Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Religion:

This post is as much or more for me as it is for anyone else; it's been a long time since I laid out what I really believe about faith and God and church and religion, so I expect this will be something of an internal journey. And as such, let me add a disclaimer: My beliefs are not necessarily your beliefs. I will not be offended if you do not share them. I am happy to discuss religion with anyone willing to abide by that same rule, but I refuse to have someone else's beliefs shoved down my throat. In addition to exploring my particular beliefs, I'm sure my feelings about various religions will come out in this post, and some of my opinions are likely to be unflattering towards the religions involved. Please know that even if I have a fundamental problem with a certain religion, or have had bad experiences with some person or people of a certain belief system, I never lump all people all into one group. So if I have a criticism about your particular religion, please do not feel personally attacked.

This post has been a long time coming, but the timing is sparked by an e-mail I received from Dan's mom recently. I have talked about our radically different family dynamics in a previous blog post, and the hugest difference is in religion; namely, his parents are deeply religious Baptists, and I most definitely am not. Her e-mail, while well-intentioned, raises an uncomfortable issue for me. She wants to be my "spiritual mother," to "feed [me] on spiritual milk and then meat to grow in Christ" to be sure that I have accepted Jesus into my heart and am saved. She truly is concerned for my soul, especially since I will likely marry her only son and be the mother of her grandkids, to whom I'm sure she hopes I will pass on these Baptist teachings. While I don't have a problem with Dan talking about the Baptist religion with our kids, I have no desire to become a Baptist, ever. I have serious problems with aligning myself with a religion whose leaders promote intolerance, spread misinformation, and embrace hate as a way of life. Again, I'm not saying that all Baptists are this way (I have had plenty of great experiences with individuals), but the leadership in my experience often has been. Look at Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church, which proclaimed on its website that "God Hates Fags, God Hates Fag Enablers and God Hates You all in Boulder."
Obviously, I can't tell Dan's mom that. Especially since I know she shares some of the very viewpoints that I find so repulsive, although she at least is not hateful about it. And frankly, it's about more than just my distaste for how the Baptist religion in specific and Christianity in general is portrayed in the news - after all, the only people who make it to the news are the worst, most far-out, most crazy, most extreme members of the faith. It's like judging all Muslims based on the actions of a very few fundamentalist extremists.

The truth is that, in all honestly, I can't call myself a Christian of any kind. I find beauty and wisdom in the Christian religions. I have read most of the Bible (never could get through the bits about the apocalypse or Leviticus) and found it intriguing, enlightening, and moving. I have known many Christians who find great strength and meaning in their faith, and I admire and applaud this. I have attended Lutheran, Mormon, and Baptist churches, with mixed results. I have studied the Bible on my own and in school. I have read Christian literature, and listened with an open mind to well-meaning Christians attempting to convert me for the good of my soul. However, I also grew up on Jonathon Livingston Seagull and Illusions; Stranger in a Strange Land and Mary Summer Rain; Deepak Chopra and Celestine Prophecy, in a household that encouraged questions, exploration, and thought, and frowned on blind faith. I mention this to perhaps provide some insight into my religious background and where I'm coming from, because I have some fundamental problems with some of the major tenets of Christian faith:
  1. I do not believe in the Bible as the literal and uncorrupted Word of God.
  2. I do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God , the Savior of mankind, or God made flesh.
  3. I do not believe that anyone who does not believe in Jesus and His sacrifice can't go to heaven. I'm not even sure I believe in heaven, at least, not the Christian version.
  4. I don't believe in Hell.
  5. I don't believe in the inherently sinful nature of mankind.
  6. I do believe in reincarnation.
I do realize that not all Christians believe all of those things (or don't believe, as in the case of 6), but they are generally the exception, not the rule. It takes more than belief in God and acceptance of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth to make one a Christian, and I don't have it. Allow me to elaborate.

The Bible.
There is great wisdom in the Bible. I don't debate that. I would contend, however, that there are many passages that, taken out of their historic and cultural context, mean something entirely different than what was originally intended. Moreover, it is a historic, scholarly fact that the Bible has changed over time. In the days before the printing press, mis-copies were common; additionally, scribes were wont to change certain passages to better convey what they thought they should mean, or for their own agenda. Even without the possibility of corruption on the part of scribes (or priests, or politicians), the simple fact of translation is an issue. As anyone who speaks more than one language knows, translation is tricky even between two languages which are similar and still in vigorous use - inevitably, certain fine nuances of meaning are lost or changed, and the experiences and worldview of the translator influences the final product. The problems with translating the Bible (from ancient languages that haven't been used in centuries and which are wildly different in structure and style from most modern languages) are even more widespread and complex. There is a fantastic book, written by a formerly-Christian scholar, called Misquoting Jesus which I think everyone interested in the Bible should read.
Another problem I have with the Bible, not necessarily related to it being the literal Word of God, is the cherry-picking that goes on. For instance, why are some parts of Leviticus important, and others ignored? I thought part of the point of being Christian was that the New Testament wipes out basically everything the Old Testament said and starts fresh?
I think the Bible is beautiful and wise and in most cases a thoughtful guide for how a good person might live their life. But I also find it to be a very human book, written by generations of scholars just trying to understand their world and their faith.

I don't want this to be taken as me not believing that Jesus existed. I just don't believe him to be any more or less the son of God than any other human being. I can get behind Jesus as an exceptionally enlightened, spiritually evolved man who chose to live a life devoted to helping others accelerate the pace of their spiritual journeys. I find questions and theories surrounding his "lost" years fascinating. But I believe all of mankind to be the sons of God, with a spark of the divine, and I think Jesus' miracles were a result of greater knowledge about the nature of existence, rather than any kind of inherent holiness.

Salvation through Christ.
This is a major sticking point for me. Part of it is because of other beliefs (which I'll get into when I get into reincarnation). Part of it is because I simply cannot accept the belief that those who do not believe that Jesus died for their sins are doomed to Hell, or at best Purgatory. For one, I find the idea rather petty for a supposedly omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God; to me it reeks of the very human concept of "I'm right so you can't possibly be right as well, and that makes you not only wrong but willfully ignorant and malicious." Who among us hasn't had that very feeling during a heated argument, even if we know in the backs of our minds that the other person has a point, and that the other person is not going out of their way to hurt us? I find it colossally arrogant for any single religion to claim to have the only possible answer to the nature of existence; I think it likely that what lies beyond our known world is infinitely more incredible and complex than our poor human brains can even comprehend.
The other reason for my problem with this idea is a deeply personal one. Both of my grandparents died this year, within months of each other. I still grieve for them deeply; I think about them every single day, and I have completely broken down on more than one occasion. I still find myself thinking about calling them to fill them in on my life, my grandmother especially. When I think that someday I'll graduate college, get married, have kids, all of that life stuff, and they won't be there, it breaks my heart. Something that gives me great comfort is the feeling in my heart that they still exist somewhere, be it in heaven or as higher spiritual beings or whatever, watching over me and loving me and being proud of me. But, while I do know that since my uncle Brad passed away a few years ago my grandma had been attending church, neither of them was "saved" in the Christ-died-for-my-sins sense of the word. My grandma's thoughts on religion were a lot like mine, actually. And so you see, if I believed that the only way to heaven was through Christ, I would have to not only have to give up this idea which is one of the only things that gives me comfort when I think of them, I would have to believe that they had gone, not to a better place, but a terrible place. And that's not something I could ever, ever believe.

Hell, Reincarnation, and the inherently sinful nature of mankind.
I believe that the purpose for our existence as spiritual beings is first and foremost, to learn. I believe in a spiritual body and spiritual realm beyond that of the earth; I believe that we are all far more spiritually advanced than most religions give us credit for; and I believe that we live many lives on Earth. I believe that we (or perhaps a higher power, or a more spiritually advanced teacher) decide ahead of time what we need to learn in this life, and plan accordingly, though I don't believe that our lives are entirely predestined. Part of the fun, after all, would be in free will - not only your own, but that of those around you. Thus, we are free to make mistakes, even terrible ones, and in so doing perhaps learn an even greater lesson, or teach one to someone else on their own spiritual path. And I believe we do this over and over, living many lives (which are, after all, an eyeblink in terms of eternity), until we have learned all we can on this world, and then we move on, to whatever is next for us on our spiritual journey. And because everyone is here to learn some kind of lesson, I don't believe in Hell - no, not even for Hitler. Who's to say that Hitler was not some spiritually advanced soul who chose to live a terrible life in order to teach the human race a lesson which still informs our consciousness even today? I'm not saying Hitler should be nominated for sainthood or anything; I just think that Hell is a a flawed oversimplification of what I believe to be a more complex situation. It's certainly a primally satisfying idea - who doesn't want to imagine a truly awful person spending eternity in torment? I can see how it came to be a part of human belief, and some version of Hell seems to exist in many, many religions, past and present. But it's all tied up with these ideas of vengeance and punishment, and it seems to me that a true, all-powerful deity would be above such pettiness. I do, however, remember reading about one version of Hell which made sense to me. It was, ironically, in an Anne Rice vampire novel called Memnoch the Devil. I realize that this is an unlikely place to find some kind of legitimate theology, but I found her portrayal of Hell quite compelling. In the book, Hell is not so much a place of punishment as it is one of learning; it is a place where the soul of a person who has committed wrongful acts must go in order to come to terms with those acts and embrace the beauty and perfection of the Creator, before they can advance to Heaven. Sometimes these souls, in horror at realizing the terrible deeds they committed, punish themselves, severely, living in torment, until gradually, hopefully, they are able to move on. For my belief system, this is a much more compatible version of Hell - as a place of reflection, where one absorbs the lessons of the life just lived, sheds the pain and sadness, and moves on spiritually.
One more reason for my belief in reincarnation. As I mentioned before, the span of a human life is a mere eyeblink, a brief flash, when compared to eternity. I cannot believe in a God who gives His creations such a brief window of time before determining how they will spend the rest of eternity.
So, because of these beliefs surrounding the nature of our existence, I cannot buy into the idea of mankind as inherently sinful. Each person is a completely perfect spiritual being on his or her spiritual path, here to learn some kind of lesson.
Now, in saying this, I'm not saying that people shouldn't try to do right. You still have to live with yourself, both now and later when you look back on this life. And while you may have set out on this journey with particular goals in mind, since you can't remember exactly what you decided before you were born, you have to muddle through, listening to your "inner voice," that feeling inside of you that tells you when you're on track. I've heard it numerous times in my life; in fact, it was its lack that prompted me to try to shake things up and sparked my move to Boulder. Since the move, I've heard it often - finding roommates, finding jobs, finding Dan. Little cosmic indications that my life is on the right track - that I'm right where I'm supposed to be.
I also think that some people are in your life for a reason. We form attachments as humans - why not as spiritual beings? Those people who you meet, who you instantly feel like you've known for your whole life, or the ones who stick around forever, the ones you feel linked to on a deeper level... I think you really are. A sort of cosmic family, so to speak. That goes for adversaries, too - after all, who's to say they aren't really a friend, put into your life as a favor, to teach you something?


I really like Dogma's take on religion, especially two quotes from Selma Hayak's character, Serendipity. First one, "I have issues with anyone who treats God like a burden instead of a blessing. You people don't celebrate your faith . . . you mourn it." And, even better, "When are you people going to learn? It's not about who's right or wrong. No denomination's nailed it yet, and they never will because they're all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains need to wake up." Religion is so often portrayed without a sense of humor, and I think that's a shame. Dogma's take, that it's the faith that's important and not the name you put to it, is something I've always believed, from the very beginning. Maybe it comes from my early years, reading The Chronicles of Narnia over and over. In The Last Battle,the final book, which was always my favorite by far, there is a great battle between good and evil. In the end, of course, Aslan prevails against the evil god Tash. And those who follow Tash are destroyed, and those who follow Aslan join him in paradise. But one man who followed Tash joins Aslan and the rest. When he asks Aslan why he has been allowed into paradise when he worshipped Aslan's adversary, Aslan tells him, "Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?' I said, 'Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.' But I said also (for truth constrained me), 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.' 'Beloved,' said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.'"
Of anything I've watched or read though, the book I've found that most perfectly sums up my beliefs is called Communion With God written by Neale Donald Walsch. It's a good read, and one of the few religious-type texts that I have ever found myself agreeing with completely. Despite the title, it is not a particularly Christianity-oriented text.

So, there you have it. The somewhat complex result of years of reading, exploring, questioning, and wondering. It's a rather odd mix, I'll admit, but it brings me peace, which is the most important thing right?