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 together...to 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. 

24 comments:

Stephen Hayes said...

As always your posts are well-written and thought provoking. I was raised a Catholic but no longer practice any religion. It seems to me that most people care less about delving into the truth behind religions than they are creating the god they need. We are an atavistic species when it comes to religion, still looking for answers as to why it thunders.

angela said...

You always offer such amazing insights, thank you

lotta joy said...

I wish you had a job writing articles for a newspaper. Of course, they would receive bomb threats daily from the moral majority.

A school girl once chastised me where "Santa Claus" was concerned. She said to believe in Santa was to doubt Christ. To this day, her statement has no logical response and, fifty years later, I still wish I had one !

"Three months later, I am as ignorant as when I started" And so are they, dear Snow. Only they don't know it.

kylie said...

snow,
i have tried desperately to engage with you on the question of Christianity but truly, for the life of me, i dont understand what you want from the church or from Christian people.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Always interesting Snow....

Lee Johnson said...

I really liked this post. You have put far more effort into your quest for understanding than I could possibly stomach. It sounds like you did find some deeper truths, although perhaps about liberal Christianity rather than from it.

It seems to me that the differences between liberal and conservative Christianity parallel their differences in politics. Conservatives prefer unchanging hard truths, often decided in childhood, and they ignore the cognitive dissonance which arises when reality disagrees with their truths. Liberals prefer vague beliefs, which are harder to disprove and thus cause less mental conflict, but which simultaneously offer a less concrete perspective on the world around them.

rhymeswithplague said...

I also hoped that they would likewise be open to learning from me.

That was your first mistake. The kingdom of God is not a democracy. It's about a King.

You are certainly a person of worth, Snow. No one is doubting that. But the Church believes it was given GOOD NEWS to disseminate. It is not interested in learning from you. From its viewpoint, you should be learning from it because it has something to share that is of infinite worth. It is as though (I'm trying to think of a Pacific Northwest analogy with Biblical overtones) you want to sell filthy rags to Nordstrom's and are surprised that Nordstrom's isn't grabbing them up.

As usual, I'm not saying this very well and it is not my intention to antagonize you, not at all. It just seems, from my viewpoint, that you insist on having yet another trip around the mulberry bush but want nothing whatever to do with the mulberries.

Eat, eat, it will do you good.

kj said...

I have to agree with Kylie. I think you are searching for community and that means like minded, or at least wide open good folks. But maybe in your seeking, since you aren't wide open, this ends badly.

I hope you are happy and solid with your blog community here, snow. We are all different but your words are so welcomed and valued

For whatever reason, I don't struggle with god or God or liberal Christianity. I believe in karma and reincarnation and life after death and I just do. I don't need facts or proof, although I also believe they are there when I take the time. These days I am reminded that the answers are loosely wrapped in love. I look for good people and I find them. As in. You, snow.

I hope your search awards you good questions always

Love
kj

Charles Gramlich said...

Life is complicated. Why should there be any insights or answers? Even if an insight was found, it seems likely it would be an insight by one person for that one person. And no spiritual answer seems likely to outlast the person who found it for themselves. What is important is what helps one person cope with the issues in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. If a literal Jesus helps, then so be it. If a vague Jesus helps, then the concept has served it's usefulness.

The Tusk said...

I've been reading several posts and haven't had the time to comment or blog myself. I sit here now with the terrible flu that is going around and while I read the cough is halted so as not to interrupt your words. Am I capable of a worthy response is always my worry. I find youre thoughts very demanding. I wanted to say that Nolly Posh (Vicki) will be happy with your attempts at tackling Christianity a little closer. But who am I to think for what her thoughts might be. Santa Claus is the belief that Love is overwhelmingly in your favor once a year because a child was born among us 2013 plus years ago in the Current Time forgiving us for our sins. Believe in a make believe and your reward is your parents posing as all omniscient love will bring your reward, which is more love, not the size of the present or wish exemplified. Yes many scriptures are written with discrimination for certain topics lacking. They were written 2000 plus years ago and have not evolved, because the original understanding lies only within those times and with a lay person of those times that needed lessons on a specific topic. Translations from the Greek to the french to the German to the English all from the latin of which those languages came to fruition. Literal translations are sometimes vague and sometimes specific. A certain waiver of understanding and belief in Faith is a given when it comes to Christianity. The Pope for the first time tweeted in Latin, and is making efforts to return the mass to the original Latin. I am not going to retweet for him but it is well documented what the translation represented.

Snow, don't give up being an Atheist, because for the rest of us, it sometimes makes the belief in miracles easier to understand. Because we can apply our belief system based on one very strong message. That the word of God is one of Love and Compassion for the next Human Being, and if we can't at the moment help ourselves, then we should be helping the one next to us, whether they carryu a gun or knife or they just at that moment in time, don't know whose child they are.

Snowbrush said...

"We are an atavistic species when it comes to religion, still looking for answers as to why it thunders."

Every time there's a mass disaster, I look forward to Pat Robertson, and other preachers, telling me who God is punishing.

"She said to believe in Santa was to doubt Christ."

I wonder if it occurred to Pat Robertson that God might have allowed all those first graders to be shot to punish them for believing in Santa.

"i dont understand what you want from the church or from Christian people."

KJ wrote that I'm searching for community, and, inasmuch as I understand myself, I think that probably is my primary motive (which means that my reasons for attending that church were different than my reasons for writing about religion on this blog). I don't feel entirely comfortable in atheist groups because they tend to function at a more left-brained level than I enjoy, and, I think, to look down upon right-brain communication. Believers, on the other hand, including liberal believers, tend to be right-brained, but also, in my opinion, credulous, hypocritical, and rejecting of anyone who represents a threat to that which they're trying so desperately to think is true. I was also sincere in wanting to find the good within liberal Christianity (I would even say that I became excited and hopeful in this regard when I found myself so warmly welcomed). It's also true, Kylie, that I enjoy communicating about religion just as those who are interested in other subjects enjoy communicating about them. True, I see it as a great evil, but I'm still drawn to it in the same way that people are drawn to the study of slavery or Nazism. Was not some part of me then open to conversion? No, I have absolutely no respect or capacity for any faith-based worldview. The common belief that one should make every other judgment in life by rational standards only to throw those standards out the window in the area of religion is and always has been the cause of enormous misery.

"Conservatives prefer unchanging hard truths, often decided in childhood, and they ignore the cognitive dissonance which arises when reality disagrees with their truths. Liberals prefer vague beliefs, which are harder to disprove and thus cause less mental conflict, but which simultaneously offer a less concrete perspective on the world around them."

I agree with your insights. I find liberalism SO vague that it's as if there's no there, there. For instance, if they "define" God as "the ground of being," I can't argue against it (except to point out that it's not a definition but a metaphor), but at the same time, it's meaningless to me. As with pantheism, the difference in calling the universe the universe and calling the universe God, is not one of content, but of imagined attitude, with the pantheists being of the opinion that calling it God somehow sets them above those who simply call it the universe.

Snowbrush said...

"the Church believes it was given GOOD NEWS... It is not interested in learning from you. From its viewpoint, you should be learning from it...It is as though...you want to sell filthy rags to Nordstrom's and are surprised that Nordstrom's isn't grabbing them up."

You're right. God's people can't verify anything they believe on the basis of reason or evidence, yet they're certain that they are the only people on earth who are in possession of the truth, and they have used this certainty to justify 2,000 years of murder and oppression, not just of people like myself, but of Jews, Moslems, animists, and other Christians, there now being some 3,000 Christian denominations, each of which considers itself closer to God than the rest. When belief is based upon faith, no one need ever admit he is wrong.

"I hope your search awards you good questions always"

But as you would agree, I think, the search is its own reward. I don't envy anyone their "truth."

"Why should there be any insights or answers?"

Are you suggesting that objective truth doesn't exist in any aspect of life or just in the area of religion?

"What is important is what helps one person cope with the issues in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. If a literal Jesus helps, then so be it. If a vague Jesus helps, then the concept has served it's usefulness."

As John Lennon put it, "Whatever gets you through the night. It's alright. It's alright." While I can appreciate the spirit of what you said, religion for the masses doesn't stop at being a source of personal comfort.I would refer you to Rhymes' comment, and I would have you consider the Republican Party, Islamic terrorism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc.

"Snow, don't give up being an Atheist, because for the rest of us, it sometimes makes the belief in miracles easier to understand."

Could you name a miracle that was made more understandable because I'm an atheist?

Snowbrush said...

I see that my first comment went out twice without any changes being made. When I first tried to post it, I was taken to a log-in screen, so, not knowing that it was online, I posted it a second time.

PhilipH said...

"Three months later, I am as ignorant as when I started.."
That is not true. None the wiser, perhaps, but not ignorant.
All I would say is "forgive them, for they know not what they say" and Amen to that.

Snowbrush said...

"i dont understand what you want from the church or from Christian people."

I had another thought about this. I would like to understand how people can adopt beliefs which would appear irrational. For example, you recently suggested that pregnant women should rely on God more and modern medicine less to insure a safe delivery, yet you surely realize that it is modern medicine rather than God that has caused the dramatic drop in maternal and newborn mortality, and that in countries that lack modern medicine, high mortality continues regardless of how religious the people are. Another blogger suggested that Christians rely on God rather than guns to protect them from mass murderers, this following the murder of nearly 30 first graders and their teachers whom God did not protect. A belief in some form of a deity is one thing, but a belief in a deity that is willing to single people out for its care and protection based upon prayer is quite another, and I have never, ever, even when I was a Christian, been able to fathom how one does it.

"the Church believes it was given GOOD NEWS... It is not interested in learning from you. From its viewpoint, you should be learning from it...It is as though...you want to sell filthy rags to Nordstrom's and are surprised that Nordstrom's isn't grabbing them up."

I had another thought here too. When a person uses faith as a justification for rejecting other people's ideas outright, it amounts to a protective device that protects that person from ever having to think outside the parameters laid down by whatever authority that person accepts as infallible, which is nearly always the same authority that was accepted by those among whom he or she grew up.

kylie said...

of course i realise that modern medicine saves lives, my point is simply this: if, as a Christian, a woman has no pre-existing medical conditions or risk factors and yet chooses to have medical intervention which is not indicated, she shows no faith in either her God, nature or her own body to achieve a safe birth.

it happens to be my own soapbox, that is all.

do you actually want dialogue or do you just want to win arguments? because i have already said a number of times that i dont have answers to all the questions, what i do try to do is offer you a perspective on the things you wish to discuss

Snowbrush said...

"if, as a Christian, a woman has no pre-existing medical conditions or risk factors and yet chooses to have medical intervention which is not indicated"

No one should have medical intervention which isn't necessary, so I don't understand how your thoughts relate to prayer.

"do you actually want dialogue or do you just want to win arguments?"

I want to address the points people raise as sincerely and intelligently as I am able, and I would like the same of them. I also realize that nothing that I, as a committed rationalist, can say is likely to affect the thinking of a committed fideist in the least, and that nothing they can say, as fideists, is likely to affect my thinking in the least, because we hold two very different--and completely incompatible--ways of discovering truth. Yet, I do want to understand fideistic thinking. I also want to flesh out my own thoughts, and to do what little I can to combat that which I believe to be extremely destructive, namely fideism. As for dialogue, you asked me a question earlier, and I would like to know if I answered it to your satisfaction because I took it to be important to you.

"...i dont have answers to all the questions, what i do try to do is offer you a perspective on the things you wish to discuss"

And I very much appreciate that.

Sissy said...

"never the twain shall meet"

"never discuss politics or religion"

There are no two alike on this earth, so why continue to search? Just live and let live. Why knock anyone else's beliefs. Life is just too short to always be worrying and concerned what another believes. Seems we each have enough on our own plate to take care of without probing and picking apart what is on another's.


These are just 'off the top of my head' thoughts of the moment.

We are all stuck here together whether we like it or not.


Myrna R. said...

I enjoyed reading this because you're so honest. I gave up on institutional religion a long time ago. I thought you had too, but it's almost like you keep hoping that some group will satisfy your rational seeking. I suspect no such group exists. I admire your search though.

Thanks so much for your comments on my blog. The spam has reduced considerably but I will consider word verification if it starts up again. I may even move my blog elsewhere.

Vagabonde said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. I think you are trying hard to understand what is not understandable. You cannot discuss what people believe – they have “faith.” When I asked my husband why American people were so religious, he told me it has little to do with religion but a lot to do with being “social.” There are many small communities that have nothing else than a church, so that is where they go, even if they don’t really understand the religion, they just want to be “good people” (because it is known that if you go to church you are “good”) and they want to feel good about themselves – don’t need to explain or don’t want to know too much. If you go to France, Belgium, Italy, etc you will see century old churches (they don’t build many new ones anymore) and they won’t have halls to eat barbecue or other food during the week for its members. People go there to pray then they go home – of course nowadays there are more tourists in them than people praying. By the way, while I was researching on the different customs of Christmas I found out that there had been several god children born from virgins in other myths, predating Christianity. I think you are trying to find logic where there is none. Believers don’t want to read the parts in the Bible which do not coincide with their thinking. If you talk to them about it, their eyes will glaze. I also think many don’t really “believe” but are afraid to come out and say it. I think that in this country it is easier for people to believe than not to believe. They have been disappointed in Santa Claus, so now they just “want” to believe in their religion, and if they talk about it too much, with people like you, they may get doubts - they are absolutely afraid of that.
Here are a couple of quotes I translated for you from the French: “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.” -Napoleon Bonaparte ; and another “If God made us in His image we have certainly returned the compliment." – Voltaire; and from Marie du Deffand writing to Voltaire “What is faith? It’s to firmly believe what you do not understand.” I think you should just switch to reading good mysteries, it would be more fun.

Strayer said...

I'm with Charles. I don't need answers to everything. I don't need packaged boxed reality or answers. I like getting by, a roof, food, clothes, cats. I like to learn, but knowledge is humnan created and only goes so far.

I'll never know how the earth came to exist. I'm fairly sure there are lots of other places types of life similar and nonsimilar to us and other life on our earth exist way out there. Why? I'll never know. There may even be dimensions and realities coexisting. Our place in this universe, in space and time, is insignificant as dust and probably less so. Those who chase religions, gods and spiritual paths, exult themselves to an importance, a significance in this universe to which I cannot relate. And I also I think that's really vain. So vain its funny. Or pathetic.

angela said...

Hi snow bush I posted a special post for you! Enjoy

A Plain Observer said...

Faith is untangible and it cannot be taken apart to study its molecules. Religion is different. It is an organized system, made by men for men. Some kill in the name of their religion. I have questioned mine – catholic – many times and like you, I found that there were not answers and its followers did not want to deal with my scrutiny. My faith is unshakable, my religion…I can take or leave

Joe Todd said...

Good post Snow.. From what I've heard and read Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't "require" anything and they only make suggestions. Now on to reading some of your earlier posts