Check-in time

A rare good picture of both of us. I like being married
to a woman who still looks hot at age 63.
I think a lot, and I can’t help but notice that what I think is more interesting than what other people think. I’m aware, of course, that other people might disagree, but that just shows you how wrong they can be. 

Three weeks ago, Father Brent wrote that we should get together again, and he proposed last week as a good time. A lot was going on in his life, so I heard nothing more from him, which was fine, but I wrote to him that when we do talk again, I would like for him to read my last blogpost first because it represents my best effort to say why I’m coming to his church. After trying to find it on Google, he admitted that he didn’t have my blog address anymore. Because of how extremely interesting my blog is, I was disappointed in him about this, but I expect so little of people anyway that it didn’t really matter. I still think he’s a good man in terms of caring about people, and that’s what’s important. It’s also why I couldn’t be a priest. Of course my atheism would be deal-killer right off the bat, but even without that obstacle, my poorly disguised antipathy for humanity would keep me out of the priesthood.

I really don’t know what to think about how cold I am. Like with that Ebola epidemic in Africa. I can’t help but think that the vanishing wildlife of Africa would be greatly helped if several million people died, so this makes me think that it would be for the best if they did die, what with the non-human animal population dropping by half in just the last thirty years. You might ask how I would feel if the epidemic were in America. Well, I would just shit, but that doesn’t negate my point.

I went to the back doctor this week for what I thought might be my last visit. My back hurts all the time from my upper shoulder blades down to either side of my crackie, and I had hoped he might be able to do something about it, but I’ve had enough experience with doctors to doubt that he could, and I was right. He always orders an x-ray, and this one showed that my broken vertebra is continuing to collapse. It was at 21% three months ago and at 24% now. He says that if it reaches 30, I’ll need a surgery called pedicle subtraction osteotomy with thoracolumbar fusion. This means that he re-breaks my back, rebuilds the vertebra, and fuses four of the surrounding vertebra. I naturally wanted to know more, but he said it’s still too early to talk about it, and that doing so would only upset me. I took this to mean that he had’t even told me the worst of it, so I came home and googled the surgery, and found that he really hadn’t told me the worst. I won’t say anything more because it’s still too early to talk about it, and I woudn’t want to upset you. Ha.

I’ve been taking a lot of narcotics lately, not to mention Ambien, Neurontin, and Cymbalta. I take the last three drugs at night and the narcotics during the day. 30 mgs of oxycodone (three to six times the starting dose) doesn’t slow me down, but it does it make it easier to keep going, both in terms of pain control and mood. I drive, run power tools, ride my bike, prune trees from ladders (no, I wasn’t on oxycodone when I fell last year), clean roof gutters while leaning forward on a sloping surface, and so on without feeling unsafe. The drug probably makes some difference in my performance, but other than problems with memory, Im unaware of any.

I’ve thought a lot about narcotics over the years because I take so many of them, and because they’re supposed to be such a horrible thing. Given how well I function, I think it likely that the worst problems addicts face are simply getting their drug and having to worry about being caught. Certainly, marijuana and alcohol both have a more detrimental affect on my abilities than do narcotics, so I would assume that the same is probably true for addicts. Obviously, narcotics are a health risk, but to repeat myself, so is overeating, and a lot of other things. I can but say that so far, knock on wood, my energy level is fairly good considering that I’m kept awake by pain for a significant portion of every single night, and if I’m developing organ problems, I’m unaware of it.

I’ll tell you, though, I’m low right now. I did so good on my fencing project that I was encouraged to think I might do okay with emptying out our large living room, dining room, and hallway, removing the old carpet, painting the walls, and then having new carpet installed. The first thing I did was to move about fifty shelf-feet of books into the garage, and I was in more shoulder pain that night than I’ve been in a long time, maybe years. I was planning to move the furniture the next day, and had asked our friends, Lee and Robin, to give Peggy and me a hand with the big pieces, but I was in so much pain that I didn’t even try to move the little pieces. It’s an awful thing to watch other people do my work, but I have to stay in good enough shape to tear out the carpet and wash and paint the walls, and I knew that if I moved furniture, I might be in too much pain to do the rest. So, while they worked, I babysat with their little girl, Sidney, aka my granddaughter. That needs some explaining.

Lee and Robin were Jehovah’s Witnesses before they became atheists, and when they left the JW, their families, being filled with the love of Christ and all, naturally shunned them. When Sidney was born, they shunned her too, the damned little sinner. Even before she was born, Lee and Robin named Peggy and me Sidney’s grandparents, and Lee told me that in the unlikely event that his parents should come back into his life, I would still be Sidney’s grandpa. I probably love Sidney as well as I would if she were the offspring of the son or daughter that I never had (how can anyone not fully love a little child?), but as much as I care about her, Peggy is invested several times over. I find it poignant and worrisome to see how much she needs that kid in her life. 

Peggy is off for a long weekend with two friends for their 20th annual “Girls’ Weekend Away.” When she’s home, Brewsky has to sleep in the laundry room because he keeps her awake. When she’s gone, he sleeps wherever he pleases, and this weekend has been the first time that he spent most of each night in bed with me. I’m awake so much that he gets a lot of petting during the wee hours, and sometimes, he’ll even wake me up just to be petted. That’s what Peggy objects to, but I don’t mind it, at least for a few nights. After having him for four years, I’ve finally become enough attached to him that I actually think I might miss him if he died as much as I would miss a dog.

Well, that’s enough of a check-in. I’ve got to clean house and finish getting ready to paint because the carpet is coming next week.

Asking why

I share the following sentiment:

“No matter how difficult our circumstances or how dire our situation, we need a way to pull everything together and celebrate wholeness. We need to affirm what is true, cherish what is beautiful, and embrace what is lovely. The necessity of religion emerges from this deep-seated and longstanding human need for wholeness.”*

Upon reading it, I reflected that most if not all of the atheists I’ve known would argue that I don’t need religion for these things, but I’m afraid I do. Yet, I too am an atheist so why, then, religion? Because I’m still idealistic enough to believe that, at its best, religion has the potential to contain in one place a mixture of worship, philosophy, morality, mystery, compassion, openness, music, art, history, and community. But why Christianity? Because it’s what I have to work with, both by virtue of my culture and my history.

I’m a Christian in the same way that I’m a Mississippian. I lived in that state for 37 years, and in Oregon for all but two of the past 28 years. I left Mississippi because I hated so much about it, yet it is ever with me. I miss its water oaks and Spanish moss; the flatness of its Delta; its Indian mounds, battlefields, antebellum mansions, and Natchez Trace; the heavy fragrance of its warm humid nights; the constant reminders of its Civil Rights era; and scores of other things. When I’m especially low, I envy my friend Lee, who left Indiana and never looked back. I likewise envy my wife, Peggy, who left God and religion and never looked back. I not only look back; I can’t separate myself from these things. They make me the person I am, possibly as much or more than if I had never left them, and I find it as pointless for my fellow atheists to argue against the literal truth of God or Christianity as to argue against the literal truth of anything that matters deeply to me. Besides, I know all their arguments.

If you want to understand something, be completely absorbed by it, think of it from a thousand different angles, throw everything you have into reaching a state of peace and wisdom regarding it; then love it even while being tortured by it, knowing that the times it will hurt you the most are when you’re the most vulnerable, which are also the times it will delight you the most. I wouldn't wish to mold myself into someone else because I know who I am and what I’m about. Others might look at me and think I need some serious alterations, but just as they pity me, I don’t envy them because my struggle is also my reward. I apparently communicate this poorly because, much to my horror, it’s obvious that many people do pity me, and since I relate pity to condescension, I hate being on the receiving end of it.

Too many people imagine that a good life is one in which pressing problems have been resolved. I can’t say but what they’re right because I’ve never experienced such a life, but when I think of one, I picture prisoners who are kept in their cells for 23-hours a day and only allowed out to exercise in what amounts to a dog-run. They’re fed without working and don’t even have to wash the dishes. Their laundry is done for them, and they need never worry about getting behind in their work, or being laid-off, or having an accident, or finding enough money to pay for surgery, because their lives are completely secure in regard to the kinds of problems that the rest of us face every day. Yet, who wouldn’t rather be dead than to live in such security?

This post was mostly inspired by those readers who, for years, have repeatedly asked: Why would an atheist write about religion so much? and Why would an atheist go to church? To what I just wrote, I would add the following:
I enjoy holy water, ritual and incense. I delight in stained glass. I like reading about religion. I like discussing religion. I enjoy religious art, poetry, music, and history. I enjoy being a part of a community that struggles with issues of morality (which is something the Episcopal Church does in spades). I enjoy having at least the hope of a sense of community that is otherwise lacking in my life, and I enjoy knowing that this community will outlast me because I’ve been a part of so many communities that failed. I enjoy trying to work out old hurts in a new way, a way that is right-brain rather than left-brain. I enjoy taking risks. I enjoy exploring internal frontiers. I enjoy experiencing new things. I enjoy meeting thoughtful people. I enjoy being reminded that not all religious groups are intent on dominating society’s schools, morals, and politics. Despite my atheism, I enjoy the experience of reverence and worship.

I have no illusions that what I’ve written will satisfy my questioners because: (1) As their context usually indicates, umbrella questions that challenge my motivations by asking why? suggest that the questioner regards my behavior as so extraordinary as to warrant disapproval if I am unable to offer an adequate explanation, something that I am rarely, if ever, able to do to their satisfaction. (2) Almost invariably—if not invariably—my past explanations were met with complete silence, and I took this to imply that they were likewise met with disappointment, an interpretation that was reinforced when the same readers asked the same questions repeatedly. (3) I can’t even defend my preference for chocolate over vanilla, so how am I to defend myself in matters that are interpreted as indicative of a deficiency in character or stability? I wish I could, but I know that my efforts are doomed in the eyes of others, and so it is, as it has ever been, that I write primarily for my own benefit. Although these two questions have encouraged me to think, I've come to wish they were a bit more varied because, after years of answering them to the best of my ability, I've run out of things to say. It's now a case of either accepting my answers or not.

*by Galen Guengerich in an article entitled “The necessity of religion,” UU World, Winter 2013 

A way that works for me

Two nights after my unhappy experience with the Methodists, I went to a class on the history of Unitarianism at, surprise, surprise, the Unitarian Church. I regard Unitarianism as a social club for rollicking extroverts, and this seemed true of last night’s class even while we watched slide after slide of “heretics” being burned at the stake in the name of a triune God. At one point the teacher asked the class of perhaps forty to name some current heresies. A young man immediately answered, “Atheism, as I’ve discovered from personal experience.” His comment elicited laughter and the nodding of heads. After four such serious answers, the man next to me said, “People who don’t use Facebook,” and a woman said, “My brother-in-law regards everything I do as heresy, but then he never really left the South.” Then someone pointed out that the church’s only Republican had recently left because his values were held in contempt, and someone else said that no one who opposed abortion would feel welcomed. Beside me sat a man in women’s clothes who was obviously welcome. So it is among Unitarians.

Again, I’m thrown back upon the fact that the Episcopal service is the only one that I enjoy, but—being an atheist and all—I’m no more of a Trinitarian than Michael Servetus and all those other Unitarians who were murdered, some of them by Anglicans. Of course, the Episcopal Church is now overrun by clergy who themselves would have once been burned for heresy, so the question is whether to do as they do and ignore the things I object to, or stay home.

I’m attending a Episcopal book group at Resurrection Episcopal that is currently reading a book entitled The Bible by Karen Armstrong. It was a gutsy choice for a church book group because she makes no assumption that the Bible was divinely inspired, and even points out its flaws so completely as to make divine inspiration seem incredible. I’m probably the only nonbeliever in the 10-15 member group and, until last night, its most loquacious member. The discussion started when a woman said she had had no idea that the writers of the gospels were such “spin doctors.” What she meant was that they tried to prove the divinity of Jesus through Old Testament prophecy despite the fact that many of the verses used had nothing do with Jesus and weren’t even meant as prophecy. Furthermore, the gospel writers often made things up.

There followed a period during which Father Brent and Alan, one of the more scholarly members, made a determined effort to convince her that none of this need be an obstacle to faith. I offer the following as a loose summary of what they said: 

(1) The gospels were originally circulated anonymously, and the apostles’ names affixed to them much later. (2) It was commonly believed in Biblical times that affixing someone’s name to something he didn’t write wasn’t an act of dishonesty but a compliment to the person whose name was used as long as he would have agreed with the thoughts presented. (3) It was also believed that scripture was equally relevant in every age, meaning that verses which were written in ancient times about ancient events were seen as equally applicable to present times and present events. (4) The writers made up real world events as metaphors for internal changes. For example, people who felt spiritually healed by Jesus weren’t necessarily being dishonest when they made up stories about him healing people physically. (5) The first gospel, Mark, was written around 70 A.D. and the last one, John, around 96 A.D., and the slant of their writers reflect the events and concerns of those eras. (6) The fact that the gospels have survived and meant so much to so many attests to the fact that they contain spiritual truth even though they sometimes lack literal truth.

When Brent asked the woman who opened the discussion whether she felt that her problem had been adequately addressed, she said it had. I was incredulous, but I didn’t say as much because, after all, the problem had been posed and the answers, such as they were, given, so it was a case of every individual deciding whether those answers were adequate. I was consequently left to feel, as I often do among believers, that they live on one planet and I on another. Just as the Christians I knew as a boy would twist themselves into pretzels in order to maintain their belief that the Bible was true in every particular and entirely free of contradiction, so do I hear liberal Christians twisting themselves into pretzels in order to maintain their beliefs despite their awareness that the Bible contains so many errors, untruths, and contradictions, that it’s impossible to know what Jesus said or did. The most liberal among them avoid the problem by claiming that the real Jesus matters less--if at all--than the wisdom within the myth. Theirs is the only way that I can get anything of value from the Jesus story because it otherwise presents too many problems for me to take it seriously.

As I was writing this, I received an email from Brent. When I saw him at the book group, he suggested that I read C.S. Lewis (I had asked him for theological reading recommendations), and offered me a couple of his books. Not wanting to seem unappreciative, I didn’t say much at the time, but I didn’t take the books either, so I later felt the need to write to him and explain that I’ve read enough of Lewis to know that he represents beliefs that I’ve already rejected. Brent wrote back:

I totally hear you about the supernatural complications and the troubles with notions of a deity that expresses love and guidance... I struggle deeply with those ideas as well. What I can say is that there is room here for you; room for you and for your beliefs.  How that will manifest? I am not sure… The only thing I am sure of is that an open heart and an inquiring mind are the prerequisites to an authentic religious journey. It would seem that you have both. Once the dust settles after the next week of busyness, let’s get a cup of something hot and talk again.

I have no earthly idea what to talk about with Brent because, despite his openness, intelligence, and doctorate in religion, how am I to convey to him how different our paths are, or to share with him all the things that I’ve thought, experienced, and learned that he almost surely hasn’t? What I would want to say to him, I’ve spent years putting into this blog, so the prospect of even trying to approach the subject in an hour over coffee leaves me despondent. What I value most about his offer is simply that he made it because it counters my impression of priests as salespeople, and me as a poor candidate for what they have to sell. With the exception of Brent and a priest I knew in my twenties, I’ve not met a one who wanted to have anything to do with me. Truly, it’s not the grand gestures that matter but the small ones, things like an invitation to coffee….

How many believers have “an open heart and an inquiring mind” I wonder. Do I? I can but say that my heart opens and closes, opens and closes, and that my mind is ever at its mercy.