The end of an experiment

If I knew a Christian who lived alone in a cave for forty years, I wouldn’t imagine him to have discovered verifiable proof of God, but I would consider it possible that his years of solitary reflection had given him insights from which I might profit. It was with a similar hope that I started attending a Bible study at an Episcopal church a few months ago. I didn’t believe the liberal claim that, although the Bible lacks literal truth, it contains unique metaphorical wisdom, but I was open to the possibility that the mature, intelligent, and educated people that make up the bulk of Episcopalianism had transcended the Bible and, working as something akin to a network of rebels within the Christian community, had gained insights that I would find useful. I also hoped that they would likewise be open to learning from me. I let them know that I was an atheist, but I neither talked about my beliefs, nor did I ask probing questions or issue challenges about theirs because I wanted to present myself in as non-threatening a manner as possible.

Three months later, I am as ignorant as when I started, and have all but given up hope that their religion has provided them with the first unique insight. The thing that I find most interesting—and exasperating—about liberal Christianity is that a liberal Christian might define Jesus as God, man, God-man, or even as entirely fictional, but he or she absolutely must hold something about Jesus, or what Jesus represents, in high esteem. Just as the Boy Scouts and Freemasons require reverence for a completely unidentified God, and AA requires reverence for a completely unidentified Higher Power, so do liberal churches require reverence for a completely unidentified Jesus. In every case, it’s not reverence for an agreed upon entity or belief that is demanded but reverence for a particular word(s), as if that alone had the power to set one apart from less enlightened mortals.

Idolatry (n) the giving of undue honor and regard to created forms.

Although I rarely heard any of my classmates say much about what they did believe, I did hear most of them imply that they didn’t believe most of what is in the creeds. I was also excited from time to time to hear a classmate express puzzlement or consternation about a Bible verse or a church teaching, but such things were never addressed by the group. For example, during the last class I attended, someone said she was finding it difficult to combine the concept of God as an entity with the concept of God as love. After a brief and (I thought) awkward silence, someone changed the subject. After observing a few such instances, I concluded that there was tacit agreement to keep the discussion at a shallow level.

In their apparent determination to ignore doubt or anything that might result in doubt, liberals and literalists are alike, but they differ in that literalists consider their faith to be inseparable from specific facts about God, whereas liberals appear to regard vagueness as what they like to call a higher form of spirituality. In practice, this means that literalistic religion is centered on content, and liberal religion on process. As to how process can exist apart from content, I—like the woman in the class—have no idea, and I doubt that liberals do either. They define God as love, virtue, evolution, a feeling of oneness, awakening awareness, the ground of being, etc. although such terms are figures of speech rather than definitions. To illustrate, if I say that dogs are quadrupeds, I have said something identifiable and verifiable about dogs, but if I say that God is the ground of being, I have simply used a metaphor to express my belief—or at least my hope—that God is providing me with the kind of support that solid earth gives a building or the kind of nurturance that garden soil gives a marigold.

In a 12/17/12 Newsweek article entitled “The Myths of Jesus,” Bart D. Ehrman trashed the historical accuracy of the gospels, after which he took Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith across the chasm of logic by ending his article with a non sequitur:

“…for those with a broader vision…the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

I wondered what he meant by “stories such as these” (there being other God-men who were born of virgins), and I also wondered what he meant by “a greater truth.” As one who lacks his “broader vision,” I had hoped in vain that, having gone to pains to attack the accuracy of the gospels, he might at least give some clue as to what he found good in them, but like other liberal writers, he proved to be a tease. Islam has its Sharia; Buddhism its eightfold path; charismatic Christianity its plan of salvation; and liberal Christianity its greater truth, but the last group differs from the rest in that they hold their greater truth closer to their chests than a poker player’s cards. What they offer instead are bromidic truths about love and justice, truths that rarely coincide with the behavior of the vengeful, intolerant, impatient, and ego-driven deity of the Bible, a deity who supports slavery, sexism, racism, blood sacrifice, homophobia, nationalism, genocide, rape, and everlasting torture. How do liberals handle such challenges to the deity of their holy book? They either interpret troublesome passages metaphorically or deny that God inspired them. They also deny that Jesus said much of what was attributed to him. They then take whatever is left and interpret it as it pleases each of them, the only requirement being that everyone think of Jesus as somehow special.

On the back of the handout for the communion service I attended were the words “...coming struggle with our faith.” This and other things I read and observed led me to think of liberal Christians, not as the originators of bold new ideas, but as the last gasp of an emasculated Protestantism that has been struggling for relevance since the time of Darwin. Its few remaining adherents are now huddled behind the walls of their churches, doing their best to bolster one another up so that they might retain some semblance of a support structure that the rest of Christianity has long since abandoned. I envision them as children (sophisticated children to be sure) whose growing knowledge of how the world works has caused them to lose faith in Santa Claus. Being grieved by the prospect of Christmas without Santa, they doggedly pretend he’s real, only without the part about the sleigh, elves, reindeer, chimneys, presents, red suit, rosy cheeks, white beard, North Pole workshop, and jolly “Ho! Ho! Ho!” They replace such “obvious myths” with an unsubstantiated “higher awareness” of what the myths point to: miraculous powers, the existence of an omniscient being, the material rewards of being good, etc., yet they are left, as it were, with a superstructure without a substructure. Liberal Christianity doesn’t offer new beliefs, but a sorting through of old beliefs with the result that most have been discarded. 

I wrote a few posts back of an Episcopal priest who showed respect for my atheism by calling it “a valid spiritual path,” and I wondered in that post if I would ever be able to show respect for her path. What I’ve found is that while I very much respect her—and a few other Christians—as people of goodwill, to respect their religious path, I would have to think it was based upon truth, or at least that they were wiser or more insightful because of it, but I see no reason to believe that either is true. 

Then and now

It’s funny how many of my memories are of inconsequential things, things I never expected to remember. For instance, I’m a teenager and have gone with my father to see about a job at a bachelor’s tiny house. It’s early winter, and the man is obviously proud of his big garden of turnips, collards, and mustard greens. I picture him alone each night, eating greens, beans, salt-pork, cornbread, buttermilk, and sorghum molasses, and I think he must be the happiest man alive.

In another memory, I’m eleven, and my mother and I are sitting in her overstuffed chair watching Have Gun Will Travel. We admire Paladin because he’s tough, caring, cultured, and mysterious. I think she admires him even more than I do, but I don’t know why.

I’m eighteen, and my father and I are roofing a big house next to a playground. A girl who looks to be sixteen is overseeing the children. She is pretty and kind. I want to talk to her but am too shy.

I’m seven, and when I get off the school bus one day, I run across a ditch where a guinea hen has her nest. She flies atop my head and scratches my scalp. I scream, and my granny comes running out the screen door with a broom in her hands. I’m so surprised to see my granny run that I almost forget about the guinea hen.

I’m twelve and have traveled 450 miles alone, on a Greyhound Bus, to visit cousins in Trenton, Georgia. As the bus passes through northern Alabama, dawn breaks, and I see Sand Mountain on my left and Lookout Mountain on my right. I think they must be the tallest mountains in the world. An old man lives with my cousins. He and I sit on the porch, and talk happily about life on the road. Lookout Mountain towers before us. Im called home early because my granny is dying. My cousin Carrie calls and says the old man is accusing her of putting broken glass in his eyes. He scratches the sockets raw.
I’m a small child and screaming with the pain of an earache. My mother and granny (that’s granny and me in the photo) look afraid, and it scares me. They heat castor oil and pour it into my ear. I feel better.

I’m nine and my mother has just turned the car onto US Hwy 84 on our way to town. I can’t imagine a time when I was not, so I conclude that I have always been and always will be. Then, I can’t imagine anything existing if I’m not there to see it, so I conclude that I create the world as I pass and it disappears when I’m gone. These realizations have come to me within the space of a quarter mile, and I am certain they are true.

I’m five, and my family and I are leaving the cemetery where my uncle has just been buried. I ask my father where Uncle Byrd is, and my father says he’s on his way to heaven. I immediately look out the back window so I can see him rising like a balloon.
I’m 63 and am taking dishes from the drainer and putting them into the cabinet when I have the thought that even this little chore feels like exercise. My body is hurting, my blind dog is slamming into things, and Peggy is wretchedly sick with a new cold. Outside, the air and everything it touches is cold and gray. The passing years have left me weary of counting my blessings.

Except for this morning’s memory, such fragments stand out from everything that went before and everything that came after, for months if not for years. Why? What do they mean? I’ve lived in this house for 23 years. That doesn’t seem like long, but it’s longer than I have left to live. I think that, once our bodies start to fail, most of us are simply biding time until we die. I want more, but I don’t know what more looks like, and most days I’m too tired to wonder.

5 Things: none of them about religion

Ellie has lived next door for nine years, and is like a sister. In a few months, she will move 1,000 miles away, and Peggy and I are both very sad.

Walt came by last week. He was best friends to both Peggy and me for a lot of years, but hasn’t been our friend for about eight years, and it wasn’t an amiable parting. If I hadnt sent him an occasional email during the past eight years to ask how he was, we wouldn’t have heard from him at all. He came by to tell us that he was diagnosed the day before with malignant melanoma, the tumor reaching two inches across before he saw a doctor. Peggy and I went to the hospital today to wish him luck as he went into a hastily arranged surgery. We arrived to find his wife berating him, and his father-in-law looking like he wanted to cry. I added to the ambiance by sitting in silence reading the obituaries (as with the tombstone in the picture, many of the deceased were my age) while feeling sick, sad, and distant. Only Peggy offered any real support. 

Six weeks ago, I had sudden onset fatigue so severe that I couldn’t stay out of bed for more than an hour or two at a time. I seriously thought I might die so, not knowing what the problem was, I immediately stopped taking oxycodone, Neurontin, Ambien, marijuana, and Cymbalta (Im back on marijuana and Ambien). In the wink of an eye, I fell over an emotional cliff. Now, I still have the chronic pain problem for which I was taking all the drugs, plus I have fatigue, fever, sweaty scalp, depression, irritability, tremulousness, scratchy eyes and throat, and a tendency to drop things. All this, and I still don’t want to go a doctor because I get tired of the same shit happening. To whit, the first doctor sends me for various tests (some of which might be dangerous), and then I get tossed back and forth between specialists (and their tests) for anywhere from a few months to a few years. After shelling out $4,000 before insurance pays the first penny, having up to three surgeries, making countless calls to insurance companies and billing offices, and being put on even more drugs, I still have the problem. If I’m lucky, it’s just not as bad as it was. Of course, by not going, I could end up like Walt. I know that, but still I don’t go.

It’s winter in Oregon. Month after month of almost nothing but gray and drizzle, except for a couple of periods during which the sky clears for a few days, bringing with it wind, cold air, and a sun that stays too near the horizon to be really cheerful. Peggy enjoys life here and has no trouble with the weather. I like many things about Oregon, but it’s only her desire to be here and the presence of a few friends that keep me.

Peggy and I getting rid of a lot of things today, mostly keepsakes. I am very pleased about this because I am finding it increasingly difficult to clean house. We celebrated our 41st anniversary in December. She has been a good wife.