Growing up, we were considered a religious family. I was never sure what that meant exactly, other than we had relatives who were Orthodox priests, we went to church every Sunday and holiday, we participated heavily in church functions and we were always told to love God (and the Saints) and pray. Having a grandfather who was a priest in Palestine and a great-grandfather who founded the church in our family’s village in Egypt meant that we came from a long line of “holy” people. As I said, I was never sure what that meant.
I remember being socially indoctrinated in church. It was who we were. We thought about how to make it better all the time: we went to church programs, we had church dinners, we did church social activities. It seemed like our whole life revolved around church, family and religious identity. But that’s just it, it was about church and identity–NOT the Bible, NOT any teaching. Church was like a community business project decorated with religious symbols. Even Sunday School was less about the Bible and more about the teachers themselves and their personal views and experiences. No substance.
As I matured and began to consider “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” I found the rational mind I inherited from my father was drawing me toward science and engineering. This disposition led me to question the validity of religion and the empty loyalties we were trained to embrace as children.
As a child, I liked going to church. It was where my family and friends were. I enjoyed singing in the choir and I appreciated the social benefits. However, by the time I started high school, I had lost interest. Time was a major factor. I also found my social needs were better met with my school friends. I didn’t really care for church anymore, and to be honest, I no longer believed in God.
Faced with social pressures in our extended family to maintain appearances (and the fact that my parents would have knocked me upside the head if I didn’t go), I continued to participate–not because I was learning and growing, but out of duty and loyalty to my family. As far as I was concerned, everything people in the church believed, ranging from absurd and fanatical to sentimental baloney, was useless at best, but mostly irrational and divorced from reality. I rejected all of it. I knew deep down that I still needed to be good to my neighbor, but I realized that attending church was not going to help me understand what that meant.
In college, I took a class on the Old Testament. It was taught by a Jewish professor. I don’t remember everything from the class, but I do remember we talked a lot about the book of Job. What was interesting to me was that this professor talked about the Bible as a piece of literature, poetry almost. This was not the first time I had heard anyone present “the Bible as literature,” but as someone now studying chemistry and engineering, I appreciated the professor’s methodical approach. He took the Bible seriously and had the same respect for the words on the page as a scientist does for lab data. There was substance.
Around the same time, my older brother was embarking on his own journey through Orthodox Seminary. Growing up, we knew he would be a priest from a very young age. He loved everything about church. He loved to chant. He loved to read. He loved to be an altar boy. He loved everything about being Orthodox. For the same reasons I rejected church, as a religious person, my brother did not make any sense to me. As a teenager, I’m sure I rolled my eyes at him often, but that was who he was and he was not concerned with anyone’s opinion. Like my scientific mindset, this trait of his was also inherited from my father.
Eventually, my brother started attending seminary, and slowly, he began to change. About 8 months into his first year, I had a phone conversation with him about religion, the Bible, the church, etc. At one point during the conversation, I remember saying to him, “This is the most logical you’ve sounded about religion since I’ve known you.” It was the first time I had a discussion about the church that did not require me to shut my brain off. He made sense. He was talking about data and describing things in such a way that my logical mind could actually comprehend.
Let’s be honest. In the modern world, science and religion do not naturally coexist. I work in a science and research lab for a large American corporation. The majority of the people I work with are atheists, agnostics, or religious by default (i.e., their wives make them go to church). Quite frankly, I can identify with them. In our field, you must apply logic and reason on a daily basis. Unfortunately, modern Christianity is communicated as the polar opposite of this discipline. The stuff that passes for religion today makes the average scientist’s skin crawl. This is what most scientists think about religion: once a week people go to church to learn how to ignore reality so that they can feel good about themselves and about life. They don’t care to learn anything about the Bible (or anything else) unless it can be adapted to make them feel reassured about what they already believe.
I remember once having a conversation at happy hour with a woman who considered herself “religious.” She seemed proud of herself because she didn’t have to listen to “father’s sermon last week” because it was the same thing he said last year. As long as she could “check the box” that she had attended, all was good in her world. I asked her why she went to church. Her response was “because it’s what you do.” I asked her if she actually wanted to learn anything, and well, you can imagine the look I got. She already knew everything her priest would say. There was nothing for her to learn, so “it was all good,” she was fine.
“It was all good.” Ironically, this statement is also symptomatic of a common dysfunction that plagues many scientists. Arrogance. On average, most scientists probably have higher IQs than the general populace. Does this mean that they know everything? Does this make them wise? After more than 20 years in my field, I can tell you that scientists do not know everything and they are very often unwise. They willfully ignore data or lie about it. They steal other people’s work. In the pursuit of wealth, they can be ruthless and petty in their dealings with each other. Scientists believe that they know everything because they know something concrete and certain about a very narrowly defined area. Worst of all, like religious people, scientists gravitate toward flaky interpretations that are easily adapted to serve their personal agendas. Scientists are often as far away from the ideals of their profession as Christianity is from the teaching of Jesus Christ. But “it’s all good,” right? All I have to do is be a good person. I don’t need the Bible to tell me that, do I?
As an adult, I continue to go to church out of duty and loyalty. I am thankful to have my brother around, through whom I discovered the writings of Fr. Paul Tarazi, an important biblical scholar who introduced my brother (and many other clergy) to the hard science of Scripture. To be honest, Tarazi’s school (which my brother calls the Antiochian school) is the only reason I still consider myself a Christian in the modern world. Now, instead of being asked to believe that the Earth was created in six days, I am challenged to be less petty, less cruel, less materialistic and much more honest with myself about the data, at work and at church. Trust me, Scripture is not a self-help program. It is not magical. It does not feel good and it is not inspirational, but it is definitely (and painfully) true.
I am by no means an expert in the Bible. I try to learn from my brother and his colleagues about the Bible and how to live my life correctly (which I fail at every single day) and how to love others. Yes, love is an actual hard discipline, not a feeling. Loving others means serving others, or, as I am often reminded in church, in the actual words of St. Paul, love means being the “slave” of others. Ugh. The Bible’s version of love is a difficult pill to swallow. But I try to study, to grow and to learn despite my failures. I’m thankful to have teachers available through sermons, books, podcasts. Most of all, I am thankful for the teaching.