Friday, December 31, 2010

Year End Review

It's the end of 2010, which for me marks right at two years since I began seriously questioning my religious beliefs. I started out quite tentatively, reading books and speaking with no one about my questions. I was unsure of how others would react and I was filled with anxiety about my doubts. I feared where they might lead and I worried over my eternal fate. I eventually started reading blogs by atheists, which felt a bit like sinning. After all, I was openly tempting myself with unbelief, right? It didn't help that I would only read the blogs late at night when everyone was asleep, so as not to cause a conflict with my husband. That made what I was doing seem that much more shady. Eventually I found a friend or two to talk with and by the end of the first year, even my husband and I managed to have a strained conversation or two about my questions. My anxiety was beginning to lessen as I became use to my perpetual uncertainty and as I found others with similar questions.

2010 was a much easier year for me emotionally because I was "out of the closet" so to speak with my husband. Though we still don't talk much about differences in beliefs, we are less defensive with each other. He reads my blog to know my current thoughts and sends me links to articles on occasion. And on occasion we discuss them. This year I found several friends who were open to discussions of faith, a real blessing to me. A few of them even willingly attend a book club with me now where we discuss faith and science issues once a month at church. I enjoy discussions of faith and feel my questioning is a healthy sign of a serious and reflective faith. I no longer feel shame, or guilt, or anxiety about my questions, though I do grow a bit impatient with others who don't seem to question their own beliefs. I am more confident in discussing faith issues, not that I have the answers now, but I feel I have a right to ask the questions. I've also done a fair amount of reading, which has helped me think through issues. Starting this blog was the fullest expression of my willingness to discuss difficult issues. Though it began as a way to not overwhelm a friend of mine with countless emails from me, it has turned into a valuable way for me to work through questions, get advice and encouragement, and practice giving voice to my doubts. I appreciate those of you who have been a part of it.

Over at Exploring our Matrix, a thread has started discussing the faith journeys of similar others, who began as conservative Christians and have deconstructed their faiths, leaving themselves uncertain as to what is next. There are a few who regret this experience, but others, like myself, wouldn't go back to their starting point, despite the emotional difficulties and uncertainty. I noted in the thread that I call myself an "agnostic Christian" at this point, which sounds a bit strange and might be an oxymoron to some. It just highlights my uncertainty as well as my continued attraction to aspects of my faith. I look forward to another year of thinking and wondering. Happy New Year Everyone!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How We Handle Difficult Passages: One Unfortunate Bible Class

We just returned home after a week of visiting family in two different states. We enjoyed ourselves a great deal, but after sleeping in four different homes, it's nice to get back to our own beds. I didn't attend any Christmas services with family as our religious tradition doesn't view Christmas as a religious holiday. The Sunday following Christmas we attended my grandma's church. It was a reminder to me of why religion can make things so difficult for those willing to reflect on it.

The Bible class studied Romans 9:4-22*. I sat there feeling a bit sad for the teacher and several in the class. They confessed the difficulty they had with the passage and the time they spent pondering it and wondering how a loving God could harden some one's heart or hate someone. The teacher mentioned in passing that he had wondered about the existence of God before. It was clear that the teacher was a bright, educated individual who had reflected on his beliefs. However, he reminded me of myself back when I would only question for so long before retreating to the safety of my original beliefs. I would "search the scriptures" more to bolster my faith than to understand them. It didn't appear that he had come away from his questions with anything other than his original set of beliefs.

Instead of examining the passage in question within it's context, we took a magnifying glass to these few verses in isolation. (You may have attended such classes, where each week the teacher plods through a few verses of the book, until every verse has been read and discussed.) We spent our time discussing what the Bible meant in verse 13, where it states "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." The class reassured itself that God only loved Esau less. When in verses 17 and 18 scripture discusses Pharaoh's heart being hardened, the class determined that the phrase "he hardens whom he wants to harden" meant that God hardens the hearts of those who don't believe in Him. The class spent its time recovering God's unconditional love and the free will of man in every verse that threatened to snatch them away.

It was frustrating to sit through this exercise, though I understand it: I've practiced it myself many times before. The entire point of the passage within its context was ignored out of a need to view the Bible through the lens of prior commitments. Had we read on with some openness, we might have connected this passage to the remainder of the chapter as well as successive chapters where Paul expresses his belief that God is gracious in hardening Israel so that the Gentiles might be saved. We might have read his belief that God was willing to grant mercy to those of Israel if they repented. However, we didn't even connect our passage to the Israel/Gentile discussion. This is an interesting passage that ruffles the feathers of Arminian and Reformed alike. I don't claim exegetical expertise here, I just find it interesting to watch how we handle difficult passages. It was clear from class discussion that what the class valued and needed to protect was God's unconditional love and man's free will. It was not clear from the few passages we read that those concepts naturally emerged from them. They may be found in successive passages, but I felt we wedged them in quite forcefully into Romans 9:4-22.

*Read for yourself if you like:

4the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!a Amen.

6It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”b 8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”c

10Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”d 13Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”e

14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

16It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”g 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”h 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Retooning the Navitity

I have to include this video of the story of Jesus' birth. At church Sunday, our worship leader showed this video at the beginning of worship. In the churches of Christ, we traditionally don't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday because there is no biblical precedent for it. Not only does Paul warn against honoring one day above another, but Jesus' birthdate is not given. We come out of the restoration movement and cling to the mantra "Do Bible things in Bible ways." The church I attend doesn't quite fit in that mold, however. We are aware that Jesus' birthday is not Dec 25th, but we still teach about his birth in the kid's classes in December, hold a small children's musical Christmas program, and this Sunday, we heard a lesson on Mary and sang Christmas hymns. Given our denomination's tradition, our worship leader thought we could all appreciate the video. It humorously highlights all the popular misconceptions of the story of the nativity but then ends by reafirming the message of Christ coming and bringing light to the world. While I really don't know what to make of Jesus this particular Christmas, I have still enjoyed the rich, celebratory music of the season. And I'm glad my congregation was open to enjoying it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas 2.0 Modern Story of Nativity

James McGrath over at Exploring Our Matrix linked to this humorous video which retells the story of Jesus birth using our modern technology. So appropriate for today, when even my young boys want technology for Christmas gifts. So much for skates, sleds, and story books.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Merry Christmas from Outer Space

Until today, I had forgotten that last year our family enjoyed the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. If you click on this link, it will take you to the calendar, which daily displays a new spectacular image from deep space. I think it's a beautiful way to celebrate the gift of life we have in this vast and awe-inspiring universe. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's Love Got to Do With It?

The book club at my church just reviewed the book "Evolving in Monkey Town" by Rachel Held Evans. Several of you have read and recommended the book and I see why. It was a nice change of pace from the more technical reading I've been doing. Evans is a gifted story teller who brings honesty, levity and poignancy to the discussion of doubting one's faith. If I had the nerve to be more open about my doubts with my family, I think I'd start by recommending this book to them. It mirrors both my very conservative background as well as my unraveling belief system. She manages to maintain her Christianity, but holds her beliefs with greater tentativeness. She has attempted to let go of "false fundamentals" and maintains that Christianity basically boils down to love.

I have to say, I can accept "Love others" as the primary principle to live by. I think that's a principle one can live by without ever hearing the name of Jesus. In fact, strictly adhering to the doctrines of a Christian denomination sometimes leads one to behave in very unloving ways. It doesn't have to be that way, of course. I am blessed to know many loving Christian folks whose religious beliefs lead them to treat others with a great deal of care. However, this all leads me to ask a couple of questions:

1. If we say that it's really all about love, then can't we dispense with Christianity, maybe like Unitarian Universalists, who elevate love as their primary value without connecting it to Christianity?

2. Is it fair to accept Jesus' teaching on loving others while dispensing with much of his Sermon on the Mount? I ask, because many people do. If you read it, you will find many references to hell, destruction, and judgement (Matt 5:22, 5:30, 7:13, 7:23). In fact, we are told that only a few find the road that leads to life. Jesus preaches love, but he also preaches judgement and condemnation. He also preaches against divorce, which many who approve of his teaching on love may reject. He also made it clear in Matt 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. In fact, He says they won't disappear until heaven and earth disappear. Those who practice the commandments of the Law will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was an observant Jew who taught that others following Jewish Law would be in the kingdom of heaven. This is certainly not how I was taught to interpret Matt 5, but it doesn't appear that Jesus meant for his followers to stop following Jewish Law.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Jesus

Two nights ago, I had a disturbing dream. In it, I told Jesus (I think I was praying in my dream) that I no longer believed in Him. In the dream, I immediately felt guilty and worried that I had rejected my salvation, putting me squarely on the path to hell. When I woke up, I was relieved to find it to only be a dream. However, I couldn't rest too easy, knowing that my dreams were betraying inner thoughts that I had been unwilling to give voice. For me, though, it's really not as simple as saying whether or not I believe in Him.

Though I am having difficulty accepting the Jesus I have been taught at church, I am still reading, thinking, searching. I recently finished Jesus A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan. I referenced this in an earlier post. I will keep my thoughts on it limited as Beck, in his blog, thoroughly and eloquently summarizes and provides commentary on the book here, here, here, and here. Crossan paints a portrait of Jesus that takes in consideration cross-cultural anthropology, Greco-Roman and Jewish History, and the development of the earliest writings about Jesus, both biblical and extra-biblical. The result is a rich and creative reconstruction of Jesus, the person, which provides a deeper understanding of his message and behavior, in light of the times into which he was born. Though the book will likely trouble many Christians in that it does not portray Jesus as deity, but instead, a Jewish Cynic, I found that the portrayal drew me again to the message of Jesus. Crossan described him as a social revolutionary, seeking a balance of power in a culture of oppression and hierarchy. Crossan describes Jesus advocating "open commensality," which literally means "eating together without using table as a miniature map of society's vertical discriminations and lateral separations". What's more, Jesus not only preached this, but lived it out as well, communing with and healing anyone, whether rich or poor, male or female, adult or child, well or diseased. He broke through the hierarchy which disenfranchized others. Jesus' teachings have a significant impact on how we live our day to day life and how we treat others, if we really take them to heart. There are very, very, few who follow them all literally. Too many of us have mortgages and car payments to do that. To follow Jesus is to stand out in a world of hierarchy, materialism, and oppression.

I am less and less inclined to care a great deal over believing correct doctrine or practicing worship rituals correctly and more inclined to care about matters of the heart and how I and others treat each other. Now, that's not to say that there is no overlap or that you can't care about both. I have for years as have many other beautiful, caring Christian friends of mine. It's just that the energy I personally have invested in the former has left me with less room for the latter. It can be easy to regard church attendance as living out Christianity in a way that diminishes our motivation to go out in the community and make a difference in this world.

And sometimes our doctrine gets in the way of living out open commensality. This has frustrated me often and left me jealous of those who aren't inhibited by their doctrine. They just love and help others whenever and however they can. This theme is often depicted in movies, where the Christian character is self righteous and refuses to care for others on the basis of some Christian principle, while the non-Christian goes about their business, merrily helping those who need it and building relationships, thus upstaging and chastening the Christian. A good, but dated example is the movie, Sister Act. In the end, some nuns learn a lesson from a worldly woman (Whoopi Goldberg) who's not afraid to go into the sinful community and care for them where they are, using unorthodox means. When I saw this back in college, I couldn't help but root for the Whoopi Goldberg character (which we are meant to do), though I also couldn't help but sympathize with the nuns who were struggling with this rule breaker. I was jealous because I knew I couldn't help others with abandon the way Whoopi's character could. I knew part of being a Christian meant struggling with how to show love, within the confines of the doctrines of the church. This limitation didn't feel right to my heart, but I knew I couldn't be ruled by my emotions, which would be a selfish, shallow, unprincipled, ooey-gooey way to live my life. Following Christ was not easy or for the faint-hearted. It required disciplined living, and a willingness to follow all the immutable teachings of our God who knew best.

I am coming to believe now that the reason I have had this inner battle is not so much that my emotions were out of alignment with what is right, but that my doctrine was. Why should my feelings of empathy, concern, and caring, as well as a disdain for injustice be ignored if these are God-given attributes that He is suppose to possess as well? Why do we distrust our emotions and intuitions while trusting our intellectual capacity to interpret the Bible accurately, rightly discerning the mind of God? For that matter, why do we go on as if the Bible is the best way to know God? Maybe it is, but to find God we are forced to wade through the inconsistencies, the conflicting themes and values, the conflicting depictions of God, the influence of culture, and the pseudopigrapha included in the sacred text.

It may be that Jesus as depicted in Sunday school may never have existed; however, if we consider his teachings within the context of the 21st century, his life and teachings have relevance for our culture today. We continue to struggle, individually and collectively with loving others, sharing power, empowering the marginalized, and self-sacrifice. It's interesting to ponder what Jesus would actually say to us in America today if he came and preached in a manner that was as radical to our culture as he dared to do 2000 years ago.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tradition

With the holiday season upon us, I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts on tradition. Without it, where would our holiday season be? The memories, expectations, and meaning we derive from our holidays are based in the traditions we create and follow each year. Some traditions are more ingrained than others. For example, I've never not had turkey for Thanksgiving. However, where I have eaten the turkey has changed over the years. In fact, this year, for the first time, my mom and her husband will celebrate Thanksgiving at my house. Normally, someone from my generation would not yet be entrusted with the weighty responsibility of hosting such a sacred meal. However, my husband will be on call at work this week so we're unable to leave town. Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday until my dad died. His birthday was November 26, so we always celebrated his birthday on Thanksgiving. Given that the ending of that tradition was such a painful one, it effectively disrupted the entire holiday for me. Since then, I've celebrated it at my home without any company, with my husband's family, and even at church. And I find that I have less anticipation for Thanksgiving given that I haven't developed new traditions which connect me to the holiday.

Conversely, I have begun to enjoy Halloween immensely. I surprised myself by decorating our front yard this year more than in years past. My husband and I even dressed up for the occasion. I realized I was becoming more enthusiastic because it had become a significant day for our family. With young children at home, we had made a point to make it festive for them. We are typically in town for Halloween, so that facilitated creating easily repeated traditions. We attend trick-or-treat-a-trunk at church and trick-or-treat in the neighborhood as well. This year we even added a party at a friend's home and trick-or-treating at Botanic Gardens. And thanks to the message at the UU church we visited on Halloween, we also added honoring the deceased in our family. Our tradition is being built upon and enriched over time. Next year, we're likely to repeat the new events we tried this Halloween.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of tradition, both for individuals and communities, even society as a whole. It connects us to our past and helps us feel like we belong, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Typically, specific traditions have persisted because we find something of value in them. They give us something to anticipate. It can be comforting and orienting to know what to expect. There is a known script for everyone to follow. At Christmas, I know my family will open gifts one at a time, starting with the youngest and working up to the oldest member, while the members of my husband's family will tear into the gifts simultaneously.

As I have progressed through this reevaluation of my faith, I've given much thought to the role of tradition in religion. I come from a denomination (church of Christ) that tends to devalue tradition. We were taught in church that we needed the Bible alone and we rejected formal creeds as they were human creations, as opposed to the Bible, which was the inerrant word of God. We fancied ourselves a perfect replica of 1st century Christianity. No modern cultural influence here. Unlike everyone else, we cut through nearly 2000 years of misguided human interference and interpreted scripture just as God intended. In so doing, we created some traditions and informal creeds of our own, though we'd never call them that. But try questioning or changing them, and see where that gets you. This naive approach to the Bible prevents us from seeing the way our world view impacts our interpretation. Like an adolescent, we are blinded to the wisdom of others who've gone before us as we arrogantly declare our superior understanding. We unwittingly draw on our humanity in the development of our religion, just as people have done since the time of the apostles.

The truth is, we really can't get by in life without traditions. We are human. We will develop them. In fact, that is part of what makes us human, our ability to develop culture. I think the more mature approach is to continually reappraise our collective religious traditions, honoring and holding on to what is still valuable and creating our own traditions over time as we see a need.

So, I hope you all have lovely traditions to celebrate this Thanksgiving. And I would certainly enjoy hearing what they might be.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Update

It's been awhile since I posted here. I've been more focused on reading than writing lately. I'm trying to give some attention to my questions about who Jesus really was as well as the historicity of his resurrection. I'm trying to study these questions within the larger context of the 1st century Mediterranean world. It is very timely that DagoodS recently posted on similar themes. Additionally, Richard Beck recently reviewed Jesus: A Revolutionary Life by Dominic Crossan. This is the book I happen to be reading now. It's my literary interlude as I slog through NT Wright's book, Resurrection of the Son of God.

In other news, my husband has been more actively pursuing his own questions about God. He is more engaged in the question of why we don't always experience the presence or love of God. He found a song which really resonated with him. He even bought a ring and had the inside engraved with the title of the song,
The Silence of God.

In the past, the love of God seemed evident to me in the gift of salvation to all, answered prayer, and loving relationships with others, which appeared to be a reflection of His love for us all. Now, the belief that salvation resulted from the death of an innocent man as well as the belief that we are being saved from a torment created by God appears to be anything but loving. I don't know how much I believe in answered prayer as I have difficulty accepting God as capriciously fixing minor problems like lost car keys while ignoring major ones such as a tyrant oppressing an entire country. Prayer does not appear to be moving mountains. However, I certainly do experience the love of others on a daily basis. If anything does leave me with a faith in something/someone transcendent and benevolent, it would be my relationships with loving, thoughtful, giving others. Of course, this still leaves me with making sense of all the ugly, evil experiences I have had and witnessed in this world. So, in the meantime, I will do my best to be aware of all the beauty and love in this world and to reflect it back in my own life. Surely, I can't go wrong there, can I?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 4

In my final installment of this book review, I'll discuss ch 8 in which Le Fanu addresses neuroscience. His primary question about the brain is this: "How to reconcile what the brain is from what the brain does?" He answers his own question by stating "they cannot be reconciled, and the dissonance between the unprepossessing, homogeneous brain and the spiritual mind to which it gives rise was for thousands of years the most persuasive evidence for the 'dual' nature of reality consisting of both a material and a non-material realm." He spends the rest of the chapter arguing that neuroscience research supports this dual nature of reality, by inadvertently confirming "the reality of the soul."

Le Fanu describes scientists' attempts to understand the mind as if they were children chasing a rainbow. No matter how much is learned about the structure or function of the brain, understanding it's inner workings continues to be an elusive task. He describes 5 areas in which the brain continues to remain a mystery:

1. Subjective Awareness
2. Free Will
3. Richness and Accessibility of Memory
4. Human Reason and Imagination
5. Sense of Self

He summarizes his view of these limits to science by stating "These may be 'mysteries' to science, but they are certainly not to ourselves. Indeed there is nothing we can be more certain of than the reality of our sense of self and our everyday perceptions of the world around us, our thoughts and memories. The paradoxical legacy of the Decade of the Brain, then, is to bring to our attention in the most forcible manner how the human mind, like the Double Helix, fails the test of scientific knowability not just once but twice over. First, science, for all it has revealed about the 'without' workings of the brain, can tell us not an iota about the 'within' of the non-material mind, no how it imposes 'the order of understanding' by bridging that gap between those perceptions, thoughts and memories as we know them to be and the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain as they are known to science."

I think Le Fanu does an excellent job of highlighting the unknowns of science. However, I'm not sure that this necessarily translates into an authoritative assertion that these areas will remain unknown. He gives a great deal of weight to our internal experience of ourselves as evidence for the non material. He boldly declares: "When the most certain thing I know is the reality of my non material self as a unique, distinct, structured spiritual entity, then there is every reason to believe it to be so. And when I have the impression of myself as an autonomous being 'free to choose', then that is how it is, regardless of whether the ability of my non material, freely chosen thoughts to influence my actions contradicts the laws of science." Whether this is right or wrong, I think it reflects a typical human response. In discussions with people about their belief or lack of a belief in God, I've observed that it almost always comes down to their experience or lack thereof with what they perceive to be the metaphysical. What have you observed to be the case?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remembering

On Sunday, our family (incredibly including my husband) attended the Unitarian Universalist church I wrote about in a previous post. My oldest son wanted to return the money he had collected for a UNICEF service project there. It was Halloween, so the children's story time focused on how many people honor those who have died during this holiday time. They briefly touched on various traditions and invited the children to remember those in their family who had died. I found this a meaningful way to address the holiday, rather than labeling it as evil or reducing it to cute costumes and candy.

My children came home lamenting, and I mean with loud wails(they are dramatic types), both the death of their pet fish, Blue, 2 years ago, and the death of their grandpa, my dad, 4 years ago. They decided to commemorate the passing of Blue by pouring a glass of water over his burial site in the backyard as they had done when we buried him, (so he would have water in which to swim). Then my youngest decided to pour a glass of water on the tree which his grandparents bought for his birthday gift when he turned one. He then made a wish that his grandpa would "come alive again." It was a tearful moment for me, but I was touched that my boys longed for a connection with their grandpa. Today, November 5th, is the fourth anniversary of his passing. Needless to say, he's on my mind today. Every year, we remember him by doing many things my dad loved to do and likely would be doing with my boys now. It's a way for them to experience what they might have had with their grandpa. I picked a book from the library to read to them that my dad read to me. After school we'll get ice cream, which he greatly enjoyed, and watch a recording of him telling a story to my children. Then, we'll play chess at a chess club, where my oldest is developing a passion for a game his grandpa loved as well.

I'll close by including a famous quote by John Wesley, which my dad had written inside the cover of his Bible. It certainly reflects the way he spent his 57 years in this world.

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

*I avoided major spoilers, but if you intend to read The Poisonwood Bible, you may want to read this post after the book.

I recently took a break from more serious reading and finished the novel, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a very engaging and worthy read about a domineering fundamentalist Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four girls to the Congo on a mission effort. It's also a commentary on the tragic consequences of U.S. intervention in Africa at both the individual and national level. The question of guilt must be addressed by the characters, haunting some and driving others to madness. It is written from the perspective of the wife as well as the four daughters. As one may expect, they meet great challenges and tragedy in their efforts to win the Congolese for Jesus. I was particularly interested in how each character's faith and religious beliefs were shaped over time by the interaction of their personality with life experiences.

I personally identified the most with the character Leah, who begins her journey to Africa with enthusiasm, eager to help her dad save souls, convinced he holds The Truth and is capable of sharing it with others. She continuously seeks her father's approval, but is given no recognition. Over time, his ineptitude becomes apparent, and she loses faith, both in him and in her religion. She transfers her devotion and love to her husband and to the suffering of Africa. She continues to be a spiritually minded person, but she trusts little in the Bible. Her father's ill-conceived interpretations and use of it as a weapon and punishment are the reason why. Instead, she follows the example of a former missionary who told her "When I want to take God at his word exactly, I take a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers."

I differ from Leah in that I was blessed to have a loving dad whose interpretation of the Bible encouraged rather than discouraged me from following it. However, I'm similar in a few ways. I, too, entered a mission field, convicted of the need to save others. I was overwhelmed by the thought that so many people had not been taught about Jesus and therefore wouldn't be saved. This eventually led to an evaluation of how I view scripture. I am still in that process and haven't given up on scripture, but I do find myself trusting in "creation" more to give me any understanding of God. Of course, what we understand of God through nature depends on the person doing the observing as well as what aspect of creation is being observed.

I found it interesting that another character, Leah's twin Adah, gave expression to my objection to the doctrine of hell, as I had been taught:
"Accoring to my Baptist Sunday-school teachers, a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month's ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Saviour as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did nothing to earn?"

A cynic at heart, Adah is never one to become idealistic or loyal to any ideology. She does grow restless and searches for some type of religion, ultimately settling on science. She studies and appreciates nature in a more detached, intellectual way than her twin. Her studies lead her to conclude that "God is everything" both "virus" and "ant." God values all life, human and non-human, and values a balanced existence of all organisms rather than primarily rooting for the survival of people.

If anyone has read the book, I'd be interested in other perspectives. Also, what does creation say or not say to you about the nature and/or existence of God?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jenga

I've been reflecting on how I've experienced this faith crisis of mine. In some ways, it's reminded me of a game of Jenga, where each player takes turns pulling a block from a tower of blocks until the whole tower collapses. There are many different blocks to choose from, but the end result of the game never changes. Crash!

My questioning started over the concept of hell (block 1). My initial questioning left me with a willingness to reexamine all sorts of issues I would have feared studying before. Researching the evidence for an old earth and evolution led me to reevaluate the Genesis account of creation as well as many other stories in Genesis. It became apparant that many of these stories contradicted clear scientific evidence(creation, Noah's Ark ). (Several blocks here.) I then revisited the literalist/inerrantist view of scripture I had tried to maintain. The contradictions in scripture and the prophesies which weren't, suddenly became very obvious. Why had I never noticed? (More blocks pulled.)

Without the ability to view scripture as divine writing on the wall, I was left trying to discern what to make of it. If there's no literal Adam and Eve with their original sin, why do we need a savior? And why did Christ have to die, really? There's more than one interpretation offered in the Bible, not just the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, as I was taught. What do we really know about Christ and how much can we trust what scripture says? What about the Old Testament stories of genocide that leave most of us squeamish? What about the treatment of women in the Bible, do they reflect the culture of the time or could they really reflect how God views women? How much weight should I give Biblical teachings on divorce and homosexuality? What if hell is a concept borrowed from surrounding cultures? Can there be anything to it? If not, what's left of Christianity without a hell to save people from? (More and more blocks pulled). What Christ centered narrative can be constructed that has integrity? How many blocks are left standing?

One thing that seems to still be standing is my need/desire for the metaphysical. It may be a personality trait, I don't know. One thing I have observed, however, is that the more I detach from my religious practices, the more I find time to be alone in nature, the more I immerse myself in music, the more I seek out moments of meditation, introspection, and peace as well as moments of wonder and thanksgiving. I continue to make meaning and to connect with others. Feeling less fettered by the binds of doctrines and practices that entangle my mind has not led me to hedonistic pursuits and a nihilistic outlook. I am still left open to the idea that God exists and allows us to transcend the material, but I don't think He/She/It looks much like what I've imagined most of my life.

Like A Child sent me a link to a post which resonated with me because the man who wrote about his doubts is a Christian who is from my denomination (church of Christ). He has degrees in both theology and archeology and has undergone quite a transformation in his beliefs. He writes a bit about this Jenga effect I discussed:

The problem, of course, with dismissing biblical creation and the flood is that Jesus mentions both of them (Mark 10:6 and Matt. 24:38-39). Christians are reluctant to let go of creation and the flood, because doing so places Jesus in the awkward position of repeating mythological stories that are not historical. An even greater problem for some with conceding that much of the Bible is not historical is that the result is not an exclusively "Christian" God. While some aspects of biblical historicity may be discounted and a distinctively Christian understanding of God retained, the honest scholar must concede that, followed to its logical end, the resulting view of God is more like a cosmic God -- a prime mover that better resembles a deistic God of the early universe -- than it is the personal, pocket God of modern evangelical Christianity.

And it is this contemplation of the theological chessboard seven moves from now that terrifies most Christian scholars into an immobilizing silence -- within both the academy and the church -- and stops them from taking the next step or even speaking aloud of its consideration. I am here to tell you, it's OK. Some may call you a heretic, but coming out of the skeptical closet will free you to understand faith in a whole new way.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 3

Le Fanu devotes a chapter to the mystery of the Double Helix. Despite the extraordinary accomplishment of the Human Genome project, we are still unable to determine how genetic code causes one creature to be a fly while another becomes a human. Le Fanu detailed the ways in which uncovering the human gene sequence led to highly unexpected findings and more questions than answers. Not only were there fewer genes than expected, but 95% of the Double Helix was "junk." It was not clearly obvious how our sparse number of information bearing genes made us human. Additionally, studying mutations that lead to genetic disease resulted in the discovery that multiple mutations could cause a given disease. Even more puzzling was the finding that mutations could be present without always exerting their effect. Genes, we now know, are multi-tasked and work in concert with other genes. They are capable of displaying contradictory properties, depending on context and can be "essential for, and yet irrelevant to" their purpose. These findings make the concept of natural selection with random mutation appear simplistic and untenable. A discovery which has shed some light on the complex functioning of genes is the master genes, or Hox genes. They function as a switch, turning off and on various genes. However, scientists are learning that the same Hox genes which are responsible for a particular outcome in one organism produce a different outcome in another. So, the question remains, how does a fly know to be a fly and a mouse know to be a mouse? What is controlling the master genes, which are controlling everything else? The current assumption is that the Hox genes "turn the genes of the universal toolkit 'on and off' in a different sequence and at different times to produce these different structures."

However, Le Fanu has a problem settling with this explanation. He states that "the parts of the fly-its eyes, wings and limbs-are all 'of a piece', and it is difficult again to conceive how the relevant master gene for each could have chanced upon the correct sequence of switches to generate the appropriate part. It is as if the 'idea' of the fly (or any other organism) must somehow permeate the genome that gives rise to it, for it is only through the master genes of the embryonic fly's knowing it is a fly that they will activate that sequence of switches that will give rise to those appropriate structures."

He concludes that "there must be some non-material formative influence that, from the moment of conception, imposes the order of form on the developing embryo...and holds it constant while its cells and tissues are continually renewed...."

I appreciate the chapter for educating me on the incredible complexity of DNA. He does a terrific job of highlighting the questions and mystery that continue to pervade the study of the human body and our evolution. However, I'm not sure that I can accept his conclusion that there can be no material explanation for the workings of the Hox genes. It appears suspiciously like a God-of-the-Gaps argument that is subject to burial as science fills in the holes. I would agree if he ended the chapter by merely pointing to the appearance of a mastermind determining various forms, but I'm wary of his conclusion that sounds like a spirit inhabits fertilized eggs to ensure they grow up to be what the spirit intends.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 2

Le Fanu devotes several chapters to Darwin and evolution. He begins by describing the zeitgeist of Darwin's time and how it led to the rapid and devoted acceptance of evolutionary theory. He then goes on to describe how scientific findings have undermined Darwin's theory, leaving it on the verge of collapse. He believes it is only the ideology of scientists that protects it now. In chapter five, he describes why he believes science has revealed fatal flaws in evolution as an explanation for our origin by addressing the problem of the fossil record, the inability of man to replicate nature's designs, and the inexplicable homology (similarity) of animal structures.

Regarding the fossil record, he discusses the evidence for immediate change within organisms, followed by long periods of stability within organisms, rather than slow evolutionary process described by Darwin. He quotes Niles Eldredge as saying "When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere." In summarizing the finds of the transitional forms that presumably led to the modern whale, Le Fanu notes that 12 million years would not provide the time needed for the numerous transitions from the wolf-sized mammal pakicetus to the whale. He noted, "some other dramatic mechanism, as yet unknown to science, must account for that extraordinary diversity of life as revealed by the fossil record." He didn't calculate how much time would be needed. He only quoted a report from an academic conference on evolution which concluded that mechanisms underlying microevolution could not be extrapolated to explain macroevolution.

Le Fanu also described the problem of "perfection" for evolution. He noted the inability of bioengineers to design an artificial heart which performs anywhere nearly as effectively as the human heart. He concluded that "it seems merely perverse to suggest that the undirected process of nature, acting on numerous small, random genetic mutations, could give rise to this or any other of those 'masterpiece of design.'" He declined to point to a Creator as the designer of such masterpieces, instead stating that "some prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science" must be responsible for our organs being "constructed to the very highest specifications of automated efficiency."

Finally, Le Fanu examined the "unsolved problem" of Cuvier's law of homology, which refers to the apparent similarity in structure of limbs of various creatures, from reptiles to amphibians, to birds, to mammals. Darwin felt that this was strong evidence of evolution. However, studies of embryos from these diverse animals reveal that their limbs originated in different segments of the trunk. He concludes by noting that the "'common architectural plan' of the forelimbs of reptiles and mammals, so long held to be powerful evidence for Darin's theory, can no longer be interpreted in favour of descent from a common ancestor."

I certainly agree that there is still a great deal we have to learn about our origins. Additionally, I do believe we are products of our time, apt to adopt the worldview in which we are born, which necessarily colors our view of the evidence before us. Certainly scientists are no different and have been slow to question the orthodoxy of evolution. This is a concern in that it prohibits them from asking the questions and exploring the inconsistencies in data that might lead to a better understanding of how we all came to be. However, I am encouraged that there are scientists who are challenging current understandings of evolution and attempting to develop models which better fit the data.

Here's one example of a recent article by a scientist evaluating the state of evolutionary theory.

In future posts I'll discuss what Le Fanu has to say about the limits of science in the fields of genetics and neuroscience.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review of "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves"

At the book club I attend, we recently discussed the book "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves" by James Le Fanu. The author believes that as science has progressed, it has become clear that the boundaries of human knowledge are within sight, and science has fallen short on the promise to reveal all of nature's secrets. He supports his thesis by highlighting three areas of research: evolution, the double helix, and the brain. He believes that it is abundantly clear that the philosophical materialism that has dominated science since the enlightenment, has, through its own efforts, revealed its inability to fully explain the human experience. Le Fanu views this state of affairs as an indication of a non-material realm that exists along the material. Though he never speaks directly of God, he clearly believes that material explanations alone will not suffice in answering questions that continue to persist about who we are, how we came to be this way, and how exactly we work. I will take a look at some of these questions in my next post.

There certainly is much we still have to fathom. We and our world continue to be objects of mystery. This is why I would have difficulty ever confidently declaring myself to be an atheist. There is so much we don't know and so much that we experience as transcending material explanations. However, that doesn't mean material explanations can't someday suffice. Le Fanu, though, would beg to differ.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Trying Something New

On Sunday, I decided to do something I never would have considered a couple of years ago: I attended a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church service. My husband had to work on Sunday, so I used the opportunity to attend a congregation I knew he'd have no interest in visiting. Much to his credit, he didn't try to dissuade me when I told him what I wanted to do. I've had a feeling that the denomination might be a good fit for where I am now. There's very little by way of church doctrine. The focus is on humanist values and there's no doctrine about belief in God. Both atheists and believers alike attend.

What was the experience like? It felt surprisingly comfortable for me. My boys attended with me and they took to it immediately. Someone thought we were members because my boys were so social and unhesitatingly involved in the activities. I enjoyed the sanctuary with its large, numerous windows that allowed me to view the grove of pine trees and the clear blue sky overhead. These natural adornments presumably took the place of crosses or other symbols of religion. The focus of the service was on the principles of love, community, unity, and human value. The message from the pulpit didn't leave me engaged in internal debate over points of disagreement. It was a much more peaceful experience than I've had at church in sometime.

I admit it was strange to hear the name of God invoked only once from worship leaders during the entire service. And the one time the minister used God language she followed it up by pointing out a different type of language that could be used if one wasn't a believer. I enjoyed the fact that the minister who led the service was a woman. Given my own faith tradition, I felt surprised that the men in the audience looked so comfortable listening to a woman preach and half expected them to stand up and object. It felt refreshingly affirming of women.

My husband has asked why one would even bother attending a church if he or she is agnostic or an atheist. However, it actually makes some sense to me. If I were to fall into one of these categories in the future, I could see myself wanting to attend a church, particularly a UU church. It provides a community of individuals with similar values with whom you can develop friendships and find support. It also gives you an opportunity to meditate on what matters to you and to live out your values within a community where a greater good can be achieved. And if you have children, you may appreciate having a community such as this in which to raise them.

It's interesting to me how some individuals respond to doubts about their faith by retreating from faith communities, others by clinging more tenaciously to their religion and doctrines, and others by finding different faith communities. I guess I've done a little of all three. We all have to find our own way. I'm wondering what you have done and how well it has helped you along in your journey. And I'm interested in knowing if anyone has ever attended a UU church?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says

Awhile back I wrote a post about similarities I saw among the skeptics with which I interact. One of the similarities was the fact that matters of religion and faith tend to be of great importance to them. They often were highly involved in religious life before their deconversion. A recent survey would appear to support this observation. You can read the article here.

The survey found that atheists and agnostics are significantly more knowledgable about the Bible than Christians. In the article the author writes, "American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Conversations with Dad

I visited my hometown of St. Louis this past weekend to celebrate my grandma's 90th birthday. The person I missed greatly at the party was my dad. He died four years ago this November while in prison. And no, he wasn't an inmate, he was leading Sunday worship there and died of a heart attack on his way out. It was quite a shock for the family. He fought cancer, renal cell carcinoma, for the last 10 years of his life, so we were certain he would ultimately succumb to it. We weren't prepared for his death to come so suddenly, particularly when his cancer was in remission. My dad was a retired elementary school principal, but he was an elder at church and preached quite a bit.

When I go home, I always like to spend time in his study. When I think of my dad, that's where I envision him. He was often there at night, either reading, writing letters to others, or preparing a sermon or Bible class lesson. Classical music was always playing on his record player. (He wasn't one to keep up with technology). I would often go in there and talk with him about any number of things. Often, it was religion and the questions I had about it. He was one of the few people who could handle discussing various viewpoints without becoming agitated or defensive. As an adolescent I was fairly obnoxious in my criticisms of church life, but he patiently listened to it all, while my mom and sister were understandably exasperated by me. I would sometimes dominate the entire mealtime conversation after Sunday morning church. I remember my mom giving looks to my sister which said, "I wish she would just stop talking!"

Over the weekend, I read through an old sermon of my dad's, written in 1978, just
before his 30th birthday. It was entitled "Doubt and the Christian." He addresses the passage in Hebrews which states "without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." He didn't view this passage as a condemnation of all doubt. He thought it pertained to only "hostile, antagonistic skepticism." He believed that doubt was a natural, valued part of our human experience and faith walk, which has been unfairly criticized. (Of course, reading Biblical passages like the one in Hebrews might very well lead one to criticize doubt.) He believed questioning our faith could lead to clarifying our beliefs, improving communication of our beliefs, and producing a deeper set of convictions. He condemned evasiveness toward a challenge to our faith as well as "shallow defensiveness of smug dogmatism." I'm not sure whether my current doubts will lead in the direction my dad would have hoped for or not, but it's encouraging to think that he might value the faith crisis I am experiencing and, were he still here, willingly sit in his study and have another talk with me about it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Idols

The topic of the sermon at my mom's church today was idolatry. The main point was that we must worship God and not idols of any kind, be they statues of Aphrodite or money or status. I certainly agree that setting anything up as an idol in our life tends to lead to disastrous consequences. What we set up as the object of our affection, devotion, and worship often fails to deliver: our true love leaves us, our political leader is found out in some scandal, the stock market tanks, we lose our job. We may neglect other areas of our lives out of devotion to our idol.

I started thinking about types of idols not mentioned in today's sermon. For example, one idol of mine that has been smashed in the past year or two has been the Bible, as in the inerrant-word-of-God Bible. In many areas of Christendom, the Bible has replaced God. It's easy to see how this has happened. If you believe the Bible to be the very words of God and further, that God only speaks to you from the pages of the Bible, then reading the Bible becomes conversation with God. The Bible becomes God. And God must be protected at all costs. We expect that God speaks to us in a clear, direct manner, so there's no room for disagreement about what he meant when He said such and such. Our interpretation of scripture must be the correct one. We stop being able to have discussions about overarching principles and values and how they might be applied in our current culture and get lost quibbling over whether it is "scriptural" to eat in church buildings, clap during songs at church, let women pray aloud at church and on...and on...and on.

Over at Richard Beck's Experimental Theology blog, I've been having an interesting discussion on the role of women in church. I described a bit of my experience as a woman in a denomination that I believe tends to idolize the Bible. Here's part of one posting:

When my husband and I were first married, he preached at a tiny congregation. The one where there were only a few men present, forcing these poor men into roles I swear God never intended for them to be in....We'd rather experience the madness of awkward men with poor reading skills leading scripture reading, men with no singing ability leading singing, boys with no Sunday school teacher because they were baptized and suddenly can't be taught by the woman who single handedly teaches all the children (well, except baptized boys), 10-year-olds passing communion trays to women who pass them to the person in the pew next to them......After awhile it becomes difficult to maintain a worshipful attitude in a scene like that.

To me, when our behavior starts looking foolish and feeling incongruent with what we know and feel makes sense, we should reevaluate. We just might be serving an idol.

I also wonder if most (or all) of our conceptions of God amount to idols. Projections of ourselves and worldviews onto a large or small deity we worship each Sunday. The preacher today made the point that the gods of ancient cultures were clearly false projections as they reflected the petty, divisive, quarreling nature of the men and women who created them. I couldn't help but reflect on the images of God held in any number of cultures today. Images which lead people into acts of terrorism against each other. Images which lead people to hate, to be divisive, to oppress, to stigmatize, to be intolerant, and even to be intolerant of intolerance. If there is a God, how can we know we have a concept that comes close to being an accurate one of God? Our images seem hopelessly flawed and continually adjust with each culture and over the passage of time. Maybe this continued adaptation of our concept of God will eventually lead to the truth. Maybe humanity isn't ready yet to understand the mind of God. Or maybe it's just not possible to know God in any human way. Maybe He/She/It is beyond finding out.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Will Hell Be Empty?

This first week of fall, instead of cooler temperatures, it's been in the mid to upper 90's here in Memphis, so it seems like an appropriate time to do a post on hell! Right now, my studies are confined to the resurrection, but a friend of mine, Casey, who is a Presbyterian minister, gave a sermon recently where he answered questions about hell. I listened to it online and include it here if anyone wants to listen or read the text. He and I have been in dialogue via email since i listened to the sermon. I have to give him a great deal of credit for being one of the only ministers I've come across who willingly address difficult questions regarding faith. He engages my questions with humility and honesty. He is not threatened or uncomfortable discussing my doubts and disagreements. His personal experience in wrestling with faith issues as well as his depth of knowledge make him an especially valuable conversation partner. As an aside, all of these comments aptly describe his wife, a good friend of mine, as well.

To fast forward to the end of his sermon, which I realize ignores important material, he concludes by saying, in effect, it is for God to decide who will be in hell, though he won't be surprised if the love of God results in hell being empty. When I asked if he was a universalist, here was his response:

Am I a universalist? Technically, no. Functionally, yes. Along with
many reformed folks, I buy into that old saw we use (in a hundred
different formulations), "Because I believe in the love of God, I dare
to hope God will save everyone. Because I believe in the justice of
God, I don't cross that line." In terms of soteriology, I come from a
tradition that leaves everything up to the grace of God. God alone
chooses who to save. It is a gift. It can not be bought with good
works. It can't even be bought with belief or a confession of faith.
God simply gives us an afterlife as God has given us this life.
Because of this strong strain of God's prerogative, I tend to respond,
"I don't know" when someone asks who God will save. But, if pushed, I
tend to use the logic of Karl Barth, who said that God has judged
Christ in our place and has left to him the question of who will be
saved. When I look at Christ, I see someone who was reconciling the
whole world to God, that he was sent because God so loved the world, I
see someone who seeks out the lost sheep. I see someone who I suspect
will save all, but again, it is his prerogative. And I'm okay with that.


Well, I suppose that right now, I'm okay with God being a universalist, or perhaps with a hell that actually reflects the sort of justice with which I'm familiar: one where punishment is commensurate with the crime and/or where punishment is given for the purpose of rehabilitation. Casey clearly starts with the belief that God is good and understands hell within that framework, trusting that God will do what is good and right in the end. Given that everything I believe about God is now in question, I don't start with the same premise. I'm reevaluating my old presuppositions, so now when I read the Bible and come to the passages on hell, I wonder what kind of God, if any, exists who would include passages about eternal suffering in His Holy Word, particularly when those individuals sent to an eternal hell would appear to have little, if any, control over being sent there. I've written more about this in an earlier post on hell, so I won't expound on this point further here.

A question I never got around to asking Casey is this: if hell winds up being empty, then what is the point of discussing it in the Bible or of it existing at all (I have no idea what it means for it to exist, but I have no other words with which to ask the question)? I'm very interested in the answer to this one.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hope

Today's sermon at church was on the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ. Our preacher made a comment along the lines of "if you are without hope, then something is wrong with your thought process. The answers you've found to your questions are obviously wrong." Really? Does hope=truth? Hope certainly feels better than hopelessness, but can any conclusions be drawn about its veracity?

I understand that many times we despair when there actually is a way out of some dark place in which we find ourselves. I know it's my job as a therapist to maintain hope for my clients when they can't feel it for themselves and to help them see a way through difficult times. However, I also know what hope in impossible dreams, half-baked plans, and uncontrollable events looks like too. It can be catastrophic to one's faith, sense of self, and trust in others when what is hoped for does not become reality. People quit believing in God when prayers aren't answered. They waste time on relationships that will never work. They put their hopes in a career they just don't have the aptitude for. Hope may be what propels us forward and enables us to persevere, but I don't think it can be used as an indicator for truth. In fact, sometimes, we may be closer at the truth when we are less than hopeful. Therapy isn't always about tears, deep dark secrets, and painful insights. There's also laughter, encouragement, and rejoicing in triumphs. However, it's often easier to help individuals make significant changes in their lives when they come to my office with a sober appraisal of their situation. When they float in on cloud nine, like an engaged couple completely infatuated with each other, they are often so filled with hope (and hormones) that they see no potential problems to address.

My faith doesn't offer a great deal of hope to me right now. I don't know what I think of the resurrection of Christ or of eternal life. I don't have a clear sense of that Christian hope my preacher described. However, I can't say I feel particularly hopeless either. What do you think? Should feelings of hopefulness or hopelessness be an indicator of the truth of our beliefs?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What to do with Family?

This time next week, I'll be up in St. Louis celebrating my paternal grandma's 90th birthday. Several family members from both my side and my husband's side of the family live there. Additionally, uncles and cousins will be flying in from Detroit, Seattle, and Atlanta for the occasion. My sister and her family will also drive up from the south. I'm certainly looking forward to the party and to the family reunion. I've never visited my dad's side of the family as much as I've wanted as he grew up in Detroit, meaning that visits during my childhood were generally confined to a 2 week long trip each summer. It was a time to enjoy Vernor's ginger ale, which hadn't made it way to the south back then. I haven't returned to Detroit in several years because my grandma had a stroke and moved to St. Louis to live with 2 of my aunts. All this to say, I'll be catching up with many family members next weekend.


Which brings me to my question for today: How do I handle my changing religious beliefs with family members who are overwhelmingly church of Christ Christians with a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible? In my family, on both sides, as well as my husband's family in fact, you basically either attend a church of Christ or you don't attend at all. And most attend. I'm not saying I'm planning on bringing anything up this weekend, because I don't think I will. But, I do feel uncomfortable with the fact that I haven't shared a very large part of my life with the people I care the most about in this world. It makes me feel a bit disingenuous and disconnected in some of these relationships.

For my part, I no longer feel like this reevaluation/deconstruction of my faith is a dark blot on my soul that must be hidden from others out of embarrassment or fear for what it means about me. I feel much more comfortable in my own skin and my doubts have been normalized by others, including many of you reading this blog. Nonetheless, I have little faith that family members would be so accepting or understanding of what I'm experiencing. I haven't heard anyone else talk about a faith crisis. Here I'm talking of my closest family. I've certainly witnessed aunts, uncles, and cousins stop attending church for a time, so certainly some must have gone through a type of questioning process.

I realize my family might surprise me with their level of understanding and acceptance, as several friends have done, but one of my friends summed it up well in an email he wrote. He said, "And one of the challenges of a deep faith crisis is that it threatens the most dear communities that we have (read: family) with a challenge to their own faith and the dislocation of one of their primary meaning
makers (read: you)." When any of us are threatened, we tend to respond defensively, out of anxiety, and it's not typically pretty. I know that my faith crisis is not so nearly threatening to friends as it is to family.

How have you addressed this issue in your life? What thoughts do you have on addressing the reevaluation of religious beliefs within our communities?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What Illusions Have You Lost?

In youth we feel richer for every new illusion; in maturer years, for every one we lose.
– Madame Anne Sophie Swetchine, mystic (1782-1857)

Where I'm At Today

Today I was able to sit through worship without giving myself a headache. I don't know why precisely. However, it may have a bit to do with the fact that I'm trying to put more energy into living my life in a way which is meaningful to me, whether or not I know why or how I'm here on this earth. I can choose to love and share with others who can't give back, be patient with the cashier who discusses each item I purchase, teach my children to look friends in the eye and say thanks, enjoy bike rides with my family, and sit in the backyard at night appreciating the few stars visible in the city. Whether or not there is a God, whether or not Jesus died for me, whether or not the Bible is the inspired word of God, I choose to live this way.

Today at church I still found myself disagreeing with the minister and sang songs I wasn't sure I meant, but I wasn't so irritable and disconnected. Maybe I will be next Sunday. However, today I actually completed a form agreeing to assist in some aspects of the children's ministry. Now, I'd still have difficulty teaching the creation story or Noah's flood to children, but I can help the childrn's ministry with efforts to let kids provide care for those in the inner city. I'm the sort of person who tends to be involved and invested in the communities of which I am a part. but, I've felt increasingly like an outsider at church and someone who doesn't give enough back to warrant being there. That's a role I don't enjoy or want. Until I reach a point where I am no longer attending my congregation, I'd prefer to find a way to stay connected to it. Though my disagreements with the standard doctrines of my denomination are numerous and ever increasing, I still value much that fellow church members tend to value and promote at church: love, generosity, gratitude, benevolence. I like that my congregation spends time, money, and sermons on improving the quality of life in the community, with a special concern for the poor. I'd hate to become so absorbed in wrestling with my beliefs that I neglect opportunities to serve and care for others around me. Eventually I may need to carry out this service in a completely different setting than my current congregation, but for now, this is where I am.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Confession

I have a confession to make. This noble "quest for the truth" of mine is getting a bit out of hand. It is what I think about in my free time, composing blog posts in my mind while driving home from work, or while playing with my kids, or while sitting in the pew at church. I read commentaries when I should be writing progress notes for work, or emailing a friend back, or having a conversation with my husband. I peruse the blogs of skeptics and Christians alike when I should be sleeping, or cleaning the kitchen, or volunteering to have my neighbor's children over.

This quest is highly important to me, and will continue to be. But, I feel myself withdrawing a bit, even from those I care about. I don't feel the desire to call my mom and catch up or check on friends via Facebook like I use to do. My husband called me on this recently and said he feels disconnected from me. I'm not surprised. It hasn't been easy to connect with me lately. I told him that we don't have alot to talk about since he doesn't feel comfortable discussing the subject that continually preoccupies me. Neither of us want it to be this way, this isolating. So, we went on a date Friday night. I was grumpy and irritable, mainly due to work stress and the fact that our oldest sobbed and wailed relentlessly when we dropped him off at Kid's Night Out. However, my husband valiantly maintained a good mood throughout it all. Towards the end of the evening, my crankiness subsided and we were finally able to talk in that easy way we normally have with each other. We discussed some touchy subjects and even managed to laugh with each other a bit.

I realize that this vexing doubt of mine is here for awhile, maybe forever, so there's no need to let it take over, like a new best friend who goes everywhere with you, leaving you no time for anyone else. I'll have to learn when to talk to it like the neighborhood children, "It's time for you to home for now, but you can come back tomorrow."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Religious Experience Linked to Brain's Social Regions

I read a post at Wired Science entitled "Religious Experience Linked to Brain's Social Regions." Researchers studied MRI's of people with differing beliefs in the western view of God. Here's what they found:

People who reported an intimate experience of God, engaged in religious behavior or feared God, tended to have larger-than-average brain regions devoted to empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. The research wasn’t trying to measure some kind of small “God-spot,” but looked instead at broader patterns within the brains of self-reported religious people.

Of course, this study is only correlation, so we can only speculate on what the causal chain may look like. These enlarged brain areas, vital for social interaction, may have given humans the capacity to conceive of another being. Researchers suspect that this capacity may have evolved in brain regions which govern our ability to understand other people and animals.


link

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Are We Living Inside a Black Hole?

Trying to understand how we and our universe came to be is a fascinating study. One of the latest proposals by a cosmologist is that we may be the product of a black hole and are living inside one right now. Read the summary of his conclusions here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brain Surgery and Bible Studies

One of the many benefits of expressing my doubts about Christianity and God both on this blog and in my personal life has been the normalization of my doubts. It feels now as if my faith crisis is a normal and expected experience for someone who is serious about her religious beliefs and serious about seeking the Truth. I no longer feel like I am an outlier with whom no one can relate.

I have no empirical studies to back up my personal experience, but I've certainly noticed some similarities among individuals like me who seriously wrestle with issues of faith and religion, whether they be Christian or atheist. One similarity is their deep commitment to their religion (whether currently or in the past). Richard Beck writes about this at his blog and defines this attribute as religiosity. Richard Beck, who is an experimental psychologist, described himself as religiously precocious during childhood. I love that description and connect well with it. I, too, was such a child. I took notes on sermons in elementary school and held Bible studies with other children in hopes of saving them. I had definite opinions about which Bible translation I preferred and requested a new NIV as a gift in lieu of a senior class ring. I helped lead our youth group, started a Bible study group at my high school, went on evangelistic campaigns with my youth group in the summers. In college I majored in both psychology and vocational ministry and went on mission trips to Hungary. I married a preacher and was quite happy to fill the role of "preacher's wife." I truly couldn't understand why most people around me weren't so naturally interested in knowing and living out God's Word. It's only now that I realize how unusual I was as a child for my religious zeal. I've noticed that many who have lost their faith started out like me, and perhaps because of this zeal, studied intensely and worked themselves out of the faith they defended so fervently.

The other similarity I've noticed among those who wrestle with doubts about their faith is that they are often analytical types, whose thought pattern can often be described as obsessive. They are problem solvers who tenaciously puzzle over solutions to quandaries they encounter. They can't let it go. There often isn't a lot of choice in the matter. They feel compelled to pursue, to find an answer. This describes me well. I've been amazed at the number of individuals I've encountered online who, if not theologians or philosophers, are engineers or computer programmers or scientists. In the book club I started at church to discuss science and religion, just about everyone is (or was) an engineer or in the computer field (except for a couple of psychologist types). Careers quite befitting detail-oriented, problem solvers.

On the other hand, I have friends and family who truly don't seem to struggle with these faith issues. Even if they try. They either can't get enthused about religion and faith or they just don't feel intensely bothered by the unanswered questions and contradictions that plague my thoughts and prevent me from "trusting in the promises".

What is the point of all this? Maybe there is none. But, I have to wonder, how much sense does it make for one's salvation to depend on whether or not you happen to have the right personality type? So little of our personality is under our control. It's an intricate interplay between environmental factors and genetics. One strong blow to the head can alter our personality permanently. Maybe baptism isn't enough to give one a "new life" leading to salvation. Maybe neurosurgery is also in order.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Well, What Do Ya Know, I'm Mad!

Today, I attended a monthly book club meeting at my church where we discuss books that address faith and science issues. We reviewed the book Darwin on Trial. At one point, I shared that as a child I was taught to accept the Youth Earth Creationist(YEC) viewpoint. However, as I studied and came to see all the evidence supporting an old earth, I felt misled, whether the misleading was intentional or not. I expressed the distrust it has caused me to feel about any conclusions drawn from the YEC perspective. I was surprised at how emotional I felt as I shared this about myself. I was angry.

I have thought of my faith crisis as a primarily intellectual struggle. However, I am beginning to connect more with an undercurrent of unhappiness about several aspects of my faith. I don't like being made a fool of by being taught the earth is 6000 years old. I don't like feeling like I'm not allowed to examine scientific evidence regarding evolution (pardon my vagueness, Jeff!) without a preconceived conclusion in mind. I don't like having to justify infanticide or genocide. I don't like having to harmonize contradictory accounts of Jesus' life.

So, there it is. As much as my Christian faith has been a source of support to me, it is also the source of some resentment. It became apparent that in many ways, my YEC upbringing is now becoming a hindrance and stumbling block in my Christian faith. One outcome I'd like to avoid is rejecting all of Christianity when my problem is really just the narrow type of Christianity I've been practicing. I want to be objective enough to discard what is old, worn out, and useless, without giving up anything of value. However, there are times when my irritation at it all tempts me to just throw it all out. I tend to pride myself on being even-tempered, mature, and reserved, so this admission isn't easy for me. I rather feel like I'm throwing an online fit. But, I feel the need to be honest with myself and others as I continue in this faith journey. The facade of an unchanged and unshakable faith is starting to crack.

Review of "The Reason for God" ch 14 The Dance of God

This chapter describes our relationship with the triune God, who Keller describes as "a community of persons who have loved each other for all eternity." He denies that God seeks our praise out of self-centeredness, but for our joy. He knows we can't be truly happy if we lead self-centered lives, so he demands we center our lives around him and "join in the dance." If we are selfless, we are experiencing the same happiness in loving others that He has experienced from eternity. Certainly, self-absorption is an ugly state of being that disconnects us from others and in its most extreme form leads to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. On the other hand, I find beauty in the lives of those who are focused on contributing to the well-being of others and who accept themselves without requiring the continual praise and adoration of others. This idea of "loving relationships in community" is an attractive ideal to me. This doesn't make the the concept of the Trinity correct or coherent, but it's a description with which I can connect. (Much better than the "egg metaphor" I heard growing up: God=yolk, Jesus=egg white, Holy spirit=shell).

Keller says that in the garden, when Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, they "lost the dance." They chose self-centeredness rather than choosing to love and obey God. This self-centeredness produced psychological alienation as well as humanity's "alienation from the natural world." When Jesus died for us, he invited us to rejoin Him in the dance. And, at the end of time, creation will be renewed and restored. Even nature will join in the dance. Keller says Christianity is unique in its vision for both a spiritual and material salvation: a restoration of all things. I have never understood how nature got mixed up in humanity's offense against God. Guilt by association?

I'm a little unsure how to translate all this into something I believe in. I don't take the Adam and Eve account literally and I no longer view Jesus' death from the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. I also don't know what sense to make of a "new heaven and a new earth." So, I don't know what happened to separate humanity and nature(?) from God, I don't know why Jesus' death would restore the relationship, and I don't know what the future of humanity's relationship to God will look like in the afterlife. And this is pretty much the gospel in a nutshell. I know there are ways to understand all these things in a more modern, less literal way, but I'm not sure how much is left of Christianity.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Blessing for Doubters

May your trails be croocked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains raise into and above the clouds.
– Edward Abbey

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reflections on My Worship Experience

I'm back from Sunday worship today. It's been increasingly difficult for me to attend services lately. I find that I'm often prickly and irritated by what I'm hearing. I confess that last week I used my oldest son's misbehavior during worship as an excuse to leave church early. My husband was at work, so I didn't have the need to sit there for his sake. As the sermon began today, my mind almost immediately began disputing what the preacher had to say. The subject of the sermon was prayer. He related a story where a backpacking buddy of his began to fall down a steep hill. 2 men in the group immediately began to pray. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the backpacker stopped on a rock. My preacher said his buddy would have died that day if those 2 men hadn't prayed for him at that moment. I cringed and thought, "Oh, here I go again!" Then, I began to argue with myself:

Me: How do you know it was prayer that worked? The rock was already there, wasn't it? It didn't just pop into existence at that moment, did it?

Me: Well, God can use whatever is there. This would be a crazy world if He were continually altering the laws of nature.

Me: Yes, but it would more clearly display his existence, right? It's hard to see God at work, when so many things we attribute to Him can be explained naturally.

Me: True, but he didn't save the man until the men prayed, so that shows Him at work, right? He could have prevented the backpacker from falling in the first place, but no one would ever know God intervened.

Me: Is rescue from adversity the only way God can show his presence? We have to hope for suffering, so we can catch God at work? What sense does that make? What about Adam and Eve walking along with God in the garden? Who wouldn't prefer that?

Me: What if that event happened so the preacher could relate this story to me today and increase my faith?

Me: How egotistical is that, thinking what happened to a stranger several months ago, happened for me? What if no one prayed for him and he died? Would that be my fault some how? Object lesson gone awry for a wayward soul?

Me: Sigh. When will I ever reach a decision about any of this?

One aspect of worship I continue to enjoy is singing. I have trouble praying, but I listen to Christian music quite a bit in the car and always sing during worship. Even if I'm not sure I believe what I'm singing. Today, as I sang praise lyrics, like "but words are not enough to tell You of our love, so listen to our hearts," I was touched with a sense of gratitude. I'm not always sure who I am singing to or if anyone is listening, but I nevertheless felt thankful to be here, to be alive. I feel a peace in my life, even when it's not perfect, when I'm able to be grateful. I feel more connected to the world and to others at those times. So, though I'm weary of my doubts and endless debates with myself, I am grateful today to Be.

And at the expense of sounding sappy, I've been grateful to those of you in the blogging world. None of you know how helpful it's been to me to read your blogs and comments, to be encouraged, and to be listened to with acceptance. I also have a few off-line friends who read this blog and talk in person with me about these issues, and I appreciate you all very much too!

OK, enough mush. Next post I'll review Ch 14 of Keller's book, and then I'm done reviewing it. I've enjoyed doing it, but it's time to move on.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review of Ch 13 "The Reality of the Resurrection"

Keller follows three lines of support for the resurrection: the empty tomb and the witnesses; 1st century understanding of resurrection; and the immediacy with which Christianity was adopted. He seems to rely heavily on N.T. Wright for this chapter.

Keller cites Paul's recounting of post-resurrection sitings of Jesus found in I Corinthians. He notes that these witnesses to the resurrection would have still been alive and could have been questioned, so it's unlikely that the list is a fabrication. He also discusses the fact that the first witnesses were women, something unlikely to be made up as women's testimony was devalued and inadmissible in court. This line of reasoning addresses the idea that Christianity was intentionally fabricated, but what about ideas like the hallucination theory?

Keller states that it is also unlikely the concept of the resurrection was a human invention because it wasn't compatible with the Jewish or Greco-Roman worldview. He noted that many, but not all, Jews at the time were hopeful of a bodily resurrection when God came to renew the world. They had no concept of a resurrected Messiah. Most non-Jews regarded the physical body as corrupt and would view the resurrected body as undesirable, if not unbelievable. Death was viewed as a liberation from the bondage of a defiled prison.

Finally, Keller finds support in the fact that the idea of a bodily resurrection and subsequent worship of Jesus as divinity occurred so quickly in a culture not primed to accept a religion like Christianity. He stated that worldviews take a great deal of time to change unless there is some dramatic occurrence that causes a shift in thinking, such as a bodily resurrection. I'm always alittle skeptical of such arguments, when I consider how many other religions have sprung up and grown successfully. What about Mormonism for example?

Recently, a friend of mine (you know who you are) came to my home and we discussed many questions and concerns I have about Christianity. I shared that I think my acceptance of Christianity hinges on whether or not I believe in the resurrection. To me, this is what the apostle Paul repeatedly states in scripture. So, this is going to be where I spend my reading time for now. What do you think? Is there a way to salvage Christianity without a literal resurrection?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

EPS conference

Over at Ken Pulliam's blog I learned that the Evangelical Philosophical Society will be hosting a conference in November in Atlanta, GA. You can learn more about it here. Some of their headliners include Plantiga, Craig, and Habermas. The cost of attendance is very minimal and it's within driving distance for me, so I may very well attend. Has anyone every been to an EPS conference?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

How Do You Handle New Evidence?

Constantly evaluating my faith and belief system is a bit of an exhausting experience. Life is so much simpler the more things I can put on automatic pilot: get ready for work, drive son to school, what to order the family at McDonald's, transactions at the bank, and so on. If I had to reevaluate every decision and opinion before acting on them every single time, I would go crazy. We all would. So, it comes as no surprise that our religious life tends to be automatic, ritualized, and unevaluated.

Which brings me to my question. How do you handle new evidence in light of your religious belief system (or lack there of)? I'm always interested in the way both I and others respond. In the blogosphere, you find reflexive types who don't seem capable of introspecting about their own views; they are too busy defending, reacting, and attacking. Mercifully, you have others who really seem interested in finding answers and who willingly change their minds about things in light of new evidence.

I've gone through quite a journey in terms of my emotional reactions during this faith crisis. At first I experienced a fair amount of anxiety about challenging old beliefs. I wasn't looking to discard Christianity, I just wanted to finally address my doubts so I wouldn't be hounded by them. As I adjusted to this new openness to ideas, facts, and worldviews, I became much more detached from the final outcome of my exploration and more willing to go where the evidence led. It was quite freeing not to feel the need to rationalize or ignore information that didn't fit a particular belief system.

However, I admit, I am getting a bit tired. There are times when I just want answers and I don't want to continue to reevaluate. There are times when I want to just go with my preference, or emotional reaction, rather than continue to search. There are times when I really want the data to fit a certain belief system. Some days I'd rather remain a Christian. Some days I'd rather not. I've been thinking of individuals who change their worldviews more than once. Like Ann Rice, who went from atheism to Christianity. Recently, she has given up the religion of Christianity, but still considers herself a follower of Jesus. I would really prefer to not continually change my worldview. If I were to reject Christianity, it would probably be hard to be perpetually open to new evidence and to be as willing to change as I am now. I would like to believe that I am a lifelong seeker of the truth, but sometimes it just wears me out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Review of "The Reason for God" Ch 12 The True Story of the Cross

In this chapter, Keller doesn't defend the existence of God as much as he defends the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. He gives 2 primary reasons it is necessary. First, he maintains that forgiveness entails "absorbing the debt of sin yourself." The cross was God's way of absorbing the debt of sin. However, we all have forgiven someone and "absorbed the debt" rather than seek vengence or demand reparation. This doesn't entail us nailing ourselves to a cross. We experience the pain of betrayal, the wounding by hurtful words, the loss of property by theft and choose not to lash out. This is absorbing the debt, something God did just by experiencing the pain of our betrayal, sin, and disbelief. I don't exact revenge on my oldest son when he rolls his eyes, refuses to answer me, and makes rude comments(though I may be very tempted to yell and scream). I tend to absorb the pain and forgive. I may punish with time out as a deterrant to future rude behavior, but it doesn't satisfy my desire for retribution.

Secondly, Keller supports the need for the death of Jesus by maintaining that God would not be a God of love if he wasn't willing to "become personally involved in suffering, the same violence, oppression, grief, weakness, and pain that we experience." I would maintain that by being in relationship with humanity, God experiences suffering. Jesus also experienced many of these things while on earth, even before his death. Also, it is never reported in scripture that he experienced every type of trauma that has befallen human beings. So, I don't know how we could argue that death was somehow a required experience.

I do know there are many scriptures that would support the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. However, there are other scriptures that offer other views.
There are many issues I would like to address regarding Penal Substitution, but I don't have time at the moment. Maybe I will turn that into a mini series.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Follow Your Bliss

I really appreciate Joseph Campbell on many levels, but I am particularly drawn to his concept of following your bliss. Here is a excerpt from an interview with Campbell shortly before his death:

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time - namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be....

Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: sat-chit-ananda. The word "Sat" means being. "Chit" means consciousness. "Ananda" means bliss or rapture. I thought, "I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being." I think it worked.
-- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, pp. 113, 120


To "follow your bliss" is not to live an indulgent life, satisfying our ego's every whim. Rather, it is to find and pursue what fills us with passion. To fully be ourselves. In so doing, we will naturally fill needs in our community and bless it. As a parent, I see my role as helping my children become who they are. I think it is beautiful to watch passionate people do what they do.

For several years I thwarted my ability to follow my bliss. When I became a parent, I became hyperfocused on that part of my role and identity. My inner world shrank drastically. Even though I worked part-time, I wasn't investing any real emotional energy into that aspect of my life. I became thoroughly bored with myself and didn't want to be in the same room with me. Then, I dared to do things for myself instead of my kids, just because I wanted to do so. I read for fun and intellectual stimulation again, I reignited my sense of humor, I listened to music I liked (not just the Wiggles or Raffi). Over time, I felt alive again, passionate, which infused life into my marriage and allowed me to connect better with others. Without deliberately trying, I have become happier with myself and have been a greater resource to others. When I am following my bliss, I am neither absorbed with myself, nor engaged in self-denial. The universe feels centered and right at these times.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Just for Laughs

I don't know if there are any Star Wars Fans out there, but my husband and I qualify. I also like off beat humor, so when he found the comedy series,
Chad Vader, on hulu, we made a date of watching the mini episodes at night together after the kids were in bed. Chad Vader is Darth Vader's younger brother who works as a day shift manager at a grocery story. It cracks me up :)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review of "The Reason for God" Ch 11 Religion and the Gospel

This chapter, in many ways, is a continuation of chapter 10 on sin. Keller discusses the answer to sin, which is Jesus himself. He compares religion (which he describes as salvation through moral effort) with the gospel (which he describes as salvation through grace). He argues that no other religion besides Christianity claims that its leader is the way of salvation. Instead, other religions point to some type of moral effort as being the way of salvation.

Keller states that religion through moral effort leads to a vain religiosity marked by self-righteousness and rule-keeping. This demonstrates that we cannot save ourselves from our sin, and need to accept the grace offered by Christ. He says the acceptance of grace does two things: it motivates us to obey God out of gratitude and it leads both to deep humility and self acceptance. He illustrates this by examining the character Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. He highlights Valjean's transformation from "self-pity and bitterness" to "graciousness toward others" once he has experienced an act of mercy from a priest.

In my Christian life, I grew up experiencing an interesting combination of "religion" and "grace", though I think moralizing was the better part of it. I now attend a church where the gospel, as Keller describes it, is taught and lived out in many believers there. I do get to witness a group of people living lives out of gratitude and they are a blessing to others. When I do see Christianity lived out in a way that makes the community a better place in which to be, it affirms my belief in the gospel. However, I know many can, and have, pointed to lives based on something other than Christianity that have also been beautiful demonstrations of selfless love to others.