Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism By Fire

Some of my posts recently have been critical of faith in the world of religion. To be honest, most of my experiences with evangelical Christianity have been through the eyes of the media (including both news sources as well as televangelists, perhaps not the best emissaries of the best things faith has to offer). As with all of my rants against faith-based lifestyles, I wish to assure my friends who *do* embrace this lifestyle that this is an outpouring of emotion for me, a cathartic channel that helps me to deal with being human and all the crap that comes with it. Please remember that I respect your faith choices, that I treasure freedom of religion (and yes, freedom from religion) almost as much as freedom of speech. I offer the following to hopefully give those people a better understanding of my own world view so that they may better get along with the heathen amongst them. We all have our own struggles and paths to follow, hopefully this will give you some insight into mine.

Recently my 22-year-old daughter moved back home from Las Vegas, which made me very happy. She had broken up with her boyfriend, quit her job (with no notice), and neglected to inform us that she had moved home for about a month. So it was that when she told me she'd been attending the Living Hope church in Aloha (a town whose name is a cruel joke in the depths of the rainy Portland winter), I was a bit concerned. While some would say that religion is there to help you when you're down, my experience has been that it's there to suck you in when you're down.

Yesterday, I was informed that we were invited to her baptism this morning at said church. Ack. I'm all for rituals that help us define major transitional points in our lives, but I think they need to be entered into with careful consideration. Marriage is an excellent example. While baptism doesn't carry the same sort of financial obligation, it should be something that you do because you are very sure that this is the faith you want to follow. Because with more than 10,000 to choose from, it would be nice to be right.

Anyway, we went to the church, which was the converted cafetorium type. The pulpit was less an altar than a stage with a thrust, and there was a big screen behind the musicians that showed the words in case anyone wanted to sing along. Or maybe they figured that people wouldn't understand the words, I don't know. The band played for about 30 minutes while they did the various baptisms off to the side, complete with anointing oil. Because the pool was off in the corner, it felt kind of like a sideshow, although the congregation cheered every time someone went under the water.

At First Unitarian, where I've sung in the choir at times over the past several years, one of the things I really appreciated was that the congregation was silent during the prelude and more importantly the postlude. In other words, the music was an integral part of the worship service rather than just a way to set the emotional state of the congregation to be receptive to the sermon. Of course, that is an important part of it's function, but by respecting the performance at the very end of the service it shows that that particular church understands that the emotional state *is* *as* *important* as the sermon. Living Hope clearly didn't feel that way.

The sermon really brought out some of the things that frighten me about evangelism. First off, it's clearly a zero sum game. We must triumph over them, whoever them happens to be. It's quite clear that Islam is the current bogeyman, with the high point of a missionary's testimony being the conversion of a young Muslim. In fact, he mentioned several times that the orphanage they went to help had saved all of it's children. I'd have been much more impressed had they taken cows and help to a group of non-Christians without trying to improve the God/Everyone Else box score, but that's clearly not the focus.

The sermon was full of the usual stuff about the coming Kingdom, with almost nothing about how exactly you are supposed to act to get there. Again, I'd be more impressed if people behaved in a "good" manner without any reason at all. At one point the pastor spoke about what to think when you had bad thoughts. I can only imagine that the main "bad" thoughts are about substance abuse or casual sex, but it's not a huge leap from there to questioning his teachings.

And make no mistake, this was a man with all of the answers. Ironically, the sermon was that we don't know God's plan, but you should listen to the pastor anyway because he's very charismatic. He went backstage immediately after the sermon and I didn't see him again. It was also clear that every answer to every question you might have was expected to be found in your Bible, because pretty much everyone their was carrying their own copy.

Finally, I'm always amazed that people are so self-absorbed that they can't recognize that saying that you were spared from some local disaster meant that God loved you. Apparently, he did not love the people who weren't spared, who were clearly guilty of great sin (even the infants) and thus were not spared. Miracles in our lives, I was told over and over. Or, maybe, vagaries of weather, I'm not sure which.

Do not get me wrong. I am not anti-Christian. I am anti-fundamentalist with regard to *any* faith. Thinking that you and you alone have the path to righteousness will, not may but will be used against not only others but you as well. Being a literalist requires you to study the primary sources of your faith, but I'm pretty sure that the phrase "in the lurch" was never used by the ancient Hebrews, nor is an idiom in the Greek of the period. Different versions of the Bible have given Eve God's breath in Genesis or not depending upon whether the translators/powers wanted women empowered or disenfranchised. Catholic monks transcribing the books were not allowed to be literate for fear they might add in their own editorial commentary, producing Moses crossing the Red Sea when in fact he crossed the *Reed* Sea, a swampy area in the isthmus between Egypt and Sinai. (And yes, it was a similar typo in the Latin). How can anyone trust *anything* in a literal sense in this document, especially when a good third of it was transmitted orally?

On the other hand, Christianity has brought many good concepts to Western culture, including turning the other cheek, being good for the sake of being good (the first religion to do so, sadly rarely followed anymore), focusing on the poor rather than the rich priest caste. It is the underlying ethos of Christian culture combined with the best the Greeks had to offer that form the best elements of America, one of which is freedom of religion, a concept that is fine for this group so long as it only applies to them in this zero sum game.

As I looked around the room, I realized that everyone there, myself included, was lost. Lost in life, lost in a wasteland of sexualized consumerism, lost in a sense of purpose and value. I know my daughter is lost, now more than ever perhaps. I know that I played a part in her pain by giving her up for adoption 22 years ago, although I understand that I cannot turn back the clock and must live with that decision. I, however, have come to an acceptance of being lost. I'm OK with it. I see humanity as DNA-propagation devices that every once in a while rise above our role in the cosmos to try to be human (in the good sense of that word). I'm not excited about death, but I see no evidence that anything comes after, and I certainly can't believe an entity as advanced as the Christian God is said to be could possibly damn me to eternal suffering because I looked at the world and didn't see him in it. That assigns a level of arrogance and egocentrism to God that I simply cannot accept in any form.

I could be wrong, in which case I'm pretty screwed. On the other hand, if the Mormons have it right I'm just as screwed. Or the Sunnis. Or the Shi'a. Or the group in Oregon City that was under investigation for refusing medical treatment for their children, resulting in triple the death rate. I hope that last group isn't right, or we're living under the thumb of a particularly insane God. And even if there *is* a creator, I would imagine that we are so insignificant that we would be to it as bacteria are to us, something to be eliminated when they cause enough trouble and ignored otherwise.

Yeah, I know, God's Plan and all that. In which case now I'm a cog. It does not make me feel any more interested. I know that at least some of the people who read this blog (most of which have probably given up by now because I've insulted them, which I am *not* trying to do - I am going after institutions and systems here, not people) are more worried than ever for my eternal soul. I am sorry if I cause any of you pain, that is not my aim. I am simply concerned with trying to do my best in *this* life in the absence of *any* evidence pointing to any other life outside of human experience.

One positive thing I did see. My daughter is clearly loved by many in the congregation (although the pastor knew her well enough to not know how to pronounce her last name), and their joy at her joining their fold gives me hope that she will be loved even when her attempts to evangelize my wife and I fall flat. I simply grieve for her intellectual curiosity, for her freedom to discover her own path, for her indoctrination in a mythology that ignores logic and reason in exchange for dogma that was exactly the sort of thing that Jesus railed against. I pray for her, even though I am as certain as a human can be that I pray to a void.

Sometimes I wish I was capable of that kind of faith, some way that I could ignore reality and empirical reasoning and embrace a world that was invented to control populations and explain why bad things happened to good people. It is simply not in me. It is the cross that I will bear throughout my own life. I have been blessed beyond belief, with a life that so far has literally been one in a million by my own calculation, yet there is still pain I feel for the plights of others, my daughter in particular. And that is why I ask that you pray for her, those of you who can believe. Because atheism is as much a leap of faith as any other religion.


Anonymous said...

Hang in there. Young people do young people things like this. I agree, they do like people that are down and out. Broken family, broken marriage, drug addiction, etc. People want to feel good about themselves while at the same time be made to feel "guilty" and/or punished for their past sins. The church sucks you in and gives you both. The upside is that as people get older and gain confidence, perspective changes even if it is slow. They may stay with the church but they usually don't "believe" like they once did. You can still make a difference but it will take a subtle approach. Ye old they were bad so they died shtick is easy to poke holes into. Such as, why did Jesue heal the sick? Clearly they were bad so why not let them die? If they weren't bad and weren't going to die, why bother healing them? Also, if a levee is about to break and flood a nearby town, do you rush to help them or do you sit back and tell them they deserved it? The phrase "What would Jesus do?" can actually work for you here. Still, people don't have to listen and can say it is part of God's plan but watch them put their seatbelt on! There is a joke you can tell people as well, it is one of my favorites. A guy is sitting in his house and hears a knock on the door. He answers and a neighbor says they need to leave due to the levee being about to break. He refuses the offer and sends the neighbor away with the words "God will protect me". Later the Sheriff arrives, he tells him the same thing. Later, the National Guard shows up in a boat, again he sends them away "God will watch over me". A little later he is on his roof, the Army is trying to get him with a helicopter as the water rises quickly. Again, he refuses. Eventually he gets washed away and dies. At the Pearly Gates he asked "why am I here, why did God forsake me?". St. Peter looks at the book and says "You shouldn't be here, I thought for sure we sent your neighbor, the sheriff, national guard, and the Army over to your place to get you."

Anonymous said...

almost forgot, I'd like to know more about the Reed Sea, it sounds so much like a "Life of Brian" moment. The Shoe is the true path! Also, the Manifold series were great books. I also liked the one about a hypothetical Mars mission. Baxter is a great writer.

Chuck said...


For someone who is still seeking some meaning beyond we are born and we die, all I can say is that my personal definition of faith is choosing to believe in something that is by definition not rationale, logical, or provable. I just choose not to overanalyze things by moving past all the inconsistencies of the Judeo-Christian dogma and focus on the big picture which you eloquently pointed out; live a morally good life and do good to others. If I subsequently choose to take personal comfort in trusting in a higher power and it fills me with a sense of peace or clarity, I can say unequivocally that it either proves that either there is a higher power or I have an internal capacity for providing myself a self-fulfilling, self-soothing prophecy, but either way, the end result is that it works for me. Others may label it delusional but I prefer to continue down my chosen path and I can only hope that you someday either find the truth you are looking for or a sense of stillness to stop trying.


Dug said...

There is considerable back and forth on the issue of Red/Reed Sea. My point was to demonstrate that a literal interpretation of the Bible is a tricky thing at best, and perhaps a poor basis for faith. Literalism only has a strong following because if you accept that portions of any religious record are mythic or incorrect, the whole thing becomes a house of cards and anything can be called into question. Of course, with a document with as long and tortured a history as the Christian Bible (reordering of the Torah, translations galore, the choosing of which Gospels to include, etc), the slope becomes slippery indeed.

All of that said, I don't want to appear that I simply don't believe that any higher reality can exist. As a musician, I often enter a "higher" state when performing music, even when by myself. Is it God's voice passing through me? An endorphin rush? I do not know, and more importantly - it does not matter. It is enough for me to experience it and cherish those moments. I suspect that Christian prayer has the same effect, but I cannot truly know without some sort of physical test to measure my body's response. And I can't imagine that I'd get the same rush with a bunch of sensors hanging off of my head. Again, it really isn't important outside of the context of my own experience. More importantly, I will not minimize or belittle the experiences of others in a similar vein - we experience our lives through different lenses, and it colors how we see the world. I simply see it in a way that *cannot* include a personal but omnipotent God under any culture filter.

Regardless, the real issue is my daughter, and my fear that she will feel pressure to bring me into the flock, and the damage it may do to our relationship if she were to try and fail. She is very concerned with my opinion of her, although my opinion is that I wish her to be happy, healthy, secure, and independent. Her new community will help her with these things so long as she follows their rules, and I fear that they will drive a wedge between us, leaving her to lose trust in one or the other.

For those of you raising children, I am your future. Treasure the moments where you can do no wrong in their eyes, for one day you will be the enemy. If you are lucky, that time will pass, but for now remember that our lives are subject to entropy and it all falls apart in time.

Anonymous said...

Your experience is A future but maybe not THE future for me. I would be interested in knowing what counts as "belief". For me, your beliefs will become apparent from your actions, not your words. Walking around saying you believe but doing nothing tells me you believe in doing nothing. Prayer is good for anyone even non believers, prayer not backed by measurable positive action(s) is just being lazy in my view. Anytime her church actually helps people, I would join in, when they start jawing, find a way to make an excuse and leave.

Greg W said...

It took me a while to get around to reading this post since it was longer but now I'm glad I did. I share the same concerns you do about fundamentalism and faith in the modern world.

You touched on one of the most important concepts that I've arrived at in my own evaluation of religion. I refuse to believe in the concept of a god that would evaluate my worthiness for the afterlife based on whether or not I worshiped him or called him by the right name.

I believe those are methods used to keep followers indoctrinated in their respective religions and I find them repugnant. Any god that would evaluate me based on anything other than my actions and the way I treat other people is a false god.

If there is a god, it is a god of many names that evaluates people based on their actions not on evidence of their prescription to a particular faith.

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