Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why I am not a Western Christian: Rome, Nietzsche, and Protestantism

I've written over the past month about my history with religious institutions and movements, and where all of that has led me. I think it's fair to say that at this point I am a mix of conflicted sentiments, beliefs, logical claims, and emotions for that matter. It's difficult for me to sort through all of these things when I'm trying to talk to others about these things, and it becomes even more difficult when they have strong claims. Most of the time when an atheist tells me they can't take Christianity seriously for almost any reason, I agree. Usually there is some kind of straw man involved, as usually when people oppose something, it is because they are hurt. For me there is no escape from that. However, I believe that it's beneficial to call out one straw man in particular, even while agreeing with the reactions I often hear in the same breath.

What this means is that when someone tells me that Christianity has been responsible for a lot of killing, hurting, and obscuring of the truth, and that there are a lot of ignorant people spouting Christianity, my response tends to be two-fold. First of all, and this is usually the only response I have time to give, I agree and can only say I'm sorry. My particular convictions lead me toward the term Christian, and so I am truly sorry for all of the people doing stupid things and forcing inane beliefs on others that use the same term. It aggravates me that I'm even associated with some of them, and it's hard to see the ones that are reasonable and good people when you've been hurt by the unreasonable ones taking cheap shots and being generally dishonorable and destructive.

Secondly, I believe that this portrayal of Christianity requires nuance, at the very least. I don't blame anyone for thinking that Christianity is only its' Western expression, because I live in the west and most of the Christianity that people have experienced has been western in nature. What this means is that the Christianity people react against is at once influenced by the modernist, Enlightenment era thought, and it is usually reacting to it. A good example of this is how the Catholic Church often makes claims and takes stances on contemporary issues like abortion, the political conflict surrounding homosexuality, contraceptives, and generally will makes its' voice known coming from their "faith centered" perspective. For the devout Catholics, their faith runs through every bit of their lives through various expressed opinions and actions, and their politics and social activism are greatly affected by their theology and spread through their church's power.

Another good example of Western Christianity is the "Moral Majority." I shudder to even bring this group up because of how offensive they are. To put it simply, this movement served to take Conservative Christianity into the political realm and bring about change by outlawing abortion in all cases, oppose any governmental acceptance of homosexuals, promote a "traditional" view of family life, and target non-Christians for conversion (Evangelical activism). The Moral Majority was nearly a theocratic movement, seeking to make the US Government Christian (or return it to its' Christian roots if you ask them).

It is on this second point I wish to focus. How can I call myself a Christian and be revolted and enraged by much of contemporary Christianity?

The movements mentioned are only examples of the way Christianity has evolved in the past few centuries. Indeed, this extends far beyond Evangelical Christian Conservatives and Roman Catholics. This sort of wide sweeping agenda has been happening for centuries. Rome has been this way since the schism from the East a millenium ago, and they've evolved ever since, constantly adapting to culture and being a voice on relevant issues, reasoning from their core theology and often speculating. The Pope's "Ex Cathedra" (infallible while speaking on matters of Doctrine) has assisted with their development. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century reacted to the abuses of Rome and demanded a reform of the church to do away with malpractice and corrupt theology. This eventually lead to another schism of the church, and many more to follow.

Protestantism came about around this time, and they distinguished themselves from Rome with doctrines like the Solas and several different fundamental summations of beliefs. In general, the way Protestantism has come to distinguish itself is by the reliance on the Bible as its' sole source of authority, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood (some would say papacy) of all believers. What this means is that a Protestant believes that the Bible is the authoritative source of truth, salvation and justification from Original Sin (I'll get to this in a minute) comes by faith in Christ alone, and the responsibility of all Christians to act in a governing manner in the church from their reading of Scripture.

Protestantism distinguished itself from Rome by moving away from the apostolic succession of the priesthood, probably because of a denial of Papal authority in all matters of doctrine. In other words, since the Bible was now seen as the ultimate source of authority as opposed to Rome's traditions and the authority of the pope, the Bible was theoretically the Pope's replacement. In addition, priests in a Protestant Church were now every member, with a preacher in a loose leadership role. Some protestant churches use deacons, and some use elders, but this is purely for loose ecclesiastical use, as opposed to Rome's authoritative priesthood and ultimately authoritative pope. The protestant is solely responsible for their own faith, and though "good works" are seen as beneficial, they are not seen as necessary in Protestantism. "You will know a tree by its' fruit" has come to mean that you will probably see some sign that a person is saved, but Protestantism sharply reacts against Rome's "works based" Salvation. The Protestant generally shuns the Sacraments as means of Grace, usually preferring to call them ordinances or specific things like the Lord's Supper/Communion or Baptism.

Protestantism kept to their Roman roots in some other ways, however. They kept the doctrine of Original Sin as taught by Augustine, which teaches that all of humanity sinned in Adam, and so we are all guilty and subject to judgment from birth. This has lead to Calvin's emphasis and eventual teaching of predestined Election of the saved, as well as to some odd teachings like the "Age of Accountability," which teaches that before someone can make the intellectual decision to be saved, they are essential saved by their own "innocence." In Rome's case, Original Sin lead to the dogma of Immaculate Conception, which taught that Mary was born free of Original Sin, which allowed for Christ's birth of Mary, a Virgin, without it. More on Original Sin in a moment.

In a way, Protestantism has also largely held onto the legalistic views of Rome by way of their Salvation narrative. In general, Salvation is seen as an intellectual acknowledgment of one's broken and unsaved state to God, and an acceptance of Christ's death as the payment for their sin. From that point, the Protestant is now legally justified in the sight of God, saved by faith alone. Some say they can fall away from this faith given an adequate rejection of Salvation, and some say they never can. Still others say that if the Christian's salvation is rejected, they were never saved in the first place, as the predestined will persevere to death and the end of time.

What I hope you are noticing in what I'm saying here is that Western Christianity has come to be what people generally think about when you say the word "Christian." When I started at college, I made a Facebook group called "Catholics are Christians too!" I made this group after noting the large amount of prejudice against Roman Catholics on my college campus. It was common for someone to state that Catholics believe in dead religion and works based salvation, usually in a tone like they're cursing or about to spit on the people. I created this group because I believed that Catholics had just as much of a claim to the term "Christian" as any Protestant. I bring this up because often people would ask me if I am Catholic. When I said no, they'd be confused, and ask if I was Protestant. Only two options were present for them, Catholic and Protestant, with Protestant usually meaning "Christian." Obviously, not all Protestants are this way. However, it is important to note that the movement of Protestantism itself started from dissatisfaction from Rome that lead to a schism and pointed reactions against Rome's theology.

Roman Catholicism originally schismed from the Eastern Orthodox Church around 1054 AD. They schismed over several matters of theology and practice, but the deciding factor of the schism, in addition to Rome's assertion of the Pope (Bishop of Rome) as the prime authority of the church, was the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed.

Filioque. "And the Son." This was a phrase added to the Nicene Creed to make it state that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, rather than simply the Father.

If you weren't raised in Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism you may be asking yourself "who cares?" I know I did for a long time. The East saw this as an addition that brought undue imbalance to the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is a Tri-une God composed of the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The balance of the Trinity was due to each person of the Trinity having specific roles as seen in history and due to all of them sharing the essence and nature of being God.

If you wonder why you never hear about the Holy Spirit unless you're talking to a pentecostal or someone involved in a charismatic movement, this would be the reason. The Protestant Church inherited the filioque from Rome (though they're generally not as rigorous in theology on this point, obviously), as well as the legalism inherent in the institution that can ultimately be traced to Original Sin.

"Original Sin" as a term, has been used throughout Christian history. It initially referred to the original catastrophic act that caused the brokenness of humanity. If we go back to Genesis, this act was disobeying God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This was largely caused by Lucifer's corruption and subsequent deception of Adam and Eve into committing this act, which destroyed their innocence and introduced Death into the world. Original Sin came to mean that all of humanity sinned in this act, and we genetically inherit the guilt. I'm going over this again because this is important.

Fast forward to Christ (most Protestants do), and we have a righting of this wrong. One can be wiped free of this curse by accepting the sacrifice which Christ took on himself on the cross, and be resurrected from death in the same way Christ was literally resurrected. Legally, we are justified in God's sight by the Father allowing Christ to bear the entire punishment of Original Sin (the Calvinist at this point would say the punishment for only the chosen Elects' original sin).

Salvation has come to be a "get out of hell" card. People often refer to this as "fire insurance."

No, I am not kidding.

So, to come back to my original point. I think Christianity needs nuance. I agree with Nietzsche's reaction to Christianity, and I agree with the atheist's objections. Indeed, God is dead in our culture, and we have killed him. The Western religions of Christianity have the common threads of being legalistic, reductionistic, impractical, and omnidirectional/contradictory in reasoning in political, theological, and philosophical areas. God kills God to satisfy God's wrath so we can all go to paradise in the clouds or a city paved with gold. All you have to do is believe.

I am not a Western Christian because I think there is far, far more to life than this, and that we cannot rely on myth and storytelling to give us a literal picture of the future or of reality. Salvation has to mean more than this, and Christ's story has to be accepted fully rather than a grand total of 4 days of it. The Bible did not come from a vacuum or float down from the clouds in all its' perfection, and a book cannot possibly be the ultimate source of truth or the ultimate authority on life. I do not believe in Original Sin as taught in Western Christianity because I do not think people are born guilty, and do not think that this esoteric "imputed sin" is passed down through any genetic means. I do not accept the legalism that's been taught to me by the west because of this, and I do not accept the imbalanced version of the trinity that I've also been taught, where the Holy Spirit is either elaborate magic or does not exist, and Christ has primacy over other aspects of God. The question here, however, is why do I believe these things? Who cares what I accept and don't accept? Why does what I believe matter at all, in comparison to the true reality of the universe, if there is one?

Well, that's a story for another day my friends. That day will be next week, or perhaps Friday if I can swing it. Be well, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Divergence: Transcending Bitterness, False Dichotomy, and Mystic Christianity

I've written so far about my religious experiences and some tentative conclusions from them. However, when speaking about religion, one cannot help but speak about everything else. It's the nature of the beast, and why I found it impossible to transcend calling myself religious without abandoning all of my beliefs. Though I've been willing to do that, I still think that what I have put my faith in is true, despite the absurdity surrounding it. We'll get to that later in this post.

So, let's start from the beginning. I've grown up inundated with conservative Evangelical Christianity. It's affected every part of my life, and I'm both damaged and wiser for that. Perhaps those things are one in the same. When I speak of conservative Evangelical Christianity, I speak of the Christianity that Nietzsche spoke against when he spoke of God being dead, and us having killed him. Through movement after movement, Christianity in the western world has fractured and created so many subgroups and become so fleshed out that it's fed back on itself. I haven't been to church beyond being obligated to go every once in a while for almost a decade now, despite my college's requirement that I attend in addition to the inundation of chapel every week (which I unashamedly say that I skirted around with every trick I could come up with). Christianity has become a system of indoctrination based around fear, but where could that fear come from? Why does the Roman Catholic Church feel the need to constantly announce its' stance on public issues? Why have Evangelicals tied themselves into multiple political movements (moral majority, pro-life, against legalizing gay marriage, pro-death penalty, pro-war). Why is it so confusing for someone to be called a politically liberal Christian in the south? Why do you get chain letters guilting you into forwarding them if you "love Jesus?"

Many will say that they aren't religious, they just love Jesus. I submit that this is impossible. When you even mention Jesus, you are making a religious claim. Even though he was arguably a historical figure, you're not just talking about that when say you "love Jesus." You're talking about the claim that he is divine, God in flesh, and that he is alive and well despite his historic death. You are claiming that you believe he resurrected from the dead and did the work of salvation (loaded term, by the way). Whether these claims are meant metaphorically or literally, you are still speaking using religious language. It is not escapable, and to say you aren't religious but then start teaching people about things from the Bible is even more of a contradiction, because the Bible, by nature, is a religious text.

Now, to get any further, we must do one of my favorite things.

Religion. A system of relating humanity to the spiritual world, sometimes through veneration of a religious figure(s). This can includes beliefs regarding metaphysics, morality, epistemology, history, and usually includes a metanarrative, or an explanation of all things by one single narrative structure.

Using this loose definition, we can conclude that the institutions created for the purpose of uniting or propagating religion are not religions themselves, but sometimes constitute new religions. Christianity is fascinating in this respect because of how many movements fall under its' wide umbrella. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Protestants with their Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Adventists, Non-Denominationals, Emergents, general Evangelicals, and hundreds of other subdenominations, Anglicans, and many other religious movements all claim to be Christian, because they in some way attempt to align with the teachings of Christ. The implications of this for each of them, however, create many different religious institutions, effectively. When people say they hate religion, they usually mean they hate religious institutions or movements. Unfortunately, when you make a religious claim publicly you are either part of a movement or creating one of your own, even if it's a movement of one.

So, growing up with my particular background in extremely conservative Evangelical Christianity, going to college was a refreshing and at once infuriating experience. I was faced with another religious institution with obvious agendas, and a lot of people with beliefs different from my own. Even after abandoning the traditions I had been brought up with, I still held their weight in my past, and I still came from that perspective, even if I was becoming farther removed from it every day. This lead to some of the most marvelous dissonance I've ever experienced. I could not stop myself from learning more, engaging more people, and thinking more, even when the authorities were screaming at me to stop. The interesting thing about this was how few of those authorities actually came to me personally and told me they were concerned. I can think of maybe twice where this happened, and both times I asked them what they were concerned about and we talked about it. Then, suddenly, they became confused as to why I was so dangerous.

So, if even a few people actually approached me and we talked and they ended up not thinking I was horrible, then why did that not end it? I imagine there are two reasons for this. First impressions, as they say, are the most important. The first impression I left at that school entered the gossip loop there, and quite a few people seemed to avoid me after we hung out for a few days, and a few of them even told me that they'd heard I didn't believe in the Trinity or something like that. I would then explain that I'd had some questions about it and had denied it at one point, but that was years ago. Once again, they were confused. Secondly, I think the authorities at my college were more interested in power and control than they were with understanding what is true, even about one person. One person is, after all, insignificant from this perspective. If they get run over and unfairly treated, it isn't their problem, even if they caused it.

This is why I am still skeptical of anyone making claims. They are usually only interested in power and control in one form or another.

We now have this dissonance of the inescapability of religion in light of my particular beliefs and the intolerable nature of all religious movements I've experienced due to people, in a nutshell, being disinterested in the truth and being bastards as much as possible about religion. The question then became, why? Furthermore, can religion escape its' abuses when it institutionalizes like this? If not, what is the point?

I've come much closer to an answer regarding the first question, and more of a functional answer regarding the last two.

Christianity in the western world has long been about fear. Indulgences were sold by the Catholic Church to get people out of hell (including yourself), sermons like "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God" were spoken and written, Evangelicals consistently ask people if they know what will happen when they die, and those are just a few examples. Hell, despite being very vaguely spoken about in the Bible (and having a variety of translation problems besides), has been one of the focal points of western Christianity. My experience with western Christianity suggests that they will soon call it a fundamental of their faith. The problem is, most of the imagery and theology behind hell comes from Dante's Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. The only concrete fleshing out of hell and eschatology (the study of the end of the age) is the book of Revelation, a book so steeped in political metaphor and vague narrative that it is at once prophetic and tells you almost nothing regarding the actual nature of things. Jesus spoke of hell using multiple metaphors, and the Old Testament refers merely to the grave. Yet somehow, a lot of Christianity has made this central. There was even a huge backlash from the recent book "Love Wins" by Rob Bell, which was about Hell and was strikingly similar and inspired by "The Great Divorce" by CS Lewis, a book that was recommended to me over and over when I was at college. The difference? Lewis wrote in pure metaphor, and Bell wrote in questions. Questions are what is threatening to this movement because the leaders of it are afraid of losing their power and of their own God.

Can religion escape its' abuses? Or, perhaps more appropriately, does the abuse of religious systems negate their use? For sure, to speak of Christianity or any religion regarding only the negatives is fallacy, for many positive things have happened in the name of Christianity and of many religions. People have been given hope, treated with respect, and accepted for who they are. However, for every one of these occurrences, there is at least one occurrence of the opposite happening because that person is of a different religion/race/sexual orientation/creed/preference than the group at large. Having been rejected myself, I naturally notice the abuses first. I am glad for this in hindsight, but I do understand that there are some that are going through that rejection that are still very angry, and there are some who've never experienced this and may take things for granted. However, the question here is: can Christianity escape its' abuses and still be a religious system not plagued with self-contradiction? Furthermore, when we're talking about something so vast and varied, is this question even helpful? If we cannot make an argument against organized religion itself, then we must speak to Christianity in all of its' forms. Evangelicalism? No, I feel that it cannot escape its' contradictions and abuses. However, given my feelings regarding religious presupposition and intuitive spirituality, I also cannot escape being a religious person. It would be absurd for me to say that I am not religious, but I believe in God and Christ and the movement of Christianity.

So, the choice is pretty simple, from where I'm standing. Do I embark on this journey all on my own, eschewing all traditions and structure and traditions, or do I continue my search for people that have questions and problems with authority and have tried to overcome misanthropy and bitterness to talk in a real sense about real things without being stepped on, power struggles, or the contradictory fear? Both are appealing. I hope one is possible.

Regardless of the path I take, I believe that for people, forgiveness is absolutely essential. This is because when we allow ourselves to become bitter over the abuses we undergo as a person, we will continually react to them. It is fine to be emotional, but it is another thing entirely to continually react to a thing without taking into account new experiences, learning about things, and learning how wrong we have been about some things as a result. It is one thing to reject Evangelicalism and say I do not believe in that vengeful, angry, abusive God. It is another thing entirely to be angry at people and allow that to become bitterness and simmer on it constantly. I effectively destroy myself, and they have accomplished their goal of polarizing me one way or the other. I affirm the false dichotomy while saying things like "I hate religion but love Jesus" and wildly emotionally reacting to all things Evangelical, usually while saying absurdly ignorant things. Can you tell I've done this before?

I've had to forgive my high school, my college, Evangelicalism, most of the fear-mongering and broken leaders I've interacted with, and Christianity itself just to be able to move on. This does not mean I've forgotten my past (as you've seen), it means I can make informed decisions and be willing to change my mind without needing to be afraid or angry or reactionary.

Religion itself is a problematic thing because of the institutions associated with it. But to be religious, you must interact with those institutions, even if you're rejected by all of them. My divergent path is hence a false dichotomy. There is no finding a religious institution that is balanced without finding oneself, and there is no finding oneself without interaction with others. Because religion is a historical, spiritual, social, and intuitive phenomenon, it is impossible to be religious without interacting with the religion you are associated with. Even if the reason you are associated with your religion is cultural or developmental, you must continue to actualize that reason, question it and be critical and grow, lest you simply accept a set of claims that come to mean nothing. May it never be.

Being spiritual is not enough for me. Being a liberal Christian taught me that what is important is not what happened, but what happens. Being conservative for all of the years before that taught me that I can have passion. Choosing to be a Mystic Christian, accepting of mystery and experiences beyond my normal perception, is teaching me intuition and its' value, as well as the limitations of language and logic and my own feelings. Though the dichotomy between finding a religious community and pursuing my own spirituality is false, it is still a tension because of the problems of perception, institution, and abuse. However, if there is one true apostolic church that I've been looking for, I will find it. My own way.

Thanks for reading so far. I have more to say, but that will come next week, and I think it will be less linear than ever.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Moving Beyond Good and Evil: College, Universal Truth, and my Rejection of Evangelicalism

If there is one time in my life so far that has been key for shaping the person I was into the person I am, it would have to be my time at college. I've talked to a lot of people about this, but I think this is the first time I've actually come to have some perspective on all of those happenings.

Disclaimer: I don't portray my college or most of the religion I grew up with very well. This is by no means intended to be defamatory, it is simply what happened. You have been warned. Don't take it personally if you're involved in any of this.

Before I went to college, I had become good friends with the person I met in the 10th grade of high school. I'd go so far as to call him a mentor, which is a little odd, since he was about my age. Regardless, after my foray into public college, I decided to get a Counseling degree and to go to a Christian school. My friend decided similarly, but he'd be going for a more pastoral/theological path. So we looked at schools together, and we both decided to go to one particular Bible college in northeast Georgia. We went to their visitors session and it seemed to be a good fit, considering that we had begun to explore differing religious thoughts. This school seemed to be a cross-denominational institution that allowed for people with questions and freely exploring thought. So we decided to go there.

My first year at this school showed me how wrong my initial preconceptions of the place were. I don't know how much of my initial belief came from being lied to by the institution and how much was me needing to believe I could go somewhere and figure out who I am and what I believe, but I quickly found out that questions and exploration of religious thought was scary to most of the people at this school. I suppose I can't blame them, since I also quickly found out that they were definitely a conservative Evangelical institution. More on that later in this post.

In the first few months at this school, my friend and I became involved in the Philosophy club/department, and he ended up changing his major to Philosophy, while I stuck with Counseling. In many ways though, I interacted with the philosophy section of my school more than the counseling/psychology section. I signed up and became active on a forum for several years, declared a minor in Philosophy, and most of the people that heard of me at the school assumed my major was Philosophy.

I say that people heard of me because one of the first things my friend and I participated in was a formal debate hosted by the Philosophy Club. I reference this a lot as one of the key events of my College experience, for very good reason. The topic was the inerrancy of the original autographs of the new testament, and the club hosted this topic because we did not believe in Biblical inerrancy. I would come to term myself liberal around this time due to my religious leanings, which was a dirty word at my college, as were other things that I'd find out about later. However, for now, a definition.

Inerrancy. The belief that a book, usually religious, is without error in some way. The way my college and some conservative Evangelicals mean this term is that every word (plenary verbal) of the Bible (biblical) is inspired by God and without error (inerrancy). This runs into some problems when we consider the contradictory accounts of the gospels and the differing tones in the collection of books that is now called the Bible, not to mention the fact that the Bible did not exist until well after the death of the Apostles in the first Century.

Plenary Verbal Biblical Inerrancy rests on some references in the New Testament to "all scripture" being "God breathed," which is taken to mean inspired and inerrant. We argued against this on the grounds that the original manuscripts were no longer in existence, the contradictory accounts of the gospels, our understanding of church history and the canonization of scripture's time frame, and the simple fact that it cannot be proven. We won a pyrrhic and meaningless victory. Perhaps it would have been better if we had lost. Being freshman at a college, you can imagine our nervousness at being up in front of a lot of people at the school, including professors and board members and students and various others associated with the school, and debating against upper-classmen on a topic that 99% of the room disagreed with us about. That said, we obviously did very well bringing forward our argument to win the debate. We won on the grounds that we called out the circularity of the positive side in their reasoning and on the presentation of our argument in a logical and consistent manner.

We then spoke to the moderator of the debate in front of the audience about why we really believe our position and the implications for it, and then were presented with the results. The judge presenting our win corrected the positive team's error in reasoning to show that we were wrong by asserting that they did not escape circularity by claiming apostolic authority, and then a week later in the school paper there was a two part article by two of the judges about why our position is wrong, sub-Christian, and borderline heretical.

If you know me, you know that this caused me to do the exact opposite of falling in line with what I was supposed to believe. This also gave me a reputation that would stick with me for the entirety of my time at the school, as my friend left Christianity and the school shortly after to explore other options in life and religion. I never did renounce Christianity, though I did come very close following these events.

What followed was me trying to figure out some things, being told to have faith by a lot of people (apparently meaning to believe something despite reason), and generally stumbling around reading things and having conversations with people. I made some very good friends in college, and there was the standard social drama that came along with having a group of friends and with the college you attend being much closer to a small Christian high school experience than an academic institution.

We were required to go to chapel every week, 3 times a week and to attend a small group every Thursday at my school. I did this begrudgingly, and often I was put on "chapel probation" due to not attending chapel enough, which I had to work off by doing chapel summaries (watching a video of the chapel message and summarizing it to turn in) and by adequately attending chapel the next semester of school. I attended a few small groups, and ended up attending a really excellent one with some great people in charge of it. We'd go through some material and talk about it, then most of the time end up talking about our lives and praying for each other. Regardless of religious conviction, I find this small group to be one of the best things that happened to me at that school, as it was often then only time during the week besides hanging out with friends that I felt like people cared.

The administration of my school changed several times as well, and this was connected to a movement in evangelical Christianity called the Emerging Church. This movement is hard to define, but I got into it for several years in college. Basically, the Emerging Church as a movement has no set theology, and is a movement that embraces Postmodern culture. It is friendly to questions (which I desperately needed at the time), and loosely embraced Christianity as a very good story. Postmodernism, at its' core, is skeptical of metanarratives, which are stories that explain life. The Emerging Church is part of this, but in general seeks conversational change and community minded thought as opposed to a strict theological adherence and foundational epistemology. Confused yet? So was everyone else.

What this practically meant at my school was that people became opposed to each other. Some would hold fast to "true Christianity" and be conservative Evangelicals and call the "postmodern" section of the students liberal and heretical. The Emerging Church people would respond by saying they are shutting down conversation and would ask for definition. What this meant for me is that I generally sided with the Emerging Church movement, and I came to become very sensitive to the repeated accusation directed at me of "heretic."

I was told by many students and professors that I was a "false teacher" and that I was destroying other peoples' faiths, and somehow I was never kicked out of the school. To this day, I still don't know why I wasn't, and I can only conclude that the administration change (which caused a lot of people to get fired) may have been part of it. When the administration changed to a more "postmodern friendly" group of people, we were all required to sign a community covenant based on accountability and conversation with others. A lot of punishment for breaking school rules was abolished (including having to do some work on campus for free for most offenses, including failing room check), and in general, either you were talking to someone in administration or were kicked out of the school if you were in trouble. A lot of people were kicked out for things like drinking or clear violations of school rules. One of my friends was kicked out for repeated violation of the chapel policy. Somehow, I was still not kicked out, though I was now very frequently on "chapel accountability."

As often happens with movements like this, the administration went the other way after the chaos of the initial change and chose to follow a more moderate path. This was after 3 years. My experience at this time was being called heretical, fighting with people over things, having a few experiences with dating, having some good friends I could talk to, being basically infamous at the school, having to do a lot of the "free work" policy, and generally chaos around my beliefs. My friend who'd left the school wanted me to leave Christianity to explore some other religious movements more in line with gnosticism (which is ironic since a lot of American Evangelicalism is basically gnostic in practice), my friends were every which way, and the administration basically considered me unsaved, as did most of the rest of the school that didn't know me personally. Having a reputation is annoying.

I did not even try to figure out anything from all of this chaos. It was simply impossible. I made my beliefs a personal thing and stopped talking to anyone but close friends about philosophy, theology or my religious beliefs. Of course, this was hard at a school where you're basically supposed to talk about these things constantly, so I started to simply say what I needed to say to get through my classes and chapel. I began repeating to myself that no one cares what I have to say when someone's theology pissed me off or made me want to say something, and the only place I regularly went to debate topics was the Philosophy board, which I was still a part of for a time. I did that until a Professor told everyone I didn't care about the Truth, then I left. The board was hacked and taken down a while after that, and a new board was put up on the school's website for Philosophy discussion. I joined that and made a few topics. Half of my posts were deleted and I was basically told to stop talking, so I left that as well.

As the reader, you may now have one of two opinions that I can think of. You may be asking yourself why I even put up with Christianity anymore at this point and why I didn't just leave the school and say to hell with it. Good question. You may also think I should've just fallen in line with people that have more experience than me, people that were older, the majority, and wonder why I didn't just conform and learn from people. Also a good question. In either case, I think the core question is "why did you put yourself through so much of this unreasonable insanity?" I asked myself this question frequently. Here is my answer.

When I first started having some difficulty with the religion I'd been brought up with, I considered leaving it. I thought it was a fable that a lot of people believe because of culture. However, something was really bothering me about that assertion. I'm not sure if it was because of the way I was brought up or some other feeling, but I did know a few things. My family and some really really close friends have always contrasted with my terrible experiences I've had with religious institutions. They were not uniform in belief by any means. My father is Reformed, my mother has a lot of the same thoughts I do about religion, my sister is in the process of asking her own brilliant set of questions, and a lot of the people I respect have religious beliefs entirely different from mine. Some are conservative Evangelicals, some are postmodern Emerging Church, some are atheists, some don't care about movements and have their own beliefs. The common thread is that they respect every person around them. Their beliefs and claims do not take away from that respect, they don't take cheap shots at people, they don't take advantage, they're self-aware and generally respectful and well-intentioned people.

I learned from this that my religious convictions needed to align with how I treat people. I believe very deeply that every person is worthy of basic respect. They are a person, and they should not be manipulated, taken advantage of, stepped on in any way, or disregarded. This does not mean you allow yourself to be taken advantage of, it means that you do the correct thing when no one else does.

I also read a book early on in my questioning called Velvet Elvis. I was ready to leave Christianity, and a friend recommended this book by Rob Bell (who a lot of people have called a heretic for reasons that have nothing to do with reality). This book basically took things like a triune God and an inspired set of writings from the ancient near-east and interacted with them with skepticism and facts from history. It also was my introduction to narrative theology, treating something like the Trinity as a story, which I still assert is the only way it makes any sense whatsoever.

From this I learned that theology and religion have no context whatsoever outside of history, narration, and intuition. I also concluded that science and religion are two languages talking about the same thing: the universe. This would stick with me as I have interacted with the differing branches of the church, differing religions than what I grew up with, and especially different philosophies. It was very freeing because I'd been taught growing up that religion is an intellectual decision, and I absolutely refuse to ever believe that again. It interacts with logic and philosophy, but that is by no means all of what it is.

Why did I stick it out? For two reasons. First of all, I had a sense that I was in the right place at the right time. Even when my days were mostly terrible, I knew I was doing some good just by creating dissonance where uniformity is demanded. Secondly, once that time was done I wanted to finish what I started, so I put my head down and plowed through it. I graduated and promptly cut the institution out of my life completely, with the exception of the friends I made there. I believe I've visited once since then, and I never plan to again. While I enjoyed seeing some friends, I was very obviously not welcome at the institution, and I will not willingly be back there ever again. Some things belong in the past, regardless of forgiveness. It took me a long time to forgive what was done to me, but being able to do so has allowed me to see how I grew during that time and why I am who I am after going through those experiences.

From all of the chaos of transitioning from high school through my college experience, I have learned that the truth is what all people should give their allegiance to. Regardless of my particular religious beliefs, I want to know what the truth is.

All of this said, about halfway through my time at college, I basically rejected Evangelical Christianity completely.

Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a movement originating in early fundamentalism that initially crossed denominational Protestant lines and came to stand for a certain set of focuses and practices. The "fundamentals" of Christianity are the inspiration/inerrancy of scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the belief in the Atonement for Sin by Christ's death, the bodily Resurrection of Christ, and the historical reality of Christ's miracles. They also emphasize the need for personal conversion (being "born again"), biblical authority, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the active sharing of the gospel, which can be summed up in all of the previous emphases and an intellectual decision to accept guilt for sin and Christ as the sacrifice for salvation.

Over time, Evangelicalism has become a cultural, political, and religious institution that wields a unique kind of power. I rejected Evangelicalism due to its' wielding of power for its' own ends and mainly due to rejecting its' particular theological emphases as reductionistic and imbalanced. What this means is that I came to see Evangelicalism as another movement of people looking to have control over others, using fear-based proselytization and theology with disturbing implications about God. The Evangelical God is much the same as the movement: conditional love, manipulative and capricious, and more concerned with a person's legal standing than the person itself.

The overriding reason I began to disassociate from Evangelicalism, however, is because of its' activism. I do not believe it is my place to convert any person to my faith (mainly because I'm still figuring it out). The Emerging Church redefined evangelism as conversation, and I found that I resonated with that a lot more at the time, mainly because I learn just as much from speaking with people that don't share my beliefs as they learn from me, especially when the conversation can be respectful.

So in a nutshell, Evangelicalism is a separationist movement that created its' own culture and set of values, being generally concerned with who is "in" and who is "out." Through my experience with this subculture, I began to see less and less of any real distinction between the "in" and the "out," and in many cases, I shared more values with those that the Evangelical would be attempting to evangelize with fear based tactics. Separationists are those who believe that they should stand apart from liberal Christians, who do not take theology or the Bible as literally. So obviously, I became one of the "out" in college.

Being an outsider does give one a unique perspective however. I held onto my faith through my own choice, though it was never the same after college. That, however, is a story for another day. Please note that I have a lot of friends that are Evangelicals, and even though I criticize the movement itself, I do not believe it is my place to pass judgment on the intentions of others.

Indeed, I can write about this with a critical mind only because I forgive the institutions and persons involved for the pain I went through. It is the past, but the past is something good to learn from. I'll continue my story with the rest of my college experience next week. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions or comments.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Beginning: Fear, Hell, and Deterministic Philosophy

Disclaimer: Writing about this section of my life has brought back a lot of memories and emotions. Indeed, I contemplated deleting this entire post and creating a summary of it for my upcoming college experiences post. However, I think this part of the story is beneficial, and I stand by it, despite being not proud of a lot of the person I was.

Like all stories, this one has a beginning. This is the closest thing my fragile memory can deliver to that beginning.

I was raised in Conservative Evangelical Christian subculture. I said the Sinner's Prayer at age 7 because I was afraid of burning in hell because of a sermon from the Fundamental Independent Baptist Church I went to at the time. For those not aware, the Sinner's Prayer is a fundamental admission of guilt to God and accepting of Salvation in a prayer. Some believe God hears no prayers of anyone until the Sinner's Prayer. My understanding of reality at that time was that I was probably going to die at any moment, and if I didn't say this prayer, I would suffer for eternity, and there would be no way to stop it.

I vaguely remember having a few thoughts after that experience, such as wondering why God would do such a thing, what made me such a terrible person, and wondering what hell was like and why it existed. I even had a dream about hell once. I thought I was in heaven, and then I discovered that this beautiful celestial (stereotypical) heaven was not what I thought it was and that I was actually in hell, at which point I was thrown into a void and ceased to exist.

The thoughts of a child are powerful, illogical, and often-times they shape who they are. For me though, this was only the beginning.

Besides this underlying fear, I don't remember a huge amount of my life before age 15. I remember having friends in elementary school, moving schools in the 7th grade, and then moving states from North Carolina to Georgia in the 9th grade. Note that all of these schools were Private Christian Institutions, and I'd moved from a more Fundamentalist institution to a standard Southern Baptist one in the 7th grade. I then went to a standard Evangelical high school. I figured I'd be the popular and happy person I was in my new school.

I was totally wrong. I could not have been more wrong. I spent the first week of high school being made fun of and made to feel like an outsider. I didn't dress correctly, I didn't fit in, most of the teachers were angry about one thing or another, and I generally came to believe I was scum and no one liked me. I came home after the first week crying saying I hated it, but for one reason or another I stuck it out. I had one good friend in the 9th grade (who is still one of my best friends to this day), and the rest were either acquaintances, tormentors, or didn't care that I existed. The only other exception to this is someone I met in the 10th grade who strongly influenced me, who I will get to in a moment.

We were required to go to Chapel every Wednesday at this school. One Wednesday after my 15th birthday a guest speaker came and gave a message about hell and encouraged fear. He called himself prophetic, and was accusatory and derogatory in every sense of the word. I was once again seized by fear, thinking my decision was not genuine enough when I was 7 years old, that I didn't understand enough and didn't know enough to really be saved. So he gave an altar call and I performed. I gave an emotional display and prayed to be saved. People were happy for me. He came back when I was in the 12th grade and gave the exact same message and I thought he was an emotionally manipulative jerk. But I digress.

Nothing really changed for me that first year. I hung out with my one friend a lot, and he eventually left the school, along with a lot of others. I made another friend in the 10th grade, and he challenged me over the next several years in every possible way. The rest of my high school experience was basically meaningless, as it was an endless attempt to deal with not fitting in. I became involved in a few music scenes, got very angry, and expressed that a lot by acting out, as a teenage boy who doesn't know his place is prone to do. My parents are incredible for putting up with me, especially the "I will listen to hate-filled angry music all the time and be a jerk to everyone" stage.

As you can imagine, with all of these circumstances and changes going on my theology and purely emotional religious convictions changed a good bit. I became Reformed and believed in 7 point Calvinism, having been inspired to do so by one of my teachers. For those who don't really understand what 7 point Calvinism, it is the TULIP anagram with two extra clarifications. Total Depravity - man is incapable of any moral or spiritual good and is completely broken. Unconditional Election - people are chosen by God according to His good pleasure to be part of the elect. Limited Atonement - Christ's sacrifice on the cross paid only for the elect's sins. Irresistible Grace - the elect will choose to be saved and cannot resist doing so. Perseverance of the Saints - once you are elect, you will persevere to the end and cannot possibly fall away. Double Predestination - God predestines all who are not elect for Hell, and they have no choice in the matter. Best of all Possible Worlds - God's absolute sovereignty over history is exercised to display his glory to the fullest, and he governs every detail to this end.

I believe the craziest moment of all of this was arguing in front of my class that babies go to hell if they die because of original sin, predestination, and their lack of saying the sinner's prayer. If you're not horrified by that, I can still feel plenty of horror over it for you. At the time, it made perfect sense because of God's sovereignty. I had a very deep problem with people in general at that time, so I did not care if anyone hated me for my beliefs or thought I was terrible, citing that "true Christians" are persecuted.

I was basically reformed until I graduated from high school. During this time, I'd had a falling out with the friend I met in the 10th grade, but we became friends again after I graduated. He had gotten into some things I could not agree with, and we kind of went opposite directions. However, once we began associating again, we started a Bible Study group about the fundamentals of Christian faith. Prooftexting the Bible, we talked about who God is and some of the core beliefs, seeking to educate people. I then went to my first college and discovered it was not what I wanted to do, and left after one semester.

At this point we restarted the Bible Study, but with an entirely different tone, one that I feel really changed my direction from where I had been religiously. I recall the exact moment of this change vividly, because my friend was the first person to ever tell me that the Bible is not inerrant.

As you can imagine, I argued with him immediately. My religious world not only had its' foundation kicked out from under it once I realized he was right, but everything else crashed down, got set on fire, and I was stuck in the middle trying to figure out what was going on. I was then even more angry and did a total 180 right before attending another Christian institution. Readers may be forced to ask at this I ever learn? The hard way, always. My college time is a whole other post, and I will talk about the shift my personal philosophy and religion took in that post as well.

So, to sum this up. For the first 19 years or so of my life, I was intensely afraid and often felt alone, angry, or both. The exceptions to this were my family (always) and the one really good friend I met when I first went to high school. This time was full of thinking about hell and God's wrath and sovereignty over all things. I went from one church to another, but essentially the core of my beliefs was centered around these things. I don't see it as a coincidence that I was Reformed in high school, as it was a method of not only rebelling, but also of trying to hold onto something solid (God's sovereignty) in a time when I didn't know what to do and felt powerless. In retrospect, it didn't help that much.

Upon initially drafting this post, I began to talk about why I disagree with Reformed Theology and Determinism. I don't find that to be a helpful direction to go at this point (if you would like me to talk about this, please say so in the comments). I didn't make the decision to be Reformed for any logical reason. I did so out of a need to rebel because I was afraid. This tone of fear in my life would continue until it was addressed, but what I find interesting is that my philosophy became one that made everyone powerless. Just as I was powerless to stop the injustice I faced on a daily basis, I decided everyone else is powerless too. I clung to the God of vengeance and anger and when I was treated unfairly, I believed that God would get revenge on them for it and that they also could not stop it. One might accurately observe at this point that my God was really myself, and I was plotting deterministic vengeance, using theology as my grounds.

Determinism. The view that choices, actions, and events are a natural and inevitable result of an initial cause. Theologically, God is the initial cause, and all choices and all of history are illusionary and destined from the beginning of time. Psychologically, a person is who they are due to their first 3-5 years of their life, and can be no one else.

In contrast to this view, I believe that a person is shaped continually by their view of truth, just as much as they shape it. Our actions are not determined by our initial experiences, but by our continual interaction with life and the choices we make in it. One could probably argue that my high school experience made a lot of sense in light of my initial experiences with religion, but I would hope that you the reader do not think this as you continue to read this series. That's your call though.

Regardless, my view of truth in high school made me a very angry person, and I imagine that while a lot of my problems were due to ignorance and the atmosphere I was surrounded with, I believe that I caused just as many of them with my divisive beliefs and my hateful attitude. When my beliefs came crashing down after high school, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. I was free from needing to justify myself to anyone, and I was able to move beyond the foundational philosophical framework of Conservative Evangelicalism and explore some other beliefs.

I would come back to my origins as I moved onto college, but suffice it to say, it was apparent to me at this point that I had learned more in spite of my experience with religion than through it. If only I had known what would come next...

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Prologue: The Groundwork of a Story

It is my intention to share with you, my readers, a bit of my life over the next few weeks. I have a few reasons for doing this.

I believe that Philosophy and who a person is are inescapably linked. We create from our experiences, and I think it's a good idea to be transparent to be a good writer. I have always intended to provoke thought on this blog, to have it be a place for me to be a Philosopher above all else.

A lot of people I've talked to tend to fall on two different sides of things. They are either atheistic or they are very religious. In the process of doing something as simple as check the weather for my area tonight for details on tornado warnings, I saw a debate about religion being started. On This is relevant to all.

Religious experience is a key part of who I am, but so is unyielding allegiance to the truth, whether that be scientific, philosophical, religious or any other method. I've never fallen into any camp very easily, and I like that about myself. I'd like to think that people are a lot more than just these belief systems too.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this is to help me figure out what's going on with my beliefs. To that end, I appreciate input and discussions conducted in a respectful manner. Please, feel free to respond to what you read here. I am at a crossroads in my beliefs at the moment, and this is one of the methods I choose to explore that crossroads and figure out what's going on.

To that end, here is my understanding of a few terms just so we're all on the same page.

Religion. There are a few kinds of religion, in my understanding. The modern common understanding of what religion is is an institution designed to communicate dogma and doctrine about cosmological, theological, and metaphysical truth. The religious institution I have most interacted has been the Protestant Christian Institution, stemming from the Roman Catholic Church and the early Christian movement being formed in the first several centuries by the early Church councils. I'll have more to say on this as I continue.

This definition is not what I mean when I say I am religious. Through my experiences and personal development I have come to reject and dissociate myself from the Protestant Church as an institution. This is not to say that I do not have a similar or the same faith as some within this movement/institution, but I do not fall within the bounds of this particular institution.

When I talk about being religious, what I mean is that my experiences have lead me to believe that there is something more than what my base senses tell me about the physical world. I am this way because of and in reaction to how I was raised, and through various explorations, still seek to understand what I feel about the universe. I believe I am not alone in feeling this way, and that the Protestant sensibility of "just reading the Bible" is inadequate to understanding this, as the thousands of contradictory denominations of protestantism show.

I also believe that religion, in some fashion, is relevant to any person, even if they are not religious in any way. This is due to it being so ingrained within culture and due to religion being about things that anyone can have a conversation about, whether they are all true or not.

Philosophy. Put simply, Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Philosophy is a currently dead discipline for seeking an often intellectual understanding of the nature of reality. I say it is dead because it has come to the end of itself in Nihilism, the system brought forth by the revolutionary Nietzsche as the logical progression of Modern thought. Philosophy is also dead in current Western culture, as it is viewed as merely an "academic" exercise with little practical uses.

Every person has a philosophy, even if it's something as simple as "have fun and live for the moment," or "Love, and do what you will." In this sense, philosophy is an approach to life, what some have called a worldview. When we think of it this way, philosophy's groundwork is a combination of morality and epistemology. Morality is the philosophy of what is good and bad, involving intention, action, and belief. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and its' origins.

Philosophy is part of how I am as well, for several reasons which should become apparent through these writings.

Science. I hesitate to offer definitions on areas that I am not extremely well versed in, but this is also relevant to what I have to say. Science is a method for understanding more about the universe by hypothesizing, testing and theorizing. Scientific theory is the groundwork for our empirical understanding of the universe. Some popular theories are the theory of gravity, atomic theory, string theory, thermodynamics, evolution, relativity, and cell theory. Science is rationalistic by nature, seeking an understandable explanation for observable phenomena.

This is relevant to what I am writing about because I do not believe that science is in opposition to religion at all. Obviously, there is history of these two "forces" being in conflict. The most easily illustrated example of this is Galileo's Copernican astronomical theory coming into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church's Aristotelian assertions. Obviously, Galileo turned out to be correct about this, despite being censored by the church.

The problem with Rome's approach to this matter is threefold, in my opinion. Firstly, they were treading on ground they did not need to tread on. One can be a scientist and be religious, but both should be sought with objectivity to the best of one's ability, subject to correction by what is real. Secondly, Rome sought to impose their will upon a person speaking truth to the best of their ability. They did this not with contradicting evidence, but with imperative dogma. Science is a different realm than religion in this sense, though in the West that fact is unclear at best. Lastly, Rome lacked belief in the progress of understanding of the universe. This is problematic because the Church by its' nature is supposed to be concerned with truth.

It is important to note that I am not attempting to attack the Roman Catholic Church here, but facts are facts. I do not believe science, religion, and philosophy create anything more than a delightfully dissonant tension when brought together because they are all concerned with one thing. Ideally, all of these forces and the people involved with them seek truth.

Mysticism. This last definition is probably the most relevant to where I am currently. Mysticism is awareness and experience of states of consciousness beyond normal human perception. More than the religious are fascinated by this, which is why people enjoy horror stories and movies, and certain paranormal fiction. Some argue that a "spiritual" sense of things comes from our instincts that we are still aware of, and some argue that it is evidence of another reality. Obviously, no one's going to win this argument, since we are discussing something without scientific proof at this point.

Mysticism, I believe, is a way of embracing mystery. One need not have special esoteric knowledge or be initiated into certain rites in order to be a mystic. In fact, if we are to posit that mystical experience is experiencing another level of reality, then this necessarily means that peoples' experiences are not disconnected, but merely aspects of a singular thing.

Mysticism is also one of the scariest things to write about, and I do so humbly, recognizing that a lot of people will probably think I've lost it. Perhaps they are correct. More on this later. For now, this all leads to one conclusion.

I believe in God. The reasoning for this can be seen above. I think that religion, philosophy, science, and mysticism all add up to there being something more, a personality behind and within the universe. Please understand that I have never made an argument for the existence of God, as I think any such argument is merely a logical progression from an initial presupposition. This is merely my reasoning and intuition at work.

Faith. Faith is a process by which one's experience points in a direction, and you move there with all of the tools at your disposal. Faith is not evidence in the scientific understanding of the word, it is much closer to hope. This is the process I have gone through, and am still going through in life with regards to many many things.

I have been told to "just have faith" when asking questions about religion, as if my questions betrayed my lack thereof. This is a serious misunderstanding of faith, similar to the understanding that says atheists have more faith than the religious. What is being spoken about here is a presupposition. When we frame statements like "just have faith" or "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist" in this light, we come upon a discovery that these are in actuality just condescending statements.

"Just have [my] presuppositions."

"I don't have enough [of their] presuppositions to be an atheist."

I would like to take this opportunity to distance myself as far as possible from this, as any person has a right to their own presuppositions and thoughts about reality. I will say no more about this, lest I begin to truly rant.

At this point, I've made several assertions and defined several things, as well as given several opinions and probably showed some of my irritation and bitterness, and hopefully some of my drive to move forward. I now wish to look back at some of the ways I've been influenced by institutions, people, and movements. Feedback is welcome. I'll have another update for you next week, if not sooner.