My parents were immigrants to Canada from rural Zeeland, the province of Holland nearest the Belgian border. They were Catholics and saw to it, with some personal sacrifice, that my siblings and I attended a Catholic parochial school. I remember getting up to go to Mass and serving Mass in Latin, before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. We had to take breakfast to the Church and eat our breakfast before school – which was in the basement of the Church. In those days a fast of at least three hours before Communion was observed. I went on to a Jesuit High School. As a child and teenager, I accepted being Catholic as part of my identity.
When I was in high school, I was in a youth group that tried Bible study and flirted with charismatic renewal – the Pentecostal movement within the Catholic church. Bible study, without structure and research, soon turned into literalism and fundamentalism. There was a focus on the words, without a sense of the meaning of the story. I drew away from that. I have been revisiting the Bible over the last few years, within the context of historical and critical scholarship. But at the time, it seemed to be a waste of time.
Pentecostalism was silly and frightening. It was a movement to achieve, within a religious worship service, a trance-like state of direct connection to the Holy Spirit during which the worshipper may speak in tongues. It seemed to me to be an affective and affected form of worship, practiced by weak-minded people. Today, I have more respect for the value of ecstatic experience within religious worship, but Pentecostalism still seems to reduce religion to a form of entertainment or a psychologically addictive experience. Pentecostals get high on God.
There was a time when I was invited to attend a retreat at a Catholic institution – St. Benedict’s – sponsored by a group called the Ecumenical Institute. I was invited to further retreats at their house on Middlegate in Winnipeg, which involved fasting and sleep deprivation. I was intensely interested but drew away from the movement which was fortunate because it was a progressive Christian cult.
I remained involved with a Catholic Church for the first couple of years of University, and I took a course in Religious studies before focussing my studies on political philosophy and law. I was part of a group that planned music and reading for the Sunday night folk Mass at St. Ignatius church. I gradually drew away from it. Partly, I reacted to the authoritarian stance of the Church, and to its silly pretense that a modern democratic industrial society is based on a vast philosophical mistake that could be fixed if people would just embrace the wisdom of medieval scholastic philosophy. Partly, I was alienated from the Church by my hostility towards some priests and clergy that I met, and further alienated when priests that I liked and respected left the priesthood.
I came to think that religion was simply a psychological device for a sense of safety in the face of injustice, uncertainty and mortality. I thought that it largely marginal to living a moral life. I wasn’t drawn to any other Christian tradition, or to any other religion.
When I met and married my wife, she did not appear to belong to any religious tradition. Her mother had been in the United Church, but my wife’s parents had given up on Christianity. I did not immediately recognize that my wife and various members of her family had strong beliefs in human potential and the paranormal. I was openly skeptical of some of their actions and beliefs on some occasion, and silently skeptical all the time.
In 2001, when I was 46, I became ill. I was told that I had a large colo-rectal cancer which appeared to be well advanced when it was surgically removed, and that I could look forward to radiation therapy and chemotherapy. I didn’t have cancer, although I had problems secondary to some kind of inflammatory bowel or appendix problem, which had caused extensive adhesions and scarring. During my time in hospital, and during my recovery, I came to sense that my life is a miracle. That is perhaps the basis of any religious faith or belief. I began to explore my religious tradition again, to try to find out if I had a coherent religious belief.