Total religious apathy.
Archive for January, 2007
Here’s the thing: I like religion. I like the Bible. I like going to church. I like churches. I like ministers, bishops, and clergypeople. I like prayers, religious books, religious traditions, liturgies, and hymns. I like contemporary Christian music, even. I like religious symbolism. i like allegories. I like the ideas of Christianity. I like the theology. I like the idea of Jesus Christ. All of it is very moving and interesting, both intellectually and emotionally.
But I don’t know if I can really believe.
I’m not against church or God or Jesus. I certainly wouldn’t presume to actively disbelieve in any of it. And the motions of Christianity are natural enough for me to go through. I’ve even had a significant mystical experience or two. But to affirmatively believe? I have a hard time with that. Maybe I just can’t.
I don’t know what that makes me, or what that means.
For awhile last fall my wife and baby and I were attending a Quaker meeting for worship over in Bethesda. It was a “liberal” unprogrammed-style meeting, which means you sat in silence and listened to the Inner Light. The idea is that you sit and listen, and nobody says anything unless they are moved by the Spirit (which they usually call the Light, I guess).
It was actually really cool, and we had some intensely spiritual experiences that I’d like to talk about. But I also had some serious reservations, which I would likewise like to talk about.
The first time we went, our baby was making a little bit of noise. I had this overwhelming feeling that as a baby, he was so much closer to the ultimate source than we are as adults. He is toally unburdened by culture, society, philosophy, or even language- just completely pure, and as such what he had to say was probably so much more meaningful than anything the rest of us would say, filtered as it would be through established cognitive frameworks, etc. It struck me very powerfully. I also kept thinking of the music to “Candle of Life,” a fantastic song by the Moody Blues that captures perfectly the kind of cosmic awe that I was feeling at the meeting.
I also was attracted to the Quaker testimonies: their commitment to peace, to equality, and to integrity seemed to be the very heart of what Jesus Christ was trying to teach us. And I got the impression that Quakers were actually genuine about it, and not hypocritical.
Quakerism also handily deals with the question of how there can be so many different religions the world over. Their answer is that in every person there is some of that which is God, and anyone can listen to what it has to say and be inspired by it. In other words, nobody has a monopoly on the Light. That was nice as far asI was concerned. It meant that as someone considering leaving the Mormon church, I didn’t even have to give up the Book of Mormon! Even if it wasn’t a factual record of the ancient Americas, it still can be inspired by God.
In many ways, Quakerism seemed like a true universal religion: all-encompassing enough to really take in everybody, but grounded in their testimonies in a way that, say, the Unitarian Universalists are not (I consider the UU’s fairly bland and wishy-washy). Quakerism seemed like the kind of religion that could not only be universal to all people, but in all times as well- it’s the kind of religion we could take to the stars and have ot be still relevant, or even more so.
At the core Quakerism is about the mystical experience, and as a Mormon that was not unfamiliar territory. But it is also incredibly egalitarian, and a religion where the individual is really responsible for his own relationship with God, not needing a human intercessor of any kind.
But I did have concerns. We actualy stopped going to meetings because we were offended by the way one lady told us to put our baby in the nursery and not bring him to the meeting. My only real experience with church had been with Mormonism, where noisy babies in the service are just a part of things. Looking back now, i realize that most churches have child care during the worship service, and while it;s nice to be able to worship as a whole family, it’s also nice to not be distracted by a fussy baby, as much as you may love him. A downside to the Mormon approach is that parents constantly have to take their crying children out of the chapel, which means that parents with babies often miss more Sacrament Meetings than they get to sit through, for years at a stretch.
The Quakers were nice about it- after the incident, they sent us cards apologizing, and they even called us to talk about it. We took the opportunity to look elsewhere though.
My biggest concern with Quakerism was the noticable lack of emphasis on Jesus christ and on the Bible. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s important because like then, I am still trying to figure out how I feel about Jesus. Maybe the Quakers have it right! Maybe they’re dead wrong. In either case, the noticable lack of Bibles and Jesus was a little discomfiting. at a bare minimum, I saw nothing transformational about Quakerism, at least not in a divine sense. Jesus might have even be acknowledged, but I didn’t see where his Atonement fit in, and I certainly didn’t see any real sense in which His Atonement works directly in the life of a Quaker. Again, given how wishy-washy I am about Jesus, you would think this shouldn’t necessarily matter to me. And maybe it doesn’t.
Another concern I had arose over time, and that is a concern with the nature of mystical experience itself. C. S. Lewis said, in Mere Christianity,
In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F. an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”
Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is only admittedly coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
And I wonder if that isn;t particularly applicable to Quakerism. Yes, there’s plenty of the mystical experience there to satisfy the most God-hungry soul out there. But it is practical? Does it lead you anywhere? C. S. Lewis makes the argument in favor of the traditional Christian creeds. Do the Quakers’ testimonies accomplish the same thing (i.e. are they a map that gets you somewhere)? Maybe so, but it seems problematic to me.
In any case, I wouldn’t be against going back to a Quaker meeting. I haven’t completely written Quakerism off yet.
Sometimes I think about just giving up on Christianity and becoming an Asatruar. Seriously. Sometimes Christianity looks no more real to me than anything else claimsto be. Sometimes I just can’t buy the absolute truth of it. Sometimes Christianity seems completely irrelevant to me. Sometimes it looks like nothing more than a messianic cult that sprung from Judaism, like Christianity is to Judaism as Mormonism is to Christianity (not that Mromonism is necessarily a messianic cult per se, but that Mormonism claims to be a divinely-guided restoration of original truth whereas it just looks to me like a perfectly explicable 1800′s restorationist sect that outgrew itself).
If God really is more of a nebulous spirit entity or oversoul, and the specifics don’t really matter that much, then why even be Christian?
In many ways Asatru, which is supposedly a revival of the religion of my Northern European ancestors, might even be a better fit. Soemthing about cultural relevancy. It’s attractive to me for much the same reason that Anglicanism is attractive to me- I am a man of Northern European descent, of heavily British-isles extraction. Because of that, Anglicanism (and also Asatru) just seems appropriate. Culturally relevant, if that makes sense.
Despite the comfort that I have with Christianity due to a Christian upbringing, I wonder sometimes if I’d be honestly happier revering Odin, Thor, and Freya. I’m probably too chicken to ever formally renounce Christianity though. I’d be much more likely to quietly and gradually slip into your basic agnosticism.
But then if I became an Asatruar, I would probably be honor-bound to go back into the military and go to war so I could go to Valhalla or something. And to be honest with you, I don’t really want to do that.
Sometimes I think the only reason I stay Christian is that I really, really like Christmas. For now, that’s reason enough.
I guess I have been thinking a little bit about biblical infallibility. I know that some people believe whole-heartedly that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God. I do not. To start with, it’s a fundamentally untenable position. If the Bible is God’s complete and inerrant word, how come it never says so? There’s absolutely nothing in theBible that says that theBible is either complete or inerrant. Sure, there may be scriptures from which one can infer some kind of inerrancy, etc. but I think it’s a case of knowing what you intend to find before you go looking for it, and then, of course, finding it.
One problem with the inerrant-Bible idea is that it leads to a kind of Bibliodolatry, where the Bible itself becomes deified or at least elevated to the same level of God. The only thing I can think of that would support the Bible being on the same level as God Himself is the first chapter of St. John, where it talks about the Word. However, it certainly does not say that it’s talking about the Bible as we know it. I am more inclined to believe that the logos, or Word, that it mentions is Christ himself, as the living expression of God the a person’s words are his expressions. So, a metaphorical title at best, or perhaps some kind of synechdoche or metonyny (I forget which is which).
So, what do I believe than? I see a classic fallacy in many arguments about Biblical inerrancy, which is that the Bible is either 100% true or you have to throw it out completely. That’s the false dilemma again, rearing its ugly head. There are a lot of percents between zero and one hundred, and then there are a lot of senses or qualities of truthfulness along the way. Furthermore, again we have no independent basis for dividing the question into two possible answers- there’s nothing in the Bible (or anywhere else that we might see as reliably from God) that says it’s a black-and-white either/or analysis.
I guess I would have ot say that I believe (at least on days when I’m feeling particularly Christian) in Biblical reliability. In other words, I belive in the central message of the Bible, that Jesus Christ died for us, is clear and fairly unimpeachable. In general, the books that made it into the Bible did so not haphazardly but with care, thought, and with the weight of tradition (not to mention the judgment of people who were contextually a lot closer to when the books were written!). If soemthign is in theBible, we need to listen up and pay attention because it’s probably important and probably true.
But I don’t think that just because something is “in the Bible” means that it’s the same as if it came right out of God’s mouth. In fact, I think it laughable to postulate that the words of Paul or Obadiah are exactly identical in reliability and significance to the words of Jesus. I buy off on the legitimacy of the Gospels (I realize that reasonable people miht disagree with me, but that’s their business), but I also believe in the primacy of the Gospels. When Jesus says one thing and some other dude says another thing, I don’t have to try to rack my brain to construct extra-biblical doctrines to reconcile the two. I can just say that the words of Jesus trump the words of, well, pretty much everyone else.
In fact, I think the source of a lot of probably false extra-biblical doctrines comes from the mistaken assumption that every word of the Bible is equal to every other word. When two passages seem to contradict each other, you’ve then got to either toss the whole thing out, or try to figure out some way to interpret them so that they don’t. Sometimes that approach might be legitimate, but I think some times you get some dumb doctrines that way.
At the same time, I also think it is ridiculous to assume that the people who actually wrote the Bible were some kind of spirit-posessed God-robots, transcribing exactly the words that God dictated to them. Such a thing is possible, of course, but there’s nothing in the Bible itself that would lead me to believe that such was, in fact, the case. I find it much more reasonable and likely that the people who write the Bible were insipred by the Spirit to write what they wrote, but that they werenevertheless writing in their own cultural context and influenced by their own thoughts and personalities. In particular I think this applies to the epistles of the New Testament, which are a collection of correspondances between early church leaders and various churches and other church leaders, not a set of records of direct revelation (as opposed to, say, the book of Revelations).
Does this approach mean that I just pick and choose the parts of the Bible that I like, and toss the rest aside willy-nilly? Maybe it does. I’m not sure. I’ll talk more about this as it relates to specific issues in future posts.
I haven’t written much in a few days because I haven’t had much in the way of particularly brilliant or incisive religious thoughts. I’m not going to post just for the sake of posting. Plus, I’m in law school, which means I’m generally pretty busy.
Also, I’ve been kind of stuck in the same place. I’m not feeling particularly spiritual, or religious. On the contrary, I feel almost perfectly apathetic about God. Or gods. Or whatever.
This evening I feel spiritually discouraged. Maybe I don’t even believe in God at all. Or maybe I believe in a nebulous, ill-defined spiritial something-or-other. In any case, I don’t really think I believe in the Bible or in Jesus. See, when I talk about “having doubts” these days I’m not talking about a little nagging in the back of my head. I’m talking about a loud siren blaring that says “Don’t bother! It’s all pretty much crap, and you know it!”
This isn’t the kind of little piddly doubt that I can just persevere through with my little light of faith. This is utter spiritual despair. The entire premise of Christianity seems ludicrous to me. It looks to me like a messianic cult that grew out of Judaism but then was appropriated by Europeans, add two thousand years, and season to taste. The Bible seems unclear at best, and at worst it seems very clear about things I simply cannot believe.
I dunno. Maybe I just need to lay off the Chick tracts.
Much of my thought revolves around conversion. There are two threads running in my religious quest. In the first place, I am looking for a church home, a church, faith, or denomination where I can go and enjoy it and not have any reservations whatsoever. Maybe my standards are too high and I’m looking for a perfect church (or faith, or even religion- I’m not always necessarily confining it to Christianity) that doesn’t exist. But that’s not what I’m concerned with at the moment.
The second thread is a quest for conversion. I want to belive in God, for real, and I generally want to believe in Jesus Christ for real, too. I have no interest whatsoever in settling on a Pascal’s Wager type of faith (not that I think there’s anything wrong with Pascal’s Wager per se). If I’m going to believe, I want to really believe. If I am to be converted, I want to be converted for life. A half-assed attempt at faith holds no allure to my soul. I don’t want ot say “here it is; I’ve found it,” and then a week or a month or a year ot even ten years down the road say “oh, well never mind; I thought I had found it but I was wrong.”
At the same time, I don’t know if I can believe like that. I don’t know if I can be committed for life. It just seems like too much to ask. Maybe the problem is that while I have no problem with the idea of being committed for life, I have yet to find anything at all (except for maybe my wife) that I want to be committed for life to.
Maybe an analogy to my wife is the correct one- I’m far more committed to her now than I was sis years ago when we were dating, before we got married. In a sense I chose to fall in love with her, to commit myself to her for life, and over time, my commitment grows deeper and more real. Don’t get me wrong; my wife was smokin’ hot, absolutely cool and fun, and in so many ways exactly what I was looking for, but a person isn’t really committed ot another person to the depths of their soul right away. That’s not realistic. I fell in love with her, and so I chose to be with her, to orient my life around hers while she oriented her life around mine. And again, over time the depth of our love and commitment only grows stronger as we live together, love together, and continuously nourish our relationship.
Maybe my search for faith should look more like my search for a wife did. I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder why this has to be so hard, and if there’s therefore even a God at all.
Yesterday morning on the Metro, I was listening to the Kanye West song “Jesus Walks,” and reading a little from Brennan Manning’s book, The Ragamuffin Gospel. As I read and listened, I found myself getting more and more excited about Jesus, what He is, what He did for us, what He stands for. It was a thrilling emotional experience. I wondered if it was the beginning of real conversion.
But then by yesterday evening, I had turned around 180º. I was full of all the same doubts, feeling no personal connection to Jesus (or anyone or anything else divine), and in fact I was feeling foolish for my earlier enthusiasm.
A recurring problem with Mormonism for me was that I simply had a hard time really buying that I would die, meet God, go spend time in Paradise, go to the Celestial Kingdom, hang out with Joseph Smith and Nephi and all the prophets of old, and live in an eternal family and become like God, etc. In other words, I was skeptical that I would in fact die and upon death I would discover that Mormonism was in fact true in the real, physical sense. It just always seemed a little unlikely to me. I had no problem buying it in the here and now, but fore real, for real, after we die? Eh, I wasn’t so sure.
My problem with Christianity in general is similar. I like the idea of Jesus. I like the Bible. I like many of the fundamental philosophies of Christianity even if I’m not so hot about the doctrinal directions that I see many Christians taking it. I think Christianity is culturally relevant to me as a Western European man. I generally enjoy Christian worship in a pretty diverse set of styles. Those things aren’t the problem. My problem is that I have serious doubts about whether it’s really really real. These doubts come and go, but when they go, they always come back.
So one day I’m ready to give my life for Jesus, but the next day (or as was the case yesterday, sometimes later that same day) I’m completely turned off on the whole idea and really want nothing to do with it- I feel like I’ve been fooling myself somehow.
For the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about hell. I don’t mean that I’m worried or scared about going there- that’s not really the case at all. But I have been thinking about the existence of hell, and if it does exist, what is it like.
It seems like many Christians hold on to the vision of hell that is complete with lakes of fire, horrible torture rooms, and demons with pitchforks that poke you for ever and ever. I even saw a book at Border’s the other day written by some guy that has supposedly had this vision of how horrible hell is and how it’s a real place and how you’d better believe that the demons poke you like you’ve never been poked before. Like Heironymous Bosch mixed with a Rob Zombie movie. Or like the hell that is depicted in the most absolutely heavy-handed Chick tracts.
Anyway, I’m not convinced that this vision of hell is a sensible one, for several interconnected reasons.
First, that kind of hell is part of a system where our motivation for turning to Jesus Christ is out of fear, fear that if we don’t do what God says, we’ll get poked with demon pitchforks. It’s obedience, and worse yet, entering into a relationship, motivated by fear of punishment. That’s honestly really immature. It’s actually the lowest sub-stage of the Pre-conventional stage of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and I simply do not believe that God’s relationship with us operates on the lowest possible moral level. That’s just not the God I believe in. Quite the contrary, I’m much more inclined to believe in a God that wants to help elevate us, to lift us up to a higher moral place where we encounter him. At the very least, I believe that God deals with each of us individually on the highest moral level that we can potentially reach.
Second, that kind of hell is logically untenable to me. Usually, it is justified by appealing to the justice and righteous wrath of God. In other words, horrible pitchfork hell has to exist because God is pissed at us for sinning and he fully intends on taking our mistakes out of our hide. We earned it and we get what we deserve. Leaving the “pissed-off God” image aside, there’s a logical flaw in this justification. There’s no way that eternal never-ending punishment is the just reward for what is ultimately a finite (though in my case fairly large) quantity of sin. If God meted out our just desserts, hell would look more like a temporary purgatory.
I also have trouble with the idea that God made hell to punish sinners, and then he made us all be sinners. Why would He do that? There’s no reason He had to? What would motivate God to build a horrible eternal torture chamber and then make a bunch of people who were inherently headed there? It just seems like a crappy thing to do.
The hell I can easily imagine is an outer darkness, eternal loneliness, eternal separation from God. I’m talking about a hell where God says “you spent your whole life trying your hardest to get away from Me, and now there’s nothing I can do but let you go. I wish you could stay here with Me, but you spent your whole life pushing me away.” Eternity alone, in the darkest void. No company, no warmth, no light. Just loneliness and darkness, and the same pain we experience here, but magnified over eons. That’s a kind of hell I can easily imagine.
I realize that none of this is based on scripture. I’m not so sure I care that much, though.