Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why I Can't Believe in Your God: Part 4- Individualized Expression, Individualized Experience

I started this series mainly because I found myself so fluid in my beliefs I couldn't even explain them to a stranger. I needed to express what I view as true as I currently see it (ehh, that still seems too fluid). I also pondered the phrasing of the series's title. Why Can't instead of Don't or Won't? Don't and Won't comes across as if I'm actively trying not to believe whereas Can't expresses more of an inability. This will make a bit more sense after I explain a verse at the core of my spirituality.

 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
   And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
   and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8 NIV

I am but a single expression of life, deserving of no higher praise than the worker ant or a blade of grass. All life will succumb to death, and through our death new life is possible. We are beyond blessed to simply have a chance to experience reality and all that is asked of us is to do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our own experience of reality. As individual expressions of reality we think, speak, dream, and love differently, but it is in that uniqueness where our equality is tenderly held. Even though some of us may think we deserve a bigger slice of life over everyone else in the end our bodies will share the same dirt. What does any of this have to do with my inability to believe in a theistic god? Quite simply we are individualized expressions of life with individualized experiences. The universe will never again spring up another you, ever. Each of us is a unique cosmic event that will only occur once and then fade back into the circle of life, like wave into ocean.

As an individual expression I experience everything from my own perspective. Even if I tried to comprehend your individual experience it will be filtered through my own. I must learn to walk humbly with my own experience and perception of Reality before I can even begin to comprehend yours. I must walk humbly with MY perception of _____, whatever THAT may be. This is why I've had trouble pinning down my beliefs, because I don't know what THAT is, I can only experience it and I'm not quite done experiencing ____ just yet. This is why I CAN'T believe in your God, because your God can only truly be perceived and experienced by you. I'm willing to listen to you and your experience because you are a cosmic event which will never arise again. How can I not be enthralled!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why I Can't Believe in Your God: Part 3- The Human Variable

Although I write on this site for self-reflection and meditation this series is intended for an audience it will unfortunately never reach. Mainly because this is an obscure blog in a sea of thousands and when it comes to blogs most people only read what they're comfortable reading. Most bloggers (including myself) stay within their online communities and rarely venture into a camp with an opposing viewpoint. And when they do the "Others" at times considers the outsider's comments a threat to the community. Even in the digital realm we default to petty tribalism. But of course I could be completely wrong, and getting off track.

The biggest factor in my leaving the theistic view of God behind is also the one aspect I cherish most of all in religion: the human variable. Granted, our humanness has caused us to be the most mindlessly destructive creatures on the planet but it is also the source of some of the most mind-blowing, awe inspiring, breath taking man-made works (of course as the only known sentient beings we're the only ones who can appreciate it). But it is that same humanness which I find makes scripture even more compelling than the previous image of Father Sky God as the sole author and authority of All. Reading scripture as if it had been handed down unblemished from heaven is cute but it removes the human voice present throughout scripture. You don't have to be a historian to realize that the Bible was written, edited, and transmitted by people, you just have to read the Bible itself. Covering the authors of the Bible in a cloak of infallibility rips away that humanness I connect with when I read the Bible. The same goes when we gloss over and reinterpret those less desirable verses which depict our humanity in horrid detail. Reinterpreting the Bible won't change the fact that certain beliefs and practices were acceptable at one point in our history. We just have to realize why they're no longer relevant to a 21st century society. A tribal god and its tribal law may have been necessary to maintaining the cohesion of a tribe but as citizens of the 21st century those gods and their laws are no longer necessary, we've outgrown them. Do we really need to avoid wearing clothing made from two different types of material or only marry within our tribe? Christians would say that Jesus' sacrifice made the old laws irrelevant. Sure why not, but how is the story of the sacrifice of a man-god relevant to us now in the 21st century? Preachers may try to repackage and sell the story's uniqueness but the fact is that the gospel story is just another story. (In fact, it's one that has been told for centuries before Jesus.)

What I find myself drawn to is what the story/scripture says of our nature, our humanity. We are broken, hateful, evil, greedy, lustful, terrible terrible creatures with daddy issues. But, it's in that shared brokenness that we are capable of tremendous love and beauty. Some of us aren't comfortable with our humanity, so we seek out to create perfection. Instead of dealing with our brokenness and learning to love ourselves as more than a collection of minor imperfections we create something greater, higher, more perfect than ourselves. I'm not saying theists are delusional, it's hard being human. We're all doing our best to cope with reality, and for me the theistic God just doesn't work anymore. Yet I hold onto the stories because they are by us, about us, for us, which makes them a part of us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm SBNR....Kind of

SBNR, or Spiritual But Not Religious, is a phrase which I use (at times) to describe my spirituality. Only, it comes across as anti-Religion (read anti-God in the Bible Belt) whereas I surround myself with religion, all sorts of religion. I use SBNR as a short hand to sum my my on-going fluid spiritual journey which is nigh impossible to pin down in a specific set of beliefs. Because, to be honest, sometimes I believe in contradicting beliefs and other times I believe in none of them. It's not about dogma, rituals, or communal identity, it's about discovering oneself.

SBNR's tend to come across as some New Age mystic movement but from what I've seen it is an incredibly diverse group mainly because of its sincere openness to question, seek out, and discover life itself. Some have labeled SBNR as Burger King Spirituality, "having it our way", picking and choosing what one wants from the various world religions.

The reality is that even the most conservative believers of any faith pick and choose elements to follow and embrace. To me the issue isn't how closely one follows their faith, but how does your personal experience with your faith and God lead you to a higher plane of self-cultivation? How are you growing in your faith? I believe that is the disconnect between religious believers and the Nones (which includes the SBNRs) described in the video. Most believers opposed to SBNRs are under the impression that they (SBNRs) have given up all forms of self-cultivation (my new favorite word) and refuse to follow any sort of higher moral authority. Equating lack of belief in a higher power to immorality is a load of baloney! A belief in and allegiance to a supreme being is not a magical cloak of morality. People will choose how moral they want to be regardless of their beliefs. SBNRs embrace life itself for what it is refusing to box it into a single narrative. This doesn't make them amoral, in fact it's quite the opposite. SBNRs embrace and respect the people behind the religion because it's the people not the dogma which is important. I hear so many evangelicals state how it (life) is all about giving glory to God. Yet this intense focus on a theistic Father God sometimes translates into hating what the God of the Bible hates. What do our actions and words really say about the marginalization of the least of these (homosexuals, Muslims, women, the poor, other non-believers, etc)? What do our actions and words say to our neighbors when we say we "love" under certain conditions? There is a disconnect when I read that the Bible has over 2000 verses on the poor and all I hear in church is how we should be giving more to the church.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying SBNRs are better people they just don't get caught up in dogma drama (as much as others). Their focus is on connecting with their fellow man and understanding their role in the universe, in the here and now. I'm careful when I use the term SBNR because although it describes me to a degree it just sounds oppositional. I'm not against anything religious, in fact I LOVE talking about and (at times) experiencing our religiousness. I love the story and symbolism in religion but most of all I go crazy for the wildly creative interpretation of scripture, like this for example. I've considered telling people I'm SBNER, Spiritual but not Exclusively Religious, but even then that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So now I try to avoid boiling down my spirituality to an acronym and ask my interrogator if they'd like to sit and talk about it over lunch. When you get to know someone on a personal level it's difficult to hate them for their beliefs.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Righteousness of Finn the Human: The Enchiridion

"A long time ago, when I was a baby, I went boom boom on a leaf. Then I fell backwards and sat in my own boom boom and cried for a day, but no one came to help me. That day I vowed to help anyone in need, no matter how small their problem!" -Finn the Human. Adventure Time, "Memories of Boom Boom Mountain"
I am still a boy at heart, right down to the core. I still play video games, get excited when I walk down the toy aisle, and religiously watch cartoons with my kids. Of course, I keep all this bottled up on the inside since as a grown 26 year old I can't be running around with a toy sword yelling "get ready for an upper cut, you dog!" Which is why I love the new cartoon series from Cartoon Network, Adventure Time. Who wouldn't want to watch a 12 year old boy fight for the weak and helpless while going out on awesome adventures? Sure the superhero cartoons are drenched in justice but I can't think of too many cartoons which approach the subject of justice and compassion as humorously and memorably as Adventure Time.

[Adventure Time, by Martin Corba]

Adventure Time can't be explained, it must be experienced. The show follows the adventures of a Peter Pan-esque 12 year old boy, Finn, and his best friend, Jake, a 28 year old dog with magical powers as they battle monsters, rescue princesses, and go on radical adventures in the land of Ooo. Did I say radical, I meant mathematical!

The show is filled with odd characters, pre-adolescent toilet jokes, and memorable fist pounding catch phrases set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world.  As far as I recall none of the characters have mentioned anything of how their brightly colored and joyous land of Ooo rose from the ashes of its past. Maybe because, as a cartoon the creators don't want to get into the gory detail of its apocalyptic destruction. So what exactly does all of this have to do with the righteousness of Finn the Human? Why even talk about a cartoon character? Because I LOVE story, we as a species crave it, and the one story we continue to tell over and over again is that of the archetypal hero.

What makes Finn righteous is not his strong ethical code or his stance on justice, it's his normality. His humanity is the very thing which sets him apart from every surreal creature and pastry-shaped character on the show and it's also the one thing we, the audience, share with Finn. There are human like characters on the show but Finn is the only one which bears the title Human. Amidst and beneath all of the boyish pranks and pre-adolescent humor the theme Adventure Time revisits is of an imperfect hero always struggling to do the right thing. The righteousness of Finn lies in the struggle of simply being human in an alien world. Although I would like to add that even though he's human he wears a hat which kind of makes him look like his fellow Oooians (Sound familiar? Hero taking on the form of those he swears to save? *Hint, hint*).  His empathy towards non-human sentient beings radiates the message of loving those different from ourselves. No matter who they are or what they've done, Finn the Human will ALWAYS helps those in need.

"I'm not righteous, I'm wrongtious."

The episode entitled "The Enchiridion!" best illustrates the struggles and responsibilities Finn must face as he seeks out a magical book which can only be read by a hero who's heart is righteous. Interestingly enough the real Enchiridion, or Handbook of Epictetus was a manual of practical philosophy which contained "Stoic ethical advice compiled by Arrian, who had been a pupil of Epictetus at the beginning of the 2nd century." (Wikipedia) The trials Finn faced focus on his ability to distinguish right from wrong and how he treats his fellow Oooians. For his first trial, he saves three fairy creatures from a burning pit of fire and once released they begin destroying old ladies. Finn questions his sense of "righteousness" after releasing the creatures although his companion, Jake the Dog, reassures him that it's all an illusion to test his heroic attributes. As I was diggin' the eastern religious reference Jake is suddenly devoured by a giant ogre. I was slightly tempted to interpret this scene as a metaphor for the battle between ignorance (embodied by the ogre) and wisdom (Jake the "Buddhist"* Dog) but I've already read too much into the episode. It is a cartoon you know.

For his last trial he's instructed by a hooded figure to slay two creatures: an evil heart beast and a neutral ant. Finn refuses to destroy the unaligned ant even at the risk of never reading the Enchiridion. He could of easily crushed the defenseless ant for his own gain but refused to do so. For all three trials Finn's compassion for others was being tested, not his ability to defeat evil. And for that he's handsomely rewarded with a peak at the Enchiridion (watch the video to see what page he read) and a delicious meal of spaghetti with his friends.

Already well into season 2, Adventure Time continues to surprise me with its subtle themes of morality and justice underlying the rambunctious adventures of an energetic and righteous 12 year old boy and his wise dog. I'm sure a lot of parents will dismiss this as another mindless cartoon (it does contain a sprinkling of mildly inappropriate innuendos at times), but I have yet to find another cartoon as hilarious and thoughtful as Adventure Time. I love...scratch that, I am insanely obsessed with Adventure Time, but that's probably the kid in me.

*Jake is not a Buddhist, but is merely connecting to the internet through meditation. Love it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Xtranormal with a Pinch of Hellfire

After watching Peter's (Emerging Christian) inspiring Xtranormal videos I thought I'd give it a whirl. The site is a lot of fun and very easy to use (although the site did crash for a few hours the other day as I was wrapping up which caused my video to disappear and sent me into a minor panic attack).

I don't know why I chose robots as the characters. I guess I wanted to geek out my video, although I could have tried to tailor the script to fit the video. Two robots talking about sins, Hell, and Jesus seems a bit out of place. What about Robot Jesus or the Space Pope?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why I Can't Believe in Your God: Part 2- Thou Shalt Not Question

To make a long story short, I can't accept the image of God portrayed in the Bible. Not because I know too much or I lack the faith, it's just that the theistic image portrayed in the Bible is no longer relatable in the 21st century. Some monotheistic believers would state that the divine transcends any notion of intellectual inquiry and examination while pointing out the physical "evidence" supporting their leap of faith. We are creatures of thought and curiosity. We are born curious and denying ourselves, and especially others, the ability to question only serves to chip away at our humanity.

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I was taught to believe that the Bible is 100% completely infallible and inerrant, and to question the word of God (i.e. the Bible, its history and the various orthodox interpretations) is often equated to a full frontal assault on God. There is absolutely no room for exploration and interpretation thus creating a stagnant, static climate in the journey to experiencing the divine within Christianity. What is commonly forgotten (and ignored) in conservative Christian circles is that the same creative and spiritual interpretations and readings done by non-inerrantists is similar to the creative and spiritual interpretations done by apologetics, pastors, and Sunday school teachers. Unless you're reading all of scripture 100% literally, you've entered the realm of metaphor and interpretation. And if scripture passes through a human filter for interpretation in 21st century sermons and lessons how can we not consider the human factor when scripture was first penned? For Christians to question the validity, authority, and personal experiences of all other religions except their own reveals a deep desire in controlling their identity and reality as Christians. Except it's difficult to connect with another human being, let alone evangelize to them, when they stay in their comfy bubbles of security.

My issue (today) is not with Christianity but the stagnant theology within Christianity which suffocates the limitless creative Word at the focal point of the faith. (Although I should point out that there are A LOT of social issues within Christianity that must be dealt with by the Church if it wants to continue preaching the message of universal love.) I grew up a Christian (SDA) but during my teen years I noticed there was a much larger world, a larger story, beyond what I've been fed which caused me to branch out beyond the confines of the faith. Many believers would say that my peering out of the Christianity box was Satan leading me astray from God. On the contrary, I find myself deeper in thought about the divine than I ever did in my youth, and the only "straying" I've done is from a particular set of theologies in a vast sea of beliefs. It is the God structured from these beliefs that I can no longer swallow, not because I'm overwhelmingly sinful, but overwhelmingly curious. How can I be damned for all eternity by the same God who imbued us with curiosity, awe, and wonder for the universe? How can the same God create countless diverse lifeforms and then ask us not to study and question their origin and downfall? How can the same God encourage us to know Him through the Word and then place restrictions on what we may or may not query? No scripture is entirely inerrant, or even divine, because all scripture must be read and interpreted by man.

I ask so many questions that I now consider it a spiritual practice. Flip through my archives and all you'll find is post after post filled with questions. Why? I believe how we wrestle and live with a question is much more fulfilling than cranking out an easy answer. Anyone can crank out an answer and sell it to the crowd, religions have been doing that for thousands of years. We are creatures of exploration and I can't imagine the human race ever running out of questions to ask or corners of the unknown to explore.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Science Saved My Soul

Unreasonable Faith, how I love thee.

They recently shared this 15 minute gem entitled Science Saved My Soul. A must see video on the grandeur and overwhelming beauty of the universe. It makes you feel microscopic until you realize your relationship to it All. Absolutely breathtaking.

My favorite line:

Stars have died, so that I could live. I stepped out of a supernova. And so did you.

This video is in the same vein as the Atheist Spirituality videos I stumbled upon last Spring. I use the term spirituality in a non-supernatural sense to describe the awe of and connectedness to the universe.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why I Can't Believe in Your God: Part 1-My "Bitterness" Towards God

I often get to a point in my conversations with mainline Christians when they begin to see that I'm just a normal person. When they get to this point they become perplexed trying to balance the "paradox" of how someone can live happily (and morally) without following their view of God. Instead of accepting the possibility that other views may be equal to theirs they try to find some fault with the non-believer. I've often heard that my unbelief in the Christian salvation narrative stems from a past cosmic injustice causing me to be angry and bitter towards God.

I'm sure there are people bitter towards God but I am not one of them. I have a roof over my head, two wonderful children, a loving wife, my health, and I have plenty of food in my fridge (in fact, too much). Outside of being unemployed I have no bitterness towards the universe. My childhood wasn't the greatest but I had a home and two parents who loved me. I have no reason to be bitter and if I had a reason I don't believe that a truly compassionate God would punish me for unfaithfulness or lashing out against It in anger. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as anyone from the Southern Baptist Convention President, Johnny Hunt, to notable Atheist, Christopher Hitchens, can be diagnosed with cancer. The universe is indifferent, we shouldn't be.

I humble myself not before a Grand Designer with a Grand Plan but before the reality that surrounds us, dwells in us, and that which we take part in as living things: the cycle of life itself. I am not bitter towards the fact that I will cease to exist because I did not exist before I was born. Yet knowing that I am going to die does not drive me into a hedonistic rampage or extreme bouts of depression. I welcome the day along with the night, the pleasure with the pain, and the laughter with the sorrow. If anyone has a legitimate reason to be bitter it should be the unborn for not having the chance to experience the ups and downs of life. Most Christians who claim I'm bitter only do so because they believe I must have experienced something terrible resulting in my anger towards God which hardened into unbelief. But I could only be bitter against God if I 1) believed in the theistic view of God and 2) believed God is in control of everything. To say that God is in total control of EVERYTHING means God is the source and author of both the Good and Bad. The fact is that I arrived at my conclusions and beliefs (two separate things) over a long, long journey of thought, reflection, and meditation. I have not arrived "here" because I'm against something, I arrived here by realizing my connection to Reality, my place in and relation with the universe. Being bitter is pointless and self-centered, it's not all about me, nor is it all about Mankind. We are not the center of the universe, we are simply participants and observers of the cosmos. How can I be bitter towards anything when I have the chance to observe AND participate in life itself?