Being at peace

Came across a great quote the other day. I’m taking it completely out of context (Henderson is writing about Greek mythology, human evolution and Nieztsche!)  but found it resonated with meaning for my retropilgrimage…

We should will – in the sense of fully inhabiting and being at peace with – all that has made us what we most essentially are.

Caspar Henderson, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

There have been times when I’ve regretted so much in my life. Still are times when I feel embarrassed about aspects of my former evangelicalism. But this quote highlighted for me the critical need to be at peace with myself and to be at peace with my history. It’s part of me. Sure there’ve been cringeworthy episodes; but there have also been precious life-lessons which endure.Though my value for humanity, for relationships, for family, for life, for the earth  and much more was grounded in my former faith, these values endure, since they encapsulate many of the highest values to which human beings can aspire. I now recognise that these same values can be derived from many sources (Gandhi’s Hinduism, mindfulness, Baha’ism, Muslim Sufis, and The Sunday Assembly all spring to mind).

In a way it’s odd that I’ve taken a long time to get to this place since some of my favourite Bible verses used to be about recognising human fallibility  – “All of us often make mistakes” (James 3:2) and “We have all fallen short” (Romans 3:23).  I always felt there was something so human in  recognising and accepting our fallibility. About time I reclaimed some of these very human insights. No life is perfect. All of us miss our highest ideals. But good health needs us to accept the worst about ourselves whilst aspiring to the best.

 

For small creatures such as we

the vastness is bearable only through love.

 

      ❞                     

                                               

Carl Sagan

 

Pining for illusions?

Why oh why didn't I take the BLUE pill?

Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?

The Matrix is  surely one of the most groundbreaking and influential movies of all time  – as well as being a personal favourite. (I gave it a 9 / 10 on IMDb!) The eponymous matrix is an illusory, virtual world created by machines to keep humans docile and content whilst they farm the humans’ actual bodies as an energy source. By selecting a red pill rather than a blue pill, Cypher chooses to be ‘unplugged’ from the matrix, joining the rebels who experience reality as it is. In the dystopian, post-holocaust world, however, the rebels are forced to survive underground.  The comparative mundanity of the real world palls on Cypher, and he hankers after the illusory delights of the matrix, despite being fully aware they are illusions . . .

Cypher quotes

  • I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? [Takes a bite of steak] Ignorance is bliss . . .
  • I’m tired, Trinity. Tired of this war, tired of fighting . . . I’m tired of the ship, being cold, eating the same goddamn goop everyday . . .
  • I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?
  • If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass.

Sympathy for Cypher

Must confess, I sympathise with Cypher. Sorry if this shocks the atheist titanic true believers among you, but even though I no longer believe in the world Christianity offers, I often regret having left the faith and, frankly, often wish I could return. Like Cypher, my current experience is bleak.  What I anticipated with dread, I’m now experiencing, having lost community, identity, direction and purpose. I’ve saddened my family, grown apart from most of my closest friends, lost my career along with any expertise and status I ever had. Even if the delights and comforts of Christianity are illusory,  I still pine for them. 

Alas, the truth is more bitter. I didn’t choose any pill – Red or Blue. I just came to realise I no longer believed. The way back into the Matrix is shut.

Can we choose what we believe?

Wilful abandonment or suffering loss?

wilful abandonment?

I’ve mentioned previously that my loss of faith has caused a tragic rift in my marriage to my still-believing wife. Probably the root issue boiled down to – did I wilfully abandon my faith or did I suffer its loss? My wife was adamant that I had chosen not to believe, or, at least, it was a consequence of choices I had made.

I do deeply sympathise with my wife. We had faced the early stages of identity crises together. But she resolved the crisis in a different way. Now she had to face the turmoil of her own metamorphosis alone, whilst also suffering the repercussions of my more radical change – a change she had had no say in. The irony is that, other than opting for the ostrich strategy of stubbornly sticking my head in the sand, I don’t think I had much say in the matter either.

Fools’ Paradise?

Another family member sent me a pained email asking, “where does that leave us, are we all living in a ‘fools paradise’ believing in an unreal God?”. I replied . . .

“Rest assured what I believe about truth has no influence at all on what is real! If I believed the moon was made of green cheese it would not change what it’s actually made of one iota. (Maybe a better analogy is if I believed radiation did not exist…) We either believe or we don’t. We can be persuaded, but we cannot will ourselves to believe (or not believe) simply by gritting our teeth.”

If you doubt this you could test it for yourself. Try believing, for example, that the moon really is made of green cheese. Have a go . . . Sure you’re trying hard enough?? Doesn’t work does it?

As best as I can describe my experience, for several months I was vaguely aware I was having serious doubts and tried hard to ignore it before, ultimately, realising I simply no longer believed the Christian gospel. I’d discovered what I wrote above: that I could neither believe nor not believe simply by gritting my teeth. 

Güngör griefs

I’ve had this post lined up for several weeks but, funnily enough, this morning I got a facebook notification to a link one of my friends had posted on a similar theme. The post is called “What do we believe?” and is by the band Güngör, who are Christians.

Apparently they’ve got in quite a lot of trouble with some Evangelical Christians for a post on their blog which states . . .

“I have no more ability to believe, for example, that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago. I have no ability to believe that there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago and that all of the animal species that exist today are here because they were carried on an ark and then somehow walked or flew all around the world from a mountain in the middle east after the water dried up. I have no more ability to believe these things than I do to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity.”

Obviously the Güngör lads are in a different place to me, But nevertheless, much of what they said resonated with me. Here’s a couple more excerpts . . .

“By the time you can use your conscious mind to “believe” something, your unconscious mind has already sorted through the data and there is no way you can force yourself to un-know what you know.”

“Here’s the reality. We don’t really get to chose our beliefs.”

Believing in Ebola

Another parallel is from the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa. News coverage reported, accurately, that many West African simply don’t believe in Ebola. Actually many West Africans have little choice. Their world view is essentially spiritual rather than materialistic – since they grew up everybody around them believed that all around them were all manner of spiritual forces and beings that are the major determinants of what happened to them in everyday life. They were also faithfully taught what they needed to know to be protected and successful in this environment. Absolutely every new thing they learn – including the Ebola outbreak – is seen against this backdrop. There is no alternative for them. Their assumptions are only reinforced when, for all the outsiders’ methods of quarantines and rubber suits, the disease continues to spread . . .

A generation or two down the road, as microscopy and eclipse charts and close-up photographs of comets etc etc etc become part of a community’s knowledge, rather than being fitted into the pre-existing framework, the possibility of joining the dots in a new way will likely be seen and a new framework will likely emerge. The paradigm shift will have taken place. Once seen, this new generation will have little choice to unsee the Magic Eye picture no matter how much they may grit their teeth.

Grieving a lost faith

Confession: I’m still a retro-pilgrim. It’s not something I’m looking back on . . . I’m still on the journey and have not remotely arrived at any final destination yet. My emotions remain raw. Most days I’m still suffering raging internal conflicts and feeling distinctly unwhole.

My emotions might be parallel to that of someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. In the early stages of dementia victims often suffer intense stress. They are aware of what’s happening, they dread it, abhor it. They may seek to pretend it’s not happening or fight it. But once the condition is more developed the stress diminishes.

In a similar way, when I first began to suspect I was ‘losing my faith’ I was a pretty tortured soul. It wasn’t so much the theological issues (am I apostate? damned?) as realising how much I would lose and how much it would hurt those closest to me. So I fought the process, hated it, wished it were not so – that I could just snap back into believing. But I found you can’t will away doubts by sheer effort.

Perhaps a better parallel is the five stages of grief . . .

  1. Denial & isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Guilt / Bargaining
  4. Sadness / Depression
  5. Acceptance

This classic model was first described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. Since then psychologists have developed variants on the theme. This seven stage model might be even more helpful:

  1. Shock & Denial
  2. Pain & Guilt
  3. Anger & Bargaining
  4. Depression, Reflection, Loneliness
  5. Upward Turn
  6. Reconstruction & Working Through
  7. Acceptance & Hope

Losing faith is an undeniable form of loss, so processes of grief should not be a surprise. I can certainly identify with shock, denial, pain, guilt, anger, depression and loneliness. Where am I at right now? Perhaps somewhere round about stage 4 – and longing to know when stage 5 kicks in!

 

 

 

 

 

Who was Jesus?

What do you think about Jesus?

During my retro-pilgrimage,  I did not consciously think through the issue of who Jesus was and felt no compulsion to do so. My journey was existentially driven. It was about how I gradually came to terms with the fact that there was a massive disjunct between the promises of the Bible and my own experience. I do remember becoming aware of the fact that I had no sense at all of God’s presence. I didn’t have the slightest awareness,  back in the depths of my consciousness somewhere, of God being sad with me, or gently calling me, or being disappointed or cross with me.

Nevertheless, I am aware one of the big things my Christian friends want to know is what I think about Jesus – who do I think he is or was?  I still don’t feel any great urge to have a definitive answer to these questions, or to reconcile myself to New Testament passages that used to be so convincing to me (e.g. 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16-18). I’m quite content to be agnostic over these issues, though I am aware I may need to think about and try to resolve these questions at some point.

Legend, Teacher, Critic or Son of God?

The YouTube video I have posted above is a debate between Greg Boyd and Robert Price on the issue of whether the picture of Jesus in the Gospels is historically reliable – whether the Jesus of History is identical to the Christ of Faith. 

I found the Price-Boyd debate interesting and it may have helped provide the very beginnings of a tentative position for me. Greg Boyd’s position was broadly similar to the one I would have argued a couple of years ago. I found the way Robert Price rebutted a lot of classic Evangelical arguments (e.g. that the chronological proximity of witnesses to the events of the Gospels validates their accuracy) fascinating and convincing. His use of historical figures, such as Gershom Sholem and Sabbatai Zevi, as comparisons of the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels, was especially eye-opening.

Light of the World?

This may provide an understanding of the miracles of Jesus and the phenomenal early expansion of the Church. For me the question of the teaching of Jesus remains. If Jesus didn’t actually utter much of what is attributed to him in the Gospels, then who did? The sermon on the mount,  the innovation of praying to God as Father and many other extraordinary teachings and innovations seem to require a teacher and innovator who stands at or near the very highest pinnacles of human historical achievement. Even many of our latter day greats – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – have looked to this source as an inspiration.

Personally, I have found much to be admired in the ethical and philosophical teachings of sages from various times and places, but the values of the Kingdom of God attributed to Jesus in the extant Gospels remain peerless. They remain an inspiration and a light to my path.

Link

I thought this was an interesting conversation on Doubt and Faith between someone in a fairly similar position to me and a Christian pastor.

The ex-Christian is Andrew Whyte. Like me he is a former missionary and is now an agnostic.   The pastor is Greg Boyd, a fairly prominent, though non-traditional, American Evangelical. The discussion was hosted by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable show on the Premier Christian radio station.

Since the show, Andrew and I have linked up and had some good chats comparing our stories. An important difference between us is that Andrew’s loss of faith was largely empirically driven (concerned with facts, reason and knowledge), whilst mine was largely existentially driven (concerned with experience). Another difference is that in my case my loss of faith has caused deep dysfunction in my marriage, whilst Andrew and his wife continue to relate well to one another.

On the show Andrew describes some of the milestones on his own retro-pilgrimage, from fundamental Evangelicalism, through liberal Christianity to agnosticism. Greg responds with considerable grace and sympathy, as well as a gentle reminder that the door is always open.