it. She need not have worried, though. I was all for throwing myself body and soul into something but that something was never going to be conventional religion. Even as I had expressed my feelings to my sister I was having doubts about them. The worm of reason was already doing its work.

There were three things about Christianity that made me uneasy, despite my determination to follow the call. The first was the idea of Christ’s sacrifice. I was supposed to believe that he died for my sins but did that really mean he suffered crucifixion so that I could be forgiven for stealing a Gitanes cigarette packet from the boy who sat in front of me at school (I was fascinated by the lady in her swirling white gown)? The second thing was the problem of Hell. I am not sure I put it quite as clearly as I would now but I felt there was an odd disjunction between the notion of a loving Father and the fact that he could condemn any of his children to eternal torment. It didn’t make sense somehow. The third thing was my own father’s death. The trauma of that event seemed to make nonsense of any notion that there was a grand plan behind life. If there was a God, I didn’t really trust him.

One Response to “God and Me – The Early Years”

  1. Bruitin » Blog Archive » God and Me – The Teenage Years Says:

    […] knew what faith meant. I had been in my uncle’s congregation and felt the emotional charge of his preaching. I didn’t think I would ever be moved to leap to my […]

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