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Posts Tagged ‘Gospel’

The Reformed African American Network (RAAN) has released a statement on white supremacy in the church, and is asking people who affirm it to co-sign in support.

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 1 Peter 4:17

In Charlottesville, VA, the violence of white supremacy visited our nation once again; its demonic presence has not been exorcised from us. From the founding of this nation until the present hour, the idolatry of whiteness has been a pro-death spirit within our republic.  It is easy for us to scapegoat the domestic terrorists who incited violence that ended in the deaths of three Americans. We can call them extremists who do not represent American values, but upon closer examination, the ideology deployed as a weapon in Charlottesville haunts every institution of the country, including the Church.

Thus, it is with great concern for the soul of this nation that we, the undersigned, covenant to “cry loud and spare not” (Isaiah 58:1) against America’s national sin, beginning within the body of Christ. White supremacy—often called by many names including racism, white privilege, “alt-right” and the KKK—is an insidious doctrine that in manifold ways steals, kills, and destroys the inviolable dignity of all God’s children (Genesis 1:26-28). It suppresses the truth of God (Romans 1:18), and walks out of step with the true Gospel (Galatians 2:14). All that is left for an unrepentant stance toward sin is God’s justice and judgement. Alas, many of the Lord’s followers remain hard of heart and hearing, making God’s judgement upon this nation seemingly inevitable.

Judgment begins with the household of God, which has been particularly instrumental in the creation and maintenance of racial inequity. From Puritan pilgrims to Evangelical revivalists, churchmen have been seduced by the spirit of the age, calling evil good and good evil.  The blood of indigenous peoples, Africans, and other people of color cries out from American soil to God our Maker. As premature calls for peace seek to silence the pregnant rage of this generation, the words of Scripture come freshly to mind: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51-53).

Because of this, we do not need cheap grace, cheap peace, cheap reconciliation. We need a revival of spirit, a revolution of values, and the abundance of righteous justice in this land.  Now is the time for the Church to again be the moral compass for this nation. Now is the time for a prophetic, Spirit-led remnant to bear credible “word and deed” witness to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As in the generation that preceded us, we especially call upon those born-again disciples who still cherish the authority of Scripture and the enablement of the Spirit. We declare that old time religion is still good enough for us in this new era, religion that provides us a full-orbed Gospel of evangelism and activism. May we be salt and light witnesses against the kingdom of darkness, knowing that we war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12).

To this end, we call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society. Nothing less than a full-throated condemnation can lead to true reconciliation in the Lord’s body. Additionally, this condemnation must not be in word only, but also in deeds that “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). As Dr. King notes in Letter from Birmingham Jail, white apathy is worse than white supremacy.

We also appeal to the black church to urgently remember its historic role of living within the pastoral-prophetic tension in U.S. Christianity. We call black Christians and others back to a prophetic vocation embodied in the ministries of Lemuel Haynes, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Maria W. Stewart, Richard Allen, Charles Price Jones, Charles Harrison Mason, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Mcleod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gardner C. Taylor, J. Deotis Roberts, and John Perkins. Now is the time to remind the nation and ourselves of the personal and social power of the Gospel.

Lastly, we invite Christians of good will to join in reading, learning, and acting on insights found in the ways in which the Church both legitimated and resisted white supremacy throughout the last several centuries. Armed with saving knowledge and theological and historical truth, we can persuasively call for repentance and be repairers of the breach. White supremacy will be cast out and dismantled, God willing, by prayer and fasting. We fight for victory in the name of Jesus our Lord! Amen.

I hope that you will co-sign the declaration.  To add your name as a signer, email: submit@raanetwork.org with your name and title.  People of all races and Christian traditions are invited to sign, but one of the important things about the declaration is that it arises from the black church tradition.

RAAN is doing some of the very best work in the church in the conversation surrounding race; if you’re not familiar with what they are doing, I strongly encourage you to become acquainted.

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This video from the Mormon Channel is currently making the rounds on social media. It depicts a mother going through a day of frustrations, failing to accomplish the items on her to-do list, failing to meet other people’s expectations, being ignored and/or taken for granted, and ultimately having to cancel her own plans (which she had clearly been looking forward to all day)because of the tornado of things that got in her way. At the end, crying and hopeless, she hears her son pray his goodnight prayers, and suddenly she realizes all the good she actually did that she didn’t realize she had done, because she had been focused on what she was unable to do.

“You Never Know” is clearly intended to encourage and give hope to mothers (and others!) who feel like they just are never able to measure up, to do everything they are supposed to do and still take care of themselves. The message is, “hey now, don’t get so discouraged, you did better than you thought you did!”

Most of the criticism I’ve seen focuses on the absurdity of the specifics (that project really won the science fair?), the parenting problems (making your kid a second meal after they reject the first), the gender issues (why are there apparently no able men anywhere?), the value judgments about life choices (the career-oriented and accordingly selfish sister) and the terrible modeling of interpersonal relationships (COME ON WOMAN, LEARN TO SAY NO TO SAVE YOUR SANITY).

In other words, the critics say, the problem is not the concept, but the execution. But the thing is, the problem is definitely the concept, and it’s a big problem.

Even looked at as charitably as possible, the message of this video is still firmly built on the premise that your value is based on your merits. Whether its the things you know you do or the things “you never know” that you do, at the end of the day, the question is still, what did you do? Folks, that’s what we call the Bad News. Spoiler alert: you will never do enough. You will always fail. You will never measure up, ever. Even if you add in all the good you do that “you never know,” you still fall miserably, wretchedly, abysmally short.

But the Good News is that Jesus Christ did enough, Jesus Christ never fails, and if you will put your trust completely in him and nothing else, He offers grace to you that is truly amazing: in him, you have also done enough. In Jesus Christ, you have already succeeded.

You don’t deserve God’s grace. You could never deserve God’s grace. And that’s precisely what makes it grace: you have failed, and God is under absolutely no obligation to do anything other than to subject you to his unbearable wrath, but even so, God gives eternal life to those who believe. Not because they earn it or deserve it, but because Jesus Christ earned it. Jesus paid it all.

That’s the good news: at the end of the day, the answer is that Jesus did everything.

And that’s also why criticism based on the need to set healthy boundaries is misplaced and will fall on deaf ears. As long as someone believes that they have to earn their salvation, your plea to them to do less for their own sake is completely and utterly vain. They know perfectly well that God demands nothing less than absolute perfection and unbounded righteousness, and they know perfectly well that God demands sacrifice.

People don’t need to be told to give themselves a little break, fall a little short, and God is okay with that (even if you actually did “more than you know”). People need to be told that Jesus already did everything.

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The Not Even Once Club is a new children’s book by Wendy Nelson (who is married to Russell M. Nelson) about a group of kids who form a club where they pledge to never break the commandments, Not Even Once.

I think a book like that might be okay (if a little didactic) if it was a heartwarming story about kids with good intentions to do the right thing all the time but who inevitably fall short, because we all do, and learn a little something along the way about forgiveness, grace and the power of the cross.

But nope, it’s apparently just a story about choosing to never break the commandments and only hanging out with other kids who do, and it even comes with a certificate your kids can sign to join the club by pledging to never break the word of wisdom, lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, bully, dress immodestly, break the law of chastity or look at pornography. NOT EVEN ONCE.

There was a recent post about it over at Wheat and Tares but that post deals more with the psychological and sociological problems with making commitments like that, rather than the basic incompatibility of The Not Even Once Club with the gospel. (EDIT: there’s now a follow-up, cross-posted at Wheat and Tares and Rational Faiths that does address gospel issues more directly.)

The Bible is incredibly clear that we all sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because we are fallen people in a fallen world and heirs to a sinful nature, a promise to never break God’s commandments is a promise that we will invariably break. We are hard-coded to break God’s commandments, and we absolutely lack the power on our own to do anything about it. Personal perfection projects like the Not Even Once Club, whether we attempt them as little kids or as adults, get us off on the wrong foot from the very start. Are the kids in the Not Even Once Club really going to never break the “law of chastity,” not even once? What about when they hit puberty and their brains are flushed with hormones? They’re going to be able to never entertain lustful thoughts? Really?

How is the Not Even Once Club good news? “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can be part of the club!” “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can go to heaven!” That’s not good news for sinners like you and me. That’s really bad news. I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Not Even Once Club, and I’d love to be wrong about it (by all means, tell me if I am!), but everything I have read about it and everything I know about Mormonism leads me to believe that the book is nothing less than a false gospel aimed at children. I am confident that Wendy Nelson has good intentions, but they’re not enough.

The Good News is that we don’t have to join the Not Even Once Club, because we get to join a far better club. Despite our corrupted natures and our inborn tendency to sin, we are declared to be in the right with God, right now, by virtue of Jesus Christ. Not because we managed to never sin (no matter who we are, that ship has always already sailed–we literally can’t help it), but because he did. Through God’s grace we are given the ability to respond to God’s grace and submit to the reign of Jesus. He makes us good. We don’t.

We don’t have to worry about qualifying for the Not Even Once Club because we get to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. I promise you it is way better.

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Let’s talk about the Bible, fratres et sorores.

Luke 17:20-21 says,

20. And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
21. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

This passage comes from the end of a big section of the Gospel of Luke that contains things Jesus taught on the way to Jerusalem, in the transition between his earlier Galilean ministry and the final road to his Crucifixion.

For the sake of context, verses 20-21 are the lead-in to a longer sermon about the coming kingdom:

22. And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.
23. And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them.
24. For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day.
25. But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.
26. And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.
27. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
28. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
29. But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
30. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
31. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
32. Remember Lot’s wife.
33. Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
34. I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
35. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
36. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
37. And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.

What I really want to focus on, though, is that bombshell in verse 21: “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you”.

So think about it, chew on it, put it in your gospel pipe and smoke it for awhile, and then come back and leave a comment about it. Feel free to let your theology hang out boldly, whatever kind of a dox it is. I’ve got a follow-up I’ll post once we get some ideas in the air.

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1. Are you a Christian?

In the sense that most people probably mean when they ask that question, my answer has to be no. I like Jesus just fine, but I do not believe that Jesus is the only-begotten son of the One True God, or the One True God uniquely made flesh. I believe in good and evil but I don’t believe that I am guilty of sinning against the One True God, and I don’t believe that I am in need of salvation that only God can provide. I don’t believe that a contemporarily obscure greco-Jewish messianic figure was the central pivot point in the spiritual history of the cosmos (not that there’s a specific reason he couldn’t be; just that I don’t believe he is). I don’t believe that the Jews are the chosen people of the One True God. There are many parts of the Bible that I do not believe are scriptural or inspired writing. I am not personally committed to the person of Jesus in any way.

2. Why not?

I’m just not. I don’t think it makes sense for me to have to affirmatively have a reason to disbelieve Christianity. Quite the opposite: I am not Christian because I don’t have enough sufficiently compelling reasons to be Christian. The burden of persuastion is squarely on the religion, and in my case, the burden just has not been met. I am unpersuaded. I find Jesus compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling. I find Christianity compelling, but not necessarily uniquely compelling.

I find value in culture and tradition, and I recognize that Christianity has played a pivotal role in my culture’s history, but it’s not the only spiritual tradition in the mix (look at our great art and literature and see for yourself: classical mythology may be out of favor on Sunday mornings, but it has stayed the course pretty fucking powerfully in our cultural consciousness). And given my own personal religious background–born and raised Mormon but gone apostate–it’s hard for me to claim “Christianity, generally” as my own personal cultural tradition, especially given the pluralism of the society I live in now. As great as I think it would be to identify with a particular tradition and to feel like my spirituality was connected to firm cultural roots, I just don’t, and I never really have.

3. Have you read the Bible?

Yes. I’ve read the Old Testament all the way through once, and different parts of it a number of other times. I’ve read the New Testament at least twice all the way through, and individual parts of it many times. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know my way around the book really well. I have mixed feelings about the Bible, as indicated above, partly because I think it’s sometimes a mistake to think of the Bible as one work. It’s not one work; it’s an anthology of works by different people at different times and in widely different cultural circumstances. Parts of the Bible have the character of scripture to me: they resonate mythologically (Genesis, 1 & 2 Samuel) or they are profoundly mystical (the Psalms, the gospel of John, Revelations, many of the Prophets). Other parts just don’t feel holy to me. The epistles may be complex, masterful and fundamental works of theological wordsmithy, but that doesn’t make them have spiritual weight. I’m basically familiar with the process of selecting what went into the canon, and I conclude that the canoneers were simply evaluating the books with different criteria in mind from what I am using. I’m comfortable with that.

I think there’s wisdom and relevance in the Bible. Maybe not uniquely so in an inherent sense, but certainly given the Bible’s place in western civilization for the last 2,000 years, it has a preeminent or at least prominent place in our cultural, philosophical, and spiritual history. The Bible is beautiful, resonant, and generally has a lot to offer, and I don’t think that being a non-Christian changes that. It may change the way I approach the text, but it doesn’t dissuade me from approaching it in the first place.

4. Do You Go To Church?

Absolutely. I like going to Church. I like going to Church with my wife, and I intend to keep on going for the rest of my life. And though I’m not much of a believer, I find value in community, and I intend to be active and involved. I don’t feel the need to attract attention and be the center of attention because I’m a non-Christian going to a Christian church. I’m happier to just be quietly heretical. But like I said, I like Jesus, I like the Bible, I like Church. I don’t agree with everything that gets said, but nobody should, about anything, ever. So I’m comfortable with that.

We don’t have a church we go to right now, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. When we find a church we like, we’ll go to it. And it will most definitely be a Christian church.

My kids will be raised Christian. I’m comfortable with that. They’ll know I’m not, and they’ll know that not being a Christian–or that being various shades of Christian–is a live option for reasonable people. I want them to be able to make up their own minds, but I’d also like to give them a decent tradition to be raised in and to be able to fall back on when they need to without feeling that they are forced to conform to it. And I’d like them to grow up seeing that vast differences in approaches to faith are ultimately reconcilable and mutually compatible.

I don’t really attend any other kind of non-Christian spiritual gathering, either. I’m tangentially affiliated with a group of revival Druids in Chicagoland, but I have never actually met with them in person. And revival Druidry isn’t necessarily incompatible with Christianity anyway.

5. What do you think about Christians?

I like ’em just fine. I’m married to one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be Christian. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to commit to a faith or a tradition. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take a stand and decide what you do and don’t believe. I understand completely that someone could find Jesus uniquely and supremely compelling, even though I don’t necessarily. I understand completely that someone could believe in One True God: sometimes I kind of do, too.

What I think is arrogant, though, is to pretend that you can be absolutely certain about any of it. There’s just no way. There is no way to know something without the possibility that you are wrong. We’re nervous systems floating in a dark jar, and we put a lot of faith in the data our senses feed us and the way our brains process that data. We could be wrong. We could be misled. We could be in the Matrix, and we would not know it or have any way of knowing it. The whole world could be a convincing illusion (some Hindus certainly think it is). Not only is it a possibility, but its a possibility that we can’t even judge how likely it is, because we have no frame of reference.

I’m not saying you have to waver or be wishy-washy. Practical existence means that, despite the possibility that it’s all an illusion, you have to act like it’s not. There’s virtue in taking a stand, and value in making sacrifices for what you believe. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that it’s possible you’re wrong, and find a way to weigh that against your convictions. In my mind, that’s faith. Unwavering certainty is just foolishness and self-deception. Going forward despite the possibility of being wrong is faith. What’s more, unwavering certainty makes people make bad decisions. The possibility of error allows us to act in faith but temper our actions with the consequences of error. It doesn’t mean paralysis. It just means our decisions, even the ones made on the basis of faith, are better decisions, because they are decisions we have weighed and considered properly.

6. Will you ever change your mind?

Maybe. Who’s to say? I change my mind about a lot of things, all the time. I try to live an authentic life, and sometimes that means backtracking and taking things back. I can live with that.

7. What would it take to make you change your mind?

Anything that would make Christianity and/or Jesus somehow uniquely or superlatively compelling. I don’t think it’s possible for Christianity to be objectively proven, and even if it’s theoretically possible, I think that Christianity has managed not to do it for two millennia, and I’m not optimistic about it’s chances of being objectively proven anytime soon.

So it would take something personal and subjective to make me into a Christian. A powerful mystical experience? A spiritual need uniquely filled? Something to make Christianity stand out and above everything else that I find just as compelling or more compelling. It’s a kind of spiritual economics. The value of being exclusively Christian would have to outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs of the rich extra-Christian spiritual landscape that I would have to forego.

8. Haven’t you already had powerful spiritual experiences confirming the unique truth of Christianity?

Yes but no. At one point in my life I said I did, because it was important in my faith tradition to be able to say that, to be able to testify publicly that you had received a personal spiritual witness of the truth of Jesus Christ. So I went looking for this witness I was supposed to have, and the first powerful emotional experience I had that was Jesus-related, I labeled personal revelation. It was not intentionally dishonest. The cornerstone experience I had was an emotional breakdown in a set of circumstances effectively designed to be a lab for spiritual/emotional breakdowns. It is suspect because of the setting, and because of the effort and desire I put into getting a specific result that I believed I would get.

The point is, no emotional experience is objective proof of anything. At best, it’s proof that you’re having an emotional experience, that’s all. Spiritually emotional experiences are relevant, but how we weigh them, the creedence we give them, and the conclusions we draw from them are not necessarily straightforward. An experience that was compelling to me under one set of circumstances may simply no longer be compelling to me, for any reason.

I had an emotional experience, but I no longer find it sufficiently compelling to believe in the unique truth and exclusive divinity of Jesus.

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In Euripedes’s the Bacchae, Dionysus, god of wine, intoxication, madness and the revel rolls into Thebes with a train or crazed maenads in tow. Thebes is Dionysus’s homeland, although that is not widely known. The Thebans go out to the wilderness to join in the frenzied worship, dressing the part and dancing the dances and partaking in the mad rites of the god. All of the Thebans, that is, except Pentheus, the king of Thebes and a cousin of the god, who is livid. To Pentheus, the god is a pretender, an interloper and a chartlatan who disrupts the social order, makes fools out of wise men, and makes the women of Thebes act… inappropriately. Pentheus fobids the worship of Dionysus, and orders the arrest of anyone who gets involved.

Pentheus has Dionysus detained and brought before him, and he peppers the god with questions in a scene not at all unlike Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and Dionysus gives the same kind of wise but evasive answers that we see Jesus give centuries later in the gospels. Pentheus is unhappy that Dionysus’s answers are not more clear to him, so he has the god imprisoned. Of course, Dionysus escapes easily; he’s a god after all, and in the process, he reduces Pentheus’s palace to flames and rubble.

Angry but curious, Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into going out to see the maenads, and Dionysus inflicts madness on Pentheus because Pentheus fought against the god’s worship. The frenzied maenads tear Pentheus to pieces, and the king’s own mother parades his head through the streets, unaware that she holds the head of her son.

This is a work of profound spiritual and theological importance. If you have not read it, you need to.

Inside each one of us is a dark side, a shadow to the Jungians, a part of us that needs to break free from our bonds, break all the rules, go crazy, be wild, be drunk, and in short, to transgress the boundaries of civilization. That part of us can be tamed and channeled, but never destroyed and never completely suppressed.

Dionysus calls to that part of us—he is the living embodiment of that dark, beautiful and terrible shard of the human soul. When we give in to it, we are his. But Dionysus is not a jealous god! It is enough that we, like the Thebans, go out to meet him and join in the revel every now and then. Our shadows need to be expressed but they can be expressed deliberately, channeled into appropriate and healthy pursuits.

We don’t need to let our shadows devour us: that would be the end of civilization and the end of virtue, and that’s not, as a general statement, what Dionysus wants from us at all. He certainly does not demand it. But we have to give our shadows a place in our lives. We have to entertain Dionysus in order to stay healthy and balanced. Because when we suppress our shadows, war against our shadows, pretend they are not there—when we imprison Dionysus and threaten those who do give him the honor he deserves—we do so futilely and at our own peril.

Dionysus is a god; he will not be imprisoned. He will not be defeated. The god of breaking bonds will never be bound. And if we, like Pentheus, refuse to admit Dionysus into our lives, the results will be catastrophic. Dionysus will have his way with us one way or another. The choice is ours: either we give honor to Dionysus on our own terms, or he compels us to give honor to him. And he is a god who knows no limits. Dionysus does not use safe words or designated drivers.

When we suppress our shadows they gnaw at us from the inside, and they tear us apart just as Dionysus tore the king’s palace apart. Healthy appetites become unhealthy obsessions. When we do not engage with our shadows, our shadows make ever-greater demands from us; our psyches fester in ever-deeper darkness. And eventually, we lose. Eventually, because we refuse to bend to Dionysus, we are broken by him. The results are ugly, and they leave a wake of victims. Pentheus ended up dismembered and decapitated by his mother; the psychosexual implications are not accidental.

So we party. We dance. We fuck. We drink. We fight. We let our hair down and have a good time when good times are called for because we have to. Its built in to who we are. If we think we can suppress those urges all the time and conquer that part of us completely we are fooling ourselves, and the script for our destruction has already been written, centuries ago.

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For those of you who don’t know; June has been deemed International Pagan Values Blogging Month. I’ve been planning a bunch of posts, but June has been pretty busy between military stuff and studying for the bar, so I’m only just now getting around to writing some of them. This is really my foundation post, though: the point is to set up a framework I can use to talk in more detail later about what is and is not a pagan value.

For Christmas last year my beautiful and sexy wife gave me a copy of Brendan Myers’s The Other Side Of Virtue. I was excited: the book had been at the top of my wish list, and I was eager to read it as soon as possible. I was beginning to seriously think of myself as a pagan without reservation, and I had been grappling with issues of morality and ethics fairly intensely for the previous half-year, both academically (I took a class on the philosophy of law), and on my own time (I read a ton of C. S. Lewis, in particular The Abolition Of Man, which I heartily recommend. In any case, I had questions of morality on my brain, and what looked to be a well-thought out, serious treatment of morality and ethics from a pagan point of view promised to be right up my alley.

I was seriously disappointed. I won’t go through a blow-by-blow of my problems with the book, because the big picture suffices: in The Other Side Of Virtue essentially starts with modern western liberal values and he attempts to retroactively justify them using pagan myth and tradition. While I applaud the general idea of asking some of the hard questions in a pagan context and adding pagan voices to the big debates out there, I think that Myers went about the whole thing the exact wrong way. He started with an a priori acceptance of modern liberal values and he constructed an argument for them in pagan terms, instead of starting with the mythology and philosophy of paganism and deriving values from those sources. What Myers writes is neither challenging nor transformative but merely philosophically sycophantic.

If pagan ethics are identical to mainstream liberal ethics, then morally speaking, paganism has nothing to offer us but a justification for what we wanted to do anyway. If having a religion looks exactly the same as not having a religion (thanks, Jack), then in a diverse and pluralist society where—like it or not—there is a religious marketplace, that religion will die because it ceases to serve a meaningful purpose. Certainly it will not be vital.

This problem is not somehow unique to paganism: in my experience it is a major problem in Christianity, too. One of the biggest problems I had with some of the Episcopal parishes we visited when I was looking for a Christian church home was that it seemed to me that far too many of them preached an unchallenging gospel that was in practice little more than a hearty stamp of approval of the values and behaviors already practiced by the congregants.

I am not trying to say that personal preferences and socially derived values should play no role in a person’s spiritual path. That would just be ludicrous; there needs to be a certain degree of interplay as your religion influences you even as it is influenced by you. But if we are just looking for a spiritual veneer to install over what we already believed anyway, then we are wasting our time.

Values have to come from somewhere—they have to have a source and a derivation. If we are doing what Myers models in The Other Side of Virtue, i.e. trying to fashion an essentially fictional religious/spiritual justification for our already-held values, then we are fooling ourselves into thinking our values are based on something other than what they are really based on. We misunderstand our spiritual tradition, our values, our religion, and ultimately ourselves.

The alternative then is to figure out what the source for our spiritual and religious values is, or should be, and try to work forward from there, without a preconceived notion of what the answers need to be when we’re finished (our own biases will inevitably creep in, which is a compelling argument for having this process go forward in community where we can check each other, criticize each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other—hopefully ultimately winnowing out the worst of our biases). As pagans, we do not have one single authoritative source. We look instead to mythology, the beliefs of our pagan ancestors, and to nature herself as the basis for our morals and values. At this point I do not necessarily want to suggest what those derived values are, but merely to suggest the framework we use to answer the question.

A prime example of this value-derivation in pagan community is the Nine Noble Virtues followed by some Germanic Reconstructionists. Although these nine virtues are not exlicitly spelled out anywhere in the Lore, modern Germanic pagans have gone back ot the sagas and eddas and found the application of a fairly consistent set of moral rinciples, and from that they have constructed the list of Nine. This is the kind of thing all pagans should be doing! We should be going back to our sources, seeing the values that are embodies in them or expressed by them, checking them against each other, and in the end identifying those values that are truly pagan values.

As we do this, we need to realize that it is entirely possible that we will derive spiritual and religious values that conflict with our other social, cultural, political, and civic values. This is bound to happen because these values are derived from different sources. It’s not a bad thing. It means we have to grapple with the inconsistency, and deal with the reality of being forced to weigh conflicting values against each other. We will find ourselves engaging in a mature, ongoing fluid process of moral reasoning. Sometimes there won’t be a conflict at all, and sometimes different sources can fill in the gaps left by their counterparts.

This process may also involve some rude awakenings as we begin to discover that some of our very favorite values are not really pagan values! That is not to say that they are not valuable, or that we should not hold them as guiding principles in our lives, but we may need to recognize that there are many valued that are held by pagans without themselves being pagan values, and that those values may actually conflict with their truly pagan counterparts. As I said, this may create some tension as we try to work out or simply live with the inconsistency, but if we actively engage in the process the result is an endgame of unmatched moral maturity.

Important addendum: Values From The Age Of Aquarius.

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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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After I had a dream about the English Standard Version, I went out and bought a nice slimline copy with an embossed celtic cross on the cover, and I’ve decided to start reading the Bible in earnest, starting tonight.  I’ve “decided to start reading the Bible” a couple of times in the last few years, but i have a weird feeling about this time, like I’m going to make it stick.  I kind of feel, I don’t know.  Hungry for it.

For what it’s worth, I’ve read the King James Version a couple of times (well, the Old Testament once, and the New Testament maybe three times, the Gospels at least one time more than that), but it was a long time ago as a Mormon missionary, and the experience was filtered pretty heavily through the lens of my Mormon belief.  Nevertheless, grappling seriously with scripture for the first time resulted in some of the early seeds that eventually led me away from Mormonism.

I want to read the Bible again, as a Christian this time.

My wife and I have challenged each other to read the New Testament by the end of the year, in any version (sort of a Christian counterpart to the LDS Book of Mormon challenge).  I also think I’d like to read through the Gospels in several different versions (ESV, Message, NRSV, NIV, and the KJV again).  Ultimately I’d like to read the Old Testament again, but probably in an easier translation (NIV, Message, Good News, something like that).  I have no desire to labor through the KJV Old Testament again; not without a much better foundation biblical knowledge.

What am I expecting to get out of my reading?  Well, like I said, I’m feeling a bit of hunger for the Word (that seems lame when I write it out like that, but it’s pretty much true).  I want to get a better handle on who Jesus really is.  I want to feel closer to God.  I want to strengthen my relationship with my wife.  And I want to grow spiritually.  I’m having trouble figuring out where and how to do the latter, but I’m planning on writing another post on that soon.  Suffice it to say for the moment, that as a relatively new Christian, I’m lacking quite a bit in the guidance department.

Anyway, I’m really going to try to stick to reading this time.  I’m not going to starve when the food’s sitting in front of me.  I’ll keep the blog updated on any developments.

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I am increasingly suspicious that Christianity isn’t going to do the trick for me.  I have reasons.

First, I really do not think that that Christianity, the Bible, the God of the Bible, and/or Jesus Christ objectively represent absolute truth.  I’m just not convinced, and I think, weighing the evidence in my mind, that it is less likely than otherwise that Jesus is the Son Of God send down to be Sacrificed For Our Sins and representing the One True Way.  Absent some compelling reason to think otherwise, I just don’t believe it’s True.

That, of course, does not end the inquiry, because I’m pretty skeptical in general of the practical reality of objective absolute truth.  I’m willing to accept the possibility that Christianity is Truth even if its foundational and theological truth-claims are questionable.  To that end, I have danced around with Christianity and belief in Jesus for most of the past year.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve read in the gospels.  I’ve attended a handful of churches.  My attitude was that I was willing to set aside the objective truth inquiry and settle for asking if Christianity is meaningful to me.  I had an intuition that there was transofrmational power in Christianity that I was keenly interested in, that Christianity could turn me into a New Man, the way C. S. Lewis talks about it in Mere Christianity.  I even felt the beginnings of some kind of personal transformation in my life as I genuinely tried to live a Christian life.

So why then am I afraid to move forward?  What holds me back from asserting, “this is what I believe; this is where I stand?”  What keeps me from diving in and accepting Jesus Christ and Christianity with open arms?  What is it about Christianity that simultaneously attracts and repels me?  I know there are probably some simplistic answers from the Christian perspective.  I’m not interested in those; I don;t really find them convincing.

Am I so scarred from my disentanglement from Mormonism that I am unwilling to embrace any religion, like an abuse victim who has a hard time forming new relationships because of deep-seated trust issues?  Did Mormonism leave me with a lingering sense that I will only be satisfied when I find a religion that I am certain is objectively, absolutely true?  (If so, I’m pretty much screwed, because I’m comfortable saying there ain’t one out there).  If I say No to Christianity, will I be able to say Yes to anything else?

What is it about Christianity that appeals to me?  I like Jesus himself, and his teachings.  I find the general theology of Christianity, the picture of God made man to save fallen humanity, appealing and comforting.  I like Christian liturgy.  I like hymns.  I am comfortable with the Bible (although I have spent my life learining to see it through uniquely Mormon eyes, so in many ways I am still completely new to scripture).  I’m a western person, and Christianity is unquestionably the religion of the West–it’s the religious currency of our society and it is probably the most culturally relevant.  And like I said above, Christianity at least seems to offer something transformational that I feel like I need.  I’m a pretty broken person in a lot of ways, and I think I could certainly use a heapin’ helpin’ of healin’ atonement.

Also, I really like Christmas.  Particularly, I like the religious/sacred message of Christmas.  The juxtaposition of the darkest, coldest time of the year with the birth of Mankind’s salvation.  I love the sacred Christmas hymns.  I love the Christmas story in the gospels.  I eat it up with a spoon.  I’m not sure what I’d make of Christmas if I wasn’t a Christian (watch for a blog post coming up about this), but I am absolutely unwilling to completely give it up.

On the other hand, I have a sneaking, growing suspicion that the Jesus of history really wasn’t the Jesus of Christianity.  If Jesus isn’t actually the one true savior of fallen humanity, then I don’t really need him in any any kind of external, objective, cosmological sense (I may personally need him because of the requirements of my own psyche, but that’s a different issue).  And if I don’t need him, then what is he to me?  Even if there is truth and meaning in the Jesus myth, I don’t know that I am willing to make it my exclusive truth and meaning or even my primary truth and meaning.

I don’t think I believe in a personal god at all, and I also don’t think I belive that Jesus is a unique incarnation of God.  I’m not convinced that the gospels are an accurate depiction of the life of Jesus, or that Paul’s epistles are a univerally and objectively correct interpretation of the life of Jesus, either.  I’m not certain I think I need Jesus to save me from my sins (since I’m not really sure I belive in sin, hell, or the Devil, certainly in the orthodox Christian sense).  I’m also strongly turned off by both fundamentalist/evangelical and liberal Christians, and I have serious reservations about the emerging conversation.

I’m not certain that I want all of my life to be Jesus-flavored.  In other words, I’m not ready to devote myself completely to Jesus, and I don’t know if I’m even interested in doing so–sometimes it seems great, but usually it seems like to make it work for me I’d have to do a lot of self-brainwashing that I am absolutely unwilling to do.

What about the personal transformation that I claimed to have felt beginning?  If that’s the result I want from religion, and my intuition says Christianity offer it, and I’ve even felt its beginnings as I started to practice Christianity, then why did I stop?  They were great, I’ll admit it.  In fact, This is not an easy question to answer.  Maybe personal transofrmation isn’t really what I’m wanting after all.  Or maybe it is, but there’s too much other stuff in the package of Christianity (or even in the package of Jesus), such that I feel the need to look elsewhere for transformation.  Or maybe a part of the transformation I wanted was a connection, a relationoship with God that never seemed to actually happen.  Perhaps the transformation I want is not just into a better person, but a better person that is connected to God.  And I certainly didn’t feel like that was happening.  Not even a little bit.

So what am I supposed to make of all of this?  I’m at a loss.  On some level I have an attraction to Jesus and to Christianity, but not such that I would be willing to call myself (or think of myself as) Christian in any meaningful sense.  Does it matter?  On one level, no–I can believe whatever I want, of course.  On another level, if I could self-identify as a Christian, then it would give so much direction to an otherwise extremely difficult (and basically directionless) spiritual journey.  Maybe that’s not enough.  As usual, I just don’t know.

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