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.

My continued adventures

There are several liberal churches here that I’ve visited from time-to-time over the years, not for the service itself but for the various classes. Last night, I went to a two-hour event at First Methodist, which is the least liberal church that I would dare attend. Unfortunately, it had been advertised as a class about God when it was really a discussion group about a particular anthropomorphic version of God. When I arrived, I was handed a list of questions that would guide that night’s discussion, and they all presupposed that one felt God’s presence frequently and could talk about God in familial terms. Looking over the list, there wasn’t a single question that I could answer, so I debated whether to leave before the class started. Having gone to the trouble to get there and curious about what the others would say, I decided to stay.

A short film of a talk by the theologian Marcus Borg (a decidedly non-anthropomorphist) was shown, and in the following discussion, I discovered that I was the only one present who knew much about him. Not knowing this at first, and there being two ministers in the group, I decided to ask them to address one of my problems with Borg. Namely, he regards supernaturalism as “childish,” and describes himself as a panentheist, which is the belief that God contains the universe (“like water contains fish”), but is separate from the universe. I therefore asked what distinguishes panentheism from supernaturalism, and why Borg regards it as the “mature” way of conceptualizing God. The room grew terribly quiet as the clergywoman shook her head, the clergyman shrugged, and everyone else sat looking at me like I was from another planet. We then took up a discussion of what we wanted God to do for us. I thought this was a rather ironic direction to take since the theologian on whose thoughts we were building our discussion doesn’t believe that God intervenes in people’s lives, so I said as much.

Of course, no one seemed to know anything about Borg’s view on prayer (the film was but a first-person account of a supposedly mystical experience that caused Borg to regard God’s existence as being “as certain as the existence of elephants”), and the clergyman challenged the truthfulness of my statement. I offered to give him a source for it, but he said that wouldn’t be necessary, and he then challenged me directly—and angrily, I thought—to say what it was that I wanted from God. I was forced to say that I didn’t want anything from God, and, becoming angry myself, added that I didn’t regard the Bible as the Word of God, along with other such sentiments as would have once gotten me burned at the stake. By now I was sorry I stayed, and I recognized that, given the purpose of the group, my comments were counterproductive. This is why it is dangerous for me to be around Christians. They want to believe what they want to believe, and to support one another in believing what they want to believe, and it only takes one oblivious statement from me to throw a monkey wrench into their machinery. The only church I know that encourages people to think outside the grooves is the Unitarian, yet I very much doubt that a Christian would be much better accepted among atheistic Unitarians than I was among those Methodists. We are a tribal species.

When the group broke up, a bright and loving man in his eighties said he enjoyed my comments and looked forward to hearing more next time. I appreciated that, but I doubted that others shared his appraisal, and when I looked at the questions for the next meeting, they were pretty much like the ones for this meeting in that they presupposed that everyone come prepared to discuss their experiences of God. If I returned, the clergyman would most likely challenge me to justify my presence, and I wouldn’t know what to say, yet I must confess that a part of me wants to go anyway just to see what would happen. I won’t because I know from experience that it hurts to be rejected by a group, and that it is unwise of me to ever imagine that I am tough enough to handle it well even when I understand their reasoning and think mine is better. The bottom-line is that I probably have nothing to give the group, and the group probably has nothing to give me, and for my participation with any group, or even with any person, to succeed, two-way giving is essential.

I came home feeling like an idiot for going and a worse idiot for talking as I did. Then I read the responses from my last blog post, and they gave me a lift because the way that some of my readers see me is the way that I try to live so that I might make the best use of my remaining time. The road is easier and cleaner for one who is on a well-defined path, and I envy those Methodists for their apparent clarity and their support of one another, but I wouldn’t choose to be them because I believe the price they pay is too high. I know more than they, and I think more deeply, and I could never abandon these things in order to experience what they euphemistically call faith. What I would say to them, if they were open to hearing it, is that no skeptic can attack God—assuming for the sake of argument that God exists—but we can attack human representations of God, and the extent to which we can do so effectively is the extent to which they deserve to be attacked.

Thoughts of late

John Morreall
Liberal Christian scholars tend to offer more devastating critiques of the Bible than its atheist critics simply because they know more. For example, few Biblically literate atheists would know that the Pharisees only constituted 1.2% of the Jewish population during Jesus’ time rather than being its dominant face as portrayed in the Bible. However, by the time the gospels were written decades later, they had become Judaism’s dominant face and Christianity’s chief critics, making it probable that Jesus’ attacks on them were interpolations. Likewise, few atheists would know that the signers of the Nicene Creed couldn’t agree on a definition of the Trinity, and that half of them changed their minds it even existed and asked that their signatures be removed from the Creed. Neither would most atheist critics of the Bible know as much about Biblical archaeology, the languages in which it was written, or its social and historic background. Yet, liberal Christian scholars use their knowledge of the Bible to build a new faith while atheists use theirs to substantiate non-belief. Maybe religion really does have a genetic component.

One of the most interesting books that I’ve had the good fortune to come across lately is John Morreall’s newly released Questions of Christians in which he tears down organized religion and dogma, yet offers a positive appraisal of Jesus. One sentence of his book struck me as particularly powerful: “In Jesus’ preaching and in his life, there are ten recurring themes.” I was stimulated by this sentence because anyone who is willing to read the gospels impartially can easily point out statements that Jesus supposedly made that are cruel, absurd, bigoted, grandiose, hypocritical, or contradictory, but it had never occurred to me to put such isolated statements aside and to instead focus upon his “recurring themes.” Yet if someone were to critique my beliefs, this would be only fair way to do so because I say silly things all the time, although they don’t reflect my best thinking. Here is Morreall’s list of Jesus’ “recurring themes”:

Tenet 1. Love God and Love All People
Tenet 2. All Human Beings are Brothers and Sisters, with God as Their Father
Tenet 3. Each Person Counts the Same
Tenet 4. From Each According to Their Ability, to Each According to Their Needs
Tenet 5. Leading People Should Not Mean Dominating Them, but Serving Them
Tenet 6. Celebrate Your Loving Relationships
Tenet 7. Minimize the Number of Rules, and Apply Them Flexibly to Benefit People
Tenet 8. God Alone is Judge
Tenet 9. Be Ready to Forgive Anyone for Anything
Tenet 10. “Do Not Resist an Evildoer” (Matthew 5:39)

So, what does all this mean to me? It means that my upbringing might have influenced my adult thoughts about Jesus more than I realized because the only options I was given were to view him as insane, or a charlatan, or the Son of God, when he was probably more like you and me except that: (a) he never recorded his thoughts, and (b) those who did record them didn’t know him personally; wrote their accounts decades after he was dead; and often put words in his mouth in order to give credibility to their own views.

I believe that Morreall’s tenets might very well be true to what Jesus meant to convey. I believe this on Biblical grounds, and because I would like to think better of Jesus in order to justify my continued presence in church. Morreall’s interpretation of Jesus is as different from that of almost all churches as springtime is from winter. It reminds me of a scene from Religulous in which Bill Mahr is standing in front of the splendor of the Vatican saying, “What does any of this have to do with Jesus Christ?” Indeed, what does it have to do with Jesus Christ? Then again, what does Protestantism have to do with Jesus Christ? Here in America, at least, both Catholics and Protestants (with evangelicals and fundamentalists taking the lead) are more likely than secularists to favor capital punishment, corporal punishment, waterboarding, going to war (it doesn’t matter which war) and compulsory prison sentences. They oppose helping the poor because they blame the poor for being poor, but they have no problem with tax breaks for the rich whom, they believe, wouldn’t be rich if God didn’t favor them. They oppose gay marriage, but have no trouble with making a three-way marriage of judgmental religion, militant patriotism, and conservative politics. They believe that a gun-toting, abortion banning, capitalistic democracy is God’s favorite kind of government; America his chosen nation; and themselves his chosen people.

Not all Christians fit my description—the Christian readers of this blog don’t—but the dominant face of Christianity in America does, so, yes, I like Morrell’s view that Christ might have been better than the rank and file imagine him to be, and better than I imagined him to be. I also like Spong’s view that atheism is compatible with Christianity; and the common liberal view that Jesus’s use of the word belief has nothing to do with the credulous acceptance of unverifiable propositions (most notably, “Accept Jesus as your savior or go to hell”) and everything to do with trusting in that which is good, with Jesus serving as an example and metaphor for good. It’s the difference between saying I believe that, and I believe in. Unfortunately, I can’t regard Jesus as my primary example of good simply because too little is known about him. His biggest recommendations in my mind are Morrealls list and that the status quo killed him. Since the status quo regularly destroys that which is good, the latter is an awfully big recommendation, and the former at least portrays Jesus as having a good heart.

P.S. Maybe I should explain my near absence from blogland. I’ve been pulling up an old fence and building a new one. I take narcotics during the day, Neurontin and Ambien at night, sleep ten hours, wake up hurting and exhausted, and go at it again except on days when I’m too tired and in too much pain to do anything but nap. Yesterday, I finished everything but the gate of one section of the three-section fence and will save the rest for next year. I’m sad that this work is proving so hard, but elated that I can do it at all.