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.


Elephant's Child said...

I wonder whether others of the group were as open as the man who spoke to you. I hope so. I suspect that he at least benefited from your presence. Which is good and bad. I love that his horizons were broadened but it doesn't sound as if you got anything from the experience to make it worth while going back.
Perhaps the seed you planted will grow...

kylie said...

you always make me feel so ignorant about theology! (thats because i am)
but i hope i would be able to entertain the b ig ideas when they were put to me and with the benefit of having a sounding board.

your last sentence is truth so much so that not much else needs to be said about Christians as a group

stephen Hayes said...

When it comes to spirituality I'm not the deep thinker you are, but reading your post I was reminded of Voltaire's comment that if God didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him anyway. I can accept that people believe what they need to believe without digging too deeply. I find comfort in embracing the here and now, changing what I can and leaving a positive marker to stand against the void of nonexistence.

Paula said...

I am saddened that churches don't encourage people to think outside what they beleive themselves. I think as you continue to search and to share with us you are giving me much more of an education than I receive at church. It would help if they would try to practice what it is they preach. I think, anyway.

PhilipH said...

Phew! Your reading list is phenomenal Snowy. Where and when do you devour so much reading matter.

Great article - again.

All Consuming said...

You had balls to go there in the first place, and I think you'll have made a few people think outside of the God box perhaps, maybe just that one older chap, but if so then it was worth it. I admire that you can put yourself in these positions because I'd be angry at the first spark from them, which is useless. It's a shame an even discussion can't take place, but these people are hypnotized in a way, their mind is working along a blinkered track and they really hate anyone to lift up a blinker briefly and show them anything else. They can keep their anger, the kindest most loving people I know are not in the slightest bit religious (and I'm including you in that even though you are looking for answers, because that's not actually being part of a religion, or cult.)

The Blog Fodder said...

Your last sentence describes exactly where I am coming from. No problem with God but a major problem with religions.
And I LOVED your question to the clergy.

Charles Gramlich said...

The only Borg I know anything about are the Borg from Star Trek.

Snowbrush said...

"I wonder whether others of the group were as open as the man who spoke to you."

If I thought they were, I would probably go back because I like the idea of sharing thoughts, knowledge, and experiences with people whom see things differently than I. My problem is that I learned from my experience at St. Mary's two or three years ago that I'm not immune to hurt, and this makes me reluctant to put myself out there when nearly every signal I'm getting tells me that I'm not welcomed.

"you always make me feel so ignorant about theology!"

Churches aren't that good at education. Most of the classes are taught by people who have a poor understanding of their subject matter, and to people who aren't all that interested anyway. This means that they generally deteriorate into social events, and it doesn't help that they tend to start late and have to end in time for the main service. I'm like you, actually, in that my theological knowledge isn't anything to boast about. I know as much as I do about Borg simply I've read large parts of several of his books lately. I don't even like him all that much, but I don't presently know who else to read, although I'm becoming curious about Bonhoeffer. Borg is an Oregon Episcopalian, so maybe that's why he's so popular here among the more liberal churches, although he does seem to enjoy national popularity too.

"I was reminded of Voltaire's comment that if God didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him.."

This from a man who might been an atheist (for example, "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning.") As with David Hume--who almost certainly was an atheist--I don't put such stock in Voltaire's implication of belief, because I'm not sure but what it was written at time when he felt the need to protect himself from the threat posed by the church. Even at that, his statement isn't necessarily praiseworthy of religion. For example, he might have meant that it would be necessary to invent God in order for evil people to have a rationale for acting on their bloodiest impulses.

"I think as you continue to search and to share with us you are giving me much more of an education than I receive at church."

I feel somewhat like a squirrel inside a cage because I'm not covering new ground. I am going at it with a somewhat different attitude, but if I were to guess the outcome of all this, I would say that I will eventually give up on being a part of any church community and will again stay home until the craziness hits me again.

Snowbrush said...

"Where and when do you devour so much reading matter."

Sometimes, I read what I consider the most interesting sections of upwards of a dozen books at once, and although I don't spend a lot of time reading, I do spend a lot of time thinking about what I've read. I would guess I'm also faster than average reader (at least, I'm faster than Peggy).

"I think you'll have made a few people think outside of the God box perhaps, maybe just that one older chap, but if so then it was worth it."

I think the elderly man responded to me as he did partly because he's bombproof. The people who get mad are the people who see me as a threat to what they want to believe, or else, as with the preacherman, they see me as an obstacle to what they're trying to accomplish. For all I know, the preacher himself was an atheist. A lot of preachers are, but when religion is your career, and most employers don't want to hire ex-preachers, what's a preacher-atheist to do but keep on keeping on and look forward to retirement?

"the kindest most loving people I know are not in the slightest bit religious...."

I agree, not just that a lot of nonbelievers are more loving--and more moral--but that they're strikingly more loving and moral. This isn't to say that I haven't known a lot of atheists who wouldn't seem that way to believers, or that a lot of them don't bore and, sometimes, offend me when they go out of their way to make fun of religion and religious people. Still, to quote Voltaire again, "Of all religions the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men." I had a Christian reader of my blog whom wished upon me the fires of hell, excusing Jesus' admonition for her to love me as herself by saying that I was on the side of Satan rather than Jesus, and that I therefore deserved the hatred of all Christians. So it is that most people do what they want to do regardless of what they say they believe.

"And I LOVED your question to the clergy."

Thank you.

"The only Borg I know anything about are the Borg from Star Trek."

The name is Swedish, here on earth anyway.

kylie said...

I'm pretty sure my grandfather was a fan of Bonhoeffer and he was also an amazingly gracious man, I wonder if that says anything? It is more than 20 years since grandpa died so my adult understanding of him is not great but yes, try Bonhoeffer :)

Strayer said...

You should go. It's your job. You are anti religious illiteracy. People need challenged to at least know what they're holding or attending a meeting about. For gosh sakes. I hope they take their brains along next time, to that meeting, and not just their hopeful fantasizing hearts. You can check out fiction at the library.

Snowbrush said...

"You should go. It's your job. You are anti religious illiteracy."

Great idea! You go with me. That way, whatever I don't think to say, you'll think to say. By the time we leave, they'll all be born again atheists, and they'll be clinging to our feet begging, "We were happy in our faith, and you've destroyed all that, so please tell me what you have to replace it." When they say that, we'll just laugh fiendishly, say "Welcome to hell," and kick them in the nose.

Seriously, I'm not there to persuade people of anything. Right now, at this exact moment, I can't remember why I'm there, but one things for certain: however weird they are, I'm surely no less weird.

Strayer said...

That's funny, Snow! We're all fucked up, in our own unique ways. You're right on!

Strayer said...

"Born again atheists", you're cracking me up, seriously.

DeTalesRfun said...


My understanding of panentheism is that "God" is the fish and the water.

Some of what your say reminds me of my adventures on Catholic Answers Forums, the philosophy section.

You are an interesting individual; would be great to talk over a cup or a glass!


possum said...

This post reminded me somehow of a fist fight my little brother got in back when he was about 7. My step mother (a Unitarian) made a point of not promoting the Santa Claus thing in our home, so my brother developed a superior attitude at an early age in school telling the other kids Santa did not exist and that they were stupid, etc, etc.
At first he was ignored, even placated as he got to participate in gift giving and Xmas activities... but by 2nd grade, the other kids had heard rumors that indeed, Santa might NOT exist, it might be a big hoax even tho they did benefit from it... then, several little boys got scared that if Santa really did not exist, their gifts would stop, and they beat the crap out of my brother for telling them that Santa was made up and that they were stupid to believe it.

It was a small school (we were living overseas at the time) so I was called down from the high school section to take my brother home.

At least they did not try to beat you up!

Linda said...

I go to a dinner once a week at a church here. I met someone whose children I remember as friends of my children. She was going to their Bible study after the dinner. She invited me to go and I declined for two weeks. Finally, I told her that I would probably not agree with the discussion points and that people would not want to hear anything different from me. Her husband said that the leader only used the Bible, that he followed it strictly. Then, I assured them that was exactly the problem, that people used the Bible as the answer to everything without knowing who wrote the verses, the people to whom they were written and what the problem was that engendered the comments. And, that I had spent two years in a Bible college studying those very things. They smiled and acted like they understood. But, they probably did not understand at all that we can prove anything is true and right with the Bible--slavery, subjugation and rape of women, etc.

There is one man who has upped his apparent sexual undercurrent of feelings toward me. I feel like he is trying to pay me so much attention that I will be drawn into their Bible study. A woman knows most of the time when a man is sexually attracted. I felt sorry for his old, dumpy wife as she smiled through things he said to me. Every week it is something else. Last week, he tried to get me to sit with him instead of the guy I was waiting to get to the table with our drinks.

Sorry to go on for so long, but it troubles me. I won't and cannot be converted to their way of thinking. Do I dare tell them what the words mean in Greek? Then, I would certainly not be appreciated.

Snowbrush said...

"My understanding of panentheism is that "God" is the fish and the water."

I would have responded sooner, but I was hoping to get Borg's book from the library so I could quote from it. Maybe later I can do so, but for now, I'll just say that I read the section about panentheism thoroughly, and I'm confident in saying that he doesn't identify the universe with God, but rather as being contained by God. He contrasts this with the common view that God is off in heaven observing events on earth. He also says that the Bible contains both views, but that the panentheistic view is the "mature" one. I don't see what real world difference it makes, but then I don't know what it means to say that God contains the universe, and Borg is sure the hell no help in explaining it even though it's his view! I just knows that I had rather think that God is away somewhere sending the Holy Spirit to help me out down here than to think that he's all around me but won't lift a finger to do anything no matter how desperate my situation. This too is something that Borg asserts but doesn't explain. I can't imagine why he's so popular. Maybe it's because people don't actually read him.

"Some of what your say reminds me of my adventures on Catholic Answers Forums, the philosophy section."

Sounds like a place where people parrot that which they've been told, eh? Stay here with me. You'll at least get something real.

"You are an interesting individual; would be great to talk over a cup or a glass!"

Thank you very much, Anton. If you have a blog, I'll sure be checking it out.

"so my brother developed a superior attitude at an early age in school telling the other kids Santa did not exist and that they were stupid, etc, etc."

I think your parable represents the problem of a lot of atheists, which is one that I do try to avoid, and maybe the fact that I too experience what might be called a religious quest helps me with this. On the one hand, when people tell me that prayer works, I think, yeah, sure, if you suck up to God hard enough, he might toss you a crumb while allowing a million children a day to die in agony; but on the other hand, I am attending what can only be called a "faith community," so as non-standard as I am in it, I'm just as non-standard among atheists.

"At least they did not try to beat you up!"

Well, I was rapped on the head once, and although it wasn't a violent rap, the contempt it conveyed was seemed violent.

"Her husband said that the leader only used the Bible, that he followed it strictly."

Sounds like the Church of Christ. Such people idolize not just the Bible but their way of interpreting the Bible. They view every verse as containing one eternal truth that is good for all time, although the Bible itself does not teach this, nor do the Jewish people (who, after all, wrote the Bible) accept it.

"Do I dare tell them what the words mean in Greek?"

You know Greek! Wow, but I'm impressed.