Paul Prather

Paul Prather: From one religion columnist to another

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

A recent column by Sally Quinn called "My five lessons from On Faith" caught my attention.

Quinn is the Washington Post journalist who helped establish her newspaper's online religion section, called On Faith, which just marked its fifth anniversary.

I was eager to see what she'd learned from writing about religion, because I was the Herald-Leader's full-time religion writer from 1990 to 1997, and I found it to be a faith-changing experience.

As I read what she had to say, I realized Quinn arrived at the religion beat from a background and a worldview radically different from mine. She was a self-professed atheist, for instance. I was a long-time Christian and the weekend pastor of a small, rural, Pentecostal church.

So I was surprised and gratified to discover that four of the five lessons Quinn has absorbed from covering religion are nearly identical to those I learned.

These are Quinn's five points, with my own observations added:

Nobody knows. Quinn said her favorite bumper sticker reads, "I don't know and you don't either."

The five years during which she's talked to thousands of people about their beliefs — or their unbelief, as the case might be — have convinced her nobody knows much for certain about God.

We all rely on faith, she said; even atheists are relying on faith: that there isn't a God.

Indeed, she's now uncomfortable with her own former atheism. Her atheism, she said, was based largely on a lack of knowledge about religion. She'd never realized how profound, mysterious and scholarly many traditions really are.

However, she's not exactly a believer, either.

"If I had to define myself," she wrote, "I would just say I was a learner."

I understand. I was a believer to begin with, and still am. But I eventually arrived at a similar conclusion: None of us knows for sure, including me.

We all walk by faith, not by sight. We'd all do well to be a lot humbler about our religious certitude. We're all learners.

All religions are the same — and not. All religions were founded on the notion of community, Quinn said, of doing good to protect one another. To her, the various faiths have more in common than they have differences.

This is the only one of her five lessons I'd argue with.

Yes, several major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are monotheistic. And nearly all faiths, monotheistic or not, teach some form of "do unto others as you'd have them do unto you."

Still, in my opinion, the differences among religions far outweigh the similarities.

Everything is about religion. Every news story is, at some level, a religion story. Whether you're talking about national politics, foreign policy, abortion, gay marriage, college football, pop culture, immigration or the environment, there's a religious angle to be had for an enterprising reporter. Religion influences everything, and everything influences religion.

That's why, for me, religion remains the most exciting news beat ever.

We are all looking for meaning. People arrive on earth with an innate desire to experience the transcendent, the divine, Quinn said. From the beginning, people have asked, "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?"

Those are the impulses, uncertainties and longings that drive all faiths.

But the varying paths different groups take in their search for meaning endlessly fascinate me.

Some faiths offer emotional and spiritual ecstasy. Some claim to furnish surefire answers. Some help us focus the questions more clearly, then encourage us to seek out our own solutions. Some actually heighten the mysteries.

Why is there suffering? Quinn phrased this as a question rather than a statement. The lesson she drew was that, ultimately, no one can find the answer.

I posed this same question to so many theologians, preachers and lay people that I lost count. The bottom line is: You'll hear lots of theories, but none of them holds water. Nobody truly understands why a loving, all-powerful God would, let's say, watch silently and do nothing as cruel, crazy parents torture a small child to death.

I've heard all the explanations, from humans' free will to original sin to a better reward in heaven to the non-existence of God. None of them is satisfying.

If I were to quibble with anything else Quinn wrote in a column with which I almost completely agreed, it would be her piece's conclusion:

"What I have learned is this: God is what you or I or anyone else says God is. This I know."

Well, with all due respect, no.

People's ideas about God vary so wildly that — assuming there is indeed a being we can call God who exists as a living, thinking, separate entity — he can't be all those contradictory things. No being could.

Somebody has got to be right, and somebody has got to be wrong.

The unsettling problem is that we probably won't know whether we were the right ones or the wrong ones until it's too late to change our minds.