Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On the Death of a Child

I’ve been ambivalent about having kids since it became an option.  I value my alone time.  I’m not good with loud noises, and I’ve never had that innate yearning to be a parent that a lot of people feel.  I knew that I didn’t want more than 2, the replacement rate.  I would have been satisfied with one.  My wife and I agreed we’d start with one, and see what happened after that.  After buying a house and moving to Phoenix in the summer of 2006, 2 weeks later we discovered we were pregnant.  It was a terrible pregnancy.  Sarah couldn’t keep food or liquids down, and often times didn’t have any warning that the nausea was coming.  She couldn’t keep the nausea pills down (why do they prescribe a pill for nausea?), so she had to take Zofran, a dissolvable tablet made for chemo patients, with a price tag of $40 per pill.  We spent the night of September 11, 2006 in the ER of a nasty Phoenix hospital, waiting for an IV so Sarah could stay hydrated enough to keep the baby.  We finally got out of there at 4am, and for the rest of the pregnancy, it was a routine of working, sleeping and trying to keep fluids down for Sarah, and working, sleeping, and a half dozen bottles of carpet cleaner for me.

We moved back to Portland a month before Taylor was born.  To compensate for the misery of the pregnancy, the delivery was a fantastic event.  The doctor induced labor at 8am, and Sarah gave birth at 3:15pm.  No drugs, no spinal, not a peep.  Sarah had a 7 hour, silent, drugless delivery.  I have to admit I hadn’t given parenthood a whole lot of thought during the pregnancy.  Our days were consumed with fighting against vomiting and figuring out what to do with this house we just bought.  Parenthood hit me all at once when they cleaned Taylor up and Sarah got to hold her for the first time.  My flesh had become someone else’s flesh.  My identity on this planet had changed in a hurry.  There was now a human being whose literal life and death was half-contingent on me and my actions.

I didn’t like the infant stage.  I’ll admit being terrified during those times when I had Taylor by myself at home.  Often times I simply didn’t have what she wanted, and no bottle, diaper or nap was going to change that.  It’s a feeling of helplessness that can’t be duplicated.  I don’t think the emotional connection really began until about age one when Taylor started walking.  She now had choices, and preferences, and to a limited extent, free will.  She was becoming her own, unique person.  My enjoyment of parenting has grown with her age.  In two days she turns five, and I never feel as happy as I do when I talk with her.  She tells me about her day at preschool, about which princesses are her favorite, and how much she loves the band Flyleaf (“daddy, play the one where Lacey screams I’m So Sick!  I love it when she screams so loud!).  She is a sensitive girl - scared of everything, but not too scared to talk about it.  She has learned how to put herself in other people’s shoes, something I’m still not very good at.

Towards the end of 2010, we decided to go off birth control.  In my mind, we’d give it a year, and it if happened, fine, if it didn’t happen, that’s fine too.  The age gap had started to widen, and I don’t like the idea of having kids that are spread out in age (I want them out of the house before I’m 50!  A man needs his freedom!).  In February 2011, Sarah’s hoarding of pregnancy tests finally bore fruit, and the stick had 2 lines on it.  So say Taylor was excited was an understatement.  For weeks, all she talked about was what she was going to do when the baby came.  She would play with her (she was convinced it would be a girl), comb her hair, show her all her dolls.  She told everyone she saw that mommy had a baby in her tummy, and she wanted to name the baby Lilly.  Or Lucy.  Or…

In late March of 2011, we lost our second child.  It happened in a grocery store restroom.  Sarah was alone.  I received the call around 11am, and like I am prone to do, I informed my boss, without emotion, that Sarah had a miscarriage, and I was going home for the day.  Sarah’s reaction was immediate - emotional, angry, frustrated, sad, everything.  I felt nothing.  This happens all the time, I told myself.  Women miscarry all the time, and usually they don’t even know they were pregnant.  It seems natural enough.  No need to get too worked up about it.

My emotional state changed after I brought Taylor home from daycare.  We all sat down on the couch to talk, something we never do.  She could sense something was wrong.  I summoned all the courage I could find, and told my daughter that something happened to the baby, and the baby died.  She wasn’t going to be a big sister, at least not right now.  That’s all I could spit out for awhile.  Unlike the kind of sad she gets when she skins her knee or has to go to bed, Taylor’s face got sort of pale, and she came to embody sorrow in a way I’ve never seen before.  She didn’t cry.  She just…felt.  She asked a few normal, soft questions, and Sarah answered  as best she could.  I just cried.  I couldn’t look at Taylor.  I grabbed a pillow and hid my face, and just cried. When I could speak again, I held her as close as I could and whispered in her ear that I’m so sorry, I know how much you wanted to be a big sister.  My sorrow, in that moment, was not for myself, not for my wife, and not for the child we had lost.  My sorrow was for my failure to deliver what my daughter wanted more than anything else.

We lost the baby over a year ago.  Most days, I still rationalize it with science, because the facts are true, even if I don’t like them.  Miscarriages really do happen all the time.  It’s not an affliction abnormal to people, and I don’t feel cursed or treated unfairly.  But I wonder.  I wonder what we would have named our child.  He or she would be almost 6 months old right now.  How would our lives be different?  We haven’t had the same luck with fertility since then.  Maybe we’ll luck out, maybe we won’t.

Most days, I don’t think about it.  But Sarah did something I’ve come to appreciate.  She made a memory box, with an infant outfit, a shoe, a baby book, pacifier, and a necklace.  She cut out some words, and framed it in.  When I need to, I spend a moment looking at that box.  It bring back those moments on the couch, when I felt more sorrow than I’ve felt before.  I can feel what I need to feel, and leave those feelings there, in that room, focused on those two terrible words, “miss you.”

I wrote some crappy poetry about this subject, if you're so inclined:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Interview With a Quaker

I sat down with my friend Mr. Woolman last night to discuss his religious history, and his current religious worldview.  Unlike the first few interviews, Mr. Woolman didn’t stick with the faith of his youth, which made this a much more wide-ranging discussion.

Mr. Woolman grew up in Southern Oregon, raised by his grandparents.  One of his parents was loosely tied to the Mormon church, so while he never attended, he will be baptized once he’s dead.  Mom and dad weren’t fit to be parents, so grandma and grandpa become mom and dad, and he was raised in his grandmother’s fundamentalist church.  Grandpa was a nature lover, not really caring about dogma and doctrine, so he stayed home.  It was a point of contention between the two, but they managed to be married with different faiths.  Grandpa was a huge influence, up to and including his death.

Growing up in his fundamentalist church, which he describes as being run by a bunch of grey-hairs that taught that when communion was given, everyone was to go and sin no more.  Once he took communion, and subsequently sinned, he thought his salvation was lost.  This feeling of needing to be good enough continued for a long time, probably even currently.  He was heavily involved in the church youth group, church choir, summer camps, etc..  While he was attending, the church had a full-blown schism, as well as a pastor leaving due to abuse of a 13-year old.  During this time, he also attended Jewish synagogue on high holy day because his mother’s boyfriend was Jewish.  Mom was in the area, but not actively involved in raising him.  Dad wasn’t around at all.

Mr. Woolman did a fair amount of dabbling in the latter part of his youth.  He had brief involvements with Wicca and Laveysian Satanism (Satanism, despite its name, is not about the Christian idea of Satan.  Satanism is the embracing of carnal desires - a direct rejection of the Christian notions of refraining from lust, gluttony, etc..).  In college, he was involved with the George Fox chapel program, went to a Four Square church while trying to seal the deal with a lady, and after college briefly attended a Lutheran church.

Mr. Woolman finally settled on the Quaker church, and still identifies as a Quaker.  He was drawn to its focus on pacifism, the embrace of women as equals to men when it comes to leadership roles and everything else, and silent worship.  Quakers believe that silence it a great way to communicate with God.  Rather than being spoken to by a pastor, Quaker services tend to have a lot of silence, wherein God communicates to the believer personally.  Quakers reject symbolism - they generally do not worship with instruments, wear wedding rings, wear crosses, or any other symbols that they believe detract from the meaning of God’s message.  They do not take oaths - when on jury duty they will affirm the promise of the court, but they will not swear to it.  To them, a person’s words have enough meaning already, they need not “swear” something to make it more meaningful.  Quakers are most known for their pacifism - the rejection of violence as the answer to any problem.  They believe this message is biblical, as Jesus does not direct or condone any kind of violence, and in a few instances directs the opposite.

Despite his identification as a Quaker, Mr. Woolman isn’t sure if he believes in the Christian God in any meaningful way.  He believes there is a spiritual element to the world, but the specific details are unknown.  He finds value in Buddhism and poetry, the latter of which he considers to be his religion above all.  Poetry is the expression of his soul, his way of making sense of the world.  He leans towards inclusivism - the idea that while there may very well be one “correct” answer to the question of the afterlife, it’s quite possible that those following different religious paths will be receive the same afterlife, because they are following what they believe to be the correct path, even if they call it something else.

Socially, Mr. Woolman and I have common ground.  Homosexuality is not a perversion, and homosexuals are not to be treated differently than anyone else.  I really enjoyed our discussion on the abortion issue.  Both of us reject the hard-line arguments of each side of the issue.  The pro-choice mantra of “my body, my choice” is an insult to the issue.  Certainly the ending of the human life continuum should be approached with sorrow and humility, even if it ultimately the best choice for some people.  We do not know when human life begins.  Science is not settled on the issue, and philosophy hasn’t provided a clear-cut answer about when a fetus takes on its own individual rights that must be weighed equally with the mother’s rights.  We also reject the pro-life notion that abortion is clearly murder, and women and doctors should be punished for being involved in it.  For us, if we are not willing to jail a woman for having an abortion, there is no sense in abortion being a crime.  Thus, we ultimately settle on the pro-choice side of the argument, but not with any sense of pride or certainty.  I propose that abortion is one issue where having a staunch position on either side probably means the issue isn’t being considered with enough empathy.

I have a lot in common with Mr. Woolman.  I have become comfortable with atheism on an intellectual level, while Mr. Woolman never let go of faith in something, though it isn’t defined.  But we both find value in the search for the truth, or if the truth can’t be known, we find value in the practical uses for faith and religion.  Mr. Woolman is happily married, has a great circle of friends, and has an outlet for his feelings and questions via poetry.  I don’t sense a dissatisfaction in his journey, though I think we’d both like a little more certainty from time to time.  We both agree that once a person lets go of fundamentalism, it is impossible to go back.  Coming to terms with faith at all is a lifelong challenge, so to be convinced that there is one literal, narrow, unchanging truth..I think the world we live in makes that difficult to take seriously.

2 plugs for materials related to this conversation:
Being at Home in the World, by Phil Smith and Mark McLeod-Harrison (a new Christian apologetic)
Lake of Fire, a film by Tony Kaye (the best analysis of the abortion issue I’ve ever heard or seen)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

On Activism, Anger, Reverse Anger, the Blazers, and Slacktivism

With the advent of the internet, it became much easier to learn about most anything.  Initially we liked the internet because encyclopedic information could be found easily without having to buy a $1,000 Brittanica set.  We could also email our girlfriend instead of having to write by hand.  And certainly the invention of the chat box dramatically multiplied the number of people we could have conversations with at the same time.  Eventually, people weren’t just using it to talk to each other and learn things, but also to influence people.  Political causes had websites, charities sent marketing emails, and churches could remind their members of events via computer instead of by marquee.

Today, the internet is crammed with people trying to influence us.  If you go to the Facebook page of a political candidate, you’ll find a dozen ads on the side of the screen trying to influence you to believe a dozen other things, or contribute money towards a dozen other causes.  It doesn’t take effort to be involved.  A simple “like” or a quick PayPal donation, and you’ve become a part of a movement.  Is this a good thing?

Today, a friend made the following comment that bothered me, and I wasn’t sure why:
 “Everyday young portland girls are exploited and forced into the sex trade...and our youth are marching against Kony. Makes me sick. Wish we could spend more time and energy protecting our youths.”

If I try to boil down my friend’s comment into bullet points, I think what he was trying to communicate goes something like this:
* I am concerned about the underage sex trade in Portland
* The people marching against Kony are wasting their time - how is marching around going to capture a guy in Africa?
* The cause I am concerned about is more important than the cause they are concerned about.

My friend’s comment is very similar to something I do all the time that I know annoys a bunch of other people. For years, I have been a frequent participant in Blazers’ fan sites.  Whenever I’d spend time there, I’d become increasingly frustrated with the constant whining about head coach Nate McMillan.  Every time the team struggled, no matter whose fault it was, there was a consistent drone about how it was somehow Nate’s fault.  Nearly every comment one person would make would be followed by a different person making a smart-ass comment how it wouldn’t have happened if we had a better coach.  My response was also to complain, not about the coach, but about the complainers.  For some reason, I thought it was worth my time to complain about complaining.  When the complaining got to be so bad that I was negatively affecting my life by participating in these fan sites, I finally got the willpower to quit visiting them.  It was a good decision.

If I think of the motives behind someone that complains about a Kony march, or former head coach Nate McMillan, if I’m honest, they’re complaining because they care.  They care about the team, or a different cause.  They’re not mad for no reason.  But just like my response to the complaining was misdirected, so too are complaints about a Kony march.  People are marching against Kony because they care about the issue.  It doesn’t mean they don’t care about the teenage sex trade.  But who gets to decide which cause is the most urgent, or most worthy of our efforts?

The way I see it, the moral authority on activism goes to the people that get up and do something.  Facebook comments (and blog posts!) are easy.  Giving up your Saturday to walk around in the sun takes dedication.  Who am I to mock a person’s cause just because I think my cause is more important?  And who am I trying to convince if I complain on Facebook about somebody who can’t respond?  I think this question shows a fundamental weakness of the internet.  We’re not talking to people in a setting that allows for expanded thought.  We’re throwing bumper stickers at each other.  There’s no respect for the intelligence of others, no consideration of the pure motives of the people involved.  We’re like cats running after laser pointers, expecting that our comment on the matter somehow makes a different.

I propose that there is value in activism, provided it involves dialogue between people with equally good intentions.  I also propose there is not value in being the person that is mad at everything, all the time.  How many friends have you let go of because all they do is rant about political causes?  Wouldn’t it be different if they had discussed these things with you in person, rather than yelling at them via the internet?  I, for one, don’t have energy to be mad all the time.

I read a pretty decent article this week that related to the topic of effective activism.  It’s worth a read if you’d like:

I’ve got 2 more religious interviews scheduled, and am looking for more.  Please let me know if you’re interested!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The African Bushman

It keeps coming up; the African bushmen.  The solitary few living alone in the depths of the mountains or desert, living off the land, no technology, no ties to the rest of the world.  They are, except for each other, entirely alone.

We can learn a lot about a person’s faith by what they think about these people.  Not in the “shouldn’t we be helping these people” sense, but in the “where do they do when they die” sense.  Without outside influence, if they have a sense of faith and religion at all, it’s the same faith and religion passed down to them by their ancestors before them.  Maybe they believe in rain gods.  Maybe they don’t have time to think about gods because they must work constantly just to eat and drink and stay alive.  Whatever they believe in, it’s likely not the same God that is believed in by the western religions, and they probably don’t follow the philosophies of the east.

So what becomes of them when they die?  This was a question commonly asked by students in my high school youth group, and again in the early years of the philosophy program at George Fox.  As Christians, we believed that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to God except through Jesus.  This is a very specific, some might call it narrow, view of how salvation happens.  I recall one youth pastor suggesting that while these folks may not have had the gospel preached to them specifically, God present Himself to them in some manner.  The pastor thought that each person had a moment when they somehow understood that they had a choice to make - good or evil - and in that moment the African bushman made the choice that would determine his eternal destination.

What kind of God is your God?  I propose that how you answer the question of the African bushman tells you a lot about the God you believe in.  Certainly different faiths answer differently.  In my first two interviews for this blog, the answers were starkly different.  For the Evangelical, the answer is, with sincere remorse, “tough shit.”  For the Mormon, there is a glory that awaits these people, even if it isn’t the very best glory.  From what I understand of Buddhism, it doesn’t really matter what they believe in. When circumstances are no longer suitable for human life, they cease to manifest, but when circumstances become suitable again, they will manifest again.

My purpose here is not to critique one as being a better answer than another.  To critique is to suggest that I have a better alternative, and I do not.  But here are a few questions that might be worth thinking about:

According to my beliefs, what happens to the African Bushman when he dies?
If he goes to heaven, why does he go to heaven?
If he goes to heaven without having faith in anything, of what value is my faith?
If he goes to hell, why does he go to hell?
If he goes to hell, what does this say about my God?
If I don’t like how I feel about what this says about my God, what do I do about my feelings?
Does it matter if I’m uncomfortable with certain aspects of what I believe to be true about God?
If I dislike something I believe about my own God, do I accept something I dislike, or do I change how I view God?
If I believe the bushman goes to hell, what am I doing to make sure he doesn’t?

I’d love to hear your answers to some of these questions!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Interview with a Mormon Couple

Last night I spent time with some old friends I’ve known since high school.  I forgot to ask permission to use their names, so I’ll call them D&J.  D and I sung in choir together throughout high school, and she was the victim of a lot of my Baptist Bible thumping during those years.  Her husband J was on his mission most of that time, and I met him after they were married years later.  They have 4 kids.  D stays home with them, but does piano lessons and volunteers with the LDS church.  J is an accountant.

D&J, as Mormons, view the Godhead differently than Evangelicals do.  They do not believe in the trinity.  Heavenly Father is God, with being Jesus a spiritual brother (I should have asked for more detail here, but I didn’t).  Salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, but they do not believe in “once saved, always saved.”  Faith is to be lived by the following of the commandments.

One of the things I love about Mormonism is the focus on family, both in this life and the next.  Mormons believe that their earthly family will be with them in heaven, forever.  I sense a very real peace within the family, because they go to sleep at night under the same roof with those that will be with them forever.  They set aside weeknights to participate in family home evening, playing games, learning a lesson, etc..  The church also has home teachers, who visit a certain number of families at their home each month to give assistance as needed, whether it be spiritual or just helping with chores around the house.  In that sense the Mormons have created a true church community, where you don’t just see each other at church.

One thing we spent a lot of time talking about is the Mormon view of heaven.  J said that a lot of people think Mormons don’t believe in heaven and hell, but in reality they believe in a lot MORE heaven and a little bit of hell.  The Mormons believe heaven has glories.  The Celestial kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom, and Telestial Kingdom.  They don’t believe that a loving God would just “send someone to hell” as easily as Evangelicals do.  The African bushman, for example, who never has the salvation story presented to him.  It would not be loving of God to send him to hell.  For this reason, nearly everyone receives some kind of a glory.  Murderers, thieves, all kinds of criminals, even they would eventually receive a glory within the telestrial kingdom.  Mormons differ on whether or not they think people can move between the levels.

The Mormon version of hell is outer darkness.  They believe very few will end up here.  Outer darkness is where Satan, Satan’s angels, Cain, etc.. will go.  J said that per Joseph Smith, to end up in outer darkness one would have to look directly into the sun, recognize it for what it is, and reject it anyway.  The story of Cain is a good example of this.  There are certainly many people who reject faith entirely, but the distinction for entering outer darkness is one would have to understand and believe the salvation message, but choose to reject it.

Since the plight of homosexuals has become the cause that is important to me, I asked about their views on the issue.  Mormons believe that participation in homosexuality is a sin, just like many other things are sinful.  Gay Mormons are not banned from church (J was once the bishop of a Mormon ward off Hawthorne in Portland, and said they had many gay members).  However, so long as they are not being abstinent, they cannot take on positions of leadership within the church.  This is because the active homosexual is continually in violation of the commandments, and thus is not living the right way.  I did not sense an increased emotional level while discussing this issue like I do when discussing it with my evangelical friends.  It’s a simple matter of scripture, but not anymore grievous than any other sin.

Mormons got a lot of heat for their support of Prop 8 in California.  It is the official position of the LDS church that separation of church and state is extremely important.  The church itself did not, according to J, donate funds from the church coffers to support Prop 8, but it did encourage its members to support it.  J’s theory for this is that while separation of church and state is very important (the church does not donate to candidates, or endorse them), is the government is going to be in the business of defining what marriage is, it leaves the church susceptible to punishment should it refuse to marry gay marriages, or perform them.  They fear losing their tax-exempt status if they refuse to marry gay people, should gay marriage be legal.
I’ve talked with D many times about Mormonism in the past, and I feel like I understand it pretty well, but I’m always surprised by how attractive it is to me, even now as an atheist.  They believe God’s love extends further than Evangelicals do, as evidenced by their view of heaven, the chance to improve one’s spiritual standing in the afterlife, and the eternal family.  If I had to pick a religion solely based on how I would want God to be if God exists, I’d prefer the Mormon vision of God to the evangelical one.

I find myself thinking frequently that the specific, fact-based details of religion don’t seem to be quite as important as the practical use of faith.  For Mormons, the question of why we’re here, what to do while we’re here, what happens we die, and what happens to the family after we die, all these questions have answers.  Additionally, there is much less focus on punishment, since very few will actually experience punishment in the way that Evangelicals believe.  Perhaps that’s why, at least in my experience, Mormons are easier to get along with than your average person.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Interview With an Evangelical Christian

I’m humbled with the response I’ve received from such a wide variety of people regarding this blog and the questions I’m asking.  Apparently religious people have doubts too!  Tonight I had my first interview in what I hope will be a decent series of interviews regarding faith, religion, and the issues surrounding them.

I met Josh a few years ago through a Blazers fansite called www.blazersedge.com.  We’re both irrationally passionate about the team, and spent a lot of time online dialoguing about basketball and other things.  Josh is an Evangelical Christian, raised as a pastor’s son.  He got married last year, is in his early twenties, and works for a software company.

The approach I took was to ask Josh to tell the story of the beginnings of his faith, and whatever events have happened to bring to what he believes today.  As a pastor’s kid, he was raised in the church.  He recalls a specific moment while singing the worship song “Here I am to worship” in which the concept of his sin contrasted with the infinite sacrifice of Jesus became personally real to him all at once.  He recognized his status as a sinner, and that the consequence for violating the laws of an eternal God was an eternal punishment that could only be pardoned by an infinite sacrifice.  He hasn’t had a serious crisis of faith, but one of the first things he told me is that a major reason he’s a Christian is that he was born in America. He recognized that had he been born in India, he’d probably be a Hindu with a dot on his forehead.  I didn’t have that kind of insight when I was believer, and his impressed me.

To describe how he views atonement, Josh used the analogy of a speeding ticket.  A person can violate a minor law and receive a fine.  This happens repeatedly, and the fines add up, and the person can’t afford to pay them.  The sacrifice of Jesus’ life is God’s way of putting everyone’s sins on God’s tab, both now and forever.

Something that came up a few times is the difficulty of reconciling the Christian faith with some of the terrible things God is attributed as doing in the Bible.  He doesn’t like the idea of his God slaughtering the masses or commanding Abraham to kill his child.  But when he struggles with questions like these, he asks himself the question “Where else can I go?”  While admitting he hasn’t studied other religions extensively, he doesn’t feel like they have anything better to offer than he already knows and believes.  So he’ll accept the difficulty of the old testament God because it’s the best he’s got to work with.  He told me a number of times that he doesn’t hold the monopoly on truth.  On the other hand, he doesn’t get to decide what sin is.  If the Bible says something is sinful, it’s sinful, even if it doesn’t make sense to me.

Josh feels that morals come from God, and that those who do not believe in God, while they can certainly be nice people, can’t live a moral life in the way that a Christian can.  He correlates what he perceives to be the decline of America with the matching decline of Christian membership in the U.S.  Without Christians, the country would be in much worse shape.  I asked him what it is about the way Christians behave that is so different from the way non-Christians behave.  His answer surprised me.

For Josh, the Christian nuclear family is a living embodiment of Jesus Christ.  The Christian family has a spiritual purpose.  They are a reflection of Christ to all the world.  Because of this spiritual component, the kind of love that is present within a Christian family is a different and better love than the love of a non-Christian family.  I didn’t sense arrogance in this perception, though it sounds that way when written down.  When Josh teaches the youth at church, he teaches them about the types of love, phileo, amore, and agape love (forgive me if I got those wrong).  A husband is called to be Jesus to his wife.  This is a serious calling, and the youth should take it seriously, and make sure they plan their lives in a way that allows them to care for their wives in this way.

A few miscellaneous surprises:  I asked Josh if he has ever felt persecuted for his faith.  He said he hasn’t.  Living in America it’s easy to be a Christian, as it doesn’t require much sacrifice.  It took guts to be a Christian when you could be crucified upside down for it.  Also surprising was that Josh says he wouldn’t vote to ban gay marriage.  While he does believe the Bible lists homosexuality as a sin, he doesn’t think it’s the government’s place to dictate who can and can’t get married.  If gay people are banned from marrying, how long until Christians or straights can’t marry?

I think we both walked away with something important to think about.  Josh said for him, it’s when I asked why the sin of homosexuality evokes such a strong emotion in him, while other things labeled as sin, and condemned much strongly in the Bible, evoke no emotion at all.  He also said he’d ponder how he should feel about a person who, after serious and objective consideration, determined that the Bible really does not condemn loving homosexual relationships.  If they truly believe that to be true, and are living accordingly, should they be kept out of leadership positions in his church, as is his current stance?

My take away is the question of “What problems does this faith solve?”  As Josh put it, Christianity answers the questions of why I’m here, what am I supposed to do, and what happens to me after I die.  Whether the answers to those questions are true or not, I’m not sure any other faith provides definitive answers that are quite as emotionally satisfying as spending eternity with a loving God.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Religious Interviews

I've been reading a lot lately.  This might not be a big deal to you, but for someone who hasn't read a book more difficult than John Grisham for the last few years, it's a definite change in lifestyle.  As I read, I frequently wish the author was available for questions, because I have a lot of them!  I also find myself wanting to TALK about these ideas, not just read and write about them.  I want to understand the nuances of different peoples' faith.  Hopefully it will positively influence my own journey.  So, I have a proposal.

If you have a faith, or even if you don't, and you're at all interested in talking about it, I will come to your part of town, buy you a drink or meal, and you can tell me all about your faith, or lack thereof.  This will not be a debate.  I don't want to argue or change your mind about anything.  I want to know how you think about faith issues, including its pragmatic effect on your life.  I'll probably ask clarifying questions like "Does believing x make you happier?," "What was the last faith-related issue you changed your mind about?," that kind of thing.

If that sounds like fun, or at minimum, not a complete waste of your time, let me know!  Find me on Facebook, or email me at blanchardryan@yahoo.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Buddhism for a Dummy

I’ve been reading some basic Buddhist writings over the last week.  There’s a certain warmth to it.  In No Death, No Fear , Thich Nhat Hanh describes many examples of life preceeding life.  One example is the cloud.  If one watches a cloud, it may seem to disappear with time.  But it hasn’t disappeared.  It has changed, falling to the ground in the form of rain, snow and ice.  From there, it performs many useful functions before ultimately evaporating to once again form a cloud.  Another example is of a flame on a match.  He describes looking at a match before striking it.  Can you see a flame?  You cannot see it, but it is there.  The conditions are simply not right for it appear.  Once the match is struck, the flame manifests for a short time before the conditions are no longer right (the wind blows it out, or I drop it into the sink).  In this way, the flame does not begin, and it does not end.  It simple manifests when the conditions are right, and disappears when they are not.

I can grasp some of the ways in which these analogies apply to people.  As science shows us, matter does not disappear.  It can be changed, or converted into energy, but it cannot be eliminated.  When our bodies die, a series of changes occur, and the whole of our body is no longer held together, but it is not gone.  The conditions are no longer right for it continue, so it changes.  We decay and become part of the soil, or we are burned and become part of the air.  We are different, but not gone.  I find a certain amount of comfort in this.

But this doesn’t comfort my desire to maintain my consciousness.  Likely I am a novice in understanding Buddhist thought.  I will try to improve.  But for now, while I can feel good about my physical presence never leaving this earth, I’m left to wonder what becomes of my mind.  Buddhists do not seem to believe in an eternal soul.  They point out that nothing in this world lasts forever as currently constructed.  And they are right.  Would it make me feel better if somehow upon my death, a new consciousness began elsewhere that was somehow a transference of my consciousness?  I suppose it would.  I wouldn’t have the memory of my current self, but at least I would still exist.

Having grown up with western religion, it’s difficult to think in these terms.  I want a checklist of things to follow, with a specific goal or reward upon completion of the list.  The idea of this world BEING the reward is strange.

Buddhism seems to be a very practical religion.  It focuses on how to eliminate as much suffering as possible in THIS life, not setting one’s self up for the next one.  I like this.  Western religion tends to pass off suffering as the cost of doing business.  It’s an acceptable component of the overall picture.  I don’t agree, and I don‘t think Christians are being wise when they teach this idea.  When the Bible discusses good teaching, it says (summarized) that good teaching will bear good fruit (Matthew 7).  This strikes me as a fair standard.  The acceptance of earthly suffering does not sit with me as being good fruit.  Many times Jesus focuses on meeting the physical needs of people before focusing on spiritual matters.  The more I read the teachings of other world religions without the spin of church being involved, the more there is a consistency in them.  Peace, love, acceptance of others, these things are present in all of them.  Hate, violence, divisiveness, there things are universally panned.

For now, I’m thinking through these basic Buddhist thoughts on the continuation of life.  I’m wrapping my head around the idea of no birth, no death.  There’s a well of knowledge available to me that I’ve never sampled before.  And whether these ideas are verifiable fact or not, I feel better about death having read them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I Was Wrong

I can’t remember the last time someone convinced me to change my mind about something.  But if they did, I can assure you they weren’t angry when they did it.

One of the best decisions I made in recent years was to stop participating in angry things.  I quit watching my beloved Keith Olbermann, stopped watching cable news during elections years, and I definitely quit listening to non-sports talk radio.  I realized that if radio waves could be embodied in a symbol, it would be a symbol of a huge index finger.  On one channel, it points at liberals, the other conservatives.  On one channel it points at Muslims, on another at Christians.  Hanging from that finger is a giant sign that screams “YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.”

I can remember the early years of the internet, when the most complicated social media could get was the school email forum.  I’m sure if I had wanted to, I could have found calm, civil discussion.  But that’s not what I was looking for.  I wanted to preach.  I wanted to ruffle feathers.  I wanted to reach into your dorm room, slap you in the face, and tell you that you were wrong about something.  If you had talked to me during high school, you would have been too liberal.  During college, you would have been too conservative.  In either case, I knew what the truth was, because I was smarter than you, and it was my duty to inform you of your intellectual failings.

It seems we are drawn to teams, or more realistically, to tribes.  No matter the issue, my tribe is always the best tribe.  Your tribe is heretically mocking my tribe.  And your tribe must be stopped.  It didn’t take much to send me to war.  As far as back as elementary school I can remember standing on Sandy Boulevard in Portland, holding a sign reading “Abortion Kills Children” while passers-by waved coat hangers out their car windows.  “Life Chain” we called it.  I’m not sure we saved any lives, but we definitely ruined a few peoples’ days.  In middle school, a student was abducted from school and dragged across the street to an “adult motel” before she escaped out a bathroom window.  That night, there I was on the news, talking about how we didn’t need “sex near the schools.”  I can remember believing that those who supported abortion were aware that fetuses were people, knew it was wrong to kill them, and intentionally allowed it to happen because they knew God was against it.  Their tribe was evil, and had to be stopped.

20 years later, things aren’t all that different.  Want to see the worst of humanity?  Check out the comments section following a news article.  So many wars are being valiantly fought there.  Libtards vs. Republicraps.  God-hating atheists vs. woman-hating Christians.  Racists vs. reverse racists vs. sideways racists, as Chris Rock would say.  But nobody seems to be changing their mind.

“Truth” is a complicated word.  Many see it as the modernists see it - as its own separate entity, outside the scope of perception, on an island, unchanged by anything.  Others see it as the post-moderns see it - something that only exists because we are here to perceive it, and if we all die, it does too.  Whatever it is, or whatever we think the truth is, we don’t seem to change our minds about it very often.  I think we should.

Probability alone suggests that a good percentage of the things we hold true are not actually true.  There are simply too many people thinking too many different things for anyone to be right about everything.  And I wonder why it’s so hard to be humble about that concept.  My opinions/beliefs are wrong.  When I was standing on the streets as a child, shaming women who had chosen abortion, I was wrong.  When I was in college, telling my fellow students that their Christian schools were evil because they separated the Christians from the non-Christians that needed to hear their message, I was wrong.  And today, as evolved as I’d like to thing I am, many of the things I hold to be true are wrong.  History will show this to be true.

As I start this process of looking death in the face, and trying figure out how I can best traverse my human life, one of the things I must always remember is that on many things, I will be wrong.  If I can’t accept and embrace that idea, I won’t be able to learn.  And if I’m going to truly come to terms with my mortality, and determine what I’m going to do about it, I have to be willing to learn.

If there’s anything that angry radio has taught me, it’s that there really is an index finger.  It’s my own, and it points at the sign around my neck that reads “I am the problem.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


I knew you
We played catch in the summer
And you loved to run
I didn’t know much
But I taught you all of it

I wanted you
You loved your sister
And she cherished you
Her best friend
You taught her how to share

I  created you
My importance became tied to yours
As you made your mark on the world
My pride was in your happiness
My sorrows, in yours

I miss you
Your ghost runs through this house
Your mom cries for you
Your sister gets lonely, and
I can’t fix you.
I can’t fix any of us.

Monday, April 2, 2012

M/C & B

You were not born
But you did not die
The rain is your voice
The ground your footsteps

When dinosaurs roamed
You were the sun that warmed its back
In the ocean depths
You bubble from the earth’s core
Arriving at the surface
Alive then as you are now

I never heard you cry
But I see you in the air
When snow falls at night
I never held your hand
But you hold mine
We are together in time, in the ultimate realm

Whether now, or in years to come
When the conditions are right
You will manifest again
But it won’t be that long
Until you are the light in my eyes

An Atheist's Testimony

I'm going to start writing things in longer form.  I'm not much for flowery prologue, so I hope this will suffice.  The following is a letter I recently wrote that I hope will explain where I am, and what I'm doing.  Blogs are narcissistic.  That's not lost on me.  I'm doing this for me, but perhaps you'll gain something from it.  Thanks for reading.

Dear Community of OneGeorgeFox,

Faith has always been a big deal to me.  Specifically, whether I had it or did not.

Beginning with my first philosophy assignment at George Fox, my faith started to leave me.  We were asked to write a two page persuasive essay entitled, “There is no God.”  As a freshman straight out of my mom’s house, I certainly DID believe in God, but I liked the mental exercise.  I put together what I thought was a pretty good, if flawed, argument against God’s existence.  I didn’t believe a word of it, but it was fun nonetheless.  The second assignment was the same, with the topic “No human has a soul.”  The final assignment was to write on the topic “Abortion is always wrong.”  Strangely, the topic I agreed with was most difficult to write.  My only weapon was the Bible.  And with my newly developing critical thinking skills, using the Bible as my sole item of evidence seemed weak.  These mental exercises allowed me to break out of the faith of my youth, and try to find what MY faith was.

By junior year, I was at odds with Christian culture.  Politically, I had changed my mind on almost everything.  I felt that the Bible was being used to divide people, with the only acceptable way to be a Christian being to vote Republican, anti-abortion, and anti-gay.  I wasn’t any of those things.  So much energy was spent debating what a Christian really was, and what, if any, actions or beliefs could expel a person from the heavenly roll sheet.

It was around this time that the school allowed a Christian Universalist, Thomas Talbott, to speak on campus.  He had written a book entitled “The Inescapable Love of God,” in which he expands on his belief that the Bible provides the framework for a faith in which everyone is ultimately united with God.  He spoke with passion about his belief that God would never, could never doom his creation to eternal hell.  I loved this perspective.  I had felt for some time that eternal damnation for a finite sin didn’t make any sense at all.  It seemed petty and cruel, and that wasn’t the God I had come to know.  For a few months, I really thought I had found the truth.

Like most things, contentment didn’t last.  The more comfortable I became with the idea that hell wasn’t real, the less the rest of Christianity seemed necessary.  If there’s no hell to be saved from, why do I need a savior?  And if I don’t need a savior, what’s the point of all these games I’d been playing in the name of Christianity?  Once hell was off the table, religion felt like a charade.  And slowly, in combination with a lot of reading about the arguments for and against the existence of God, I came to find I no longer had any faith at all.

It wasn’t until a few years after college that I was emotionally comfortable calling myself an atheist.  Atheism had so many assumptions built into it that didn’t apply to me.  People thought atheism meant I believe “there is no God.”  That wasn’t true.  Saying there isn’t a God is just as faith-based as believing God exists.  People thought I was mad at God and/or the church.  That wasn’t true either.  I had no problems with religion, so long as it wasn’t being used to hurt people.  The way I saw it (and still see it), there is a line separating knowledge and faith.  Those who choose to have faith are comfortable with the idea that not everything they believe can be proven or arrived at by conventional reason.  If it could be, it wouldn’t be faith.  For me, I simply choose not to step across that line.  If it takes faith to reach a conclusion, I can’t reach that conclusion.

Atheism has had its benefits.  I’m much less angry as an atheist.  There is no “us” and “them” anymore.  As a Christian I thought there were armies of people trying to destroy the good and decent beliefs that Christians were trying to advance.  Every issue had a right answer, a Christian answer.  Our team was righteous, their team was devious and mean.  As an atheist, I’m not tied to having to have the right answer to everything.  I can be friends with anyone, Christian or not.  There’s not a faith litmus test anymore.

Atheism also has its negatives.  For years I’ve thought that once I die, the lights turn off and it’s all over.  I’m terribly bothered by this.  It’s not that I worry about a negative after life, it’s that as a conscious being, I can’t fathom not having a consciousness.  Sometimes when I’m driving I’ll imagine what I would feel like right before hitting a vehicle head-on, knowing my consciousness is about to be over.  I imagine it would be terrifying.  I imagine my wife and daughter alone, and there‘s no spirit version of me out there watching over them.  I hate that feeling.

Over the last few weeks, something great has happened.  Through the OneGeorgeFox group, I’ve met and became re-acquainted with Christians who are not the kind of Christians I grew up knowing.  Their God does not think gays are an abomination.  Their God doesn’t have a theological litmus test that someone must pass to be included in their lives.  And I’ll bet a lot of them don’t even believe their God would send anyone to eternal hell.

The merits of a belief system can’t be judged by the actions of the believers in that faith.  That’s just common sense.  But as I struggle with my lack of belief in an afterlife, I’m coming to realize that I WANT to believe in an afterlife.  I don’t, but I really want to.  And what encourages me most is that the God being shown in the actions of these wonderful people is not a God that I dislike.  Their version of God is not being used to hurt people.  In fact, despite being shunned by a lot of important people in their lives, these people have found their acceptance primarily in their understanding of their God.  I can’t see any harm in that.

I was taught to live my life as a living witness of my faith.  Based on the actions of many, their God is pissed off, shunning everyone that doesn’t agree with all 857 essential doctrines.  I’m writing this long-winded diatribe because I want this group to know that their actions and good intentions are noticed.  You are presenting God in a way that is incredibly difficult to reject.  If I were to believe in God again, it would be a God that inspires these kinds of actions.

At the Jennifer Knapp meeting, I was talking to Kim Warrington, explaining that I hadn’t been back to campus since graduation, and that faith and I went our separate ways a long time ago.  I sensed that, much like I would have long ago, her mind was screaming “POUNCE! WITNESS!”  But she didn’t.  She simply said, distinctly and perfectly, “I’m glad you’re here.”  To me, that is faith put into fantastic action.

Intellectually, I can’t cross that line into faith.  But emotionally, I very much want to.  I doubt I’ll ever end up getting much past a simple belief in some kind of benevolent God, with some kind of positive afterlife, and even that will take a lot of time and a lot of work.  But for the first time in years, I want to give it the ‘ol college try.