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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Coming Out



This will be my last post on Grace To Wisdom and my first on Recovering From Dogma.  The reason will become clear by the end of this post; the former title no longer fits.  I've imported all of my Grace To Wisdom posts to Recovering From Dogma for posterity so that one can trace the story.

It's been over one year since my last blog post.  I could blame it on the insane amount of business travel I've endured, but that would be a cop-out.  No, this has taken so long to post because I've had to rewrite it so many times as I've pored over how best to be true to what I say in a manner that is respectful.

I've struggled with a disclaimer so as not to offend anyone of differing views.  Instead, I have decided to dispense with it altogether for this simple reason: This isn't about you.  While everything in this world is not "all about me", this particular blog entry is.  This is my blog created, in part, to give voice to my story.  This is not an attack on anyone or their beliefs or views, it is an expression of mine.  I'm not here to express or validate your views; If you want to do so, write your own blog, write your own book, tell your own story.

More importantly, I will not disown you, defriend you, or cast you aside for having views different from mine.  I love my friends for who they are, not for what they believe.  I will, however, eventually cast you out of my life for your behavior toward me; life is too short to endure and enable trolls.

Purpose
My purpose for this blog post is mainly driven by the need to be true to myself.  It's one of the elements found here in Regrets of the Dying, a wonderful post from a palliative care provider:
     #1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

True to the title of this entry, this is a coming out of sorts.  If you follow me on Twitter, there have been loads of hints along the way.

I can already hear the murmurs and gasps: "What's he about to say...could it be...?"  "I KNEW IT...he likes to cook and he has WAY too many shoes.  He's also freakishly into outerwear!  According to his wife and his own admission, he did most of the interior decorating and color selection in their home.  Hmmm - What's up with that?"

No, it's not that.  I'm still firmly (so to speak) and happily heterosexual (It's not a choice).  Although, I imagine I am feeling an angst similar to that experienced by those who come out with their sexual orientation.

In additional to telling my own story, I want to be an agent of support for those with similar experiences.  Recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, cult survivors, and others with trauma in their backgrounds often seek to help others with a shared experience.  It's been said that we spend most of our lives either benefiting from or recovering from our upbringing.  I want to help others with their recovery.

Background
In November, I became aware of a coming out campaign: the Out Campaign for atheists.  In addition to the many Christians and people of other faith traditions I follow on Twitter, I also engage many atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and others.

My first thought upon discovering this campaign was why?  Why do they feel the need to "come out"?  Don't they know they'll be persecuted, ridiculed, perhaps lose their jobs, and damage relationships if people know the truth about where they stand? - of course they do - which leads to one of the reasons why they feel so strongly about this expression.  It shouldn't be that way.  They shouldn't fear reprisal, anywhere - particularly in a free country - regardless of faith or lack of faith.  Living truthfully, honestly, asking hard questions and being skeptical of ancient, dogmatic answers given to us from tradition should not be cause for shame.  Quite the opposite: They should be proud of who they are and their quest for truth.

But I'm not coming out as an atheist either; not because I think there's anything wrong with identifying as such, but because the title seems unnecessary and I'm not sure it fits me.

I've read reams of both conservative and liberal Christian literature, apologetics, and the bible (several times, cover to cover).  I've led adult Sunday School classes and bible studies in Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches (and groups outside of church).  I've served on church committees and tried to do it right as a Christian.  Over the past few years, I've also read volumes of work by Robert Ingersoll, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, John Loftus, Dan Barker, A.C. Grayling, William Lobdell, and many other non-religious writers and scholars.  I've grown to appreciate their perspectives on so many things and they add new perspective to what I've spent most of my 47 years mired in.

I recently watched a Youtube video of Sam Harris speaking at the Atheist Alliance International conference in 2007.  His speech was entitled "The Problem with Atheism".  You can also see an edited transcript in The Washington Post.  Sam makes an excellent point about the atheist label being unnecessary.  I'm not compelled to call myself an Aastrologer, an Aracist, an Aalchemist, or add an "A" to anything else I don't believe in or ascribe to.  But theism, as ascribed to in most churches in Western Christianity no longer makes any sense to me.

I've spent quite a bit of time over the past few years studying church history, canonization, historical vs. mythological Jesus, and Christian apologetics.  I appreciate how theistic thinking came to be and how it's been used throughout history as an attempt to understand the world around us.  But for me, it no longer withstands scrutiny or aligns with my life experience.

It might surprise most Christians to know that there is an increasing element within Christianity that could also be labeled atheist.  Some Christians identify as pantheists, others as panentheists, and no longer believe in a theistic, personal, intervening God.  They remain Christians because they see Christianity as a way of being in this life as opposed to their faith being all about an afterlife, which may or may not exist.  It's their cultural heritage and helps them find community and common purpose.

Let me stop there with how I got here and briefly state where I am.  There will be plenty of time for discussion in future posts.  I suppose the best illustration I can give here is to recount the story you may have heard in different forms about a pastor (or believer) speaking with an atheist.  The atheist describes many of the dogmatic descriptions of God he had been taught or heard of.  The pastor listens closely then closes with "I don't believe in that God either."  For now, let me assert some of the things I no longer believe in.

Heretical rant
Huge questions:  1) Is there is a God? and 2) What is its nature?  Like most humans, I still seek answers to these questions, but so far, I don't have an absolute answer.  I don't know that these questions will ever be answered or are knowable (see epistemology).  But I do know of several answers that no longer make any sense and I'm not going to pay them lip-service any longer.
  1. "The" bible (which one?) is now an interesting book to me primarily from an anthropological perspective, but its authority as "The Word of God" no longer holds any water.  We know too much about its history to accept it as divine.  I still see some wisdom in the bible as I see wisdom in many other human works.  Quoting what the bible says about itself to claim authority is circular reasoning and requires an a priori faith, which I no longer have.
  2. I also see much in the bible that is heinous, yet attributed to God.  A couple of my favorite examples: God tells a man to lead his son to be sacrificed to show devotion to himself (God), only to have God say Ah...I'm just kidd'in at the last minute.  Really?  At least a cruel joke if it were true.  I'd go further and describe it as narcissistic sociopathy.  Penal substitution (Refer to my previous diatribe on penal substitution atonement theology)?  Multiple accounts of divine genocide?  I'm not interested in the Nixonean defense, "If God does it, it's not immoral."  Nonsense.  I see why people once believed these things, but I no longer do.
  3. If there is a God, is he to be feared?  Is he jealous?  I don't accept such a god.  Yes, I know there is language in the bible that describes such a god.  See #1.
  4. If there is a God, will he torture me or cast me out of its presence for eternity if I don't believe the right right things about him while here on Earth?  This concept no longer seems even remotely rational or moral. See #1.
  5. This notion of believing the right things about a God in order to gain favor in the afterlife now seems absurd.  Calvinism and notions of being predestined as the elect, more absurd still.  I used to believe it, a priori, but I no longer do.  Who am I or anyone else to be favored, selected, elected, set aside for all of eternity?  Any god who could decide such things and cast the rest aside is neither great nor worthy of worship.
  6. I no longer believe in cosmic reward or punishment for decisions, only consequences that result from our actions.  I no longer believe in sin against God, only behavior that either helps or hurts others and the world around us.  Karma?  Would it be any surprise that we reap what we sow?  Even without a spiritual element, this makes sense.  
I'll stop there with the list of things I don't believe and refer you to About the Bible, by Robert Ingersoll, written in 1894.

So what's left?  The only redeemable elements of any religion to me are 1) Community and 2) Service to humanity the world around us.  With the exception of Unitarian Universalists, church in America is centered mostly around shared beliefs and believing the right things.  I no longer feel compelled to ascribe to creeds which make no rational sense and are not supported by reason, evidence, or scholarship.  Unfortunately, I cannot participate in a faith community in my region without keeping my mouth shut, lest I be (hopefully just figuratively) lynched.  I had a front row seat on a powerful church committee and watched a pastor's career end, prematurely, because he didn't believe the right things, according to a group of well-heeled conservative literalists who had it all figured out.  I will not commune around their beliefs, dogmas, and behaviors.

If you know me, you'll agree that keeping my mouth shut is not my strong suit.  For these reasons, I'll need to find community elsewhere.  For these reasons also, I understand why atheists are coming out and finding community with one another - with anyone - who won't persecute them for tossing dogma aside and attempting to understand the world as it is, through science, scholarship of all kinds, and through rational thought, rather than gulping down twisted interpretations of ancient mythological writings.  For these reasons, I add my voice to theirs.

I no longer buy the apologists arguments for morality only existing in the presence of a God, as defined by them.  Humans cooperating in community and behaving in ways that help rather than harm themselves and others does not require a God.  There are good and bad people across all lines, including atheists and agnostics.

Good people help other people because they love them and it's the right thing to do to advance society and civilization.  I'm not interesting in helping or advancing only those in my club or who share my beliefs, yet that's exactly what goes on with so many religious people today...insider trading for jobs, favors, service, giving, etc.  Not in the right church?  You're on the outside and not part of God's Kingdom.  Nonsense.

Drum roll
So here it is: If labels are important, then I suppose I'm coming out as a Humanist.  I should probably go further and label myself a Secular Humanist, since humanism is an overlay in much of religious tradition.  Humanism and religion are not mutually exclusive.  Were it not for its humanist elements, religion would be worse than a completely impotent construct and more capable of inflicting harm than doing good.  I desire to grow personally and I want to get better at joining hands with anyone for the betterment of humanity and the world around us.  It now seems more important than ever to participate as a member of this world, helpful in my community and circles of influence, for goodness' and humanity's sake and not purely out of service to a God I cannot grasp.

Regrets
I regret some things I've done and said in the name of God or Jesus and the negative affect it has had on some I've encountered.  I regret some decisions I've made under the delusion and cop-out that it must be God's plan.  I no longer believe in or see evidence for such a plan or guide in all matters human.  My decisions - good and bad - have been my own.  All that said, I'm going to move past regret and attempt to return to a path of growth that helps rather than harms those I encounter.

Hope
By no means am I giving up on all things spiritual.  While my current leaning is that most - if not all - that we experience can be understood through psychology and other science, I suppose I'm still hopeful for a spiritual realm and will continue to examine evidence and my own life experience as it comes.  I'll no more reject spirituality, consciousness, and the like dogmatically anymore than I will accept the dogmas given to me out of heritage.  I still experience things I cannot explain and there have been events so bizarre that I may never understand them.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  Some sort of spiritual connection between all of us who choose it?  Perhaps, I don't know.  A God who judges me and torments me for all of eternity based upon what I say I believe about "Him"? - highly unlikely - and if I'm wrong about that, then "He" is neither all-merciful nor worthy of praise.  Using what a bible says about itself as evidence won't do.

Despite all of this, there is also hope in Humanism alone.  We have more power than we think and Humanists of every stripe can come together without creeds of the supernatural as a force for good. (Humanist Manifesto III).

If you wish to continue to follow / engage in the journey, please follow my new blog: Recovering From Dogma by joining at the top.

So, to the extent that this statement makes sense to you, blessings my friends.

Allen

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The man who changed my life

Today's post is radically different from the spiritual journey chronicled in previous posts. Today's post is about the man who radically changed my life.

I was not exactly a high-flier in high school. A straight-A student through elementary and most of middle school, things started sliding in high school. Quitting band after making regional honor band my freshman year began the slide. "Extra curricular" activities of the really extra variety became much more important than academic achievement. But by my junior year, I began thinking about life after high school and started to make an effort again.

One afternoon in FFA "shop" (Future Farmers of America...I attended a really small high school in rural Texas), I spoke to my teacher, Ira B. Franklin, about pursuing a welding career after high school. I enjoyed welding in shop class and thought it would be a worthy pursuit.

Before I continue, I need to describe Ira B. "Chief" Franklin. Chief was a short but really heavy, stout black man with a voice probably two full octaves lower than that of James Earl Jones. Legend had it that a soon-to-be-steer got loose during the procedure and made a run at Chief. While the high school boys screamed like girls and hit the fence, Chief stood his ground, landing a forearm across the young bull's forehead, dropping him instantly, allowing the procedure to continue; Point being, Chief was a man's man and commanded respect from his minions.

Back to my story. I asked Chief one day, "What do I need to do to become a welder?" Chief had always been kind and respectful to me, despite my losing ways, and it soon became apparent why. Chief's smile quickly morphed into a grimace as he shouted "PAIGE! INTO MY OFFICE!" The rest of the class cowered as my jaw hit the floor, my face blanched white as a sheet, and I turned to follow him as ordered. I'm pretty sure I could have used a spare set of underwear as well.

I walked into his office and he closed the door behind me. "Paige, you gotta get thoughts like that out of your head. There's nothing wrong with being a welder...it's a noble profession, but you need to leave crafts like that to ****** and the like. You could be anything you want to be in this world...an engineer, a banker, and executive...ANYTHING! DON'T SETTLE FOR THAT! GET YOUR ASS IN COLLEGE!"

Even as I write his words, I wish there were a way for me to re-phrase them into a more politically acceptable way - in the manner in which he meant them. Chief would never, ever, disrespect any hard-working man's craft. But he saw something in me that neither I, my parents, nor anyone else saw - academic and professional potential. That conversation (or more accurately, monologue) would be pivotal in my life, but not immediately.

Months later, just after beginning my senior year in high school, my mother would commit suicide. The next couple of years were a blur. Somehow I managed to finish high school, despite being kicked out of the house by my step father and "couch surfing" with a friend's family. Because of the Reagan budget cutbacks, in order to keep "Survivor Social Security Education Benefits" which were being fazed-out, I would need to be enrolled as a full-time college student by 12/81...yep, midway through my senior year in high school. So I worked a full high school schedule, 12-hours of night school at college, and worked a job to feed myself, while still grieving the loss of my mother and living on the edge of homelessness.

After graduating high school, my father (not my step father) allowed me to move in with him and his family for the summer to allow me to "earn as much money as I could for college" before the clock ran out and I had to move on.

I made a feeble attempt at continuing college, but was failing miserably. I wasn't ready. My father suggested that I might not be college material and perhaps I should consider dropping out of college to "learn a trade...plumbing, whatever."

But Chief's words came screaming back to me. Despite my condition and failure, somehow I believed what Chief did about my potential; that seed wouldn't die.

I decided that academics would need to wait until I was ready and I entered the U.S. Navy to get it together, serving four years as a Search and Rescue Swimmer and Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Operator in helicopters; I had the time of my life and was given a fresh start.

After leaving the Navy, I earned an Bachelor of Science degree in Business from The University of Texas at Dallas (with honors. Again, working full time, taking a full course load at night), then a Master of Business Administration from Southern Methodist University.

As much as I would like to take credit for "boot-strapping" it, I shudder to think where I would be had it not been for the seeds that Ira B. Franklin planted in me that day - and he meant it. I'm ashamed to say that I've never sought him out to thank him for the faith he had in me when no one else did. I owe him my life.

To my beloved Chief: Thank you and may God bless you. I know I'm not the only one you touched with your life.

Allen

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sharing the journey

Short post today.

It's been an interesting trip, this exploration of my faith. In so many ways, I feel as if it's a journey just beginning. A pruning process has been at work, stripping me of much of the dogma and preconceptions of my heritage and discovering things anew, as if for the first time.

I've received some fantastic feedback and sharing from other faith journeys along the way.

But most telling has been some of the resistance and challenges I've received; Clearly I've made many uncomfortable. Most I would classify as people who "were where I was", very comfortable in the box they've built, where they've got it all figured-out. Bluntly, a very arrogant place indeed.

Others are openly struggling, as I am, and question from a place of attempting to understand rather than to judge. These are the special engagements where we both get to explore and grow.

Still others just don't care and are more annoyed than offended.

Social wisdom dictates the we should avoid talking about religion and politics as these are deeply personal topics with a propensity to divide. I have overtly chosen, counter to this wisdom, to share this journey with you publicly, as it's very important to me. I hope that some are blessed. I hope that some will share so that I am blessed. I hope that those who don't care will find another venue where they do care about the journey's direction.

Blessings to you all.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Now what?

I've continued my reading tear in an attempt to learn more about the historical Jesus, church history, and pluralism.  My most recently devoured titles:
Religionless Religion was very helpful in surveying several of the major religions in the world, helping me understand better their view of God and the universe as well as the amazing amount of common ground they share.  It's provided me with a better understanding of people reared in belief systems different than my own and it continues to shape my own spiritual outlook.

But it is Jesus Interrupted that has me contemplating the most.  I read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus) several years ago; it was the first book I had read that introduced me to the imperfect canonization process and uncovered the nature of many of the "errors" in the Bible.  Misquoting Jesus was a tough read though, especially as an introductory book.

Jesus Interrupted was a much easier read - much more concise and approachable.  Ehrman introduces us to the historical-critical (HC) method of biblical study as opposed to a devotional one.  Although I had heard of the historical-critical method before, I was unaware that it is taught in all but the most conservative-evangelical seminaries in the world.  Briefly, the historical-critical method has us look horizontally at the bible, comparing and contrasting events to uncover the most likely historical reality (if any).  The HC method also triangulates this information against other historical information to discover the most likely "historical truth".

The HC method is not necessarily an investigation of faith, but a matter of history.  That being said, for many of us who grew-up in conservative "Bible-believing" churches, the historical / literal reading of the Bible was a huge source of our faith.  We were taught that the Bible is THE "Word of God".  Some would dodge the "literally perfect" challenge with a dance to the "inspired Word of God" argument; "Sure, there might be some clerical errors here and there...man isn't perfect and his hands are on it, but God directed man's hand, the canonization process, etc. to deliver the message He wanted us to hear."

Confession: I no longer believe this either.  I see a collection of stories, mostly of unknown authorship, attempting to describe spiritual and life experiences, as best they can, from their perspective, in their time and circumstances, knitted together by people trying to express their own ("Orthodox") view of what they thought everyone had to believe.  That being said, there is something sacred about their stories - about everyone's story; but that is a topic for another post.

What has me puzzled right now is why it's taken me so long to get here.  I'm certain that every pastor I've known over the past several years was well-trained in the historical-critical method and knew much more than what I now know about the Bible.  But why didn't they teach it?  Why was I and the rest of my congregation kept in the dark? Shouldn't they have wanted to "share the truth" about the book that we raised (in some cases) to the status of deity?  Isn't the truth supposed to set us free?

So many questions.  I feel as though I've been set free from much through this study, but why now, why on my own?  Why did I spend so many years just blindly gulping the dogma and church doctrine? Why don't more Christians want to look deeper into their scripture and why don't more pastors bring scholarship to bear in doing so?  Are parishioners too stupid to handle the truth?  Will they stop believing things like the doctrine of the tithe and stop giving?  Yes, I've got some pretty cynical views about church right now.  The scholarship about the Bible is nothing new, it's been there for decades and to some degree, for a couple of centuries now, but it seems to be a secret outside of the seminaries.

I've heard the arguments from some of the conservative evangelicals: "That sort of stuff will cause people weak in their faith to stumble!"  If that is the case, perhaps they need to stumble.  These same people will parrot platitudes like "Well, every challenge we have in life makes us stronger..."  If this is the case, then perhaps a stumble in faith is exactly what most Christians need.  If they hold the Bible up as a perfect deity and worship it, perhaps they need to be set free with the truth about where their scripture came from and come to grips with it.

Others might respond "So what's the harm with people believing the Bible literally"?  Oh, I don't know, just spit-balling here, but supporting things like genocide in the name of God come to mind.  Behavior is shaped by our beliefs.  I have no problem with people holding a view of a judgmental God who will torment people for trillions of years because of the "sins" accumulated in 30 years (or 30 days, or 30 minutes) unless they can recite the correct creed and "believe" the right things about him, until they act against the rest of us.  We've elected presidents who thought they were on a mission from God to rid the world of evil-doers and thousands of innocents have died as a result, but again, I digress.  

Back to the title of this post - Now what?  All of this historical study has not damaged my faith per se.  I still see mystery in the universe and in my own experiences.  Things have happened to me that I cannot explain.  Learning more about other faith traditions has helped me see beauty all around me (and especially in other people) like never before and I want to learn more.  But I'm having a problem putting a label on where I'm at.  For now, "Progressive Christian" seems to fit since I was raised in the Christian tradition.  I also find a lot to like about the Unitarian Universalists who don't view the world as "us vs. them" and don't judge people according to their beliefs.

My challenge now is a practical one: How can I play nice and participate in a faith community where the vast majority of the participants believe sharply different things than I do?; things about God, Jesus, the Bible, people of other faiths?  Bluntly, most are where I once was so I want to be sensitive to that.  But I also want to be true to my own faith journey.  I live in a conservative community and progressive congregations to not abound here.

Now what?

Blessings my friends.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It was easier then, but it's better now.

Not so long ago, my views on almost everything were far more simplistic and conservative. I could pull some Bible versus out of their historical, political, economic, spiritual, and religious context and knit them back together to justify almost anything:
- Economics? Reaganomics, trickle-down.
- Politics? All government was evil. Republicans good, Democrats bad.
- Social justice? I accomplished some things all by myself and I'm nothing special. If I can get an education and feed / care for myself, anyone can. You make your own bed, so sleep in it.
- Religion? It's all in the Bible. Look elsewhere and let the evil one in. OK, there was some poetry and other stuff that had to be viewed "less than literally", but it was authoritative and, if read right, The Word of God. Don't fall back into that whole "tree of knowledge trap", stay child-like.

It was all so simple. I didn't have to think; it was all packed neatly into this four-sided box.

Enter trouble. Most people start to really discover new ways of thinking in college. I'm a late bloomer I suppose. Having done both my BS and MBA at night while working full-time, I was more consumed with putting food on the table than "finding truth and discovering myself". Years later I started running into some very smart people who had views different than mine. My conservative upbringing had convinced me that I had been placed in their path to change their lives. In fact, the opposite would become true. Two situations would begin a radical overhaul.

First was a series of encounters with a former boss that really started to change things. He had been run-off from Christianity by conservative evangelical family members who, as he put it, were convinced he'd "spend eternity in the smoking section". I hoped to show him a more enlightened version of Christianity. He had earned a philosophy degree before earning an MBA and was far better-read in liberal arts, philosophy, and other world religions than I. Our late night discussions after client meetings on the road were always respectful and enlightening, at least for me.

After a trip to Seattle, I began to wonder aloud "Why do I believe what I believe?" I had never challenged my beliefs in any serious way. That led to a serious apologetics study which helped me with some of the philosophical, cosmological, astronomical, mathematic, and other scientific arguments for the existence of God, "The Original Uncaused Cause", etc. But what about scripture, religious pluralism, Jesus, salvation, etc., etc.?

The second major influence came as a result of a church squabble between conservatives and progressives (theologically). Generally speaking, let's label the conservatives those who see the Bible largely as literally true while the progressives tend to find truth in the metaphors the stories represent and are not bound to believing the historical accuracy of the "actual events" (I know...this is a gross over-simplification, but this is a blog, not a dissertation).

In an effort to better understand the progressive view, I asked for a book recommendation from a staff member at church and read The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg. That book led to many more and my life has been forever changed.

It has been both a fantastically blessed journey of learning and discovery and a difficult one of uncovering and letting go of deeply engrained dogma. Learning more about the historical facts and anthropology has given context to the myths that I once took for actual events and allowed me to consider the deeper truths therein.

Unfortunately this path I'm on has proved threatening to others. That's unfortunate. Anyone who can read should do so and look into the things they hold dear. The information is there to be considered, not blindly accepted. My personal life experience doesn't match that of the authors I read, so I don't necessarily agree with all of their assertions. But I can still learn from them and try to appreciate their perspective. The same is certainly true when I read scripture.

So, thank you Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, and the many others I've read and will be reading soon. You've made my journey a little tougher, but much richer, more inclusive, hopeful, and insightful. Most importantly I no longer feel compelled to knit together circular reasoning to defend what was never a history book. The truth really can set you free.

Blessings my friends.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Whispering Spring Ln,Georgetown,United States

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Evolving in Monkey Town: A new favorite book!

I just finished reading my advance copy of Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans.  I devoured this thing in all of the spare moments I've had over the past two days, setting aside all my other reading to do so.  My initial reaction: I'm jealous.

I met Rachel on Twitter and we've had some limited engagement there.  I've enjoyed her tweets and her blog and jumped at the opportunity to read and review her book.  What I didn't expect was how timely the read would be and how close to home her words would strike.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a wonderful narrative of Rachel's spiritual journey from conservative evangelicalism to a more progressive Christian experience.  She doesn't pretend to have all the answer and she's brutally honest about her struggles along the way.  Rachel deals with doubt and lands in the same place I have - Doubt is essential to faith.  In the last chapter, Rachel writes:


"If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that serious doubt - the kind that leads to despair - begins not when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop."

It is exactly this realization that has transformed my life in recent months and a notion I found so moving in her book.

Rachel shows mettle in her ongoing grappling with issues like religious pluralism, sexual preference, political diversity, inclusiveness, social justice and other topics for which conservative apologetics training had already provided canned answers.


Each chapter feels like it's dealing with a topic or influence somewhat in isolation but the overall story emerges beautifully.  Rachel is a gifted writer which makes reading her work so enjoyable.  Topics are meaty and substantial, but form matters and it's a beautifully written book; a much easier read than so many of the heavy theology books I've read lately.  It's her story.

Back to the jealousy part.  I'm jealous of Rachel because she's still in her 20's while on this incredible journey.  I've spent many more years than her parked in "spiritual neutral", clinging to the same old dogma I'd been raised with, perhaps afraid of bringing the tough questions that were burning deep within me into the light to be dealt with.  Rachel gives voice to many of those questions.

I'm jealous of her style and ease with word.  Although I don't envy the depth to which she had been plunged into evangelicalism, so young and so often, I am envious of her depth of Biblical knowledge and the amount of insight she shows, again, so early in life.

I'm jealous because Rachel had the guts to write her story and become a published author.  She's a wonderful author at that with a fantastic career ahead of her and I'm already looking forward to her next offering.

I'm not going to reveal any more about her book because I want everyone I know to buy it, read it, and consider it.  My copy is going onto my wife's nightstand as soon as I'm done with this blog entry.  My bride tends not to read much of the heavy stuff I've read lately (Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, William Lane Craig, etc.), but I know she'll love this book, Rachel's style, and her story.  I'm convinced Evolving in Monkey Town will give Michelle deeper insight into my own journey and perhaps shape her own as well.

Although I'm envious of Rachel for these reasons, I'm mainly blessed to have a connection with her, to get the opportunity to read her work, and to join her on this shared journey to find Truth, Peace, and Grace.  Life really is found in the questions more so than the answers.


"We thought that we had the answers.
It was the questions we had wrong." - U2

Blessings my friends.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Long List of Questions and Still Just the Beginning

It's Monday morning, which means going out for a 3-4 mile run is mandatory in order to start the week off on the right foot, so to speak.  Running is so important to my mental health.  It's my solitary time to be alone with my thoughts, work through issues, sweat-out frustrations, and try to recapture peace.  Things almost always seem clearer after a good run.



This morning's topic is inspired by a new favorite book of mine: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, by Brian Mclaren

Today's obsession, a long list of questions of my own: What would I take away from the Bible if I were reading it for the first time, without any influence from the church, my family, or dogma that I've been exposed to?

What if I didn't bring a whole list of assumptions to it?  What if I didn't have to believe in (or had never been exposed to) the notion of the Bible being The Word of God?  What if I had never heard about Divine Inspiration?  What if I considered it a collection of stories?  What if I didn't have to believe in literal or historical accuracy and could consider metaphorical meaning?

Unburdened by any preconceived notions, could I learn something new about humanity and our spiritual history?  Might I see an evolving narrative of mankind's struggle to understand their world, their place in it, and spiritual things?  Would I be able to accept that perhaps some of these people had different perceptions than my own?  What if some of them "got it wrong"?

Could I understand how a person might pray for the destruction of their enemies, given their circumstances, yet not be compelled myself to believe that God hates anyone or would grant such a wish?  Could I see the books of the New Testament as different points of view, grappling with what each writer experienced and learned from Jesus; as independent accounts and perspectives without being troubled by conflicts?

Could I use these stories to learn more about myself and my own struggles along the way?  Would they help me understand that others have been where I am, whether crying out to God in despair or rejoicing in victory?  

Is there a view of the Bible that illustrates how connected we are, despite our different cultures and belief traditions, Gentiles and Jews?  Might I be able to move beyond my own self-centered issues with atonement, improvement, and acceptance to a view of myself as a world citizen?  Could I see Jesus' teachings as practical regarding His wishes for us as a citizen in this life and not merely about the afterlife?

Is it possible that every attempt to understand, experience, speak or write about God, the original "uncaused cause" of the universe and creator of us all, will always be a flawed human endeavor that falls short in some way?

Run complete, watch stopped.  The answer: Yes.

Blessings my friends.

Friday, April 30, 2010

"If your heart is as my heart, take my hand." - John Wesley

I met our newly appointed Sr. Pastor last night for the first time at a small reception for him and his wife.  For a couple of hours we all introduced ourselves with a little background information and were asked to speak of one thing we found to be a blessing in our church (Methodist).

When my turn came around, I spoke of the Baptist influence in my upbringing, then my move to a fantastic Presbyterian church in Richardson as an adult (Plug: Canyon Creek Presyterian Church), then to our current Methodist church.

To address the "blessing" part, I mentioned the theological diversity found in our congregation.  Were it not for this diversity, I might never have been exposed to more progressive Christian views that have been such a huge blessing in my life, mostly within the past year.

This exposure did not come without some pain.  A challenge of diversity is a tendency to seek like-minded people.  We feel secure when our beliefs are affirmed by others and we feel better about ourselves.  But when decisions need to be made by diverse groups, tensions can rise, people can begin to feel threatened, and it does not always proceed in a loving, compassionate, unified manner.  This is true in business, politics and other social venues, but I think even more so when when deeply held values and beliefs are involved.

The tension.  The tension can break us apart if we allow it.  But as I've told colleagues and employees in "less-than-optimal" business environments, "Wouldn't it be a shame to go through all this crap and learn nothing from it; be no better for it?"  In this case, I am far better for it.

If you've read my blog it'll certainly be of no surprise to you that my beliefs are transforming and moving in a more progressive direction.  Yet there is still this tension.  Actually, many tensions. A tendency to try to convince others of my new perspectives.  Although there is nothing wrong with sharing our faith in conversation with those who might be interested, I'm becoming less interested in convincing, and I hope, becoming more accepting that their faith tradition gives them peace.

Another tensions is that between the old and the new.  If I look back, I see where the old paradigm taught me many things about God.   But the questions and answers where different back then.  If the answer was "Yes, you've been saved", the question many years ago for me might have resembled "Will God save me from his wrath for all of my sins for all of eternity?"  You'll note from my previous blog posting that I no longer obsess about Atonement theology.  Now the question is more likely to resemble "Saved from what?  Saved for what?" and the answers: "From yourself, your selfishness, and ego" and "For relationship, compassion, and service".

I would assert that regardless of our literal - conservative or metaphorical - liberal theological bents, regardless of what we think we are saved from, we are all made for relationship with God, our neighbors, and service, in this life.

"If your heart is as my heart, take my hand." -- John Wesley

Blessing my friends.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Ignorant and Unteachables

What a Monday!  It started off rather typically: Stumbled into the home office, coffee, granola bar, caught-up on work email, two devotionals and some scripture reading, opened my Twitter client and began perusing the morning banter.  Then I came across the following tweet:


"OK, fellow largely Biblically illiterates, garden-variety progressives and ignorant and unteachables, I gots to get to work. Checkin' in l8r"

As I cleaned coffee from my monitor and keyboard, I couldn't help but to dwell on this post.  At first, I thought this was a self-effacing statement and tongue-in cheek remark toward various members of the group.  I later learned, this was an abbreviated list of things he had been called by people who, shall we say, have a different perspective on Christianity than his.  Either way, I enjoyed the post.

But I couldn't let it go.  Later, I went out for a run where I continued to chew on the statement.  If we consider it three different groups, whom belonged in each bucket and why?  Let's explore these categories a bit.


Garden-variety progressives: I guess the 'garden-variety' was meant to be condescending.  Whatever.


Biblical illiterates: This one is more interesting.  Since I happen to know that the author is a Commissioned Lay Pastor, I'm pretty sure he's more biblically learned than most.  However, one could assert that someone could read the Bible cover to cover, several times, and get very little from it, not be transformed by it, or worse yet, twist it into a grotesque self-serving justification for hate, judgment, crusades, etc.  Reading and quoting doesn't necessarily mean "literate", especially if one misses the author's intent entirely, doesn't understand context, or cannot effectively apply the lessons.  In fact, I've heard many pastors with Dr. in their title who've preached some pretty "interesting" stuff and don't seem to resemble Jesus at all.

Ignorant and unteachables:  Yep...this is the one that had me howling.  Who are these people...these ignorant and unteachables?

I suppose whom we place in this bucket depends on where we are ourselves.  Some Progressive Christians might classify literalist Evangelicals this way:  "They just can't move past the literal words and get the greater, metaphorical meaning present in the story!  They cannot accept that the Bible is neither a science book, a constitution, nor a history book, but a collection of stories written by flawed human beings about their struggle to understand God!"

Some literalist Evangelicals might classify the Progressives as unteachable: "They are reading stuff into the Holy Scripture that isn't there.  The Bible is the written Word of God.  If God said that Jonah was inside that fish, then Jonah was a real person and was inside that fish, and that is that!"

And the battle goes on.  But this blog post isn't really about the ever-present Progressive vs. Conservative theological debate.  What I really want to consider is this:

How do we treat all people, regardless of their degree of ignorance and teachability?
Let's start "at the margins".  Many people of faith (yes, including other faith traditions other than Christianity) have compassion for the mentally handicapped.  We don't expect them to necessarily accept our arguments and our growth expectations for them are adjusted according to their ability.  OK, that's an easy one.

At the other extreme, we expect highly intelligent people to test, reason, learn, grow, produce, contribute...the list goes on.  "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Most of us are in the middle on varying points of "otherness".  Some reason well, others feel their way along.  Some learn from trial and error (with lots of errors), some seem to pick-up things naturally and can deploy their new skills with ease.  But rare is the person who is good at everything.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  People are more than intellect.  We have unique physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual shapes.  We're complicated.

We also have baggage.  Events, traumas, successes, failures, all these things go into to who we are and how we engage in life.  If I overlay this understanding to the earlier discussion of Progressive vs. Literalist, how might I now attempt to view someone's perspective as to the nature of God?  Let me pick on fathers for moment:  If a girl had a traumatic childhood with an abusive father, how might she respond to the metaphor of "God, the Father"?  If a boy grew-up with an authoritarian father who judged everything he did as never good enough and lacking, perhaps even being punished for his shortcomings (in the father's eyes), how might he respond to the notion of "God the Father"?  Could he / she accept that God loves them, just the way they are, no matter what they ever have or have not done?  What might their view of love be?  Could they accept that they have worth just as they are, that they are God's unique creation that He called good?  Might they have some atonement baggage?

Some people will never see our point of view.  No amount of evidence, science, archeology, logic, apologetics, or arguments will convince them that their point of view might need at least some honing and perhaps a complete overhaul.  Does this make them unteachable?  Perhaps.  If we want to over-simplify and go tongue-in-cheek, "Some people are just stupid, angry, or both and are unteachable."  Perhaps a better way is this: "All people are complex, have issues, and may not be reachable by you."  If we all look at our circle of influence for opportunities to befriend, love, and serve, we'll reach some.  Others, perhaps not.

There's another option:  What if their belief system works for them and has become truly transformational?  I guess we'll know them by their fruit.  If they're still spewing hate, judgment, condemnation, and division, we'll know something about them.  If they seek the things that Jesus sought, like providing food, shelter, and healthcare to the least of these, speaking out against injustice, and walking in peace, even among oppressors, that tells a different story...a transformational story.

Jesus didn't hand-out IQ tests before serving those he encountered (or those he called into service).  He did, however, ask those who had the most to give much to those with the least.  He loved and served "the unloveable" of his day.  That's a tall order.  Can we love them anyway?  Even the unteachable?

Blessings my friends.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Atonement theology? Ta dah!

I've been obsessed with the notion of Atonement Theology lately.  I grew-up with this dogma and did my best to try to knit together a rational logic behind it.  It never quite felt right.  It's been difficult to drag this skeleton out of the closet to be dealt with, but it had to be done.

Although the image and text below may be a little irreverent (and hilarious), it illustrates my point:


(I can already feel your pulse quickening, your collar tightening, and your bottom squirming).
I've been reading a fantastic book lately, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian Mclaren.  Mclaren asserts that much of what conservative / evangelical faith preaches is actually derived from Greco-Roman mythology and the Six-Line Narrative:
A key question Brian asks regarding this narrative:

Does it contribute to a higher vision of God, a deeper engagement with Christ, a more profound experience of the Holy Spirit?  Does it motivate us to love God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy more wholeheartedly?
 
I'll let you read the book and consider his perspective deeper.  Mclaren goes deep into a discussion about concepts of God, heaven, and hell that were introduced by Greek and Roman influences, many of which were not present in Judaism.  Yet, we overlay these concepts and attempt to view the Bible and Jesus through this lens.  Further, most evangelicals have elevated the Bible to an infallible document, direct from the hand of God (or at least inspired by God) and worship it as it it were part of the Trinity.  Brian's perspective is that the Bible is a library of books, assembled by man, which describe the ongoing (and still evolving) struggles of man to understand and relate to God.  But I digress...I'll save this for another blog entry for sure.

Why is this discussion important?  Jesus spent much of his time trying to correct the ungodly perspective of the Pharisees, the "keepers of the law"; a law that was oppressive, manipulative, and self-serving to the leaders of the church; a law that did not effectively bring people into a personal relationship with God that was transforming.  Jesus came to save them, but was it really to be a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God?  Perhaps he came to save them from themselves, their oppressive, legalistic religious practices, all sorts of things that separate people from The Holy God, and the things God loves...you know...like loving other people (and His entire creation) through service?

Perhaps we need saving again, not from an angry, judgmental God, God the accountant who needs a blood sacrifice to balance the scales of sin, but perhaps from this Atonement theology that's all about the afterlife?  Perhaps he wants us to turn from that which separates us from Him and from one another?  Perhaps we are meant to be serving and loving one another TODAY?

If you must believe the story illustrated in the "Ta Dah" image above and it is truly transformational for you, calls you to meet people's needs in real ways today, then I certainly don't want to try to talk you out of your belief system; Go Forth and serve.  But if you struggle with the two narratives above and need to see God, Jesus, and Christianity through a different lens, I encourage you to buy Brian Mclaren's book and see how your faith unfolds; it continues to be truly transformational for me.

Blessings my friends.