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.