Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Checking the Compass

Okay, so it's been well over a year since my last post, and I'm back! I'm thinking I'd like to take this blog in a bit different direction, as I've changed a lot in the past year. Of those changes, foremost for the purposes of this blog is that I'm really not angry at my Christian upbringing anymore. At least, not most of the time. It doesn't consume my thoughts like it used to. I think my interaction with the Stuff Christian Culture Likes blog and Facebook page have helped a lot in that area.

Recently I've realized that I don't think about spirituality and the bigger picture nearly as much as I used to, and it's certainly a deficit in my life. I've let part of my very essence starve for months, and it's taking a toll. So I'm checking my compass, reordering my priorities, and attempting to change directions just a bit. I'd like to use this blog as a tool to digest and process all things spiritual/metaphysical/awe-inspiring and how they relate to daily life, and I hope there are some of you who would like to join me from time to time and offer your perspective.

Hello again, internet!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bible Class: The Bible's Undoing

It was the first class I ever took in college—Monday morning, 8:30 a.m.—New Testament class with Dr. Bratcher. He was an adjunct in the religion department that year, looked to be in his late fifties to early sixties, average height and build, wire-rimmed glasses, pretty much everything you'd expect of a Bible professor. While I did spend a modest amount of time in that class making paper footballs and flicking them at the row of tables in front of me (*sigh* freshmen...), I also kept my ears and mind open, and paid attention. And that, my friends, was the Bible's undoing.

I should say, that was the undoing of what I had always been taught about the Bible. Interestingly, there was no divinely-appointed photojournalist standing around when the world was created to make sure every detail was taken down with absolute accuracy. Interestingly, the gospels weren't four separate accounts of the same story that agreed with one another in every way, but heavily borrowed from each other and contained some glaring contradictions. Interestingly, the books of the Bible were not written with the express purpose of being included in a collection of scriptures that would tell 21st century Americans exactly how to live their lives. Interestingly, much more was written about Jesus and about the Jews than was included between the covers of my own Bible, and people had decided what would be in and what would be out. I had always heard that Catholics had the wrong version of the Bible, but it had never occurred to me that the heresy they included might actually sound a lot like the words that I had read so often in my own Bible that they had lost their meaning.

Slowly, as my darkly-veiled and murky idea of the origins of the Bible was exposed to the sunlight for the first time, my questions started to bloom. If the people who wrote these things were more or less people like me, wouldn't it have seemed strange to them to have some divine voice whispering in their ear exactly what to write? It would have at least been notable enough to record it in a preface. So were the words that I was reading not really directly from God at all, but just the writer's understanding of truth in accordance with their own culture and worldview? If, as the original thoughts were in different and ancient languages, they had to be translated before I could read them, wasn't that adding another layer to the interpretation of scripture, that of the translator? So now, instead of the words in front of me being directly from God, there were at least two people's worldviews filtering "God's word" into my hands...probably countless others that I wasn't even aware of. So really, in the end, this Bible wasn't some divine portal of absolute truth that I didn't have to be responsible for (e.g., "It's not my opinion, it's what the Bible says."); rather, my only access to truth, ever, was always going to be my own brain. That meant that, no matter what the Bible said, was ultimately the one responsible for my own opinions and actions and beliefs. Even if I decided to believe that every word in the Bible was inerrant, that decision was ultimately my responsibility; not the Bible's, not God's. Mine.

Suddenly, it made a lot more sense to step back and examine things for myself. Not just the Bible, but everything that I had been taught was based on the Bible. Why, exactly, was the Republican party the only acceptable choice for a Christian? Why, exactly, was wearing a spaghetti-strap cami immoral? Why, exactly, was war a good and honorable thing? Why, exactly, was the "sinner's prayer" the only prayer of a non-Christian that God can hear? Why, exactly, was the idea of evolution so odious?

Why, exactly, was I twisting my mind and heart into pretzels trying to believe something that had never given me any real peace or fulfillment?

Slowly, steadily, my own questions and my experience of the world and of people has worn down the layers of Christendom I had been wrapped in, and had wrapped myself in, my whole life. No longer am I on the outside looking in, always "set apart," always "chosen," always different, always separated. Now I'm in the thick of it. Life, real life, is all around me—and it's messy, it's real, it's beautiful. I am a living, breathing, contributing part of my world. No longer do I have to be "in the world but not of it." I care more about the world and the people in it, because their fate is my fate too. I trust people now, because I know most of them aren't out to destroy me, but simply to live their lives to the best of their knowledge and ability, just like me. I am a more compassionate and understanding person.  My world is beautiful and hopeful now.

I don't hate the Bible. I haven't read it in a long time, but if and when I do, I'm going to appreciate it for what it is. It is a record of the way that certain people and cultures understood reality and truth and the divine, and it has been a catalyst for many people and communities to experience the divine themselves. That, and that alone, is what makes it important. The reverence I have for the Bible does not come from fear of judgment or a craving for law and order, but from a deep appreciation of the divinity of our fully human experience.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

You're Only Allowed to Talk About Peace at Christmas

Peace on Earth! 

They're all into it this time of year. But it's only at this time of year you'll hear a fundamentalist talk about world peace.

Peace on Earth! At Christmas time.

But let someone else try to say it. Let a nonviolent war protester try to say "peace on Earth" and it becomes a heathen battle cry, an attack against Christendom. When I was young, my family treated the peace sign almost like a satanic symbol. I was discouraged from even touching anything with a peace sign on it. You know, dirty hippies and such...or something. I still don't really get it.

Peace on Earth! At Christmas time. For people who think like me.

But let people be thoughtful about what peace for our world really means, what it should mean, whether it is attainable, what it would look like, how to begin...and they're just lost souls searching for Jesus. All they need is Jesus, then they won't have to look for world peace to save them. Just give up on the world because it's all going to be destroyed anyway and Jesus will come back and get rid of all those sinners and hippies when he's good and ready.

Peace on Earth! At Christmas time. For people who think like me. As long as they don't think too hard.

But let people be thoughtful about the worldview of their neighbor or their enemy, let them be generous about the motivations of someone who sees life a little differently than the fundamentalist, and those people are enablers. They're encouraging sin. They're not calling out the "sinner" and making sure that heathen knows exactly why they're going to go to hell unless they meet Jesus.

Peace on Earth! At Christmas time. For people who think like me. As long as they don't think too hard. And MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!! (None of those offensive "Happy Holidays" fighting words allowed!)

It gets a bit ridiculous, doesn't it?

But really now. Thinking, putting oneself in the other's place, attempting to understand people's motivations and worldviews, assuming the best about people's intentions—these things promote peace. Perhaps not world peace, not right away; but personal peace, relational peace. Isn't that at least a good place to start? Our world is important, to us if to no one else. We should promote thoughtfulness, understanding, and peace every chance we get, not just at Christmas.

And so, I wish you and yours Thoughtful Holidays! And winter days...and spring days...and summer days...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Learning to Translate

Many of the friends I grew up with in church are still very attached to Christianity, but not the kind of fundamentalism many of us were fed. They embrace a Christianity that cares about what people are feeling and experiencing now, that acknowledges social injustice and wants to fix it, and that doesn't just discount this life as a "passing through" where "saving souls" is the only thing that matters. I think this kind of Christianity is healthier than much of what's out there, but I'm still wary. When I hear them talk, some red flags still rise within me. I'm having trouble deciding whether I am overreacting, and whether I should try to put these things in a different perspective to make them feel less threatening to me. Let me try to give a few examples:

When my friend says that he needs to "trust God more," I balk. My immediate thoughts are, "Trust God for what? What is God going to do differently whether you trust him or not? What if one decides not to trust God?" I feel knotted up inside when I remember the pain and guilt I used to feel when I was convinced I wasn't "trusting God" enough. I remember thinking that the reason I wasn't getting the love and validation I needed was because I wasn't trusting God, so God wouldn't let me have what I thought I needed until I had come to understand that "God" was all I needed. I am angry that I was taught to try to shut down my legitimate emotional needs, and that if I couldn't, God would withhold what I needed until I did. That is not a loving God, that is a manipulative sadist.

But then I calm myself down, and try to put myself in my friend's mindset. I don't think he's saying that he needs to deny his humanity or stop doing everything and just let God take over, that God is going to arrange all the circumstances in his life and make it all better if my friend just trusts enough; he understands that we have legitimate human needs and that initiative on our part is often required to meet those needs. What I think he's saying, when I translate it into words and thoughts I would use to express it, is that there are many things in life we cannot completely control. These things happen to us, and there's not much we can do about it except pick ourselves up and keep going. Things have a tendency to work themselves out, and we are remarkable beings with the ability to adapt and inner strength that often completely surprises us. We learn that, when there's nothing else we can do about it, we can handle a lot more difficulty than we thought we could. My friend calls this trusting God; I call it trusting the human resilience with which I've been endowed and finding strength in the relationships I've built. Those red flags that popped up begin to droop, and I feel more connected to my friend. We are more on the same page than my initial reaction led me to believe.

When another friend says that she loves Jesus, that Jesus is the most important thing in her life, that she owes everything to Jesus and that she wants to share that with the world, I fight down the dread that rises in me. I used to say the same things, and try with all my heart to believe them. I tried to shut out everything in my life that was not about Jesus so that I could experience that fulfillment as well. I heard people talk about loving Jesus, and I tried so hard to do it too. But how do I love someone I've never met? Well, obviously I wasn't spending enough time, or the right kind of time, "in the Word." If I was, then I would know Jesus and I would love Jesus. That's what all the Good, Happy Christians did. I tried to manufacture emotions of love for this idea that was Jesus, because that's how all the Christian authors talked about Jesus. I tried to feel loved and valued by Jesus, because I thought he was the only one from whom I was supposed to be seeking it; and if I was looking for love anywhere else, I was being a Bad Christian, or not a Christian at all. I remember the paralyzing fear I felt whenever I talked with a "non-Christian," because I knew that if I didn't do everything in my power to convert them to Christianity, I was being a Bad Christian. I had the truth, and if I didn't share it and "bear fruit," I was a failure. I never allowed myself to establish a human connection with anyone who was a "non-Christian," because what was of first importance was not that we both shared this thing called humanity, but that the other person was going to go to hell if I didn't do something about it—if I didn't share Jesus with them. The pressure was crippling.

But again, I don't think this is really what my friend is saying. What she calls "Jesus" is, I think, something along the lines of what I call hope, or peace, or love; something I go to when I'm depressed, because I know I won't feel like this forever; something that I experience in connection with other people; some divinity I can almost grasp within a genuine human relationship founded on love and mutual respect. When she shares Jesus with people, she shares herself, not some formula. She shares her love of life and hope for the future. So, when I've translated it like this, I feel less threatened; I feel less like my friend is trying to force me back into a cage I've worked so hard to break free of.

It remains, however, to ask whether my translations, my interpretations, are really expressing my friends' feelings fairly. By translating these things out of religious terms, am I somehow robbing them of something important? Am I misrepresenting my friends' communications? Perhaps. My intention is not to make my friends less religious or less spiritual, but to represent their opinions to myself in a way that makes sense within my new worldview. I want to be connected to my friends and share a common understanding of truth, but I refuse to return to the painful confines of the worldview I left; therefore I translate. How else do I balance my relationships with my Christian friends with my non-Christian worldview? I hope I'm not being unfair to my friends, but I must be fair to myself as well. That's what reconciliation is, isn't it? I think my friends would be supportive of that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Heritage

There are times that I feel like dumping the whole Christianity thing completely and starting over. Sometimes we need fresh starts in life. I appreciate the atheists I’ve been discovering on the blogosphere, especially the ones who used to be Christians. I like their honesty and integrity, and I identify with the hard work they’ve done to completely remake their belief systems to reflect reality as they have come to understand it. I’m not ready to declare myself an atheist, though. I’m also very attracted to the little I know about Buddhism, but I’m not going to go converting to that any time soon either. I don’t think conversion is my answer, at least not conversion to an entirely different religion (or lack thereof). I am working on dealing with my emotional and spiritual injuries and misconceptions and being honest with where I am, but I am also not ruling out the possibility that I may call myself “Christian” again someday, although that will look very different than it did five years ago of course. Really, the main reason I’m not ready to throw it out completely is that it is my heritage. There are reasons Christianity has been passed down to me by my family. There are reasons it has grown and survived for thousands of years. Those reasons are also the reasons other religions have persevered and grown; they're the reasons we have religions in the first place.

Religion arose as a way to explain what ancient people found unexplainable, but it was more than that too. If it wasn't, it would be quickly vanishing with the advance of science and our ability to explain what was previously unexplainable. Some people do predict this, but I think they're wrong. There was always more to religion than just explanation. It had social and psychological purposes. It was about unity and solidarity; it was about belonging and identity. Those are still true. Religion still contributes to our sense of belonging and identity; however, it also sometimes motivates more divisiveness and death than unity and life. That is because religion is a distinctly human thing. It is dynamic and imperfect, but that does not make it worthless. It is not a static statement of truth or an object apart from human animation. Without people, there would be no religion. Without people, there would be no Christianity. There have been people who valued this religion enough to dedicate and even sacrifice their lives for it. I understand that people’s willingness to sacrifice for a cause does not automatically establish the ultimate worth of the cause—probably as many people have sacrificed their lives for unjust causes as for noble ones—but I cannot in good conscience simply discount those people who valued Christianity as of ultimate importance. I feel a need to respond in some way, in a way that honors what others have valued while still retaining my personal integrity.

I have received Christianity as part of my heritage. It was passed on to me as a thing of importance, and I will not reject the entirety of Christianity because of the harmfulness of aspects of a certain culture within Christianity. I've been reading Bishop John Shelby Spong's book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, and it has been helpful in my attempt to sort out what exactly I'm trying to hold on to while  I am, at the same time, moving away from the religion I knew as a child. In what I think is one of the most beautiful passages of his book (so far, I'm not quite done with it yet) Spong says, "We see those things that affirm our being in the face of the ultimate threat of nonbeing, and we call those holy. We even call those things God. We plumb the depths of our own humanity until we touch our limits, and then we seek ways to transcend those limits. Enhanced consciousness does it, deepened humanity does it, an infinite and eternal love does it."

I am beginning to believe that religion, at its best, is less about what tradition one ascribes to and more about one's ability to understand this concept of transcendence. Once we understand it, we can share it; we can experience it together. The importance of religion lies not in whether it gives all the answers to life, but in how it provides a platform for us to establish human relations founded on this transcendence. If and when I return to Christianity, I will not be looking for a religion to give meaning to my life. I already experience meaning. I'll be looking for a Christianity that helps me to express and share and build upon that meaning which I've already experienced outside of any religious framework. My heritage, the Christianity of which I've been a part by default, is rich and varied. It is not contained in fundamentalism and biblical literalism, and I do not have to throw out Christianity in order to disassociate from fundamentalism. If I decide that returning to Christianity is the right choice for me, I am confident that I will be able to find a place in it. I know that I can live with integrity in my worldview while embracing human relationship within the context of Christianity, as well as outside it. I am at peace with my heritage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Brainwashing and Indoctrination

I went to a Christian university (though one with a reputation among other Christian schools for being "liberal," or so I was told). My dad has recently informed me that I was brainwashed by "that liberal philosophy crap." Hmm, that's funny. I thought presenting someone with information from different perspectives and expecting them to come to their own conclusions was the opposite of brainwashing...or was that idea brainwashed into me too? I really don't feel brainwashed. That must be part of the deception.

According to Wikipedia (as all of my professors cringe), brainwashing is supposed to subvert my "sense of control over [my] own thinking, behavior, emotions or decision making." Somewhat more mildly, Merriam-Webster says that brainwashing can be defined as "persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship." Now, I don't recall anyone at college ever saying to me, "This is what is unquestionably right. This is the best way to think. Anything else is wrong. Think this way." But that's a bit overt, right? Maybe it was more subtle, like: "This is what I think, and as I am in a position of authority over you, you should think the same thing." Again, a resounding no. As I recall, most (if not all) of my professors went out of their way to avoid revealing their own personal opinions in class, for exactly this reason. They understood the power they had as educators, and were more concerned that students left their classes with a well-rounded knowledge of the subject and the ability to think critically about it than with a certain set of political or religious opinions.

On the other hand, I do remember a time when I was told, "This is what is unquestionably right. Anything else is wrong. Think this way;" it was during the first 18 years of my life. Growing up, I was only ever presented with information and opinions from one perspective. I was homeschooled through my entire elementary and high school career. I was only allowed to listen to Christian music and read Christian magazines; preachers droned Christian fundamentalism over the radio in our house all the time. Most of my media choices (except for movies, but those were still parentally-regulated) were made from the Christian bookstore. I only ever heard news and political opinions from the conservative end of the spectrum. If a liberal idea was introduced, it was only in order to show me how faulty it was; it was always a caricature and never given fair representation or presented as a valid option. The word "liberal" was an insult in my house. (Still is, actually, but now I'm the one it's aimed at.) Almost all of my friendships and activities were through our church. All of this, I think, would be a good example of indoctrination.

Now, to be fair, to indoctrinate can mean simply to teach doctrine, but it seems more often to carry with it the idea of teaching someone to accept a certain belief or set of beliefs uncritically. This is key. As a child and a teenager, all criticisms I heard were directed at the opposing view; if any criticism of my family's dominant ideology was discussed, it was introduced as something "they say," and brought up only to show why "they" were wrong and we were right. Even though I was planning to attend a Christian college, I read books on how to defend my faith against "the world." Neither my parents nor my schooling ever encouraged me to take more than a superficial glance at anything that contradicted our worldview.

But again, in an effort to be fair, I have to say that I understand my parents' actions. According to their understanding of reality, they hold the ultimate and unquestionable truth. Why would they need to present me with other options? That may have confused me. Better to tell me what the truth was from the beginning so I never had reason to doubt. Now this may sound oppressive, but I think my parents are only partly to blame. The arrogance of believing that one has an exclusive claim to truth is fairly common in evangelical/fundamentalist circles (and not just in Christianity, in many other religions too, I’m aware; I’m simply not talking about them right now). It's a cultural phenomenon.

That said, I have still decided that is not the kind of person I want to be; that is not the kind of parent I plan to be. I want to help my daughter discover that there are many ways of understanding the world, and that granting each the possibility of validity (though, of course, with a respectfully critical eye) is essential to being a connected part of humanity. We must be able to see past socialized (and/or freely-chosen) ideological differences in order to have significant interactions with other humans. People will always disagree with one another, and I’m pretty sure that’s essential to our nature and our survival. I respect my parents’ right to choose their worldview to the best of their knowledge and their ability, just as I assert my own right to such a choice, and just as I will defend my daughter’s right to it as well.

So no, I don't believe I've been brainwashed. I have been taught to think critically about anything presented to me, and my world is more difficult, but also richer and more beautiful, because of it. Believing in one ultimate truth provides simplicity and stability; however, by eschewing the tension that accompanies the nuances and complexities of life in favor of having all the answers, I think such an ideology completely bypasses a huge part of what it means to live and to interact with people. I don’t have all the answers. I have very few of the answers, actually. Obviously, it’s often easier to point out what the answer is not than what it is, but that exercise has its merits as well.

I really want to insert a cliché about life and journeys vs. destinations, but my better judgment is telling me to refrain. I think you get the picture.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jesus Isn't Enough

I've toyed with the idea of starting a blog for a while now, but I was never sure if I had enough material to make it worthwhile. Today, I stumbled upon a book that transported me back to the shame and guilt of my teenage years, that reminded me exactly why I have slowly and gradually walked away from the faith in which I was raised to a point where I can no longer honestly identify myself as a Christian. I no longer identify myself as anything, really, just as someone in transition. That brings me much peace.

The book that I found was an attempt to treat the behavior of self-injury, which is a symptom of much deeper psychological distress either from abuse or mental illness or both, with Jesus. This author's solution for someone who was dealing with this type of pain was...Jesus. Period.

Jesus isn't enough.

I know, because I was there. I did all the right things. I read the Bible, I prayed, I sincerely and truly believed in Jesus and the God of modern American evangelical Christianity. I worked on my "relationship" with God, and if I ever felt dissatisfied with my life or lonely or depressed, I worked harder. I read all the Christian books and magazines, I went to the youth conferences, I believed it all; yet I was still broken, and everything I read told me this was my fault because I just wasn't understanding what Christianity is really about. "It's not a religion, it's a relationship"...a relationship I couldn't ever quite attain. Therefore, I must have been doing something wrong. If I was still depressed, I must have been doing something wrong.

But I wasn't doing anything wrong. Jesus just wasn't enough. Jesus wasn't enough to heal my mental has taken therapy and antidepressant medication and a basic understanding of human psychology to get that under control. It wasn't because I wasn't trying hard enough or wasn't believing the right things. It's because I needed more than some vague idea of "Jesus' unconditional love" to understand that my perception of reality was crippled and that putting a Jesus band-aid over a bullet hole won't solve anything if the bullet is still in there.

I intend to expand on why I think the ideas in that book on self-injury are so dangerous in a later blog post, but for now I needed to get this blog up and running. I needed to tell the world that, no, I no longer try to make myself believe that Jesus is enough, I no longer feel like a failure for not being able to cure my depression with religion, and I am better off because of that. I am finally healing, which is more than Jesus ever did for me.