Frontier
July 25, 2010

This is for Rick (and anyone else, of course). What started out as a paragraph became several, and maybe a bit too abstract. Sorry if I rambled too much. Just some thoughts.

Many think we are just selfish relativists who want to have our free will without any responsibility or consequence. We are seen and described as non-committal, apathetic-yet-verbose idealists whose primary desire is to buck the system to conform to and justify our own fleshly desires. We are perceived as having near-demonic repulsion to the holy absolutes handed down by wise, God-fearing prophets, teachers, and/or apostles. We may be seen as naïve. Or if we demonstrate that we are not naïve, we are declared as bitter malcontents whose hearts have been darkened by such sins as pride or rebellion.

These are some of the justifications given for declaring many of us heretics, among many other descriptors. And we know these all quite well. In spite of this, and not merely in quick reaction to it, I think the best way to respond is with words such as those spoken by Dean Thomas Ferret, one of the first Protestants who was burned at the stake during a Scottish inquisition: “I am confident my cause is just in the presence of God, and therefore I am not concerned about the consequences.”

I use that quote not because I piously think of myself or others in similar position as martyrs. I wouldn’t dare compare myself to someone who was questioned by an established regime of Christians who were so confident in their specific form of faith that they felt it okay to literally judge the faith of others. Okay, well, maybe I would. Because in the same way that it has been happening for centuries within Christianity, people have felt so determined to defend “the” faith, or at least their form of it, that they have named “their” faith “the” faith. And to this day the inquisitions live on, albeit softly, through various forms in all denominations of what the Catholic church has progressively re-named from “Inquisition” to “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the task of which since 1965 has been defined as “furthering right doctrine rather than ‘censuring’ heresy.” And I think such soft-pedaling is disingenuous.

Regardless, what I want people to know is that most of us really are, on a heart level, confident that our “cause is just in the presence of God.” And while some might say that one who is sincere can still be wrong, which just makes one sincerely wrong, I think the crux of the matter is that Christians have come to define a relationship with God with too tight of terms, including “right” and “wrong.” I know this may get into the whole relativism-versus-authority debate, but I’ll avoid that by just pausing to say that one way I have come to define my faith is with the same words of those who established the Christian Biblical canon: “This ‘seems’ right to us and the Spirit.” In other words, it’s all a guess. A hunch.

Whatever label some try to put on me, I am holding fast to this proposal: Faith is not faith if it doesn’t involve uncertainty. If it doesn’t involve some trepidation, mistrust, struggle, fear, blindness, and dare I say, doubt, it’s no faith for me. And if my version of God is a god whose deadly “justice” needs defense, that god must die, because he is apparently too weak to stand on his own. And if, in order to further the legacy of such a faith, I must reject any perspectives that question, deconstruct, or defy established doctrines, that’s a legacy not worth continuing.

So these views might make me an outsider of sorts. A wanderer. A lost “prodigal.” But in this sense, I’d rather wallow and share slop with my fellow pigs than return to a house that promises an inheritance. Because, in this case, the inheritance is conditional upon my acceptance of too many house rules based on imagined certainty, and such an inheritance, in my view, is fools gold. And many have made that house and that inheritance into more of a self-proclaimed kingdom. But it’s an insular kingdom, an incestuous monarchy.

For these reasons, I am content with my wandering. But I am intentional in wandering. It’s part searching and part enjoying the ride. Part sailing, part motoring, and part drifting. Part communicating and part staying silent. And a lot of listening. A lot of sniffing the air and licking my finger and testing the breeze. And occasionally putting one foot in front of the other, not on a staircase that brings me higher, but on a wilderness trail with lots of blind turns. And I’ve grown comfortable in the discomfort of that. Confident in the contradictions.

It’s like I’m suspended somewhere in-between, but not like walking a tightrope, trying to traverse from one side to the other and calling it a success. More like the neon suspended in a glass tube, happy when the twilight comes. The time when the world occasionally realizes that night and day are different for each time zone. Because that’s when I begin to see that I’m not the only welcome sign in our lonely town. With each flicker of light here and there, little signs popping on, I’m reminded of the beauty in the art of divine randomness. It’s the beauty of holy chaos. Reds and yellows and all sorts of colors blinking on, some in steady, predetermined  patterns, some of them stuttering for a while until they’re warmed, and some haltingly flashing, barely humming in their own discouraged dimness. But we all light up our own little portions of the solitary road, letting travelers know that they are welcome to stay a while, to exit the busy highway and rest.

Are We Lost?
June 25, 2010

In many religions there’s a fundamental assumption that settling down in certainty of faith is a sign of maturity. At least I’ve found this to be true in my Evangelical Christian heritage. Many who are established in churches imply, to those who are not, that one must precisely know what they believe and why they believe it, and if that’s not the case there is something spiritually wrong. In short, if one does not have their faith tied down to an anchor of certainty, they are lost. They then become a target of prayer, evangelism, and definitely a target of gossip.

Anyway, the thinking used to be that when youth left home, they might also leave the church temporarily. They might wander around a bit and experiment, but when they got a little older, when they got married, perhaps, they would return. Or when they had kids, for sure, because everyone knows you have to have your faith statements together when you have kids. And in the past, yes, they would usually come back. But that no longer seems to be the case. Many are not going back. Maybe I should say we are not going back. So where are we going instead? What has happened? Have we lost our way?

***

I spent a few years researching apologetics, the practice of defending your faith. There were times when, as a young short-term missionary/evangelist, even while confidently sharing the Gospel with “the lost” and artfully weaving arguments to win them over, I had my own questions in mind. Of course, I never paid them much attention, because that would have been opening the door to deception, according to our teaching. Well, it’s not that I never expressed my concerns. I certainly drove my family, friends, and professors nuts at times with my unending questions. But my questions were always tethered to a confidence in the fundamentals of my faith. That is, of course, until I started questioning the fundamentals.

That’s when the anchor line broke and my ship set out to sea. To describe the process would take too much space here, so I’ll just say that it was in fact, a process. A gradual stretching that at some point caused my chain of certainty to lose a link, and then another, and another, and so on.

The funny thing is that there are two ways to look at this un-tethering. When someone’s faith-chain snaps, does it represent an aimless drifting that will eventually result in (spiritual) starvation and death? Or is it freedom? Those two ways of seeing it are both represented well on bumper stickers. One says, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” While the other says, in the words of Tolkein, “…Not all those who wander are lost.”

For me, it’s been intentional. And for me, it is freedom. But, as another bumper sticker says, “Freedom isn’t free.” With freedom, when you have no visible boundaries, it’s hard to tell which direction you should go. You have to look hard for reference points. And you have to search for food and shelter. And, what can be the most difficult, it can get very, very lonely. You also may occasionally reach a port, where you assume you’re safe, where you might meet some like you. Some ports turn out to be wonderful places of nurturing and security, and others are downright dangerous.

Those who intentionally choose to cut their chains become exiles. Voluntary exiles. Some call us wanderers. But I think some are just innately born to explore, including areas of faith. So some call themselves explorers. Journeyers. And some are refugees, fleeing hurt and seeking hope. I call myself a pilgrim. (That’s why I’ve inked myself with the Latin label “Peregrinus.”)

There are many valid points and counter points to consider with this. For me, some quotes give me comfort in my perspective:

There are only too many men and women who think that, if they have scrupulously repeated the prescribed phrases, made the proper gestures and observed the traditional tabus, they are excused from bothering about anything else. For these people, the performance of traditional custom has become a substitute for moral effort and intelligence.” — Aldous Huxley, End and Means

In challenge to the idea that if people would only involve themselves in a solid Christian church and firm up their faith, their existential issues would resolve, Leslie Weatherhead writes:

Far more people are in distress of mind and body because they are starved of love than because their religious beliefs are in a muddle…. …Men have not found in [churches] an answer to their questions, the satisfaction of their need of fellowship, or adequate scope for their service to others. All this and much, much more they should have found in the churches, and the need for many [non-profit service] organizations would not have arisen if the churches had cared more for men and less for creed and ceremony.”

…And so, I suggest, that is why they set out as voluntary exiles in search of something more.

Perhaps the most apt one-liners come from a 19th/20th-century French writer, Andre Gide, who devoted himself to intellectual honesty. My friend Spritzophrenia brought up this brilliant Gide quote:

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

But here’s my favorite:

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”