You shall not lay a stumbling block for your brother*

I went to two Episcopal Circle Services (an intimate and informal communion) before I realized that each person in the circle was expected to say Christ is here to the next person during the passing of the bread. This posed a serious problem for me, because it’s one thing to sit and listen to words with which I dont agree  (as I had done with many of the hymns and readings), but quite another to use them. I wrote to one of the leaders of the service about my concern, and she responded:

“We’re not talking body and blood, we’re talking heart and soul... To me, Christ is not a person’s name, but a title that acknowledges a way of being in relationship with the ineffable, and the man named Jesus was really, really good at that relationship…. I hope you’ll stay.”
I took her last sentence to imply that she had said all she had to say, and that it was now up to me whether this was to be my hill to die on. I told myself, “Why not just say it? I don’t know why these people regard Christ so highly, but I like and respect them; they like, and appear to respect, me; I hunger for lasting community with different kinds of people; and I feel a need for ritual and liturgy in my life; so I’ll just use the word as a metaphor for something good.” A day later, I realized that I couldn’t bend enough to do this. If the favored word were basalt, I wouldn’t have to hunt for positive metaphors (strength, beauty, integrity, solidity, patience, and regeneration), but Christ? It’s not just the harm that has been done in that name; it’s that for every good thing he reportedly said or did, he said or did something else that was confusing, nonsensical, or appalling.

I know. The word Christ is held in highest esteem by Christians, so what could be more arrogant than for an atheist to show up at a church and object to its use? First, I don’t object to others using it. Second, the order of service states that “All are welcome.” Third, in the words of one of the priests, “the service exists, for those for whom the traditional ‘father, son, holy spirit’ language just doesn’t work.” As I see it, a group of laypeople designed Circle Service with the stated intention of total inclusivity, but then erected a barrier to everyone who doesn’t revere Jesus. While it’s true that they would be fine with me transposing the word Christ to mean light, love, harmony, or oneness, the truth is that only Christians could make such a transposition. When I think of Christ, I think of a world in which millions of non-Christians—and even Christianshave been abused, oppressed, tortured, and murdered by people who acted in his name, so to imagine that I—or any non-Christian who attaches importance to words—can take the name of the founder of the Christian religion and translate it into something worthy of reverence is fanciful.

I now eat fish, but for years I was a vegetarian. One night, a friend who knew I was a vegetarian invited me to supper, put a bowl of chicken soup before me (it was a one-dish meal), and, when I objected, said, “You can take the chicken out, can’t you?” I said nothing more about it because he was an elderly, lifelong meat eater in a rural area containing nothing but lifelong meat eaters, and I wanted to assume that he was acting out of ignorance. As often happens when I go out of my way to avoid conflict by putting a less condemnatory spin on someone’s questionable behavior, I later realized that he almost surely hadn’t been that ignorant. I concluded that he most likely saw the consumption of animals as something that normal people did, and vegetarianism as a needlessly annoying eccentricity that he wasn’t about to accommodate even when he invited a vegetarian to dinner. Likewise, I’m being invited to communion at St. Mary’s, only to find that my acceptance of the invitation requires that I say words I don’t believe—words that NO non-Christian believes. Only Moslems say “Mohammed is here,” and only Christians say “Christ is here.” The people who create the Circle Service surely realize this, or at least they would if they thought about it.

I also regard their attachment to a purposefully undefined word as an example of the slippery slope that awaits those Christians who move from literalism to liberalism. I would like to think that liberalism (which has much to recommend it) will become the dominant face of Christianity, but I don’t see it happening. I think it possible that, once a literal belief in the creeds has been discarded, most people will regard the language itself as a hollow shell. Like a Christmas ornament, it might look splendid on the outside but, too little being put in to replace what was taken out, it is empty within. A century or more ago, the Unitarian Church reduced its own God-language to the status of ornaments, but since ornaments are only useful as symbols, the further they moved from valuing what the symbols represented, the further they moved from the symbols themselves. Today, Unitarians speak sparingly, if at all, of Christ or even of God. Is this where other liberal churches are headed? One might interpret a purposefully vague and open view of Christ as a sign of higher awareness, but it could also be like the tunnel with a pinpoint of light at the end that dying people see just before all the lights go out.

*Romans 14:13. The question is, am I their brother?

Three ways of thinking about God

First Version (I speak from experience)

Heaven is somewhere up above. God and Jesus have thrones, and Jesus’ throne is to the right of God’s throne. Heavenly beings stand before these thrones 24 hours a day for all eternity singing praises to God and Jesus. God and Jesus demand that we praise them, but it only counts if we want to do it. Here’s a list of what you need to do to get into heaven: praise God and Jesus everyday; do good works; get baptized by immersion (today if possible); go to a Church of Christ every Sunday; ask God to forgive you your sins throughout the day so you won’t die with any of them unforgiven. If you want to go to hell, here’s how you can do that. Die while masturbating; play musical instruments in church; become a liberal; get sprinkled rather than immersed; use the wrong number of glasses during communion; let women talk in church (including announcements and Sunday school); get divorced and remarry.

Hell is somewhere below, maybe at the middle of the earth. It’s like a big lake, only instead of being blue with water, it’s red with fire, and people writhe in this fire forever and ever, and during every second of that time, the fire is hurting them a trillion times worse than anything on earth ever hurt anyone. If you’re in heaven, you will be a trillion times happier than anyone on earth ever was, and you can even look down and see the people in hell, and they can look up and see you. Almost everyone you ever knew will be in hell, but heaven will be so wonderful that even the sight of your loved ones writhing in agony won’t diminish your joy.

Second Version (I use my own words to report what I have read and heard)

God is of another dimension, and can’t be captured within the language of this dimension, but Jesus demonstrated what our own lives could be like if we lived in constant communion with God. God can be sensed in the silence between words well spoken, or glimpsed through stories, many of which were first told around Bronze Age campfires. God sometimes shines on us through figures of speech that can only hint at his reality. When we feel love, we feel Gods presence. When we speak truth with wisdom, we give expression to the faintest whisper of God’s voice. When we experience wonder, we inhale the barest fragrance of God’s intelligence. 

God is pure joy. God is pure love. God is everything good rolled into a three-letter word. God is the ground of our being. God is that for which even atheists hunger but have no name. Within God we exist, yet God need not be conceived as all-wise, or all-powerful, or even as a conscious entity. God can simply be defined as the totality of the good that exists within every one of us, or even as the evolutionary potential of our species. We look for God in flowers; we hear God in music; we see God’s eyes looking back at us through the eyes of other people. We all came from God, and we will all return to God. Hell only exists on earth. Heaven is an awakening to universal oneness.

Third version (Again, I speak from experience)

Religion is all made up. Most people know down deep that this is true, which is why they only revere people who heard God’s voice in ancient times, while admitting that modern-day people who hear God are insane. Without God, there would be no holy wars; no genital mutilations; no prosperity gospel; no anti-science bias in education; no tax-exempt churches; no denial of global warming; no blaming sin for hurricanes and school shootings; and no soccer stadiums filled with 10,000 men who have come to watch another man decapitate a woman.

Liberal believers aren’t as bad as other believers because their God only exists as a mile-high stack of harmless metaphors. Unfortunately, their rejection of evidence and reason in matters of faith” still puts them on the side of ignorance and superstition. When the religious right persecutes atheists for trying to keep America from becoming a theocracy, religious liberals support the persecutors by remaining silent. Fortunately, 20% of Americans no longer have any religious affiliation, and their number is growing rapidly. Most of these people still believe in what they call something, but at least they’re not trying to make their beliefs into laws

John Spong (pictured) is a liberal Christian whose writings I have read. His photo is by Scott Griessel. 

Circles. If only mine overlapped, or at least touched.

St. Mary’s has what it calls a Circle Service on Saturday evenings, and I went to one last month out of curiosity. Twenty people were present, 80% of them women, and 80% of them between 55-70. The seats were arranged in a circle, in the middle of which was an altar with candles and communion elements but no cross. The service was led by a lay person, everyone hugged everyone during the Passing of the Peace, and communion was passed from person to person instead of being served by a priest at a railing. I didn’t say the words, and I didn’t sing the hymns, but I did think about how I might do what many Episcopalians do, which is to impose a private meaning onto public expressions of faith. It was a daunting task.

Communion was proclaimed as “open to all,” leaving me free to interpret it in the same way that I interpreted the hugs, that is an act of human intimacy rather than the symbolic consumption of a corpse. When I got home and told Peggy (herself a nonbeliever) that I had taken communion, she called me a phony and said that if she had been one of the communicants and had known that I was an atheist, she would have been outraged. Since about a third of the communicants did know, I wondered how they felt.

I’ve been to two other Circle Services because I enjoy the sense of community and because liturgy fills me in a way that nothing else can. It also enables me to set aside my disagreements with Christians and to meet with them at a heart level. All I require is that they want to meet with me, not as a spectator, but an equal.

Every Saturday, I ask myself whether I want to go that day, and my answer has been about 50/50, mostly because I worry about causing offense. Last week, I went. Judy—who was born in Mississippi 20 miles from my own hometown—was to lead the service, and I looked forward to the heart that I knew she would bring to it, that and her beautiful Southern accent. I first sat on the other side of the circle from her, but when I became aware that I wanted to be near her, I took the empty chair to her left. Before she started the service, Loren (my Yoga instructor) came over and suggested that, if the words of the service didn’t work for me, I use words that did. Priest X* (who also knows of my atheism) arrived, and s/he sat to my left so that I was between Priest X and Judy.

When the time arrived for Priest X to go to the altar and consecrate the communion, Judy whispered that I shouldn’t feel pressured to take it if I didn’t want to. I said that, no, I wanted to do so. She seemed surprised but also pleased. After starting the communion around the circle, Priest X returned to the seat beside me without having taken it, which meant that s/he would be the last person to receive it, and that I would be the one to serve it. I nearly laughed aloud at the thought of an atheist giving communion to a priest.

Serving the bread involved tearing off a piece of it and saying certain words as I put the piece into Priest X’s hands. That being done, I wiped the rim of the chalice with the piece of cloth that accompanied it, and served the wine in the same manner. As all this transpired, Priest X looked me in the eye with extraordinary alertness. I took this to mean that s/he was completely in the moment, although in what way, I couldn’t tell. Only two surmises came to me. One was that s/he was simply struck by the novelty of the situation, and the other was that s/he was looking for signs of disrespect. Aside from these wonderings, I was very much in the moment too. 

Someone later wrote to me that the first priest to consecrate the communion (this was over ten years ago) had wanted to specify that it was for those who were, “seeking a deeper relationship with Christ,” but that the Circle Service community had voted him down. I responded (too bluntly) that any largesse that can be granted by vote can be taken away by vote. I wrote this way because I am the leper, the tax collector, the adulteress, and the woman at the well whom the religious people of Jesus’ day condemned and whom most religious people today still condemn. If Christians believe that the invitation to Holy Eucharist comes from Christ, then I would say to them, who are you to vote anyone in or out? I have no reason to think that they saw things from this perspective, whereas I feel sure that it was hard for them to override the wishes of a priest who had been their leader for decades, and that they were willing to do so precisely because they wanted to reach out to those whom he would have excluded. Priest Y—this church has several priests and deacons—wrote to me: “…no one would be upset that an atheist joined the circle. That's pretty much WHY that service exists, for those for whom the traditional ‘father, son, holy spirit’ language just doesn’t work.”

Part II

After I wrote everything above this paragraph, I went to the Circle Service that occurred the day after the mass murder in Connecticut. I had been very upset by that shooting, and I debated whether Circle Service was a good idea for me since Christian explanations of such events strike me as worse than useless. While I knew what might be said, my growing closeness to the people left me to hope they would do something more meaningful, so I went. It was a mistake. For one thing, I get tense in crowds, and instead of the usual 20 in attendance, there must have been thirty. For another, the laywoman who gave the homily started with, “People always want to know why these things happen, but, of course, there is no answer, not really.” Then she gave a sad little smile which I took to imply that, rational thought being useless, she was ready to offer some thoughts on inner peace. I remembered an old series of Miller Lite commercials that would pose a question (what do women want? is there life on Mars?), and immediately conclude, “Why ask why? Drink Miller Lite,” and I envisioned those thoughts as Jesus Lite.

I looked around at the other people in the circle, and, rightly or wrongly, I took their benign expressions to mean that they liked what they were hearing, and I felt very alone. Then it struck me that when I started going to the Bible study at St. Mary’s, my guess was that people would be offended by my atheism, yet everyone has been supportive. I’m the one who’s offended—at least I was on Saturday—because that brief sermon seemed to verify something I had worried about, namely, is church primarily an escape into fantasy. The people at St. Mary’s are sweet, the songs are sweet, the hugs are sweet, the talk of inner peace is sweet, but the people don’t appear to ask the same kinds of questions that I considered inescapable after age eleven.

You might very well point out that I’m reading way too much into one sermon, and you might very well ask what, if anything, would have pleased me—a Power Point presentation entitled “Theodicy Through the Centuries”? Angry Christians shaking their fists at a God whom many consider willing to help people find parking places and win football games, yet allows children to be murdered? What did I want from them? I wanted something that seemed emotionally real. If they had said, “Yes, sometimes religion seems like bullshit even to us, and, no, we can’t defend it, but, whether you think so or not, we believe it makes us more loving than we would be without it,” I would have felt solid earth beneath my feet. What else would have satisfied me? Tears. Maybe silence. Maybe saying to God, “You know, trusting you isn’t easy when you refuse to do that any of us would hope we would have done, which was to stand between a mass murderer and twenty children even if it meant that we would die without saving a one of them. But maybe none of this would have been real for them. Maybe they really are okay with not asking the kinds of questions that atheists ask. Yet, to immediately turn the focus of Oregon Episcopalians toward their feelings and how they might mitigate their pain over a shooting in Connecticut! Maybe I misunderstood her intent. Maybe prejudice got in the way.

Priest Y also wrote to me: Atheism doesn’t bother me, because I consider atheism, when one arrives at it intellectually and is willing to continue to ask questions and interact with other people as a seeking person on this great journey, to be a valid form of spirituality. Atheists tense-up when the word spiritual is applied to them because they expect the next sentence to be: “You’re too sensitive [or intelligent, or perceptive, or caring, or fine a person] to be a real atheist.” I re-read Priest Y’s email to find such an implication, but when no hint of patronage or condescension appeared, I was forced to conclude that, wonder of wonders, this leader in a worldview (Christianity) that has oppressed and reviled people like me for 2000 years, validates my path. But can I validate his/her path. My answer is that I am trying to be open to the possibility that Christianity at least can lead to wisdom and kindness because I’m tired of the hatred that results from assuming—as atheists often do—that the only salient effect of the Christian religion on its followers is delusion, ignorance, oppression, and buffoonery. If I can’t find some good in Christianity in a church that is willing to include me in its communion, as an atheist, where can I find it? The problem is that, just by looking, I feel like a traitor to those atheists who spend their lives fighting to keep the forces of religious oppression at bay. Im like a person who has become lost in the Arctic and finds himself astride ice floes that are drifting apart, unable to let go of either.

* I feel obligated to keep the identity of most priests private, especially when the opinions they share with me contradict official church doctrine.

Mass murder jokes, anyone?

I had never written a joke in my life, but when I couldn’t sleep last night, I wrote these. I’m not saying they’re good; I’m just saying I wrote them.

A blonde who wanted to be a mass murderer shot over a hundred people with paintballs before somebody pointed out that she had the wrong kind of gun. She then shot herself in the head, but all it did was to turn her hair green.

Another mass murderer wannabe stormed into a Catholic church wearing a George W. Bush mask, and proceeded to shoot-up the communion wafers. The judge sentenced him to 30 days for the shooting and 30 years for the mask.

A mass murdering man and his mass murdering dog walked into a bar. The man told the bartender that the dog could talk, and the bartender said drinks would be on-the-house if it were true. The man said, “Speak, dog,” and the dog said “Woof,” but the bartender wouldn’t give them the drinks because he said it was dog talk rather than people talk. The dog and the man killed everyone in the bar, and then they had their drinks-on-the-house.

A traveling salesman mass murderer named Massey had car trouble one night and knocked on the door of a farmer who had a beautiful daughter named Lassie. Lassie and Massey fell in love, but when people laughed at them because their names rhymed, Massey killed them all, and then he and Lassie lived happily ever after, but they never actually got married, so some people say they lived in sin.

Knock. Knock.
Who’s there?
A black quadriplegic Quaker woman mass murderer.
There are no black quadriplegic Quaker women mass murderers.
Bang! Bang-bang-bang! Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang!

When you cross a mass murderer and a serial killer, what do you get? A serial mass murderer, of course.

This morning, I asked Peggy what she thought of my jokes. “Not much,” she said. “Should I put them on my blog?” “NO!” she answered. Then I got to wondering how people would react if I did, and I decided to find out.

During the first few days after the murders, I was really upset, and I’m still really upset, but now that the American press has done what it does best, which is to substitute tears for news in order to boost ratings; and now that politicians have done what they do best, which is to translate suffering into political currency, I am less in touch with grief than I am with anger and cynicism, if not frothing hatred. The major news before last Friday was all about continuing unrest in the Middle East and America’s upcoming fiscal cliff. This week, the major news consists of tearful interviews of people who knew—or knew someone who knew—last weeks murder victims, along with the expert opinions of media shrinks who had the shooter and his family psychoanalyzed before the victims’ blood had coagulated. 

As to the politcians, Obama (our Nobel Prize winning hit-man-in-chief), went four years without doing anything to reduce gun violence, and he just got through running an entire presidential campaign without mentioning it, but having discovered last week that guns are dangerous, he gave Joe Biden (his vice-president) until next month to come up with proposed gun control laws along with suggestions about how to curb the “culture of violence” in America (he’s talking music, movies and video games here, not the actual wars, assassinations, imprisonments, and bombings that he himself supports). When he was asked why it wasn’t until last week that he started supporting about gun laws, he said he had been too busy trying to save the economy. What I would like to know is when he finished with that? 

Even numerous Republicans have reversed their belief that patriotic Americans should be able to own any weapon short of a ballistic missile (a few months ago, one such Republican ran a campaign ad in which he was shown firing bullets into environmental regulations). What do these politicians know now that they didn’t know when they got out of bed last Friday? That 8,500 Americans are shot dead on their own soil each year? No, they knew that. The only additional information they have is that the political breeze has become a major storm, and that their careers are dependent upon blowing with it. 

I copied the following from the Bushmaster site (the gun used in Connecticut was a Bushmaster) because it uses the common American view that real men love guns as a marketing toolThe text refers to a promotion in which men who bought the kind of gun used in the Connecticut shooting automatically received permanent "man cards."

Proof of Your Manhood – The Man Card ... Do you have what it takes?

Windham, ME – Inspired by the overwhelming response to Bushmaster’s “Consider Your Man Card Reissued” sweepstakes, Bushmaster Firearms announces the latest part in the series; the Man Card online promotion.

To become a card-carrying man, visitors of will have to prove they’re a man by answering a series of manhood questions. Upon successful completion, they will be issued a temporary Man Card to proudly display to friends and family. The Man Card is valid for one year.

Visitors can also call into question or even revoke the Man Card of friends they feel have betrayed their manhood. The man in question will then have to defend himself, and their Man Card, by answering a series of questions geared towards proving indeed, they are worthy of retaining their card.

The company is now up for sale, and many of its internal links (including the one for Man Cards) no longer work. Maybe the idea just isn’t all that funny anymore. When I last posted, I wrote of the hell that I saw in the eyes of the woman whose photograph I included. Now, Ive been sitting here looking into the hell that I see in the shooters eyes, and some of my rage toward him has been replaced by pity. There is a deep sickness eating away at the heart of my country, and I wish I could believe that it can be healed, but when the very man who has called for an end to Americas culture of violence kills causes people to die violently everyday, where is there reason to hope?