Reasonable Christians

I met a reasonable Christian today. It was a bit weird, actually.

My wife wanted to visit a local Anglican church where my Christian friend Ray and his wife attend, and I thought: Sure, why not? So we went. There you have it. I actually set foot in a Christian church today. And I have no doubt that many of the Christians in that room would be offended by the things that I say on this blog (although I would certainly love it if they would read it).

Be that as it may, I was immediately drawn to a young woman when we arrived. You are probably thinking that this was due to my (admittedly) heterosexual nature. But, no, in this case, I was not attracted to this person in that way at all. For one thing, she was dressed in a very traditionally religious manner, which is about as sexually unattractive as it is humanly possible to be. And she had done absolutely nothing to make herself attractive, as that standard is described in our current culture. (Not that I find that necessarily attractive either: More on that later.) It was not that she could not have made herself attractive in our terms, had she tried. She simply did not care to try.

What drew me to this person was her absolute, visible and obvious rebellion against the direction of our modern culture. As soon as I started talking to her, she explained to me about how the Anglican church we were in was “officially a mission of the Anglican Church of Rwanda. You see, the Rwandans decided that America was an evil, secular, and godless place that was in need of evangelizing. So they planted this church.”

I still cannot tell if this statement was dripping with irony or not. If so, she delivered it very well, and very straight. She had me immediately.

I confessed that I was an extreme theological liberal, and told her about a bit of my journey. How I had made a terrible mistake: I decided to read the bible as a work of human literature, and put my faith on the shelf for a while. As a result, my belief systems traumatically collapsed and left me as you see me here: A spiritual wreck. Of course, the irony in my case was more obvious.

Interestingly, she understood. Turns out that she is studying the New Testament at a major university in Israel. (A very interesting place to decide to study the New Testament.) She said she had been through a similar journey. She was, as she put it: “Aware of the difficulties.” That is, she has a place at the conversation because she is at least familiar with the material concerning the origins of Christianity, the bible and the rest, and is not simply deluding herself, as many Christians do. The good news, she said, was: “You can make it through this to a better place.”

I did not get to continue the conversation past that point, although I would like to. Is it possible for a person who does not even believe in Hell, or the concept of sin (as in failing to meet the standard set out by God in His law) to be a Christian in some way? Perhaps it is, so long as it is clear that I am also a Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. As well as an agnostic, and in times of deep despair, possibly even an atheist.

But the Christian might be the better part of me.

One thing my friend Ray pointed out to was the 10 commandments, as a part of the standard raised by God. Unfortunately, I was not persuaded by that very much. If I had to come up with a set of human laws to live by, I would have created a very different list than these. Especially when you put it in the context of the rest of the Old Testament law. Like the commandment against adultery. I would certainly not condone the form of marriage described in the law of Moses, which was, as I have pointed out frequently, polygamous, blatantly discriminatory against women, and fundamentally a form of slavery. I would have certainly added a commandment against rape. (Want to get your hair raised? Read the laws in the Old Testament on rape.) And I certainly would have added a law encouraging compassion and empathy towards every human, regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Which is obviously missing from the Old Testament law, as it is completely bigoted in favor of the children of Israel, and against the rest of the human race.

So there is the challenge: Can a man like me fit into a community of Christian believers? Not sure. I guess we’ll see.

More later.

Strength

I have had several transformative conversations with my wife recently. One had to do with strength. She wanted to know why I have it, and what well I am drawing from.

You see, my wife is very, very sick. Her situation has gotten serious, and we are now trying to figure this out. In the process, my resolve has been tested, that’s for sure. I will say, amazingly, that I am holding my own. I do cry a lot. I won’t lie about that. However, crying is not necessarily so bad. I am kind of getting used to it.

Anyway, I used to have a pretty pat answer for the question of where my strength comes from: God of course!. Now, I am not so sure.

It is kind of like prayer. I pray a lot these days. I guess it goes with the territory of being a spouse of someone who is seriously ill. Oddly, in the process, I have kind of figured out why prayer works, and what religion is all about, at least for me.

You see, to me at least, prayer is not for God. Prayer is actually for me.

Since I have lived in a state of total doubt for some time now, I am not sure if God even hears my prayers. That’s another one: My wife asked me recently why God was a mystery. (I replied: “Wait! I know this one!”) Eventually, I did come up with the answer: Since God is completely unknowable, He / She is a complete mystery. Every experience I have ever had with God (and believe me, I have had some doozies) has been completely subjective. I mean, how can I be sure that my subconscious mind didn’t simply make it all up?

You get the idea. Since I don’t have much of what religious folks would call faith (which I regard as uncritically believing  propositions that are at best harmless lies), it may surprise you that I pray. But, again, I realize now that prayer is not for God. It is for me.

You see, when I pray for my wife, I let go of the problem a little. Since this is a problem over which I have absolutely no direct control (much as I would like to!), I simply must let go or I will take the problem onto myself. Therein lies the path which I cannot tread.

So, in a sense, I need divine help and guidance. I need the Strength of The Goddess. I rely on Her now. Even if I am not sure She hears me.

More later.

Faith

What is faith? The bible describes it as:

Faith is the now the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1 KJV)

I will actually accept that definition with no problem. It says exactly what I believe faith to be, what it has been in my own life: Believing passionately things for which there is no physical evidence, and which may actually violate the laws of the physical universe. These things we believe are not provably untrue, mind you. They are simply profoundly unlikely.

Now, how is it that really, really, really believing stuff which is really, really, really improbable makes you a better person? I just don’t get it. Does it, like, spruce up the old brain cells somehow?

Please help me out here.

Stephen Hawking

My wife just posted this exceptional quote by Stephen Hawking:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

In the context of religion, this statement is very compelling, at least to me. I have been awash in knowledge about doctrine, theology, and all the rest, for much of my life, and all of it seems to be illusion to me now. I thought I was so intelligent and well educated, when actually I knew nothing. Now that I know that I know nothing, I am much happier, oddly.

I asked my wife an interesting set of questions last night:

What if you could simply decide that the things that happen in church buildings on Sunday morning are precisely the same thing as going to the Durham Performing Arts Center to see the Nutcracker Ballet? What if you could simply decide that it is all simply a human invention, and nothing more? What would that mean? Wouldn’t you then be able to stop believing what another person (generally a religious authority figure) told you, and instead start believing whatever seemed real, meaningful, and comfortable for you?

Hawking is famously an atheist. I have read several books by Hawking, and he has been instrumental in my understanding of modern physics, a subject about which I am very passionate. While I respect his position as an atheist, I do not share it. I may blog more on why I am not an atheist at a later time.

Doubt

I had a random conversation with a guy named Josh yesterday. This occurred at Devil’s Pizza in Durham on 9th Street. I wandered in there while I was on 9th Street shopping. I was hungry so I ordered a slice and sat down. Josh was sitting on the next table over, and was facing me. He proceeded to engage me in a conversation. He brought up the issue of religion, and told me that he was attending a big Evangelical mega-church near where I live. I have been to this church. It repels me. I find this form of religious expression to be simply a form of entertainment and nothing more.

I suppose he tweaked me. Also, he was quite insistent that he wanted to have a conversation with me on the subject of religion. Every time I tried to turn the conversation away from religion, he turned it back. Eventually, I surrendered to the inevitable, came over, sat down with Josh and told him the truth.

Bottom line: When Josh walked into Devi’s Pizza yesterday, he was a Christian. When he walked out, he was not so sure. Not that he abandoned his faith at that moment, but he was absolutely sure about what he believed when he met me, and when he walked away, he was filled with doubt.

Here is the thing: I really like doubt. I think doubt is great. It keeps you humble. The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know much. What I did in that man’s life was to demolish myths and shine the light of doubt into his heart.

When I was a Christian, doubt was considered a bad thing: We were to do everything possible to root doubt out of our hearts and lives. Now, I embrace it. Interesting. Josh, if you are out there, I would love to hear from you, and how you are doing. Let me know how that doubt thing is working for you. It works for me, that’s for sure.

More later.

No Sin

I have told the same story twice today: Once to Susan Powter, one of my dearest and oldest friends, who I talk to about once a decade, and the second time to my once-estranged, but now forgiven, daughter. Apparently, this story was important to me.

It was about my experience as a “baby Christian”. That is, just after I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. In fact, my wife left me for this reason. It seemed that she preferred a drinking buddy to a Christian husband, so she split. After I dealt with that loss, my Christian friends (i.e. members of my religious community) informed me that:

  • I could not have sex outside of marriage.
  • I could never get married again.
  • And, oh yes, I could never masturbate.

In other words, I could never have a non-spontaneous ejaculation for the rest of my life. At the age of 28, I was done. I call this solution: No Sex.

It’s simple: Just don’t have sexual feelings of any kind. Just try that for about 60 seconds. OK, there now. I think you see the problem.

This was my first rebellion. At that time, to Christianity I said: Fuck that Shit.

More later.

The Plan

OK, I’m back. I had a little meltdown after that last post, but I’m OK, now.

I have been cogitating on a plan to discover the Non-Cultural Truth (in this post I shall refer to this as the NCT). For a definition of what I mean by the NCT, you should read my previous post entitled Clouds. The gist is that collections like the Bible, the Koran, and so forth have some essence of truth in them, but this is colored and distorted by the culture of religion. What I seek, what I so desperately want to find, vain though my effort might be, is that divine essence, the essential truth, stripped of all of the religious garb.

I am trying to find a way to explore this quest. One idea I have is to examine all of the various works of religion and philosophy which one would imagine might contain some of this stuff. Candidates for inclusion would include:

  • The Hebrew bible, which is the scripture for Judaism, as well as being the Christian Old Testament
  • The New Testament
  • The Koran

That’s about it for the major monotheistic religions. I suppose we would have to include the Eastern religions as well:

And perhaps we should include philosophy. I find the modern philosophers profoundly depressing, but I would certainly include a couple of the ancient ones:

I would propose to peruse these works, pull out the gems and discuss them on this blog. Let me know your thoughts on this idea, please.

Compassionate or Vicious

I had an interesting lunch today with my Christian friend, Ray. One of the things we discussed was the idea expressed by Karen Armstrong that there is not one form of religion in human history. Instead, there are two. She refers to one of them as “compassionate” religion. For want of a better term, I will call the other form as “vicious” religion.

For compassionate religion, the example she uses is the Second Isaiah (most Christians do not realize that Isaiah was actually written by two different authors, and their works were later combined). Second Isaiah was relatively annoyed with the Jewish authorities (particularly the King of Israel) because they were “oppressing the fatherless and the widow”. In other words, Second Isaiah was opposed to powerful, rich people and supportive of the weak and poor. In a Christian context, I suppose St. Francis of Assisi would come to mind. Certainly, Francis’s life was a blessing to everyone who knew him, from what we can tell given the records we have of his life. He fed and bathed lepers, for example. Francis of Assisi uniformly and tenaciously represented the interests of folks like lepers, widows and orphans, consistent with Second Isaiah. The film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” is a great recounting of the life of Francis of Assisi, if you are interested.

For the vicious form of religion, Karen Armstrong chooses the OT King Josiah. I found this choice interesting, because in evangelical circles (where I have hung out a lot), King Josiah is typically a pretty popular guy. (I have met Christians who name their children after King Josiah, for example.) For Karen Armstrong, not so much. King Josiah was a murderous despot along the same lines as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. Certainly, King Josiah was a strong proponent of the worship of Yahweh, and promoted this form of religion over all others, including killing the adherents of other religions. Particularly the folks who liked to worship Ba’al, according to Karen Armstrong. (Apparently, she feels that Ba’al was not such a bad guy, for a pagan god, anyway. And was certainly not deserving of all of the bad press he received in the OT, and most definitely not so bad that it would justify the massacre of his followers.) Josiah exemplifies vicious religion because it combined the exercise of state power, tremendous wealth, pomp and circumstance, and the use of violence and intimidation. In Christian terms, I suppose Pope Urban II would come to mind: He was responsible for the address that launched the Crusades. Another excellent choice would be Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

What distinguishes compassionate religion are the following characteristics:

  • Loosely organized, no official leaders and all leadership is through earning respect of followers.
  • Completely selfless, self-sacrificing attitude of both leaders and followers.
  • Opposed to the rich and powerful.
  • Supportive of the sick, imprisoned, poor, and needy

And, of course, vicious religion is the exact opposite:

  • Rigid, military style organizational structure.
  • Primarily oriented around the production of wealth and power.
  • Embracing and embraced by the rich and powerful.
  • Lip service to taking care of the needy, but little actual action or results.

Of course, this is a range, and each form of religion falls on a point on that range. I have been a member of Christian churches that meet both descriptions, to a greater or lesser degree. Certainly, I am looking for a group that is like the first list.

The interesting thing pointed out by Karen Armstrong is that compassionate religion (in all its forms, at least according to her) has been one of the most positive, if not the single most positive, forces in the history of mankind. At the same time, vicious religion (again, in all its forms) has been undoubtedly the single most destructive force in history.

More later.

Many Senses

This post may be a bit technical for most of my readers. However, I am fascinated by the human senses, and frequently explore them within my own body. I have long maintained that there are far more senses than generally thought, and this post is about that idea.

First, let’s define what I mean by a sense. In my view, a sense has the following characteristics:

  • It allows us to gain information about the outside world. In that way, a sense is effectively a portal between us and the physical universe in some way.
  • Typically, a sense has a dedicated area of the brain to moderate its needs. In some cases, (such as sight), the sense is so complex that multiple areas of the brain are involved. Often, the use of different areas of the brain is a clue that a particular sense is separate from another sense. This is the case with the sense of touch (or what I call tactile sensation) and the related senses of body sensation and sexual sensation.
  • Senses generally result in sensations that we can experience consciously. That is, we are aware that we are experiencing this sensation. This is certainly true of sexual sensation, for example!
  • Frequently (but not always), a distinct organ of the body is associated with one or more senses. For example, the ears not only take care of hearing, but also balance.

In my own body see at least the following senses at work in my own life:

  • Sight (of course). This is undoubtedly the primary sense for humans, and I certainly rely on it heavily. It is far more complex than most people realize. More on this later.
  • Hearing (of course).
  • Taste (of course).
  • Smell (of course). Again, though, the sense of smell is a bit more complex than folks realize, and is certainly closely related to the previous sense, taste. Actually, most of the sensations that we experience when we eat are smells, not tastes.
  • Tactile sensation. Note that I do not call this sense “touch”. There are very good reasons for this. See the next sense for some reasons why.
  • Sexual sensation. Again, very distinct from what we normally call the sense of “touch”. However, sexual sensations are regulated by a completely different area of the brain from the normal sense of tactile sensation that we feel continuously throughout the day. Sexual sensation only fires if there is sufficient stimulation to cause the release of oxytocin, a neurohormone with fascinating implications for health.
  • Body sensation, often referred to as the sense of pain. Interestingly, the sense of pain is referred to as a sense, but is not typically included in the sense list which we learn in school. Odd. However, body sensation is definitely a separate sense, according to the definition above. Certainly, it uses a completely different area of the brain than tactile sensation. Oddly, the sense of body sensation shares much of the wiring (referred to as the parasympathetic nervous system) with the sense of sexual sensation.
  • Balance. This is a very interesting and complex sense. We definitely use a distinct area of the brain to handle this sense, and we also have an organ in the inner ear which assists with this sense.
  • Duration, commonly referred to as the sense of time. Again, this is often called a sense, but is left off of the typical “five senses” list we learn in school. Which is obviously incomplete, as we see above!

There is probably a spiritual sense as well, but of course I cannot prove that. I have certainly experienced the spiritual sense in my own life, though. More later.

Payoff

In my previous post, I talked about the notion that the bible (which is of course merely a collection of ancient documents) is the “Word of God”, and how this notion has become a critical component to Western European Evangelical Christianity. In several conversations with my friend Ray (who is Christian, of course), I think Ray and I may have teased out a possible reason why this notion became so central to this particular religion. One in which I and many of my loved ones have been enmeshed for so many years.

Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”. I have also heard this referred to as “Pray Reading”, and various other similar terms, depending on the religious context. The assumption is that the spiritual organ that lies within each of us, and connects us to the divine, gets turned on, and suddenly we are able to believe things for which there is no logical evidence. And the first thing you must believe, and for which there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, is that the bible is in some sense the “Word of God”.

Looking at this phenomenon from outside religion, of course, it appears to be very much like mass delusion. There is, after all, no scientific evidence to support the existence of a Human Spirit (at least not without serious questions). Thus, the act of believing propositions for which the evidence is seriously lacking seems, well, illogical.

Enter what I call Suspension of Disbelief (SoD). It is very similar to going to the movies, reading a book, or any other similar form of entertainment. You simply decide to believe what is presented to you, and you are good. You can only enjoy Harry Potter, Star Trek, and the like, by engaging in SoD to at least some degree. I am very good at this maneuver, actually. Anyone who has been to an action movie with me will laugh when they remember how agitated I can get during the fight scenes. This is because I actually lived in a fantasy world for several years (during the time my father was in Vietnam), and thus I have a very overdeveloped imagination.

Anyway, to become a Christian, you simply decide to believe. That’s it. The bible does say that it is “God’s Word” in several places (or at least you can interpret it that way). If you simply do the SoD thing (which, again, in the religious context can be called such things as “Reading by Faith”) then you can accept the bible, warts and all, as the utterance from the mind of God. Believe me. I know. I have done this very thing: I have believed this myself.

Now, the question: Why did I do this? Simple. There was a big payoff. In fact a payoff so huge that it could be said that it saved my life.

The payoff was love.

I was 28. It was 1983. My sister committed suicide by shooting herself in the head with a 38 caliber pistol. I got fired from my job and had basically no way to support myself. My wife was insane and abusive, as well as on her way to becoming a stumbling alcoholic. And I was joining her there. In the midst of all this stepped this older man named Frank.

Frank reminded me of my Dad, actually. I do not know as I sit here if Frank is still alive, although I have regularly tried to contact him. Frank, if you are out there, please let me know.

Frank was a Christian, and he took an interest in me, this young, intelligent, budding attorney who worked at the same natural gas pipeline company that he did. Frank took me under his wing. He offered me love. He offered me someone to talk to.

And he offered me the bible.

As I have said before, Frank was a very bookish guy. He seriously believed the proposition that the bible is the “Word of God”. And he dedicated an hour per day of his time to a practice based upon that belief: He read the bible cover to cover 4 times a year.

Now, of course, Frank was not reading the bible in the way that I do now. I read the bible as a piece of human culture, nothing more. Frank, on the other hand, used the same technique as my wife. I describe it above. Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”, which is the term I will use, or RbF for short.

The thing is, like I have said previously, most Christians only read about 15% of the complete content of their bible, max. And that’s the good stuff. Bear in mind that the bible is truly fabulous stuff at least 15% of the time. That’s the part that, for want of a better term, I call inspired (in the secular sense of course). The rest of the bible falls into three categories:

  • Appallingly violent
  • Miserably depressing
  • Crushingly dull

At least, it does for me. Your mileage may vary. Depending on your tolerance level, and your commitment to reading the bible. Which in the case of Frank, was very high.

During my long association with Frank, I noticed that he did not ignore the uncomfortable parts of the bible like other Christians did. He read it all. I imitated Frank, and read the bible cover-to-cover many, many times. In the process I learned a lot about the bible. And gradually I got a better picture. The way that Frank and I were reading the bible was driving us crazy. I certainly knew that was what it was doing to me, and I also saw a lot of the same thing in Frank. At the very least, this practice was giving both of us a lot of stress. I personally observed Frank tortured to some extent by one of the more difficult passages in the bible. The early history books like Genesis and Exodus are great for this. Just open one and read a bit. You almost can’t miss it. But one example that I will pick on is Genesis 19, a truly miserable story in the OT, and the passage that was bothering Frank one day long ago.

In Genesis 19 we have Lot, Abraham’s nephew, living in Sodom with his wife and family. Two figures described as “Messengers of Yahweh” (frequently translated “Angels of the Lord”) arrive to warn Lot to flee Sodom. Apparently, the people of Sodom are homicidal, sexually crazed maniacs. (I have never found anyone in my all of travels who remotely resemble the men of Sodom, but whatever.) The men of Sodom try to break down the door to Lot’s house to drag out these two total strangers “so that they could know them” (literally “have sex with them”).

At that point Lot has a startling response. He brings out his two young daughters and declares

No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof. (NIV)

Soooo, it would be “wicked” to have sex (presumably rape) with these two strangers, but it’s fine to rape my two young daughters to death? What is Lot thinking here?

Now, of course Frank had a strong response to this passage. Not only does it seem remarkably cruel, evil even, but it makes no sense. It does not seem to particularly move the narrative along. It just seems to be stuck in there.

The thing that really bothered Frank was that this was in the bible. He didn’t get it. With each and every verse in the entire bible, Frank was trying with all of his heart to extract meaning and significance. And despite years and years of trying, and accreting massive amounts of “insight” onto his understanding of the bible, many, many verses eluded him his entire life, at least up to the point I knew him. And he was fairly elderly then, so this practice had been going on for many years.

What I saw in Frank, though, was a man with a purpose. A man who stood for something. And, most importantly, a human being who was willing to expend energy on me, who was willing to take his time, and give it to me freely.

What he saw in me was a successful, very intelligent young man who was utterly shattered and broken, but who still had enormous potential. Frank invested huge amounts of his time in conversations with me. Over the course of my conversion, which took the better part of a year, Frank and I spoke for hours, many times a week. However, even at Frank’s inflated hourly rate (Frank was also an attorney) this investment was wildly profitable to the Christian Church (if such an institution can be said to exist). I have given wildly, profligately in fact, during my period as a Christian. Thus, strictly as a business decision, the contribution of Frank to my life was a good one. However, I seriously doubt that Frank thought about it in that way. To him, I was merely a young atheist who was in his life, and who he was working with to share his faith. He had done the same thing many times before, and did it after he worked with me. To Frank, it truly was a form of love.

Because of this, the offer that Frank made was completely irresistible. I was exactly what has been described by Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity as the ideal recruiting prospect for early Christianity: Isolated, lonely, desperate, and starved for human contact. It is possible that Christianity may have saved my life, as it did for many of the early Christian converts during all of the plagues in ancient Roman cities that Rodney Stark so eloquently describes. More on Rodney and his incredibly important contribution to my life in a later post.

The deal I made with Frank, which I suppose I secretly knew when I did it, was to receive access to a community, a support system, and most especially an emotional support system, in exchange for believing a few extremely implausible (but not provably wrong) propositions. Like that the bible is the “Word of God”. Which is, as I like to say, the Mother of Them All (TMotA). In terms of “foma” at least.

And why is that particular foma so important? Simple: Because it leads to all the rest.

If you believe, I mean truly believe, that the bible is the “Word of God”, then you will believe all kinds of improbable things. I have done it. Many folks in my life have done it. Entire doctrinal and theological card castles have been built around this initial single foma.

My daughter recently told me about some of the heated theological debates which were occurring in the Baptist church where she and her boyfriend sometimes attend. I suggested that she simply make the following statement during this sort of discussion:

You realize, don’t you, that the bible is a work of human culture and not the “Word of God” in any sense. Right?

At that point, all theological disputes should disappear. Because SoD will cease, assuming that this statement is believed. At least, that has been my experience. I was no longer able to buy the notion that the bible is the “Word of God” at some point in my journey (I have tried to figure out when this occurred, but so far it escapes me). My studies of the bible and the manuscripts upon which it is based eventually spilled over, and my faith in the bible as the “Word of God” simply collapsed. Once that happened, all of the other foma fell away as well. This included the following improbable notions, all of which I believed passionately up to this point:

  • Evolution is just a theory.
  • Marriage is an institution ordained by God in which one man and one woman live together their entire remaining lives and raise a family.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ is the only legitimate expression of God’s love on the Earth.
  • Your Hindu housekeeper is going to Hell because she has not accepted Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.

More later.