Is It Official?
February 2, 2011

The other day gave me an opportunity for reflection on where I’ve come philosophically in the past several years. For the first time ever, I officially listed myself as “Non-Religious” on a government document. Though I’ve frequently tossed around the term, there was something about the act of scrolling down the jury impaneling form, pausing, and chuckling a bit in irony when I came to the question of religious affiliation.

*By the way, I’m publishing this post with some hesitation. That was a confidential form that will be read only by people who couldn’t care less about my religious affiliation if it doesn’t benefit their courtroom argument. And this post here is a very public statement I’m making. And I know this may have some potentially undesirable consequences. But oh well.*

For some of you, such a thing may seem like no big deal. But for me, it kinda is. Not like “OMG-WTF” huge. But definitely “fo-reals” significant.

Anyway, I can now officially be listed in the minority of American religious views. I’ve migrated from the Major Two-Thirds of the pie chart to the 16-percent of Americans who claim no religion. And it’s quite different from just saying something like, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

Right now I don’t feel like detailing the minutiae of thoughts and feelings involved. I especially don’t feel like defining what exactly “non-religious” means to me, or the reasons why I made it official. But there’s just something about  making things official. For me, the official-ness frees things up. No need to explain. Now, it just “is.”

I’ve also mentioned in previous posts how I wonder if it’s anything like a coming-out experience for an LGBT person. I doubt it could ever compare, but when you feel like you don’t have to hide anymore, life just seems to open up a bit. Of course, on a jury form, I was under penalty of perjury, so I had no choice. 😉 It gave me an opportunity to be completely honest.

And while I’ve been honest here on my blog, in other online locales, and in conversation with friends, it was especially interesting to be able to, in some tiny way, announce myself to the greater world as a specific minority category.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share that. How about you? Have you had an “official” experience with announcing a major category shift in your life…a shift that you previously felt safer hiding?

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Why Are Christians Scared of Pluralism?
October 26, 2010

 

Religious pluralism has existed for thousands of years, but we here in the U.S. have been hearing more about it lately, primarily from Christians. Of course, some other major religions are not necessarily fans of pluralism either, but their voices aren’t heard quite as much in the U.S. So this post focuses mainly on U.S. Christians.


Brian McLaren recently posted a blog about pluralism. A reader had asked him the best way to be Christian but nonexclusive, and to have true, meaningful conversation with someone of a non-Christian perspective. The reader was trying to interact with a Jewish lady about religion, and she said that, even though he (the Christian) was being respectful, she felt that his… “perspective still makes it all about [Christianity], still all about Jesus, which still diminishes her faith in the end and leaves her feeling like I’ve just found a way to let her sit with me at the table.”

In response, Brian breaks it down into two categories, an elitist “strong Christian identity” and a benevolent “weak Christian identity.” He sees problems with both and proposes an alternative, a “strong biblical narrative that truly makes…room for ‘the other.'” Here’s an excerpt:

Do we have a strong biblical narrative that truly makes as much room for “the other” as for “us?” Do we have a strong view of God that begins with love for all people rather than condemnation of all people? Do we have a strong understanding of Jesus as a gift to everyone rather than a proprietary product exclusively franchised to Christians? And so on …

One big problem with a weak benevolent religious identity is that it in some ways requires others to tone down their religious identity … which often ends up becoming a kind of tolerant secularism that only allows a least-common-denominator of civil religion into public life. Another big problem is that it is a good predictor of the end of a religious tradition … which would mean, over time, that benevolent religions would die off, leaving only combative ones!

Without getting too theological about it, I agree with Brian that the “pluralism question” is a big one. It’s obviously not a question as to whether it’s a valid reality of today’s world (it is). The question is what it means to Christians. And he makes a good point that if you’re Christian, don’t be ashamed of it… But I would add that you should not let your Christian identity make you arrogant, which it often does even if you don’t think so.

I think that if you’re really strong and comfortable in your Christian identity you don’t have to show it. It will just show. Then there’s no need to feel like you must “defend the faith” or open the eyes of “the lost.”

Being just barely Christian, I’m one who often hides my tradition for the sake of meaningful conversation with others. Part of this is because the term “Christian” just has so much baggage along with it, and I’d rather just be considered as a fellow human, searching alongside others for love, meaning, and value.

I also do this in reverse: I hide my agnosticism in order to have real conversation with Christians. Like “Christian” does for non-Christians, the term “agnostic” just seems to cause a nervous tick in most Christians, sending them into an infinite loop of internal conversation to figure out how they can get me saved, while I’m trying to talk to them, and they just don’t seem to really listen. …OR…Maybe it’s also me that sometimes gets in battle mode when I’m in a conversation. I admit it.

But lately I’ve become more secure, more comfortable in my relatively new, looser skin of agnosticism, or more accurately agnostic theism. And while I may not outright mention that I consider myself an agnostic, I no longer hide admissions of doubt or skepticism, but I also don’t state it arrogantly. And ironically, this often (not always) leads to a more honest conversation. But I think it also depends on the comfort of the Christian with whom I’m interacting. If it’s a Christian who feels they need to defend the faith or at least open my eyes to the deception all around me, we probably won’t get anywhere.

It’s okay to not hide your faith, or your lack of faith. If you’re a Christian, you can say it. If you’re not, say it. But let’s not allow our identities of faith to get in the way of our deeper identities, as humans. We all hurt. We all have things that give us joy. Just don’t trample on the other just because you feel you have to put a stake in the ground for your team.

My truth is that you can retain your theological distinctives, those things that you love about your faith perspective, and at the same time check them at the door to some extent when you enter into a conversation with someone from outside your perspective. I’m not saying to hide them. Just stop treating them like battle shields and lances (or even the “Sword of the Spirit). Remove your war colors. Don’t give in to the feeling that says you must defend. That way, you might realize that there’s nothing to fear from listening.

That’s why I personally say “Yes!” to pluralism. It can help us all dig deeper, beyond our tired catch phrases and marketing ploys, to the part of us that we all have in common. The part that seeks and listens for truth wherever it can be found.

But who knows, maybe there’s something I should be scared of. Did I miss a memo?

***

A Clarification…

I want to add here, or clarify, that pluralism does in fact include Christians. Including Christians who may be concerned about pluralism. I apologize if I implied otherwise.

It’s easy to say about our conservative Christian friends that “they” are the ones who need to get with the program, and that it’s their fault our world has not progressed beyond exclusive systems. In fact, by blaming those resistant to pluralism, we are perpetuating a climate of fear and accusation.

Maybe we can try to enact the idea that everyone really is welcome and deserves to be listened to. I think all of us have some perspective that can help fill a blind spot for someone else. Not just those of us who think of ourselves as the enlightened ones. 😉

The point I’m trying to make is the importance of not hiding what makes us, us…while at the same time maintaining an open attitude. Openness is the key.

Are You an Ex-Christian?
July 11, 2010

Whether using the label “Ex-Christian,” “Post-Christian,” “Non-Christian Christian,” “Outsider,” or whatever else, many of us have grown up in Christianity, and have grown tired of it. Maybe we now call ourselves atheist or agnostic, or have just moved over to another religion or non-religion, but my qualifier here is that we once called ourselves Christian and now we don’t, or at least hesitate to. I’d love to know why you don’t.

For me, I am not anti-Christian. But technically I cannot call myself Christian simply because I no longer meet the traditional criteria, which for ages has been disputed but seems to be essentially agreed upon. Some say that a Christian is defined, just as it was in the first century, as simply someone who follows the teachings of Jesus, “The Christ.” Easy enough, right?

Well, that last little part of his name is where things get tricky, and that’s why Christians who try to lure people in with the simple definition are not being honest with themselves and others. Because “the Christ” for most went from simply meaning “anointed one” to “The Messiah” or the only true Son of God by whose name all things in Heaven and Earth are unified and in whose name one must believe in order to obtain eternal life, or for that matter, in order to obtain a truly whole life here on Earth…and the list of associated belief  requirements goes on and on, and I won’t get into the arguments thrown about from each and every perspective on that. But that’s one criterion that has become a sticking point for me, technically speaking…and it’s just one example of some of the things by which most people agree to define a Christian. And most of these things are mentioned in the Christian Creeds, like the 12 doctrinal items of the Apostle’s Creed.

And I have difficulty with these items, so I prefer to call myself agnostic regarding these points. (For more explanation see my FAQ and Definitions pages.)

But rather than wallow in the technical aspects, I want to focus on the fact that, for many who prefer not to call themselves Christian, it’s more of a personal issue…meaning, dealing with people. Some…no, many have been really hurt by those professing to be Christian. Some have been turned off, to put it mildly, by the hypocrisy or other behavioral factors of Christians. Gandhi, for example, said he “would probably be a Christian if [he] had never met one.”

For me, I was the Christian that turned me off. I was the one that “hurt” me. I was the hypocrite. And I did not want to be that anymore.

Of course, I feel that I was not really hypocritical in the typical sense. I was sincere in my faith, and I honestly tried hard to be genuine in the way I lived out my faith (I still do). But the word hypocrite comes from the Greek plays during which the actors wore masks to portray their characters. I look back and see that I was playing a role, (method acting maybe, because I was deeply sincere), and when it came to certain things, I was not being true to myself. And that ended up causing me serious internal, existential conflict.

And I can say that relieving myself of the burden of belief freed me to really pursue God in deep honesty. Today I feel that I am true to myself and true to that “still, small voice” inside me moreso than when I was living the life of a model Christian. And while some areas of my life are definitely not easier, today I am more content and peaceful than I have ever been.

***

I still consider myself a Christian in the sense that I follow the teachings of Jesus, but I also cannot call myself a “Christian” because I do not necessarily believe all the doctrines I’m supposed to. So that makes me an outsider, or, what might be more apt, a “non-Christian Christian.” That’s a term I heard recently by a guy interviewed in the just-published DVB (DVD + book) called The Outsider Interviews, (trailer here) by Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks. The work was inspired by the book UnChristian, by Barna Research Group president David Kinnaman.

A few years ago I reviewed unChristian and was thoroughly pleased. While the Barna Group occasionally has been criticized, David Kinnaman is a good guy and his book, citing numerous statistics from in-depth surveys, really woke up some Christians to the reality that there’s good reason why some people hate them. And Outsider Interviews puts a face to the statistical evidence. It interviews atheists, agnostics, other “outsiders,” as well as young Christians who tend to agree somewhat with outsiders. And while the language is geared toward Christians, the authors have done an impressive job at letting outsiders speak for themselves, unfiltered, about why they don’t want anything to do with Christianity, or at least Christians. So I highly recommend it.

***

Anyway, what’s your story? Are you an ex-Christian? Why?

Or maybe you’d like to be an ex-Christian. Well, consider this your anti-altar call: (cue soft piano…)

With all heads bowed and every eye closed, how many of you tonight would say, “You know, Dave, I wish I could free myself of always trying to believe the right thing, but I’m afraid I’ll go to hell, and I’m afraid I’ll be an outcast.” If that’s you, could you just raise your hand right now? With no one looking around, if that’s you and you’ve raised your hand, I want you to just stand to your feet and don’t be ashamed; be honest with yourself… (Can we play that last song again, Tim? That’s right, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”) Let’s all just sing that right now as we stand together…Join with me… I have spoke with the tongues of angels. I have held the hand of the devil… But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….I believe in the Kingdom come/Then all the colors will bleed into one…But yes I’m still running…You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/You know I believe it…But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….

As I often say, You are not alone.

No Experience Is Better Than False Experience (Guest Post)
July 2, 2010

Following is a guest post from my Kiwi friend, Jonathan Elliot, who writes about faith and being a friendly agnostic at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

***

I’d like to tell my story of not being slain in the spirit.

I spent a fair bit of time in spirit-filled practice when I was a student, attended a charismatic church and worked closely with Pentecostals in our campus christian group.  I can still speak in tongues on demand, if you want me to. At the time, a pentecostal ministry ran a revival week in a huge tent out in the countryside. I’ll let the cynical among us note the appropriateness of using a circus tent for such events.  They brought a number of apparently-big-name preachers in from overseas and one of them was a clean-cut young man who was surely not even thirty years old. I’ll call him Redfords LaGrange. God had allegedly been talking to him since he was seven years old, and he’d made a study of “God’s Generals,” famous spirit-fooled preachers.

Standing at the rear of some 1500 people, I listened to him. On another night I’d heard Redfords exhort the whole crowd to voluntarily speak in tongues at the top of their lungs.  I felt uncomfortable with this, mainly for what I felt were Scriptural reasons. It also seemed kinda stupid and I quietly left to stand in the dark field and pray. As the roar of the crowd behind me surged, I could hear the cry from the poor folk trying to sleep in a distant farmhouse: “SHUuuuuuuuuT UuuuP!” This rather amused me, especially since they actually used more colorful language.

Anyway, on the night in question Redfords LaGrange called for those engaged in youth ministry up the front; he was going to pray for them. I walked up the long aisle into the spotlights along with about 50 others and we stood in a line along the front.  Now, when you’ve got 50 people to pray for individually and you’re a preacher with no time to spare, you have to kind of rush along the line and spend about 15 seconds with each person.  You don’t have time to even ask the person’s name. As Redfords was coming, I prayed “God, I’m open to anything you want to do. Do anything you want to me. Make me fall over if you want, only please let it be you and not psychology.”  I’d been praying that all the way down the aisle too. Let me say, I was very sincere about both things.  I wanted a touch, but only if it was real.

I knew falling over was likely, as that tended to happen in these kind of meetings. I always preferred to call it “falling over”, as the term “slain in the spirit” is not one found in scripture. The cynical can point to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were slain BY the Spirit.  I doubt anyone wants to recreate that experience.

Indeed, as Redfords came down the line, I saw people falling over out of the corner of my eye. “Catchers” ran forward to make sure they didn’t hit the ground too hard. Many of us already had catchers standing behind us in advance. If it’s an experience from God, I always wondered why he would allow you to be hurt?

Redfords LaGrange reached me and prayed, his hand gently on my head. I didn’t sense any physical pressure from him, I was alert to being pushed.  He prayed kindly and briefly, and moved on.  Did I sense him hesitate when I didn’t collapse? I stayed there praying, slowly realising that out of the whole line, I was the only one who hadn’t fallen over.  Maybe I was resisting the spirit, maybe my intellect had made me hard-hearted. But I know I was sincere. I just didn’t want it to be weak buckling at the knees under the influence of emotion, tiredness or peer pressure.

Mark Vernon migrated from christian clergy to atheist, and now calls himself an “agnostic christian”. He’s an advocate of silence and
not-knowing. Vernon says it’s important to draw a clear line between silence and an experience of ecstasy.

There is an emphasis on experiencing ecstasy in much contemporary churchgoing. This is Christianity that is authenticated by some kind of peak experience, from speaking in tongues, to being healed, to seeing a statue move.  Typically, the experience is noisy, demonstrative and, qua the experience, often barely distinguishable from a bungee jump or druggy high.  But this is Christianity as psychological buzz; its passion is no more than emotion.  It’s aims may be valid – happiness, satisfaction, belonging – but they eclipse the goal of spirituality, at least according to [Meister] Eckhart, which is that of sacred ignorance. For the pursuers of pure experience, the unknown is regarded suspiciously.  They substitute the language of personal fulfillment for the language of … doubt.” –After Atheism, p 120.

So what do I make of this? As it happens, in the course of many other meetings I’ve never fallen over. I’m not a hater; I believe that if God was there, then my prayer was honored. I also have a funny feeling that at least some of those people fell over because they felt they had to, or look unspiritual in front of the audience. Have you ever felt left out when others all seemed to be getting blessed? What did you make of it?

Again, check out Jonathan’s blog at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

Do You Know Your Enemy?
June 30, 2010

Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.

–T. Merton

***

When I first read those lines a year or two ago, I had other people in mind. I envisioned myself saying those words to them, calling out the error of their ways. It’s easy to do that, especially when I’ve been on a journey away from the established traditions that raised me. It’s easy to take every opportunity to snap at those who I may see as hypocrites in religion or those that I feel may be holding us back from “progress.”

Now I’m trying to envision someone saying those things to me. Yes, I’ve had many call out the error of my ways. It’s sort of been a theme of my life for some time now. But this is different. It doesn’t deal with belief or doctrine. It deals with behavior. It deals with the ways I choose to  see the world and others around me.

So instead of “convicting” others of such things as “coldness and avarice…mediocrity and materialism…sensuality and selfishness,” I’m trying to recognize where those elements might have a home in me. Instead of assuming people see me or my views as the enemy (although that may be the case), I’m trying to recognize when I see “them” as my enemy. How do I speak of them when they’re not around? How do I speak to them when they are around?

There’s a balancing point somewhere in all this. What’s the  optimum tension between staying quiet with a humble, open mind, and not hiding my own truths? (To be sure, there’s a difference between “not hiding” and “asserting.”) And to be honest, I’m tired of trying to find the wrong in others, and looking for holes in arguments. It just takes too much energy.

And in that sense, my enemy is often myself, sapping my energy for the sake of an endless war.

So maybe I can try not “knowing” the weaknesses of my enemy, and instead try to know them as individuals. Which just happens to be what I expect of them.

My spiritual exercise for now is to just go with the flow, staying content in my own truths, assuming no ill of anyone else, and remaining responsible for my own words and actions.

But that’s hard.