Monday, October 22, 2012

Skepticism, and Purging Wrong Doctrine

While atheism is a tenable position (the lack of belief in gods, NOT the faith statement that there are no gods), its conclusions leave a lot to be desired emotionally, and effectively end the spiritual journey.  This statement has been the beginning idea for my current spiritual wandering.  But in searching for a way out of this cycle of despair, I’m realizing that often times skepticism pulls me back in.  Skepticism is easy.  Anytime something looks bright, shiny, and new, skepticism is there to remind you of its faults, so that it is no longer attractive.  And with skepticism as my dark passenger, when will anything seem worth the effort that I’m trying so hard to put into it?

I’ve been attending a Quaker meeting for about a month now, and it’s been a mercurial ride.  Some days it seems absolutely meant to be, others I feel embarrassed to be there, like I’m fooling myself on purpose.  Since I generally don’t believe in counseling (skepticism again), I try to self-reflect on what makes things pleasant or unpleasant for me.  In the pleasant times, I feel like there really is a way out of atheist despair, something that is concrete enough to not be ridiculous, but open enough to allow me to wiggle around within it.  In the unpleasant times, it’s like I’m back at Baptist church, or college, where there was a lot of showmanship, but very little acknowledgement of the difficulties with the consistency of what was being preached.  There are a lot of issues I’ve been thinking about, and would like to write about when I can formulate things a little better (the issue of primary authority is a big one), but for the time being, I’m realizing that I have a lot of baggage from the faith of my youth.  Ideas that need to be purged so I can move on from them and listen to/for whatever might be out there trying to talk to me.

Hell is first.  The issue that started my departure from Christianity is still real to a lot of people I care about, including my mom.  She said to me recently that she sometimes thinks about being in heaven without some of her kids being there, and it makes her sad.  Well of COURSE it makes her sad.  It’s a terrible thought!  The God of love allowing His own creation to suffer forever over a faith decision sound like a petulant child that gets his toy taken away.  Except for the universalists (among the few that seem to be taking the Bible’s original language seriously), hell is such an essential doctrine of most Christian groups that it would be hard to define them without it.  And yet it’s such a simple issue to dispose of, in my opinion.  If we make a few assumptions (there is a God, God loves humanity, God wants to be reconciled with his creation, and God is all-powerful), eternal hell is gone.  But people don’t seem to want it that way.  They cling to a silly notion that the free will of humanity (because going to hell is MAN’S decision, not God’s) is so strong, that even God can’t override it.  God really really wants us all in heaven, but NOPE, human free will wins, so people stay in hell by choice.  While this idea makes me angry, I need to purge it.  It’s already done its damage to me, and it continues to do damage to the people that believe in it, and I need to let it go.

Second is the sin nature.  The dreary religions tend to focus a lot of time and energy on what they perceive to be the negative aspects of humanity.  Because Adam and Eve screwed up, every person for the rest of time is a despicable, vile creature, only allowed to take a breath because God is so loving, unless you don’t accept a very narrow faith structure, then it’s back to hellfire once this life is over.  I don’t think the idea of sin nature is helpful to anyone.  While protestants have largely avoided Catholic guilt by emphasizing faith salvation over works salvation, the damage is still done.  People are still being trained that they are inherently despicable.  I reject this is manipulative baloney.  I much prefer the Quaker notion of there being the light of God in everyone (even there is no God - at least this belief gives us a positive starting point).  I need to purge my anger over sin nature, and have sympathy for those that embrace it, not anger that it’s still around.

Lastly, for now, is exclusivism.  Many of the world’s religions are not exclusive.  They don’t claim that their way is the only way to heaven, or nirvana, or whatever the end result is.  But in our society, exclusivism is everywhere.  Dozens of denominations within Christianity, all claiming to be the using the Bible as their authority (yet somehow all arriving at different conclusions), believe their way is the only way.  That God is so concerned with the details that unless every line of the creed is fully embraced, it’s not quite enough to earn Christ’s forgiveness.  I can’t count the number of times I heard a youth pastor tell me that if someone really believes in X, they aren’t really a Christian because they haven’t fully accept teaching Y or Z that is clearly spelled out in the Bible.  The idea that God, if she exists, is such a stickler for theology seems absurd on its face.  Exclusivism divides people who would otherwise be a community.  It creates “us” and “them” over something as silly as an idea conflict.  I’d like to imagine that God is not so immature.  Even this week, I’ve seen adults who should know better make reference to “the world,” as if the world is something separate from themselves, and they are above it.  I need to purge exclusivism.  I need to give away its power to make me angry so that I can search for the light without old wounds being allowed to distract me.

I write these things out knowing that a lot of my friends and family believe in them.  I don’t intend to insult anyone.  I wrote in my first entry that this blog is for my benefit, and it’s still true.  I’ve spent enough time being angry about religion, and I’m doing my best to let these things go.  Sometimes that means spewing the angry out so it can’t come back in.

My goal going forward is to find ideas I can accept, not just focus on things I reject.  To this end, here’s a rare piece of positivity that I wrote to a friend on Facebook, who put out a general question about what beliefs mean to us:

“I think beliefs should be few and simple. Most things can be known, and don't require belief. But if something must be believed, it shouldn't hurt other people. If it does, a person should find a way to abandon the belief for something more loving.

For me personally, abandoning beliefs in exclusivism, hell, Bible worship, being-special-because-i-was-born-in-a-certain-place-or-with-certain-preferences..rejecting these things have allowed me to start over, which is one of the best things I ever did.”

To you, the reader, what ideas might you be needing to purge?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Learning to Speak Another Language

Beer church (Wednesday night at 8pm, Horse Brass Pub, come on down!) has been a great learning experience for me over the last few months.  It’s a lot of fun to not only talk through my religious journey with an ever-changing variety of people, but also to listen to theirs.  In this setting, evangelism is not the goal, so a lot of the usual pressures of multi-faith discussions are taken away.  Souls aren’t for sale, and so people aren’t treated like prospective customers (try openly confessing to not wanting to be an atheist anymore - the sales pitches are plentiful!).

Something that has been striking to me recently is how language plays such an important part in our personal religious journeys.  The phrases and concepts people use are so different, but so often the same.  In my Baptist culture growing up, there was a lot of focus on the pessimistic interpretation of the Bible and of the world.  Ideas like original sin, depravity, hell, the need for salvation - lots of “I’m bad but God is good.”  Buddhist culture is quite the opposite.  When I attended a Buddhist meeting earlier this year, one of the few things spoken from the pulpit was “you are already perfect.”  Quakers, the liberal branch of which I’m beginning to align myself with, almost never speak of things like sin, hell, and depravity.  They speak of light, community, and peace.  Because they believe in ongoing revelation (a trait they share with the Mormons), they aren’t stuck worshipping a dead book, and this frees them to spend their time listening for truth instead of obsessing over every hermeneutical detail.

What I appreciate about liberal Quakers is their acceptance of different forms of language.  If words like God, Christ, Jesus, etc.. make you uncomfortable, don’t use them!  Many of my Quaker friends frequently refer to holding someone in the light, as opposed to “I’ll pray for you.”  For people like me who have a lot of baggage tied up in the “old language,” it’s freeing to be able to express positive will towards someone without having to fraudulently refer to prayer.

Another thing that has stood out to me at beer church is that no matter what name is given to our religious identity (yesterday we had 2 Thelemites, a conservative Vineyard member and his family, an agnostic, a Quaker pastor, and whatever I am), we all seem to want the same thing.  We want to make sense of ourselves, our lives, whatever “other than me” might be out there, and we want our understanding of these things to make our lives better.  I think it’s important that we recognize this commonality in each other.  My struggle is to remember that this is also true of those who still believe the things I have rejected.  No matter how narrow or mean I may find their beliefs to be, they hold their beliefs for the same reasons I’m looking for mine, and it does me no good to write them off.

To close for today, the Quaker pastor that attended beer church last night gave me some great advice for recognizing if a church community is right for you.  “Just stand up and yell FUCK! If they still accept you afterwards, you’re in the right place.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On Being Willing to Believe

There are times when the desire for connection with the divine is so strong, it almost becomes a physical object.  This divine is not the same for everyone.  What I want it to be is so different from what I recognized as divine so long ago.

I’ve realized that if I can’t be certain of the spiritual things, at the very least I can discern what I want to be true, and see where that takes me.  I want there to be an eternal consciousness that involves me, both during this life and after.  I want there to be meaning to this life - to the words that are said, the actions that are done, the bonds that are created between like-minded people.  No matter when my life ends in this body, let that not be the end of me.  I want peace, but not just peace, an inner delight in the people and world around me.  I want to know, and to be known.

In my silence at West Hills Friends this past week, the sentence that kept coming back to me was, “If I want to believe, I have to be willing to believe.”  It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but being willing to believe is harder than it sounds.  It takes an active rejection of the need for logic and evidence, and an acceptance that maybe, just maybe, an experience of something divine can occur in spite of its nonsensicality. Maybe the connection I want won’t be found in words or holy books, and it certainly isn’t likely to be found in a burning bush or the physical presence of a god, which would take away the need for faith at all.

I’m embracing the idea that my search and discovery of anything divine can be my own.  It doesn’t have to fit within a denomination, it doesn’t need a label, and it doesn’t need a guide.  It doesn’t have to include the word God, or extend to the Bible or Jesus or anyone else with claims to be holy.   I’ve begun to FEEL the things I’ve been looking for, even if I don’t always know what those things are.  This struggle against faith is no longer a matter of which system has the best answers to the questions, or which proof for the existence of a god is most likely to be correct.  My most recent intuitions are that these things are valuable tools that ultimately help one to realize that they don’t matter.  The adventure is in the journey, not in the conclusion, which is likely to never come.