Friday, November 27, 2009

So of course I am feeling ambivalent about posting that bit about atheism. For one thing, I only have about a dozen regular readers and I don't want to lose any of you. But also because it has caused a fair amount of dissonance within me. I've come very close to deleting it several times, not because I didn't mean it, but because I don't think I quite said what I meant to say. So here is a brief second attempt.

In some way that I can't quite articulate, at this particular moment in my life, acknowledging my atheist thoughts has become a necessary part of being a believer. The tension between the two of ways of thinking (believing and not) feels like two sides of the same coin. They arise organically out of each other. I find some comfort in various OT stories: Jacob is blessed by God after wrestling with him all night; David is perhaps more beloved by God than any other character, yet he sins egregiously and repents from the bottom of his heart (Ps 51); Job shouts defiance at heaven, and yet in the end, God is pleased with him and blesses him. It occurs to me that all of those times in the prophets where God says (through the prophet) that it isn't empty sacrifices that he wants, it is human beings' hearts-- all of those times may be a reflection of something very simple: God wants honesty from us, even if that honestly involves speaking thoughts that aren't orthodox.

This is coming very close to me sounding like I'm patting myself on the back for having heretical thoughts and that's not what I mean to do at all. So maybe I should just stop. It's just that some days it feels like an act of faith to stand before God, courage in both hands, and say "I don't believe in you."


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

fear redux

of course I'm still dealing with fear. That should be obvious from the end of that last one. I've talked about fear before (here and here that I can remember, there are probably more, too), and it still comes up. The classes I'm taking this semester haven't helped any. There's nothing to bring up the fear of eternal damnation like reading a 3,500-line poem about a journey through Hell (Dante's Inferno). And then in my other class, we were reading the Old Testament, with all those rules to follow, and the God who is occasionally quite wrathful when the rules are not followed. The thing that strikes me about fear this time is how irrational it is. Because even at the height of my Evangelicalism, those are not things that I should have been afraid of. The Inferno is Catholic, not protestant, and even my most conservative relatives would be able to brush it off on that basis. The Old Testament is the "old law." Paul, in his letters to the early church, spends a great deal of energy explaining why Christians are no longer required to keep the law. Therefore, even based on my history as an Evangelical, there is no rational reason why either of those readings should bother me. But they did. Proving (to me, anyway) that my fears are more about what is going on in my own head than about anything real.

But even irrational fears are still scary. (wait. are all fears irrational? no, of course not. But probably the scariest ones are.) All of this reminds me of an experience from childhood, when I was probably about ten. We were at a bible conference that was being held at a university, and my family and I were staying in one of the dorms. I took a nap one afternoon. When I went to sleep, the door to our room was open, and there were lots of people around, walking up and down the hallways, talking, etc. When I woke up, there was no one and it was utterly silent. Our room was deserted, the hallway was deserted. I remember walking down the hall and then down the stairs and not seeing anyone anywhere. I finally decided that the Rapture must have occurred and I'd been left behind. I was one part terrified, but another part resigned. I had finally been called to account, I figured; I had always suspected I wasn't quite good enough to qualify for salvation. But then my parents came back from wherever they were, and everybody else showed up, and life went on. I forgot about it for years, but it came to mind recently. I still remember that stark feeling: this is it.

The Rapture, for those of you who weren't raised with it, is the apocalyptic moment when Christ returns with a blast of trumpets, and those who are saved will be caught up in the air to be with Him and taken to Heaven forever, while those who are unsaved are left behind-- what happens to them is a matter of great theological debate, which I will spare you. Just let it be said that depending on whether you are pre-mill, post-mill, or a-mill, you will have a different opinion.

Oh, the joys of theology.

(who is feeling a bit queasy at the moment)

Monday, November 23, 2009

I've been trying off and on for a year and a half now to write a post about letting go of expectations about what God "should" be like. It's a difficult task for those of us who were raised with very specific ideas. It was going to be called "forgiving God," because in spite of the blasphemous sound of that phrase, that is often what it feels like. But that post isn't going anywhere, in spite of my long-term efforts. So maybe that's all I need to say about it, or maybe more will come up later. So... moving on.

What I've been thinking about recently is atheism. The word has such a slanted, loaded meaning in our culture, especially because of the very vocal appearance of a number of prominent atheists in the last few years (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc). In some circles it seems to mean the same thing as being un-American, immoral, and a devil worshipper, which is absurd, of course.

But honestly, their take on it is not particularly appealing to me-- in part because while their stated ideas are provocative and often convincing, their motivation on a personal level often seems to be something like an inability to forgive God for not being what they expect him to be, and perhaps more obviously, an inability to forgive believers for believing in God anyway. I'll confess that's a pretty biased statement about their work that is based on a very limited reading of their books, and hearing a few interviews. But read the first chapter of God is Not Great and see if you don't find that the prevailing sentiment is not so much the freedom of letting go of religious ideas but anger--even bitterness--at the (perceived) stupidity of people who complacently accept meaningless ideas about God. They seem both angry and gleeful to point out the ways in which God cannot possibly be like what is advertised by the religious establishment, but at the same time they are unwilling to acknowledge that God might be something entirely other than that. In the end, I find them unconvincing. Trumpeting that the God of Sunday School piety doesn't exist is so self-evident as to be boring, if you ask me.

But it doesn't change the fact that atheism has become a viable alternative for me in the past few months. I don't think I mean the term in the same way that they do, because when they use it, it seems to have an automatic pejorative meaning toward religion and spirituality, and I don't feel that. I still can't deny my own experiences with spirituality-- both in the past and present. But neither can I deny the part of me that just doesn't think there's anything out there, and certainly not anyone.

It's almost like two separate compartments in my brain: the part of me that believes implicitly in the spiritual experiences I've had, and the part of me that thinks it's all utter nonsense. I'm going to assign this to right brain and left brain, respectively, just because I need something to assign it to, not because I have any proof that's really what it is. It's just what it feels like. When I'm thinking with my right brain, spirituality and connectedness and a wholistic approach to my experience feels completely and utterly right and natural. When I'm thinking with my left brain, that right brain thinking seems absurd. Even silly. Which is one of the reasons I've had a hard time posting recently. It is becoming more and more difficult to overcome that "This is DUMB" feeling.

But I wrote a paper a couple of weeks ago for my Bible as Lit class about the Book of Job. I argued that the reason why God approves of Job at the end of the story is because Job refused to stop asking questions until he was satisfied. He held onto the contradictions until he felt them resolve. Like a Zen koan. And God was pleased with him.

So I'm trying to do the same, and my right brain is trying to trust that God (or What I Think of as God) will be OK with that, because he/she/it was OK with it when Job did it. while my left brain wrestles this out.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being... (Psalm 51.6, NASV)

Sunday, November 22, 2009