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.