Happy Friday, everyone.
Today, I’m featuring one of the most interesting books I’ve featured here on the blog, Tim O’Donnell’s A View From the Back Pew. O’Donnell’s book is a unique hybrid. It’s a compelling spiritual memoir of a Catholic wrestling with religion, and a primer on O’Donnell’s perspective on Christian theology.
The book swings through everything in O’Donnell’s spiritual wanderings, from annoying the nuns at his Catholic school, to taking the Catholic church to task on many traditions (including how Catholics treat Mary), to being confronted by Christians about his practicing yoga, to a prosperity gospel that seemingly actually worked.
I’ll admit, I wrestled with this book a lot. But I also couldn’t put it down. O’Donnell’s beliefs are far from “orthodox.” But it’s obvious he’s still on a journey of faith and questions, so don’t read his conclusions as gospel truth. You may hate his theology, or conclude he’s not a “real” Christian. Or you may be comforted that even with his beliefs and questions, his faith is still intact. You may read his book as a cautionary tale of the spirituality that the church (especially the Catholic church) is producing. But his story is addictively compelling, and kept me reading to the end.
I’ve got Tim on the blog today with some great discussion, and we’ll be giving away a couple of copies today too!
Tim, can you tell us just a bit about yourself?
I’m married to Lynn for 30 years; we have three grown children. Before I began on this path I was in the newspaper business, selling ad space then into management. I went on my own as a consultant (for newspapers) and eventually bought a daily newspaper, which I sold in 2000 to Knight-Ridder.
I hope the book demonstrates some benefit to asking questions and not to believe something simply because you are instructed to believe it. We can learn much about God from life itself and not exclusively from doctrine. I hope to encourage those who become disenchanted or disengaged with “the church” to remain steadfast in their quest to know God; that there is a dynamic potential for our relationship with God with or without the formality of organized religion.
You recall how your family wasn’t particularly religious, and your religious indoctrination was left up to the nuns. This seems like a broad phenomenon to me – parents outsourcing their kids’ spiritual formation. Do you think if parents took more ownership of teaching and modeling Christian faith, it would improve the numbers of people who claim agnosticism in adulthood?
I can honestly say I do not know for sure. Of course, kids take their cue from their parents on this issue but I also think that the prevalence of pop-culture science makes for more intellectual discernment and people will have increasingly challenging questions of organized and ancient religion. The challenge for education is to not present science and religion to kids as either/or. I do not think science will ever disprove God so to me, there is nothing to fear by learning all we can about our natural world.
I think parents should live their beliefs to set an example and give structure and then allow their children to trust their heart as they mature. I think we are hard wired to seek God but also naturally inclined to rebel against what is forced upon us.
On a related note, how do you feel about the church’s, perhaps specifically the Catholic church’s ability to spiritually develop young people? Do you feel the priority is creating spiritually whole people, or merely instilling lifelong loyalty?
Boy, I could write a book about this topic. Oh wait, I already did!
When I was in the Catholic school system, the emphasis was on adherence and submission; today I think there is a sincere effort in Catholic education to personal spiritual development. However in the real world practice of Catholicism, unfortunately the latter part of your question (lifelong loyalty) still prevails.
The conclusions you make about the Bible’s origins are far from any conservative orthodoxy. I’m interested in what you say to Christians who may be discovering the same Biblical scholars and theories you did, and now struggle with how to reconcile the Bible and their faith.
If pressed for a label, I’d consider myself a “Christian” because I trust the wisdom of its namesake, Jesus Christ. It matters little to me that I’ve concluded things about the hierarchy of the church, the Bible and some of the doctrine that would threaten the label of “Catholic.” I guess the earthbound form of the church, with all of its human blemishes doesn’t sway me away from the wisdom of the original depositor of its faith.
You point out that most conflict on earth arises from differences in beliefs and our pursuit of divine truth. Do you think humanity would be better off if we didn’t pursue belief in the divine?
Absolutely not! We will never stop seeking this connection. I think mankind’s deeply rooted sense that there is a source of intelligence beyond our own and that our instinct to connect with it is not in the least bit superstitious. It is a perfectly reasonable and perhaps natural collective assumption.
The problem as I see it, is that we keep expanding our ability to comprehend this potential yet are asked to attach our awareness of it to concepts articulated thousands of years ago. Why shouldn’t the knowledge of God evolve along with every other kind of human knowledge?
Are you still “opening your mind to Satan” by doing yoga stretches?
Yep! I’m still downward-dogging it, but also, still successfully (I think) fending off ol’ Beelzebub.
In your times of intense questions or doubts, is there some thought, belief, meditation, or conviction about the world that you can rely on to keep you grounded, even when you don’t know what else you can believe?
First off, in all seriousness, and many people doubt me when I say this, I’ve never had intense doubt about God. Religion? Yes, many, but never really doubted God. I actually think the kind of faith I have is simply a gift; some would call it grace, but I’ve always believed God exists.
I focus on the existence of God within my own human person and life experience. We’re all made up of flesh and bones and “something else.” If you regularly listen in a state of stillness to the “something else” it reveals itself as the “voice” of God.
I know that last answer sounds kind of woo-woo but perhaps here is an alternative way to think about it: We continuously engage in internal dialogue, often in the form of questions. What is the source of the intelligence that answers our internal questions?
All you have to do to be entered to win a free copy of Tim’s book is comment below, or give a tweet shout out. You can also check out Tim’s site.