Friday, December 26, 2008

So continuing on... that skepticism, that unwillingness to accept answers that are a bit too easy, is where I've been for the past several months. It's an odd sort of no man's land. I think of it as being in abeyance (I love that word). I have, on the one hand, a set of experiences with spirituality that I can't ignore. I have a number of ideas and opinions, some of which line up with a traditional religious system and some of which don't, that I use to explain those experiences to myself. But sometimes when I hear someone express their own opinions on these topics (as Young does in The Shack), I realize how silly it is to claim with any degree of authority at all that I know what's going on out there in the universe.

And it's part of my problem with The Shack, to be honest. Where does he get the nerve to speak for God? Isn't that really what he's doing, by imagining how God would respond to Mack's questions? How does he have that chutzpah? It partly makes me angry that he would even try; but it also makes me a bit envious. Last year, in my nano novel, my original plan was that the main character, a young woman in her twenties, would have extremely vivid dreams about being a follower of Jesus during his three years of ministry on earth. The narrative would alternate between her normal, everyday life and the dreams that she was having every night. But it completely stalled out because I couldn't do exactly what Young does-- I couldn't speak for Jesus. I could imagine the situation and the plot outline and where I thought it was going, but when it came right down to writing an encounter between the main character and Jesus, I couldn't do it. So whatever chutzpah it takes to do this, I don't have it. And maybe don't want to have it.

and round and round on the spiral of spiritual growth we go.... and I find myself back again at the place where I realize that in honoring one side of my experience (the skepticism and cynicism), I've moved too far toward that pole and neglected the spiritual side. And for that reminder, I am grateful to Mr. Young, as irritating as I found this book at times.

I'm not at all sure that these three posts say what I was trying to say. Usually I spend quite a bit of time polishing them up before I am ready to leave them alone. but it won't happen this time since we're leaving to go out of town in the morning and I'm about to fall asleep at the keyboard here. So if anybody reads them between now and the time when I get back and have time to edit them, my apologies for murkiness.

off to frolic in the sun (I hope)
So... although this is a continuation of the previous post, none of this is really in The Shack.  It's just what I've been thinking about since I read it.  The story addresses the classic conundrum of faith, which can be phrased in any number of ways that we've all heard.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  how can a good and loving God allow evil to exist?  There are a number of different ways to say it.  And there are plenty of proposed answers out there.  Books and books have been written on this topic.  Some of the most remarkable and compelling writing out there-- from the dawn of recorded thought practically-- comes out of human beings' attempt to answer questions like these.  

But of course no one really knows.  The Shack takes a very similar tack to the answers I was raised with:  God's love for us is most strongly expressed through God's commitment to allowing us to exercise our free will, our ability to choose to act in whatever way we want.  True love would never force us into acting or believing a certain way (the argument goes).  So, God cannot intervene to protect us from harm without infringing on our (or someone else's) free will; therefore, God lets us screw up.  It's a creative solution, with enough flexibility and complexity to allow for any situation in which people are hurting people.  And it has the benefit, for Christians, of being grounded in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.  There isn't any direct reference to free will in the Bible, but it is implied right from the start, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden-- whether you read it literally or metaphorically.  God didn't have to allow them access to the forbidden fruit, but God allowed them to choose.  God shows his/her love for creation not by preventing evil from happening, but by redeeming the evil that we've participated in through the act of Jesus on the cross.  I think most of my readers are familiar enough with this that I can get away with that shorthand version of explaining something that is actual a very beautiful and complex theology.

But one of the main problems with this beautiful bit of theology is that it only works when you are inside the belief system.  It takes the raw material of our experience of bad things happening, and the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and comes up with a solution that works.  But if you're not inside the belief system, this set of beliefs looks remarkably like a smoke screen that allows us to continue to believe in God when in fact God may not exist at all.  We've come up with a way to explain away God's lack of action to prevent evil, but wouldn't it be just as easy to look at the evidence before us and come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as God?  don't you have to at least allow for the possibility that the emperor isn't wearing any new clothes at all?

I've heard it said, by yet another creative theologian, that it is part of God's nature not to act in any way that would force humans to believe in him (or her, although that seems slightly unnecessary here since this type of belief usually goes along with seeing God as Father).  In other words, God will never act in such a way as to unequivocally prove that God exists, because doing so would force us to believe in him (/her), and that would be an infringement of our free will.  Another creative explanation, which may be true.  But it also might not. 

As an aside and an excuse and an apology, I'll just say here that this isn't turning out to be a linear train of thought, I'm just typing what I've been thinking.  it may not make much sense.

I was not encouraged to ask these kinds of questions when I was growing up, and I don't have the kind of personality that would have forced the issue by persisting in asking them.  I'd much rather get along, smooth things over, and keep everybody happy.  I was more than willing to accept pat answers and go along for the ride.  The problems didn't arrive until many years later when I was deep, deep into a particular religious viewpoint and it no longer explained the things that I wanted explained.  So I am left at this point in my life with a deep suspicion of (and resentment of) ideas and arguments that want me to shut up and stop asking questions.   And that's often how these arguments feel to me.  

have to run.  to be continued.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Shack

The Shack is a novel by William P. Young that tells the story of a heartbroken father's attempt to come to terms with the murder of his young daughter.  It is also a Christian morality tale.  Mack, the father, receives a handwritten note from "Papa" inviting him to go back to the shack in the woods where his daughter was murdered.  When he gets there, he has an encounter with three Beings who are, well....  God.  A number of interesting conversations take place among the four of them, and Mack returns to his normal life a changed man.  

It's an interesting book.  It brought up for me many of the same visceral reactions I had to Blue Like Jazz, which I reviewed awhile ago.  But many people whom I care very much about have been moved by The Shack, and the person who recommended that I read it is very dear to me.  So I am trying not to see it through the eyes of my cynicism.  It would be easy to rip it apart.  So easy.  But on the other hand, there is a great deal of wisdom in his re-imagining of God, and I don't want to dismiss it lightly.  

There were a number of books published in the eighties, or maybe early nineties, where a Christian author set up a hypothetical debate between various different famous Christian and secular figures, mostly historical.  The historical figures would debate an issue, and of course, the Christian character always ended up trouncing the secular character.  They were entirely irritating to read, because of course it is easy to win an argument when you are setting it up, putting words into the mouths of the people you disagree with, and then skewering them.  I can win an argument like that, too.   But they were very popular among a certain crowd.

The Shack reminded me of this a bit.  It is less irritating than they were, because it is clearly fiction.  Within the story, the author does his best to set it up as being a factual occurrence, but it is marketed as fiction, and labeled as fiction.  No one is trying to say that Mack's weekend at the shack really happened.  And it's a good thing, because that's the only way the story works:  as an author's imagining of what it would be like to be able to confront God with your deepest pain, your most difficult questions.  And then to imagine how God would respond.  Young's vision is compelling in many ways.  He points out, as does the author of the book of Job and many others since, that God is far more vast than our tiny human brains can comprehend, and that what seems painful and difficult to us may be part of something larger that is beyond our comprehension.  But he does it in the context of a story that makes it particularly accessible to someone who has similar questions.  I imagine there are a lot of people who have found a great deal of healing through reading this book.

But the fact remains that of all the multitudes of human beings who have had their hearts broken, not a single one has received a handwritten note from God inviting them to a weekend of direct interaction with the Almighty, much as they might wish, pray and even beg for the opportunity.  And although there's little in the book that I flat out disagree with (since it's fiction, after all-- it's hard to disagree when all the author is saying is "This is what I imagine it would be like to talk directly to God"), there's a great deal that he seems to feel that he has "proven" through this story, when actually he hasn't proven anything at all.  He's just shared his ideas of what such a weekend might be like.  If you read it from that perspective, it's fascinating, and thought-provoking.  I'm glad I read it.  It helped me define somethings for myself, but maybe I will save that for the next post, as this one has gone on long enough.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

oh, yes, that would 50,290 words that I just finished writing............. :-)  doing the happy dance around here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

You know, the interesting thing about doing Nano for the third time is how little I care about it this year.  I'm doing way better than I have any other year-- I'm at about 32,000 words with a week to go, and I still have plenty more to write about-- but I just don't care.  I think part of it is my choice of plot.  It's sort of like that movie "Love, Actually" where there are a half dozen plotlines that revolve around people's love lives, which are loosely interwoven (very loosely, in this case).  

It's sort of like writing a soap opera.  It's a great choice for Nano because I always have something to write about, and the words seem to flow (at least sometimes!).  As opposed to the past two years, when I was trying to write something that felt "significant" and nothing was happening.  But on the other hand, since it just feels like fluff, it's hard to care.  What difference does it make if I write it or not?  And of course, it doesn't make a difference to anyone but me. It never has.   I know from experience that I will never let anyone read it.  Not even my spouse has read my Nano novels.  It makes no difference to anyone but me.  This year I'm determined to get to 50,000 just so I've done it.  And then I don't think I'll ever do it again.  

I haven't written much about what I've been up to this fall.  Since I still couldn't find a job, I decided to go back to school.  I wanted a challenge, so I signed on for the first semester of Chinese and a programming class.  I've been having a ball being a student again, although it hasn't kept me from whining about having to study.  I was a really good student back in my "real" student days; you might say it's the only thing I've ever been really good at (which is a bit depressing, don't you think?)  And I still am a pretty damn good student.  What I've lost in terms of mental quickness I've more than made up for in experience, in understanding what the teacher is talking about and having experiences that give me a context for what's going on.  (I'm the only person in either class that's over 20.  Besides the teachers, of course, both of whom I'm older than.  Was that correct grammar?)

That long aside just so I can say:  it is really really obvious how much more I enjoy programming than I do writing.  I love getting a new programming project and having to figure out how to solve it, writing the code, debugging it, and getting it to work.  Makes me wish I lived somewhere where I could do it for pay (do I sound bitter?)(no, not me).  And in direct contrast this month has been trying to write this damn novel, which has barely held my attention at all in comparison.  I always thought I wanted to be a writer, but you know I have to say based on this experience that maybe I was wrong.  Maybe what I've wanted all these years is to give readers the same happiness that I've received from reading-- the wish that I could do for others what my favorite authors have done for me.  I'm discovering that I just don't like to write, at least not fiction.  It's a good thing to know.  Nano has been an interesting experience, one I'm grateful for, all three years of it.  But I don't think I'll be doing it again.

Monday, November 03, 2008

the view from here

You know, I've kept a blog for almost five years now.  Up until last spring, with a few short-lived exceptions, I've never had any problem coming up with things to write about.  Even if I wasn't posting very often, I was always mentally working on posts-- most of which never made it online.  I'd drive around town running errands or doing whatever while typing away in my head.  Sometimes it even reached the point of being a compulsion-- I couldn't sleep or concentrate on anything else until I sat and typed out what I was thinking about.  But I have to say since last April, I've had NO desire to write in this blog.  I've had to force myself to type out the few posts that have made it online.  It's kind of strange.  

Actually, I guess it was the compulsion that was strange.  Since most people don't feel compelled to post their thoughts online, maybe I'm finally hitting normal here.  Whoa.  Scary thought.  A couple of weeks ago I even thought about deleting Aunt BeaN's blog, since at the moment I can't imagine that I'll be writing in it much anymore.  But, NaNoWriMo started on Saturday (National Novel Writing Month, click here for the website), and for the past two years, posting here about what I'm writing there has been pretty helpful.  So maybe I'll post a bit more this month.  (not that anyone really wants to read about my forays into the world of writing fiction, but I'll probably post them anyway).  

So, that's what's up with me.  The first year I did NaNoWriMo, it was a young adult novel.  Last year I tried to write literary fiction, and it bored me to tears.  So this year I'm taking the low road and writing genre fiction, although it won't be anything nearly as steamy as the books I mentioned in my previous post.  I get to the point where they're kissing, and I'm already embarrassed.  But although it would probably be classified as "romance" if anything, the love story is secondary to a lot of the other things that are going on.  (Since this hasn't been written yet, maybe I should say "a lot of other things that I hope will go on...")  And both of the lead characters are older, sort of ummm... plump, and, well... normal, as opposed to the main characters in romance novels, who are always devastatingly handsome/gorgeous, well-built, slender, and amazing in every way.  So we'll see how it goes.  But I've already, in three days, written more words than I did in almost the first week last year, so I think this will go better.  It's certainly more fun.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I used to regularly post reviews of the books I'd read. But last spring I realized that my taste in books was going further and further downhill, and that my book reviews probably weren't particularly interesting anymore. And it's only gotten worse since. To prove my point: I spent the last half of the summer reading trashy romance novels. And you know what? I'm not even sorry. I loved it. I hadn't read one in more than twenty years,* and -- while I wouldn't exactly recommend any of them-- I have to say that they are light-years better than they used to be. It was fun. But now my conscience is telling me that summer is over and I should stop with the brain candy and start reading stuff that I don't have to be embarrassed to be seen with.

Well, OK. Just as soon as I finish Three Nights of Sin. (no, I'm not kidding, there really is a novel with that name-- but I haven't read it. Yet.)

Anyway, just to further show you how low I've slunk, I'll tell you the story of my reading list for this summer. Those of you who've been around for awhile will remember that about once a year, I assign myself a reading project-- several books that are related in some way-- and push myself to read through the whole list. One year, I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, plus most of the books her class studies. Another year, I read a collection of the letters of Maxwell Perkins and novels by his three most famous authors--Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. Then there were Merton, O'Connor, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day another year. (full disclosure: I've never actually managed to read every book on any of my reading project lists. But I give it a pretty good shot, anyway.)

So this year, at the beginning of the summer, I decided that I was going to read Chaucer and Spenser. I'm dead serious. I really thought I was going to spend the summer sitting out at the lake with the Faerie Queene in my lap. Oh, 'tis galling the things we must admit to online. I got online and ordered a modernized Chaucer to go with the original version I still have from college, and also got the recommended edition of FQ.

As you can probably guess, I made it through the Prologue and the Wife of Bath's tale before my attention wandered. I think it's actually a little impressive that I made it that far. Although at the moment I can't remember what the segue was, for some reason I went from that to reading the Satanic Verses, the famous book that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for (seven? eight?) years. It is brilliant, and beautifully written-- if I remember, I'll put a paragraph or two in the comments to this post-- but it doesn't exactly move quickly. Sections of it are very absorbing, but then there are long sections that are.... well, maybe not boring, but slow.

So enter my daughter with Twilight in hand. I'm blaming the whole romance novel obsession on her. In case you've been locked away in a closet for the past six months, Twilight is the first book in a series about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. It's written and marketed for teenagers, but once you know the characters' names, you'll overhear a surprising number of competent-looking adults gossiping away about Edward and Bella as if they lived down the street. There is very little plot or characterization outside the two main characters' obsessive love for each other, but you know-- you just can't put them down. I'm snobbish enough that I have to say that I didn't really read them, I just skimmed through them. But I did, in the space of about two weeks, get through all four books, each of them well over 500 pages. After spending over a month getting through Satanic Verses.

Why am I admitting this publicly?? Oh, the shame.

But it gets worse. So then, realizing that it had been a very long time since I'd read a good bodice ripper-- at least twenty years, and probably more like twenty-five*-- I started combing through used books and picking them up. I bet I've read twenty since mid-August. Not kidding. Last week I decided I would let myself keep going until October 1st, which would be tomorrow. I've got one more to finish tonight and them I'm quitting cold turkey. Promise. Higher quality reading suggestions welcome, reply here.


* I'm making a distinction here between just regular old romance novels (hard to write a good story without someone falling in love, imo) and trashy romance novels, aka bodice rippers, which have such steamy love scenes that they should carry ratings on the cover. Oh, my. .... After re-reading this, to be fair I should say that the Twilight series is not explicit, but it has enough of the conventions of a trashy romance novel that I was reminded of them.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Two weeks ago, we were in Seattle to move our daughter into her dorm room for her freshman year of college.  It surprised me how emotional I was about it, even though plenty of people had warned me I would be.  I knew I would miss her (and I do-- a lot) but I also knew that it was time for her to go.  She was/is ready, and very excited about it, too.  We'd known practically since she was born that she would be going to college; we want her to be there, and-- well, you know, you don't raise them to stay home.  You raise them to go off and do their thing in the world.  It was time.

So given all that advance notice, you'd think I'd be prepared and the transition would be smooth sailing.  But of course actually going through something is different than preparing for it, no matter how much you prepare.  And it's been hard.  The first week, almost every day some little thing would set me off.  Not that I would totally lose it or become incapacitated by crying or anything like that.  I'd just suddenly be overwhelmed by a wave of sadness and grief that would disappear almost as quickly as it arrived.  This week has been better, but I've still had a couple of those moments.  It's not so much that I miss having her here (though I do) as the ending of an era.  She will never be under our care in the same way she was up until two weeks ago.  We have a number of friends whose older kids require plenty of parenting, so I know we're not done, but it won't be the same as it was having her home and under 18.

So enough going on and on.  I hope this doesn't sound like whining, because she's having a blast and I'm happy for her, and I get to go visit her in a couple of months.  It's just what I've been thinking about the past couple of weeks.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

I think it says a lot about me that it's easier and a whole lot more interesting for me to write about questions and than it is to write about resolutions. Whenever I sit down to try to write out some of the things I've been learning this summer, it just sounds so corny. Like the final chapter of a bad self-help book.  And on top of that, as soon as I learn something new, something that feels like a revelation, it seems immediately obvious, as if it had been staring me in the face all along.  Everyone on the planet must know this stuff except clue-less me.  But here is some, mainly because otherwise I don't have anything to write about.  

I have trust issues.  I don't trust much of anyone, and I certainly don't trust that the world is a safe place to be.  I could go into a therapy-style litany of all the reasons why that is true, all the bad things that happened to me when I was a child and along the way, but I'm not sure that's any excuse.  Plenty of people who trust just fine have difficult issues in their past.  I think it just has to do with the way I'm wired.  

But I've been working very hard on the Buddhist idea of keeping an open heart, which involves letting yourself be vulnerable, which means trusting.  It has become important to me for purely selfish reasons-- because when I manage it, when for a few minutes or hours I can drop all my defenses and just be there, it feels so amazingly good.  It's so much better than being hard and cynical and closed up tight like a fist.  But it isn't easy.  It is impossible for me to ignore that anyone can hurt you, even when they have the best of intentions.  Maybe even especially if they have good intentions.  And bad things can happen at any moment.  (Remember the Northern Exposure episode where Maggie's boyfriend was killed by a satellite that fell out of the sky?)  How do you manage this?  How do you stay open and spacious, without feeling like you're leaving yourself exposed to every little awful thing that can happen?  

I have no definitive answers, but some things have helped.  First of all, staying closed up tight doesn't solve the problem.  It might make you slightly more prepared defensively for bad things that might happen, but for the most part, it doesn't stop them from happening.  And you miss out on so much by always being on your guard.  But more important than that, it's occurred to me that the key to trust isn't trusting others, or trusting the universe, or at least not for me.  The key is learning to trust myself.  Yes, this person might hurt me, but I'll be OK.  I can handle this.  Something bad might be around the corner, but I know from past experience that I can get through it.  I'll be all right no matter what.

Ack.  My scared-self is already kicking in again.  It seems so arrogant to say that, like I'm asking to be tested.  There are so many things that could happen that I would not be all right about, that I could never recover from.  most of them involving my children's health and safety.  But the point still stands.  I'm working on it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Since someone asked me about this the other day, I'll say it here for the record.  You can, if you read this blog, tell anyone you like about it (of course).  It's out in cyberspace, anyone that finds it can read it.  I can hardly claim that I want to keep it private since I'm posting it publicly.  And honestly, I wish I had more readers, and that there could be more discussion.  But, as I've said before, I'm a bit shy about telling people about it-- partly because I don't know how they'll respond, but mainly because it requires an assumption on my part that they'll be interested in reading it, which is difficult for me to imagine.  That may sound disingenuous, but there it is.  The only thing I ask is that if you live here in our town--as many of you do-- be careful who you tell, as some of this stuff would be a bit controversial around here. But if you live here, you already know that. 

Monday, August 04, 2008

I was going to go back and go on and on about "resolutions."  But in the meantime, my cynical side has kicked in and I just don't have that much more to say.  how can you honor and respect the beliefs of your childhood when technically speaking you don't actually believe them anymore?  there are lots of days when that is where I am, and today is one of them.  Days when I think, I can't keep going to church, this is ludicrous.  But:  I would miss it if I didn't go.  I love our church.  It's complicated.  If this were all about logic and figuring things out rationally, it would be so simple.  I'd just leave.

But honestly, as I get older, I'm finding that cynicism is less and less helpful to me.  And no matter how little it makes sense to my cynical self, the mix of belief and unbelief, of meaning and lack thereof, is actually the way I live.  It's what is real for me at the moment.  But subject to change at any moment.


Friday, August 01, 2008


A little over a year ago, I decided that it was time to delve back into the religion of my youth and think through my experiences-- much of which has shown up in this blog.  In April, I reached the crux of it, at least as far as my own experiences are concerned, and nearly sent myself round the bend trying to resolve some intellectual conflicts that are not resolvable.  At that point, I resolved to let them be un-resolved. I felt like I had finally come to terms with the opposing forces, if you will, and made a truce.  Not a truce between the issues, but a truce between myself and the conflict.  Is this making any sense?  The conflict is out there, I don't know the answer, and I have to keep living with that.

I've learned a few new things since then that I thought I'd pass on.  One occurred to me on a long driving trip.  It occurred to me that just because the issues can't be resolved intellectually doesn't mean that they can't be resolved in my life.  I can value the meaning behind many of the beliefs of my childhood, feel enormously proud of and loyal to my heritage, and yet still live in a way that honors my own experience.  In effect, the way I live my life becomes the resolution.  

check back, this is unfinished.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It's been so long since I've posted that it feels like I should wait until I have something really significant to say. But then again, maybe I should just plunge back in. We had a great vacation-- two weeks, for the first time in a long time. Part of it was spent with my spouse's family on the East coast, part of it was spent at home. During the last bit, my spouse and kids took off on a church youth group trip while I stayed home. I got to spend several days at our favorite lake, relaxing and reading and watching the breeze move the leaves on the trees. It was great.

In the afternoons, it would get quite warm in the un-air conditioned cabin where I was staying. So after dinner the dog and I would walk down to the lake for a swim. The reason this is my favorite lake is because the water is so clear and cold and deeply blue-green that you can see straight down to the bottom even at fifteen feet. It's not the kind of lake where you swim all afternoon.  No one stays in for long, it's way too cold, even in July. In fact, I don't get in at all unless it's really hot. But it was quite warm last week, and I swam every day.

I think it says a lot about one's personality how you do this-- do you plunge in off the end of the dock? start at the shore and wade in? run in and dive? My own approach is the wimpiest of them all, which is to slowly descend the ladder at the end of the dock, letting each body part get used to it before the next one gets wet. But there is still a moment where you have to push away from the dock and plunge all the way in, and every time I do it, I cringe. I hate that bit. But then you're in, and the water is so .... invigorating, bracing, refreshing-- pick your term. You feel all the heat and dust and sweat dissolving away, and you just chill (giving new meaning to the term, yes?). I paddle around and try to find something, some place within myself that matches that deep, clear, blue-green stillness. It's worth the hated cringe moment, well worth it.

Great metaphor, that. I have several things coming up that I don't want to do, but I need to do, so it's a life lesson all wrapped up with a bow. Just cringe and get the worst part over with. Like posting for the first time in three months.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

I really did write a post yesterday, but I was worried it might be a breach of confidentiality, so I deleted it this morning. But I will start posting again when we get back from vacation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Last fall I made a moderately big deal about taking a break from blogging for six weeks.  Now it's been six weeks since I last posted and I've hardly even noticed.  Plenty is happening, just not much worth writing about.  

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I don't really have a whole lot more to say on this topic, but I've had a number of very interesting conversations about it offline, and I thought I would pass along a few things. (to the people who said these things: I'm not specifying who said what because I'm not sure if you'd want your name here, but I'll certainly credit you if you let me know you don't mind.) Some are from e-mails, some are paraphrases.

"God is just way too large to be contained by any doctrine or any so-called set of facts. He/She transcends it all, but chose to create us as unique individuals which I think is a signal we are also 'allowed' to be unique in our expression of faith."

"Right answers become a new form
of works--righteousness
excluding grace"

It was pointed out to me that on my list of interpretations of the resurrection, I left out the one where God the Father loves us so much that he is willing to sacrifice his only Son in order to save us. "thinking of the resurrection literally allows us a tool for conceiving of what a truly loving god would be."

And also. I set up for myself an "either/or" truly worthy of a fundamentalist: either the literalist interpretation is correct, or the metaphorical interpretation is correct. And of course, after having a few days to ponder that one, there are many options in between, including my own idea from several months ago: take it seriously, but not literally. But here's another idea.

I listened to a lecture series on the Apostle Paul last fall that was excellent. It was done by a professor from a major university, who may want nothing to do with this blog so I'll leave his name off. I thought he did a terrific job of running the gauntlet between secular literary criticism and faithful consideration-- a great role model for what I want do myself. He pointed out, as most thoughtful scholars of the scriptures do, that the traditional interpretations of conservative Christians sometimes don't have much support in the text itself-- rarely are things as clear-cut as the literalists would like you to believe.

But anyway, he points out that the New Testament writings were written when the new religion was still very young. It is clear that the writers expected Jesus to return any minute. It is clear that their emphasis was on spreading the news about Jesus as far as possible during the brief time they thought they had before Jesus' return. We don't know how those particular writers would respond if they knew that 2,000 years later Jesus would not have returned. Not to mention that in the meantime, the letters and accounts they wrote would have been used for both good and nefarious purposes. But it isn't difficult to imagine that they might have reconsidered certain points and moved on to different emphases.

It occurs to me that the writers themselves would be surprised that we were even talking about this. The New Testament writers, especially Paul, were Jews with considerable knowledge of the Jewish law. They had had to completely re-interpret what they knew about God's law based on what their new experiences were as followers of Jesus. I think it's entirely possible that they would be the first ones to argue that God's law is always interpreted in light of your own experience, your own times, and that this interpretation must be carefully and consciously undertaken. Rather than operating under the assumption that the way you were taught is the only way. Honestly, sometimes people who are strict literalists sound exactly like the Phraisees, who after all, could cite chapter and verse to back up their arguments with Jesus (just like the literalists can today).


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

so here's one of the things that happened. A couple of days after I deleted those posts, I woke up at about 6 a.m. with this question ringing in my head, as if someone had just spoken it: "Are you willing to go to hell if you're wrong?" I spent the morning turning that question over and having several somewhat visceral reactions. It took me until noon to realize that the question itself was fundamentalist and not necessarily legitimate. All the underlying assumptions-- that there is a hell, that people go there based on whether or not their theology is correct, that you could be punished for eternity for honestly asking questions-- all of that comes from the way I internalized the religion of my childhood. It was such an enormous feeling of relief to just let it go. But then over the next few days, it came back. It's still hanging around back there in my brain somewhere. I guess you never entirely get over this stuff.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Well, you will be able to tell that this topic struck a real chord with me. I edited and edited the previous posts, then ended up deleting them. They stayed deleted for almost a week. But I've decided to put them back in, because I think they make a good point about recovering from fundamentalism. I guess I'm sort of setting myself up as a sociology experiment here (although if it was sociology, would it have to be a group of us? maybe it's a psychology experiment). I realize that if you don't come from a religious background, I've made myself ridiculous with all this dithering back and forth, but it is ridiculous, so I will let that stand. I did edit them (again). And I have a bit more to say, too.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

previous post, revisited

You know, if I were writing a book, I'd go through the process of thinking all this out and you, my gentle readers, would only get the final product. And wow, would it be amazing. (just kidding.) But since this is a blog, I'm still thinking this out, and I have reactions to the things I've written and posted that sometimes surprise me. So I have to confess that the post about Easter has crossed some sort of internal line for me. I'm really uncomfortable with it. The day after I wrote it, I came back online to delete it. But then I re-read it, and it seemed OK, so I left it (although I did edit it a bit). But it felt like an act of bravery to leave it. Then yesterday, still thinking about it, I went back and added the postscript. But I still feel off-kilter about it, and I don't really know another way to describe it.

The problem, I think, is that the two different ways of interpreting scripture-- the literalist view that sees the Bible as the inerrant (without error) Word of God vs. the more nuanced way of reading the Bible to discern its wisdom, how it applies to our lives today -- are so different that bringing them together in the same post makes me really uncomfortable. When I am standing firmly in my new way of thinking, whether or not the miracles of Jesus "really" happened or the resurrection "really" occurred is irrelevant. It's not that I don't believe they happened; in fact, I would be disappointed if someone was able to prove that they didn't. It's just that it doesn't matter whether or not they happened in order for me to read and learn from the text.

But if you're still in the other way of thinking, that is just so wrong. If you say it doesn't matter, it's the same as saying it didn't happen. And if it didn't happen, then what the heck is it that we believe? (someone in that tradition would say.) If it didn't happen then Jesus was a charlatan, a liar, or nuts. This is an old argument. We've all heard it before. But the fact that someone who was still in that mindset could come along and read the previous post and think that I was arguing that the resurrection didn't occur is very uncomfortable for me. Uncomfortable to the point of wanting to delete the evidence. Sometimes this is just so hard.

to be continued, but not today.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Easter, a little late

In the process of trying to re-imagine my Christian heritage, Easter has become a tough holiday. It wasn't always that way. When I was considerably younger, I leaped straight out of conservative Christianity into a liberal Episcopal church where it would have been considered a bit naive to actually believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And that suited me just fine. I find the resurrection, as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, love over hatred, and life over death, to be an inspiring and worthwhile story with endless layers of meaning that have little to do with whether or not it actually happened. You have the underdog, itinerant preacher with no political power who manages to outlast by many centuries the power structures that destroyed him. You have the man who simply, with great love and little fanfare, lays down his life for his friends, and is met (during the hours before his death) with hatred, cruelty, and torture-- and yet the love is stronger than the hate and consumes it. You have the symbolism of spring, the rebirth of life after the long winter, that resonates with the rolling away of the stone and the empty tomb--the endless cycle of life after death. It's an archetypal story with endless interpretations that really don’t depend on whether or not Jesus's three-days-dead body actually got up out of the tomb and walked away.

But as I've delved back into my past and tried to understand my background better, I've realized I missed some steps in there, some steps in the process of moving from a literal interpretation of Jesus' resurrection to the more symbolic. Because if you read the accounts of the resurrection carefully, you can't escape it. It is abundantly clear that the writers of the New Testament believed that Jesus reappeared to his disciples after his death.

Of course there are whole books on this topic. There are all kinds of ways to explain it away. Jesus wasn't really dead and he revived in the tomb. Jesus' body was stolen, and when the disciples found his empty tomb, they erroneously concluded that he had risen, and subsequent stories of Jesus sightings are just like Elvis sightings today. And then there are books by people who tried to explain it away and couldn't and ended up being converted (such as, famously, Josh McDowell in Evidence that Demands a Verdict).

But even if you accept that Jesus did die and was resurrected, the story is not nearly as clear cut as I believed when I was growing up. In the New Testament accounts, no one actually witnessed the resurrection. In the Gospel of Mark, the earliest account, a few of Jesus' disciples arrive at the tomb to find a man in a white robe sitting there, who tells them that Jesus has risen and gone ahead of them into Galilee. The resurrection has already happened. And that's where the earliest manuscripts end (check this out in Mark 16-- every modern translation includes a footnote that says the most reliable manuscripts end at verse 8). The sightings of Jesus after his resurrection and the interactions of the resurrected Jesus with his followers were added later, possibly decades later, and are therefore considered by some to be less reliable.

If you read it from this perspective, it makes a kind of sense. The kinds of interactions that are described are exactly the kinds of things that you would say if you were trying to convince someone that the resurrection happened—lots of people saw him; he was seen eating food; people touched him; my friend Thomas who is a terrible skeptic was even convinced. It’s the way rumors get started, and it still happens today. It's not hard to imagine that someone who passionately believed that Jesus had been resurrected might years afterward add a series of events that would prove the point, with no deception intended. They are just verifying what they are sure is true.

And, anyway, what exactly would it mean if Jesus was resurrected? Did the body in the tomb re-animate and get up and walk out? (Growing up, that’s what I always assumed.) Or did he rise again with a "resurrection body," a body that was physical, but different in some way from the body he had before he died? Or did he rise again in spirit only, without a literal physical body? If you choose your verses carefully, you can argue each of those interpretations of the resurrection fairly convincingly. But whichever interpretation you choose, if you're going to take the New Testament accounts seriously, you can't deny that the authors themselves believed most sincerely that Jesus came back to life after he died, however it was accomplished. And furthermore, they felt the resurrection-- not the teachings of Christ, not the symbolism of what he did-- was what made their new religion possible. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." Hard to get much clearer than that.

In a way, it's my whole dilemma in a nutshell. I want to move on to a different kind of faith (and honestly, I already have-- there's no going back at this point), but the parameters of my former religion as spelled out in its founding documents don't allow for a this. I haven't been able to reason my way from literalism to a more nuanced understanding, because the writings themselves want to be taken literally. What I've done is decide that it was important for them, in their time and their situation, to be literal, but literalism is not possible for me (as I've explained ad nauseum in other posts). The way I read the Bible now involves some give and take with the text, some flexibility, some interpretation. and of course that is sacrilege to anyone who still believes it, not to mention the sacrilege of questioning the resurrection.

p.s. just for the record, I would like to point out that the point of this post is not whether or not the resurrection occurred—I think I managed to avoid stating an opinion on that. It's just the most in-your-face obvious example of the difficulties involved in moving away from the fundamentalist mindset.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

About ten years ago I read a book called Archangel by Sharon Shinn. It has become my all-time favorite beach read. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how much I love that book, because it is mainly a straight-up romance, and I'm usually pretty snooty about romance novels. Of course since it was successful, it is the first book of a series, which now includes at least four other books-- I've sort of lost count, beause none of the rest of them are as good as the first so I haven't paid as much attention to them. (Stay with me here, eventually this will be relevant to the topic at hand.)

Archangel is vaguely science fiction-y, although once the story gets started, that doesn't really enter into it. It takes place on a planet called Samaria, which is governed by a race of angels-- real-life angels that fly around with feathered wings. The head guy, the archangel, is forced to marry a slave girl, and like all Cinderella stories, it turns out happily after a series of obstacles have been overcome.

But the reason I'm bringing it up, other than to recommend it if you need a beach read, is because of an interesting subplot that runs throughout the series. What you find out, only very gradually, is that the inhabitants of Samaria are refugees from Earth, but other than a single person per generation, no one on the planet knows this. The angels are actually genetically altered humans, and they have abilities that appear magical because they are aided by a spaceship that is still up there orbiting the planet. The angels and the ordinary people of Samaria all believe that it is God who causes medicines to fall down out of the sky, or brings rain in times of drought, etc, but the reader starts to figure out that all of this is happening because of the spaceship.

Not much is made of this in the first book. But as the series progresses, the implications are spelled out more thoroughly. The spaceship begins to break down, and someone has to figure out how to repair it. And eventually, in the second book, the archangel (who is female this time) actually visits the spaceship.

So what do you do when the God you have believed in is proven unequivocally to be false? There she is on the spaceship, seeing the mechanisms that alter the weather and provide the medicines and so on. It is clear that these functions are being handled in ways that have nothing to do with a Supreme Being. But she has a whole lifetime of spiritual experiences that go beyond these pseudo-miracles that say that there is something true about what she has believed all these years, even though the framework has been proven false. So you might even say: she's learning that her religion isn't true, but her spirituality still has validity. She's trying to understand what that means.

Me, too.


Monday, March 31, 2008

Surprise! a new look. I think it is spring-ier, and I am definitely in the mood for spring. In fact, I could get off on a tangent here with my annual whine about how slow spring is in the Rockies. But I'll spare you. You can just go back to last year's if you want to read it. I just went back and looked it up so I could link to it (here) and was depressed to realize that last year's rant was written IN MAY. We still have a long ways to go......... maybe this year I will rant twice.

But anyway, I just wanted to say how inordinately proud I am of myself because after taking two six-week courses on web design, I was able to tweak the HTML of this new design template (which was written by some amazing person named Douglas Bowman) to get it to look the way I wanted it to, and it only took me about fifteen minutes to figure it out.  Oh, I am just so pleased with myself.

and how often does THAT happen?!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

It seems so commonplace to make a distinction between spirituality and religion that I've taken it for granted in this blog. And I still do, but I've been thinking about the two and the contrast/connection between them recently. (to define them briefly: I think of spirituality as the inner pursuit of the spiritual aspect of life, and religion as the outward expression of that.)

Most mornings I spend about 20-30 minutes doing... well, how do I describe it? I haven't really put a name to it, it's just what I do. It usually involves meditation, sometimes it involves writing, or reading some sort of spiritually-oriented text. Often these blog entries spring out of that. But there's no formal thing that I do, it varies from day to day depending on how much time I have and what I feel the need for and what's going on. And sometimes (and sometimes often) it just doesn't happen.

Last week, I had a really nice experience one day. I would even say it felt significant. It was very affirming for me that I'm doing OK and I'm on a path that's effective for me. I'm not sure exactly how to phrase it, because it wasn't anything earth shattering and if I describe in detail what happened, it will make it into something it wasn't. So suffice it to say: it seemed like a good thing.

The next day I found myself trying to recreate the experience, trying to get all the external details exactly the same so it could happen again. And it occurred to me that exactly that impulse is the religious impulse. The desire to protect and reproduce a significant spiritual experience, to figure out what made it happen and facilitate making it happen again. Like the disciples after Christ's transfiguration-- let's stay right here and build an altar and do it again! I wanted to spell it out, figure out the details so I could reproduce it. The impulse to codify it, if you will, so you can explain it to other people and they can have the great experience, too.

maybe more on this later, but that's all for now--

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The best thing about having read Velvet Elvis (see Monday's post) is that I think it will give me a week or so of things to post about. There's lots of food for thought in it, even when I disagree with him. Here is something that I will pass along in that vein (food for thought, that is). Early in his pastoral life, Bell burns out and ends up going to see a therapist. (which is fine by me, I've seen a couple of excellent therapists and have found it very helpful.) And in his very first session, the therapist tells him something to the effect of "Your only task is the relentless pursuit of becoming the person God created you to be." Interesting, yes? relentless pursuit. I like that. Who knows if it's literally true, but it's interesting to think about.

Of course, then he practically ruins it by adding, "Anything outside of that is sin and you need to repent of it." which is so much in the style of things I would have heard as a child that it practically made me laugh.

But the first bit is still worth thinking about.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We went to see the Spiderwick Chronicles last night. It's OK, but not worth seeing if you're not a fan of the books. My daughter loved the books and we wanted an excuse for a family outing, so we went. There was one moment that stuck out for me, completely out of context, that I thought I would pass along. The main character is Jared, a 12-ish year old boy who comes to live in an enormous old house in the country. The story revolves around a book, a field guide, that contains some powerful secrets about the natural world. The book has become highly sought after by various different forces, particularly an evil guy named Morgrath or something like that. Jared tells his great uncle that he is afraid of what will happen if the book is lost. And his uncle replies, "You've read the book. The knowledge is in you. You are the book."

Which is kind of an interesting new way of looking at how to interpret one's sacred text, if that's not too much of a logical leap for this early in the morning. Once you've read it, digested it, you've worked on it and it's worked on you, it lives inside you. Literalism is irrelevant in that case, I think.

Monday, February 18, 2008

the problem of wineskins

I've been reading Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (by Rob Bell) for awhile now. I read about a third of it last fall, and then finished it over the last week or so. His writing style drives me nuts at times, but his target audience is probably mostly people in their teens and twenties, so I tried to keep that in mind. But style aside, he has some interesting things to say. I found myself at various different points wanting to wave it around and say, "See, someone else thinks about these things, too!" Particularly when he was talking about inerrancy, although I don't think he ever uses that term. That was the high point of the book for me, since he covers many of the same difficulties in interpreting scripture that I have in this blog. He also pokes holes in many of "sacred" beliefs that turn out to be just part of middle class American culture. For example, he makes the point that he is put off by any political group that would call themselves "Christian" because of the assumption that all Christians will have the same opinions. What if he feels, as a Christian, that the most Christian thing he can do is vote in the exact opposite way? All along these bits, I was nodding my head vigorously, happily.

But I ended up being disappointed. He still seems to come down on the side of mostly conservative Christianity. He never really gets specific about many issues, so it's hard to say. It reminded me of a book by Philip Yancey that I read years ago, Disappointment with God. In both books, the author does a bang-up job of running through all the inconsistencies and difficulties of what happens when Americanized, middle-class-ized Christianity runs up against the wider world, although neither of them phrases it exactly like that. But also in both books, the author ends up defaulting (in my opinion) in favor of staying in a church that would be clearly recognizable as having most of the same flaws that they spent the first half of the book pointing out. The message, in both books, seemed to me to be, "Well, yes, you can argue that the theology of middle-class American Christianity is flawed here, here, here and here; but you know, they're mostly good guys, so let's just keep paddling along in the same boat with them anyway." In other words, let's continue to vigorously evangelize people of other religions, let's feel comfortable condemning the sexual lives of people we know nothing about, let's all vote Republican. I'm exaggerating, of course. And it's more of an exaggeration with Bell than it is with Yancey (although it's been ten years since I read that book, so maybe I shouldn't even say that). But what about those of us who can't do that? Who have proceeded far enough out on the limb that it just doesn't feel right coming back in?

It's exactly the problem of putting new wine in old wineskins. Jesus' use of this analogy is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). If you put new wine in old wineskins, the old wineskins will burst. It's a common enough metaphor, one that has been used by Christians for centuries in all sorts of contexts. Once you reach the point where your understanding has changed, where your reading of scripture has gone beyond the point of just being further out on the bell curve of the variety of opinions in your church, can you continue to put yourself in the same old container, the same old church, with the same old label? Can you just give in and say, "Oh, well, I'm staying here because....." insert reason here... it's easier than rocking the boat? my family would be so disappointed if I left the church? I really love the people in this church even though I disagree with them?

It's just so damn complicated. Because all of those are the reasons why I still go to a Christian church a couple of times a month, however grudgingly it may be on certain Sundays. Most of the time I don't have a problem with considering myself to be a Christian, as in "a follower of the teachings of Christ" (a definition I first heard in an interview with Bono). But my belief system has become so far out there that I'm pretty sure that if I were to spell out exactly what I believe, most of the Christians I know would say that I'm not Christian. One writer I read last year said he quit going to church when he could no longer say the creeds, since the creeds were (to him, anyway) the essence of what it means to be Christian. It's been years since I could say the creeds, but I'm still going to church.

I guess my question is, at what point are you so far out there that you can no longer participate? You need a new wineskin. I think I'm getting there. Neither Bell nor Yancey has reached this point, I think, since they leave this question almost entirely unaddressed. In the final page of his book, Bell says you have two choices: become bitter and filled with hate and leave the church; or remain hopeful and "reclaim the innocence" of your faith and stay in the church. But of course there are plenty of other options out there, including remain hopeful and reclaim your innocence and leave the church. which is why I was disappointed. I'd like to have some advice here, some input into how one figures this out. But it wasn't in Velvet Elvis.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

OK, so here's a theory. Best read late at night, which is when I usually think about it, though I'm typing it out in the morning.

Eons ago, before there were stars or black holes or even the universe itself; before time had started, there existed a Something that was Everything. There are no good words to describe this Something, because our words are bound by time and our sense of space and dimension. This Something can hardly even be imagined, let alone understood. But we must call it something, so we will call it Bob. Bob is a vast field of everything, holding all potential within itself. Everything that might ever exist is present in nascent form in Bob: light and dark, heavy and light, wet and dry, existence and non-existence. But since Bob is everything and everything is Bob, Bob cannot understand who or what it is, or why it exists, or what it might be able to be. So Bob decides to make itself into something, to more or less activate its potential and see what happens.

And in that instant, the Universe begins. Father Time winds up his clock. Mother Universe unfurls her starry cloak. The Big Bang occurs, to use language that is already becoming archaic. And it takes all of it -- all the stars in all of the galaxies, all of the black holes, all of the planets, all of the mountains and lakes and highways and skyscrapers, all of the life forms, starfish and hooded mergansers and oak trees and turtles and mosquitoes; all kinds of humans-- willful two-year-olds and crotchety 89-year-olds and bright-eyed 18-year-olds-- whatever life forms exist on other planets -- all of it, to express what/who Bob is. All of it. Bob is every atom, every quark, every gluon. Bob is always watching, learning, figuring things out, understanding what it is, what the totality of everything is.

And a further interesting part of this theory. Bob is also still there behind everything, the original vast Something, and you and I can interact with it. But Bob doesn't have a preset personality, a character or a way of being that would make sense to you and me. It is far too vast for that, far beyond what our tiny minds can comprehend. When we interact with Bob, to some extent we get what we expect. If we expect loving acceptance, there it is. If we expect a cruel and demanding taskmaster, OK, Bob can do that, too. If we expect nothing but sensory input, that's all you'll get.

So, that's all. No conclusions, just some late night ideas. Apologies for calling Bob "it" but it seemed much better than assigning a gender, and there's no other way to do it in English. I think you can sort of fit this in with string theory if you allow for more than one Bob. Or if Bob is so immeasurably vast that it can manage gazillions of universes with ease, I suppose.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I changed my profile to read that I am a "Buddhist Christian skeptic" recently, but I'm changing it back. "Agnostic" may not have precisely the meaning that I want, but it's better than skeptic. Maybe I should just change it to "terminally undecided."

more accurate.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- detachment

This was the hardest one for me to wrap my brain around, and I have to be honest-- it still is not all that appealing to me. But the Buddhist idea of being detached, of not allowing yourself to be attached to anything, still has been very interesting to me as a mental exercise. Again, I think part of the reason that it took me so long to even begin to understand detachment is because there is no good word in English for what is meant when a Buddhist uses it. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, if you had asked me to tell you what it means to say someone is "detached," I would have said they were emotionally cold, unavailable, and stand-offish. But I don't think that is what Buddhists mean by the term at all. The word "un-attached" is somewhat closer to the meaning, I think, but still doesn't quite get it.

My understanding is that Buddhists believe that everything we do and see and feel is dictated by our thoughts. And our thoughts are nothing but our perceptions; they have no literal value, no basis in what is truly real. So there is no point in becoming attached to the way we think. You may think that it's depressing when it rains. You may think that you are worthless because your parents were so horrible when you were a child. You may think that you aren't capable of achieving greatness because you tried once or twice and failed. You may think that your neighbor is angry at you because he barely spoke to you at the mailbox yesterday. All of those are thoughts that could have a strong influence on how you act, maybe with all kinds of consequences that could go on for a lifetime. But all of those thoughts are just your impressions, they're just smoke, or maybe soap bubbles. They have no validity beyond what you give them. They may or may not have anything to do with anything.

So the idea is that there is no point in getting attached to your ideas or opinions. The goal is to live your life with an open mind, not let pre-conceptions get in the way of your direct experience of reality. Try to drop all your opinions and just live, keep breathing. Just see what happens. I'm not sure I'm explaining this very well. I'm trying to learn to approach my experience with a feeling of softness and vulnerability, rather being defensive and clutching tightly onto my ideas about what is scary and what is impossible.

Each of us has situations where this is harder or easier, depending on our own experience and personality. Ideas and objects and people that are particularly difficult to let go of are "sticky"-- they cause us to grab on tight to our fears and insecurities and not want to let go. We know that new pair of shoes would (briefly) make us feel better so we clench tightly the idea that having a new pair of shoes will make us happy. We are absolutely positive that this job is essential to staying financially solvent, so we fuss and fret about every little detail of what goes on at work. We try to protect ourselves by clutching tightly onto whatever makes us feel safe.

But the only thing that is dependable, really, is that things will change. The tighter we clutch, the more seriously we take our attachments, the more miserable we will be when they fail us. When the shoes don't provide durable happiness. When my job is eliminated and I don't know what to do.

In classical Buddhism, you want to get to the point where you attach no importance to anything in this world. And that's where I get stuck (um, so to speak). I do think there are things in this world that are worth forming attachments to, even if it will hurt like hell when the attachment fails. And I think if you follow the philosophy of non-attachment to its conclusion, it is difficult to make a case for art (art for art's sake, anyway)-- which is very important to me. So a classical Buddhist would probably just think that I am admitting to my immaturity, and of course I am. But I'm OK with that.

So that's my take on it. Since I think this is the last of my posts on Buddhism (for now, anyway), I'll just say it one more time: I'm a beginner in the study of Buddhism. If someone out there with more experience would chime in and clarify things, I'd appreciate it.


Friday, February 01, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- meditation

When I first came in contact with Buddhism, more than ten years ago, it wasn't very appealing to me. The couple of books I had read and the Buddhists I was acquainted with at that time made it sound like it was all about discipline-- being cool and detached, unemotional, your thoughts under perfect control. I was curious about it, so I tried meditation a bit and read a bit more, but it went nowhere. But about four or five years ago, I ran across the writings of Pema Chodron and met some different Buddhists, and my impression began to change.

The heart of Buddhist practice is meditation. But my early understanding of what that meant was looking at it slantwise. I thought the idea was to completely shut down all thought in your brain and try to merge with the Great Nothing. I don't think I had any idea exactly what that meant, it was just my impression of Buddhist meditation. When I sit down to meditate now, my goal isn't to stop thinking, what I want is to create a little space between me and my thoughts, to watch them, see them go by-- the classic example is like watching clouds float across the sky. (I especially like that example when it is the night sky, with clouds floating by in front of the vast starry expanse.) The idea is to not attach any significance to them, to realize that they're just thoughts, electrical impulses that have no meaning outside what I give them.

I should confess here that I am terrible at this. I have what I think of as Busy Brain Syndrome. Not that meditation is easy for anyone, but I think a lot. In the space of a minute, I might think about what we're having for dinner, who's picking up my son from school, what responsibilities are "real" vs. ones that I've just picked up out of guilt, where my daughter is going to college next year, whether or not I'm over-involved in her decision, is that load of laundry done, and if evil starts small, how am I participating? And honestly, I have rarely managed to stop this flow of constant mental chatter for more than a minute or two, although I've spent far longer than that sitting and working on it.

but what I'm learning to do is to just observe all that constant stream of thought. Just sit and watch it. When I first started, I would imagine that I had some sort of helmet that completely covered my head and it was all covered with lights and dials and wires that were constantly blinking and humming and clicking, representing all my mental activity. And then I would just slip out of the helmet and leave it sitting there, flashing and humming and clicking away, all by itself. It is such an enormous relief sometimes to leave it aside. According to the Buddhist teachers I've read in the last few years, the mind is innately spacious. We just have to step away from the claustrophobic stream of thoughts that makes us feel stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious to experience that spacious, open feeling. I've only rarely experienced this; I'm not the most disciplined of practitioners. but I've experienced it enough to continue to work at it.

Should I put my disclaimer in every day? I'm a beginning student of Buddhism. Take all of this with a grain of salt.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- suffering

Suffering is an important concept in Buddhism, but one that took me a long time to understand. Maybe I still don't understand it very well.

At first reading, it seems so entirely different than the Christian understanding of suffering. In my Evangelical childhood, I was taught to see suffering as a means to an end. The New Testament epistle of James says quite bluntly: "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (ie, when you suffer), knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and endurances produces perfect results, that you may be full and complete, lacking in nothing."

In Christianity, Suffering is the refiner's fire. You pass through problems and "tribulations" so that the trivial and unimportant is burned away, and you become a better Christian, a better person. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, more or less.

The not-so-subtle undercurrent (for me, back in the day) was: the more I suffer, the more deserving I will be of God's love; and even this: the more I suffer, the more God loves me. It leads to a sort of "Bring It On" mentality among some of us. Oh, yeah, I'm suffering, but it's making me into a better person. I think you find this attitude particularly among Christians of Northern European descent. :-)

So when I first started studying Buddhism and ran across the idea that "All is suffering" (a summary of the First Noble Truth), and that the point of Buddhism is to escape suffering, it made no sense to me. Why would you want to escape suffering? Suffering is part of life. Suffering is what helps you grow up. If you run from suffering, you miss out on life, you are a baby.

I struggled with this misunderstanding for a long time. I spent the whole time I was reading the Dalai Lama's book on happiness arguing with him. (Arrogant, much?)

I've come to think it's mainly a problem in translation, though. There is no way in English to differentiate between what His Holiness is talking about and the kind of suffering I was thinking about. The word suffering is used to mean something different, and it was a bit of a stretch for my WASP brain.

Finally one day last spring I GOT it. I was drying my hair, and feeling irritated that it was already time to get a haircut again. You get a haircut; it's too short for a week; then it's just right for a couple of weeks; then it's getting too long; then it's already time for a hair cut again.

And like the proverbial lightbulb going on, I thought, "Oh! that's it!" Nothing like the small mundane things to help you see larger truths. The Buddhist idea of suffering is more about the endless cycle, the daily grind, the unending work of getting through life. You get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, clean up, go to bed, then the next day you do it all over again. It's all about the cycle, the endless cycle.

It's a classic East/West difference. I was trained to think of suffering as a linear thing, something that happens along the way that is a means to an end, a process that gets you to a goal-- the goal of being a better Christian. Your life is going along just fine, then some big problem hits, and you have to get through it. Then things go back to normal (usually). Getting through the time of suffering helps you grow.

The Buddhist idea is about endless reiterations of the same things, the kinds of things my WASP brain would have considered background, white noise. In Christianity, suffering is big stuff--persecution, illness, losing your job. In Buddhism, suffering is just the grind, the stuff you have to do over and over to get through the day.

Like laundry. Laundry never ends. There is always more laundry to do at our house. Or cooking. Someone is always hungry at our house. Or batteries. Here are the rechargeable batteries I have: cell phone, iPod, camera, laptop. You charge them up, use them for a few hours or days, then they have to be recharged again. It's an endless cycle, and it's a pain in the ass.

But once I got that figured out, it seems that the attitude that you have toward suffering in both traditions is pretty similar. You don't run from it, you don't avoid it, you dive in. But where Christianity emphasizes endurance, getting through it, Buddhism emphasizes staying open, not shutting down, while you are in the midst of suffering.

Pema Chodron says you try to stay soft, instead of closing up like a clenched fist. You let yourself experience your suffering fully. You grow up. What I had interpreted in Buddhism as wanting to run away from suffering is actually not attaching importance to suffering, not letting yourself get caught up in thinking that the daily soap opera of our lives is important.

Disclaimer: As always, my understanding of Buddhism is anything but expert. More experienced insights welcome.


thinking about Buddhism

I'm going to be posting about Buddhism for the next few days. That's the plan, anyway. Buddhism has become very important to me as a source of wisdom, and as a counterpoint to the way I was raised. I love the way it stretches my mind, makes me think about things from a new angle. But for reasons I'm not sure I can really explain, I'm not at all interested in becoming Buddhist. Maybe I'll write more about that at some point.

But I'm having a harder and harder time continuing to attend a Christian church. So. just thought I should put that out there. No conclusions to announce because I haven't reached any.

(as always, a work in progress)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I posted about dealing with fear-- fear of rejection from family, fear of bucking the system, fear of being seen as a troublemaker. This past weekend, I spent quite a bit of time with fear of a more visceral sort. I drove my daughter to Oregon to visit a school there. The drive over was ten hours of easy interstate driving-- a long day, but nothing exciting. The drive back was a different story. A severe winter storm swooped in as we were leaving. It was just rain in Salem, where we started, but by the time we had driven through Portland, it had turned into sleet, and then ice and snow. Three days and 24 hours of driving later, we finally got home about 8 last night. It was awful, white knuckle driving almost the entire way, sprinkled in with some even more terrifying moments.

There was plenty of time to think about fear, and how it feels, and what it does to you. Hours and hours of creeping along at speeds ranging from 2 mph to 45-- we didn't get up over 50 until the last few hours. From small things, like what if I don't make it back in time for this, this and this; to huge things, like What if I never see my spouse and son again? Now that I'm home and sitting in my nice warm house, fear becomes something interesting to think about. But I can still feel it; my stomach still knots up everytime I think about the hour and a half we spent on an overpass waiting for a tow truck to come and clear an accident that happened four cars in front of us. Most of us were friendly in spite of the tension, but tempers flared and a couple of different times people came storming up from further back in the line ready to give hell to anyone they could find. As if the poor woman whose car had spun out had done it on purpose. (there were no injuries, thank goodness, just her car which was probably totaled, another car with minor damage, and traffic backed up for miles, I'm sure.)

I'm so grateful to be home. But we're supposed to get 1-3" of snow tonight. Ah, the joys of winter.


Monday, January 21, 2008

The Index post

This used to be a blog about recovering from fundamentalism (Christian, in my case). I'm now some sort of mishmash of Christian/Buddhist/Agnostic, and if that sounds complicated, let me just say that you have no idea. Then it was a blog about going back to school in your forties, which I did so that I could finally finish my Master's in English. In fact, I was in my late forties. I turned fifty in grad school.

Now it is just a blog. At the moment it doesn't have a particular theme, although usually I post about books/literature, spirituality, religion, very rarely politics, and whatever else I can think of.

So for the most part you can find posts that are related to any of those topics by clicking on one of the labels over on the left. But for a long time I didn't know how to do labels, so I created this index post to help me find things--and maybe it will help you find things, too. The labels are over there on the right if you scroll down, way down. If you click on a label, to read them in chronological order, you have to scroll down to the bottom and read "up" (and sometimes you even have to click on "Older Posts" to get all the way back to the early ones).  I wish they'd fix that, but currently there's no way around it in Blogger.

The ones about going back to school when you are way too old for it are labeled back2school (applies to anyone going back to school as an older adult) or gradschool (about my specific experiences in English grad school).  The ones about faith and spirituality are labeled Groundwork, Lent, Easter, why I still go to church, gays and Christianity, etc. If you just want to hit the high points without reading all that mess, try the one on Abeyance, or click on the label for Easter.

If you're new to this blog and would like to read through only the ones involving fundamentalism, here is a partial list from back before I figured out how to use labels. Some of these are so old that I would probably word them differently now, but here they are. Note: this is my third blog (click here if you want an explanation of that), so the older posts have been moved over from my first blog. Confusing, I know.

part one of my history (11/04)
part four of my history (1/05)
(parts two and three were about my forays into New Age spirituality. If you're interested, let me know and I'll see if I can still find them.)
while reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" (08/04)
thoughts after taking a quiz (10/04)
why this is not a political blog (11/04)
concerning sin (4/05)
concerning agnosticism (5/05)
while reading "The Spiral Staircase" (04/06)
After listening to Julia Sweeney (12/06)

part 1 of trying to figure something out (01/07)
part 2 of trying to figure something out
I never really figured it out, but here are some ideas

don't know what to call this one
a technical aside (6/07)
inerrancy part 1 (6/5/07)- background
inerrancy part 2 (6/21/07)
inerrancy part 3 (7/9/07)
inerrancy follow-up (8/07)
after trying to read Blue Like Jazz
thoughts on faith
trip to a Christian music festival (there are a bunch of these in the last week of July07 and the beginning of Aug07, but the main ones are Creation 1 Creation 2 Creation 3
another (12/07)

January 2009 update: rather than creating a new index post for last year, I thought I'd just add on to this one. Here are the relevant posts from last year:

fear (1/08)
Buddhism- Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Bob (2/08)
The Problem of Wineskins (2/08)
religion/spirituality (2/08)
the infamous Easter posts (4/08) second one third and another follow-up
(infamous to me, anyway)
(it might be easier to read those if you just click on April 2008, but then you have to scroll down to the bottom and read up to get them in order)
a short one that's important to me (8/08)
Trust (8/08)
posts inspired by The Shack: first second third

Posts of interest from 2009:
why fundamentalism?  part 2
on a friend's birthday
two stories
interview with Bart Ehrman
What I think of as God
belief/unbelief  part 2  and the fear that goes with it

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

So, you may have noticed I haven't posted much in awhile. I could use the holidays as my excuse, and it wouldn't be a lie-- the holiday season always wears me out. But it's not the whole story. Over the last several months, I've come right up against the dark underbelly of having been raised fundamentalist, which is fear. It takes two forms-- one, the normal fear that people won't like you, your family will disown you, no one will want to be friends with you; the other, the fear of bucking the system, the fear of pitting your little voice against the wisdom of the group, which is a deeper, darker thing. In my experience, the hold that fundamentalism has over you is based on the subtle undermining of your own opinions at the same time you are groomed to see the beauty of supporting the group-- in other words, inimidation. In other words, bullying. It's difficult to tease out, because often, and certainly in my case, the people who are doing the intimidating and bullying are people who love you and only want the best for you-- it's just that their definition of "best" turned out to be pretty different than mine. And also, it is innocent on their part; my parents, extended family, and church didn't do anything "to" me that hadn't been done "to" them, that wasn't part of the culture in which they were/I was raised.

I run this blog anonymously for several reasons. The main one is that I really am a privacy freak, in my normal life as well as online. But another important reason is that I don't want my family to read this. They know I no longer consider myself a conservative Christian, but I've never been much more specific than that.

If they read this blog, I'm afraid of what would happen, honestly. It sounds silly, doesn't it? I mean, after all, they're not going to come after me with pitchforks. My family is not so fundamentalist that they would cast me out, as happens in many conservative faiths (I read "Leaving the Saints" by Martha Beck last month). They would be sure to point out to me the error of my ways, but they wouldn't disown me. There might be one or two more distant relations that would refuse to speak to me, but most would just disapprove. Pointedly. And they would pray for me, that I would see the light (by their definition, natch).

I hate that. I want them to see my point. I want to believe that if they started at the beginning and read through my reasoning, they would agree with me, or at least understand where I was going, and I could take my family with me on my journey. But I'm pretty sure that's not true. I'm pretty sure they would agree with certain points, but there would be a mental line in the sand beyond which they would not go. It makes me sad.

Oh, I'm babbling on again, and neglecting the main point which is that I've been dealing with this gut-level fear of speaking out, "speaking my own truth," as they say. I'd like to be able to say I'm done with it and now I'll be fine. But I don't think that's true. It will be an ongoing thing.

Monday, January 14, 2008

photos, for the first time

We had freezing fog here today, a not-uncommon weather event in our area. It usually dissipates not long after the sun comes up (one hesitates to say it "burns off" since the temperature didn't get above 25 degrees today), but today it hung around until noon. The amazing thing, though, is that it coats every stick, needle, and twig with frost. It's quite lovely. So I tromped out to the field next to our subdivision, the same one that will be the largest mall in the state in two years, to take some pictures to share with you, my gentle readers. Loyal but stupid dog in tow, happily rolling in every patch of yellow snow she could find.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Here are the books I read last year that were worth reading, in no particular order:

The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion
Great Expectations, Dickens
What Remains, Radziwill
Leaving the Saints, Beck
Beowulf, Heaney trans.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, Merton
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer
Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen
Wintersmith, Pratchett (young adult)
Jane Eyre, Bronte
Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield

An even dozen. Not bad.