Much of today’s post comes from a message I have delivered to two different churches. This version has shades of skepticism that lead to me realizing that I am firmly and comfortably ensconced in agnosticism.
There are stories in most ancient text of groups build towers and walls to either keep people out or people in or to demonstrate their self-aggrandising worth and status. In the Christian text, the Baylonians were showing the world that they/we awesome by building a tower to the heavens. They flabbergasted, disappointed and incredulous when it tumbled to the ground.
Like the Babylonians, the people of Jericho were shocked when the bricks that they laid didn’t provide the strong foundation they anticipated. In the Joshua v Jericho story most of us take the view that we are more closely associated with the Tribe of Israel, crusading righteous defenders of the good, but I realize that on many occasions, I am more like the Jerichoites. They were complacently self satisfied with their lot and their complacncy made then lazy and over confident. Over the millennia, the Israelites have had their certainty tested in almost every generation.
I spent years building my own reality placing bricks of belief beside and on top of other bricks. If the new bricks confirm what I already understand to be true, they are added, even if the mortar sticking them together isn’t quite right. I have worked through faith, politics, justice, economics, culture, relationships and chipped away at all the stuff that was killing my curiousity.
I expect that many of you have built a solid foundation through years of service, worship, essays and indoctrination. We all add blocks that hang loosely with our confirmation bias and then if necessary we seek evidence that supports what we want supported. I am going to talk about my latest ‘adventure’ in deconstructing my faith.
Often in times of struggle or tragedy we are made aware just how fragile our walls are. The trumpet blare of an illness, a loss, a financial challenge can reduce the wall to a pile of rubble.
My first disclaimer is that I am a recovering post-modern fundamentalist. I believed that the Bible was the complete and inerrant word of God exactly as it was written, without any consideration for who, how or when it was written. As you will hear over the 40 minutes, that isn’t what I belive today. In 1999 I was in Poland ‘sharing’ my certainty with Catholics. Warning them of their idolatry and giving them the four steps to salvation (from Peter’s first sermon) and letting them know that in no uncertain terms they needed to do them all in the order I was prescribing. On the plane back to Edmonton after 3 months in Warsaw a miracle happened. Somehow my head and heart were made aware of the exclusiveness of everything I was saying, doing and trying to accomplish. Exclusive as in keeping others out not as something special and rare.
Over the years, since 1999, I have willfully chosen to deconstruct my faith wall and examine why each belief brick is important, is it still valid, or is it just there because it was the right shape for the wall I wanted to build. Twice when I went through the painful process of questioning and doubting my presumptions, I realized that I had created God in my image and the wall was so high with my addendums and philosophies that I couldn’t see God anymore. When I use God, you can substitute Guide, Consciousness, Life Force, Each time I was weakened by the process and found my way back to refuge.
This time, I was invited by Peter Rollins, an Irish theologian and philosopher , to participate in Atheism for Lent. That was last March. If I thought letting go of bricks was hard in the past. This was excruciating. I learned a lot about myself, my faith, my constructed representations, church politics and a remarkable amount about ethos – meaning “character” that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. I will come back to that journey but first the Jerichoites. They had built a pretty amazing wall to protect them from foreign invaders; different ideas and customs, different ideas about marriage, child rearing, money, work, elders, children … and the wall served them very well. It kept unwelcome/unclean people and their unwelcome/unclean ideas out. Everybody thought much the same and they shared the same expectations of each other and distrust for outsiders. They were pretty sure that their way was the right way. Turns out they were in for a shock. I wonder how you would do if you faced that kind of new found ambiguity? In many areas of our life, religion, politics, sports teams, child rearing, exercise and nutrition, we are quick to grab onto a familiar package.
Some social psychologists would have loved a sample as large as the city of Jericho but two 21st C social psychologists Roets and Van Hiel developed a 15 question test measure our individual comfort and discomfort with uncertainity .
2nd Disclaimer everything I say no matter how confident I sound or sure I seem is only my opinion. Certainty is one of the3 c’s along with comfort and convenience that are eroding creativity, courage, and curiousity and replacing it with the mire and muck of complacency . In my opinion we need more uncertainty, inconvenience and discomfort, I plan to only speak about certainty and uncertainty.
Back to Roets and Van Hiel and the 15 questions,
I am going to ask you the questions and ask you to quickly score yourself on a scale of 1-6 with 1 being completely disagree and 6 being completely agree. If you can keep a running total by adding each question’s response, we can get a sense of how much you and the person beside you need closure. I will also let you know what I scored when I was getting close to the end of Lent. Again give yourself a 1 if you completely disagree and a 6 if you completely agree and if somewhere less than completely 2345 – Ready
Short version of the revised Need for Closure scale:
I don’t like situations that are uncertain.
I dislike questions which could be answered in many different ways.
I find that a well ordered life with regular hours suits my temperament.
When dining out, I like to go to places where I have been before so that I know what to expect.
I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life.
I feel irritated when one person disagrees with what everyone else in a group believes.
I hate to change my plans at the last minute.
I don’t like to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it.
When I have made a decision, I feel relieved
When I am confronted with a problem, I’m dying to reach a solution very quickly.
When I am confused about an important issue, I feel very upset.
I would quickly become impatient and irritated if I would not find a solution to a problem immediately.
I would rather make a decision quickly than sleep over it.
Even if I get a lot of time to make a decision, I still feel compelled to decide quickly.
I almost always feel hurried to reach a decision, even when there is no reason to do so.
So how did you do? More than 57? More than 65? Less than 45? Less than 30? Less than 20? ???????????
I scored 23 when I was nearing the deconstruction of my wall but it seems that the more we practice swimming in ambiguity, the more comfortable we become.
The Atheism for Lent project began with me standing on some pretty solid ground; different foundation than years ago but nonetheless solid. – Likely a bit different than yours because I have a different set of experiences from faith and life. I began with a seed of doubt and rather than denying that I wasn’t sure and didn’t have all the answers, I slowly became open to the doubts. As I read the selected authors my ethos incrementally changed. I decided I could either approach this exercise half heartedly or with conviction and commitment. One of my favorite quotes is from Johan Wolfgang Von Goethe “
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. ”
With that in mind, I threw myself into the project. Commited. It was helpful that we were in California and I was able to run every morning. I find the physical effort refreshing and exhausting and somewhere after 5k I begin to shed some of the blocks and concerns in my head and heart. Running a couple of days a week in the sand was a great exfoliant and my feet were cleansed of all the dead and useless stuff as my mind and heart was being wiped clean.
The first week we began with readings Epicuris from 3rd C BCE . Reading
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God? “ I begin wondering about the brick labeled “God”. Again I am not saying that I was an atheist or agnostic at this point but I was letting go of God in my image. If God isn’t able or willing what is it about my understanding that is flawed. Was the all powerful/all knowing doctrine important or could I pull it from the wall?
Day 2 week one was David Hume. In his Dialogues concerning Natural religion, he is less direct but more forthright (because he was writing from the voices of fictional characters).
Reading Anthony Fluw, Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens the remainder of week one convinced me that the big brick of all knowing/all powerful was unstable and I pitched it aside.
It was like a kick in the gut. If I no longer am sure about Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence (all powerful, all knowing, all present) then dozens of other bricks didn’t have any mortar to connect to the structure.
If. God’s power isn’t infinite, or limitless then does God have power over wind, water, gravity, physics, me, us?
I almost retreated to certainty on this one but was convinced by a whisper that if I was going to remove the wall between me and God, I needed to wipe the slate clean and then wait on him. So I plowed ahead. Releasing the idea that God is all knowing challenged the principles of free will and predestined future. If He wasn’t always present all the time tore out the smaller bricks of immanence and disconnected transcendence.
The bricks were already falling on their own. Every morning I would run and toss more into the Pacific Ocean. As my feet were scrubbed so was my faith.
Week two started with Feuerbach and move to Marx and Hegel. I am not going to give you the blow by blow of the struggle I went through each week and the mental gymnastics I tried to hold onto some of what I “knew to be true” because we would need to be here for a couple days and I am not trying to convince you or unconvince you of anything. I am not urging you to step into the den and slay some of your tigers, lambs and sacred cows. I hope that by relating the experience and sharing where I am today that you might see God (hear whatever word you put here) the way he wants you to see Him. While I have talked with some of you about this journey and other faith topics, I don’t know you well enough to suggest anything about your faith and relationship with God but if you are like me, the God I was seeing was a caricature of God, God as I want him to be, God as my current interpretation revealed, God as a factor of my current state and mood, and God of my circumstances. Just like the caricature artists at the stampede , some features were exaggerated beyond plausibility and made a mocking cartoon of Him. One day an ATM, the next a scapegoat.
Back to Feurbach for a moment. For me, there was a refocusing in some of his writings. “It is theology, that has wrenched man out of his relationship with the world, isolated him, made him into an arrogant self-centered being who exalts himself above nature. Originally religion expressed nothing other than man’s feeling that he is an inseparable part of nature or the world.” This allowed me to detach the workings of Church from the realities of God. I was and had been using Church as a cloud to keep my distance from the mystery and mysticism and majesty and more likely responsibilities. Just like Moses, I shielded myself from seeing Him. If I created rules and laws that defined and contained the Force I could keep it locked in my head and out of my heart. I have dug deeper into this idea and now believe that church, as I understand it, requires certain certainty. It is the commodity that church sells . In my opinion, we aren’t even expected to believe or use the message and still be part of the club. This revealed to me that certainty whether ideology, theology, aplogetics, partisan politics, … facilitates and justifies bullying. We just witnessed 10 months of cruelty spawned by surety that I am right. Trump, Clinton, Cruse, Sanders, James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell JR betrayed their characters with the corruption of certainty and slurred and blurred the lines between debate and debasement. Unfortunately that sad age isn’t nearly over and it as raging full force here in Alberta.
The process of Atheism for Lent went on for more than 6 weeks and I naively assumed/ presumed that on the Sunday of resurrection that God would manifest himself to me and say something profound, something just for me. I suppose I thought, hoped, that there might be a Damascus Road experience where God would knock me off my donkey and send me on some grand mission. The burning bush didn’t happen, there was no amazing revelation, no I AM conversation. I have been hearing faint whispers – I had a physical this week and told my doctor that my partner thinks I am suffering from some hearing loss. He asked “ if I had any pain, any leaking fluid, any buzzing or ringing” I said “no” but it occurred to me that I should have told him that I have been hearing whispers when there is no one around. They aren’t quite startling but they are always a surprise. That is probably because I haven’t heard them before. If the whispers are from God, it has been a very long time, maybe never since I heard Him. The whispers aren’t full sentences, maybe not even words just a sense that there is something I am supposed to be paying attention to – right now. Like “ look here” , “ did you see that?” I interpret through my lens ( again with my view rather than His) anyway I interpret that Consciousness (with a capital C) wants me to notice how it is active in the world and continue to be curious. My impatience gets in the way. My seriously strong action bias gets in the way. But my stubbornness and commitment to see this journey through (after all if I stop now, all the confusion, anxiety, and pain will have been for not). I don’t know how or if you encounter your Guide. I think I have created a metaphor for what I needed God to be by reading scripture, commentaries and the latest books. I expanded my version with retreats, music, and slogans always chasing the next icon that would fill a hole in me, in my heart I think the expression is. The hole would be filled temporarily by the acquisition of some more stuff, different ideas, another sermon but like all decisions that only lead to consuming more it returned very quickly. The new God smell faded after just a few uses.
Somerset Maughn said “Tradition is supposed to be a guide not a prison” so I challenge all of you to be observant today and throughout the week for opportunities where you are certain of your position or conclusion and then lean into uncertainty and see how uncomfortable it makes you. – Stay curious.