A Catholic friend of mine who is nearly my age told me that he had never, in his whole life, had any doubts about his faith. He thought this was a good thing. I felt very sorry for him. How can you know something is worth believing unless you test it by doubt?
My mother told me that when I was growing up, my favorite word was “Why?” It wasn’t so much a defiant Why, as if I were challenging my parents’ authority. I just wanted to know the reason behind everything. I guess that’s why I gravitated toward science in my studies. The church I grew up in had a parade of guest preachers during its every-night Summer Bible Conferences. Some of them had some pretty far out ideas about end-of-the-world prophecies and the meaning of current events. Over time, I found myself becoming more and more skeptical of their systems. Some people may have thought I was losing my faith. I was really finding it. Only by sifting out and rejecting false beliefs can you come to value true beliefs.
I recently watched the two-hour documentary “Going Clear,” which is an expose of Scientology. It’s pretty remarkable how founder L. Ron Hubbard and current president David Miscavige have built up the status of the bizarre organization, to the point where major personalities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta proudly identify as members and the IRS has grudgingly granted it tax exemption as a church. A couple of years ago, the Mayor of Pasadena, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders stood with Miscavige at the ribbon-cutting of the organization’s new local headquarters, at 35 North Raymond Avenue, in Old Town Pasadena. They had purchased the historic (1906) four-story Braley Building and are determined to make it one of the sights-to-see in Pasadena.
As the film “Going Clear” pointed out, however, this is not Scientology’s first Pasadena connection. The story is told of Hubbard’s time in Pasadena, during 1945 and 1946, when he was deeply involved in a group that gathered around Jack Parsons. Here was a character I had never heard of, but when I searched for him on line, I began a roller coaster ride that went on for a couple of hours. Parsons grew up in a rich Pasadena family, attended Washington and Muir public schools, and hung out with a couple of friends in Arroyo Seco, where their main preoccupation was experimenting with explosives and setting off crude rockets. This “hobby” led them, ultimately, to develop Jet Propulsion Lab (some people at the time thought JPL stood for “Jack Parsons’ Lab”) and, later, the Aerojet Corporation. The other “hobby” of Jack Parsons was the occult. He was the leader of a pagan magical sect that did all sorts of anti-Christian rituals, some of which involved sexual promiscuity and heavy drug use. All this happened at Parson’s home at 1003 South Orange Grove Blvd. Hubbard went into a business venture with Jack, but he left with Jack’s wife and all the money and moved to Florida. Jack Parsons, the founder of JPL, blew himself up at the age of 38 while experimenting with a new explosive. Look it up; this stuff all happened, “right here in River City.”
It gets crazier. Some of the people who have written about this over the years are even farther out than Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard. The connection between science fiction (the genre in which Hubbard got his literary start), the occult and space travel has led to all kinds of imaginative speculation. Conspiracy theorists abound, and I found claims on-line of elaborate connections between JPL’s research, intergalactic alien networks, Area 51, UFOs and various dark practices. As I read one startling claim after another, I was really glad to be a doubter.
Dave Steinbacher came to my office, and I shared some of my discoveries with him about the weird stuff people are ready to believe. He said, “Isn’t there something in the Bible, I think in the Book of Proverbs, that says we should look at both sides of an issue before we make up our mind to believe it?” That didn’t ring a bell with me at first, but we investigated together and found the verse he was referring to:
“The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.” (Proverbs 18:17)
The King James’ version translates the last verb as “searches,” which is the Hebrew word’s root meaning. It indicates that the second person goes deeper, asks questions, examines more thoroughly. We can refer to this process as “healthy skepticism,” which involves using doubt as a positive tool. We need to learn not to believe everything we hear just because it sounds spiritual:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)
— Pastor George Van Alstine