Sunday, July 18, 2010

Basic Christian Doctrine

The Christianity I grew up with subscribed quite explicitly to all the Fundamentals and more or less to Calvin’s TULIP.  When I began to understand these doctrines, rather than to just recite them, and to see their logical conclusions for the world, I concluded that the God that must derive from them was a petty, tyrannical, malicious egomaniac.  Rather like a very overgrown playground bully. Such a judgmental, capricious deity is often at odds with the absolute attributes of God that I also learned in Sunday School: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, ineffable, impassionate, and infinite. And completely antithetical to the God Is Love refrain. As soon as my neurology accommodated analytical thinking, I began questioning how all these disparate things could be simultaneously Truth.  The answer was, according to those wiser elders whom I asked, “Ahh, that is the mystery of God.”  Or the confusion wrought by man, more likely.

In the back of my mind, like a holy descant, was a visceral knowing of the Divine.  Despite my constant vigilance against the clairvoyance, prophecy, and knowledge of things I shouldn’t, no matter how I prayed for protection against these manifestations of the Evil One, God never “delivered” me from my unwanted mysticism, my forbidden psychic nature.  Against all attempts at unknowing, like I knew water was wet, I knew the Divine.

It wasn’t until I renounced Christianity and shoved the shouting, shaming god of the doctrines into a locked up corner of my mind that I could take notice of that holy descant. When I lay in savasana at the end of a yoga class and heard the empty fullness of my mind, when I sat in silent communion with my baby in the dark of the night, after sex when I was only half in my body, the tears would flow.  A healing rain for my soul.  There was Love.  A constantly moving but never changing river of Love flowing through, over, in, around, under everything in the universe.  That was a Love I could trust. 

Yet, just as my mystical, psychic knowing leaked uncomfortably into my rigid Christian worldview, so too did that shaming god of Christian creedal doctrine continue to control my very way of being in the world.  He may no longer have used Christian vocabulary or take issue with the same lifestyle points, but always he/I preached whatever cause I espoused with the same religious fervor as any Evangelical in a pulpit: organic agriculture, buy local, natural materials for children’s toys, holistic medicine, nutrition, homebirth, homeschool, environmental awareness.  Each and every cause had its own dogma and legalisms that I worked tirelessly to uphold, all in order to be recognized as the best, most-natural, most organic, most homegrown… let’s face it… the most holy mother in the community.  I guilt-tripped newcomers and “heathens” frequently, publicly, and with much self-righteous gratification.  I didn’t use the bible to thump anyone but I sure knew how to quote appropriate texts for whatever sermon I was preaching.

Fortunately, my children refused to live in the same kind of box I was aggressively marketing to other families.  No matter what rules I picked to uphold, my family insisted on blasting through them.  When, finally, my health broke down and my sanity was more than suspect, I couldn’t follow any more rules and I certainly couldn’t try to bully or bribe my family into adherence either.  For the better part of two years, I lived just trying to get through the day.  Everyone fed themselves, managed their own schooling, and hid out in their rooms.  Everything I thought was so important, that made us better than the rest, went right out the window.  Apparently I hadn’t trusted that Love much at all. 

The true breaking point was early in that Dark Night of the Soul when I couldn’t hear the descant anymore.  All my knowing disappeared.  I couldn’t read people, couldn’t feel their emotions or sense their internal dramas; I had no more dreams or visions. I no longer knew the Wet of the River of Love.  It was like suddenly losing my sense of taste and smell—something you don’t think you rely on to make sense (pun intended) of the world until it is gone.  Obviously, despite my avid denials, I had become accustomed to that psychic sense of the world.  After that, my brain function really dried up and I began to beg whatever God there might still be just to let me die.

By spring 2009, just over a year ago, the protocol for recovery was working well enough that I could look at the bigger picture—beyond just my physical functioning, what were the more fundamental problems that disposed me to ruin my health?  And more importantly, how to transform them into factors of healing rather than of disease?  I was genuinely bewildered; there seemed nowhere to look.  I had been doing everything right, followed all the rules: ate well, exercised, lived for others, tried to save the world. I should have been the healthiest person in town.

Then the book that I started this blog with jumped off a table at me and I started this quest into fundamentalism and Christianity (and, of course, where the two converge in my life). Through the summer and fall last year, I began acknowledging how deeply and completely Fear had ruled my life and how my vain were my attempts to control the fears by perfecting the rules.  By the time I was ready to claim being a Christian again, I was only willing to do so on the condition that I not be ruled by the legalisms that Fear begets as well as is begotten of. 

The Rules of any fundamentalism, however well-intentioned originally, always miss the point of the cause.  Just as navel-gazing became the hilarious euphemism for trying to fake enlightenment in the hippy oriental-flavored 60’s spirituality, so too is biblical literalism and other idolatrous adherence to doctrine over Divine communion.  Many people do find enlightenment through meditating on the breath in the belly, of course, that’s how the stereotype came to be.  Similarly, many Christians have found the images of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, Crucifixion as Propitiation, and other doctrines to be devices that facilitated communion with both the Divine and humanity.  But for those for whom the device doesn’t succeed, dogmatic practice of the device becomes ritualized. Rules become the standard rather than relationship. When a device becomes divisive, idolatry occurs.

Being so ill for so long, trying so hard to follow the doctor’s advice, only to have it make me sicker and crazier, made me realize, as nothing else could, that rules never work.  Only principles work.  The rules hadn’t kept me from sickness, rather they’d caused it.  Rules didn’t keep my family functioning during my disability, but having understood principles of taking care of oneself and others was what allowed everyone to pull together to do what needed doing.

Therefore, when I came back to Christianity, I accepted no rules only essential principles.  Creeds and doctrines are more rules than principle.  Creeds state what must be believed—a rule.  Christian principles are those essential mantras that Jesus taught—love God and neighbor, forgive the brother, do good to those who hurt you, do unto others.  I didn't agree that the creedal doctrines are inherent in what Jesus said—rather as what later, sometimes much later, theologians said he meant. It doesn't make the creeds wrong—if they lead to the kind of radically loving life that Jesus did teach. I think ANY doctrine that fosters its believers in a deeply loving life is great—for them. 

For me, I am not convinced that the bible necessarily teaches a Trinity, Original Sin, or Final Judgement. I wanted to start at the absolute foundation and rebuild my new Christian theology from there. My fundamental, doesn’t-get-any-more-elemental foundation I defined as “some kind of God exists and there's this collection of Middle Eastern Antiquities writings about this guy who appears to have been a radical itinerant preacher who taught about this God.”

Starting from that incredibly skeletal beginning, I began reading the scholars of Bible, historians of religion, and mystics (again, still, always).  The one thing they all agreed on—even when they didn’t even agree on a single other point—was that this iterant preacher taught a radical kind of love for God and for fellow man.  So that single point, radical “wasteful loving” as Jack Spong calls it, became my Basic Christian Doctrine.

Freedom, Responsibility, and Omnipotence

Would God (or your god) be worth worshiping, in your view, if he was not all powerful?

Is it more important to you that God be just and good (by any definition you care to name) than that he be powerful, or do you feel that the two are uncontradicted in your god? If so, why?

Another great question posed by Otter at the Riparian Church , to which I replied thusly:

I think it is quite clearly obvious to anyone with eyes to look at the human condition that God does not interfere with us individually to save us from our individual or collective stupidity or maliciousness. Whether that is because he cannot or will not is a bit irrelevant to me since either way the responsibility then lies with me and with mankind collectively to repair, mediate, and prevent the effects of my individual and our collective maliciousness and idiocy.
If I have to choose, I guess I believe that God is not omnipotent but it is kinda like asking a tree that grows underneath a sidewalk to sprout up on the other side why it did not grow up through the sidewalk that I poured. Is that because it could not break through the concrete (there are reasonable albeit superficial arguments both ways) or because it was never its purpose to break down artificial barriers; its purpose is to grow and it grew in the most efficient and superlative manner possible in the situation I created.
Humans pride ourselves on our ability to choose our destiny or at least to have it chosen for us by parents or social constraints (and I recognize that we are rapidly trying to abdicate this free will in the increasingly narrow, proscribed lives possible in any kind of religious fundamentalism). We like to know that we can choose our job, our home, our spouse. Especially Americans, i think, like to think we are independent of a destiny thrust upon us. No one is going to tell ME what to do! Least of all some old-fashioned deity.
Yet we get all whiny and cast blame anywhere and everywhere including that old-fashioned deity when the consequences of those free-will actions (individual or collective) affect us personally. Or if we are a bit more altruistic, when they affect the innocent bystander who had no part in the causative action. We want the free-will to choose our own actions but we want not to accept the responsibility we then bear in foreseeing or at least mediating the consequences of our individual actions. Even less do we want to think and act with collective responsibility--only if it is in our "national self-interest".
Perhaps that is the impetus behind the increasingly rabid fundamentalism developing in every religion, denomination, and global region. At some, perhaps unconscious, level we recognize that we've kinda f****d it all up in our post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, increasingly post-industrial world and now we run crying back to some all-powerful parental figure to clean up our mess, even if it means accepting restriction on our ability to continue independent creative development.

Please feel free to comment either here or over at Otter's. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ranting From the Depths of Chronic Illness at the Height of Midsummer

One of the first psychiatrists I knew told me that depression is repressed (denied) anger.  Since then I’ve heard it described in a variety of ways, including several chemical descriptions that take away all ownership of the state from the individual, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard one that is more to the point.  Depression is anger turned inward, that is hidden from the self.  Depressed people are the angriest people I’ve ever met, perhaps particularly so because they don’t even know they are angry.

I know that for me growing up, and probably for at least two generations of women before me, anger was not allowed.  Rage at circumstances, at the system, was not permissible.  Christianity is all about love, right? So only loving feelings are allowed.  Christ gives the believer a new being of joy; anger and rage belong to the old sinful nature that doesn’t exist anymore.  That was the dogma anyway. 

Of course, it doesn’t work that way.  When life doesn’t turn out to meet my expectations, when it seems that life conspires to constrain me, when any healthy person would say, “this really sucks and I’m seriously pissed off!” but such an expression is not acceptable to the New Creation in Christ, where does all that energy go? Where has all that energy from three generations of angry Christians gone? 


I thought I was depressed but actually I am seriously pissed off.  I am less than four weeks away from being 45 years old, at least half my life lived already, and what have I done with myself?  Who have I been?  Who am I? I spent the first 25 years trying my damnedest to be a good Christian woman—with all the contradictory roles that meant—and I spent the next 20 years hiding from what I had let religion teach me about smart, accomplished women.


I have let many potentially fruitful opportunities pass me by out of fear:  in college, my professor approached me with the chance to turn a paper I’d written into a real experiment on gender role acquisition in children, the University of Illinois at Chicago offered me an unsolicited place in the doctoral program in psychology.  After a semester’s interning, Tom Ong (the O of the former MR&O Advertising in Philadelphia) wanted to hire me. I blew them all off with blithe disregard—looking back with the hindsight of middle age, I turned them all down because I might have been successful in any of those endeavors.

I’ve started the path to graduate school four or five times (I’ve lost count), begun multiple different careers (teaching, two different times, not including homeschooling; naturopathy, twice; kinesiology, twice; retail sales in natural health, a couple times, once I even tried to buy the store but the place went bankrupt first) that never got off the ground.  I’ve been fired from every job I ever had, except one—probably the best paying job I ever had—I quit that one. 

I suspect that I’m unemployable now.  I haven’t even got callbacks from any of the jobs I’ve applied for in the last 5 years, despite persistent follow-up on my part.  I suspect that I’m too old and know too much for an entry-level position in any field but I have no credentials or legitimate experience that qualify me for anything else.


It was damn hard work being perfect at never achieving anything.  The constant stop-start of job changes, school plans, dropping out to raise kids (and don’t start on how my kids are my achievement because my kids are at their best when I interfere with them the least), the struggle to maintain excellent mediocrity.  Always starting but never finishing a plan.


I read once in a novel, so it is not scientific evidence but it sure made sense, that chronically ill women (who tend to be of a certain age and socio-economic status) use their illness to give them a sense of purpose in a situation where their intelligence and talents are not valued—basically, in the story, middle-aged housewives are just so freakin’ bored they develop malingering hypochondria.  I really don’t think the condescension of blame-the-victim is particularly helpful but the basic point seems to fit.  It was certainly not considered acceptable for me to be too terribly smart (but neither was I allowed to skate through school with bad grades) and having professional goals that couldn’t be easily seconded to my future husband’s career was clearly frowned upon. 

Anyway, between the desperate fears I experienced, the ongoing cognitive dissonance between what I was taught at church and home and the visceral knowledge I had of spiritual realities, the disparity of the secular schools who said I was really smart, much smarter than I demonstrated (“does not work up to her potential” I think was the recurring phrase from the teacher conferences) and the need to be dumber than any potential spouse, into adulthood where I kept trying to be perfect but not achieve too much, just look like I was (yes, I know this is really run on bunch of clauses—today is stream of consciousness writing)….


I am so frustrated and angry that I developed hypoadrenia—burned myself out trying to measure up to all the disparate standards I had internalized, all the while compromising my own intelligence and wholeness.  I’m angry that I had to get sick to see how killing my belief set was.  I’m angry that when I did get sick, no one (friends, family, medical professionals) took seriously how ill I was.  I’m angry that following the medical advice I did get turned the illness toward my central nervous system and I went crazy.  I’m even angrier that when that happened my doctor dismissed me.  I’m angry that my daughter still throws it in my face that I “still have holes in your brain”.  I’m angry that three years later I still have to carefully conserve my reserves—can’t take on too much, can’t work too hard—I’ve become the shadow of a person I had set out unconsciously to become.

I’m pissed as all hell that I can’t write the way I used to, can’t pull the words out of the air to perfectly say what I mean as easily as couch collects dog hair.  It frustrates me that I can’t write up my thoughts quickly and concisely anymore. Yes, I can at least hold a thought long enough to string a sentence together—most of the time, May wasn’t a good month for that—but oh it is difficult compared to what it used to be!  I feel like a runner after a traumatic brain injury who has to relearn how to walk but remembers the feel of skimming the surface of the ground.


This collection of complaints is, I guess, only peripherally about religion. Or maybe not.  I certainly sacrificed my health, my sanity, came close to losing my marriage and my kids, on the altar of trying to follow the rules, of black-and-white thinking that I learned from religion.  I have succeeded in being a martyr to legalism—if not to the fundamentalist Evangelical brand.  I am climbing down off that altar before it actually takes my life. 

My mother died at 49.  I’m going to be 45 next month.  I refuse to continue digging my early grave to prove something to no one in particular.  I want to spend the next 45 years embracing the freedom, the peace, and the abundant life that Jesus taught was our birthright—he never promised Easy Street but he promised an easy spirit.  I want to find out just what I can be and be All That.