Saturday, June 26, 2010

Embracing Heresy

her·e·tic [ hérrətik ] (plural her·e·tics)


1. somebody who holds unorthodox religious belief: a holder or adherent of an opinion or belief that contradicts established religious teaching
2. somebody with unconventional beliefs: somebody whose opinions, beliefs, or theories in any field are considered by others in that field to be extremely unconventional or unorthodox
[14th century. Via French< Greek hairetikos "able to choose" < haireisthai "choose"]

[comment]  I guess that I'm confused about the heretic label you've bestowed upon yourself, for after reading most every post here, I don't think that I see anything heretical -- a very heavy word. … You seem to be professing that you don't really know what to profess -- so long as it’s genuine.

Ah, the short answer is that I am heretical because I choose not to accept any of the doctrinal dogma of Christianity as it is generally understood in our culture.

The longer answer goes like this: My understanding of the nature of spiritual reality is in direct opposition to the teachings about God and humanity and the relationship between the two that I learned growing up.  When I left Evangelicalism (the only version of True Christianity that I knew), I threw absolutely every belief I’d ever been taught into the recycle bin: there was not a single thing that I considered sacrosanct.  I even tried very hard to be an atheist but found that my mystical and psychic experiences made that philosophical position pretty laughable. 

After some twenty years as a non-Christian seeker of Wisdom, I realized a few very basic Truths that have now become my personal Fundamentals.  These are the mantras I’ve been chanting to my daughters since they were old enough to hear:

Treat people the way they want to be treated.
Share the Resources.
It's not funny if someone isn't laughing.
Charity begins at home.
Follow the money.
What goes around, comes around.
People are stupid everywhere; everyone is stupid sometimes; don't be any more stupid than you have to be.
Don't do anything that can get you pregnant until you are ready to welcome a baby, you're not ready for a baby until you pick out a good daddy. (Okay, this one may not be strictly philosophical but darn good advice!)

Here are a few more favorites that pepper the spontaneous sermonizing I do while about my daily business:

God is the creative force.
Hell is other people.
We are Imago Dei (humanity is the face of the divine)
If it is Truth, it is True across Time and Culture.
There are no Either/Or’s—they are always Both/And.
The opposite of a truth is a lie; the opposite of a profound Truth is another profound Truth.
The personal is always political.
Good leaders serve of their people.
Seek and ye shall find (and the flip side: you always find what you go looking for)
God gave us brains; he must expect us to use them.
The measure of holiness, regardless of religious culture, is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

And the most profound truth of all:  Honor the divine, however you find it.  Nothing else matters.

As far as I can tell from my studies, none of my personal Fundamentals is contradicted by either Christian Scripture or the preponderance of nearly three millennia of theologians from any of the world’s Wisdom traditions.

As for the established Christian Fundamentals, I find very little evidence of truth to satisfy my rational mind. Mostly I found only parochial interpretations of tradition and scripture to support the dogma. So, I refuse to confess the creeds or to give intellectual assent to most, if any, of the central doctrines. When I first came back to Christianity, I even doubted the historical existence of Jesus himself.  Now I am willing to concede the likelihood of a historical Jesus of Nazareth, a radical iterant teacher who ran afoul of the Establishment and managed to get executed, but I still think a historical Jesus is irrelevant to the spiritual truth of Christianity.

I have not found convincing argument indicating the validity of anything like Biblical Inerrancy or even that the Gospel Truth is in any way historical truth.  Theological constructs such as the Virgin Birth, God in Three Persons or any other version of the Trinity, Deity of Christ (or in fact the deity of God), Original Sin, or even the historicity of the Resurrection or its physical necessity for spiritual redemption are, in my opinion, best understood from an allegorical point of view—as meditative tools or mythology that illustrates ineffable realities—rather than literal fact.

Being a true scientist, I am not arrogant enough to think that none of these doctrines could be absolute truth.  I am only saying that there is not, nor can there be, any way to prove one way or another what the literal truth of these doctrines might be.  And I choose to define the terms of spiritual reality differently, based on alternate interpretations of Scripture, current scientific thought in nearly every field of study, and my own experiences—all subject to change as I and all other scientists continue to ask questions, seek answers, and find more questions.

I have read extensively this last year on Christian theology, doctrine, church history, and my ever-favorite mystics.  I figured I was pretty well versed in the Evangelical dogma so I concentrated on specifically non-Evangelical sources—my favorites are listed in the Bibliography, Etc. page but that is only the tip of the reading iceberg.  I was more than a little dismayed to find how few writers I agreed with who were still identifying themselves as Christians and that none of those who did escaped rabid accusations of heresy. Then I realized that I was in the best company of all: Jesus himself was the first heretic in Christian history.  He was a Jewish heretic, to be sure, but heretical nonetheless.  If my claim to being Christian is that I follow the life and teaching of Jesus, heresy is a pretty good place to start!

Interestingly, while I was a heathen and espousing these ideas, no one much cared.  Non-Christians I knew took most of my conclusions for granted and Christians apparently considered me so far beyond the pale that I wasn’t worth arguing with.  But now that I have started to call myself a Christian again and I still hold to the same ideas, suddenly I get Hebrews (here and here) preached at me.  It didn’t seem to matter to anyone but me that I risked my immortal soul by not accepting the deity of Christ when I was a heathen but a heretic who questions the same is apparently destined to special damnation. As a heathen, I was generally well-respected; as a heretic, I am threatened with hellfire scare tactics by Christians and regarded akin to a first-grader who refuses to learn her ABC’s by non-Christians.

With all due respect to the commenter who wondered why I identify myself as a heretic, I call myself a heretic because I am heretical.  I put it right in the title so that no one reading my posts can be too surprised when I out some of my more outré ideas—truth in advertising, so to speak.  I don’t want anyone to have reason to feel betrayed when they discover that I don’t toe the party line.

The over-arching theme in this blog is that all of Christianity can be, and was by Jesus himself, reduced to a very simple premise: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemy. Nothing else matters.  Everything else is an add-on and a potential distraction from the Truth.  I don’t want my own heresy to be a similar point of distraction from that Truth.  In my own journey, owning my heresy has been crucial to understanding the radical simplicity of Jesus’ teaching, perhaps someone following my blog will find it equally liberating. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

That Which We Call A Rose, or, What's in the Name of Christian?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii

The meaninglessness of the term Christian.  There are probably as many definitions of what makes a person a Christian as there are people who claim to be one.  Much of this last year has been spent trying to find a Christian identity for myself that didn't include the list of Fundamentals from my childhood. If I don’t give intellectual assent to any of the doctrines essential to Evangelical Christianity, then what makes me think I am a Christian? If my understanding of the nature of spiritual reality does not align with Christianity, as it is generally understood, then am I a Christian?  For many people, if not most, there are certain rules that must be accommodated to be accepted as a Christian.  As one wag noted, “you can park your lawnmower in the garage all you want but that doesn’t make it a car”.  Interesting, however, is the depth and variety of standards to which one must adhere to be a True Christian. Every group, at the very least, has its own definition of who is In and who is Out.  As if any human could know the heart of another so well as to judge its connection to the Divine.

Absolute Truth is the elephant in the room that we are all too blind to see (to reduce it to almost absurd simplicity).  Most everyone can sense the elephant but in our post-modern secularity, we generally deny what cannot be known through the dim eye of science.  In the various religious traditions of the world are those of us who acknowledge the elephant but we can only describe the experience of the elephant from our own perspective:  some know the tusks, some the belly, some the legs, some the tail, some perhaps only the smell or sound or the feel of the air rushing past from the flapping ears or the flailing whack of the trunk.  None of those experiences is NOT the elephant, but they are ALL less than the whole elephant. 

Most people’s experience of the elephant of Absolute Truth is culturally determined—someone raised in Baghdad is probably going to have a Muslim description, while someone from Baton Rouge will have a Southern Baptist description, and someone from Santiago or Mombassa or Paris will have another description altogether.  What matters less than the name we use to describe the elephant is whether we have found a means by which we can know the elephant.  Have we actually met the elephant? Does it know our name? Do we know if it knows our name?

Some people find that the description of the elephant that they were raised with doesn’t work for them and they find the means to know the elephant in another religious culture.  Just as some people are delighted to live politically expatriated from their place of birth, some people move easily in the metaphor and tradition of an expatriate religion.  Personally, I’m not a very good expat:  I enjoyed my time in other places and other cultures and I learned a great deal from other religious expressions, but I always felt foreign—an uncomfortable displacement of Being. For better or worse, I am forever and always American and Protestant.  I think in Christian, any other language to describe my spirituality feels foreign, even when I think it is more descriptive of my experience. 

The need for me to identify as Christian is about wanting to embrace ALL of who I am, my present and my past, and the traditions from which I came. I want to integrate the best of my heritage into my current self.

I’ve been a heathen and now I’m a heretic.  Being a heathen ultimately was unfulfilling for the reasons I just stated but being a heretic is painful for a whole lot of reasons I hadn't expected. There's so much more baggage from growing up in a religiously addicted, codependent, Christian family than I thought and it just keeps getting dragged up the more I attempt to define my spirituality in Christian terms.  Is that really a good thing?  Or should I just let sleeping dogs lie? Is there a third option?

I can't get the shame-based Original Sin beliefs ("from the moment of conception you were depraved beyond all the rest of creation and can thus never be acceptable to God") out of my head.  When I try to frame the nature of spiritual reality in Christian terms rather than non-Christian terms, I get caught in this "beat myself up in the name of God" thing that just doesn't happen with the same intensity when I frame the nature of spiritual reality differently.  While I am inherently, culturally comfortable in the language and metaphor of Christianity, I find much of the traditional dogma and doctrine antithetical to my experience of the elephant.  Far too often the words of the Evangelicalism trigger this psychological sewer in my mind.

The question I'm really bumping up against is whether I should keep struggling to frame my spiritual life in Christian terms or give up Christianity again for a framework that doesn't present such an obstacle to my actual relationship with the Divine.   I miss the comfortable presence I had with the Divine that I struggle to find with the Christian God--yes, I know they are both different parts of the same Absolute but which part I look at seems to make a huge difference to my psyche.  As a heathen, I had a good thing going that isn't so good anymore when I'm trying to find common ground that would enable me to find human community.  

To accept that none of my religious options include a feeling of actually belonging is to accept that I had expectations of finding community in Christianity that now seems even more unlikely than my prospects of community as a heathen.  

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Day to Remember

Last night I went to see Authority Zero perform music from their upcoming CD, Stories of Survival.  The venue allowed minors and I took my 11 and 13 year old daughters.  My husband did not accompany us as he was on a business trip but we did meet up with another family (whose mom is a rock band photographer and introduces us to lots of music, including this group).  It was my children’s first rock concert experience.

In the manner of rock concerts, it was raucous, boisterous, and crowded.  As the night went on, the mosh pit got crazier—the show actually stopped briefly because some other family was letting their toddler and two other young children surf the pit and one fell down—and the crowd got drunker and louder.  The longer I was there, the more agitated and anxious I became.  I’m never very comfortable in crowds but I was sitting well back from the action where the other family’s dad took all the kids.  So I was a little bewildered by where this agitation was coming from.

The first clue about whence this anxiety arose happened earlier in the night as we were standing around waiting for a table and my daughters got thirsty.  I had to go to the bar myself and order drinks.  When I procrastinated, one daughter asked what the problem was since I’d “been to these sorts of things before, even after I got out of the bubble” (the family term for living in the bubble of fear that caused my parents to raise us in such a legalistic Christian lifestyle).  I had to admit I’d never ordered my own drinks at a bar; there had always been some more worldly girlfriend or the man I was with who would unwittingly keep me just that little bit separated from “going all the way” into bar depravity.

By the time the show had to stop to pull those children out of the mosh pit, I was pulling out all my tricks to keep from disintegrating into a full-on anxiety attack.  Feelings of shame clutched at my gut. Fear clenched the muscles in my neck. And that pissed me off!  I was hardly doing anything wrong or ill-considered.  Our children were well-supervised, well-educated about safety; exit strategies had been reviewed. No one in our party had even had a drink, so there was absolutely no reason to think our children were being neglected or endangered.  Why did I feel as though I had introduced them to Evil? 

It wasn’t the music itself since we listen to rock of all kinds at home without triggering this anxiety.  Even when I was still “in the bubble”, I listened to Stryper, Petra, and REZ.  I went to a lot of Christian concerts that weren’t qualitatively different (the biggest difference was that Christians tended to clap on beats one and three right from the start without having to get drunk first and lose the beat).  Now The Family Jewels is a favorite show that my younger daughter and I like to watch together.  While I write this post, I’ve got the KISS station on Pandora playing through the stereo.

I can’t even say it was the presence of alcohol that set off my internal alarms.  Although as a teen I worried over the salvation of a church member who had a beer in his fridge, we now keep liquor, beer and wine in the house, drink occasionally while dining out, and sometimes even get together with friends for the sole purpose of drinking and socializing while the kids all hang out downstairs. At the concert, there were undoubtedly people who were exceedingly less sober than my daughters have ever seen, but no one was really plastered either.

But something about the venue obviously triggered my knee-jerk shame.  Instead of the usual fear accompanying the shame, this time I got angry.  Not the best reaction because it is still a reaction rather than simply living according to my own code of honor, but I consider it an enormous improvement over the fear.  I’m glad to be angry.  Anger is excess energy, whereas fear sucks energy right out of you.  Anger can provide the energy needed to make necessary difficult changes.  Anger gives me the energy I need to cast forth yet another demon leftover from the fundamentalist legalism I lived in for so many years.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Inhale Exhale - By Grace

My eyes roll back into my head.
I'm trying to keep my head on straight to understand.
Remember what he said, "Yes, I do believe".
A smile reached the surface.

Free me. You have freed me,
I will not suffer anymore,
Suffer anymore. I'm alive.

I'm scared stiff, I'm shakin' in my boots.
When you come face to face with the reason you exist.
I'm holdin' on to truth, and livin' like a king.

Free me. You have freed me,
I will not suffer anymore,
Suffer anymore. I'm alive.

I'm tired now; somehow I will survive.
I can't remember how it feels to be alright.
I'm tired now; somehow I will survive.
I can't remember how it feels to be alright.

By grace, you have freed me.
I will not suffer anymore.
I will not suffer anymore.
Suffer anymore.
I'm alive.
By Grace Inhale Exhale

When I first tripped over this song on the internet, I was repulsed—no, not because of the screamo metal sound (although I am more of a jazz aficionado than a fan of thrashed out vocals)—because I was sure that the lyrics were yet another pie-in-the-sky, fairy-tale take on Christianity.  “Just find Jesus and all your pain will go away.”  The Disney-esque Jesus who makes dreams come true. I was irritated at one more example of the ridiculous promises to which Christians cling in the all-too-human experience of suffering.  In my very literal childhood (all children are very literal and, as fundy Christians, we were taught to remain very literal long past the time to grow up), I heard version after version of the Cinderella-style “come to Jesus” fairy tale.  And I was disgusted that such a very modern band was singing such a old and worn-out story.

But I couldn’t get myself to write the contemptuous, dismissive post on this song that I wanted to write.  Believe me, I tried.  I wanted to pour all the bitter cynicism bred in Sunday School lesson after sermon after Christian storybook into one long diatribe against the absurdity of this young current group promoting the same tired lies.  Jesus doesn’t save you from suffering.  In actual fact of Scripture, he promises his followers the same and more! No one in the Bible EVER promises that we can escape the pain of living a human life.

Despite many attempts, the post never went very far and each time I found myself reading the lyrics over and over (admittedly, more than I listened to the song itself, but I did that too).  The more I cast out Fear, the more I wrote about Grace, the more I listened to the heart behind the music, the more I realized I was wrong about this song and, perhaps, this group.

It finally occurred to me that this song wasn’t a false promise of Easy Street but a triumph of having found jubilant meaning in human existence through which a transcendence of suffering is possible.  Not that life won’t hurt after finding Jesus but that living with the awareness of grace means the soul is no longer trapped in the pain and fear of pain.  Noticing grace means that suffering is not what defines life; compassion defines the gracious life.

The experience of suffering is universal.  Understanding, not denying, deeply experiencing our own suffering is the key to loving our neighbors, our enemies: we all have deep hurts in our lives.  In our pain, we can act with compassion—literally to “feel the pain with” others as the same as our own pain.  Suffering is what makes us each and every one equally human.  Grace is what allows us to see past our finite painful humanity into the eyes of the Divine, or, perhaps, with the eyes of the Divine.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Grace. Between the Breaths.

That tiny space between the inbreath and the outbreath is empty.  It is also full of possibilities.  It's the secret to finding God/enlightenment/nirvana here on Earth.

I've been putting my attention to these empty spaces.  I've been taking a lot more deep breaths lately as well.  For now- just breathe normally.  Notice that little pause—the space. 
Be aware of that space between.  It's actually a nice space to rest.  That small space calms the mind and the soul. The space is where God sits. The "I am".  So-Ham. Ham-sa.  I am using the space as sanctuary right now.  Life is not what I want it to be.  So I breathe.  It helps me manage my day without falling into a blubbering heap. It keeps me from screaming at the top of my lungs.  I don't throw things that maybe I would like to. 
Instead I breathe. 
Today feels like a good day to exhale.
Exhale after holding in too much stuff. A sigh of relief.  Getting rid of negativity and tension.  

A teaching mentor I once had taught us to look for grace in our day—the transition between one activity and another—for these were the likeliest moments to redirect behaviors and attitudes gone off-course.  She taught us to rest in the grace, to rely on them to carry the momentum into the new action without our having to carry it ourselves. She said that the transition was our own moment to breathe between the first activity and the next.

Understanding the power of the grace moments took me the longest time; after all, they were also the moments most likely to spin out of control, and that was what I usually experienced.  The same potential for chaos in a transition is what allows for the calm at the eye of the storm, depending on the expectation of the observer. Being afraid of the chaos, I struggled to see the peace possible in the grace moment.

In many ways, both large and small, I am in a grace moment in life.  I am eight weeks from my forty-fifth birthday—a midlife birthday. I am a long way from young but I’m hardly old.  My children are reaching their teens, no longer little girls needing a little girls’ mommy, but neither are they young adults needing the more adult mother-friend.  We have delegated out nearly all our schooling so I am not the researcher/curriculum writer/teacher I used to be, but neither do I find myself with hours of time on my hands to take up another career (I think mostly what I am is chauffeur).

The first twenty-some years of my life I was a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. The second twenty-some years I renounced the Christian part but remained a fundamentalist in every fear-based, reactionary move I made. As I step into the third twenty-some and what I hope is only the beginning of the second half of my life, I’ve renounced fundamentalism and reclaimed Christianity, but not in any form recognizable or acceptable to my evangelical past.  The Christian I am now has more in common with the Buddhist I toyed with becoming, although both Christians and Buddhists in my past would (and have) winced visibly at that comparison.  I am a heretic by the doctrinal statements of any organized religion but I have found a communication with the Divine that is beyond words and sincerely hope that I can continually reach new depths of that communication.

This summer I choose to rest in the eye of the storm.  I am in the space between the breaths.  In the grace place where I can grieve the hurts of the past and hope for the joys to come. I am not what I was nor yet become anything new.  I am nothing.  In the grace potential, I am everything. 

(Edit: the blog The Space Between the Breaths, from which I quoted the meditation above, has been removed from the Web.  It was written by Zangmo, who commented below but is no longer available through Blogger.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Raining in the Desert

The last six weeks have been wild thunderstorm, perhaps even more so for my poor family who never quite knew from moment to moment if I was going to be sane or incoherent.  I swung from giddy, to exhausted, to mean, to distracted, to controlling, to someone who shouldn’t have been allowed behind a steering wheel. But I did it—I stared my Fear down.  Not mere quick glimpses from the corner of my eye.  A full-faced stare, unblinking, right in the eye.

The process wasn’t easy. I had heachaches; my hair fell out in small handfuls. I couldn’t sleep at night; I fought sleep during the day.  Nightmares, nausea, rashes, intestinal distress.  Mental incompetence, frenzies of hyper-rational intellectualism (mostly arguing on other people’s blogs).  Depression, repression, denial, shame, and rage.  Finally, the grace of grief.

Forty years of living, reacting, deciding from a position of fear (sometimes more, sometimes less, but never none) dissolving in the healing rain of grief.  When I could recognize what Fear had cost me, what I had lost by making so many choices from fear, without the blame, shame, and loathing I had been hurling at myself, I could finally acknowledge the pain and begin letting it go.  The grief came over me like a gentle but insistent summer rain after a long period of heavy, hot humidity, grumbling thunder and jagged heat lightning. 

Desert summers often produce heavy rainless storms that leave the land more miserable afterwards than it was before.  When at last a monsoon arrives with enough water left in it to rain on the desert, the relief is palpable in the cleansed air, on the flooding streets and swollen washes, in the soul.  Grief poured through me with the same healing touch as an August rain.

I am left weary and sore in body, bruised and aching in spirit, but whole and reborn.  The recuperative, rebuilding of body and soul will not be quick or easy, either, but at least I know I have been purged of my demons and, with proper care and feeding, the prognosis looks grand.