Sunday, June 27, 2010

Letting Go

Recently, I've been feeling stuck. I began this endeavor by dismantling the religion I inherited, discarding the parts that were inconsistent, or flew in the face of my experience, my relationships, or my reason. This left the remains of my inherited theology on the floor in pieces, largely because that worldview was very monolithic - it came as a package, questioned either as whole or not at all (as always, I've got another blog post about that). What I've picked up so far is, in a word, love.

Love for others, a respect for the world we live in, an obligation to care for those who need it, a mandate to put others before yourself. All of this comprises a huge part of what Jesus had to say while he was on this earth. But when I try to take this and set it up as my theology and continue as a Christian, I run into a problem.

Namely that being a Christian, at least to pretty much everyone who cares whether I call myself a Christian, isn't about that. At least, that's what it appears to me. Don't get me wrong - it's a very important part of being Christian. It's what you do as a Christian. It's what Christ calls us to do, what God demands of us. I've got that part down.

But it's not what determines your status as a Christian. What makes you a Christian (where I come from, anyway) is having a ticket to heaven. Because you can very well do all of those things I mentioned and not believe in God - I know, because that's functionally what I'm doing. So what makes me think I am a Christian?

I don't know. As I try to put together any coherent vision of salvation, it crumbles when I realize, for instance, that I don't really believe in Hell. And it's not helped by the fact that to this day, I still have no conception of what it really means to "believe in God" or "accept Jesus" or even "pray". I know what all of that looks like from the outside, and I know how to "do" it. But there's no soul to it - no meaning, no actual understanding. It's like a life-size model car, that by all appearances is just like all the other cars, but has no engine, no drivetrain, nothing that makes a car a car. A fantastic illustration of this is the cargo cults left behind by World War II.

The upshot of this is that what tenets of theology, what faith that I do have, if you can call it faith, are things that are supposed to be the result, but I don't have any of the motivations or underlying beliefs that are supposed to produce that result. I have built motivations and support for that result, independent of faith, divinity, God, or religion, on a very humanist basic conception of common human dignity. So when I go to try to figure out what to do with God, it's all just theology and salvation, and I keep running into things and people that tell me I'm wrong, I can't have arrived at this conclusion the way I did, my motivations are invalid, I just don't understand. They say that because of that lack of understanding, my wrong motivations, I don't see that homosexuality is a sin, people like me are going to Hell because I didn't go about it the right way, I can't just ignore that, I'm veering off of the highway of Christianity and getting lost in the woods, I don't love Jesus, I'm losing my faith, that's a slippery slope, and by the way evolution smells funny.

The problem is, for those kinds of purposes, I don't claim to be a Christian. In reality, I never really have been, and I've come to terms with that. I can't veer out of what I'm not in. And trying to jump into that kind of (part of?) Christianity is exactly where I don't want to go, because I've been there, and it blew up in my face. But every time I try to approach God or spirituality, all of that flares up again, because it's the only way I know how to try to deal with God. And it's all hollow, and has no significance or meaning to me, and again, much of it flies up against what I do know and believe, and I can't put together a coherent theology, because I do too many things "wrong". It's a problem.

I've talked to my girlfriend about this, as she has a much different relationship with God - one that is grown out of herself, her own experiences and beliefs, and not encumbered by all of the trappings that I run into. Her advice was basically to decide what you're going to do - find some way to figure out how God fits into this, or strike out as a secular moral humanist - and do it. If I'm going include God, do just that - and eschew the rest of it.

And as I sit here, with all of the text and processing above, that sounds like a very good option. So I'm going to try it. Bascially, saying "God, this love stuff? I'm trackin'. Love my neighbors? Care for the least of these? All of the beatitudes? I can get on board with that. The rest of this mangled wreck that is my dismantled religion, from which I've salvaged those precious few tenets? Not so much, and I don't care. It's behind me now, and I'm starting over with nothing but love."

That sounds good. Am I personally capable of doing that? Maybe so. Am I allowed to do that? Frankly, I don't really care. It's a struggle as much with my own internalized religion as it is with any external opinions or forces. And I'm fairly confident that if I am able to do it, it will only be if I refuse to be held to that scaffolded religion that I came out of, refuse to be questioned by it, and stop trying to reconcile it. That may (and probably does) come across as arrogant, dismissive, wrong, horrible, even sinful and blasphemous. But that's not my intention. I simply don't see any other way to move forward, because the more I look at it, the more I realize that what I'm doing isn't working, and I don't see a way to make it work.

I think I'm to the point where I simply can't fit the pieces of my former worldview back together, because it's broken, it's missing huge portions, and it was never intended to be taken as anything but a whole anyway. I have to, as David Bazan so eloquently put it, "let go of what I know and honor what exists." In fact, that song (Bearing Witness) keeps getting more accurate in describing what I'm dealing with that I'm just going to paste the lyrics in here, to finish out this post.

I clung to miracles I have not seen
From ancient autographs I can not read
And though I've repented I'm still tempted I admit
But it's not what bearing witness is

Too full of prophecy and fear to see
The revelation right in front of me
So sick and tired of trying to make the pieces fit
Because it's not what bearing witness is

When the gap between
What I hoped would be
And what is makes me weep for my kids
I take a cleansing breath and make a positive confession
But is that what bearing witness is

Though it may alienate your family
And blur the lines of your identity
Let go of what you know and honor what exists
Son, that's what bearing witness is
Daughter, that's what bearing witness is

Listen to it, it's good stuff, and pretty much sums it up better than I ever could.

Pre-emptive reponse note:I know there are those who will read this and end up with the reaction that I am falling away from the faith, I'm giving up, I'm being pulled in by the deception of the world or Satan or Seattle or gnosticism. For the first couple, I can say that I'm not. This is the only way I can see forward, and trying to put pieces together that are horribly broken and were never meant to fit without the whole anyway is futile. To the last point? If you want to think that, you can. You could be right. And if you are, and if God really cares enough about all of the periphery and structure that I'm putting behind me, you can trust that he'll confront me with it eventually. But pointing out where I'm stepping outside the bounds of Christianity, or where the Bible says I'm wrong, simply isn't going to be helpful or useful. Because it's me and love, trying to find this God that everyone keeps talking about, and that's it.

I do plan to be reading the Bible on the way, but being very aware that I've been trained well in how to read the Bible "right," and am aware of how that colors, frames, and distorts what God is actually trying to say. One thing I have learned is that Biblical literalism, and many understandings of inerrancy, get in the way of understanding what the Bible actually is trying to say, and I intend to read it with that in mind.

While I was typing this post, TweetDeck popped up Roger Ebert's latest tweet: "If a good man is refused heaven and a bad one let in because of a technicality in church law, that doesn't speak well of God." Appropriate.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Germany, Capitalism, Immigration, Sodom, and our "Christian Nation"

I've long been aware that the reason Sodom was in such trouble with God had little do to with their homosexual relations and a lot to do with their vicious inhospitality, but the other day, I came across a good summary of scripture, Jewish writings, and historical documents that bear that out. I posted it on my tumblr and Facebook, the latter of which resulted in the following question:

"Why the cheap shot at Arizonans? Especially given the fact that the controversial law is essentially equivalent to a federal law already on the books?"

And I had to admit, the cheap shot at Arizona was somewhat unfair. I was going to add a disclaimer that I'm still a keeping a careful eye on the Arizona law, and don't condemn it as strongly as many do, which is true, and which I did.

And to answer the question, I wrote this blog post. Because I want to be clear, and the issue at hand is much bigger than a law that Arizona passed. In fact, I would be glad to generalize my criticism to the country in general, and have amended my Tumblr post accordingly. So, my answer:

I was referring not solely to the new law, but to the general attitude it belies and embodies: protecting our country's precious and supposedly self-earned resources from invaders from neighboring nation - the assumption that what we have earned is solely our own, and we have no obligation to share it with others or care for the stranger, because we earned all that we have.

As Josephus wrote:

"They no more remembered the benefits that they had received from [God], hated foreigners and declined all intercourse with others"
And the rabbi at the bottom:
"The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honour of their Owner by not distributing food to the wayfarer and stranger, but they even fenced in all the trees on top above their fruit so that so that they should not be seized; not even by the bird of heaven"

We, neither as a country nor as the state of Arizona, have obviously not quite gone to this extreme. But Sodom is a cautionary extreme - a parable of sorts - that cautions against the rugged and jealous individualism and entitlement that was exemplified, and which is prevalent in modern America to a great extent.

In my opinion, if we are to be a "Christian nation," we cannot stand for this conception that what we earn is our own, that we deserve all that we have, firstly because it is patently false, on an individual and national level, and secondly because Scripture strongly condemns it.

That doesn't necessarily make for good business, and it doesn't work well if you run a nation that prides itself in its power, independence, and economic status, but that doesn't mean Scripture is wrong.

I believe that Christians should be intensely focused on caring for the poor, sick, and needy, with less concern for yourself than for your neighbor. You don't have to believe that we need to do this as a nation, but I don't see how you can call it a Christian nation if you don't.

I recently came across an article about Germany's capitalism, which I don't know anything about besides this article, but from what I read seems more in line with being a Christian nation that practices capitalism than our dear old US of A. They have an extensive social safety net, much more so than the US. And it's expensive, but that's an expense that Germany is willing to bear.

The conservative concern with big government, overspending, and general ineptitude is a valid one, and one that I don't dismiss. But personally, I would prefer to have a country that overspends and is inefficient, but has an effective safety net for our citizens (as a start) and welcomes immigrants as those see how our country treats its citizens and want to join it. This is a better end goal, I believe, than one that is fiscally sound and has all its books balanced, but leaves people to fend for themselves, asserting that they should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, regardless of their family or environment, and looks upon immigrants as a drain on our economy that we deal with by making them jump through a long process of hoops, and then hunts down the ones that fail to jump through all the hoops.

I realize that there are many immigrants that are here as drug mules and part of the narcotics trade, and those that are violent offenders. But I believe that those issues should be dealt with by dealing with those issues - not by cracking down on all immigrants, regardless of their involvement with the drug trade or violent tendencies, who didn't manage to make it through the immigration process. I don't have any personal experience with it, but the accounts that I've seen and the huge berth of attorneys who specialize solely in immigration issues testify to a long, arduous, and overcomplicated system that is broken in many ways.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A defense of social constructivism

I recently wrote an essay for one of my classes, and this paragraph turned out particularly well, something that even my professor pointed out, so I thought I would post it here, since it's very relevant to my struggles with faith and morality, as I find myself functionally being more of a moral humanist than anything else.

The idea that morality is built up from society, tradition, and experience of humanity over time seems much more appropriate than an absolute but obfuscated rulebook being handed down as the foundation of morality. I don't see why there is implicit authority in imposing a morality from a religion, whose particular conception of morality tends to change over time as the rest of culture and humanity change, despite supposedly being handed as absolute from on high. If God were a being that interacted with the world in direct, clear, and universally recognizable ways, there would be a good reason for religion to have a special claim on morality. But in this world, there is at best indirect, abstract, uncertain interaction between the divine and humanity. So to the questions often posed to those who assert morality without God — "By what authority do you enforce human dignity? Who gives you the right to say that I have to respect the dignity of my fellow humans?" — I reply that dignity is endowed simply by being human and sharing residence of this world, and I don't believe that pointing at tradition and religion endows Chrisitans with any special authority on the issue, when I have no basis for attributing any authority to a particular understanding of God and, most importantly, don't believe such an authority is necessary to give humans humanity.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The audacity of the homosexual lifestyle

Recently, one of my friends posted a link to an an article about a fairly typical Christian response to the growing prevalence of homosexuality in our culture, especially television, which is seen as an assault on good Christian heternormativity. When posted on Facebook, my friends were surprised by it. I was not. In fact, when I heard that there were openly gay characters on Glee that were being portrayed as (of all things) normal, the first thing I thought of was of the condemnation that Christians would undoubtedly heap upon it. This, in long, is, as best as I can tell from years of observation, why:

If you know that the gays are not only openly and boldly sinning (or at least misguided, see: Glee), but doing their best to convince, or even worse subtly suggest (again, see: Glee) to poor children suffering from same-sex attraction that their feelings are not evil, sinful, and unhealthy, as God and you well know (and as God lays out in thousands of verses...oh wait, that's loving your fellow humans and caring for the poor).

These gays, and their evil depraved liberal compatriots are trying to push onto their young, impressionable minds that it's not only okay, but perhaps even something to be celebrated and embraced. They're trying to take this depravity and ickiness and turn it into something...acceptable. And you can't have that, because then these children might go as far as to not believe that they are depraved and sinful, and refuse to go to the psychological manhandling that is ex-gay camp, and turn out to be normal, healthy, well-adjusted homosexuals. And if too many kids end up doing that, instead of being repressed, shamed, and pushed to the margins of society, then what will happen to the examples to point to to prove your point?

What of those who have destroyed families by coming to terms with their repressed sexuality halfway through a false marriage? What of the youth who are having sex without guidelines, because they are already completely outside of their rigid Christian morality anyway? We can't have all these Neil Patrick Harrises prancing around. If everyone ends up appearing normal by all appearances, and even good, even decent faithful Christian God-fearing homosexuals, who will you point to to demonstrate the depravity? How will you preserve the holy heteronormativity?

What examples will you use to paint these individuals as outside of God's ideal with a wide brush, like singles, and women, and blacks? Or not the last one any more...Christianity has figured that one out. Get with the program. And women are mostly okay these days, as long as they don't get to heady about it, and depending on who you ask.

You can't.

And that's the problem.

It may just be that I have spent too much time trying to deny to myself that these viewpoints exist and are widespread, only to be proved wrong, time and time again. But I was not surprised by this. Not in the least. Dismayed? Re-disappointed? Annoyed? Yes. But not surprised.

And I know many people who fall within my wide caricature here, including my own family (hi, Dad!) and friends. And I am well aware that not every Christian who is against homosexuality believes all of this. I know that I am myself painting a wide brush, and being overly general and vindictive. Which is because all of this sounds pretty ridiculous to me and you, but if you insert at the base of it a solid, sincere, God-fearing, honest-to-goodness conviction that homosexuality is evil, not God's intention, a perversion of humanity by the world, and all of this is just the devil, speaking to me, the producers of Glee, directly or indirectly by the liberal establishment, the media, and shows like Glee, most of it makes sense. And I almost understand that, in my rational mind. But the way I put it , it sounds ugly and crazy, because if you don't have that conviction, it is ugly. Ugly, petty, and wrong.

I don't have that conviction.

And I don't think there is anything - not in the Bible, not in rhetoric, not in my family, not in pity or prayer - that will change that.

The wonderful (and heck, the so-so, if there are any) gay people that I know and love, who have struggled with Christianity, struggled with their families, their community, and themsevles, and ultimately concluded that there is nothing broken within them, that it is the world and their religion that is broken, are a testimony. A frighteningly unassailable testimony. And it'll take more than fearmongering and prooftexting to change that.

Many of those (my father) who I think of most when I go off like this are wonderful people. Sincere, God-fearing, loving, beautiful people. And they don't necessarily campaign against homosexuality. My parents, and 67% of my home county, voted against it. And flinch at, and probably comment on, the pervasive homosexuality (and therefore immorality) in television, the media, and the world. The motivation for their beliefs and actions are rooted in a deep love for, conviction from, and belief in God. And to them, the above is biased and inflammatory, but under all the rhetoric, necessary and true. I think. Because you, I, Seattle, liberals, are decieved by this culture, by shows like Glee, by the world, by Satan himself, perhaps. God is looking down on us, shaking his head sadly, because we are being decieved by moral relativism, and we don't even know it.

Much like, to me, the religious right is holding to "tradition" when it needs to be reconsidered. Subscribing to rules when it is justice and people that need to be seen and considered. And being tricked into holding to lines and pillars of tradition, because they are safer and easier than progress. And God is looking down on them, shaking his head sadly, because they are being decieved into excluding and casting out his beloved, and they don't even know it.

That's the world I live in. It's messy, the lines I've painted are anything but firm or entirely fair, and I don't know what to do with it all the time.

So this?

This did not surprise me.