The first real test of my break from the religion of my childhood occurred on a flight from Guam back to Vietnam, when I was a 25-year-old U.S. Army captain. An explosion rocked the overloaded jetliner minutes after takeoff—a rumble so violent, one of the stewardesses dropped her tray and dashed through the aisle up front. Nervously, the pilot announced the plane had blown an engine, and quickly he began steering low over the Pacific to dump fuel.
With the sea rushing interminably beneath us, my mind slammed involuntarily into reverse, flashing back through my childhood days in Alabama—past the cowboy movies, the cotton fields, the marble-shooting. Never once through the grim ride did I reach for my King James Bible, a family gift I lugged on trips, out of habit. Rather, I thumbed through my dog-eared copies of Letters From the Earth and The Way of Zen, skimming passages in a reach for calm. It was as if, instead of the Scriptures, the writings of heathen Mark Twain and Alan Watts, a lapsed Christian, held the keys to the kingdom. During this close encounter with bliss eternal, I felt utterly alone, worried, but somehow relieved of the fear of death.
My mother would have been disappointed that I did not resort to calling upon Jesus as the Captain of the sweet chariot “coming for to carry me home.” But the Christian faith of my childhood no longer seemed to hold sway. Before I could ponder the vacuum, the wheels of the Boeing 707 screeched down on the tarmac of the Guam runway, lined with fire trucks.
Since that harrowing episode some four decades ago, I’ve been on a spiritual quest to replace the blind faith of my childhood with something of value. Originally imbued with the certainty that every word of religious dogma is true, my outlook has gone through halting stages of doubt and tinkering, to a point where nearly all my beliefs have been in question. It is as if the rocket that launched me as a Christian in my childhood fell away, freeing me up to finally achieve orbit, a circuitous journey that only recently has been consummated.
In my Tuscaloosa home of the 1940s it was my grandmother, Ma Mae, who taught me the Ten Commandments and instilled, mainly through fear, a belief in the infallibility of Jesus Christ. We kept the Devil at bay with all-day Sunday prayer and Bible study throughout the week. The mere reading of King James poetry inspired me with its biblical beauty, but it was my early discovery of Rev. C.L. Franklin’s mail-order sermons, with their powerful moral lessons, that made Christianity more accessible.
At age 12, I confessed my sins, such as they were, during a “revival meeting,” professed a belief that a resurrected Christ had died to redeem me from them—and thus saw myself escaping an eternity of hellfire reserved for nonbelievers. Two weeks later the frail pastor of our church, Rev. J.R. Dixon, baptized me in a creek where dairy cattle drank downstream.
The next year my family moved to Hartford, where I entered high school and joined a local church. Teaching a Baptist training class and singing solos in the choir nourished my faith through graduation. During my freshman year at the University of Connecticut, however, my horse-and-buggy fundamentalism collided headlong with a philosophy course. Reading European thinkers on religion raised questions about tenets of my accepted Baptist dogma. By the end of my sophomore year the freight train of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre had splintered my wooden wagon at the crossing, and the wreckage was dragged miles down the track by Feuerbach, Kant, and even Kierkegaard, who was supposed to have been one of us Christians.