Saturday, 24 September 2016

Scaled Back to Get Broader and Deeper

When I woke up this morning, I muzzily told myself "I'd better get back to work and write the last bit of the blog post."  It took me a while to remember that I'd not started writing any of it yet; before I realized that the whole thing had simply been dreamt.  Here's me, trying to rewrite what I only dreamed I'd written:

The Christianity I was raised with was kind of like a pointy stick I'd been handed that I was walking around with, and one with which I had been instructed to faithfully poke anyone nearby.  It stretched pretty far.  And it was very pointy. You could go around and no one ever got very near you.

But simply poking others, and building my identity upon being one of the Precious Few did not prove fulfilling, in the long run.  Didn't want to spread that message to the world: "You're going to hell when you die!  You need to learn about the gospel right now!  From me!  Probably best to come to our church to do that, after listening to me, because you can't trust most of what's being taught out there by most churches!  Come along and we'll teach you about love and acceptance!"

I think a lot of people raised with religion believed most of it when they were little, and then found they didn't.  Like Santa.  A fairly black and white thing.  Grew up a bit and suddenly declared they didn't believe in God anymore.  It wasn't like that for me.

At first, I certainly believed.  Not just about God.  About all of it.  I knew everything when I was ten.  Post-tribulation or pre-tribulation Rapture?  Pre.  Creation or evolution?  Creation.  Six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights to built all of reality, or an unspecified amount of time?  Six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights.  Calvinism or Arminianism?  Calvinism.  Six-point Calvinism or lesser forms of it?  Six-point. (Every petal on the T.U.L.I.P.)  Santa Claus and Christmas?  Pagan and wrong.  Same with Easter and the Bunny.  Superstition.  We believed bible truth.

And I grew up as sheltered from the beliefs of others as possible. No TV or movies at home, and book selections carefully screened.  No odd, other people's beliefs about anything we thought mattered.  No book that deigned to comment on good and evil or God and devil, or even depict them.  At first all this was done to us, but soon enough we were sufficiently trained to do it to ourselves.

Despite being taught that we Absolutely Could Not "lose" our salvation and end up in hell, we feared something else nearly as much: losing the correctness of our doctrinal positions. And letting ourselves be exposed to the ideas of people who maybe thought that God would, eventually, try to save everyone, or that maybe Christians would have to weather the Great Tribulation, or that maybe the message of the bible gets through clear and strong, but some of the actual translations and edits are a bit mistaken, or that we ought to be trying to speak in tongues if we truly loved God?  Hearing much of any of that could soon land us in Errorland.

Cults loomed large in the public consciousness in the 70s and 80s (and with good reason) and the idea that going to a different church, or reading books written by folks outside of ours, could infect us with mania for something Utterly Wrong, could brainwash us out of our correct beliefs, was very strong.  We unthinkingly avoiding having our thinking touched by other views.

So I grew up with a brain and heart that had pretty much only ever heard the One Opinion.  The One Story.

But it happened, eventually, anyway.  Other views got to me.  My parents let me hear about evolution at school.  I heard at school that being gay wasn't a sinful choice, but that some people were born that way.  As an older teen and young adult, I stopped fleeing conversations and other exposure to the thinking of Jehovah's witnesses, Mormons, Baptists and Pentecostals.  And they said and wrote stuff that sounded crazy to me.  Mostly they thought I was going to hell because they thought my beliefs were wrong and that I was associated with the wrong group.  The nerve!

When we had divisions within our own "right" group, forming pairs of groups who then both said the other one was wrong, I noted this, and was willing to hear what the people on the "other" side had to say.  About everything.  I took it all in. I went and talked and listened to people on every side of it I could find.  I didn't look to "keep my life simple," in terms of views. I didn't let my circle of association narrow when my church's circle of fellowship did.  I collected it all and looked for what it was that seemed to get one down the highway.

And, frightened, I slowly lost my grip on the idea that my church group was somehow the only right one, the one God was "with."  This idea had been very central, and the loss of it was like it is for most people to lose their belief that Christianity is the only right religion.

But still, I held to the idea that all of the fighting and splitting off and leaving one another in the ditch to die that went on at my group was a Really Bad Thing.  A thing we'd done for generations and were almost proud about.  It certainly made us feel more right, somehow.  This upset me.  It seemed like a clear reversal of position, a clear doing one thing despite having said another.  So no matter how bad stuff got, and the less I was able to submerse myself in the toxic spirit there, I believed firmly that it would be very, very wrong to do to them what they were all doing to one another: to walk away.  To stop listening.  To cease "being there" for each other. To cease trying to understand.

And, of course, they did that to me instead.  They're not listening. They're not "there" for me.  Haven't been for most of my adult life.  If I were able to fix that, I would.  Not by smothering and burying my deepest convictions.  But by listening.  Trying to understand. Looking to hang out a few times a year.

Trouble is, no one wants to talk.  Mostly, they're keeping their heads simple by shielding them from the beliefs and views of others.  And I carry around with me a whole collection of those.

Nowadays, you're not likely to force me to "admit" that gays are wrong, or Trump is right, or America used to be Christian and is now doomed because of pursuing greater tolerance, or letting women out of their rightful place or even if I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God made the world in exactly six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights between them.  I don't know about any of that for sure.  And it's very freeing to leave it to God to sort that stuff out and approach the things with humility, if at all.

In fact, I am very sincerely undecided about any number of thing and likely to remain that way.  I know this makes me "not serious" about my faith, as far as many are concerned.  Missing the point and not getting out there and hitting "like" on Pro Life posts on Facebook.  But I'm not interested in your frantic need to shove me into taking a side, with your pointy stick, or be pushed away so you don't have to hear someone like me, living his life, anywhere near you.

Nowadays, I guess I'm an agnostic about a lot of things apart from the existence of God.  I think He's out there.  I think we deal, He and I, across infinite space, and from deep within me and from behind everything. From between the molecules, fueling them.  I'm trying to know the God of the bible and of my experience.  I'm trying to broaden and deepen as to what I think and feel about Him.  And it ends up having nothing to do with church or with doctrine or politics in any conventional sense.  It's kind of... psychological.  We all have growing and healing and learning and repenting to do, whether we believe in a God of any kind or not, and that's what it's about for me, as the sort of God I believe in evolves.

It's very "small," mostly.  No rooms filled with hundreds or thousands of people who apparently all agree about stuff.  There's no culture of people putting out albums, where I find my faith.  There's no clear choice as to which political party to vote for.  There's no street address to show up to, to see a room full of people who agree, no mailing address to get helpful books and pamphlets from, outlining what "we" all think and believe.  There is no Grand Surrender of some life path I might have otherwise theoretically followed.  God is helping me be me, more.  Properly.

There's just me and God.  And it's quiet.  And it's taking my whole life.  There aren't too many songs.  There aren't too many rituals.  There's not a lot of money being collected, or committees chaired.  There aren't titles and positions to go around.  No churches are being planted at all.  But it's the only way I know to get to know God.  To neither walk away from the idea, nor let other people sell it to me on a weekly basis.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Changed World View

Does everything suck?  I was kind of raised to expect everyone and everything to.  And when writing Pharisee, I was trying really hard to express that reality of having grown up with such constant bible reading, memorization and discussion, yet somehow ending up with an understanding of the bible that was extremely narrow, one-sided and limited in scope. (Our bible discussions mostly sounded like this.)

I tried to express it all.  To convey that major stuff was missing.  To explain that odd stuff was getting focussed on to the exclusion of all else.  I have often found N.T. Wright helpful in pointing that stuff out.  Maybe it's not all about sin and death and hell and everyone sucking.

Today I watched a video with Wright explaining what the words "gospel" and "righteousness" (as English words looking to convey ideas from another time and place) might mean, beyond what I'm used to seeing in them.  What would the early readers of the bible have understood their words, now translated awkwardly into a different language, across a different culture, to mean?

I grew up with a purely "negative" understanding of most of what the bible tries to present to us.  God was good, we believed, which meant He didn't want to punish us, exactly, though we sucked.  We sang long, slow, sonorous hymns every Sunday morning about how Jesus suffered so much because we sucked so much.  We had the gospel, the message of which was that there was now a way to not go to Hell.  And that God was righteous (holy, holy, holy), which meant that He didn't sin.  Everyone sucked but Him.

All of that is kind of like seeing a child as "good" if they obey placidly.  Nothing else.  God, obviously, even if you only believe in Him as an abstract concept, has to be good in ways that transcend that childish understanding of "not doing anything bad." Not just good in that He doesn't suck like we do.  No, He's got to be good in ways that go right past even the world-famous, lasting accomplishments of adult human beings who made the very best inventions, paintings, symphonies, buildings and things in the whole world.  God is good all the way past that, to good-doing that befits the Person who made the whole world and everything in it to begin with: He was behind, inside and involved with all of the good stuff that ever happened.  He was there.  Cheering.  Having mostly made it happen anyway.

But just as, when I was writing Pharisee I realized that the word "virtue" didn't just mean "purity from bad stuff" but rather "power," "usefulness" and "effectiveness," the same is also true of words like "gospel" and "righteousness."  There is a whole "positive" dimension we didn't dream of, really, back in the day.

Wright paints an understanding of the bible which involves God saying millennia ago that He absolutely will successfully accomplish various good things, and then actually succeeding in doing those exact things, one after another. Taking His time.  Despite... everything. Certainly despite us.

God being righteous doesn't just mean He doesn't lie or break His word or punish unfairly. (bad things He doesn't do.)  It also means He manages, no matter what hot mess we manage to make of the world, to bring about those good things He always planned to bring to fruition.

The message of the bible isn't simply about a rescue mission, in which God plucks us out of the world, His Biggest Failure.  It's about God being faithful, and fair, and setting things right, eventually, but letting stuff play out first.  Of bringing down bad stuff, and letting good stuff be seen.  The world working as a big demonstration of God interacting with Man.  God gives Man the world, himself and other people.  Man gets to choose to do good or bad stuff.  Then it's God's move. And God does good stuff, and promises to do more good stuff.  Then it's Man's move.  Then it's God's.  And ultimately, God wins in the end.  The Nazis do not reign for a thousand years.  Stalin falls.  Nixon and Bill Clinton get caught.  Rwanda gets movies made about it.  O.J. ends up in jail.  Everyone knows there were no weapons of mass destruction, but that there are child molesters in the Church.

The bible, the gospel and Christianity are not just about God fixing man's mistakes and nothing more.  They're about God finding ways, in every century, to reconcile mankind with Good, in various ways.  Every single century of human history, there are human beings doing messed up things, but there are also wonderful things being done. And God is in all of that.  Goodness always and only flows from and through Him.  You can't get it from anywhere else.  If there is any small bit of goodness, humour, inspiration, passion, integrity, beauty, spirit or whatever in Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift or anyone at all, that came from the same place everything good comes from.

Artists talk of "muses," imagining helpful supernatural beings, or other means of tapping into an inhumanly deep, dark, mysterious and beautiful source of Good New Things. Beautiful things.  Sometimes some of them use drugs to try to get there and get to kind of helplessly touch all that.  Performers talk of being pulled right out of themselves, of stepping aside, as it were, and having excellence and inspiration and passion flood out of them from Somewhere Else, so everyone in the room can feel it.  As if they're just conduits.

And that's God, where all of that's coming from, if there's any good to it.  He is, before anything else, a Creative Person.  It's the first thing He is recorded doing: Creating. Everything.  And intending good with it.

Carl Jung said "People don't have ideas.  Ideas have people."  This is terrifying, when the ideas that "have" us are destructive ones.  And it is wonderful when the ideas that have us are inspired and new and true and beautiful. When God's ideas for the world have us swept up in their current.

When I was growing up, we Christian folks were quite sure that every pop musician who was a conduit for beauty, truth, passion and joy, was (obviously) lit on fire by the passionate, evil, sensual flames of hell.  We had to tell ourselves that there was no good in any of it.  We had to say that the very best performances given through the 50s, 60s, 70s and onward (performances people still watch recordings of today and gasp in wonder) were bad.  Evil.  Dangerous.  Seductive, of course, but pure bad.  We had to say "all that" came from the devil.

I think that's blasphemy.  Attributing the handiwork of God (creativity, beauty, passion, wonder, truth, sincerity, connection, talent) to the devil.  Imagining that the devil is a creative person.  That he writes songs with danceable hooks.  Inspires paintings with heart.  Helps write novels that reveal important truth about the human condition.  But we were so sure of ourselves.  The people who were writing novels, singing songs and painting paintings weren't religious or abstinent folk, often.  So anything they did had to be Of Satan.

N.T. Wright reads the bible and sees a drunken humanity stumbling toward reconciliation with a Creator God who works BIG, and takes centuries rather than hours to do a lot of things.  Wright doesn't see God giving up on the world and preparing to airlift a lucky, wise few of us out of it.  He sees a God who is looking for agents to help pour in and draw out good, in the world, today. Tomorrow.  Next week.  Next century. (yes, there may well be another century.)

It's really not easy, given what happens in the world every day, for it to be really clear to us that we are both free to act, and also that God is just/fair/righteous.  But God is up to that, says N.T. Wright.  God is up to all of the things that a country's justice system is trying to accomplish.  Not just to punish rule-breakers.  But also to comfort victims, arranging reparations, restraining orders and peace bonds, getting involved so that when something unfair is happening, maybe it can be set right without entirely taking away the rights and agency of everyone involved. Reconciliation.

Your spouse cheated on you?  Your business partner let you down and took off with money that was yours?  Your community gossiped unfairly about you?  N.T. Wright believes in a God whose business (and the business of his servants) is to make it possible to start to set things right.  To try to bring good out of it all anyway.  To look to work with everyone involved to try to reconcile things.  Sometimes this takes a long time.  Sometimes people won't play.  Sometimes what we like to call "karma" seems to set things straighter than before.  Well, to N.T. Wright, that's all God, being Himself.

Because human history is about people trying to wrap their heads and hearts around what it would even look like if an utterly trustworthy God made a covenant, and then people repeatedly broke and dishonoured it in the most egregious of ways, but that faithful God was determined to keep His end, for centuries afterward, and even try to help people know better and make more workable choices.

What all this leads to is something that dismays a dogmatically-raised, podgy person of middle years: a change in world view.

I was raised to view the world in these terms: It's all dangerous, exciting, dirty and horrible and bad.  The world and the people in it, and the stuff they make and do, their kids, what they say... all of it.  It's supposed to be good.  They do what they can to try to fool everyone into thinking it is. But really, everyone, everywhere and everything sucks. God will take us away from it one day, having forgiven us for sucking, once we stop pretending we don't suck.

This didn't encourage us to recycle much.  Nor to cut down on air pollution, or feed the hungry.  It and they would all burn anyway, and that right soon.

But now I'm thinking more in terms of: God made the world and the people in it, and intended it all to be and do and lead to even more good.  People want to be of worth.  Everyone wants excellence.  People even try a bit.  But sin is repeatedly falling short of a target we are repeatedly shot at.  We all fall short.  We are crooked still, and wobble and fall to one side or the other.

So the whole world isn't so much evil, in terms of cackling over a stated intention to hurt and destroy everyone and everything, as it is sick, weak, twisted and sad.  It tries, and it falls short.  And God lets kids fall down.  But he intends to teach them to ride bikes and swim and run and jump.   And still, having learned, they will fall, and will hurt themselves and act like jerks to each other, but God loves it all.  He's doing what He can, so to speak, without just forcing everything and making everything go perfectly, clumping it all directly under His Thumb.

God makes things that are alive.  And He lets them breathe.  And sing and dance.

It's a different way to view people, the world, everyone, everywhere, everything.  When it sucks (and it will), that's not the final nail in a coffin. That's just failed good.  And maybe the urge should be to help, rather than sneer, laugh or turn away in scorn or pious disgust.  And helping, we will fall short.  And our efforts will often be turned away by the ungrateful, or misunderstood by the single-minded.  Some of what we put into the mix will surely be wasted.  One cookie's probably going to fall off the plate.

But still...