Monday, August 19, 2013

A Fading Fascination with Faith

What a relief, to be rid of that obnoxious, intrusive presence, and to have my privacy and the freedom to explore my own thoughts and feelings returned to me.
—Edmund Cohen,
quoted in Walking Away From Faith by Ruth Tucker
Hikiau Heiau at Kealakekua Bay [Flickr page]

When you have spent your entire life as one of a chosen few recipients of “living faith” in “God’s Kingdom,” the only place on earth where salvation is to be found, your religion is no casual matter. As you progressed through childhood and the milestone of Confirmation Camp, and continued along the church’s clearly marked path of courtship, marriage, and children (lots of them), its importance rose onto a central pedestal from which it looks out over the whole of your thinking.

The foundation stones of that altar are from your childhood indoctrination: teachings about Jesus riding into Jerusalem and then writhing on the cross, eternal life versus damnation, and sin, sin, sin, in all its abundant variety. Its upper layers are built from the same sort of material, too, repeated in weekly sermons and visits with believing friends.

But there are additional reinforcements to keep faith sitting firmly in its venerated place. Your social structure has been defined, and limited, for you: cousins, respected elders, and childhood friends, all from church. It’s very difficult to do anything that would jeopardize that, and rejecting the faith you all share certainly will. Then there is the lurking realization that you’ve made irrevocable decisions about the people populating your life and your home, about all the things you’ve let yourself miss out on.1 That gives the faith idol an invisible mental prop that’s often just as strong as the more tangible social one.

The cells of the leaf cling together and to a common vein. But there are other leaves nearby... [Flickr page]

Cognitive dissonance flares up at the thought that it might all have been for naught. Your mind desperately seeks to protect the integrity of the person you once were, the one who spent her days walking by an endless row of doors to “the world’s pleasures” that you had obediently locked. The self-limitations were imposed on you by others who claimed to speak on behalf of your conscience. It’s a cunning trick of the religious meme, especially when those pulling it off don’t even understand that they are being played, too.

Can you stand the thought of the roads not taken, the first and most formative third or half of your life put aside for eternal promises now grown stale? It’s a very tough thing to do. But when you feel you have no choice, when the mental anguish of staying finally outweighs that of leaving, then you will do it. I finally did, too.

Many similar leaves, in fact, arrayed on ever-dividing branches... [Flickr page]

It was a slow process for me, though. With the altar of my own childhood faith looming over my every thought and action, I could not simply turn my attention away when I encountered difficulties with it.2 To my continual surprise, there are some people who can simply say, “That’s just a pile of rocks,” turn away, and find a new place for themselves. I was not one of them. Instead, I wound up devoting a year of my life to researching and writing a 700-page book about my troublesome faith, An Examination of the Pearl.

The distinctions blur with distance... [Flickr page]

Now, a year and a half later in the midst of a wonderful summer full of travel and natural beauty, the whole thing seems small and petty. There have been a few pangs of longing–for the people and the spectacle–when the church’s summer services were held just a dozen miles away this year. But the closest I got to the place was sitting on the grass of the high school grounds watching fireworks, and riding with a Finnish friend as he picked up his daughter from an after-hours youth gathering there.

Some of the sermons made their way into my iPod for bedtime. (I’ve found no better sleep aid.)3 As I dozed off, after a full day of walking around San Francisco or taking in Hawaiian scenery, I wondered how any of the people sitting in that gymnasium listening to these guys could take them seriously. It was easy to forget how seriously I myself had taken it, for most of my life.

When the preachers drone on about this imagined ailment of sin and their proprietary cure-all, it now sounds like some contrived fantasy story:


God created a first human couple in a garden where there lived an angel who had rebelled against him (and lost), then took on reptilian form, and now invisibly stalks the earth, utterly corrupting human society and producing some damn fine movies and music in the process. The reptile gave our first ancestors a sales pitch about a bit of magic produce that would give them knowledge of good and evil, which God opposed for some reason. They ate, which made God condemn everybody who would be born thereafter to an unrelenting eternity of horrific agony unless they develop the exactly correct beliefs about a part of himself that he would send to earth as a sacrifice, to himself.

Despite being almighty and loving, God is either unwilling or unable to exempt from his torture chamber anyone other than the tiny fraction of humanity who will hear a specific ritual incantation referring to this blood sacrifice, from one precise kind of believer, only a few tens of thousands of whom can be found anywhere on earth. And, truth be told, a lot of them don’t really believe much of the story, either.


If this is what you profess to believe, and reading my summary makes you uncomfortable or upset, consider whether there is anything actually incorrect about what I wrote. Isn’t it just my irreverent clarity of expression that actually offends you? Pious language covereth a multitude of nonsense.

A native Hawaiian (“as far as I know, my family has been here since there was a Hawaii”) with whom I spent a few hours in and out of the water told me, in language I quote without censorship due to its forceful bluntness, “I couldn’t believe I was expected to believe this bullshit.” He didn’t know the half of it. He was just talking about the problems with Christianity in general.

With enough perspective, even the tree comes to look stark and odd, dispensable... [Flickr page]

Laestadianism adds its own deep, aromatic layer to the pile. There aren’t any Laestadians living in Hawaii, though there are plenty of churches. We drove by many of those churches there, including some that consider themselves the only true believers. The nerve of them!

There are other leaves on the branches. Acknowledging that is one of the first departures Laestadians are willing to make from what their preachers insist upon. For many, doing that is enough. They remain Laestadians, less judgmental ones, perhaps sneaking in some movies on Netflix and encountering infertility at unexpectedly young ages.4 Or they leave the church and fall back on a more inclusive, hands-off Christianity.

It’s all good; I’m happy for them either way, or no way. But, for myself, I have seen that there are also other branches on the tree, and in fact a whole lot more than just this lousy little tree to look at in this amazing landscape of life.

And finally disappears altogether in the vastness of reality. [Flickr page]
All original images on this site are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. Click on any of them to enlarge it. You may freely use them, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. You can view and download the tree-in-lava-flow images from a Flickr photo set of high-resolution images.


  1. For me, the part about people populating my life mostly involves the ongoing challenge of raising children who inherited my stubborn independence and disinterest in many practical matters. But I mostly agree with the devout parents of huge church families in posing the classic emotion-driven question, “Which one would you have me give back?” That’s not to say I don’t have one candidate or another (from the eleven of them) in mind on difficult days! I’ve been fortunate in so many ways: in love with my bright and beautiful wife, a varied and memorable career, and healthy (though often challenging) children. After hearing all too many heart-rending stories, I know that things can be quite different for others. 

  2. As I’ve written elsewhere, the trouble started with my realization that evolution is real and Adam and Eve were not. Then it progressed to the history and doctrines of the church and the Bible itself. 

  3. Update, September 2014: Kicked the sermon-to-sleep habit, I’m happy to report. It feels good not knowing what the preachers are saying nowadays. The fascination continues to fade, and it just seems like a crazy dream at this point. Life is good. 

  4. Those odd fertility problems are becoming epidemic in southern Finland. Must be the water. 


Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Corals are marine invertebrates in class Anthozoa of phylum Cnidaria typically living in compact colonies of many identical individual ‘polyps.’ The group includes the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.”
—Wikipedia, Coral
Exposed Coral at Low Tide  [Flickr page]

There is a fringe of surf that runs a little ways along one of Hawaii’s islands where I have found something magic. The beach itself is a beautiful place, a sloping field of coarse white and gold sand grains bounded on one side by clear ocean water and on the other by a thicket of bright green naupaka shrubbery. Palm trees arc overhead, reminding me that I am in the tropical Pacific. No crowds or litter mar the scene; my jaded eyes that have seen all too many of nature’s faces trashed with cans and foil chip bags find nothing—nothing—sullying this place.

But the beauty that sparks so brilliantly into my eyes today, into the memories of sight and sensation that I will treasure, is not so much the clean sand. Nor is it the greenery escorts the sand into the sea, nor the neighboring island whose silhouette looms beyond. It is in what lies beneath the swells and ripples.

Living stones: Some of the colors still survive in the tide zone  [Flickr page]

I put on the fins and mask and snorkel, and move into the warm water. Just a few steps in and there is coral—delicate life that is no better off from my touch than my skin is to it—and I push off my feet and float. I am just inches above it, mere feet from the water’s lapping edge, barely enough room to twitch my fins up and down to get myself moving toward deeper water. All the while, I look and gape through the mask at what I’m already seeing. Living coral, and fish, right next to the shore.

Coral at Low Tide  [Flickr page]

Layers of colder water brush by my skin as I skim, improbably fast with the efficiency of the fins, across the reef and out to sea. I mind the currents; there is no shelter here from the open ocean. The coolness I am feeling is the Pacific, drifting in at a pace of a dozen or more miles a day. It is delicious, this unsettled interface between warm and cool waters, like the feel of ice cubes clinking in a glass, a cat’s chin resting on bare feet.

There is a bit more room now, but not much. The coral grows upward, seeking the light, and big bulky heads of it form the walls of an underwater maze. In between, fish poke and nibble, darting into holes. Together we swish back and forth above the reef, moving with the swells that pass just overhead, wiggling our hind parts against the current.

A rocky beach at low tide hints at what is visible below the water at the sandy one  [Flickr page]

As it was on the beach, there is no mark of humankind visible down here. Not one bottle or can. There is dead coral in this reef, yes, but so much bright and living!

I swim past big brainy rocks with their convoluted waves of filter-feeding polyps, and walls of color. The black and red spines of sea urchins fit into recesses, and plump black things sit in sandy spaces. There are delicate little green petals growing out of coarser coral rock. A swipe of a hand could break it off, and how long does it take to grow? But no hand has done so, and mine will not, either.

Coral Beach at Low Tide on Molokai, Hawaii  [Flickr page]

It is all so breathtakingly beautiful. In between wiping the condensation out of my mask, chuffing water out of the snorkel from the swells above (I did wind up going a good ways out), weaving and dodging my way through the coral maze, and checking on my whereabouts, I am immersed in wonder, suffused with color. I watch the fish poking around the reef, going about their business, see the sea urchin spines sway in the currents, even notice the polyp fuzz of coral details with its watery undulations.

At one point, aware of the ticking clock and my limited time left here, I open my arms wide toward the spectacle below me and thank it for being there, for surviving the abuses of my species. I wish it well, and hope some of my children can see this, or at least feel a little better knowing that a few places like this remain for them to visit, carefully and reverently. I take in a few last moments of the colors and contours, saddened that I must leave, that moments like this always end, but grateful that here, at least, some of the coral lives on.

Snorkel-equipped land-dweller (me), visiting the edge of a still-living ocean.
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (with others from Molokai) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Madame Pele

This is the lava lake in the Halemaumau Crater, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Halemaumau Lava Lake, ISO 80 and 25 second exposure.  [Flickr page]

Click on these images to enlarge them, and spend a moment imagining what it was like to be there. Seriously, you must do this. (You can also go visit the Flickr set.) There are stars in the background of glowing smoke from an active volcano. Clouds blowing in are being illuminated by the light of molten rock, the stuff on which our thin crust of earth floats. Bushes are dimly visible in the foreground.

Zoomed in, ISO 1600 and 1/8 second exposure.  [Flickr page]

I spent over an hour standing at this spot, until 3:30 AM. Gone were the annoying tourists who had been taking flash photographs of their friends before the dim glow. Gone was the chatter of people who stopped at this place as a roadside attraction on the way from Kona to Hilo, or vice-versa. Everyone was gone; for the entire time, it was just me with the silence broken by the wind, and an endless sky of stars that was eventually closed in by clouds.

Halemaumau Lava Lake  [Flickr page]

The lava glow illuminated the crater, and even my feet standing back at the safe distance of the visitor’s center. The photons from the stars have come untold millions of miles from their nuclear cauldrons. The photons from this cauldron in front of me are from heat that also has a nuclear source: not the fusion of stars, but a low-level fission process deep inside the earth’s core that contributes to the heat of gravitational compression.

But forget all that. Just click on the pictures, which I took using a rock wall as my tripod, and share a little of my endless awe at this incredible universe we occupy.

Night and daylight shots superimposed  [Flickr page]
All original images on this site, including this one, are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. I have a Flickr set with high-resolution versions of these images and others like them that you can view and download.

Friday, August 2, 2013


Adjoining one side of the Square was the great Morai, where there stood a kind of steeple ‘anu’u that ran up to the height of 60 or 70 feet, it was in square form, narrowing gradually towards the top where it was square and flat; it is built of very slight twigs & laths, placed horizontally and closely, and each lath hung with narrow pieces of white Cloth…. next to this was a House occupied by the Priests, where they performed their religious ceremonies and the whole was enclosed by a high railing on which in many parts were stuck Sculls [sic.] of those people, who had fallen victims to the Wrath of their Deity.
—George Vancouver, Ship’s Journal, c. 1793
Hikiau Heiau at Kealakekua Bay  [Flickr page]

There is a dark side to the past of almost every human culture, and that of Hawaii is no exception. Today I looked at the remains of a heiau, a temple where humans were sacrificed to appease the gods. The influence of the new haole religion finally put a stop to all that; one sacrifice some 1800 years earlier was enough to get the job done.

All’s quiet on the sacrificial temple now, centuries later.  [Flickr page]

A much more pleasant to contemplate, if modest, Hawaiian cultural encounter was one I had with a gentleman named Sam just a few miles north of the Hikiau Heiau site. He showed up with his ukulele at the Keahou Beach park south of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Sam the Singer  [Flickr page]

Sam played and sang away under the pavilion at the park with no tip jar, hat, or open instrument case in sight. Sure, he probably accepts the donations that surely come his way from tourists, and that may even be a motivation for him to be there. But he really did seem to be doing this for the pure pleasure of it, too. When he saw that I was filming him, there was a noticeable extra bit of enthusiasm in his voice. He happily gave permission for this video to be posted, and told me the song is Wahine ’Ilikea by Dennis Kamehama.

When we left, Sam was sitting on one of the picnic tables under the pavilion so that the little Asian boy next to him could watch him play and get in the picture being taken by his parents.

Maybe it’s tourist kitsch, a diluted echo of Hawaiian culture infused with California surfer and pandering to the Hollywood view of the Islands. But I’d say it beats human sacrifice any day.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. All are Copyright © 2013-14 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.