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Posts Tagged ‘Emotion’

Today is Thursday, which means it is my day to pray to and worship Aphrodite (though truth be told, I pray to and worship Aphrodite much more often than just on Thursdays). Today I spent time meditating on the birth of the goddess, and then I offered my typical prayers, hymns, and offerings. When I was finished, it occured to me to do a tarot reading about my relationship with the goddess, so I sat down with my cards, I invoked Apollo as the god of oracles and prophecy, and I asked for the cards to reveal to me the nature of my relationship with the goddess, past, present, and future. This was the spread I laid out:

Ten of Cups (Reversed) Page of Wands (Reversed) Nine of Swords

(In case those links ever expire, those are the Ten of Cups reversed, the Page of Wands reversed, and the Nine of Swords).

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it. The first card, the reversed Ten of Cups, makes sense. After my initial contact with the goddess, which blew me away and filled me with warmth, light, and love, my continued spiritual floundering has left the fulness of spiritual joy represented by the Ten of Cups, that I feel can be available to me through Aphrodite, has been truncated and stunted. My own hemming and hawing, whatever my reasons, has kept me from having the joy in the goddess that I might otherwise have had. Nothing odd or unexpected there.

Its the reversed Page of Wands and the Nine of Swords that have me troubled. The Page came up ecently in an extremely important reading I did for myself, and at the moment I am sort of getting ready to embark on a path of (spiritual) action: a very definite journey of spiritual work that I think the Page represents. So why is he reversed? Am I doing something wrong?

And the Nine of Swords? What does that mean? That my Page-of-Wands journey is ill-considered and abortive and will lead to regret and hearbreak, at least as far as the goddess is concerned? Or is the whole thing a warning? Could it not be saying that my present quest is in fact corrupted and askew, but that if I do embark on it like I have planned, but then I let it fall by the wayside, if I am lazy about it, then it will end in sorrow and tragedy, and a possible loss of relationship with the goddess altogether?

In other words (because I know I am being cryptic and confusing), is the reading telling me something definite or conditonal? Is it warning me that my present course is distorted and cowardly, and will result in anguish, or is it warning me that if I veer from my present course–reverse the Quest, in other words–that it will lead to anguish? It seems a bit vague about something that is kind of important.

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william-adolphe-bouguereau-the-birth-of-venus

To honor Aphrodite, Sannion has put up three goddess-related posts on his Livejournal, and as I am myself a devotee of the Cyprian, I wanted to share them with my readers. First, he shares a meditation he wrote on the cosmic significance of Aphrodite:

We think of her primarily in connection with our courtships and pleasant dalliances – and she is certainly there. But she is also a cosmic goddess (Aphrodite Ourania), driving on the heavenly bodies in their eternal dance through the bleakness of space, and she is the force that bonds communities together on both the familial and political level (Aphrodite Pandemos), and she governs form itself (Aphrodite Morpho), for all bodies are a collection of random molecules following an ordered pattern, and without her influence they would spin off into nothingness. And no less importantly, Aphrodite is the source for our yearning for the immaterial, for something greater than ourselves, something spiritual, eternal, beyond what we can see, and feel, quantify and categorize. The mystic fervently praying for union with god, the poet dreaming of another world, the philosopher seeking to plumb the mysteries of the universe – are not all of these, in their own way, under the spell of Aphrodite?

It is love that makes life worth living, love that allows us to conceive of “life” as something more than just biological existence, love that opens our eyes and hearts to the wonder of existence and fills us with a longing for more and more of it, until our souls are quenched and our being spills over with an abundance of experiences and emotions and everything else that makes us human and more than human.

I think there’s more to it than that, even, especially when you consider that some myths of the birth of Aphrodite have her emerge from the sea, spawned by the severed genitalia of Uranus himself. Aphrodite emerges from the most primal of cosmic sources (both from the ur-god of the universe and from the sea i.e. the murky and mysterious origin of life on earth), moreso than any of the other Olympian gods or goddesses, and that can be neither mere coincidence nor quirky, meaningless tale. As a goddess she is fundamentally connected to the primordial cosmos and the beating heart of what it means to be alive and a part of the universe.

Sannion’s next post of the day is an exploration of conceptions of Aphrodite in Greco-Roman Egypt, a natural place for him to go since he’s pretty much explicitly a Greco-Egyptian syncretist. Although I myself am not, I do think there is a lot of insight to be gained from ancient Egyptian religion, especially for a worshipper of the Hellenic gods. In any case, Sannion focuses on the funerary aspect of Aphrodite. As usual, I am interested in any conception of the goddess that goes beyond pigeonholing her as a living embodiment of Valentine’s Day (especially since I originally came to know Aphrodite in her aspect as a goddess of war). I think one of the trickiest things about the Hellenic gods in general is that most of them have an easy handle as “the god of [something],” and it is easy to forget that they are all complicated, multifaceted figures with diverse personalities, correspondences, and significances. Sannion explains, however, how these different conceptions and seemingly diverse or even unrelated aspects can be tied together:

Concerns with death are an organic outgrowth of being a goddess so intimately, so fundamentally connected with the processes of life. (You can’t have one without the other, and if you dig deep enough you’ll discover why.) The abundance of life that is her blessing was so great, so powerful that it could transcend the artificial boundaries of death – opening up onto an even greater fullness of life. This was done by aligning themselves with her, by becoming suffused with her divine identity until it was their own… [s]tuff like this really makes you wonder.

Finally, Sannion treats us with a description of his visit to a rose garden as intentional worship of the goddess:

As I walked down the rows and rows of flowers I was struck by the beauty and complexity of nature – and how much Aphrodite is involved in all of it. I mean, why are there so many different colors of flowers? It serves no definite purpose … except that it does, really. Seduction. The flowers are trying to attract the plump little bees to come and rub up against them so that their pollen will spread and their species survive. And further, they’ve learned to produce colors that appeal to us humans so that we will plant more of them and protect them and ensure that they thrive. I kept flashing back to things that Michael Pollan had said in Botany of Desire (which is a really great book that you should read if you haven’t already) and how charming Aphrodite was behind it all. I mean, those flowers first sprang up when her delicate feet touched the earth as she rose from the waters in primordial times…

So, I just sat there blissing out and overwhelmed with gratitude, and then all of a sudden I could feel Aphrodite, and she was so warm and beautiful and loving and soft, and I basked in her presence for a while, feeling so peaceful and content and happy.

The way he describes Aphrodite pierces me to the center of my heart because I know the feelings he is describing so intimately. Whatever the true nature of the gods is, I am certain that they are at least in some sense real in a way that transcends the individual’s purely subjective experience. While different people experience different facets of the same deity at different times, there seems ot be just too much that really is the same about people’s experiences. Sannion and I are tapping into the same force or presence, whatever we want to call it. She is real, and she is powerful, and she exists at the very quick of what it means to be a human being:

That is who Aphrodite is – one of the greatest and most important goddesses that man has ever known.

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It should be clear by now that I passionately believe that real spiritual/mystical experiences happen. People experience the presence of divinity. I don’t know for sure whether they are merely experiencing a neurological or psychological phenomenon, or whether they are actually contacting a real deity, or whether the distinction is meaningful. What I am sure of is that mystics throughout history have reported eerily similar phenomena and labeled them as divine contact.

Mormonism has taught since the days of Joseph Smith that such mystical experiences–jargonically termed “personal revelation”–are available to Mormons, basically on demand. Modern-day Mormon prophets have consistently promised that every earnest seeker who asks God for a personal confirmation of the truth of Mormonism and/or its components will receive it. The problem with these promises is that inasmuch as mystical experiences exist, that’s just not the way it works. No matter what your theology promises, God is not on tap. God is not predictable, as much as we would like it to be.

To reconcile the irreconcilable–theological promises about the availability of mystical experience and the unpredictable reality of mystical experience–Mormonism has lowered the bar on personal revelation. Mormons believe a priori that mystical experience is there for the asking, so when experience prove otherwise, experience must be wrong. Mormons tell each other things like “I think you have had personal revelation; you just don’t recognize it,” and they tell themselves stories about how subtle the Holy Ghost’s influence is.

But they’re wrong. They’re ridiculous, even. The real experience of the presence of God is not subtle. It is not difficult to discern. It is like a hurricane: massive, beyond control. Like a roller coaster, but you can’t really be certain that it is going to stay on the tracks. Real contact with God is total loss of sense of self, a total absorbtion into something so huge and so other that it can’t be described.

But like I said, that kind of thing is rare and unpredictable, and so it doesn’t really do a good job of fulfilling Mormonism’s promises about the availability of personal revelation. So, to make up for God’s failure to deliver on Mormonism’s promises (which can’t possibly be true because then Mormonism would be false, and Mormons assume that cannot be the case), Mormons recast completely mundane experiences as “personal revelation,” and thus save themselves from having to face the unfortunate disconnect between Mormon theology and the real experience of God.

What follows is a list of things that do not count as spiritual or mystical experiences, but that are often characterized as such in Mormon testimonies. They are in no particular order.

1. Negative Confirmations: These happen when I either want to do something or thought I should do something, and so I prayed for guidance, and God did not definitely tell me “no,” and afterward I felt an increased desire and/or obligation (as the case may be) to do the thing. But that’s not personal revelation; it’s what I wanted to do anyway. Silence from God can’t possibly be evidence of God’s influence in my life. The increased motivation post-prayer is just excitement or resignation in the absence of a contrary instruction from God, along the lines of “God didn’t say ‘no,’ so it is definitely the right thing to do, and it’s coincidentally what I wanted to do anyway! Hooray!

2. A Burning In The Bosom: Mormon scriptures describe prayers being answered by personal revelation in the form of a “burning in the bosom”: a warm sensation in the chest. This happens to Mormons, and it shouldn’t be a surprise at all, because it is basic Classical Conditioning at work. Let’s say that for my whole life I am told that I will feel a warm sensation when certain triggers happen (when I pray, when I read the scriptures, when I go to church, when I am with my family, whatever) and that this warm feeling is the Holy Ghost. When this warm feeling inevitably results, it is not the Holy Ghost at all. I have conditioned myself. I have spent my life looking for a particular sensation whenever the appropriate trigger is present, and eventually my body obliges my mind by producing said sensation. This makes me happy because it confirms my religion to me, and it is the thing I have been wanting to happen. Thus, my body learns that producing a warm feeling in response to certain triggers makes me happy. This is not called God. This is called Pavlov’s dog.

3. Intense Emotional Responses: When I watch a Church movie, I may indeed get choked up and emotional when something poignant and magical happens. But this isn’t personal revelation of the gospel truth being presented in the movie; this is my emotions being manipulated. TV shows and movies do this all the time. Filmmakers, directors, artists, composers, musicians, and writers can and do purposely arrange this stuff to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel certain emotions. And it happens in other situations, too (the kinds of legitimately emotional situations that these filmmakers are trying to artificially provoke): when I bear my testimony I might cry because I am sharing something deeply personal and emotional, so I have emotions when I talk about it. But that’s not the presence of God; that’s just having feelings.

4. Contentment And Happiness: Feeling generally happy and content about the spiritual tradition and related community that I have been brought up in is just normal. It’s a classic case of the grass looking greener on this side of the fence, and it results from a basic human complacency with the status quo. People are comfortable with what they know, and being comfortable feels pleasant. On the other side of the coin, converts to Mormonism may feel happy and content with their adopted faith tradition, but again, this comes from natural and expected feelings of gratitude and newfound belonging. Belonging feels good, whether it’s a church or a street gang. Being happy with your religion is a perfectly good reason to stick with your religion. But is isn’t a mystical message from God that your religion is the one true path, because pretty much everyone feels that way about their own religion.

5. “Impressions”: When I suddenly feel impressed to knock on a door, to approach someone on the street or a train, or to get up and bear my testimony, I may think something along the lines of the following: “hey, I just had a thought about doing that–I wonder if it was God telling me to do it. No, it was just a thought. Bt wait, what if I am talking myself into ignoring the Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost telling me to do this and I am just brushing it off? Why would I do that? Of course this was an impression; of course this was the Holy Ghost!” That is not personal revelation from God; that is a hilarious mind game you are playing with yourself.

6. Good Ideas: Sometimes, I suddenly have a great idea, out of nowhere. I might therefore want to attribute it to God, especially if it is related to church, religion, or my calling. But here’s the thing: people just have good ideas all the time.

All of these things are normal, basic humanity stuff. They happen to everyone. So the only way they come from God is if everything comes from God, and then we have to invent a new word for the mystical peak experiences that seem to be something wholly other, and from which these normal human life experiences are qualitatively distinct. And even then, if I have to concede that these things do come from God, they definitely don’t come from God in a “personal revelation that proves that the Church is true,” because they happen to everybody.

Even if I take Mormonism at its word and accept that feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost (i.e. the presence of God) is conclusive and unimpeachable proof that all of the Church’s truth claims are true–which I most certainly do not–these six types of experiences just don’t count.

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So this is a post I have been meaning to write for a long time.  I mention my beautiful and sexy wife often, but not often enough.  It’s high time I gave her some much-deserved praise and explained how vital she has been in my spiritual journey.

When I first started questioning Mormonism, she was loving and supportive.  She didn’t freak out (to me, at least).  She was willing to talk about long-term ramifications of being a two-faith household should it come to that.  She was willing to listen and to talk, and was willing to think and read and consider.  Poke around the exmormon bloggerverse a bit and see how often you find people telling a story like that.  Good luck.

Even if that was the whole story,it would be one worth telling over and over.  But a quick browse through my blog archives should be plenty of evidence that that ain’t the whole story.  I’ve struggled to figure out what I believe for years now, and she has supported me every step of the way.  And not just in a hands-off “whatever you say, dear” way.  She’s read about and carefully considered Buddhism when I was interested in Zen.  We had long talks about Hinduism when I first read the Baghavad Gita.  Even as she has cautiously explored the limits of her own spirituality (in a nonchalant pretending-shes-not-doing-it way), she has been willing to accommodate whatever harebrained religious idea I am entertaining at the moment.

I have a really hard time talking about genuine spiritual feelings, but she gives me a safe place where I can do it.  She doesn’t judge; she doesn’t mock.  She’s just there for me.  When I finally told her about Dionysus and the gods, she encouraged me to explore this new spiritual world.  She even suggested we get a good book of Greek mythology for the kids.  When I experienced the presence of Aphrodite, she was excited for me, and thrilled about the new development.  I can’t imagine that this is kind of thing is typical.

There’s more I could say–like about how the decision to pursue a relationship with her, ultimately resulting in our marriage involved what may have been one of the few genuine spiritual experiences in my life–but in the end, it all boils down to this one thing: she is my everything.  She is the universe.  When I love her, I feel like I am loving divinity.  When I touch her, I feel like I am touching a goddess.  I know what it feels like to be in the presence of  deity because it’s llike what I feel like when I am in her presence.

I love katyjane.

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This post by Sannion is excellent. I shall quote it in its entirety, because I want people to actually read it and not just follow a link, which I don’t think people are likely to actually just do. But if you do read it, be considerate and follow the link, so Sannion gets the hit and thus full credit.

The Other Aphrodite

Everyone knows the goddess Aphrodite, right? The blonde, buxom, bubble-headed beauty rising from the waves on a conch shell, surrounded by fat little flying cupids, flowers, birds, and golden sunlight gleaming off of her diaphanous gown that doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. Her gifts to mortal-kind are grace, feminine wiles, the warmth of love, successful relationships, and everything that is sweet and pleasant about life.

This image of the goddess has been a favorite of poets and painters down through the ages and has become deeply imbedded in our collective unconscious. Even people who do not recognize the divinity of Aphrodite respond to the power of this image, as evidenced by the lasting interest in faded celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith, who have both been likened to the goddess by lazy journalists more times than one can count.

And yet, this is only half of the picture. There is, literally, a darker Aphrodite lurking just beneath the surface, a powerful and dangerous goddess smiling enigmatically from the shadows, forgotten and scorned, but waiting to teach her mysteries to those unwilling to accept superficial appearances and easy answers.

We encounter this side of the goddess in a host of random passages scattered throughout the works of various Classical authors, usually alongside more standard representations of her. When the unsuspecting student first discovers them it is often a jarring experience, conflicting, as it does, with our accepted, sanitized notions of who the goddess is and what her realm represents. Some might be inclined to reject them outright, to say that the ancients were mistaken in giving the name of Aphrodite to this deity, that these ideas just don’t fit or make any sense with the rest of what we know about her. (Others may be inclined to reject them because then they’d have to take her seriously: it’s common in the Neopagan community to dismiss Aphrodite as frivolous, vacuous, unimportant and contrary to a conception of modern, powerful women. How different they might feel if they were aware of this other Aphrodite!)

I maintain that these images and ideas are fundamental to a true conception of the goddess, and that they make perfect sense with and can even help elucidate some of her other aspects. Aphrodite is not a patchwork, contradictory, hybrid creature – but a whole and mighty goddess who can only be understood in her totality, both light and dark, joyous and frightening, merciful and cruel – and I would like to help draw the reader’s attention to just how complex and wonderful a deity Aphrodite can be through the following pages.

To begin with, let us examine some of the unusual names that have been bestowed upon this goddess, both in poetry and cult.

In his travels through Sparta Pausanias described visiting a temple of Aphrodite Areia “War-like” where the goddess was depicted armed and wearing a full panolopy or suit of armor. (3.17.5) In Arkadia (8.9.6) he found a cult of Aphrodite Summakhia “Ally in Battle”, while elsewhere (10.19.6) he discovered an Aphrodite Nikephoros “Bringer of Victory”. What, one may reasonably ask, does a goddess of love have to do with warfare? This is precisely the charge that Homer has Athene bring against her sister when she urges her favorite Diomedes to attack the lovely goddess, piercing her with his spear, and driving her shrieking from the blood-drenched battlefield to cower at the feet of Zeus. (Iliad 5.297-430)

It is a naïve question. Anyone who has ever felt the stirring of a true and intense love understands what a violent and overwhelming emotion it can be. Eros, love, is a madness that comes upon us unexpectedly, disrupting our nicely ordered lives, throwing everything into confusion, making otherwise sensible men and women do things they would never contemplate in their right minds. People risk everything for love – wealth, status, family, even life itself scarcely matters in the face of this overwhelming mania. Look at how many politicians have been ruined because of sexual indiscretions; how many families broken apart because of infidelity; how many once-promising careers have been snuffed out because the person couldn’t let go of someone that was dragging them down into the muck; how many lovesick souls have been driven to murder or suicide after being rejected. And the Trojan War, the greatest event in Greek history, was caused by an illicit love affair. Love, as the Greeks well knew, was a powerful, dangerous thing – but it could also be channeled towards a positive, community-strengthening end.

Why, after all, do we do the things that we do? Why do we have families, go to work, live in cities, create laws, fight wars, aspire to improve ourselves and try to leave the world a better place than we found it?

The answer is: Love. That ephemeral, invisible, constantly shifting and impossible-to-pin-down emotion that lies at the heart of everything we do and are. Love is connection. It’s what brings two people together, an unbreakable bond that unites disparate souls as mysteriously as the force of gravity keeps the atoms from spinning out into chaotic dissolution. If there was no love, people would live by themselves in barbarous solitude, never sparing a thought for anything other than their most basic, primal animal needs. It is love that makes civilization possible. For through love we feel a desire to connect with our fellows, to find a way such as language to express our thoughts and understand theirs. Love causes us to place the other person’s needs above our own, to do things that inconvenience us so that their life will be improved, even if there is no more tangible reward for that labor than the person’s affection. Love, further, induces us to put ourselves at risk solely to protect our beloved and their property. Men brawl in the streets to defend the honor of their girlfriends; mothers find the courage to face ferocious beasts when their children are at risk; nations clash over ideals that they deeply cherish. It is love that inspires all of this – as well as honor and pride.

For what is honor, but the desire for the one you love to look fondly upon you? People change the way they act, the way they dress, their level of education, and even their professions simply to impress other people. They will suffer great indignities and even death solely to avoid losing face before countrymen, family, friends, and romantic partners, all of whom they love in different ways.

In his Life of Alexander Plutarch discussed how love made men better soldiers. The Sacred Band of Thebes, which was comprised of pairs of lovers, was considered the greatest fighting force in antiquity because they never backed down out of fear of appearing shameful and forfeiting the love of their partner. Death was preferable to that horrible fate. And when Alexander finally defeated them he wept for the loss of such glorious and unmatched warriors. It was Aphrodite who brought them such undying fame, thus proving that her epiklesis “Ally in War” was an apt one.

Equally appropriate are the names that portray Aphrodite as dark or nocturnal. This may strike some as contradictory – after all, Aphrodite was called Khrusee “golden” (Homeric hymn 5) and Olumpian “brightly shining” (Pausanias 3.12.11); she emerged from the oceanic depths into the joyous sunlit world attended by the Horai and Kharites who adorned her with radiant gowns, shining jewelry, and brightly colored flowers of every hue (Kypria frg. 6). Even her star – the planet Venus – burns the brightest of all the heavenly bodies. She is a warm, glowing, pleasantly intoxicating goddess – at her appearance our flesh flushes with her heat – so how can she be connected with something cold and desolate like the blackness of night?

Well, Aphrodite is a complex, paradoxical goddess with a strongly fluid nature. Her name is derived from aphrou “the sea foam” (Plato, Cratylus 400d) and in Sparta she was worshipped as Morpho “changeable of shape” (Pausanias 3.15.10) which is natural enough when you consider that she is a goddess of life, and like Aphrodite, all life emerges from the watery depths. Our bodies are over seventy per cent water, and the fluids we release in sex have about them a whiff of the ocean to remind us where we came from. Love is an oceanic thing, deeper than we can comprehend. Love, at times, can be serene and beautiful, like the gentle, rocking waves spilling over the sandy beach in an eternal dance of life – yet at other times it can be torrential and destructive, those same waves threatening to engulf us and carry us down to our deaths. This doubling ambiguity is the hallmark of the goddess.

Not only does this suggest that Aphrodite’s nature embraces paradox – but it also hints at a possible reason why she was connected with the night.

Pausanias, never one to be accused of being a deep thinker, provided a straightforward explanation for her epikleseis Melainis “black” and Philopannux “night-loving”:

“This surname of the goddess is simply due to the fact that men do not, as the beasts do, have sexual intercourse always by day, but in most cases by night.” (8.6.5)

And indeed, that is true. Night-time is very conducive to love-making. People seek out the warmth of other bodies against the chill of the evening; they desire comfort and release after the stress of a long day; there is the practical consideration that two people sleeping in the same bed have more of an opportunity to engage in sex; shadows help conceal one’s otherwise noticeable physical shortcomings; it’s easier to slip about unseen under the cover of night if one is looking for some adventurous extramarital activities; and the dark is mysterious, romantic, and a little dangerous, all of which helps set the proper mood for love-making.

But there’s more to this – quite a bit more, in fact.

Most modern people don’t understand what real darkness is actually like. We live in electrical cities and there’s always a light on somewhere: street lamps, television sets, signs in empty buildings, distant traffic, airplanes flying overhead. We have lived with all of this for so long that we hardly even notice it most of the time. Even if we happen to find ourselves out in the wilderness – and suddenly notice the stars shining more brightly since they don’t have to compete with the haze of light from our urban settings – we know that we will soon be back to civilization and surrounded by the comforting omnipresent electrical glow of our cities.

But things were different for the ancients. Darkness was total, all-consuming, and even the light from candles and lamps was fairly dim by comparison, centered in a single spot, a pool of illumination in the midst of eternal darkness. Think about what that darkness must have been like for a moment.

During the day everything is distinct, separate. You can clearly see that this is this and that that, and navigate your way through the world of form easily. But when the darkness came – everything changed. It enveloped the world of creation, blurring things together in an undifferentiated mush of shadows and even darker shadows. You couldn’t see what lay before you – whether you were about to stumble over a rock or if a vicious creature lurked on the side of the road, preparing to tear your throat out. Nothing existed, for nothing could be seen. It was as if the world had been returned to its original primal state – a yawning chasm, chaos and emptiness, everything in a state of potentiality before the process of creation unfolded, as it would when the sun emerged once more and things became distinct, manifest, capable of being seen and navigated through.

This is what night and blackness meant to the ancients – and it is significant that they associated it with Aphrodite. For sex is a chaotic force. It frightens us, deep down. We feel that we are about to lose ourselves, that we are going to dissolve into an oceanic state of undifferentiatedness. The contours of our personality begin to shift, just as our body becomes united to another person’s, and in the throes of orgasm there is no thought for all of the things that make us who we think we are – our job, our politics, our religion, our status within the family and society, rules, inhibitions, fears, hopes, the foibles of our personality – all of this dissolves, fades into the background. All that we feel is the rush of sensation flooding our synapses, the intoxication of pleasure that drives us closer and closer to the edge of the abyss and the looming darkness beneath – and in climax we finally are pushed over the edge and plummet down, down, down into that perfect, primal, emptiness from which we first emerged into life.

That place is where life is. It is also where death is. It is the home of Aphrodite who straddles both spheres – because in truth, they are one and the same. Life is flowing out of the chasm – death is flowing back into it. But in time each stream will change its course and flow in the opposite direction. During the light of day we see these two as distinct – but in the darkness, and those things which remind us of darkness such as love, sex, creativity, madness, ecstasy, and being in the presence of the divine – we intuitively sense their connectedness. Life and death haunt each other – you can not draw close to one without finding yourself in the proximity of the other. When a child comes into this world, it is a dangerous time both for infant and mother with the potential for death looming over every second. From the decaying husk of a fallen log an ecosystem emerges supporting flowers and grass and fungi and insects and other animal life. A couple survives a car crash and for some inexplicable reason find themselves incredibly horny.

And Aphrodite watches over all of this and smiles.

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First, before you read this post and certainly before you comment, go back and at least read The Old Limbo Crossroads, to get some background. It’s better if you’re new to this blog to get completely caught up by reading What’s Going On, but the previous Crossroads is really the bare minimum.

Okay, now on to the topic at hand, which is Evangelical Christianity.

I grew up Mormon, but I grew up in East Tennessee, which means that most of my peers were Evangelical Christians of some kind. Most of my close friends were nonreligious or Roman Catholic, but most of the Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years was evangelical.

In particular, I had one really good evangelical friend whose name was Brock. We had kind of a common understanding that meant we didn’t try to convert each other, but through him I was exposed to a lot of the people that he went to church with. This exposure was often limited, but it was significant: these were people who really believed in Jesus Christ, who lived Christ-centered lives, and who were happy about it. You could see it in their faces, that Jesus Christ had made a difference. It was something that I did not see in my fellow Mormons, and it was something that stuck with me and was not easy to reconcile, even on my mission. I often thought back to these people and wondered how, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was really Christ’s church on earth, how these non-members could be so obviously and vibrantly Christian.

As I served my mission, my understanding of Jesus Christ developed and it drifted towards a more full understanding of grace, one which I inevitably had to try to reconcile with Mormonism (and I did it by constantly revising the Gospel According To Kullervo). Most of the doubts I had about Mormonism were laced with Evangelical concerns. My personal understanding of Jesus Christ ultimately developed into something very Protestant, with Mormonism’s specific practices and odd doctrinal quirks pretty much tacked on to the side.

Thus, last year when I finally started giving serious voice to my doubts about Mormonism, it was because I increasingly saw Mormonism as something that did not match my understanding of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and what I thought Christianity was all about.

Granted, leaving Mormonism ultimately led me to have to seriously examine, and in the end dig up and re-plant, my belief in Jesus Christ and in God. But I feel at this point that I have come full circle and I am now back in a place where I can state without (much) reservation that I believe in Jesus and I want to follow him.

Anyway, because of all of this, Evangelical Christianity is attractive to me. I have very little interest in theological liberalism (a topic that I will address in a future post), and reading some of the writers in the Emergent conversation (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller) within Evangelical Christianity has done a great deal to resolve many of my major theological concerns, showing me that I actually can be an Evangelical Christian without being a mindless fundamentalist or a rabid Republican. It has all been extremely compelling.

Right now my family is attending Cedar Ridge Community Church, which is a kind of emergent Evangelical nondenominational church, and it’s a really good place. It has a lot going for it. I agree with everything they preach form the pulpit, but in a way that challenges me instead of leaving me complacent. I am excited about their commitment to reaching out and blessing the world in so many ways. It is a church where I have few objections. But the more time goes by, and the more I find myself wanting to seriously follow, serve, and draw closer to, Jesus Christ, the more those objections seem to be a big deal.

Most of my objections have to do with Evangelical Christianity in general as opposed to the church we attend in specific.

The first is a question of authority, or more properly, of authoritative-ness. I guess I believe that all authority is given to Jesus Christ, like it says in the gospels, and that this authority still resides in Jesus, as opposed to being found in a book or in a pedigree of clergy or priesthood. Since Jesus promised us that when we are gathered in his name, he is among us, we have access to his authority when we are acting in his name.

That’s fine and good, and it’s actually kind of a tangent, because it’s not really my problem. My problem is that in the church I attend, there’s a real sense of all being on the journey together, like we’re all trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the best way we can, and we’re helping each other do that. That sounds great, but it doesn’t do the trick for me.

While there may be Authority, the kind that actually only Jesus has from the Father, I don’t feel like this set-up is very authoritative. Trustworthy. Reliable. Solid. I don’t feel like this church as an institution has much of any weight behind it whatsoever. It doesn’t feel solid. I’m not saying I think it won’t last- the church has been around for 25 years after all. But what is 25 years in the nearly 2000-year history of Christianity? What institutional experience and wisdom can there even be in an organization that is so new, especially one that is both Evangelical and Emergent, both of which in the context of church history mean some measure of rejection of broad arrays of Christian tradition?

My point is that I don’t feel like Evangelical churches are authoritative. I don’t think the Bible alone makes them authoritative, either, and I also don’t even think belief in Jesus Christ makes them authoritative.

What I’m trying to say is this- I wouldn’t feel confident going to the pastor at Cedar Ridge for personal or spiritual guidance. I feel like he’s just a guy, same as me, trying to figure thigs out. That has a certain appeal, sure, especially from the pulpit (there isn’t technically a pulpit, but that’s beside the point), but at the same time it doesn’t make me feel like he’s a spiritual leader that I could turn to. As far as I know, he hasn’t been to a seminary or anything. It’s kind of a surprise that that matters to me, growing up Mormon with a lay clergy, but as it turns out I think it actually matters a lot.

So with Evangelical Christianity, I have problems with how authoritative I feel the institutions and clergy are. My second problem is more theological. In theory, I believe in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, once for all. I believe in salvation by grace through faith. I believe that the price for my sins has already been paid, that I am already forgiven before I even did anything wrong.

My problem is that that sounds great on paper and in conversation, but it seems too abstract in practice. Let’s say I do something wrong, and feel bad about it. What am I supposed to do to be right with God? My theology tells me that inasmuch as I have faith in Jesus Christ, I am already right with God. But that doesn’t seem very real. I feel like I’m left trying to convince myself that I’m already forgiven and that it’s already taken care of and I should just be thankful for what Jesus did for me. But I still feel really bad, and all I can do is try, in vain, to talk myself out of the guilt.

It’s all abstract: I just have to trust that my wrongs were already righted 2,000ish years ago so I have nothing to worry about. But I have a hard time convincing myself of it. Maybe it’s because I really don’t have faith. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck in a Mormon mindset that demands I earn my salvation. I don’t know. But at the very least, I would like something concrete to do, at least an outward manifestation of reconciliation, so I can have some kind of closure on my sins. I’m not talking about earning forgiveness; I know I can’t do that. I just mean that I want to be able to somehow make concrete the abstract idea of my salvation by the grace of God. And Evangelical Christianity, in my opinion, doesn’t really offer that. It has no real sacraments, no clergy to confess to. It seems like the whole religion is just about deciding you believe, and then being glad about it.

I see it seem work for other people, and in theory I think it sounds great. But in practice it doesn’t seem to have any effect. I don’t feel transformed, healed, or even justified by just “realizing it’s all okay.”

Maybe I’ve missed the point- maybe Christianity is about realizing, for real, that it is okay, that Jesus made it so when you believe in him your sins are gone, and there’s nothing you have to do but acknowledge and accept it, for real. Maybe my insistence on some external performance is holding me back from real conversion, real faith, and the kind of transformational Christianity that I’m hungry for. I acknowledge the possibility. But it doesn’t change anything. And reassurances from other Christians that I’m on the right track are nice and supportive, but they’re not authoritative- they’re just more people like me, in the same boat as I am. What do they know? How are they more trustworthy than I am?

I imagine that the person that I really should trust is Jesus, that he has told me himself that he has atoned for my sins, and that anything else would just be noise. Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to be happening, to really be connecting. Again, I am left feeling like I’m just trying to talk myself out of feeling guilty.

I’ve talked about forgiveness for sins as probably the most important example, but the principles apply to the sum total of religious life. Evangelical Christianity has all of the action happen in the long ago and far away, and thus in the inaccessible abstract.

My third problem with Evangelical Christianity is the form of worship. For the most part, praise bands and Christian pop music do absolutely nothing for me. I want the deep spirituality of liturgy and hymns. I’m not trying to be a worship-consumer or anything, but modern, contemporary worship just doesn’t feel like it has any weight behind it. It is sincere but ephemeral, and seems to be primarily a matter of emotional appeal. Part of leaving Mormonism was the realization that emotions are not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Emotions are the product of propaganda as often as they are the product of nearness to God.

Evangelical Christianity (particularly, for me at least, the emergent conversation) is firmly rooted in scripture, reason (within the context of faith), and mysticism (i.e. the Holy Spirit), but has abandoned tradition almost entirely. I know the emergent conversation has made overtures at recapturing some tradition, but in my opinion it’s been barely more than a token effort, and comes across as superficial to me.

In fact, sometimes Evangelical Christianity seems altogether tacky and plastic, not anything like an ancient Middle Eastern (or even European) faith tradition, and certainly not anything like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Finally, I have some issues with Community. I feel like Christian community is absolutely critical, as Jesus commanded his disciples to be one even as he is one with the Father. I realize that the emergent conversation has tried to emphasize this, but in practice it seems ot not be happening. How do you have authentic community in a megachurch?

Even at Cedar Ridge, which is certainly no megachurch, it seems to me like the congregation might be too big for authentic community, and although they try really hard (and admirably) to foster community, it seems artificial. It’s like they’re trying to make a plant by mixing the component parts all together in a bowl, instead of planting the seeds, setting up the right conditions, and cultivating it as it grows.

Anyway, I have a strange love-hate relationship with Evangelical Christianity, and I’m hesitant to embrace it more fully than I already have, while at the same time, it has things that I want and need that I don’t know if I really can find anywhere else. And I feel like I must face the real possibility that my hesitation is because of the lingering effects of my Mormon roots, or maybe because I simply haven’t fully been able to understand and appreciate what Jesus Christ is all about.

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One of the funny things about this blog, wherein I document my spiritual journey to some kind of truth or meaning or whatever, is that whichever twist or turn I take, there’s always a chorus of cheerleaders telling me I’m doing the right thing. That’s why when my journey then takes me away from whatever detour it had me wandering through, I’m often reluctant to say so, in fear of disappointing the people who were excited that I stopped by.

I first noticed this with paganism. When I was looking into neopaganism and druidry, I attracted many neopagans and druids who were excited by the path my journey was leading me down. When it then led me back away from paganism, they mostly kind of faded into the woodwork (with some exceptions- I’ve picked up some good friends along the way). And I was sad to say that I didn’t think paganism or druidry was going to be where I ended up, because I knew those people would be let down in a sense. On the other hand, pagans tend to be really nice, nonjudgmental people, and as long as I’m not making fun of them or damning them to Hel, I’m pretty sure they’ve still got my back.

However, this dilemma was much more acute with atheism. When I ultimately spiralled into nonbelief, I was greeted with accolades and cheers from some of the internet’s atheists, for finally freeing myself from the shackles of atheism and being a mature human being who didn’t need deities as crutches anymore. When I decided that atheism wasn’t going to really work for me, I was reluctant to say so. For starters, accolades are nice. And the opposite of accolades is scorn, and I didn’t really want that.

Of course, I wasn’t really going to let how other people decide how I believe or don’t believe, but there was a minute where I was at least a little bit cagey about saying anything. I was getting so much support for declaring my atheism, and when I recanted, that support would probably vanish.

I say all of that by way of introduction tot his post. My goal hereis to explain why I stopped believing in God and why I started again. This might be a long post, so hang on to your hats.

When I first started seriously questioning the Mormon church last summer, my initial criticisms were centered around my feeling that Mormonism wasn’t Christian enough- Mormonism and Mormon scripture didn’t track closely enough with what I thought Christianity was all about (based on the New Testament, Church history, and the true Christians that I had come across over time). I felt like Mormonism was not leading me closer to Christ, but actually keeping me away from Him. Thus, in leaving Mormonism, my initial question was “what kind of Christian should I be?”

When I started this blog, my wife and I had only recently decided to actually leave Mormonism behind us, after struggling with it for some six months. I had also just read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and I felt like becoming a Christian was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. For some reason I didn’t feel like I already was a Christian, like I was already really committed to Jesus.

The problem was that my reasons for believing in Jesus, and in fact my reasons for believing in God at all, were basically the same reasons I believed in Mormonism. That is, I had simply been raised to assume that they were true, and this assumption was backed up by emotional “spiritual” confirmations. In deciding that those bases were insufficient for continued belief in Mormonism, I also took out the foundation, as flimsy as it may have been, for my entire belief in God. In other words, the same conclusions that made me question my belief in Mormonism made me ultimately question my belief in Jesus Christ and in any kind of God whatesoever.

I was waiting for some kind of mystical experience, some kind of contact with the divine that was the real deal, not the easy “warm fuzzy” self-delusion of Mormonism’s Holy Ghost. I was waiting for God to reach out and shake me, to let me know that he was real, to give me some kind of contact. But it kept not happening.

With that in mind, I began giving a loud voice to my innner skeptic. I started reading Ebon Musings’s essays on atheism, which are honestly extremely compelling and very difficult to dispute. Eventually, I was in a place where I had to admit that I had no real reason to believe in God other than wishful thinking, and if I was to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that I simply did not believe.

It seemed like a destination of sorts. It wasn’t what I was shooting for when I set out towards Byzantium, but maybe the place we intend to be is often a lot less realistic than the place we really wind up. I wasn’t a nihilist or anything; I still had some core beliefs that I was more or less confident in. But I could not say that I affirmatively believed in God.

The thing was, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I actually like religion! Specifically, I was (and still am) convinced that while an aheist can be a very good and moral person, and that a religious person can be a complete jerkwad, nevertheless for me personally, religion in general and Christianity in specific were going to have a much greater potential to make me the kind of person that I wished I was. I could be a good person and an atheist, that was never in question. But no atheist philosophy was going to actually transform me into a New Man. And Christianity made that promise.

But my problem was that if I was going to believe something, it would have to be more intellectually honest than my beliefs had previously been. No putting doubts on the shelf. No convincing myself until I was convinced. Nothing like that. I wanted to believe, but I didn’t want it so bad that i was willing to delude myself into believing.

So I went about tentatively trying to figure out how I could believe in God despite my loud internal skeptic (but without squashing him and pretending he didn’t exist) and despite the very good and compelling logical arguments against God’s existence, and the generally weak and limp logical arguments for God’s existence.

I read some Kierkegaard. I thought about how God and logic would interact, if there was a God. I thought about doubt, and whether there was a place for it within faith. I read Brian McLaren’s Finding Faith. I thought about hope.

In the end, I made a place where I thought I could theoreticaly believe in God. I had room for God in my framework again. However, having room for God, i.e., acknowledging the possibility of God, doesn’t equal belief in God. If, at that point, I had simply declared myself a believer, I would have been guilty of doing the very thing I was most loathe to do: talking myself into believing. Instead, I let it simmer for awhile.

At the same time, I started thinking seriously about Jesus Christ, and I found him extremely compelling. Christianity still kind of gave me the heebie jeebies, so I was still reluctant to even express interest in the religion. But the man? The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt like there was something to him. Something more. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I knew I liked it, and maybe I even needed it.

I then let this stew for a bit. The more I thought about God, the more I thought that maybe God exists after all, despite my efforts to logic him out of existence. And the more I thought about Jesus, the more he seemed electrifying, powerful, important. Much more so than a simple wise moral philosopher, however great he may have been.

When I read C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, I finished the book and realized that after reading it, there was no way I could ever say that I do not believe in God. I can’t explain it very well, because the book touched me on an extremely personal, maybe even primal level. But it completely evaporated all of my defenses. It didn’t resolve my concerns or wipe away all of my doubts or anything, but it spoke loud and clear to me: nevertheless, there is a God. It was a life-changing experience that I can’t do justice in writing or even in speaking- it was so strange and powerful that I have a hard time articulating exactly what it was about the book that changed my whole way of looking at God.

Once I had made room for the possibility of God, Till We Have Faces showed me that God was a sure thing.  All of my anger, my logic, my insecurity, my waffling, and my careful arguments are made completely insignificant when faced with God’s existence.

In any case, that’s where I am now. I am sure that there is a God, and I suspect that Jesus might actually have been God. I’ve not got a lot more than that. I suppose it’s a start. I can’t really be the poster child for honest atheism anymore, but I probably never should have been. I’m not at my destination yet- in fact I don’t know if I’ll ever really “have arrived”- but I like where I’m sailing right now, and I’m interested and excited to see what’s ahead.

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