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Posts Tagged ‘Tradition’

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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Back in April when I first started to come out as a Pagan, I mentioned that one of my goals was to figure out some good ways to celebrate the Wheel of the Year.  Although my emphasis is typically on the Hellenic gods, and my personal practice draws more from reconstructionism than anywhere else, I do not necessarily self-identify as a hard reconstructionist.  I’m suspicious about extensive New Age influence in Neopaganism, and I am cranky about eclecticism generally, at the same time I feel drawn to multiple strands of pagan worship and theology.  To make a long story short, I feel drawn to celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year (solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days) despite the fact that as a whole it is a recent phenomenon.  As John Michael Greer is fond of pointing out, the validity of a spiritual practice comes from whether or not it works, not whether or not it is ancient.

One of my earliest specific pagan epiphanies was with the Wheel of the Year.  As a teen, I was immensely interested in mythology and pagan religion (ancient and neo-), but was often nervous about telling other people about it, so I did a lot of reading and research in secret.  One day I was sixteen or seventeen or so, I was looking at a calendar with the eight pagan holidays on it, and I was calmly and peacefully but intensely struck by the rightness of it.  It was particularly significant to me because that kind of spiritual reaction was the kind of thing I had always been raised to believe would be the Holy Ghost’s witness of the truth of Mormonism.  And there I was having it over a pagan calendar.  I called up my best friend John (maybe he’s reading this?), and told him about it.  It was really the beginning of my secret adolescent religious rebellion.

Anyway, since I have felt comfortable ebracing my Pagan identity, I have let three of the eight major holidays pass by without doing anything about them, because I don’t know what to do.  I don’t really have a group of fellow-believers to practice my religion with, so most of my spiritual expression winds up being in a personal or family context.  Luckily, my beautiful and sexy Christian wife is more than willing to be supportive and take part, but since it is my thing, I really have to take the lead.

I like holidays and festivities a lot, and that’s what I am looking for here.  Not rituals, but traditions, the things that make the day and the season feel festive and special: decorations, meals, traditions, things to think about.  The eightfold year is a cycle, so it lends itself well to that kind of thing, but it can be hard to find resources about it.  Most of what is available on the internet is either too generally stated to be useful, or it is presented in ritual form, which is definitely not what I am loking for.  While ultimately I do plan on engaging in seasonal religious ritual as part of my Wheel of the Year celebration, I really want to also lay a festive foundation for said ritual.  Maybe I’m going about it backwards, but this is the way it makes sense to me, and it is the best way to share with friends and family.  Over time, I expect my religious and ritual explorations would influence and affect the festive traditions.  But I want something to start with.

The other consideration I have is the similarities between some of the holidays on the pagan calendar and Christian and civic holidays.  Christmas is similar to Yule, Samhain matches Halloween, the Spring Equinox parallels Easter, etc.  For most pagans, this is not a problem: they give rpesents on Yule instead of christmas, and they decorate eggs and such on the Equinox instead of Easter (shoot, the Easter Bunny actually makes a lot more sense as a part of a pagan holiday than a Christian one).  But my family is interfaith, which means we’re celebrating both sets.  So I don’t want two Easters.  I want to figure out how to celebrate Easter and the Spring Equinox, etc., in a way that makes them both not only enjoyable but also sufficiently distinct.

I finally sat down about a week ago to start hammering all of this out.  I showed it to my wife, and she thought it all seemed interesting and fun, but she also pointed out that the problem for her was that it was not always clear what all of these traditions actually mean.  It’s a fair question, and one that I can’t easily answer.  This list is really something I have cobbled together from a lot of different sources, whatever sounded good to me, and from things I intuited on my own.  Unfortunately, my own personal theology is still in development, so it is not easy to weave my own meanings into these traditions.  That gets us back to the long view: as my spirituality develops, I imagine I (we) will tinker with these holidays and alter or replace traditions that do not make sense in my own pagan context, and emphasizing those that do.

So without further ado, here is my Official Wheel of the Year Resource.  Feel free to add your comments, suggestions, insights, questions, whatever.

Beltaine
Date:
May 1.
Description: A time to light bonfires and revel, to celebrate fertility and sexuality.
Traditions: Most importantly… hot sex. Possibly sex outside if practical. Hot sex and huge bonfires, lit on a hilltop (toss juniper sprigs in the fire, and leap through it for good luck)..
Holiday Food: Rabbit, Strawberries (strawberry pie or strawberry shortcake), Mead
Decorations: Flame, wildflowers, rowan crosses, may boughs hung over doors and windows.

Midsummer
Date:
June 21
Description: A second bonfire—bonfires on the water (the ashes bring good luck), and active holiday where the sun is at maximum power and energy is strongest.
Traditions: The veil between the otherworld (or the un/subconscious) and the waking world is thin, it is a good time for resolutions, and for putting plans into effect. Keep vigil through the shortest night, waiting for the rising sun. It is also a good time to gether fresh herbs.
Holiday Food: Lamb, fresh produce, lemon merangue pie.
Decorations: Wheels, sun symbols, St. John’s Wort.

Lughnasa
Date:
August 1.
Description: The first harvest festival, Lughnasa is a time for being outside, for celebrating the physical world with games and physical activity. It’s a time for dancing and bonfires, for blessing the fields. And it’s a good time for marriages.
Traditions: Bread is baked in the shape of a man and eaten to represent the Dying God (Cernunnos, Dionysus, Odin, Osiris, Jesus, Arthur, the Green Man).
Holiday Food: Bread, beer, watermelon, barbecue.
Decorations: The Green Man, a flaming wheel.

Autumn Equinox
Date: September 21
Description: The second harvest festival—the harvest of fruit—a time of thanksgiving and recollection, the in-gathering of experience.
Traditions: Make and burn a straw or wicker man, to represent the burning of the Harvest Lord.
Holiday Food: Corncakes, Nuts, Berries, Fruit Pies (not apple), Wine.
Decorations: Pinecones, acorns, gourds, gold, red, orange, and brown.

Samhain
Date:
November 1
Description: A night when the borders between the living and the dead are the thinnest, the last harvest. Time is abolished and the spirits of the dead walk free. A time for remembering those who have gone before. The time of year when livestock were slaughtered.
Traditions: Leave an extra place at the dinner table for dead ancestors. A perfect time for divination. The day after Samhain is a day forcleaning and getting rid of old things.
Holiday Food: Pork Roast, Apples, Apple Pie, Cider, Hazelnuts, Pumpkin Bread
Decorations: Leave a candle burning in a western window to guide the spirits of the dead.

Yule
Date: December 21
Description: The shortest day of the year, this is a time to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. It is a time of rebirth and stillness, a time to celebrate intuition. There is a lot of symbolism between intuition, the Pole Star, the Great Bear, and King Arthur.
Traditions: A Yule log is burned for ten days (Yuletide lasts from December 20 to December 31), and then the ashes are strewn on the plantings in the spring. The wood from the log is yept to light the yule log the next year. Give libations to the fruit trees.
Holiday Food: Baked goods in sun shapes, and mulled wine.
Decorations: Sun wheels, decorated trees, candles, wreaths of mistletoe, holly, and ivy.

Imbolc
Date: February 1
Description: The holiday of the lambing, or childbirth (it is no accident that Imbolc is exactly nine months after Beltaine…). It is a time for initiations, and purification. It is a good time for meditation.
Traditions: Write and read poetry. Share it, have a poetry competition.  Leave a white cloth out a window for the goddess to bless, and when the first light of the sun touches it, it gains healing properties throughout the year. Candlemaking.
Holiday Food: Milk, honey, dairy foods (a massive cheese smorgasbord).
Decorations: Hundreds of candles, and pools of water.

Spring Equinox
Date:
March 21
Description: A time to celebrate planting and prepare for the gifts of the summer, and to recognize the power and presence of spring. A time of emergence, fertility, and balance. A time that is sacred to Persephone, to celebrate her return from the Underworld and her reunion with her mother Demeter.
Traditions: Decorate eggs.
Holiday Food: Twisted bread, honey cakes, eggs, carrots.
Decorations: Flowers (honeysuckle, iris, peony, violet, lily, daffodil), in baskets or garlands.

FOLLOW-UP: I have put up a new post about trying to piece together the ritual and religious aspects of the Wheel of the Year, specifically from a Hellenic polytheist perspective.

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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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It occurred to me a few moments ago that I am getting very near to (or already at!) the threshold between thinking about paganism and actually practicing paganism.

In some ways that’s not really true: I’ve been pouring out regular libations, saying simple prayers, and making little sacrifices to the gods regularly for several months. But it has been in a very tentative way, sort of still uncommitted in the back of my mind. I want more, and I want to involve my family in it. I want a little more periodic ritual, a little more family celebration to intertwine with my private devotions (which could stand to be improved a bit, too).

I need to be careful about diving in over my head, as I have a tendency to go overboard and then turn myself off as soon as I turned myself on. But I do feel like I am someplace, I don’t know, liminal right now, as I hover between different spiritual states.

May Day is coming up soon. Unfortunately it falls in the middle of my exam period, but I am thinking about using it as a kickoff point for studying AODA Druidry in earnest, and for committing to the more large-scale expressions of faith in my life at the same time. I am working on collecting information about the Eightfold Year/Wheel of the Year, and thinking about foods, traditions, ways to celebrate, ways to decorate. I’m not talking about specific ceremony and ritual (although I also intend to come up with some of that before too long, because I don’t know how enthusiastic I am about the ritual laid out in Greer’s Druidry Handbook), but the folk and family customs, the things that make a holiday feel like aholiday instead of just another day.

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When I think of direction in religion and my ongoing conundrum, some of my difficulties fit the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy really well.  Simply put, in terms of Apollonian religious experience, Christianity is the most appealing and compelling to me.  Christianity (and for me I mean mostly Episcopalian/Anglican Protestantism) is beautiful: I love the liturgy, the hymns, I love the churches.  I like the idea of a professional, trained clergy, and am comfortable with a degree of hierarchical authority, especially when it is given legitimacy by the weight of tradition, and when it is unable or unwilling to exercise its authority in a heavy-handed or abusive way.  I like an authoritative clergy, not an authoritarian one.  I like the freedom of thought that is (often) preserved in Episcopalianism.  I like Christian theology and history.  I like churches and cathedrals, and the entire aesthetic of Christianity.

But on the Dionysian side, nothing happens.  Jesus does not intoxicate me.  I am not in love with Jesus.  I don’t feel a connection to Jesus, a relationship with Him.  Nothing, nada, not at all.  I have no problem with Jesus conceptually–I think he’s pretty great, and the idea of a personal, mystical relationship with the incarnate God of the Universe is amazing to me.  But I can’t figure out how to make it happen at all.

I’m sure someone is going to say that that side of religion is not important or crucial, but they’re wrong, at least when it comes to me.  I’m not just going to embrace a religion because it sounds good and looks good on paper.  I need something more.  I hunger for the divine, and the Apollonian, while really important, simply does not sate that hunger.  So I am just not okay with a spiritual direction where I don’t make some kind of contact with god.

I actually started to wonder if maybe the mystical/Dionysian side of religion either didn’t exist, or just wasn’t going to happen for me.  I was waiting for it, and trying to put myself in situations where it could happen: I didn’t want to close myself off to the possibility of some kind of Road to Emmaus moment, but at the same time I was wary about lowering the bar on mystical experience too far.  If Mormonism taught me only one thing about religion, it is how easy it is to manufacture your own spiritual experiences if you want them bad enough and are willing to deceive yourself.

So, perhaps you can imagine my surprise and the eager excitement I felt when a Dionysian experience really did happen to me.  Perhaps you can also understand the special irony in the fact that I felt this Dionysian connection not with Jesus or Yahweh at all, but of all deities, …with Dionysus.  More on that in a future post, though.  Suffice it to say that at this point, my barrier to Christianity is not just that I am not getting the mystical access to Jesus that I want and need, but that I am actually getting it somewhere else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Religious Choices and their Values

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

A. Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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When I read Emergent writers like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, I find myself nodding and agreeing with so much of what they say.  I find the emergent conversation compelling enough that I actually sought out the church that McLaren founded, and that’s where my wife and I go every Sunday these days.

There’s a lot about the emergent conversation that I really like.  But I also have some problems with it that I would like to discuss.   These problems are interrelated and difficult to make really distinct, so they don’t really lend themselves to a bullet-point list in order of importance or something like that.  Instead, I’ll just pretty much tackle the whole thing at once, starting wherever and typing until I feel like I’ve said all I have to say.

One problem I have is that I see, for the most part, the emergent conversation/emerging church is really a child of evangelical Christianity as opposed to Christianity as a whole.  In a way, it seems like a kind of mini-Protestantism, emerging from fundamentalism and evangelicalism the way Protestant Christianity emerged from Catholicism.  The thing was, in the fifteenth century, Catholicism is all there was, so the Reformation was a big thing- its adherents were birthed from the entirety of western Christianity.

By contrast, the emerging church is mostly just the product of evangelicalism, which is only a small slice of current Christianity.  Thus, I feel like it rests on many evangelical assumptions, despite trying its best to be ecumenical and “generous” in its theology and outlook.

In short, I feel like emergent Christianity (and I knowingly use the terms “emerging” and “emergent” interchangeably, Mark Driscoll’s opinions notwithstanding) begins by making evangelical assumptions, finds problems there, and simply assumes that the answers can’t be found anywhere else in Christianity.  Even in McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, which is a great book, and you should read it, the hat-tip he gives to the rest of Christianity is largely superficial, and betrays his deel evangelical/fundamentalist roots.

Why do I care about this?  Well, for one thing, I have some concerns about evangelical Christianity that the emerging church doesn’t really resolve.  Second, recent things I’ve read make me wonder if the emerging church isn’t really just trying to reinvent the wheel, while rejecting the possibility that the wheel has actually already been invented and refined if not perfected.

I just finished reading Rowan Williams’s book Where God Happens.  Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.  I plan on posting something lengthy about Anglicanism in the near future, but suffice to say for the moment that Anglicanism is one of the paths I am seriously considering in my journey towards Jesus Christ, but I also have very serious doubts and reservations.

Where God Happens is a short book about the Desert Fathers and the relevance for people today of their teachings, sayings, and way of life.  Interestingly enough, the concepts that Dr. Williams pulls out of the sayings and practices of the Desert Fathers are in many ways extremely similar to the theological ideas and concepts of the emergent church.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me.  Until that point, the emergent conversation had been my oasis, the shining example of what it seemed like Christianity should really be about.  But here is the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking the fourth-century Desert Fathers (and Mothers; let’s not leave out Amma Syncletica) and the result is basically the same message!  In particular, the ideas about community and relationship and Christian discipleship are startlingly similar to the theological ideas of McLaren et al.  But more importantly, this same message is in a context that lends it so much more authority- or at least that makes it so much more authoritative- than the hemming and hawing we’re-just-regular-guys McLaren and Bell even come close to.  This is completely steeped in the fullness of Christian history and tradition.

The result is that I start to wonder about putting too many of my eggs in the emergent basket.  If they’re just reinventing the wheel, they’re doing it in a humble but arrogant way, assuming that the wheel hasn’t already been invented and highly refined just because they don’t find the wheel in their narrow evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds.

If all of the things that I like about emergent theology are there for the discovering in historic orthodox Christianity, then maybe emergent Christianity isn’t as great asI thought it was, especially considering my other concerns with evangelicalism that are carried over into the emergent conversation.

Another concern I have with the emergent conversation is in terms of the practice of worship.  While one stream of the emergent conversation is concerned with reworking and refining theology, there’s another, maybe more major stream that is concerned with new and relevant ways of worship.  I am not as excited about this stream, although it is generally seen by the rest of the evangelical world as the more acceptable facet of emergent Christianity.

These new ways of worship often involve pairing religious innovation with recovered ancient Christian traditions.  Once again, my problem is that this is completely from an evangelical standpoint.  The ancient traditions of worship and spirituality are not lost; they have merely been abandoned by evangelical Protestantism.  They are still easy to find and access in many Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and even traditional Protestant churches and communities.  And when the emergent church “recaptures” these traditions, they always seem so much more… superficial than they do when seen in practice in their traditional context, in something like an Eastern Orthodox Liturgy.

Furthermore, I’m not necessarily always excited about innovative worship.  To me, it assumes that the traditional ways have been fully mined for meaning and there’s none left, so we need to make up something new.  And I challenge that assertion.  I think part of the problem is a media-soaked culture that has forgotten how to be still and reflective, how to take time, to be thoughtful, and to let spiritual things penetrate deeply.  I think if we could recover contemplation, then the traditional ways of worship, the ones that have proven themselves relevant to human beings for up to twenty centuries, will still be just as relevant as they have always been.

I think there is room for thoughtful innovation in worship, but I think it is a thing that should be done carefully and deliberately, not recklessly.

My final criticism of the emerging church is its concern with being relevant to the postmodern person, and its general marriage to postmodernism.  As a postmodern person, it seems great, but at the same time, I long for a faith that stands outside of and independent of philosophical trends and momentary (compared to the continuity of human history) ways of thinking.  Christianity existed before modernism, and I think embracing modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity (I’ll post more about this later, but in my opinion, embracing modernism means either taking the path of theological liberalism or the path of theological fundamentalism, both of which make Christianity look foolish).  At the same time, I have no real confidence that people won’t say the same thing about postmodernism in a few hundred years.  Postmodernism may be a new way of thinking and a refreshing alternative to modernism, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve “finally gotten it right.”  Down the road, postmodernism will be outdated and will be junked with all of the other antiquated philosophical frameworks that humanity has consigned to the collective cognitive dusty attic.

I think Christianity should be able to stand outside of passing waves of philosophy- it should be something that endures apart from and independent of “the way people think.”  It should be an alternative to the current philosophical trend, not just one more manifestation of it.  It might make Christianity difficult to the individual who is hesitant to set aside his conventional philosophical framework, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  I believe that there are ways in which Christianity should be difficult.  When Jesus Christ said his yoke was easy and his burden was light, I really don’t think he meant that his way meant not having to change the way we live and think.  In fact, I’m fairly convinced that he meant the opposite.

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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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