I began questioning orthodox Christian beliefs quite early. My mother and I lived with my father’s parents during his World War II military service, and I spent many subsequent summers with them. I have a clear memory of asking my paternal grandmother, when I was about seven, how there could be any people if Adam and Eve were the first people and they only had boys. At this remove, I don’t recall her answer; I know that Grandpa—a highland-born Scot and a vigorously devout Presbyterian—got into the mix, and I was left with the clear understanding that there was a class of things that were true and about which questions were not to be asked. I can’t say that bothered me particularly at the time. Anything beyond my small, quite complete world of house and yard and grandparents was too remote to engage my interest for long. Grandma insisted I say prayers, so I did—words I’d memorized but into whose meaning I had neither insight nor curiosity. Had anybody asked me if I believed in God, I would not have understood the question. God was part of my seven-year-old universe like Grandpa’s brother George, whom I saw only on his rare visits from Sacramento.
But though I couldn’t articulate them, little things occasionally troubled me. God, Grandma told me, lived in Heaven. Unlike Uncle George, however, he never came to visit, because he was “all around,” watching everything I did. I found that unsettling. How could he be both in Heaven and around the house, too? And if he could watch me, why couldn’t I watch him? God, I concluded, must be very different from Uncle George. Sometimes Grandma told me God was, impossibly, in me, too—in my soul, whatever that was. As far as I could tell there was nothing in me but me. Occasionally I got a splinter in me, and if that’s what God was like, I was better off with him out!
God, Grandma would say to me, tells me right from wrong. But to me, it wasn’t God telling me anything at all: it was Grandma, Grandpa, my parents, or teachers, or sometimes my friends. Even if nobody was around, my experience told me: that “still, small voice” Grandma talked about was her voice, my mom’s, or my aunt Jean’s … a tumult of all of them distilled into my own voice.