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Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

As a little kid in elementary school, I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  In high school I branched out into Celtic and Arthurian lore, and then in college I fell in love with Vikings and Norse mythology, but the pattern is fairly consistent: for most of my life, myth and legend have resonated strongly and deeply with me, and I mostly haven’t known what to do about it.  To emphasize, this stuff has hit me deep, much more so than just cool stories.  I felt there was a transcendent truth to mythology–especially the mythology of my genealogical and cultural ancestors.

As a Mormon, the best reconciliation for this was that the world’s mythologies contain truth but in a corrupted form.  All nations in the world can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, in other words to someone who knew the truth of the gospel, and thus their religion and lore contained bits and fragments of Eternal Truth.  This is a decent attempt at reconciliation, but never really flew for me, especially since myth and legend worked its magic on me on a deep, primal level that Mormonism never could reach.

C. S. Lewis attempted a similar reconciliation in Miracles by claiming that these myths, especially inasmuch as they had parallels or thematic similarities to Christianity, were a kind of “good dream,” sent by God as a kind of mental preparation for the message of Jesus Christ.  This makes a lot of sense in the larger context of Lewis’s work, since he gives a lot of credit to the wisdom of our pagan ancestors and feels that it is applicable to Christianity.  More than once he claims that you can’t convert someone from atheism to Christianity, but that you have to learn to be a good pagan before you can learn to be a good Christian.  That works better for me than the Mormon version, but since I still have significant problems with Christianity, the need to reconcile the two sort of fades away over time.

Since leaving Mormonism and trying to figure out what I really do believe, I have gone back and forth because I have to reconcile a lot of different values, interests, and spiritual feelings that are not necessarily tied together in a neat package.  This came to a head last fall when I went to see Amon Amarth and Ensiferum in concert.  At the time I had been mentally committed to Christianity for awhile–I was doing my best to figure out how to proceed as a Christian even though progress was sort of slow and fumbling.  But I went to this overtly pagan heavy metal show, and it reached deep and struck those primal chords that are always compelled by myth and legend.  I walked away form the concert deeply confused and troubled, because here I was trying to be a Christian, when paganism is, at least spiritually speaking, so much more compelling to me.

So I was left muddled for a bit.  The viable options seemed like continuing on with (probably Episcopal) Christianity, AODA Druidry (still), and some kind of pagan reconstructionism.  The problem with all of them was that I had different reasons to find them all compelling to different extents, but none of them had provided me with an experience that was sufficiently Dionysian to make me want to commit spiritually.  Even my romance with mythology was not concrete or well-formed enough to compel me to some kind of spiritual action and/or commitment.  It was just another inconsistent piece of the puzzle–something that seemed really important but I didn’t know what to do with it.

In particular, the concert left me thinking about Ásatrú and Germanic neopagan reconstructionism generally.  There was something there that reached me spiritually, but for some reason, I couldn’t get my head into a place where I felt comfortable saying “this is my spiritual path.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that 1. it just seemed too much like LARPing, and I wanted to have a real, relevant spiritual direction, not to play Viking, and 2. as compelling as I found it, I just… didn’t really believe in the existence of the Norse gods.

Then a series of epiphanies hapened, that have resulted in monumental change in the way I think about religion.  First, my wife and I watched Battlestar Galactica through again, starting with the miniseries.  The human refugees in the show believe in the “Lords of Kobol,” which, at least in the reimagined series, are the Greek gods–they actually pray to Athena, Zeus, and Ares, and it doesn’t seem strange.  What I am saying is that thei belief in the Greek gods did not seem anachronistic.  It opened my eyes to a kind of ongoing universality to those gods–as a western person, the Greek gods are so embedded in my heritage that it was plausible to see the Colonial survivors believe in them and worship them without it seeming inconsistent or like they were playing Ancient Greek.

In particular I was struck by one scene, in the miniseries, where Starbuck quietly prays to idols of Athena and Aphrodite.  There was something so genuine and authentic about it, and so spiritual and intimate, that it really touched me, and set wheels in motion–maybe the Greek gods have a relevance to me that–as cool as I think they are–the Norse gods don’t?  It made me curious, at least, to look into it more, which led to my next powerful epiphany.

I was on the subway reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and listening to my iPod.  For the most part, Hamilton is kind of dry, but when I came to the chapter on Dionysus, there was something about the writing that seemed, I don’t know, different somehow.  Out of nowhere, the book grew vivid, compelling, vibrant, and relevant to me.  And then my iPod–on shuffle–started to play the Passacaglia from Battlestar Galactica’s soundtrack.  The combination of the two did something to me.  It was like it moved me into another state of consciousness, almost a trance.  I felt a closeness to Dionysus, I felt his reality.  I could tell you what he smells like, even.  I can feel in my mind what it is like to be in the presence of this god and physically touch him.  It was amazing.  It left my head reeling.

For the next several months I just kind of let that stew.  It was important to me, but I wasn’t sure what t do about it.  I started pouring out libations to Dionysus, and even to some of the other Greek gods, and it seemed fitting and proper. But I wasn’t engaged in any actual practice other than that, and putting together a playlist of songs (including the Passacaglia) that were particularly evocative of divinity in general and of Dionysus in specific.

The next, and perhaps the most significant event happened months later, about five or six weeks ago.  Iw as studying for a Tax exam and I was letting myself get distracted.  My experience with Dionysus had me looking a little more into Hellenic polytheism, mostly courtesy of executivepagan‘s blogroll, and I was thinking about the involvement of the gods in my life, what gods seemed more real than others, and what gods wereparticularly relevant to me.  I was thinking about war gods actually.  I’m an infantryman in the Army National Guard, and so warfare is a significant factor in my life.  The main war gods of the Greeks were Ares, not a very well-liked or sympathetic god, and Athena, who despite the fact that I am a law student and part-time soldier, just doesn’t seem real or accessible to me.  I was reading about Aphrodite, who I had had in mind recently in terms of love, romance, and sex in my relationship with my beautiful and sexy wife, and I came across something interesting: there is a warlike aspect to Aphrodite.  Some of her names include “well-armed,” “warlike,” and “bringer of victory.”  The more I thought about this aspect of Aphrodite, the more excited I became.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing.  My excitement built and built, overflowing the boundaries into a kind of rolling epiphany, and from there it kept exploding inside me until it was full-blown euphoria.  I felt the presence of a goddess.  It was like being high, and it wasn’t fleeting or momentary; it lasted for hours before it finally subsided.  It was like falling in love with a deity–it felt so warm and my pulse was racing and it was all I could think about.  It was classical mystical euphoria–the paradigmatic experience of divinity.  It was the thing I had been waiting for, and it happened to me.

So there I am.  The way forward is not necessarily obvious to me: I can think of a lot of different possible ramifications for these experiences, and I intend to write a post about them later.  But I have had vivid spiritual experiences with these gods, this wasn’t the kind of “spiritual experience” I had grown so skeptical of because of my history with Mormonism.  I wasn’t trying to provoke these; I wasn’t dead set on feeling something, looking for any emotional condition that I could ascribe a spiritual dimension to.  These came almost out of nowhere.  These were surprises that I was neither looking for nor expecting.

The end result is that I not only believe in god, but I believe in gods.

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My initial reason for leaving Mormonism was because it conflicted with Christianity (at least the way I understood Christianity). So somewhat naturally, my assumption on the way out of Mormonism was that really finding God was just a matter of figuring out which Christian denomination I belonged in. The questions I was asking and trying to figure out were still sort of narrow Christian theological questions about soteriology, ecclesiology, and so on: what points of Christian doctrine were non-negotiable for me, and what points were less important. I spent about a half a year investigating different flavors of Christianity without feeling that “click”–that sense of coming home that I was waiting for.  Something more than an intellectual affinity that would enable me to adopt a new identity as a Christian. Christianity as a religion held a lot of appeal (and still does!), but there was something deeply visceral that I needed but that was just missing. There was a sense of “aha!–this is it!” that just was not happening with Christianity. Eventually, I started to question whether Christianity was the right direction for me at all, and I started looking elsewhere.

For the most part, that’s been the story of my post-Mormon life: back and forth between Christianity and “vaguely searching.” I like Christian liturgy, Christian prayer, I like theology, hymns, churches and cathedrals, Christian philosophy, the Bible, the whole nine yards. But it just doesn’t click. I’m not sure what’s actually supposed to happen that makes me say “there, that’s it; now I am a Christian,” but it never happens. Its like there’s a Christianity neuron in my brain that just isn’t firing. I like Christianity a lot, but I neither believe Christianity nor am able to commit to Christianity. That’s the thing. So I dive into Christianity again and again–at least in my head–hoping that this time that click in my head will happen and I will realize what it feels like to be a Christian, but it keeps not happening.  So I look around in, at, and under other things: Hinduism, New Age gobbledygook, Atheism, LaVeyan Satanism, Zen, Revival Druidry, Asatru, whatever. But the click doesn’t happen in those places either, and then I can’t shake Christianity’s powerful hold on me, so I wander back and throw myself in, but the click still doesn’t happen.

I understand Christianity conceptually. I have read the Bible. But it just isn’t relevant to me on the deep, personal level that I feel like it should, like I need it to in order to get me to a place where I am willing to say “I am a Christian; this I believe.”  The Bible connects to me as a cultural relic, a powerful one even, that is fundamental to the history of western civilization.  But as God’s Word, it just doesn’t resonate the right way.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my wife about religion and our different outlooks on the universe, and I told her that I really wish I could somehow make Christianity work for me, because it would be so much easier. And she said, simply but incisively, “but it doesn’t.” And there it was. No matter how much I like Christianity, no matter how much I love every word C. S. Lewis wrote, no matter how much I like Episcopal services and liturgy, no matter how much I think the Bible is amazing, Christianity just doesn’t work for me. The click I need to happen just… doesn’t happen.

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On the one hand, I’m sure it looks like I’m going ’round and ’round in circles with God and religion, retreading the same ground and getting nowhere. Sometimes I wonder if that is in fact what is going on, and if I can ever be satisfied and happy. Most of the time, though, I am pretty sure that I am slowly, carefully refining the issues, figuring out really what is at stake and what I think, and what decisions I really have to make.

At the moment, I think I have my religious question basically boiled down to the following ideas:

I’m inclined to think that there is a god, even though I have my doubts. I do not think that god is completely knowable by human beings. I also do not necessarily think that getting some (or even a lot of) things wrong about god is as big of a deal as human beings historically tend to. I’m not sure if god is personal or impersonal, or if god is maybe impersonal but with facets that can be personal-ish. Maybe. In any case, atheism does not suit me. I want both a religious identity and a path for spiritual development. Thus, I want a religion.

I really like a lot of things about Christianity. I find Christian theology appealing. I like the liturgy, the hymns, the architecture, the ritual, the idea of church, the liturgical year, the resurrection. I like C. S. Lewis, a lot. When I read C. S. Lewis, I want to be a Christian. Theoretically, I like the Bible, even though my attempts at reading it over the last two years have been most unsatisfactory.  I’m attached to Christianity as a religion, and am extremely bothered by the idea of giving it up entirely.  I even sometimes entertain the notion of going to seminary and becoming an Episcopal priest someday.

Unfortunately, despite everything I’ve just said, I don’t think I actually believe (in) Christianity. I like the idea of Jesus Christ as God incarnate quite a bit, but I don’t seem to actually believe that it it is so. I like the idea of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ’s supreme sacrifice, but I’m not sure I’m really all that worried about my sins, I find the idea of hell implausible, I don’t necessarily feel like I am in need of salvation (I feel plenty of wretched, just not necessarily wretched because of my sins or sinful nature) and I’m not convinced that this supreme sacrifice in fact happened. I think that the resurrection is plausible, but I don’t necessarily think that it means the whole package of Christianity is true.

I think I actually believe something a whole lot more like Vedanta, like the ideas expressed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita about Brahman and everything, the world and people and you and me and God, all being really the same thing. I’m not culturally Indian, so Hinduism as a religion has no appeal to me whatsoever, and all of the New Religious Movements that have spun off from Hinduism in the west are, well, New Religious Movements. Pretty much they are to Hinduism what Mormonism is to Christianity (and Soka Gakkai is to Buddhism), and I am not interested in that at all. I’ve already done aa quasi-cult, thanks. I’m not really in the market for another one.

So I would prefer to read the Bible because I prefer the idea of reading the Bible, but in reality I find the Gita and the Upanishads so much more meaningful.

Also, I find various flavors of Paganism (neo and otherwise) extremely appealing: Asatru, Druidry, the Greek Gods, etc. I feel like all of that would dovetail a whole lot better with the Bhagavad Gita than it would the Bible. I’m European, not Indian, so actually becoming a Hindu is not interesting at all to me, but I think that the philosophy underlying Hinduism and tying it together can easily be applied to any Indo-European mythology.  I think that AODA Druidry as spiritual practice, Vedanta as philosophy, and European myth as a corpus of spiritual literature is an extremely reasonable combination, and probably a hell of a lot closer to what I actually believe than Chistianity ever will be.

But, Christianity is more appealing for some reason.  And for a lot of reasons, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology, although it might actually be what I believe, is extremely unappealing.  There’s a lack of clear religious identity, for one.  There’s no Christmas.  Druidry as spiritual practice sometimes seems shallow and empty to me–it is missing the millennia of tradition that Christianity has.  There are the social and cultural problems with identifying as an odd religion.  Treading a new path means missing out on the guidance of people who have gone before.  There’s the worry that I’m really just cherry-picking the things I like.  There are issues about the source of morality and the source of values (that I am exploring in another series of posts).  And in my head, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology just doesn’t have the same, I don’t know, pow! that Christianity has.  And it doesn’t have C. S. Lewis.

So I know what I probably believe, but it doesn’t happen to be the same thing as what I would like to believe.  But my desire to believe Christianity is subtly undermined by the things I actually do believe.  I’m not sure how to resolve this painlessly–there may simply be no painless resolution–but I think it is extremely important that I have arrived at (or at least I’m getting closer to) the central question in my search for God.

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I was going to continue this series of posts, but it stopped seeming as important after awhile.  In the itnerests of continuity, I will publish the rest of my notes on the parts I didn’t finish.  Forthe record, I am writing this in April 2009, in the process of going back and filling in the blanks in this here blog o’ mine.

These notes are incomplete, and probably really vague in spots, but they were only meant to be an outline. Maybe they make sense in this context; I’m not sure. Anyway, here they are.

III. Religious Choices and their Values

So to recap, at this point in my life I am more interested in religion as a pathway to a source of objective morality than I have previously been. Objective morality is not the only factor I am considering—many of the elements in my thought process can’t properly be described as “factors” or things that I am “considering” at all. More than anything else, I am drawn to particular faiths or aspects of faiths because I find them compelling on some level. But once I feel that draw, I have to evaluate the faith somehow, and right now a faith’s access to a source of objective values is extremely important to me.

A. Christianity

In terms of objective morality, Christianity seems at first to be relatively unproblematic. This should not be entirely surprising since my rubric for evaluating values is largely informed by C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist. This may indeed mean that I have made an a priori decision in favor of Christianity and thus this entire inquiry is a sham, unless of course I am willing to reject my ideas about morality, which I am unwilling to do. If that is so, then this is indeed only a phase in my development as a Christian, an important reassessment of what is important to me.

However, I do not think that this is necessarily the case. While Christianity generally comes down on the side of objective values, there are enough significant exceptions in areas of Christianity that are formative or important to me that the conclusion is not foregone. Furthermore, Christianity certainly is not the only faith or point of view that asserts an objective source for Ought. Additionally, there is enough of the pagan in C. S. Lewis to admit paganism as a distinct possibility, even under C. S. Lewis’s own ostensibly Christian rubric.

In any case, Christianity as I understand it and—as I would believe if I am already a Christian or am to become one—posits a God that is the source of all creation, a self-existent being that is the source of all light, truth, and meaning. In terms of sources for Ought statements, the Christian God is the ultimate Ought.

Unfortunately, I think too many Christians don’t actually have a very good handle on just what God’s moral principles are. The Bible and traditional Christianity are so full of prohibitions and admonitions ranging from the general to the hyper-specific that it is entirely possible to get lost in the details and miss the forest for the trees. If God is the ultimate source for Ought, then by Ought we have to actually be talking about the principles that lie behind the specific commandments, not the commandments themselves.

Christianity’s obvious source
The problem with most Xians
Emerging Xity
Liberal Xity
Latitudinarianism in Anglicanism
Mormonism’s radically different outlook
Atonement
Not fully explored elsewhere

Asatru and values
Nine Noble
Asatru: old but new
The source of values?
Implied in the Lore
If Jesus is a virtue ethicist, Xians should do this
But they get confused by the commandments.

Druidry
Recon vs. revival druidry (no values prob with recon, but not interested in it)
Revival druidry’s values
Pluralism and liberalism?
Enviromentalism
Utilitarianism as an explanation: same problem
Other approaches to Environmentalism?
Theological—stewardship
Pantheism? Paganism?
Still, why?
Assertions about what it good for humans
Might be wrong—see the social sciences
What to fill Revival Druidry with?
A theology as source of value?
If so, it has to be one that supports Druidry.
What theology then?
Paganism? What kind?
No hard poly!
Neopaganism? Liberal/plural problem.
Brahmanism? Maybe. That’s good stuff.
Christianity? Then why be a druid?

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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Reading most everything readily available by C. S. Lewis has made drastic changes to my outlook and thinking. While I find Lewis challenging, I also find his ideas compelling and persuasive. As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that while Lewis was certainly a Christian, the Christianity that he articulated and believed was extremely unorthodox. If Evangelicals and Mormons took the time to actually read Lewis and consider his viewpoint, their love affair with his work would come to a tragic and untimely end. Instead, they generally read Lewis through dogmatic blinders, recruiting him as an apologist for their cause even though what he really said was completely heretical by Mormon and Evangelical standards.

But that’s just my soapbox and it does not bear directly on the issue at hand.

Before I proceed, I want to at least try to define the terms I will be using so as to alleviate confusion. I’m going to talk about a dichotomy between two term clusters that represent ideas about truth and value. On the one hand, I am talking about “soft” subjective values, values that are relative to the individual and are thus immanent—necessarily tied to person and context and most importantly to an individual human mind—as opposed to transcendent. This “soft” approach to truth and value will be contrasted with the “hard” approach of the objective, absolute, and transcendent. By “objective” I mean that these truths or values or moral principles exist independent of individual perspective. Context is significant without question: by “absolute” I do not mean that these principles ought to be applied the same way to every circumstance, but that as principles they exist as absolutes and are not subject to revision based on preference or perspective. These truths, etc., are thus transcendent in that if they exist at all they must exist apart from and beyond human minds and human experience, and they remain the same although human understanding of them may change. Thus, if they exist, they exist by virtue of something other than human thought and experience.

C. S. Lewis eloquently articulates the difference between these thought concepts and their ramifications in his book The Abolition of Man. One of Lewis’s most cogent points in the book (which is short, and well worth reading) is a model of moral reasoning which I call the “Is-Ought-Should” model. In this model, moral imperatives can be expressed as a statement of fact (“is”), a statement of principle (“ought”), and a conclusion in the form of a direction to act (“should”). For example, let’s say I see someone experiencing extreme suffering—that’s the “is”—and I take as a moral principle that suffering ought to be alleviated—that’s the “ought”—then I should help the suffering person. The Should follows from the Is and Ought, and thus when you weaken Ought, you likewise weaken should. Furthermore, Ought principles do not simply exist as observable phenomena the way Is statements do. They have to have some source. Therefore, the less authoritative the source of the Ought principle, the less compelling the principle itself, ad thus the less force stands behind the moral directive. This is the most important point: if the source of the Ought statement has no practical claim on me, then ultimately I have no compelling reason to follow a moral directive. Furthermore, this is a mater of degree: the weaker the source of the Ought, the weaker my reason to act morally. The stronger the source of the Ought, the stronger my reason to act morally. An Ought with no source is not an Ought at all: it’s a bare assertion backed by nothing.

Ought statements can have a number of sources, ranging from completely subjective—personal preference is the very weakest, most subjective possible source, excepting perhaps the even more subjective momentary whim—to the category of completely objective sources, i.e. sources that exist independent of human experience, whether we are talking about principles that flow from God as the source of the universe, or principles that are simply coded into reality the way laws of physics—or spiritual laws like karma if such a thing exists—are. Lewis himself does not assert a source for objective moral law in The Abolition of Man, but rather he attempts to show by inference that such laws do exist objectively because of their universal acceptance, and thus Lewis implies that objective moral law exists, and therefore necessarily has an objective transcendent source.

In any case, the conclusion remains that the weaker and more subjective the source of the Ought, the less compelling the Should, and the less claim that morality has on the individual. Alternately, without addressing the issue of source, the more subjective the Ought, the weaker the Should.

The problem with people who reject objective, transcendent moral values, says Lewis, is that all too often they want to hold on to moral statements and moral assertions. The result is that they go from Is to Should without passing through Ought. They want to say that you should help the suffering person without articulating a reason why suffering ought to be alleviated, or at least without articulating a compelling source for the Ought. In other words, they want to tell you to act according to a moral standard without giving you any kind of compelling reason, and then they invariably act all surprised and concerned when you don’t.

Why does any of this matter? Essentially, it is an issue of moral reasoning and moral judgment. If Should is undermined by a weak or nonexistent Ought, then we lose the ability to make moral judgments at all—we can’t criticize ourselves or others for acting immorally when we can’t articulate in a compelling sense why our/their actions are immoral. Likewise we lose the ability to speak of morality in prescriptive terms: we can hardly propose a virtuous course of action for ourselves or others if we can’t give a compelling reason why.

This is a problem with all ethical systems that do not involve an absolute, transcendent source for morality: they fail to give a compelling reason to the most basic human question: “Why?” Most non-absolute ethical systems, like Kant’s categorical imperative taken on its face, are really only descriptive of ethics. Kant can say that we should act only on that maxim which we can, at the same time, will to be a universal law, but without appealing to a transcendent source for that principle, he can’t tell us why we should bother. If that is indeed a description of morality, it is a description only. It may explain how a moral or ethical person acts, but it does not give a good reason why any given person should act that way.

Utilitarianism—the idea that at any given juncture we should take the action that provides the most good to the most people—encounters the same problem. Setting aside the massive problems with determining what course of action actually achieves that good, especially when it leaves the realm of the individual and is applied to public policy situations, and even setting aside fundamental problems with “what is good,” Utilitarianism still reaches a dead end when it comes to the question of why. It tells us how we should act, or it tells us how a moral or ethical person does act, but it does not give us a reason to act that way.

Pragmatism is no different. In fact, I might argue that pragmatism really just means utilitarianism or naked self-interest, which means pragmatism is a troublesome guide in that it can be difficult to identify what course of action is indeed the most pragmatic, especially in complex situations. Even if pragmatism is functional, it still fails to adequately answer the question of why. ‘Because it works” is a kind of answer, but it is not a satisfactory answer. It doesn’t really give a basis for making confident moral judgments, and since it is essentially sourceless, it fails to give truly compelling reasons for any given course of action.

If sourceless morality is all we have, then we may as well admit it, and stop pretending that our moral judgments are weightier than they are. If morality really does have an objective source, then we should be earnestly trying to figure out what it is.

Next: The Problem With Pluralism

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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I would like Christianity to be true. I’m just not really sure if I believe it. I decided last year, after reading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, that I believe in God. The exact nature and extent of that belief is properly the subject of another post, but it is sufficient here to say that it isn’t rock-solid, and it isn’t even enough to be what I call faith.

This summer, in the midst of reading most everything C. S. Lewis ever wrote, I decided that I wanted to be a Christian. As a Christian, I strongly identify with 1) everything C. S. Lewis ever wrote, 2) the Episcopal Church, and 3) Christmas. I find Christianity compelling. I find the liturgy of the Episcopal Church meaningful and compelling. I find the traditions and the institutions of Christianity compelling. And I find Christmas in its sacred aspect so compelling as to be almost hypnotic. I like the ideas of Christianity. But I have no faith, I have very little belief, and I don’t know what to do about that. I realize that “faith in Jesus Christ” is nowhere on my list of Christian assets. I’m not sure what to do with that. I tried to rationalize and make do with a hybrid kind of faith that had more to do with 1) an intellectual conclusion that the Resurrection probably happened and 2) a decision to recognize Jesus as the King of Kings, and thus to pledge loyalty and fealty to Him. But those don’t seem to be doing the trick. They’re not generating anything I can recognize as faith.  I’m no sure I even know what faith means, or what faith looks like.  I’m certainly not sure I know what it means to have faith in Jesus, or how to get it.

I have been struggling with how to move forward as a Christian, how to progress spiritually, even what I actually have to do to be a Christian (it’s so much easier in a religion like Mormonism where there is essentially a program laid out for you to follow). I’ve felt like a car with wheels stuck in snow or mud, spinning and getting nowhere, because I’m not even sure where I’m going.

Now, surprise, surprise, I find myself wondering what I’m even doing here. I find myself questioning again whether Christianity is the right thing for me, or if it even makes sense, and I find myself once again attracted by things like Ásatrú, Druidry, and Paganism. But then if Christianity isn’t the way for me, then I don’t know what do do with things like Christmas, C. S. Lewis, and the Episcopal Church, all of which are still so compelling, even if I really have no faith in Jesus whatsoever.

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I’m taking a class on Jurisprudence this semester in law school, and it is unquestionably the most interesting class I have.  Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law, and the class is taught by a professor from the philosophy department at the main campus, as opposed to a law professor.  All things considered, this is a good thing.  I have generally found the academic study of law to be tedious, although I am interested in actually practicing law.  But this is really a philosophy class, so it’s fun.

An issue that keeps coming up–a core issue in jurisprudence, really, almost a given–is the existence of morality.  This isn’t an ethics class, so we don;t really spend a lot of time talking about what morality is, where it comes from, etcetera, but whenever we talk about morality, those kinds of questions become preeminent in my mind.

Actually, this isn’t just about my Jurisprudence class.  I think about the existence of morality all the time, and for me, it has become my core theological problem.  I spend a lot of time grappling with what I think is the very real possibility that nothing means anything, that morality is a purely human invention, that there’s nothing behind it but arbitrary preference.  That morality does not exist as anything other than a social construct, and thus has no implications for anything other than society (and, well, psychology to the extent that psychology is informed by sociology).  Simply put, if values and morals are culturally relative, then they do not really exist at all.  Thus, the gaping abyss.  I do not buy Utilitarianism.  I do not buy Kant’s categorical imperative (because why should I act only on that maxim which I can at the same time will to be a universal law? ).  They are toothless.  They are inventions.  They have no real weight.  We have to assume them in argument, because they don’t hold in virtue of themselves.

What I am getting at is this: if there is not actually a universal ultimate morality that exists outside of human beings and the human mind, then there is no real morality at all.  If morality or values are not absolute, then morality and values cannot exist.  Any argument to the contrary is, in my frank opinion, complete bullshit.  Morals and values invented by human beings are utterly arbitrary.  Even if they are practical, there is still no pressing reason for any individual to follow them.

So there I am, staring into the gaping abyss, wondering what is going to save me from complete nihilism.  And I’ve got nothing.

C. S. Lewis’s inference of ultimate morality from general human consensus and a universal existence of “ought” is not unreasonable, but it does not convince me.  I think you can rationally infer that since most people think that, say, torture is wrong, then it’s likely that there may actually be an absolute moral principle behind it.  But it’s not a slam-dunk.  Consensus may be compelling, but the consensus can still be wrong.

So there are either absolute values, or there is nothing but the abyss.  I would prefer absolute values, but where are they?  Where do they come from?  And if they aren’t really there… then it’s the abyss, and the abyss is terrifying.  It is total nihilism.  It is nothing at all, but it swallows up everything else.  There is no meaning, there is no truth, there is nothing.  There is nothing, and it is absolutely terrifying.

The easy answer would be “God,” and if I had an easier time believing in God, I would just say that.  but I don’t; I have a hard time believing in God.  My confidence that God exists is actually less than my confidence that Lewis’s argument from consensus is correct.  If I was sure of God, then I could easily see God as the creator of the universe and thus the source of everything–including truth, value, and morality.

Maybe this is really why I can’t leave religion alone, why I can’t just not worry about it.  I have to worry about it, because this abyss is looming open in front of me.

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I am actually writing this post from… the future!

Seriously, in going back and assembling my list of high points along the journey, I realized that there are a couple of spots where important things happened, I didn’t blog about them, and I didn’t go back and explain what happened either. This is one of those spots, so I will try to recap for the sake of historical continuity.  So I am actually writing this post on April 2, 2009 to go back and fill in the blanks, and I am inserting it timewise into the summer of 2008.

In the spring of 2008, I headed east, spiritually speaking. I read a lot of the Baghavad Gita, I watched a lot of Heroes, and my daughter was born. For awhile, I thought that a kind of quasi-Dharmic Hinduism was going to be the path for me. I even went and started a new blog called “Dharma Bum” which I subsequently deleted (after bringing the important posts back here, so they wouldn’t be lost).

My brother came to visit with his wife in April, and he brought a bunch of books about Zen Buddhism, which I had never really considered seriously before. In particular, the book Hardcore Zen struck me as relevant and important. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Zen Buddhism was the right path for me–the truths that it espoused were, for the most part, things that I believed to be self-evident truths about the universe. I had some semantic concerns about distinguishing the Hindu Atman from the Buddhist Anatman, but that was more the kind of thing that could produce long, quirky debates later on. Important was the Zen universe was a universe I believed in, and Zen meditation seemed rally helpful to me.

But there was still a nagging feeling that this wasn’t really the right thing for me. Maybe it was jsut my fear of spiritual commitment, I don’t know. But it seemed to me that the problem with Zen was not that i thought it was untrue, but that it did not provide me with things I wanted and needed, spiritually speaking: a culturally relevant context with ritual, compelling mythological framework, professional clergy, etcetera. Although I couldn’t make myself believe that Christianity was true, I still felt an attraction to the Episcopal Church that in my opinion contradicted my Zen inklings.

My brother’s advice was just to pick one, go with it, and see what happens. And eventually that’s what I did.

While studying for final exams last April, I read C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy, which is an amazing book. I was surprised to see how unconventional Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was, and in the end, I started to feel like the Episcopal Church really was the place for me–a place to be, in fact, even if I was not sure about my belief in Christianity.

So when we moved to New York for the summer, we started attending an Episcopal Church in the Village, and I even went to services at Trinity during my lunch hour downtown. It was meaningful and important to me, but there was some critical quality that was just elusive. I read every C. S. Lewis book I could get my hands on, I prayed and did devotions, and I thought of myself as a Christian, a Protestant, and an Anglican.

Maybe the biggest problem was that, concurrent to all of this, I spiralled into what might have been the worst depression I have ever been in. I can’t even describe it beyond saying that it was an absolute nightmare, and finally getting help and eventually climbing out of it has saved my life. My beautiful and sexy wife was there for me in my darkest hours, even when things got scary and that means so much to me. But in a lot of ways, God was distant, and I couldn’t figure out why. I literally cried out to Jesus to deliver me, but things just kept getting darker.

My love affair with Christianity started to enter a period of uncertainty when we came back to Maryland, partly because I was just plain more interested in Led Zeppelin than I was in religion. I still kept Episcopal Christianity in my head as a spiritual placeholder, but even then I wasn’t sure anymore–not because Christianity hadn’t pulled me out of my depression, because for all I know things might have been a lot worse without prayer and devotion, but just because my interest was fading. Again, fear of spiritual commitment? Maybe. But also Christianity honestly just wasn’t punching all of the spiritual buttons I needed to have punched.

Incidentally, I haven’t really felt the need or desire to go back to Zen. It is interesting, and probably, in retrospect, the religion whose truth-claims are the closest to matching reality, but despite being true, it is so stripped down that it actually lacks Truth.

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Like I said in my last post, I’m extremely hesitant to just come out and say that I flat-out don’t believe in God in the typical atheist sense.  This isn’t hedging my bet; I absolutely don’t believe in hell, I’m skeptical about an afterlife anyway (and even if there is one, I doubt very strongly that the particulars can be known), and a quick scan of the state of the world tells me that it doesn’t look like people who believe in God are getting all the breaks.  Part of it is an agnostic approach to epistemology: I don’t see how humans can know anything for sure at all.  All our sensory input is filtered through the double-filter of sensation and perception, and there’s no particular reason to trust that either one of those filters feeds us objective data.  We can’t really be sure that we’re not in The Matrix, so we certainly can’t be sure of something as attenuated from our direct empirical experience as the existence or nonexistence of God.

As far as we know, there is a God who is simply cleverly making the universe look to us like there is no God (I call this “Fossil-Hiding God”).  How would we know?  If an omnipotent or even mostly-potent supernatural being with more or less total control over the universe wanted to cover his tracks completely, I imagine he could do it pretty well.  Either way, like I said in my last post, I’m not actually convinced by the logical arguments of atheists for the nonexistence of God.  Despite all out efforts to reason him out of existence, I think it possible that he nevertheless exists–C. S. Lewis’s fantastic novel, Till We Have Faces, had a proufound the way I thought about the existence of deity and made me extremely reluctant to flat-out deny that the divine exists, even if it is totally unlike the traditional Judeo-Christian conetption of Yahweh.

So in terms of the existence versus nonexistence of God, I’m really more of an agnostic with a theoretically rebuttable presumption God’s nonexistence, at least inasmuch as we’re talking about God as a distinct transcendant supernatural personal entity, with or without a flowing white beard.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  the word “God” can be stretched to fit an amazing diversity of theistic and quasi-theistic concepts, many of which aren’t anything at all like the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the supreme being, and it turns out that I actually do believe in something that if pressed, I could call God (although I would be reluctant to do so because the label “God” would confuse most people by implying that there’s a beard in there somewhere).  I think it’s worth explaining what I mean by all of this, especially since I’m actually trying to get to a point eventually, but I’m not going to make this post more confusing than it already is.  So hold your horses a bit and wait for the next post.

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I actually mean to talk about the existence of a personal God, and how I think I don’t believe in one, but “Personal Jesus” is the name of a Depeche Mode song, and I like Depeche Mode.  Now watch this, which isn’t about Depeche Mode at all, but is a video by Rob Bell, a prominent emergent Christianity writer/pastor.

The idea of a personal God that loves me is a fantastic, thrilling idea.  I find it incredibly compelling.  Rob Bell’s video makes me cry.  I would like it to be true.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think it is.

In his book, Finding Faith, Brian McLaren (another prominent emergent writer) discusses the choice between belief in a personal God versus an impersonal God and he quite lightly dismisses the latter as a fool’s notion.  It’s interesting, because Finding Faith is otherwise a surprisingly even-handed.  I mean, McLaren is definitely doing his best to help his reader figure out how to believe in Jesus, so he has an agenda, but even so he gives reasonably fair credit and acknowledgement to contrary ideas.

But not to this one.  Why not?  Like I said, he quickly dismisses the idea by saying that since God must be higher than us, and since we have personality and the ability to relate meaningfully to each other, then it doesn’t make sense for God to not be the same, only better.  Like if we have personality he must have some sort of superpersonality.  A similar theme runs through much of C. S. Lewis’s work.  I guess it’s a fine enough idea, but it falls into what I believe is a trap: it acknowledges God’s transcendent nature, and then attempts to define him in comprehensible terms.  Or rather, comprehensible terms plus.  Where we have personality, he has personality like ours, but better in a way we can’t imagine.  In my opinion, it’s an easy cop-out and ultimately reduces the Transcendent into the quasi-transcendent, which is not transcendent at all.  The incomprehensible becomes the almost comprehensible, and thus really just another kind of comprehensible.  Transcendence in quantity only.

Basically, Brian McLaren is saying that he thinks that his transcendent God should be so, and therefore must be so.  I’m not convinced, mostly because I think if God exists, he is probably fairly resistent to our feeble attempts to corral him, measure him, and define him into something much smaller than he actually is.  And I don’t think we really get to weigh in with our notions of “should” on the specifications of the supreme being.  Although we certainly try (myself included).

In the end, I do not believe in a personal God because I don;t have the one piece of evidence that would be convincing: actual interaction with God.  I pray, he doesn’t answer.  I try to have conversations with him, he doesn’t talk back.  I don’t even really have any assurance that he’s listening (other than my impressive array of “shoulds”).  If God exists, he does not seem to interact with me in any way that would imply personality.  And I’ve tried (and will honestly continue to try) from my end.

I guess other people claim to interact with God, and I can’t really refute what they claim, but it has never happened to me, so I’m going to have to move forward with what I’ve got.

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