Thursday, February 26, 2009

Message from an Empty, Immoral, Godless Friend

I write this in response to the several occasions when I have read or heard religious people; including Friends, express surprised approval that those of us who identify ourselves as non-Christians are capable of ethical behavior. I write in response to the number of times that I have read or heard the suggestion or outright accusation that even if we are somehow capable of leading moral lives, we are actually empty and in danger of falling into error due to our failure to accept God as the foundation of that good behavior, and that without faith, our morality is either unsustainable, meaningless, pathetic or spiritually delusional. I write it also in response to a video in which a popular entertainer expresses bafflement at the idea of a non-religious person who chooses to affiliate herself with the Religious Society of Friends. I’m one of those irritating non-Christians who describes herself variously as a non-Christian, post-Christian, Neo-Pagan or non-theistic Friend. I write this post to both explain myself and offer my friendship despite my philosophical difference.

Is there a God? If you mean is there an Entity that exists apart from His/Her Creation that Intelligently Designed the Cosmos and intelligently oversees its functions? I don't think so. Mine is a collective "God." My definitions are plural and pantheist (or perhaps pan-en-theist) although the "theist" part is probably a misnomer. "Spirit", “Life”, “Connection”, "Energy", or even the Star Wars "Force" is much closer to my meaning than "Creator." I am, therefore, perhaps by definition, a non-theistic person, a freethinker. It isn't that I don't believe in that which is Divine. Indeed, for me, the Cosmos is infused with the Divine. I just reject an anthropomorphic god or tribal, culturally specific, historically rooted god and therefore am uncomfortable with language that trips too closely to this. (I also know that many folks who also reject an anthropomorphic God use the term "God." I'm cool with that.)

It hurts me to hear religious people disparaging non-believers (or believers who choose radically different language). I admire a system of ethics that relies on a faith in human reason and compassion and I make no apologies for it. It looks to me like the great religious thinkers appealed to human reason and compassion as the tools that bring us closest to that which may be called Divine Wisdom and I choose to value their messages above religious, supernatural, and superstitious stories about the messengers. In short, it matters very little to me whether or not Jesus turned water into wine. If his teaching failed to rise to a standard of deep compassion and what Schweitzer called "reverence for life", he could change muskrats into elephants and I'd still have no use for him. I admire and follow him (and all the other leaders and thinkers that people my philosophical bookshelf) because they help me in my own journey toward a deepening philosophical and practical compassion, not because he had magical powers. As for miracles, I maintain that the universe is naturally magnificent and surprising. Life is so incredible that it knocks me on my butt. The distinction between supernatural and natural events that occur outside my expectations eludes me. I’ve given birth three times. Have you ever seen that happen? That shit’s crazy wonderful. I’m sorry, but walking on water just doesn’t much compare.

Do we choose to be good because we are afraid of some angry god? Because we're impressed by miracles? Or are we good because our intellects (and the products of intellect including morality and ethics) teach us that it is more logical, just, and joyful to love than to be hateful? Religious people can be inhumane and cruel in their faith. It isn’t the religion itself that makes them good. People are good because they sense the divinity of Life Itself. They see the sense of justice and kindness as the only reasonable means of promoting a sustainable society.
I am a non-Christian but I am not anti-Christian. I see something profoundly rational about the Christian message of deep compassion and peace. I also see a commonality of compassionate rationalism throughout the world's religions and philosophies. If someone's thoughts and actions are thoughtful, compassionate, and humane, then it seems foolish to me to condemn them because they do not use the same words to describe the spark that inspires that compassion. I'm a spiritual pragmatist that way. I care a good deal less about a person's theology than I do about their actions. Call yourself what you will. If you have a veneration for life, if you work toward peace and justice, if you are humane and loving in your dealings with others, especially those less powerful than yourself, then you and I are on the same team whether you acknowledge it or not.

On the other hand, it hurts me deeply to hear non-theistic people disparaging religious people as fools and worse. I resent the lumping together of religious zealots who judge and kill in the name of God with the people of faith with whom I have shared my life. There are all kinds of fundamentalism. An atheist can be just as fundamentalist as a Christian. Intolerance is ugly regardless of its packaging.

I want to be a Friend because, and this is important, I sense that I already am. If I am to be a hyphenated Friend, it is not because I am describing my foot in two worlds, not as if I am speaking of a fractured spirituality that I am trying to make whole. No. By choosing a hyphenated spirituality, I am merely telling my history. I was reared a Christian and believed one thing with the deepest part of my soul. Then I was a Pagan and believed the same exact thing with the deepest part of my soul but with new metaphors and now I choose to be a Quaker because I wish to be among people who will push me to do better and surround me with love as I go on believing the very same thing I have always believed with the deepest part of my soul.

It is not loyalty to any creed, faith, or dogma that keeps us from being lost. The names we attach to this Mystery are merely noises. It is not contained in holy books or rituals. It is not proved by facts and theories. So what is that holds me accountable if not scientific argument alone and not faith? What holds me accountable, what I experience as primary reality; I do not typically call "God" or "Christ." My own training from seminary and in religious studies precludes this. Sometimes I play with the metaphors of Goddess and Light, of Soul and Spirit and even of Christ, but there are many times when I reject the metaphors of traditional religion entirely as wholly inadequate to the task. There are times when reason, ethics, justice and right relationship are themselves the discipline that holds me true in the same times of weakness when religious people turn to scripture and tradition. I tell you that I am true to the same truths that motivate you. Brush aside words and theories, doctrines and narratives and you and I are children of the same Flesh and Spirit.
How foolishly we strut and arrogantly proclaim our own special knowledge of the truth. We are a newborn species, too primitive in understanding to understand even our own fragile bodies and yet we presume to know the very Heart of the Cosmos? And yet a child knows that whatever this thing is (Christ, Light, Beloved, Buddha, Source, Science, Reason, Love, Father, Mother, All, Nothing) it does not need to be explained. It is does not need us to defend it. It does not need us to define it or write it up in books for people to follow. It is strong enough that the people will follow anyway. We are like moths to its flame and so have we always been. It is only when we dress it up and parade it around that things fall apart. It is only when we try to lead the Light by the Nose that we get lost.
I am not a theist in any traditional sense but I do not think that this matters in the end. It does not prevent me from feeling a depth of kinship with religious folk nor should they be concerned that I choose to make my home with them. My theories and your religion are no more than clumsy attempts to articulate a truth beyond our reach. So what is it? It is just that which is. It does not need a name or a label or a history or tradition for me to know it. It strums and I resonate.


sometimesfaithsometimesnot said...

This is a most eloquent post about precisely those things that have been circling around the edges of my consciousness for years. Well said! And thank you. Having once been a christian fundamentalist and now a student of the Goddess, I know that I am merely trading one set of clothes for another to represent all the deepest love and compassion I sense in that Spiritual Divine. Again, thank you for articulating so succinctly.

Hystery said...

sometimesfaithsometimesnot-- Thank you for your generous comment. I love the idea of being a student of the Goddess. There's so much to learn!


Bright Crow said...

Friend Hystery,

I share your distress with "religious people" who disdain those they see as "non-believers," as well as your distress with "non-theistic people" who disparage "the religious."

[Note all the double-quotes, since labels are dangerous.]

A book which has been profoundly helpful to me in this regard is James P. Carse's The Religious Case Against Belief.

I've written about Carse's work in a series of posts about the Parable of the Weeds on my blog, The Empty Path, so I won't repeat the details here.

His core idea is that we usually call "religions" what would more accurately be called "belief systems."

Here's the gist of it from Weeds, Part II:

Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action” (32). They claim to define all that needs to be known, they mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and they name anything and anyone beyond that boundary as enemy.

Religions may produce belief systems, yet “they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox” (36). Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together” (84).

In the context of your post the "religious people" are "people of a 'belief system'." So are the "non-theists."

The most exciting part of Carse's case for me is this: unlike belief systems, which insist upon boundaries, religions look toward a horizon of Mystery which is always beyond our reach...yet always worth following.

And so it is.

Bless├Ęd Be,
Michael Bright Crow

Hystery said...

Michael Bright Crow (I truly love that name since crows are so important to me)- Thanks for the book suggestion. Looks like one I can really enjoy and dig my teeth into. In my own usage, I've indicated a difference between a spirituality and a religion and I think that though terminology differs, we may be speaking of the same phenomenon.

I grew up with a very open-minded Christianity that was seeking,critical, and expansive in its interpretation so I can never buy into the idea that belonging to a religion is necessarily an indication of bigoted orthodoxy. Even during his ministry of some 20 odd years (and they were at times very odd) Dad was never particularly committed even to the idea of the virginity, divinity or even factual reality of Jesus/ Christ. Now that's pretty open! LOL It has been difficult to deal with the deepening stereotypes of Christian anti-intellectualism in the United States these past many years.

Spending time as I do with academic atheists, I find at times that they are far more orthodox than many of the "religious" folks I know and far less forgiving. But then again, I don't want to generalize atheism either since this system can also be exceedingly "spiritual" and generous. I like heterodoxy and playfulness in my friends whatever their religious/spiritual/philosophical persuasion. There are few things better than "cerebral lovemaking" and it is no fun to make love with the intellectually uptight. ;-)

Grumpy Granny said...

Thank you for this. I was directed to your blog by Michael Bright Crow, who I have known online for nearly 15 years, even though we have never met. Just last week, I was basically "ousted" by my 3 siblings for having "unChristian" beliefs. Apparently they "love" me so much that they don't want to have anything to do with me because I'm surely doomed to hell, and all childhood events have suddenly taken on epic, adult proportions (we are all over 40!). I feel for them because their lives are so bound by fear.

I'd love to refer them to your blog, but I know they just aren't in a place to appreciate or understand it.

But I am, and I plan to keep reading.

Many blessings,


Hystery said...

Grumpy Granny,
It saddens me to hear of your siblings' difficulty in understanding your spirit. This must be very painful.

But I am glad you have found my blog and I am hopeful I will hear your voice often.

Respect and friendship,

Bright Crow said...

Dear One,

I adopted Bright Crow back in the early 90s, but Crow has been my totem since the 70s, when I first (re)discovered my Pagan sensibility. Walhydra has a story about the name, "So who is this Bright Cow, anyway?"

Your spirituality/religion distinction fits, yet Carse is proposing a corrective to the common misuse of the term "religion" for "belief system" (and all the spurious authorities and hierarchies associated with them). He wants to reclaim "religion" as the term for what cannot be defined yet is profoundly lived.

You write: "There are few things better than "cerebral lovemaking" and it is no fun to make love with the intellectually uptight."

I love this.


Hystery said...

Bright Crow,
Crows are sacred to me. Morna is my own crone/crow who helps lead my protagonists through Death in a Samhain faerytale I wrote long ago and am now editing after years of neglect.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

Here's the start of my response to your email and your MEIGF post:

>>from your post: and so glad that it is your mind that convinces you because that is just exactly what I most want to hear right now. I love to hear your thoughts and would be delighted to hear what books and articles you have found most enlightening. I can't help but feel that if it weren't for my grumbling adolescent intellect, I'd be much better able to answer my calling. My brain does drag its >>feet!

I originally planned to be a scientist and still read a lot of scientific and philosophical stuff--usually difficult for me, but I struggle through.

I have read a number of books by the scientific naysayers such Dawkins, Gould, etc.. They make very good science when they are dealing with basic biology, but when Gould says humankind is an accidental fluke, that we wouldn't show up again if nature re-run, I think he is cutting the tree down from any real form of ethical or spiritual truth.

And it may be true that no humans are equal. They certainly aren't from a biological or social point of view. And I don't think human equality is self-evident as the Deists claim. But such experienced truths of spiritual reality are what have raised humans from the survival of the fittest ways of human history, so I trust in them rather than Nontheistic explanations.

I go alomg with past Quaker scientists, and Kenneth Miller the Darwinian biologist at Brown University who is philosophically a Christian. Even Einstein, who though he didn't believe in a personal god, strongly held to universal truth and the ultimate beauty and structure of Reality, etc.

But I admit it is possible this Existence is absurd, that we humans are absurd meaning-seekers in a meaningless cosmos, that we are only a spandrel of survival.

But I doubt it. I don't think most people could live such a philosophical view out in their daily lives. At least in the 40 years I have dialogued with Nontheists I have known only one or two who seemed to really try to live out his worldview from moment to moment.

In contrast, I have been inspired by transcendental individuals who have sought to live out of the Center, to live for universal ethhical truths.

I have also been strongly influenced by the process theological views of Daniel Williams/John Cobb/Whitehead (panentheism).

And by Kant's explanation of the difference between "pure reason" (where it is not possible to prove philosophical or ethical issues)
"practical reason" where we can observe and experience real truths even if we can not prove them.

For you have probably noticed that most Nontheists don't actually live out their philosphical views. Instead they live their lives "as if" there were real truth and real meaning.

Despite my fixation on philosophy--my wife can't figure out why I always need to peel theological onions unendingly--I do think one judge of a philosophical worldview is to see how it plays out in the daily practical world.

I think Friends faith in trasncendent truth and ethical universals "plays" out well in real life. As we both know many early Quakers didn't think they could abstractly solve infinite questions with their finite minds, but emphasized instead the living out of experiential ethical truth and experiential theological trust.
And look what great things they accomplished that we now enjoy.

>>You put me in the group who have lost trust and hope. Perhaps you are right although I have not quite lost all my trust nor all my hope. I think of this as a period of aridity but I am faithful to the process. Not a single day goes by that I do not seek guidance and help. From whom? Well.... Even when my brain refuses to agree to the idea of ultimate meaning, my heart and soul keep doggedly about their business dragging my brain >>along as a reluctant passenger.

And doesn't that sense of transcendence which so defines humankind seem like more than an absurd delusion?

>>When I was a child, my father told me there was no proof that Jesus existed but that even if it was just a story, it was a story >>worth living for. So I will.

I am thankful to hear you say that.
I would agree with your father that we have no proof of the historical past.

What we do have are stories. And we must choose which to follow.

I suppose I do think science is prose, religion is poetry.

I hope this rushed comment makes a little sense. I don't have time to organize my points as or even re-read as I need to get going down south to see my father.

Another couple of books that affected me a lot were Reinhold Niebuhr's Faith and History and The Nature and Destiny of Man, but since you've been to seminary, I suppose you already read him.

Jesus the Christ may not be provable but he sure beats the ways of secular culture and worldviews I see all around me and did when I worked with emotionally disturbed children and high school students.

I still remember your statement about how Jesus makes your heart leap (or something like that).

As a f/Friend I would say, go with that transcendent experience.

it makes all the difference.

More in a couple of days,

Thanks for the dialogue, Hystery.

In the Light,