A Personal/Political/Religious Post

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A while back, Sandi mentioned that being the only non-religious person here was a bit isolating for her. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. More correctly, I wasn’t sure if I should respond to that. The response itself, had I chosen to make it, would’ve been, “You’re not, actually. I’m not religious, either.”

I don’t mean anything clever by that, as in the chirpy, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not religious,” by which one means one is religious but not, supposedly, in a bumptious way. I mean I’m not religious, as in, “I’m not pregnant.” Not religious. Agnostic.

Or is that what I mean?

In a sense, I suppose I’m the ultimate agnostic: I don’t even know if I’m agnostic or not. Spiritually, I am. Is there a god? I don’t know and I don’t think it’s knowable. I can only say that neither nature nor experience inclines me to believe there is — at least, not one worth knowing. Is there a spiritual dimension to human life, of the kind spoken of in Christianity and some other religions? I don’t know and I don’t think it’s knowable, but it doesn’t ring true. Is there a heaven and a hell? I don’t know. I don’t even think the question is worth asking.

I’m pretty sure all that makes “agnostic” the correct box for me to check on the next census.

I certainly wouldn’t check any of the boxes that would identify me with any church I’m familiar with, which, to varying degrees, is most of them. Churches and me, we’re done with each other. That’s been true for a while, now. The last time I went to church, I felt like I’d stepped onto the surface of Mars. I walked in, I turned around, I walked out. I haven’t been back, and I don’t miss it. Ever. Not even kinda. But I’ve been contemplating visiting one or two here in my new hometown. People keep saying it’s the best place to meet people and build a social circle, which is something I’d like to do. But then I start looking at the local churches’ websites and I just can’t bring myself to go. It just isn’t worth it. Go back into that world? Nuh-uh. As the mapmakers used to say, there be dragons there.

I don’t look down my nose when I talk about this. Along with the relief I feel at not going, there’s regret at not being able to go and not being able to believe. Nor do I like talking about it. Those here who know me will have some idea why that is. In just about every possible way, my life would be easier if I could make a churchgoing, spiritual-realm-believing life work for me. But I’ve tried and tried and tried, and it just won’t take. It’s like transplanting a mismatched organ into a kidney patient. The longer I try to make it work, the sicker I get.

So in all those ways, I’m not religious, and you’re not alone, Sandi. In other ways, though, I’m very much not only religious, but specifically Christian.

The broad moral principles of Christianity are central to who I am. I’ve invested a lot of my life (and student loans) in pursuing a better understanding of them and of what they’ve meant to Christians at various times in history. I’ve worked hard at internalizing my best understanding of it all, and while I’ve certainly not entirely succeeded, I’ve succeeded well enough that I’ll never be not Christian in my basic notions of right, wrong, and what a life well lived looks like. I’ll likely never be a churchgoer or an apologist for the existence of god, but I’ll just as likely always be smitten with Jesus’ life and teachings.

Whatever that makes me — Christian, heretic, lukewarm, lapsed Catholic, casual Protestant, etc. — I guess that’s what I am. But it is what I am. “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The rest I leave to God, if there is one.

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20 Responses to “A Personal/Political/Religious Post”

  1. Unicorn Says:

    “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. So, here I go! Like you, JU, I wanted to respond to Sandi’s assertion, but didn’t know where to begin. I still don’t, but will jump in here and see where this dialogue leads.
    As you know from my profile, I’m a retired minister. I’ve often said if I were tried for heresy, I would undoubtedly be convicted. I’m a Christian (United Church of Christ, specifically), but am left cold by much of the dogma and practices that are so much a part of worship services.
    Nevertheless, I continue to go to church. Part of the reason is the “community” I find there. A lot of people do the right things, though perhaps for different reasons that I do. Oh, they are not saints, but then, neither am I. And, then, while the church as an institution leaves much to be desired, what institution is any more desirable?
    Some of you remember that I was shamed into reading Anna Karenina. I’ve been stewing about writing my reasction/reflction on that, but it seemed too daunting. However, there’s a passage that seems to have relevance for this discussion.
    Levin, a believer in SCIENCE and a person who scoffed at religion, has nevertheless lived a very moral life. Late in life he has a conversion experience and decides that he is indeed a believer. Levin thinks on his own life: “He had been living rightly, but thinking wrongly.”
    Then, an interesting thing happens. After his “conversion” he feels he will now live an even more exemplary life, i.e. will no longer be annoyed at his wife, or treat his servants disrespectfully, or find himself in a foul mood. But, his “re-entry” into everyday life is difficult and he finds himself falling back into the old habits.
    So, he begins, once again, to re-examine his “conversion” and then asks, “If proof of divinity is the revelation of what is right, how is it confined to the Christian Church alone?” What of Buddhists, and Jews and Confucians and Mohammendan – who also preach and do right?”
    He eventually concludes that “Happiness comes from doing what is right.” That leaves him able to go to church, and even pray, but without being burdened by the intellectual and theological trappings that bother him so much.
    Maybe all this makes less sense to you that to me, in a way that’s how I’m still able to go to church, even though much of the traditional rationale for doing so (creeds, heaven and hell talk, Trinitarian formulas, virgin births, etc) are just so much archaic baggage.
    I don’t think I’ll go back and re-read this. If I do, I’ll probably never send it. So, I throw myself on your mercy, or to the wolves – whichever the case may be.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    As always, I appreciate your honesty, Juvenal. A lot.

    I think you might consider the UCC. One of my favorite Unicorn quotes is the stereotype given the UCC by the facetious prayer salutation, “To Whom It May Concern.”
    🙂

    I guess this makes me the Christian in the clever, chirpy, hopefully non-bumptious way.

    I, too, am smitten with Jesus’ life and teachings. I’m trying to get a handle on the rest, and neither is easy. But I’m still smitten with Jesus.

    And I believe in something bigger than this life. Oh, I see holes, and I continue to have my moments of doubt, but I still believe in something bigger. And I call that something bigger, God.

    This all comes in handy, of course, given my line of work, but that is not why I cling to these beliefs. Believe me, there are times when I’d rather be doing anything else, but I continually return to the honor of trying to communicate the Teacher I’m smitten with to a group of people. I still think its good work if you can get it.

    I’ve told Juvenal before that the opening scene in Updike’s “In the Beauty of the Lilies” freaked me out a bit – a pastor in his study coming to the conclusion that there is no God. But those thoughts have always been warded off in me by thoughts of Jesus.

    Anyway, I know the word “faith” factors in here somewhere – a heart conviction of something unprovable (which, of course, involves both believing and not believing in something bigger than this life). So I have faith…

    And I also have friends like Sandi & Juvenal & Unicorn. And I’m glad.

  3. Terry Austin Says:

    I do not swim in the deep end, as many of you know well. (I do pee in the pool however, so approach at your own peril.)

    What little I know about j_u’s “Martian encounters” really connects with me. I find myself often questioning why God, in infinite wisdom, set up something as totally screw-uppable as the church. Why, if you’ll pardon the language, he chose such a dirty whore to be his son’s bride. Yeah, there’s the redemption theme — that Jesus lived & died for this whore’s love — but did he not also do the same for the people kept at arm’s length by the church? What are they to do? How are they to experience and know Jesus?

    I am not smart enough to have my own faith struggles, and I’m happy-go-lucky enough to just let most things be. But I get angry when I see how the church treats the dissenter. Or the doubter, questioner or seeker. And having seen this mistreatment happen to my own brother, who, as he says, chased this beautiful life of Jesus much further than did/will the pew-sitters who felt their faith-worlds and congregational structures threatened by his questions and therefore drove him away… well, that tests the happy-go-luckyness of the “best” of us.

    I do not doubt God, nor the amazing life and love of Jesus. But more and more, I doubt the church. Even as I become more and more entangled in its busyness.

  4. Sandi Says:

    Wow, what a great post. I think I mostly meant that I don’t have deep knowledge about scripture and so don’t have anything to add to those conversations, but I also do feel weird when people talk about issues such as homosexuality with reference to what the Bible says about it. I could jump in and say, well, I don’t know anything about the Bible but my view is X, but when you are referring to the Bible as the starting point for discussion it feels inappropriate or something to do that.

    Anyway, I have always wished that there was a church for people like me (heathens need community too!). But like you say, churches are organizations that, like workplaces, have internal politics of their own that rarely fail to disappoint.

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’m not sure what to say in response to your comment, unicorn, except that I understand what you’re saying, and I’m happy for you that you’re still able to find community in your church. For me, the baggage is too much to carry. I wore myself out.

    Terry — First off, thanks. As to the specifics of your comment, I didn’t feel like I’d been driven out (or maybe I did for a while, but in any case, I don’t now). I just felt alien. One of these things was not like the others; one of these things just didn’t belong. I couldn’t even speak the language anymore. It was quite literally exhausting even to hear it.

    Also, it wasn’t anything specific to the church I was attending at the time. It would be, and is, equally true of any church of any kind. (Except maybe that one Pamela Anderson teaches Sunday School at, out there near Mikey.)

    So, no one drove me away. Church and I — whose friendship had always been uneasy — just grew apart. Too far apart for me to keep hanging around, giving silent assent to things I didn’t believe.

    I think you might consider the UCC.

    A good suggestion, Al, but been there, done that. I don’t think any church would be a good fit. Not now, and not for the foreseeable future. Me and church just have tooooo much history. If that ever changes, then a UCC might be just the thing.

    And I believe in something bigger than this life.

    I don’t. I believe in the limits of what we know (and can know), but that’s not the same thing. IOW, I believe that the totality of reality is bigger than our current picture of it, and is quite possibly bigger than our picture can ever be, but, as I said, the spiritual account of that Bigness doesn’t ring true for me.

    ~~

    BTW, FWIW, this continuing fascination with Jesus that I have, I didn’t have that at. all. until after I’d gotten some distance between me and church. I had to get out of church to find Jesus.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I think I mostly meant that I don’t have deep knowledge about scripture and so don’t have anything to add…

    Sounds like much the same thing I felt when I was at church. When you don’t at least have a common language on which to communicate, it’s hard to be part of the community, right?

  7. Unicorn Says:

    For me, the baggage is too much to carry. I wore myself out.

    JU – I know what you mean. When those creeds (by default, with no UCC church here,I’m a “practicing” Episco-pope-opalian)are said, I try to mentally translate them into something I believe. That’s become so burdensome I now don’t say it, but listen for something that might give me some insight. But, I can see the next step is just to think about something else.

    I do ask myself frequently – Why do I go? but so far haven’t mustered the courage to see what else might give similar meaning to my life.

    To all of you – appreciate the candor of your comments. I’m jealous of Al, who can call you Friends.

  8. Terry Austin Says:

    I’d better not hear of Al calling me any such thing.

    🙂

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You still owe me money. Jerk.

    JUST KIDDING!!! You hadn’t been a part of this particular discussion yet when I made said comment.

    TERRY AUSTIN IS MY FRIEND!!!

    (Oh, and I have a question about Outback Steakhouse in NEA when it doesn’t affect your children’s college fund.) 🙂

  10. Terry Austin Says:

    There’s an Outback Steakhouse in Northeast Arkansas?

    Never heard of it.

  11. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Heard something about them sponsoring a golf tournament?

  12. Terry Austin Says:

    Golf?

    Never heard of it.

  13. Terry Austin Says:

    (Denial: Item #1 in any PR flack’s toolkit.)

  14. juvenal_urbino Says:

    One of my favorite Unicorn quotes is the stereotype given the UCC by the facetious prayer salutation, “To Whom It May Concern.”

    And then there’s the Skeptic’s Prayer: “God, if there is a god, have mercy on my soul, if I have a soul.”

  15. juvenal_urbino Says:

    so far haven’t mustered the courage to see what else might give similar meaning to my life

    For me, it wasn’t a matter of courage, but of exhaustion.

    As for that whole meaning-of-life thing, that is a problem. But then, it always was — church or no church.

  16. Michael Lasley Says:

    Great post and comments. I’ve been to busy not doing anything to comment on everything. Plus I have nothing particularly new to add. I know JU’s feeling, as all of us seem to know.

    I do have a question for you JU about your fascination with Jesus. Like Terry, I’m swimming in the shallow end, so forgive me if this has an answer I should already know. If you aren’t convinced that there is something bigger, as Al put it, then why the Jesus fascination? For me, if Jesus wasn’t God, then he’s not that fascinating. Mainly because everything he said or did (or everything recorded of his sayings and doings) is based on the premise that he was the son of God. If that part is a lie, which is a pretty important thing, then the rest of it loses it’s flavor for me. His life and philosophy loses a lot of its credibility. Or maybe it doesn’t.

  17. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I found that persuasive, more or less, for a while. The whole “either god, or a bad (or insane) man” argument. But it occurs to me that Jesus is the only person we hold to that standard.

    Any number of historic figures whose life and work we highly prize are either known to have been mentally unstable, or would be diagnosed as mentally ill today. Pick any of the fields we typically look to for revelations of Truth or Beauty, and the people we prize most are often mentally ill. It’s so often the case that it’s become a truism that genius and madness travel together.

    I think it’s almost certain that, were he alive today, Jesus would be diagnosed with a mental illness, even if he never claimed divinity. A number of other biblical figures would be, as well (all the prophets, Paul, Peter, John, and the author of Ecclesiastes come immediately to mind).

    Yet in all these cases, biblical and non-biblical, we still — especially! — recognize Truth in these people’s work. We don’t say, “Well, [St. Augustine or Friedrich Nietzsche or Vincent van Gogh or Michelangelo or William Blake or Blaise Pascal or Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy or Jeremiah or …] was mentally unhinged, so everything he said and did is worthless.”

    Quite the opposite. Their work lives on for centuries after their death because people continually find so much Truth in it.

    So I just don’t find the “either god, or a bad (or insane) man” argument persuasive. It’s a fallacious argument. Regardless of what Jesus may or may not have said about his divinity, or what his mental status may or may not have been, there is both Truth and Beauty in the way he lived and the moral principles he taught.

    That’s why he continues to fascinate me. It’s the same experience as I used to have on Sunday afternoons in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, being transfixed by a great painting. Something in the center of my chest leaps with recognition and won’t let me just move on.

  18. Michael Lasley Says:

    Agreed on a few of those points. Jesus would without a doubt be either arrested or put in a nervous hospital if he were alive today. AND I agree to some extent that his life was fascinating regardless of his divinity — the way he lived and his philosophy were revolutionary.

    But however and so…if Jesus wasn’t God, then it actually does seem to me that part of his life was selfish and even a bit evil. He asked his best friends to die for him — not for a philosophy, but for him. He gave (and gives) a lot of people hope — which is just cruel if he’s not God.

    Now, having said that, I do think his philosophy was intended to help people live a happier or more peaceful life while on earth — it’s not all just about Heaven and the hereafter. But a healthy part of his philosophy was that this life really isn’t that important anyway. No? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    So anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say at this early hour in the morning is: I agree that Jesus is somewhat fascinating regardless of divinity. But I don’t think he’s all that fascinating if he’s not divine.

  19. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Afore getting to specifics, let me just say you make excellent points. It may be that I admire Jesus’ life more than it rates. It seems likely, in fact, as sort of a churchgoing hangover.

    He asked his best friends to die for him — not for a philosophy, but for him. He gave (and gives) a lot of people hope — which is just cruel if he’s not God.

    I suppose I am — was — one of those people, so I know whereof you speak. One quickly gets into the problem of disentangling what Jesus said from what later writers said he said, here, but I’m avoiding going that route. Partly, that’s because I just don’t give it much thought in my own life, partly because I’ve always found the relevant text-critical arguments almost transparently thin, and partly because it’s a little too convenient — the handy Ginsu knife of religious arguments (Don’t like something Jesus is reported to have said? Say he didn’t say it! No muss, no fuss, and only $19.95!).

    However, I’m going to nod in that direction by saying: I don’t know that Jesus asked people to suffer and die for him so much as he knew that suffering and death was a likely outcome if they lived as he lived, just as he knew all along it was the likely outcome of his own life. Now, that said, did Jesus, fully knowing that, want and ask people to live as he lived? Yes. When you’re trying to change the world, which it certainly seems he was, I don’t see that you have much choice.

    I also don’t see how the cruelty of that (if cruelty is what it is) depends on whether he was divine or not. Let’s assume for a moment he was. He still asked people to suffer and die for him. How does his being a divinity make that any less cruel? Because he could then promise a personal afterlife in paradise?

    Asking people to live sacrificially (even die) for that strikes me as a good deal less admirable than asking people to live sacrificially (even die) to make the world a better place for their fellow human beings. A thoughtful Christian might reply that Jesus didn’t make any such bargain; that he asked people to live/die because of their love for him. I think that’s probably right. But I don’t see how his divinity or non-divinity makes any difference if that’s the point. Either you admire the life he lived and love him for it, and want to emulate it, or you don’t.

    How does the hope he offers change depending on his divinity? ISTM the hope is a very long-range one either way, with a lot of suffering and death in between; and ISTM that’s pretty much what he said.

    Is the difference the certainty? That if he’s divine, the hope is a certain one, but if he’s human, it’s not? That just pushes the question back one step. It becomes: what convinces one that Jesus was divine — a Bible verse where he makes the bare assertion, “I’m the son of God,” or the extraordinary totality of his life and teachings (as reflected in the totality of Bible verses)? If it’s the former, then ISTM one might as well believe any bare assertion, including one that the hope is certain even if Jesus wasn’t divine. If it’s the latter, then one doesn’t need claims of divinity.

    There’s much more to say, but this comment is too long already. And even what I have said, I’ve said poorly, but I need to go do other things. This’ll have to do for now.

    You’re It.

  20. Michael Lasley Says:

    Good thoughts. I’ll have to chew on ’em a bit. It’ll probably be tomorrow before I get a chance to respond.

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