Friday, September 08, 2006

My Spritual Journey: A Testimony

I was born into a Christian family of the Southern Baptist tradition. My father was a church deacon, like his father before him. My father’s brother was a Southern Baptist preacher (now retired). We said a blessing before our meals, remembered every Christmas that Jesus was the Reason for the Season, and went to church twice on Sundays and then again on Wednesday. My parents both sang in the choir at church, were involved in “visitation” – which was a Tuesday night event in which church volunteers went to the homes of recent church visitors as well as the elderly and infirm – and my father served for a year or two as Sunday School Director of our rather large downtown church.

Our Sundays revolved entirely around church. We went to the early service, which started at 8:30, followed by an hour of Sunday School. Then we waited for my father to make his morning announcement on Sunday School attendance figures at the beginning of the 11:00 service, before finally going home for the afternoon. We were back by 4:30 or 5:00 for Church Training (a less formal evening version of Sunday School), and then the Sunday evening service. Slacks, dress shirts, and ties were required for the morning, but shorts and casual clothes could be worn in the evening.

I officially accepted Jesus into my heart when I was 9 or 10 years old, and was subsequently baptized.

In addition to the traditional Sunday School, Church Training, and Sunday services, I was involved in R.A.’s (Royal Ambassadors), which was a program for boys only, teaching boys how to be active and vibrant Christian young men. The female counterpart to R.A.’s was G.A.’s – which stood for what now seems like the rather Freudian moniker Girls in Action. R.A.’s and G.A.’s met on Wednesday nights.

Additionally, I was involved in Bible Drill. Bible Drill was a group that practiced knowledge about the bible, and competed on such topics as quoting bible verses, familiarity with bible stories, and speedily finding passages and books in the bible. I was the Bible Drill champion for my church and competed at the state Bible Drill competition, where I was defeated in the second round.

In addition to involvement in church, I attended Christian schools. From 1st grade through 5th grade, I attended Beuchel Christian School (which was renamed Alliance Christian Academy when I was in 3rd grade), and then Highview Baptist School from 6th to 7th grade. As I did at church, I competed in school sponsored Bible Drills, and was the undisputed champion.

We moved to Cincinnati in the summer of 1988, between my 7th and 8th grade years at school. Our first task, after securing a place to live, was to find “a church home.” We attended one church very close to our house for several weeks, but ultimately decided on a church that was some twenty minutes away, but which we felt was better suited to us. Our routine of church twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays remained the same, and my father was again elected as a deacon, and my parents joined the choir.

As I moved into high school, I became very involved in the church youth group, participating not only in youth activities, but also in the youth choir and the youth handbell choir. Wednesday nights included handbell practice and participation in “HSBYM’s,” which stood for High School Baptist Young Men. The high school girls had their own version, called Acteens. HSBYM’s and Acteens were the high school version of the aforementioned G.A.’s and R.A.’s. When we did activities away from church, they were usually associated with HSBYM’s or Acteens (the girls, for instance, might go to the mall for a day of shopping, while the boys went on a weekend camping trip).

In the summers, the youth group would take a week-long trip of some type, either to do mission work such as “backyard bible clubs” in areas of the United States that needed witnessing, or we would attend a week-long, youth-oriented spiritual camp/retreat, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, called Centrifuge. During my years in the youth group, we did mission work in Nashua, New Hampshire and Gaylord, Michigan. We also attended Centrifuge camps in Ridgecrest, North Carolina and Gulfport, Mississippi. I have very, very good memories from all of these trips (except for Nashua – I was unable to attend that trip due to a scheduled family vacation).

In high school, all my best friends were from my church. When I went out, it was with friends from church. When I had sleepovers, or camping trips, it involved groups from church. When I talked to my friends on the phone, it was friends from church. When I went to Friday night football games, it was with friends from church. My girlfriend, who is now my wife, also came from my church, and we began dating in 10th grade.

I was basically a good kid. I did not drink, smoke, go to parties, or do illegal drugs. I never had sex until I was married. I never got a speeding ticket or got arrested for anything. I got along fairly well with my parents, and rarely got into trouble at school.

My girlfriend’s parents had both attended Georgetown College, in Georgetown, Kentucky. Georgetown is a private, Southern Baptist school, very familiar to Baptists in Kentucky and the surrounding states. Since her parents had gone there, my girlfriend planned on going there as well. As such, I decided to go there too, so we could stay close together.

While at Georgetown, my girlfriend and I were involved in the Baptist Student Union, I played guitar for a Christian-oriented rock band (which played mainly in churches and Christian-oriented coffee shops), and I was involved in a local fraternity/social organization that was not Greek, but was instead a social organization for men, focusing on Academics, Brotherhood, and Christianity. We were regular attendees at the weekly student-led worship hour called Campus Praise, and I was involved from time to time with Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

After college, my girlfriend and I married, and, living in Georgetown, we began attending the Baptist church we had sometimes frequented as students. My wife began working there as a Sunday School teacher, and I got involved as a leader in the youth group, specifically leading music for the youth group activities. Later, after moving to Lexington and switching to a Baptist church in Lexington, we got involved in an adult Sunday School class, and I played guitar in the morning service band.

I can remember questioning aspects of my belief system as early as 7 or 8 years old. It first began in the form of a confusing fear about my concepts of heaven. I did not understand the emotion at the time (indeed, I did not finally put it together until just a few years ago), but when I would contemplate living forever in heaven, on streets of gold lined with mansions, God on his throne, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit at his side, it gave me an unnatural sense of fear. I would dwell on the last verse of the familiar hymn Amazing Grace: When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun. I would dwell on this phrase and try to imagine living in heaven for 10,000 years, ten thousand years, and still being just as young, vibrant, and happy at the end as I had been at the beginning. And then starting over and going another 10,000 years. And then another, and another. On into infinity.

When I would contemplate these things at a young age, it would fill me with great dread. At the time, I did not know why. Now I do. It was not because I feared God would be angry with me because I was a sinner – nothing like that. No, I believe the fear was there because, though my young mind could not put voice to it, I understood on a subconscious and intellectual level that the traditional Baptist concept of heaven was absurd. And that subconscious knowledge terrified me because it tore at the very foundations of the belief system my parents had taught me.

Again, these are things I understand now...at the time, and indeed throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I never understood why the concept of eternal life scared me.

In high school, I remember feeling conflicted about my traditional belief in a six-day creation and my emerging understanding of evolution. My church, and my upbringing, taught me that evolution was a lie, but I began to feel that this was not a valid belief.

About 10th or 11th grade, I remember having an argument one Sunday morning in Sunday School. Our teacher was a man who had become a Christian as an adult, and, like so many who “find God” in adulthood, he was quite conservative and closed-minded. A friend of mine and I were arguing (actually, it was more my friend) that there was no reason to assume evolution could not have been God’s mechanism for creation. You would have thought we had just suggested that Jesus did not really die on the cross. We were informed by this teacher – someone whom I respected, liked, and looked up to quite a bit – that evolution is an atheist lie, Creation as described in the bible is true, and we should never, ever, ever consider evolution to be anything more than the devil’s attempt to sway us from our faith.

Despite this one Sunday School teacher, my church was rather progressive and moderate (at least, in comparison to other Baptist churches), and Georgetown College was (and is) a moderate-to-liberal private school. My parents had been stricter when my sister and I were young, but by high school they had loosened up considerably. We were never disallowed to see R-rated movies or watch as much television as we wanted, we had the freedom to listen to whatever music we wanted and to go out with our friends. We had a normal and happy childhood.

In college, I began to become much more open-minded, as is typical of a lot of people. When I was younger, I had looked down on those who did not go to church, or those who drank or liked to party. I become a lot less judgmental as a result of my college years, and I also began to see religion a bit more clearly, as the haze of childhood indoctrination began to clear. In religion classes I first learned about, and was fascinated by, the existence of the Nag Hammadi texts – the so-called Gnostic Gospels – those early Christian texts which were ultimately rejected in the 4th century for inclusion in the Christian bible.

But aside from learning about other ideas within Christianity, becoming less judgmental, and beginning to develop my intellectual abilities, college did not really change me much in terms of my religious beliefs. I still believed that Jesus was God’s divine son, born of a virgin, that he suffered and died on the cross for my sins, and was raised on the third day so that I might live eternally if I accepted the gift of grace.

It was not until I became an adult, got out into the “real” world of jobs and marriage and children, that I began to truly question my beliefs. I began to wonder about things such as the formation of the bible, why certain books were chosen and others were rejected, and what was contained in those other books. I began, especially, to feel conflicted about prayer.

I had always been a person who prayed a lot. I did not feel comfortable going to bed unless I had said my nightly prayer. I had relied on prayer my entire life during times of struggle and fear. I had always had a very strong belief that the reason I was healthy, financially stable, and had a wonderful and healthy family was because I had prayed for those things. I felt that if I missed a nightly or daily prayer, something tragic might happen because I would not have God’s special protection on me and my family. To stave this off, I occasionally prayed for good health and safekeeping, not just for the particular day in question, but for the “months and weeks ahead.” That way, if I missed a day, I was still covered.

But as I got into my mid-20’s, much of what I had always lived by, regarding prayer, began to crumble. It was not that tragedies began to befall me despite my prayers, but I simply started being unable to reconcile my growing intellectualism, rationality, and questioning nature with my traditional ideas about prayer. I began to wonder if my “blessings” in life really had anything to do with God, and were not instead just good luck. Why would God, after all, bless me, but not bless others? Why did I have a wonderful family, grow up with plenty of money, have a good job, a nice house, two cars, and plenty of food to eat, while others had abusive parents, cheating spouses, and ratholes for homes? Why did God bless me with good health, but other people keeled over from heart attacks? Why did God have a plan for my life, to make me successful and happy, when so many other people were failures and unhappy? And if God had a plan for my life, and for everyone’s life, how could you explain people who died young, before ever accomplishing anything? The little boy I knew in first grade who had cancer and may have later died (I never knew if he died or not, but he was no longer around after 1st grade)...was God’s “plan” for his life to get cancer at age 6 and die?

I began to question if what I perceived as “answered prayer” was really answered prayer at all, and not just coincidence. Why, when good things happened, did I attribute it to God, but when bad things happened, I argued that it was not God’s fault – that “bad things happen to good people”? If God is capable of answering prayers, but just chooses not to most of the time, what kind of God is he? If God is capable of stopping natural disasters, but chooses not to, what kind of God is he? If God is capable of curing sick children, and chooses not to, what kind of God is he? And when a sick child does get cured, and we attribute it to God’s power or to answered prayers, are we suggesting that God chooses to cure some sick children and not others? If I survive a tornado, and someone else dies, does that mean God wanted me to live but did not care about the other person? Yet, in society, we do this and hear this sort of thing all the time. “God was really watching out for me during that car wreck,” and “I just want to thank God for this award,” and “God really helped me during that game.”

These sorts of questions began to plague my consciousness. I felt I simply could not reconcile these traditional concepts of prayer with what I knew to be true about the world and reality. I began to see the hypocrisy in religious circles of attributing good things to the power of prayer, and deflecting all the bad things with platitudes. If God is responsible for curing one cancer patient, then he must also be responsible for not curing another patient and allowing them, instead, to die. You cannot have it both ways. I began to see that those diseases and illnesses that God always seemed to cure were the diseases and illnesses that modern medicine was able to cure. God never seems to miraculously cure a quadriplegic, for instance, or someone suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Cerebral Palsy, or AIDS. If God is responsible for the cancer patient who survives, or the gravely injured car accident victim who manages to recover, or the stroke patient who returns to full functionality, then why does he fail to cure any patients with chronic, incurable diseases? Again, only those diseases which modern medicine can cure are ever “cured” by God.

The obvious answer to this conundrum is that God is not involved in the healing process at all. The healing process, instead, is based on modern medicine, good health care, genetic make-up, mental and emotional stability, and the nature of the disease itself. Even when patients seemingly make “miraculous recoveries” from illnesses or diseases from which there seemed no hope, it is always a disease that is curable to start with. It’s never the Lou Gherig’s Disease patient, or the AIDS patient, or the cirrhosis patient, or the patient with black lung. We never see miraculous recoveries from blindness, deafness, AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, or Diabetes. Is God prejudiced against people with those diseases? If God is involved in the healing process, why do not we see miraculous recoveries from diseases like that? It must be that God is not involved in the process at all. Instead it is a combination of drugs, treatment, emotional and biological make-up, and the nature of the disease itself.

With these sorts of issues and questions floating around inside my head for a number of years, I began to see other problems with my traditional concepts of God. Why is the God of the New Testament so incredibly different than the God of the Old Testament? In the New Testament, we see a God of love, compassion, mercy, grace, and caring. Indeed, in modern Christian circles, this is the concept of God that most of us have. Yet, the God of the Old Testament was frequently angry, jealous, capricious, petty, concerned with only his own chosen race of people, diabolical, and even murderous. If God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, as is frequently stated in Christian circles, then why did he change so drastically from the Old to the New Testament? Did God change, or did our concept of God change?

In the Old Testament, God does some pretty despicable things. His actions in the various famous stories of the Old Testament – such as the Exodus and the destruction of Jericho – are frequently downright evil. In the story of the Exodus, God uses Moses to rain down plague after plague on the population of Egypt. The Pharaoh continually agrees to let the Hebrews go, but then always “hardens his heart” before it actually happens. So then God sends more plagues. Exodus 10, verses 1 and 2, says the following:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD.”

This passage makes it clear that God actually took Pharaoh’s free will away, and hardened his heart, so that he could continue to rain plagues on the innocent people of Egypt, in order to perform signs for future generations of Hebrews. Time and time again in the story of the plagues, the text says that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh, clearly, had no choice in the matter regarding his actions. He was merely the puppet of an angry God, bent on proving a point.

And it does not stop there, of course. The final plague is the most diabolical of all. Celebrated by Jews to this day, and also an integral part of the Christian story, Passover commemorates when God went through Egypt and slaughtered Egyptian babies en masse, sparing the Jewish babies. Do we really worship a God who murders babies? Does the God of love, compassion, and kindness murder innocent children by the tens of thousands?

Finally, God tops off his diabolical deeds by “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” again and causing Pharaoh to send his army out after the fleeing Israelites. Moses parts the Red Sea, the Hebrews go through, and then just as Pharaoh’s army follows them, the sea rushes back in, drowning them all.

God is love, God is compassion, God is kindness. Unless you are an Egyptian. Then God is on a level with Hitler, Stalin, or Vlad the Impaler.

In this story, God takes away Pharaoh’s free will, forces him to oppress the Israelites, and then punishes him for that oppression by sending plague upon plague against the general population, culminating with the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent children, and the drowning of an entire army of soldiers.

Praise God!

As if that is not already enough, as we move on in the Old Testament to the story of Jericho, we have a story where God makes one army defeat another army (killing thousands in the process), and God actually suspends the laws of nature by making the “sun stand still in the sky” so that Joshua and his army can have more daylight by which to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho (and let’s not even discuss the mistake in assuming the sun is moving in the sky at all...clearly the writer of this story believed the earth was fixed in space, with the heavens rotating around it). God allows the army of the Israelites to defeat the much stronger army of Jericho, and overrun the city. God had promised the city to the Israelites, so the people who were already there were just, apparently, out of luck.

Events like this go on and on. Elijah is given the responsibility of slaughtering the prophets of Baal; the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, with all the inhabitants, including the children; God routinely afflicts people – even wayward Israelites – with plagues and death for committing various sins.

As I looked at and considered all these things, I began to question if this is the kind of God I really want to worship.

And what about the New Testament? It is rather disturbing that in order to save us all from our sins, God required the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. It is reminiscent of ancient death cults whose gods required blood and human flesh. We complete that bizarre tradition by “eating the flesh and drinking the blood” every week in our Lord’s Supper ritual. If God wanted to save the world from its sins, why did Jesus have to die? If God is all-powerful, could he not just wave his hand and make it be so? The death of Jesus seems sort of unnecessary. We are taught that God wants everyone to be saved, and that God loves everyone equally. If this is true, why the shenanigans with Jesus? Why not just say, “Everyone’s saved!” and be done with it? By requiring Jesus’s death, and then requiring us to “accept Jesus,” God is, in fact, ensuring that the majority of people on earth will not get to heaven. That does not seem like the action of an all-loving God, who wants to spend eternity in heaven with everyone.

As I struggled with these thoughts and doubts, I felt very conflicted inside. I felt like I was “losing my faith” or “losing my salvation” and I felt very scared to face a life without the comforting beliefs of my childhood. But much as I wanted those beliefs, I could not make myself believe something that I was rationally and logically unable to believe. Believing in Santa Claus would be wonderful, but what adult can believe in Santa Claus? In fact, it would seem that the Santa Claus idea is really just “God for kids.” An all loving, all seeing, immortal father figure, who rewards our good behavior. As we grow up, we sort of “graduate” from Santa Claus to God. But we think Santa Claus is just a myth, while simultaneously believing whole-heartedly in God, even though there is not much difference between the two, when you strip away all the meat.

When I got divorced, these conflicting feelings only got worse. I feared I was becoming an atheist, even against my will. I did not want to be an atheist, but I felt that I could not believe in a God who seemed so capricious, so prejudiced, so murderous and evil, so unpredictable, so utterly silent, and so completely unreachable. Nothing in my traditional background seemed to make sense anymore. Virgins do not give birth, people do come back to life after dying and beginning to rot in the tomb, and God cannot be the God of love, compassion, and kindness if he has really done all the terrible things attributed to him in the bible.

And the typical platitudes handed out by the church, such as “God works in mysterious ways,” “Bad things happen to good people,” and “We just cannot know the answers until we get to heaven,” did not work for me anymore.

I was at a spiritual crossroads.

I could either reject God all together, or I could begin to redefine my understanding of what God was, what God did, and how a concept of God was applicable to my life.

I began reading a lot of books on biblical scholarship. I read books by biblical scholars like Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg. I read books by historians like Charles Freeman. I read books by theologians like the Reverend John Shelby Spong. But I did not limit my reading to only the progressives and academics. I read The Case for Christ, by evangelical preacher Lee Strobel. I read The Purpose-Driven Life, by traditionalist, and mega-church pastor, Rich Warren. I read Velvet Elvis, by the moderate Rob Bell, pastor of a large nondenominational church in Michigan. And I read books by Christian writers Anne Lamott and Donald Miller.

I also branched out into other religious traditions. I read books on Islam, Jewish Mysticism, and quite a few on Buddhism. I studied books comparing the teachings of Jesus to the teachings of Buddha. I delved into the Gnostic Gospels, reading the various different interpretations of Jesus’s life that existed in the first few centuries after his death. (I was surprised to discover that Gnostic beliefs and congregations were far more widespread in the first three centuries after Jesus’s death than Orthodoxy. It was not until Orthodoxy got into the pants of Constantine in the early 300’s that Orthodox interpretations of Jesus’s life became the mainstream version of events that we know today.)

Throughout this period of heavy religious-oriented reading (which continues to this day), I began to develop a new kind of spirituality, and new understanding of God.

Where before I had been conflicted, confused, angry, sad, and scared, I now began to develop a new peace with God, and with my spiritual beliefs. Atheism no longer loomed as a specter at the end of my spiritual journey. Instead, I found new life, and a new path, through a new understanding of God, Jesus, and the nature of the sacred.

I came to view God not as the Big Man in the Sky of traditional Christianity, but as the very essence of life, love, and being. God is the energy behind the emotion we call love, the driving force that breathes life into the world, and the ground of all being. God is not a theistic, supernatural entity, living up in the sky somewhere, intervening at his whim in affairs on earth. God is within us, all around us, an integral part of our very existence. We are part of God, and God is part of us. And when we begin to seek God, to explore the spiritual side of ourselves, we can awaken to this God-nature within us. We are not God, but we are a part of God. Just as water is the ground of being for a wave, God is the ground of our being. And our lives, like the wave, are merely a manifestation of God’s presence.

Like water to the wave, the core of our being transcends the boundaries of birth and death. I do believe in life after death, although not the traditional Christian concepts of a heaven with mansion-lined golden streets for the good people, and a hell of eternal fire and torment for the bad people. I believe that our souls, perhaps our consciousness, will live on in some way, though I cannot describe how.

I do not believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, or God in the flesh. I believe Jesus was fully human, conceived by a man and a woman, and born into a normal 1st century Jewish family. I believe he grew to become an alternate wisdom teacher, faith healer, and an activist for socio-religious change in his society. I do not believe he was trying to invent a new religion, nor do I believe that he likely ever made any claims of divinity. He may have used Jewish messianic language to refer to himself, but not in the sense of being God’s son and coming to earth to save sinners.

I do believe Jesus had a unique capacity to love and to give himself away. I believe he was arrested and brought to trial for stirring up dissent and angering the religious powers that be, and I believe his episode in the temple where he ousted the moneychangers was probably used by his enemies in order to have legal reasons to imprison him. I think it is possible he may have been trying to get arrested, without realizing it would end in execution. Once execution became eminent, I believe that he faced it with dignity and grace, and I believe he was, indeed, willing to die for his message.

I do not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead after he died, at least not physically. I believe in a resurrection of the spirit – the resurrection as a metaphorical tool to describe how the power of Jesus’s teachings transcends the boundaries of birth and death.

I believe the miraculous and divine language attributed to Jesus in the bible is the result of a growing mythology surrounding Jesus in the decades after his death, as well as later additions to the original texts by scribes and later writers. Following his unexpected and tragic death, I believe Jesus’s followers were seeking to understand the greater meaning of his life and what it meant for their lives, and I believe they drew on distinctly Jewish understandings of spirituality to form the basic theology that would become Christianity (the idea of a sacrificial lamb, being “washed in the blood” and cleansed of sin, and so on).

I come to God through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and through the background of the Christian tradition. I find the essence of love, the essence of life, and the ground of all being within the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If I had to label myself, I would call myself a progressive Buddhist Christian. I practice Christianity flavored with the meditative tradition of Buddhism. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was awake in God in a unique and powerful way. I believe that Jesus expressed God through loving completely and unconditionally and bringing life to those he came in contact with. “I come not to condemn the world,” Jesus said, “but to save it.” He also said, “I have come so that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.” Through the teachings and life of Jesus, I am encouraged to love with the core of my being, to give myself away to others, to live my life to the fullest in every moment, and to be all that I can be. When I do those things, I am communing with God.

I practice Buddhist meditation as a way to open my mind, release myself from common but faulty notions of self and materialism, and as a way to touch the transcendence of God. I believe meditation is spiritually and physically healthy, and I believe it leads to a better ability to be compassionate, loving, and in tune with the essence of God.

While I come to God through Jesus and the tradition of Christianity, I do not believe that Jesus or the Christian tradition is the only pathway to God. I believe that all religions are pointing to the same goal – to God, to the source of love, life, and being. I believe Jesus was uniquely in touch with the spirit of God, but I also believe there are other “Jesus figures” in history and in the world. Among these are Moses and the Jewish patriarchs, the Buddha, Mohammed, and even modern individuals like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. I believe that God can be reached through an array of religious traditions, and I believe that any claims to religious exclusivity are absurd, hypocritical, and blasphemous. Claiming that one or another religious tradition offers the only pathway to God is boxing God into a tiny cultural coffin, and limiting God’s manifest reality. God is greater than any religious tradition we try to cram God into.

God is neither male nor female, and using masculine pronouns to refer to God is not only inaccurate, but it perpetuates the concept of a male-dominated society. God is not a being of any kind, and is therefore genderless. Referring to God as a “he” would be like referring to the emotion love as a “he.” I prefer to not use pronouns at all to refer to God, but if I do, I use “it.” But even that is not accurate, because it implies that God is a “thing” or “being” of some type. I do not believe that God is an object or being in any human sense, thus, pronouns of any type are not applicable.

I do not believe the bible is the infallible, inspired word of God. I believe it is a compilation of spiritual texts, written over the course of a thousand years, by a group of people whose lives were infused with God and notions of God. I believe it is testament to the tenacity of the Hebrew people, and to their inherent spirituality. I believe it is a collection of writings wherein the ancient Hebrews were attempting to understand their world and their place in the world, and to describe their experiences with the transcendent. I believe the bible is a beautiful book, with a lot of spiritual usefulness to our modern lives, but it has been abused, misused, and misinterpreted for two thousand years. The bible is not infallible, nor is it Life’s Ultimate Rule Book. Viewing the bible like that, in my opinion, is the essence of blasphemy and idolatry.

My descriptions of God as the essence of life, love, and being, are not the end of the discussion. I believe that God is ultimately beyond human description. Human language can express experiences with God, but cannot define God. A horse could describe to another horse what its experiences with humans were like, but it could not describe to another horse what it meant to be a human being. So it is with humans and God. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or define. We can only describe our experiences with God’s transcendence. In the ancient, pre-Newtonian world, describing God as a divine being with supernatural power was reasonable. In our post-Newtonian, post-modern world, however, those definitions are no longer valid. That does not mean God is no longer valid, merely that our understandings of God must be redefined and updated. Ultimately, all definitions and descriptions fail. But that does not mean we should stop trying. It will be up to the next generation to describe God in a way that makes sense for them.

The worst thing humans can do is to believe that they have finally and ultimately defined what God is, and figured out how God works. The institution of the Church has, through its actions and theologies over the centuries, essentially made this fallacious claim. I believe such claims are hypocritical and even blasphemous. God is greater than our human definitions of God.

As for the Church, as an institution, I believe it is a lesson in hypocrisy. It has picked the bible apart according to its need. Women are not allowed to be preachers because it says so in the bible, but the pursuit of wealth and possessions is just fine, even though Jesus preaches against this time and time again. Homosexuality is wrong, because it says so in the bible, but self-righteousness, evangelistic piety, and religious legalism is okay, even though Jesus continually fights people (the Pharisees) who were just like this. Evolution is wrong, because Creation is described in the bible, but pre-emptive wars, torture, and capital punishment are okay, even though the bible says “Thou shalt not kill” and Jesus preaches a message of peace, compassion, forgiveness, and non-violence (not to mention the fact that he was a victim, himself, of capital punishment).

I frequently question whether most Christians know anything about Jesus at all. The What Would Jesus Do fad seems utterly hypocritical, and I believe that the Church, as an institution, has basically created its own version of Jesus...the Jesus it needs to support its power over people’s lives. I see church parking lots full of expensive cars and SUV’s, church goers dressed in expensive dresses and suits, carrying Gucci handbags and wearing gold, silver, and diamond jewelry. I see Christians living in enormous houses, spending thousands of dollars on pools, private golf course memberships, home electronics, boats, and gadgets – believing, all along, that their wealth and success is a direct blessing from God for their piety. Indeed, the very “God Bless America” sentiment implies that our country has special favor with God, and we have been rewarded accordingly with prosperity, wealth, economic stability, and military might. Mormonism, as a matter of fact, holds that America is a sort of “new Promised Land,” chosen and handpicked by God.

I see churches building multi-million dollar sanctuaries, and placing $300,000 decorative fountains in their front yards, while homeless people panhandle for food across the street. Indeed, the streets continue to fill with the poor, the hungry, the destitute, and the middle classes continue to sink farther and farther behind the wealthy.

The Church, and its members, make themselves feel better about these things by the occasional mission trip to Honduras, the occasional loose change dropped into the Ronald McDonald box at the drive-thru, the occasional bag of old, ratty clothes dropped off to Goodwill, and the occasional donation made to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army at Christmas time.

We, as Christians, have made God and Jesus into what we want them to be...we have ignored much of Jesus’s teachings, picking out the pieces we need to support our extravagant and self-absorbed lifestyles, while conveniently ignoring Jesus’s teachings about all-consuming love, compassion, acceptance, openness, forgiveness, mercy, and pouring ourselves into the service of others.

A true follower of Jesus would make love the center of her life. A true follower of Jesus would put others first, all the time, and himself second. A true follower of Jesus would give up the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions, and instead focus on helping others. A true follower of Jesus would love utterly and wastefully, without condition, one hundred percent of the time. A true follower of Jesus would work to bring the fullness of life and love to the people of the world.

So this is what I attempt to do. I am only human, and I fail frequently. But the goal of my spirituality is to love like Jesus loved, to live like Jesus lived, and to give myself completely to others. I believe the kingdom of God promised in the bible is not about life after death. I believe it is about life in the here and now. Indeed, I believe that the message of Jesus is about having life now, and having it more abundantly. It is not about promises of golden streets and cheating death. It is about awakening to the existence of God within us, about seeing the world through the eyes of God, about learning to live compassionately, and plunging – through the example of Jesus – into the fullness of life with God.

4 comments:

Lis said...

Hi Scott. What a fantastic story. Thank you so much for writing it. You reminded me of so many of my own experiences. I agree with you about the fear involved in what I'd call "right wing" Christianity.

Good on you for doing so much reading. I'm doing a similar thing studying the Bible now at a progressive College and it makes a whole world of difference!!

I agree with you that the God of the Hebrew Bible has been misrepresented by the heirarchies of Christendom in order to entrench their own political power, and Christ was willing to be executed in protest against such an exploitative system.

Isn't it amazing how other spiritual world views such as Buddhism overlap the central tenets of Christianity when one takes it as a personal faith and not a tool of oppression?

Yahweh Shalom is the God of wellbeing... that is for all of the planet to live in peaceful wellbeing and not in some dim distant future after we've made a huge mess here.

Thanks again for the story. Beautiful.

Stephen said...

After a short story like that from the heart, where you basically argue that anyone who may think differently than you is completely wrong or intellectually inept, how can anyone possibly respond? What makes you any different from the 'right-wing' Christians that you seem to hold in such a low esteem?

Scott said...

"Isn't it amazing how other spiritual world views such as Buddhism overlap the central tenets of Christianity when one takes it as a personal faith and not a tool of oppression?"

-- Thanks for the comments Lis. Yes, it is definitely fascinating to find all the ways in which various world religions overlap.

"....[W]here you basically argue that anyone who may think differently than you is completely wrong or intellectually inept, how can anyone possibly respond? What makes you any different from the 'right-wing' Christians that you seem to hold in such a low esteem?"

-- Thanks for stopping by and reading my essay, Stephen. I'm afraid you've missed the point, however. In no way was I arguing that those who disagree with me are spiritually wrong on intellectually inept. What I was arguing is that I, personally, could not reconcile my growing rationalism and intellectualism with the theologies of my traditional Christian upbringing.

What I was providing was a testimony of my spiritual journey, including my personal beliefs. Naturally I am going to include in such an essay the reasons why I believe what I believe, and the reasons why I do not believe what I do not believe.

Of course I do disagree with the theologies of fundamentalist Christianity. I believe they are hypocrites of the first order, and are in every way blaspheming the name of Jesus.

Does that mean I'm no different than they are? Only in the same sense that my derision of the theologies of fundamentlist Islam makes me no different than a fundamentalis Muslim. If that makes sense to you, then I'll gladly accept your assertion that my derision of fundamentalist Christians makes me no different than them. I do believe fundamentalist Christians are wrong,I do believe they are misguided, and I do believe they engage daily in raping Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Scott. Very eloquent and heartfelt. Though I am not a Christian, I agree with a pretty large amount of what you say on general principles.

One thing I'd like to mention is that although you did discuss the idea that God is genderless and indeed beyond human capacity to describe, I did think it was pretty generally agreed that the word "God" implies a masculine being, as opposed to Goddess, for example, which obviously is a referent to a female diety. Pagans use these labels to describe the male and female aspects or qualities of the All but they use terms like, well, the All to describe that encompassing, unified essence. Other names are the Great Mystery (or Mystery, Great Spirit(or Spirit) or even the Universe. I know these aren't indefinite pronouns, but maybe they'd give you another way of referring to that "something" without resorting to "it."

I don't see where stephen reads any of that into your blog at all. Sounds like someone's feeling a bit defensive.

P.S.--I'm an everyone who's also clicking here. I know you'll understand that Scott, even if no one else does. ;)

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