“Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” -Voltaire “Candide”
The thing about “Candide” isn’t so much that it is a work of philosophy, or that it changed my outlook on life but that I saw, so very much myself in the title character, that it shook me to the core. if you haven’t read this title, I will try not to spoil it too much, but I must describe a bit to put you into my mindset. The title character of the story starts life in a perfect environment and it being taught the philosophy of optimism. From this point Candide falls in love, loses his love, searches the earth for his love, and in the end gets to be with his love but not in the way he saw it happening. Throughout the chapters, Candide is forced to see that the world is not an optimistic place and that his whole worldview from the beginning had been completely wrong.
From this book I saw the story of my life. I too had started out thinking that I knew everything I would need to know in order to get through life. Thinking I understood how the world worked, through the eyes of my faith, had led me down a path that had left me empty and lost. I even saw that I was in the place of the title character at the end of the story, after going through what life had thrown at me, being controlled by numerous outside sources, and in the end settling for a life of solitude where I could fake that I was happy in the right moments. Needless to say, this was not a particularly good feeling.
Upon returning the book to my professor, I asked him if he had any other suggestions. He recommended me to grab some of the works of Plato and start reading through them. My ex had owned Plato’s “Republic,” and had left it when she moved out. It had sat on my shelf for many years gathering dust. So that night I pulled it down and started reading. While I have always considered myself an avid reader, I will admit that at times I had to stop and restart huge sections of the book in order to take it all in. The book confused me a great deal and in all honesty made me angry from time to time.
Why did the book make me angry? Being raised in the Pentecostal church I had been told from my earliest days that the church was the source of justice, morality, and goodness; this book challenged those ideas greatly. Within its pages I found a great man, who set for himself one goal, to understand whatever topic he is speaking about to the very fullest. In time, Socrates would come to replace Christ in my mind. Where Christ gave shallow, sweet sounding answers that in reality meant nothing, Socrates, would hit a topic so hard that by the end you couldn’t help but be in awe of his amazing reasoning capability.
I began to devour everything that I could by Plato and each time I felt further from the faith of my birth and closer to some great truth that was yet to be found. My daily life had once included many hours studying the bible and yet now I found as my eyes wandered through its pages, no sense of morality that I couldn’t find a better example of in the works of philosophy. My struggle with the bible was becoming a great hindrance to my sermons. Writing sermons had been one of my favorite parts of the ministry for a long time but now when I sought scriptures in the bible, it was as if a veil had been lifted and all I saw was moral discrepancy.
For every passage that speaks of love another will speak of fear. Scriptures dealing with justice will ultimately wind their way into stories of genocide and mass murder. The god of the old testament is cruel, impatient, unloving, jealous and for lack of a better word, evil. The god of the new testament seems a bit better but then his “son” brings in the idea of Hell, a place of eternal punishment for all those who might question “the celestial dictator,” as Christopher Hitchens would call him. A book that had become so central to my life for all these years was now like reading through the ramblings of a serial killer, and so my sermons began to speak less and less on scripture and more about various aspects of life with a simple scripture to start them out.
I did however preach at least one more hate filled sermon and I speak of it now as a man who regrets it deeply. Growing up I had always been taught that homosexuality was a horrible sin and while my beliefs on this matter were beginning to change, my childhood indoctrination was not yet ready to admit defeat. So one Sunday I preached on the topic of homosexuality in the worst of terms, it was the last time I ever mentioned the topic in a sermon but I still hurt from the pain it caused.
Another one of my cousins had been attending my services and was sitting in during this sermon. I would later find out about the inner struggle he was facing and that my sermon had kept him in the closet for several years longer than he should have had to wait. I love my cousin and today he is in a relationship with a wonderful guy who loves him dearly, I am happy for them but I will forever regret the pain that I caused him as he sat through that sermon.
Outside of that sermon, I was finding that less and less of the bible even made sense. It might be strange to hear but I did truly believe that a serpent talked to Eve, that a donkey spoke to its master, that a flood did cover the entire globe, that a man had been swallowed by a great fish and survived, as well as that Moses had led several million people through the desert without leaving so much as a trace of evidence. These were things that I had accepted for so many years that I never found the need to question them, that is until I began using the Socratic method on everything I read.
Outside of church and school I had recently reconnected with a friend from High School. He is a jovial sort of man who you just can’t help but smile and laugh when you are around him. We had fallen out of contact when I had moved to Texas but I learned upon our reconnecting that he too had been through a struggle of faith, having been in a local cult for 7 years, he was now an atheist. His cousin who had also left the cult at the same time became my friend as well and it was strange to me how much I enjoyed being around them. By all accounts, at least in my mind, these men were godless sinners on the way to hell, yet I found a friendship with the two of them that I had never really experienced in the church. They weren’t friends with me because of what I believed but because of who I was and that was a situation I hadn’t experienced since the early days of my first marriage.
Life was becoming less and less recognizable to what it had once been. I began to question everything about my faith. What I could reason as being likely I still preached on, what I couldn’t I threw out. I had gone from a staunch Pentecostal full of anger and contempt for anyone outside the church and had now become an almost liberal pastor who talked more about social justice and reform than I did about the life and teachings of Christ. I still considered myself a Christian but at the same time it was becoming harder and harder for me to tell you what a Christian was supposed to be.
To continue on to part 24, click here.