Here's a short piece from the novel I'm working on. As you can see, it has an autobiographical element to it. It envisions a kind of dialogue between an 18th century Englishman, and an English-born writer living in 21st century America--whose thinking is much influenced, but not expressly so, by the dharma.
I don’t believe in hell. I actually don’t believe in heaven, either. My 18th century literary friend (the main narrative voice of the novel) seems caught between belief and disbelief. Though brought up, like myself, by an Anglican priest father, it was a different time, and the struggle between rational thought and religious beliefs must have been a tougher intellectual and emotional battle than it is today. The prospect of an after-life in hell would have seemed more real to someone exposed, from childhood, to blood-and-thunder preaching from the pulpit of a domineering father. Clearly, for him, the concept of sin is not mere theory, but personal and loaded with emotional freight.
Not only do I not believe in hell, I also don’t believe in sin. It’s a foreign concept to me. I don’t think it was belabored by my father, though it must have belonged in his teaching somewhere. He did gift me, at the time of my confirmation, with a “St. Swithun’s” prayer book which listed every conceivable sin, and urged me to go regularly to confession. Which I did, for a while. At thirteen or so, I did not have a great deal to confess, and I fudged a bit around the embarrassing parts. But by the time I was fifteen, or perhaps sixteen at most, I had already pretty much given up on the whole idea of religion. I continued to go to chapel at school, and church, at home, but it was more out of reluctance to offend my father, who worked so hard at it, than out of piety or conviction.
I do still value much about my Christian background, though. The rituals in which I participated were not wasted on me, and I believe that I carry them around with me to this day: baptism, confirmation, communion, confession—these have deep roots in the common humanity that we share with every other human being, no matter their religious affiliation. Participation in such rituals gives meaning and context to our lives, and without them we would be left with the—to my way of thinking—ultimately empty rationalism and materialism that threaten to destroy the spirit of humanity.
As much as the rituals, my life is enriched even today by the memory of the senses of my religious childhood: the psalms and hymns we sang, the sound of my father’s voice from the lectern or the pulpit, the peal of the church bells; the feel of the sculpted knights laid out on ancient tombs, of knees on hassocks, of my hand in my mother’s hand on the way to the communion rail, or that of the verger who led me down to the church basement to stoke the furnace; the smell of the coke we shoveled there, of smoldering candles, of lingering incense. These are things that stay with me. They are a part of who I am, so many years later.
My friend from the 18th century would perhaps have no other way of interpreting feelings of guilt and shame than to attribute them to his sinfulness. For myself, today, I tend to see things in a different, more pragmatic light: thoughtless, hurtful actions lead to the kind of results that cause those feelings. The price we pay is not the wrath of God, but rather the pain we bring down upon ourselves, whether acknowledged or not. It is we ourselves who mete out our own “punishment” for the harmful things we do.
But perhaps this is just a different, God-less way of saying the same thing.