Dear Reader Michael Merren of the Religion, Philosophy and Other Oddities blog is a married man and a father of three. He also used to be a Catholic priest. Learning this, I asked Michael to write a guest entry on his personal history. And now I know whom to turn to with any theological question that might pop up.
I don’t know where else to start than from the beginning. I was raised Roman Catholic and always felt drawn to do something to give back to humankind, to be great and benefit my fellow man in some way. Some might call that a “vocation” or a “calling” I suppose. As a Catholic boy the most obvious and highly encouraged manner of “ministry” is to enter the priesthood, especially in this day and age of priests’ shortage. It would be in my twenties that after reading Camus and Sartre and others that I realized even atheists want to “do good”, but when I was growing up I bought the demonizing portrayal of intellectuals and scientists promoted by some in my faith.
I mottled my way through school, always a little bored. I am from a small town and though my mother had a graduate degree and has done post graduate work since, I never really found anything to light that fire in me. Eventually, about my sophomore year of high school I started doing theatre; I found some enjoyment in it. I consequently met my wife while rehearsing for Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore that summer some 20 years ago. She turned me on to literature and art, her father was an English teacher. I began to read with fervor.
My undergraduate education was a bit of a floundering blunder as well. I had to take a semester off and work and regain my footing. I moved into a house with a couple of philosophy majors and that set me on the journey which eventually lead to monastic life and seminary, priesthood and back again to secular life, marriage and children.
I suppose you can say I’ve gone through stages in my development, but my path was not a typical one. Rather than being inspired by the life of some great saint, my inspiration for entering the Catholic monastic life actually came, in large part, from Siddharta by Hermann Hesse. I read the Pali Tipitaka and Bhagavad Gita as readily and willingly as I did the Bible. I found the writings of Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to be no more spiritual than those of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
I was moved by the humanism of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, to study personalism / phenomenology and pursue theological studies, but being the extremist that I am I had to “go to the sources”. I decided after my undergraduate studies to enter seminary in Krakow, Poland and study under the professors of the Pontifical College founded by Wojtyla in his former See of Krakow. I entered a religious community that could make that happen for me, learned Polish and began those studies.
In my seminary studies in the monastery I had a great deal of time for study and reading and I eventually read myself out of Catholicism. By the time I had finished my seminary studies I already had a deep desire to leave and enter the Orthodox Church, which I felt embodied the Historical Christian Church and a more eastern mindset than Catholicism.
It didn’t help that all this time I had contact with my wife who was desperately trying to get me to leave the monastery to marry her. I had left her behind as a good Catholic boy is told he must do to “serve” and “minister”. I couldn’t bring myself to leave though. I went ahead with ordinations despite my growing doubts that I was cut out for a life of celibacy and the Scholastic / Thomistic framework of Western Christian theology. My distaste for Catholicism grew more as a young priest. I was serving as many as fifteen masses a week, in ten different locales, teaching in a school, leading numerous youth and prayer groups and all with a growing distaste for some of the very basic tenets of the faith. I felt prostituted, as if the monastery I belonged to had pimped me out to the local and neighboring dioceses. I left after just thirteen months as an active priest.
My wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church where we were married shortly afterwards. We spent seven years in the Orthodox Church and baptized our children there. I even repeated seminary studies. I won’t get into the gory details, but I was a square peg trying to fit into a very small round hole. My theology was obviously at odds with that of some of the more narrow-minded clergy and hierarchy, though I think you’d be hard pressed to find a great theological mind in the Orthodox Church who didn’t have a very eclectic background and tastes, e.g. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware or Rev. Deacon Andrei Kureav. Ultimately though it was the ethnic xenophobia that many Orthodox have towards “converts” that led to my recent decision to join the Episcopal Church.
I have long had a desire to reconcile science / reason with theology / faith. With varying degrees of success I have managed to do so and keep my faith though sometimes I’ve come to the brink of losing it.
Recently, my studies have been in reconciling the sound theory of Evolution with the Biblical accounts of creation, which as far as the symbolism involved in the Scriptures hasn’t really been much trouble at all. It seems to me that anyone who takes a six-day-creation viewpoint simply doesn’t understand mythology and hasn’t done enough non-biblical reading to grasp the heart of the story.
My most recent concerns present more of a challenge as I begin to look at the idea of Original Sin, which is key to the entire concept of a Christian soteriology or “Theory of Salvation”. If man was not created in the beginning as one pair, man and woman, Adam and Eve, then who sinned that humankind needs salvation? If we believe that man evolved over tens of thousands of years, maybe more, from a lower and less advanced animal, how on earth can we believe that one of those first sentient beings was culpable enough for his own actions to be responsible for “damning” all his progeny? If I manage to pull through this one with my faith I’ll let you know.