Rebuilding myself

From July 16-27, 2017, my son and I, along with three other boy scouts and two other dads in Crew 716-J-02, backpacked 84 miles through Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmarron, New Mexico. This story takes place on Thursday, July 20, Trail Day 4.


We emerged from our tents before dawn in Copper Park. It was 5:30am, our earliest wake-up of the trek, but it was Baldy Day.

When we’d gathered months earlier to choose from among the 35 Philmont treks, our first order of business was to eliminate any trek that didn’t include the summit of Baldy Mountain. There is majesty throughout Philmont’s 140,000+ acres, but Baldy is the true pinnacle as the highest peak (~12,450 ft.) in the Cimmarron Mountains. Baldy is so famous in scouting circles, when you mention you’ve done a Philmont trek, the question you get is invariably … did you summit Baldy?

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Reclaiming Christianity

I know many of you have been sometimes taken aback by my use of the label Christian in not so endearing ways. I’ve had several conversations and read a few books lately that have reminded me of central message of human imperfection and love that forms the basis of the New Testament. I still believe strongly that true people of faith need to reclaim Christianity from those who have hijacked it for power and political gain, and I renew my faith in that possibility when I read thoughts like this (original source unknown):

“I am a Christian.

Actually, it’s more accurate lately to say that I am still a Christian.

I now say this with much trepidation. I say it with great fatigue. I say it somewhat begrudgingly. I say it with more than a good deal of embarrassment—not of Jesus, but of so many of his people and so much of the Church who claim to speak for him.

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Easter renewal

For the past several years, I’ve used Easter weekend to get out into nature and feel the emerging Spring fill me with new life. Yesterday in the middle of a six mile hike through Forest Glen, I knelt down beside a small creek, closed my eyes, bowed my head, and just listened to the forest.

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The sound of first steps

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” –Marcel Proust 

On September 23, 2001, the crunch of my hiking boots on the gravel-strewn parking lot sharply broke the dark morning silence. Our goal that day was to hike the nine miles from the Jenny Lake trail head to Lake Solitude, perched atop the northern trail of Cascade Canyon. Normally one of Grand Teton National Park’s most popular hiking trails, only our conversation and footsteps echoed through the trees this day. Fall was dawning in the Wyoming mountains, long from the busy season, late enough that the specter of snow keeps most casual tourists away. Our packs stuffed full of enough gear and food to get us to the top and back, we set off along the trail toward our first significant turn in the path. Read More

Because I do

As far back as I can remember, the logical side of my personality has enjoyed taking my own beliefs, putting them under the critical microscope of analysis, and determining whether they can survive a conversation with the voice of reason. My rationale is simple: If a belief can’t stand on its own merits against formal questioning, it likely is flawed in some fundamental way and should be discarded. If my belief cannot be proven, with a rigor that is demanded of scientific hypothesis, how can I justify it a place in my personal foundation?

With a scalpel sharpened by this rationale in hand, I have gone through life cutting deeply into each of my beliefs. I wanted to ensure that each belief is based on provable knowledge. I wanted to be able to answer anyone who challenged me to explain the why behind my belief. I never wanted to be cornered by a question whose only answer was “because I do.” I’ve always wondered why I studied political science and philosophy in college, rather than following my natural aptitude for math and science. Perhaps the liberal arts provided me with a more plentiful playground of beliefs to dissect and reassemble.

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Horicultural penance

Sunday morning is a wonderful time in suburbia. People are either at church or sleeping in, and it’s about the only time during the gardening season where your senses aren’t overwhelmed by the sounds and smells of lawn mowers, leaf blowers and string trimmers. An excellent time for some reflection in the garden. It’s these times when I realize how readily gardening provides an avenue for metaphor.

My task this morning was weeding the borders on the south side of our house, an area that I’ve woefully neglected over the past month. As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, I can’t help but draw a parallel between my neglect of the garden and the subsequent hours of prostrated weeding and the sin/penance model championed by the faith of my childhood.

Strained religious metaphor aside, weeding is not my favorite thing to do. Something about the repetition exacerbates my wrist pain from too many hours at the computer. But there is a feeling of completion that comes from having a well-weeded and behaved garden border. Until, of course, the next weed makes an appearance and tempts you to ignore it for too long.

An accompanying grain of doubt

Over the past few months, I’ve submerged myself in a crash course in philosophy that might be subtitled What I Believe. I’ve taken long drinks from the literary fountains of modern proponents of atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) and secular humanism (Chet Raymo), as well as diving into the cosmological pools of Sagan, Einstein and Galileo. My appetite was primed by a strong desire to expound and solidify my own personal belief about the world and my (our) place in it — and by the realization that I was dangerously ignorant of what others had written. I dove in with a seemingly open mind and a multitude of questions — most of which I was unsure even had answers.

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In response to a friend

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a message in which she expressed some very personal feelings about religion — specifically how she had started to question many of the things she had accepted for most of her life.

At first, I was afraid that I might let my cynicism and frustration about religion cloud a truly honest, heartfelt answer to her questions. She didn’t need sarcasm and venom after trusting me enough to share such personal feelings.

So I proceeded to answer her….

I think I need to give you a little background before I attempt answering your questions. As you may have guessed, I was born and raised Catholic by my mother, who was a by-the-book every Sunday Catholic. My father was Lutheran by upbringing, although by all accounts he was non-practicing and I can’t recall him every speaking a word to me about religion or spirituality. But we were one of the star families of our 5,000 member parish, in the front pew at 9am mass every Sunday, one or more of the four kids could always be found wearing the robes of an altar server. We were the quintessential Catholic family.

Although I don’t remember being particularly aware of an overriding conservatism in my beliefs, my political baptism came at the hands of the Reagan landslide in 1980 and looking back at some of my writings in high school, I have to admit being politically and religiously conservative. Despite these inclinations, I always retained a healthy skepticism for those things in life that seemed duplicitous, hypocritical, unsupported, or unjust. And, more generally, I’ve always questioned my beliefs. Fortunately or not, I’ve spent most of my 37 years in a perpetual state of devil’s advocacy regarding what I believe and what others claim to believe.

I spent four wonderful exploratory years under the Dome — at the feet of some of the world’s best theologians, political scientists and philosophers and surrounded by the hearts and minds of people who have become my lifelong friends. It was in these explorations, those endless sessions of question after unanswered question, that I became comfortable in not knowing while constantly craving more knowledge. I no longer needed a higher authority to provide the meaning for my life. It freed me to question *everything* over and over, and the hypocrisy of the church’s actions and the self-contradiction of the church’s teachings crystallized in my awareness to the point where I’ve never been able to even consider a return to any form of organized religion. I honestly and completely feel that human-created and organized religions cannot avoid the corruption that infects all institutions. It’s simply inevitable. In most ways, religions are no different than our political and corporate institutions. The instant a hierarchy is instituted, the process of corruption is planted.

Once you eliminate the human institution of the church (Catholic or otherwise), you’re left with the question of individual spirituality, morality and creative force in the universe. That’s what occupies much of my contemplation at this point in my life. I often wonder how I would answer questions from my son about what our lives mean, or about the existence of a creator. At these times, I realize why humanity created the stories and institutions of religion in the first place — because they provide easy-to-digest, bullet point explanations to extremely complicated questions. Religious dogma and teaching really is the kindergarten answer to “why are we here?” and “how should I act?” It provides that answer that many of us crave.

But every revolution my mind makes around this often-confusing journey, I come back to the same place. We don’t really know. And that’s OK. What’s not OK is to abdicate our personal intellect and just accept what some other human being (who doesn’t know either) says is truth. Maybe searching for “today’s truth” is what life really is. That quest to know more, to share life peacefully and responsibly with our fellow human beings, to allow proven facts instead of fairy tales to illuminate our beliefs.

We don’t need religion to guide us. Let your mind focus on what is real, what is known, what can be proven. And don’t be afraid to let go of the comfort of faith. It’s not as scary as it may seem. You will still be good. You will still be driven to serve your community and your country. And you will no longer be ill as you cringe at hate and intolerance covered by robes and a collar.

If you are truly interested in a little exploration, get yourself a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. He’s a little preachy, especially in the first parts of the book, but if you can break through the initial condescension of his tone, I think he has something valuable to say.