Tag Archives: Christianity

Includes various denominations

Something Out There

I seem to have encountered a tree root that has tripped me up on my journey on the Road to Atheism. Maybe that is not the most eloquent or accurate way of describing it. I am, partly due to an emotional personal experience, questioning some of the certainty with which I have expressed disbelief in hidden agency. Hidden agency is a way of describing the invisible forces that some people believe are behind a variety of real-life (sometimes unexplained) phenomena. Gods, ghosts, spirits, synchronicities, and “spiritual laws” or karma are all examples of hidden agency.

You do not have to tell me that personal anecdotes cannot on their own prove or disprove the existence of God. If I believe that there is a loving deity intervening in my life for the better, I must also accept the times when this being does not intervene in others’ lives in the same way. Confronting the question of how or why gods/hidden forces intervene in the world is, to me, a key part of theology. One of the main reasons that I reject the Christian God, is because He is almost universally thought to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, while at the same time being completely devoted to love. I look at the world around me and cannot conclude that a god who commands absolute power, but won’t wield it to end unspeakable human suffering, can also be all-loving. I believe given the world climate, these two aspects are incompatible.

I know, however, that there are some branches of Christianity that have proposed the idea that maybe God is not all-powerful. The Christianity that I was raised in was Evangelical Christianity, and such a notion is considered heretical within that faith and in several other Christian denominations as well. For me, though, it is key to my understanding of God. If God is not an all-powerful, overruling deity, but rather a benevolent force that influences situations for good, it would explain why some bad things still seem to happen. God wouldn’t be able to supernaturally alter those circumstances, but would be confined to working through humans, with our finite abilities and resources. This places the larger responsibility on human shoulders, with God existing as a kind of counselor or support for those who choose to do good.

This does raise the question, though, “If we’re doing it all ourselves anyway, why do we need God?” If God is not all-powerful, how can he/she/it assist us in our time of need? What is the point of prayer? I believe prayer could help someone align themselves with the divine will, which in my understanding would always be devoted to the good of humanity. Prayer would not be for a god to change things using his/her/its divine power, but rather for god to change us. We would be the ambassadors of a life-giving force of love in the world.

These are not ideas that I have not presented earlier in previous writings. I have always wanted to cling to the “baggage of theism.” I have always wanted to believe that there was “something out there.” Despite knowing that there is no concrete proof of the existence of hidden agency, something inside of me wants to believe. I feel something drawing me to a better understanding of the divine, and I feel that that force is my god.

I have found myself re-reading a lot of Iyanla Vanzant’s teachings in “The Value in the Valley” and continuing to identify with them despite my current knowledge. She talks about the importance of listening to “spirit” but she does not attempt to give a clear definition of what spirit is. It becomes a little messy when she starts talking about spiritual laws like the “law of compensation”, which seem to me to be another version of the law of attraction.

I have expressed concern about the law of attraction in the past, in that it seems to open the door for blaming the victims of abuse or violent circumstances by implying that they somehow did something abstract to “attract” these circumstances into their lives. It is true that sometimes when we have self-esteem problems, we tend to surround ourselves with people who reinforce our low opinion of ourselves. We need to be careful, though, that in pointing this out we don’t make people feel like their victimization is their own fault, or that they deserve to be victimized. Additionally, bad actors regularly fail to get what they “deserve”, so the idea that you get from the world only what you put into it is faulty. It also reinforces the idea for me that there isn’t an all-powerful sky deity enforcing judgment on the earth.

Despite this, I know the internal state of our hearts and minds can have profound impacts on our physical and emotional well-being. Confidence is an important part of success, to a point. If prayer or meditation helps you to feel more calm and confident about how you move through the world, I feel that it is worth the time and effort. Maybe having perfect theology doesn’t matter as much as what you do with it.

Meanwhile, I am making plans to attend a Unitarian church this weekend. I feel that many of my beliefs are in line with their theology. The thought of attending had crossed my mind before, but I had always hesitated, because they got a bad rap from some of the other denominations for not being “real” Christians. I also thought, why cling to Christianity if it is nominal only? I wanted to be rid of the shadow that religion had cast over my life. Now, I see that it is almost impossible to full extricate myself from it. This could turn out to be yet another disappointment, and I may ultimately end up rejecting a belief in god altogether, but I feel that I need to give myself the opportunity to believe.

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Still Getting Used to It

It has been a few months since I fully admitted to myself that my belief in God has all but totally vanished. It has been even longer since I began first questioning the core tenets of Evangelical Christianity. It has been longer still since I first expressed my chagrin at predestination theory. Despite all that time that has passed, I still find that some old habits are hard to break.

For one, I still find myself “darkening the door of a church”- specifically, my home church, which I had developed a great fondness for. I still harbor that fondness, honestly, otherwise I would see no reason to continue my visits. The visits are getting fewer and farther between, though, and even though I keep thinking that maybe the feeling of disharmony I feel when I hear the sermons will somehow magically dissipate, it never does. I still have a sharp sense of being out of place. The memory of me lifting my hands, singing, and swaying in worship with everyone else stands in sharp contrast to the way I stand now, either with my arms folded across my chest or hanging stiffly at my sides.

Each time the pastor talks about the benefits of tithing, or the amazing, wonderful life you can have in Jesus, I am reminded that you must always give up something in the present to secure this bountiful future. When cheers rise from the crowd as “testimonies” are given, my mind immediately goes to the idea of confirmation bias and the role it must play in these miracle stories. I cannot rejoice when they proclaim “He is risen! Jesus is alive!” because I do not picture the Son of God seated on a heavenly throne next to His Father. I see in my mind the vast, star-speckled blackness of space- an “empty heaven.”

I started my Tumblr account in January of 2016 and transferred most of my religious-themed posts over here in March of this year. My public transition from theism to atheism has been over three years long, even though as I said before, my questioning started long before then. I remember being 15 years old and being disturbed by the possibility that my non-Christian friends might be destined to hell. That is also when I began to feel unbearably unsettled with the concept that everything we do as humans has already been predetermined, including our choice to believe in Jesus as our savior. I questioned a god that would test the faith of Abraham by asking him to offer his son Isaac, even if he knew what the results would be.

Despite these serious cracks in the foundation of my faith, I was able to cover up the cracks for years. There are many Christians whose faith survives these doubts. They might switch denominations, become “non-practicing”, or become Christian apologists when they dig deep and find the answers to their questions. Other times, they simply swallow truths that may be bitter and stay out of tradition or loyalty. I could do none of these things. I was determined to either embrace faith wholeheartedly, or not at all. I did not desire to believe in a god who did not possess power, but my god’s power was rapidly diminishing in my view. The omnipotence of the God of the Bible did not seem to be in agreement with His unfathomable love; I could not embrace a god who claimed to have complete power over everything and repeatedly refused to solve the problem of human suffering, no matter how wise he seemed to be.

Further evidence still against the existence of the Christian God has been His repeatedly failing promise to send His Son back to earth. I know, “no one knows the day or the hour”, “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” and “the Lord is not slack concerning his promises…he is longsuffering…”. There is a redundancy built into the promises, a “keep waiting, because you never know” kind of aspect to them. I will decline to go into detail about all that, but I know that I have personally waited long enough. The Second Coming of Christ has been predicted incorrectly more times than I would even dare to quantify. In fact, Christians have been predicting Christ’s arrival since the beginning of the faith. To date, none of these predictions have been correct. Truly, it only has to happen once for it to be right, but with God intervening so little in human life now, I am skeptical that He will one day open the clouds and let His righteousness and judgment rain down on the earth.

Even so, “I’m still getting used to it.” When good things happen, I still want to open my mouth and praise God. Humorously, I said “thank God” to my boyfriend, and quickly qualified it by saying, “I mean, I’m thanking all the gods I don’t believe in.” He said, “We get it. You don’t have to qualify it. It’s a saying.” (In other words, he was telling me to get over myself.) I similarly find myself wanting to say a prayer, and sometimes I do. “God, I know you’re not real but if you are, please help.” Even though I look at the date, realize that it is 2018 and all that hoopla about the Jesus coming back in Y2K is now almost two decades in the past, I am still tempted to think, “He is coming soon.” I do not think that I will ever unlearn Christian jargon, or fully forget scriptures that I labored to memorize. Evangelical Christian culture is in my blood. My entire early life is defined by it. I still love “Oceans”, “Ever Be”, “Brave” and various other Contemporary Christian tunes that may come across the radio (and in secret I still sing them). I sit with my family for Bible study when I visit, even though I know it is not mandatory anymore.

Deconversion has been a process for me. Some people are able to make a quick, clean break from their Christian culture, but for a lot of us it is an ongoing journey. There is always something that brings back a memory. People think that we stopped believing because we are angry, that we went, “Screw you God, I don’t believe in you anymore” and that was how simple that it was. They neglect to realize that when we go home for the holidays- or even just for a casual visit- there it is in our faces again, and there we are reminded by the people we love the most that we are different. Some of us are children of pastors. Many of us have served in the church, and some have even had leadership positions. Some, but not all of us, are queer. Whatever the circumstances and whatever the reason, we share this same burden of being “ex-fill-in-the-blank”.

Sometimes we get so concerned with who we are not that we forget who we are. I know that I do, sometimes. I forget that I am more than just an “ex”, that I am a woman of extraordinary character and even more impressive resolve. I know that despite it being a time-intensive process, I will some day feel comfortable in this new skin of mine. God is dead to me, but I have been reborn. I have a whole new life to live, and I plan to live it with everything that I have.

 

 

God is Not Dead?

It is said that God can speak aloud. According to the Biblical account, His voice thundered from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, proclaiming, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It was said that he guided the Israelites by way of a visible cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He rained bread from heaven, parted the Red Sea, and made the earth open its mouth and swallow transgressors. Sin was dealt with in a swift and visible way.

Of course, God’s lack of intervention in certain events- like the martyring of Stephen in the New Testament- does not in and of itself prove that the Judeo-Christian God does not exist. Revelations speaks of Christians who have been martyred achieving a glorious resurrection in the future. Paul says that, “If in this life alone we have hope in Christ, then we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) He too held out the promise of one day living again in God’s kingdom as a reason to endure persecution and ridicule.

In this post I want to address the problem of those who claim to speak for God and Christ and have done unspeakable evil. The Ku Klux Klan claimed to be a Christian organization. Their leaders never came to a sudden realization of their wrongness or died suddenly- in fact, the group persists today, albeit with reduced power and influence. The Bible was used as an excuse to justify the slavery and mistreatment of millions of people. Thousands of Catholic priests, supposedly holy men who were tasked with helping people connect with God, were found guilty of child molestation. Some Evangelical Christian men abuse their wives without remorse, holding Paul’s controversial “Wives, submit to your husbands in all things” teachings over their wives’ heads like a weapon. Cult leaders seek to use the scripture to subjugate and control the lives of their followers. Parents eschew medical help in favor of trusting God, and God lets their children die.

In all the above cases, God never appeared to any of these people in a vision and admonished them for their wrongness. He never shouted from heaven and rebuked them for any of their misdeeds. No, people instead are allowed to kill, steal, and destroy in His name, with seemingly no response from heaven. I understand that you may say that God uses the wickedness of humanity for His greater purpose, but in doing so you then admit that God is responsible for evil actions. Whether this makes or breaks your theology is up to you.

If you say “Evil came into the world because of man’s rebellion against God, and because of the wiles of Satan” then you ignore the point of what I am saying. These aren’t people who are rebelling outside the paradigm of Christianity. These are people who take the name of Christ on their lips, and yet do the exact opposite of what He has commanded. You would think that a God who is dedicated to the salvation of all mankind, would make sure that no one was confused about whether or not he was behind certain unfortunate actions. We are talking about a god who killed people for disrespecting the ark of the covenant (see the Old Testament). You would think that He would have some sort of response for people who brazenly and unabashedly disrespected the “better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6) that comes through Jesus.

Can you see where I’m coming from?

Either you must admit that God doesn’t particularly care that people are besmirching Him, or that He has limited power to act in this world. Neither of those conclusions fit into the Judeo-Christian concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God.

I know you have one last tool in your toolbox, and that is to say that in the end of days, everything will be made right. In Jesus’ parables, He talked about people who disobeyed his instructions. He talked about the parable of the people left in charge of their master’s household, and how in the master’s absence they beat the servants and engaged in drunken and destructive behavior. He talks about the people who didn’t feed, clothe, and visit his brethren in prison, and what their fate will be. According to Jesus, their fate will be most unpleasant.

This brings me to my next point- how Christianity often explains away the problems of the modern age by moving the solutions for them forward into the future. Remember how I talked about Apostle Paul and the author of Revelations talking about the promise of resurrection as an incentive to suffer through the difficulties of life? This is a theme that exists throughout the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. He asks his disciples to forsake all in following him, and when they ask him about it, he says this;

“Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s,

But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.” -Mark 10:29-31

The problem is, not everyone seems to receive that hundredfold. As for “eternal life”, that is not guaranteed. No one truly knows what will happen to us after death. All we have to go on is what we know about life now and the people who have passed on. We know that NDEs (near death experiences) have been explained scientifically, at least in part, and that people who have near death experiences often see images related to whatever their religious beliefs are at the time. A Hindu person isn’t going to have the same NDE as a Christian. Does this mean that both Hinduism and Christianity are correct about the afterlife? In other words, do you really want to sacrifice this physical life in order to gain an uncertain eternity?

In addition to providing these tantalizing promises for the future as a reason to explain away the inconsistencies of the present, the Bible also gives us a very stylized view of the past. As I pointed out earlier, God is displayed as being powerful and influential in the world, in a way that He is not expected to be today. Christians have fixed in their mind the image of a god who crafted the universe from mere words, turned the sea into blood, stopped the sun in the sky, and rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrha. They stand in awe of this god. He has high moral authority and cannot be questioned.

Even today, however, some of them do argue that He never stopped doing these mighty feats. They tell tales of food stretching to feed many more than it was intended to, of people speaking in languages they don’t know, of sick being healed and dead being raised. These stories, however, are often told from the perspective of Western privilege. We have medical advancements to “help” God along. We have wealth, so we can afford to pay tithes and then use confirmation bias to say that that’s the reason we got a promotion at work or some other financial boost. We can’t honestly take our prosperity gospel with us into places of extreme poverty and abject suffering. We can’t say that the reason we experience miracles is because we have more faith than these suffering people do.

Of course, Christian missionaries to these impoverished places don’t often say that. They often get down in the dirt and help. They consider themselves ambassadors of God. The truth is, God would never do anything if they weren’t there. God, despite having absolute power, has never used His power to help even one human being, without the intervention of other human beings. Whether we say God is using us for good or not, the point of the matter is that God can’t do anything without us. God cannot materialize food out of nothing. He can’t send rain on drought-blasted lands. If you think that these things happened, you’re looking through the “veil of time”, as described by Oh No Ross and Carrie host, Ross Blocher. The veil of time is what allows people to believe that incredible events are more likely to have happened if it was at some point thousands of years in the past.

God’s lack of intervention today points to only one thing, in my opinion- that God never intervened in the first place. Is it not possible that maybe those Old Testament stories were never meant to be taken literally, and that instead they teach us moral lessons and give us a glimpse into the mentality of the God we are said to worship? Does the ability of the Bible to be given to abuse and misinterpretation provide some inkling as to the darker nature of the text?

People sully God’s name without recourse, because God is either unwilling or unable to defend His reputation. Even though I could just as easily believe in an evil god as not believe in any sort of deity at all, I am leaning towards the “unable” category. I don’t think that God is capable of doing anything other than what we see happening already. People are going to besmirch His name, because humans have agency and that’s what they’re choosing to do. People can do good and exalt Him, because humans have agency and that’s what they’re choosing to do. I believe we are acting under our own influence, as misguided as that may sometimes be. I am also not convinced that there is any sort of second life after this one. This is all we have. We can either spend it being victims, or we can rise up and save ourselves.

God is dead.

 

Why I Left

The look is always the same. It starts off as mostly disbelief, then morphs gently into a pity that is tinged with disapproval. The face ultimately settles on to a look of kind resolve, and the mouth opens to express a variation of the same theme; if only you knew God like I do, you would never have left. If only you realized that God transcends the laws of nature, cannot be explained properly by science, and is infinitely wiser and more loving than we could ever comprehend. If only you understood the power of prayer, if only you could see the miraculous happenings that only the existence of God could explain, and if only you understood “But for the grace of God, there go I.” If only you could see that He is “as near as the next breath” and He holds that very breath of yours in His hands.

“What you need is a personal relationship with God.”

This implies that the reason I left Christianity was because my “relationship with God” was strained. God must have done something to offend me, and that must’ve been because I just didn’t really know or understand Him. I can safely assume that they are talking about the God of the Bible, and in that case maybe there is a degree of truth to their statements. Maybe I didn’t “know” him that well, despite those times when I thought I felt his presence, but now, I think I know him too well.

Evangelical Christians like to use a play on words regarding Jesus Christ’s atonement; they call it “at-one-ment.” They say that through Christ’s suffering, death, and subsequent resurrection, he broke the power of sin in the world and brought us back into oneness with God the Father. One of my biggest unanswered questions in Christianity is why exactly this would all be necessary.

To explain my disquiet, I will break this down into the three parts.

1)     His Suffering

Jesus suffered incredibly prior to his crucifixion. He was beaten, spit upon, and flogged. He was so wounded by his assault that he was unable to carry his own cross. The night that he was betrayed by Judas, he knelt and begged God, “If possible, remove this cup from me.”

My question is “Was it possible?” and no Christian can safely deny that it wasn’t. God, as they assert, could- and still can- do anything. The Judeo-Christian God was said to be a God of love. Jesus was identified as the “first begotten Son of God.” Is it incorrect to assume, that an all-powerful, loving god, could have come up with a less excruciating way for his firstborn son to redeem the world?

Even as Jesus begged his father to keep him from suffering, he said “Not my will, but yours be done.” Apparently, God “willed” for his son to die a gruesome death before he could deem it possible to forgive mankind and redeem them from the power of sin. I think that says a lot about the kind of god Christians worship, and it doesn’t fit into the paradigm of a loving god.

2)     His death

Jesus died by crucifixion. Crucifixion was considered so painful, that it is partly from where we get the word “excruciating.” I have already outlined Jesus suffering in the earlier point and have sought to bring attention to the fact that this was ostensibly done to him by his own father. There is even more lying below the surface of this Biblical account.

Christians seem to take it for granted that Jesus dying somehow saves us all from the power of sin. The biblical book of Hebrews makes references to the animal sacrifices performed under early Judaism, pointing out how they could only remove sin temporarily. Jesus was said to have removed sin permanently.

“Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” -Hebrews 9:12

Jesus was said to have become a substitution for the animal sacrifices of the old testament. The question that we need to ask, though, is why should an innocent animal- or an innocent man- need to be killed to atone for the wrongdoings of a guilty person? How or why does a divine being find it necessary to seek retribution in this way? Remember, this is a god that is said to be able to do absolutely anything. Why this ineffective and risky way of dealing with things?

3)     His resurrection

“For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” -1 Corinthians 15:16-17

According to Biblical legend, it was not enough that Jesus suffer and die. He also had to live again, so that he could reign in heaven with the Father and be the head of his Holy Church. By rising from the dead, he showed that even death could be conquered by the power of God.

The problem with this account, is that no one- outside of religious myth- has ever been recorded to come back to life after being dead for any substantial amount of time. Christians might use this to argue that this makes Jesus even more unique, that this proves that he was God’s first son, that this proves that he had power over sin and death. My issue is just that I can no longer bring myself to accept this account just because it appears in the Bible. There is no precedent for it or evidence of it.

Of course, Christians would argue that everyday answers to prayer are the result of a powerful God and living Jesus, but in my previous post I explained how most perceived answers to prayer can be explained as being the result of confirmation bias.

4)     Final Thoughts

Points 1-3 give a few reasons as to why I left. They stem more from a disagreement with the most basic tenets of Christianity, as opposed to some sort of personal dispute that I have with “the Creator”. I came to my conclusions very slowly and with a lot of consideration. I do not feel betrayed or jilted, I have simply moved away from faith in the god of Christianity to faith in other things. This isn’t about some unanswered prayer or a lack of feeling God’s love, it’s from a new hesitation to believe in any sort of god at all.

At this point, I have moved far beyond, “I’m really not sure what I believe anymore” into “These are the things that I know that I don’t believe.” I haven’t closed my mind to all religion, but I am also not on the fence either. Quoting scriptures to me won’t help your case, when I no longer believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. We are viewing the world through totally different lenses. It may never make sense to you why I left, even though I can understand why you stay.

You may say I “never had a personal relationship with God”, but now I know that I never will.

From Deism to Agnosticism to Atheism?

I have addressed numerous subjects during my many months of blogging. One of those subjects is whether miracle testimonies or positive personal anecdotes prove the existence of God. I concluded that they do not, largely because of a thing that I haven’t mentioned a lot by name: confirmation bias. The website Science Daily describes confirmation bias (with regards to science and psychology) as a “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.”

A good example of confirmation bias would be when someone excitedly praises God when a parking space is open “for them” close to the front of the store. Various factors were involved in making that happen, all more to do with fortunate timing than anything else. If you want to bring the divine into it, you have to say that God (or a higher power) was personally responsible for the time the original parking space holder left home, the amount of time they spent in the store, and the exact time they pulled out to go home. God was also responsible for the actions that you took to get to the store at that exact moment. This would mean that God was somehow directly influencing even the smallest of peoples’ thoughts and actions- and doesn’t he/she/it have something better to do than to preside over who gets what parking space? More importantly, this muddles with the concept of free will and takes us into controversial predestination territory.

There is a website called The Odds Must Be Crazy that addresses the mathematical probability of various events. The purpose of the site is to express that certain things that we think of as “meant to be” or “synchronicities” aren’t as special as we think that they are. For example, if your friend calls you just as you’re thinking of them, you might think of this as an uncommon occurrence, but the probability of this happening is higher than you might expect. Or maybe you unexpectedly run into someone that you haven’t seen in years at a place where neither of you has ever been before, on the anniversary of when you first met. Or maybe- as I heard recently on the radio- you, your mom, and your grandma all end up having the same birthday. Is a higher power really responsible for these things, or are they more or less random chance?

It has been very hard to separate myself from the notion that “everything happens for a reason” and “some things are meant to be.” It is awfully unromantic to think that the universe began expanding inexplicably and is moving naturally towards entropy, with us existing as simply a consequence of this. We are very insignificant in the grand scheme of things, so it makes sense that we would try to draw significance from the finer details of life.

This brings me to my next point; is there an intelligent being that created the universe, and if there is, do we really have a duty to worship him/her/it? These were questions posed to me- more or less- by my younger brother, and these were some ideas that I had never considered. He also asked, if there really was a god who created everything, would he really be hyper-focused on such a relatively tiny part of his creation?

Again, we must envision the bigger picture here. Proponents of intelligent design propose that there is a god that created everything, and more often than not they describe this as the Judeo-Christian deity. Why would a god so advanced require animal sacrifice, and later on, a human sacrifice in order to forgive our sins? Why would God be concerned with our sins in this way? Why would He, being privy to our human frailties, require unconditional worship and devotion? Surely, we were created with more in mind than stroking the divine ego. Why if, in the end, belief was so important to Him, would He not reveal Himself more clearly to His creation?

Often times I am told not to ask why, but to simply accept the Bible is God’s word. My question would be, “On what basis?” There are plenty of purported “holy” texts that have preceded the Bible by centuries, and there are plenty that have come after that are said to amend it. Where is the starting point that will eventually lead us to the truth? Also, Christianity has yet to sufficiently explain how extreme human suffering fits into God’s loving plan for us and our planet.

So where does that leave me? When I started my journey away from Christianity, I still believed in God. I believed that “something” had to have made us. I later described this as the underlying life force of the universe. I believed that this being/entity could be contacted in meditation in order to receive guidance, but did not necessarily believe that the this being intervened on our behalf in the physical world. This helped me to resolve some of my misgivings about the apparent inconsistency of “divine intervention” in the world. As time went on, however, I began to feel frustrated at the thought of an intelligent god that existed but was unable to aid me or others in any practical way.

After my experience with that form of deism, I moved on to agnosticism. Maybe God was real, but there didn’t seem to be a concrete way to find out. Throwing out the idea of a higher power altogether did not quite appeal to me. Plus, the pity and/or disgust exhibited towards atheists from Christians was still something that I was keenly aware of. “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, 53:1) was something that I have heard quoted my entire life. I was also familiar with Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1, where he states the creation itself is a testament to the invisible God. To say that I did not believe in any god at all seemed so final, so defeatist, and so concrete. I was afraid to exhibit that kind of certainty about something that had seemed so uncertain to me.

Despite all of that, here we are. Here I am, not seeing any reason to believe that there is an overruling higher power, yet still unwilling to let go of some of the baggage of theism. When something fortunate happens, I am still tempted to believe that there is hidden agency or that there are unseen forces pulling the strings (even though that also requires believing that misfortune is divine as well). I also had my experiences with 12-step programs, where admitting powerlessness and surrendering to a higher power are touted as foundational steps towards recovery. This “God presence” seems to permeate every aspect of our society. To step outside of that understanding, I feared, would make me a pariah to people that I loved. I envisioned the looks of disbelief when I told people that I no longer believed in any sort of intelligent creator.

The question, however, isn’t about how I will be perceived, but rather what I perceive to be true. I ran into a man, almost a stranger, who told me that I was going to hell if I didn’t believe the story about Jesus. Those were his perceptions. When he had asked me why I didn’t believe anymore, I told him that it “just didn’t seem real to me” and I told him I had some doctrinal issues. He told me that that was unfortunate, that it really was real, and after that was when he told me that if I didn’t believe in Jesus I was going to hell. He told me that he was “just the messenger”, as if that would soften the blow a little bit. Needless to say, it did not.

There wasn’t time to continue the conversation with him, and he would never have been able to understand my point of view anyway. I just went away from that, marveling as I do nowadays at the ease with which Christians are able to express their beliefs in this country. You have beliefs that are wholly based on a lack of evidence, and yet they roll off the tongue as if they were established fact. Once upon a time, I felt the same way. I was sure that there really was a man who miraculously rose from the dead 2000 years ago, seated himself physically in heaven, and would someday return for his “spotless church.” Never mind that we have never seen any evidence of heaven when we peer into the vastness of space, or the fact that to pass through the atmosphere- and then also survive there- is a pretty farfetched idea. Of course, Jesus was God, and somehow being God makes you able to trump the laws of nature. Also, maybe we can’t see heaven because it’s not up but rather in another dimension? (No Christian has ever told me that, I am just hypothesizing.)

A lot of Christians say that it takes just as much- if not more- faith to believe that we all came from nothing and then evolved, than it takes to just believe the Bible. I would beg to differ. I think it takes a whole lot of blind faith to ignore mountains of archeological and scientific evidence and still insist that the earth is merely thousands of years old. Or to see the complexity of the universe and believe that an invisible man in the sky created it all with his words in only six days. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I feel that knowing that is what opens the door for more discovery and knowledge. Christianity claims to have this whole thing pegged down, and I just can’t accept those claims.

Ultimately, though, the purpose of my blog is not to discredit Christianity. It is simply a personal record of my journey from faith to disbelief. Even describing it like that- “faith to disbelief”- subtly supports the idea that belief in the idea of god is positive and a lack of belief in the idea of god is negative. Atheists are often isolated and judged based solely on their lack of belief in a deity, which is in many respects only one aspect of their lives. Atheism isn’t all about “disbelief” but it is also about the things that we do believe in. Many of us have faith in ourselves, in our friends and family, and of the ability of good to triumph over evil. The difference is that we do not depend on a higher power to bring about change in the world, but we allow the burden of responsibility to fall squarely on our own shoulders. It is a sobering position to be in, but we accept it because we believe that we have no other choice.

The next time I hear another story about guardian angels, miracle healings, “coincidences” (it’s always said with quotation marks), or Jesus helping someone find their car keys, I will again be reminded that confirmation bias allows people to interpret these events through the lens of whatever faith they ascribe to. If someone warns me about the possibility of hell, I will ask “Which one?” (also a great question if they urge you to believe in God.) The truth is that most of what religion has sought to explain can now be explained using our knowledge of biology, natural laws and how the universe operates. Every time someone tells me “God did this” I can ask, “Are you sure about that?” If your loved one was healed of cancer, are you sure that was God, or was it medical intervention? Are you aware of people that eschewed medicine in the name of God and died? If someone sent you money just when you needed it, are you sure that was God or was that just their intent meeting fortunate timing?

As I stated earlier, people take the pervasiveness of theism in our society (especially here in the U.S.) for granted. One of the most common things people say to encourage another person is, “I’ll be praying for you.” People often throw up the exclamations, “Oh my God” and “Thank God” regardless of their level of religiosity, because those ideas are so woven in to our culture. Natural disasters are legally called “acts of God”. God is everywhere and in everything, and like I said, stepping outside that narrative presents a lot of challenges. It hasn’t been easy for most people who have deconverted, and it hasn’t been easy for me, but I am ready to face the future with my eyes wide open.

 

Which witch?

In my quest to explore different religions, I decided that I wanted to eventually write a post on here about witchcraft, which would include some tidbits about its history and some facts about modern witches. My misguided enthusiasm led me to get five or more books on the subject from the local library, but I only ended up reading a handful. I think that my focus was a little bit wrongheaded- was I really interested in the subject, or was I just reading about it because the Christian church- of which I was formerly a member- considered it to be taboo?

Nevertheless, I did learn a few things. Notably, that the witches of the “Burning Times” (a period of heavy witch hunting around 1450-1750 A.D.) differ somewhat from the witches of today, in that those witches did claim to worship Satan. Satan was said to appear in one form or another and preside over the various ceremonies. He was also said to appear to new initiates to complete their initiation. There were various ways the initiation was performed- one young woman who was caught claimed that all that was necessary was for someone to form the sign of the cross with their left hand. Other ways of being initiated was to go through a ceremony where one renounced their faith and baptism, and were “rechristened” with a new witchy name.

The superstitions about witches were pretty farfetched- they were said to fly around on brooms, and also thought to possess the ability to transform into an animal like a toad or a black cat. The devil was also said to be able to transform- he was either depicted as an extremely ugly fellow or as a man with a goat head or some other kinds of animal features.

Actually, the superstition about witches being able to transform into cats caused widespread killing of cats in England. Ironically, this led to an explosion in the rat population, and these rats aided in the spreading of the bubonic plague (which as we know killed thousands throughout Europe). So the very thing that people thought they were doing to protect themselves actually happened to be to their great detriment.

Also, the people that were hunted and killed during the Burning Times were more than likely not even witches. Some of the tests utilized by the Inquisition to test whether someone was a witch were completely absurd. People were assumed to be guilty, rather than assumed first to be innocent. Torture was often used to procure a confession- and many people would confess rather than continue to suffer the excruciating pain of the torture. In addition, there was a method of tying a woman’s thumb to her big toe, and throwing her into the water. If she sank, she was thought to be innocent, but if she floated, she was a witch. Often even people thought to be innocent- the sinkers- died of drowning before they were fished out. Anyone who swam to stay alive was then sentenced to death by burning or hanging.

It is estimated that over 100,000 accused witches were killed during the Burning Times. The victims were disproportionately female; some villages were left with only one or two women left in them after the Inquisition swept through.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on modern witchcraft. Most of what I read focused around Wicca. I read a little bit of a Wiccan  book entitled “Everyday Witch A to Z: An Amusing, Inspiring, and Informative Guide to the Wonderful World of Witchcraft” by Deborah Blake. It might not have been the best source of information (or maybe it was) but I learned a little about what some witches believe and a little bit about spells and practices.

For one thing, most modern witches do not worship Satan, but instead focus their devotion on ancient gods and goddesses (such as gods/goddesses from the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities). A witch may invoke these gods and goddesses during spell-casting or call upon them for aid. I learned about the athame– a special knife that is used in various rituals. The book also went into details about some herbs and plants that were important in Wicca, but I mainly glossed over these. I learned that if you put a few drops of rose oil on an amethyst stone and place the stone under your pillow, it is said to thwart bad dreams.

It’s important to note at this point that witchcraft preceded the Burning Times, and in some cases it is that ancient witchcraft that modern witches are trying to return back to. Thousands of years ago, goddesses were more central to religion than male deities. The female body was revered because it was capable of carrying new life. People appealed to the Goddess to protect their crops and shield them from disease. Ancient witches, who knew a lot about which plants could relieve pain or bring relief for various sicknesses, were revered. These people- usually women- were thought to have a special connection with the divine.

At this point I’ve only scratched the surface of the subject of witchcraft. There are many types of modern witches besides Wiccans, including some forms of witchcraft like neo-Shamanism which seeks to combine modern witchcraft with ancient shamanism.

As far as my personal religion journey goes, I do not relate particularly well with witchcraft. I tend to shy away from religious traditions that focus on objects and rituals to bring about particular results. I don’t give special significance to a kind of stone, or to a specific spell/mantra. I do have an altar at home with objects that are important to me, but it is kind of a mishmash of various religions. The altar isn’t “to” a particular object or deity, and I mainly light my candle so I can focus, rather than in honor of a specific god.

In writing this piece, I wanted to be able to do the subject justice. Just because I don’t personally relate to witchcraft, doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid or important to many people. I think it is vital for each person to carve out their own path with regards to their particular faith and practice. If you feel the presence of god(s) with you during your rituals- and/or they give you peace- then that is the most important thing.

Thankfully, the Burning Times are far behind us, but we still live in a world where people are persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Christians are being beheaded and crucified by ISIS in Iraq. Muslims that are different from the ruling sect are being attacked. Anti-semitism is still alive and well in the U.S. and Europe. Maybe one day, we’ll all come to a place where it isn’t necessary to attack one another just because some of us have different beliefs and practices. Until then, the only thing that those of us who are aware can do is to continue to be open-minded and fight against hatred.

I Don’t Need a Savior

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

In times like these, it’s easy to want to “blame” good fortune- as well as misfortunes- on something esoteric and otherworldly. Today, I went to a church with an aquarium, a restaurant, and an elaborately designed sanctuary. Everyone was very welcoming and was always saying “Jesus loves you.” The pastor made it a point to say things like, “The reason why you’re going through trials is because you’re on assignment” and “People aren’t against you, they’re against the Jesus that they see in you.” He tied the reception- or the lack thereof- that Christians receive in the world to their relationship with the Christ figure. He blamed some troubles on the Devil (“The Devil won’t steal my joy!”).

When the pastor kept asking congregants to say “Jesus loves you” to one another, I’ll admit that eventually I just gave in rather than be the awkward one in the room. I justified it by saying that if Jesus really were alive in heaven, and the sin-defeating, healer/miracle worker that the Bible described, we really could say “Jesus loves you.” During the first songs- which were popular gospel tunes- I started to feel emotional because I couldn’t help but think of how much my mother would’ve loved that church. I had a sense that that church was a real community, centered around a love for- and perceived love from- Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

I don’t know if they perform the same outreach ministries that my church does, but I’m sure that they do a great deal. In fact, a large portion of the pastor’s sermon was about how Christians “aren’t in the life-saving business anymore.” How once, Christians cared about whether people “got saved”, but then they became more concerned with how much they loved the sanctuary, the ushers, and most of what was happening within the four walls. They lost their vision and their desire to reach out to people outside of the church community. He talked about “sins of the spirit” like “pride”, “a superior attitude” and “impatient words.”

“Reaching the lost” is considered by most churches to be a huge part- if not the ultimate goal- of their ministry. This doesn’t just mean feeding the hungry, rehabilitating people, and visiting people in hospitals and prisons. It primarily regards a call to conversion, to seeing people “turn away from useless idols to serve the living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This part of Christianity that is so essential to its creed is what I take the most issue with. The idea that we’re lost or depraved is the one that I have most come to reject. I also reject the idea of a God with astounding abilities who chooses to remain largely indifferent to the sufferings of humanity. If I believe that God is omniscient and omnipotent, and his primary mission for us is to bring people into the faith, I must also accept that he is responsible for their state of unbelief and depravity to begin with.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in fact, addresses this very conundrum. In it Paul admits that in the Old Testament account, God is said to have hardened Pharoah’s heart. He then goes on to address the question of how God could rightly judge anyone, if he was responsible for whether they obeyed or disobeyed him in the first place. Paul is rather condescending and dismissive in his response, saying “Who are you to reply against God? Shall the one formed say to him that formed it, ‘Why have you made me this way?’” He also said that God had “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of destruction” and was free to show his favor to one, and display his wrath and power through the other.

I don’t know about you, but I choose not to believe that I’m simply a puppet on a string being jerked around in a contest of wills between God and the Devil (or maybe even just God and Himself). I also don’t believe that even if God were all-powerful, that he would be given to such a mercurial and unstable temperament- especially not if he were also all-knowing and could fully comprehended human frailties. Some people could argue that I’m just trying to turn God into a god that satisfies my human sensibilities, but I don’t see how that’s any different from what people have been claiming about God(s) for hundreds of years. Whether people believe it or not, the concept of God is interpreted differently by each person. He’s vengeful to one, all-merciful to another one. To some there is one God, but to others, there are multiple deities. Since we seem incapable of reaching a consensus, I am going to say that it is perfectly acceptable for me to create my own concept of what God is like, as well as my own way of approaching him/her/it.

Right now, though, I don’t feel that I need a savior. I don’t need to be saved from my sins. I’m just a human being in a world of many other human beings, trying to make the best life for myself that I am capable of. In the Christian community it’s considered cool to brag about your imperfections, that you’re “ a work in progress” or in the “process of sanctification” or on the “journey of holiness.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we’re really all sinners, regardless of whether we’re “saved” or not, then maybe “salvation” doesn’t really make you any different from anybody else. Maybe believing in a set of “facts” about a man who died over 2000 years ago doesn’t make you holy. I think we’re all in the same boat here, and that we all need to work together to make this world a better place. If religion is what inspires you to do good for your fellow man, then I can’t say that there’s anything wrong with that. If you choose to do good because you think it’s right and it makes you feel happy, then that is just as well. Let’s just not judge each other because of having different motivations.

The more I go to church, the more I feel a profound sense of loss at the community that I used to be a part of, but the more I also feel grateful for the path that I’m currently walking. As a person who still feels connected in some ways to Christianity, but cannot bring herself to accept the core doctrines of her former denomination(s), I often find myself in that dry place that Bishop John Shelby Spong accurately termed “the Exile.” I have a profound respect for the Jesus of the Bible, but I cannot bring myself to feel comforted when people say “Jesus loves you.” I do not feel convinced of the existence of hell or heaven- for all I know, when I die, I am no more. Even so, I know that I’ll live on in the memory of those people who loved me. I know that even though I’ve lost a lot with what I’ve decided, hopefully I’ve gained just that much more. I know that life is more about the journey than the final destination.

The Colored Glass Lens

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

It can be pretty hard to convey some of the things that I believe in when trying to talk to relatives. Sometimes it feels like we have two completely separate ways of dealing with reality. In my reality, I just want to see Biblical stories of old viewed with the same type of skeptical scrutiny that we give myths and legends of other cultures and religions. If you heard about a talking snake tempting God’s children out of garden paradise anywhere other than the Bible, you probably wouldn’t take it very literally. If time and time again, predictions were made about the return of say a Hindu or Greek savior, and these predictions continually failed to come to pass, you might venture to say that the worshipers were mistaken in their convictions. You might even become frustrated if the worshipers said, “Everyday with God is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” as a reason for their continued devotion.

Last time I visited my older brother, he was telling me about why as Christians we might be tempted to have interfaith, but in the end other faiths were not compatible with Christianity. Of Islam, he said, “You might even think that they [the Muslims] were better off [than the Jews, who don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah] because they believe that Jesus is a prophet but they’re not…I understand that you might want to go [to the Moors] to be polite, but especially with where you are now struggling, they have nothing to offer you.”

I got pretty quiet at that point, but part of me had wanted to say something, because in the end his statements were Islamophobic. He was willing to say that the Christians and Jews worshiped the same God, but not the Muslims, even though Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions. He also pretty much stated that Muslims were “worst off” despite their religion being more inclusive of Jesus than even Judaism, without giving a real reason for saying so. More than once he has described Muslims as “dangerous.” If asked about these he would probably say that because Islam appeared to embrace Jesus in some capacity it could be deceptively alluring- and it would be bad because in the end it denied the deity and Sonship of Jesus, and his sacrifice for sin, which are crucial to Christian doctrine.

That again brings me to one of the problems I have with Christianity (especially Western Christianity)- its argument that Christianity = good/pure and non-Christian religions/cultures = bad. There seems to be a complete rejection of the idea that God could be present in multiple religions and cultures. The idea that a God who is supposed to be all love, could not embrace people who were honestly seeking to be devout worshipers, regardless of whether they all saw Him in the same way, is one that has been bothering me for some time. Time and time again I ask myself, if Jesus was really the only way to be saved from sin and secure a comfortable place in the Afterlife, why did God wait so long to send him? Furthermore, if angels really visited shepherds in Jerusalem to announce his birth, why didn’t they also visit the Americas, or Asia, and proclaim this happy news? If God was really concerned about saving the world through his son, why did he seem to keep it so secret?

So-called “Christian morality” preceded Christianity. The ancient Egyptians had their own ten commandments. The Assyrians had the Laws of Hammurabi. Morality is present in various ways across multiple continents and cultures. Fundamental Christianity asserts that people are trapped in a state of depravity until they accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but as I pointed out previously, the Gospel of Matthew presents a Jesus that taught that “doing the will of My Father” consisted of being humble, generous, kind, and respectful. I haven’t decided yet how we can reconcile this with the account of the Gospel of John, or the Epistles, of a Jesus that made bold claims about his own deity and presented himself as a savior for sinners. What I do know, though, is that seeing an entire world as condemned for not believing in an unprovable story about a man’s death and resurrection seems grossly unfair. This is without even addressing why God would require a violent human sacrifice to forgive us at all. Christians accept this fact of a human sacrifice being necessary without thought or question.

I am aware that there are “politically Christian” answers to most of my questions. God waited thousands of years to send Jesus because he wanted us to truly be aware of how depraved we were without him. A human sacrifice is necessary because it was written, “Without shedding of blood there is no remission”– this is simply God’s rule and it is immutable. All humanity is depraved because “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. It is impossible to disentangle yourself from sin, because “he who sins is a slave of sin.” Only Jesus, who was sinless, could really save people from sin. “He who was without sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.”

These are all acceptable answers if you’re comfortable with accepting things just because they’re written in the Bible, and aren’t willing to think critically and ask yourself why these things have to be this way. People don’t seem to understand that if I don’t think the Bible is inspired, quoting Bible verses doesn’t help their argument. When it comes to my relatives, I’m very hesitant about revealing the depth of my skepticism. I often even become apologetic if I bring science into a discussion. I very tentatively say, “Well I know you don’t believe in it” as if science were subjective in the same way religion is. The scientific method basically states that for something to become an accepted theory it has to be something that can be tested. We mainly can test repeatable phenomenon. Of course, just because something only happened once doesn’t mean that it never happened, but if we’re talking about some miraculous phenomenon like water turning into blood, there’s no precedent for that. In all of our testing and experiments, water has never been able to be turned into blood- we’ve broken down the components of each and it would seem that such a thing is impossible. Also, we’ve found no evidence of a change in the ecosystem of the Nile at that time in history- no huge fossilized remains of dead fish, etc.

When a person reads the Bible they’re expected to take certain things on faith, and I can’t say that’s entirely wrong. Having faith in something that can’t be proven- like an optimism that things will turn out well- can be a very healthy thing. I just don’t think it’s healthy when it blinds you to very real possibilities, and causes you to isolate yourself from other human beings. My childhood was extremely isolating, and I missed out on a lot of things. That’s why, when people tell me about Pascal’s Wager- that you’ve lost nothing if you just act like God is real/the Bible is true, that’s all well and good until it’s taken to extremes. Some women, including my mother, have lost relationships with friends and family members, have lost their freedom, and even in some cases their entire sense of self because of being a part of an oppressive religious sect. If this is the only life we have, then, they’re never going to be rewarded for all of the sacrifices they’ve made. If this is the only life that there is, not living it to the fullest is a tragedy. So no matter how you look at it you could lose your eternity either way- but I would rather do what I want right now, in the life I can feel and see, then to sacrifice this life for a distant possibility.

So what color are the lenses in my glasses today? I’m not really sure about the answer to that question; I just know that they’re different from the ones my family has. I know that we probably won’t see eye to eye ever again. The more I go through the motions of life, and navigate work, school, and relationships, the more I see myself moving away from traditional Christianity. My parents and my older brother are waiting for me to return to “the truth” but their truth is not the one I subscribe to anymore. I don’t believe that Jesus is waiting in heaven for God to give him permission to return to earth and wreak havoc on God’s enemies. I don’t believe that this planet is going to get burned up and magically replaced by a new one. I don’t believe that there’s a hell for all the sinners and a heavenly city for all the “believers.” I don’t believe God specifically punishes wrongdoers and rewards the righteous. I don’t believe that Christians are holy, while “the whole world lies in wickedness.” In fact, I don’t believe that holding religious beliefs- on its own- makes you a better person.

So what does that make me? Not very Christian. I’m starting to accept that that’s okay, though. I’m starting to get over some of the guilt I have for supposedly “letting my family down.” Faith has to be genuine, or it isn’t a real faith at all. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t fake believing if I really didn’t- and even if I could, I would make myself miserable and I have to ask myself it that would really be worth it. In fact, not so long ago, I was laboring under the terrible fear of “what if my parents find out I don’t believe?” Well now they know, and they’re predictably not talking to me, but the sky hasn’t fallen. I’m still going through life.

Also, for someone who is supposed to be under a curse now, I’m actually doing alright. Like I said, I don’t believe that God’s this heavenly judge that gives people exactly what they deserve. Let’s face it- some really horrible people are in powerful positions in this world, and there seems to be little to no resistance against their oppression. In the mean time, earnest men literally work themselves to death in coal mines, just so that their families can have a better life. A God that could do anything should surely protect them from black lung- that’s the least that he could do. We see though, just from casual observation, that this isn’t true. Good people don’t always get protected. Bad people don’t always get their comeuppance. We have songs like “Only the Good Die Young” being hits because often very good people do die young. Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee you anything- but you should still be good because you care about other people and that’s what you want to do. Also, sometimes, good things do happen because you choose kindness over tyranny.

So I tell you- but myself, mostly- keep being kind. Live your life. Do what you want to do, avoiding hurting others whenever possible, but also not putting yourself in a box because of them. It doesn’t matter what color your glasses are, as long as you’re willing to deal with the consequences of wearing them- whatever those may be. I believe, at least, that you only live once. So make it worth something. Don’t spend your whole life being afraid about what other people are going to think or do.

Wear your glasses with pride.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

In my last post, I discussed Jesus as he was described in the Gospel of John. That account focused on the more supernatural aspects of his teaching, such as his claims to have divine authority as a son of God, and his assertion that he would save people from their sins. The Jesus of John was “the bread of life”, “the way, the truth, and the life” and a mediator between God and humanity.

The Gospel of Matthew paints a slightly different picture. We are introduced to Jesus through his famous Sermon on the Mount. In this, he does not outline a set of beliefs in order for people to have access to God, but rather a series of actions and attitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. / Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. / Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. / Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. / Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. / Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. / Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 5:3-10

Here, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the humble, or the “poor in spirit”. He says the children of God will be those who are “peacemakers”. He praises virtues like purity, mercy, longsuffering, and a “thirst for righteousness.” As the sermon goes on, he commands his listeners to forgive others- to never return evil for evil, to be charitable, welcoming, and kind. He warns them not to pass judgment on others, because they would be held to the same standard.

This theme follows all throughout the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus is approached by a rich young ruler who wants to know how to enter into the kingdom of heaven, Jesus asks if he has kept all of the commandments- not stealing, not committing adultery, not killing, etc. When the man affirms that he has, Jesus tells him that he is lacking one thing; he is to sell everything that he has and give it to the poor. As the story goes, this young man goes away sorrowful for “he had many possessions.” That’s when Jesus says that it’s almost impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is following his theme from an earlier passage where he admonishes his followers not to “store their treasures on earth.”

Jesus also lambasted the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. He called them out for their pride and constant seeking of human approval, instead of focusing on seeking approval from God. He accuses them of “binding on men heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, but not lifting them with even one of their fingers”. He criticized them for paying attention to tithing spices and herbs, but leaving off the “weightier matters of the law” like judgment, mercy, and faith.

Towards the end of the gospel, Jesus is discussing the judgment at the end of time. He is presented with two groups- the sheep, who stand on his right, and the goats, who are placed on his left. He blesses and praises the sheep, and welcomes them into the kingdom of heaven.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: / Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.” -Matthew 25:35-36

When the sheep ask him when they ever saw him and did any of these things, he replies, “If you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me”. He criticizes the group on his left, and commands them to go “into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”, because they have failed him where the first group succeeded. They did not give him food when he was hungry, or water when he was thirsty. They did not take him in, give him clothing, or visit him in prison- all because they did not do it to their fellow man.

Maybe this was what Jesus was talking about when he said this;

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. / Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? / And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” -Matthew 7:21-23

It’s easy to see how when people read the Gospel of Matthew they see “Jesus the moral teacher.” Yes, even though there are some supernatural accounts of him doing miracles interspersed throughout the text- and he three times prophesies his own death and resurrection- we don’t see the same emphasis on his divinity that we see in the Gospel of John. The kingdom of heaven is described less as something you enter through believing on an object- that is Jesus- and more something that you enter by simply living your life in a way that is pleasing to God. Jesus emphasized private devotion, telling his followers to “pray to your Father who is seen in secret, that your Father who sees in secret may reward you.”

The question is whether or not we can separate Jesus from the supernatural claims about his life and death, and the fantastical stories of miracles that he is said to have done. If we do, what is it that we have left? As I said before, I have no doubt that a man named Jesus lived- and died- some 2000 years ago. I’m not so sure if that man was a worker of miracles and the carrier of my sins. I’m not so sure if he resurrected and ascended to be with God, where he waits for the opportunity to return. After all, most early Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return in their lifetime, and that has been the case with almost every generation since then. At what point do we just move on?

I am attempting- very methodically- to puzzle out the truths about who Jesus was, and who he is to me now- what role he plays in my life. I’m now open to not only reviewing these things by comparing Biblical texts, but also comparing texts written by early Christians, and doctrines debated in the early Christian councils. Maybe that will give me some clue as to how we go from the early A.D. to where we are now.  It’s very clear to me that there isn’t one way to be a Christian- as is evidenced by the many denominations within Christendom- but there also isn’t just one way to live outside of it.

Evangelical Christians tend to lump all non-Christians into one big group they call “the world”- something to be feared or conquered, something to be separate from. In reading the book of Matthew, though, it’s clear to me that many people of other faiths would qualify to “enter the kingdom of heaven” above some Christians who carry the name of Jesus on their lips. In fact, in Matthew, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a “net, which drew in a great multitude of fish”. The good were accepted, but the bad were thrown away, and Jesus clearly outlined earlier in the text what bad and good meant. “Good” includes people who exercise mercy, forgiveness, non-judgment and charity. “Bad” includes the selfish, the proud, and the unmerciful.

Now are You the Sons of God

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

Christianity differs from the Moorish tradition, and other traditions, because of how it approaches how you connect to your Creator. Jesus, in the book of John, told Nicodemus that in order to experience the Kingdom of God, that he must be “born again.” He said that unless one is born of “water and the Spirit” he could not inherit the Kingdom of God. He connected this born-again experience to a belief on him.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” -John 3:16

The Apostle John, who is responsible for sharing with us this particular account of Jesus’ life, emphasized this in the opening statements of the Gospel.

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” -John 1:12-13

This idea that you enter the family of God through belief in Jesus is a recurrent theme throughout the Gospels and the Epistles. The Apostle John in particular emphasized this connection, as can be seen in one of his letters to the churches.

“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” 1 John 4:15-16

The main doctrines of Fundamental Christianity are as follows,

-Believe that Jesus is the Son of God

-Believe that he died for your sins, was resurrected, and ascended to be with the Father in Heaven

-Believe that one day he will return and establish his kingdom on the earth

Now I am beginning to understand what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that if we separate Jesus from all of his divine attributes, he can’t simply be accepted as a great moral teacher. He made statements that seem to portray him as a bit self-important: “I am the bread of life” “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He was unabashedly proclaiming himself as the savior of the world, the giver of everlasting life, the carrier of humanity’s sins. He said, “He who rejects the Son has not the Father also”. He placed himself as a bridge between Mankind and God.

He was said to be the “first-begotten Son of God”, the only way that the rest of us would become children of God. In this way, Christianity states that we are not children of God just because we are “made in his image.” This is where Christianity and other religions differ. In Moorish tradition, you don’t “become” a child of God- you already are, it’s just something that you have to grow in and realize. We are all said to have a “seed” that has all of the divine attributes of God inside it, but we are also said to have a “lower self” that we have to deal with.

In Christianity, the “lower self” is called “the flesh” or “the carnal mind.” Again, in order to deal with these fleshly impulses, we are said to need to “mortify (kill) the deeds of the body” and this is said to only be possible through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13). The catch is that the only way to get the power of the Spirit to work in you is to believe the facts and statements about Jesus.

“In whom you also trusted, after that you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that you believed, you were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.” -Ephesians 1:13

Even knowing all that I know about different denominations, and about Bishop John Shelby Spong’s interpretation of Christianity in particular, I do not know if there is a way back to Christianity for me, without me believing what are considered by many to be its fundamental truths. Without believing in a virgin birth, Christ’s deity, his physical death and resurrection, and the promise of his Second Coming, I am not sure if there is much left for me there.

Yes, Jesus was a great moral teacher. When asked what was the “greatest commandment” he said, “The LORD our God is One” and that we should love him with “all of your soul, mind and strength” and also “to love your neighbor as yourself”. I think people of many religions keep these commandments, regardless of the fact that they do not accept Jesus as divine or as the Only Son of God. He also said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He was generous and kind, but unashamedly ripped into the religious leaders of his day, whom he described as “leaving off mercy and justice.”

That being said, if you ignore everything else that Jesus was recorded as saying, you only have part of the picture. It’s pretty obvious to me that we can’t take literally everything that was said, about how he raised the dead, walked on water, or multiplied food. I think these stories grew out of simply an awe or reverence of the man that he was. It’s similar to how St. Nicholas, the inspiration for “Santa Claus” was said to have resurrected a boy who was cut into pieces with an axe and cured illnesses. As time goes by history becomes stretched into legend.

That being said, just like there was a real St. Nicholas, there was a real man named Jesus. The gospels aren’t even unified about what exactly it was that he taught, but we can know from the way he was said to have been killed that his teachings were controversial. According to the Gospel of John, the Jewish authorities were infuriated- above all else- by his claims to be “the Son of God.” If he was simply trying to expound more on the Jewish law and was just teaching morality, I don’t think that they would’ve found it necessary to kill him. No, he stood for something greater- he stood in direct opposition to their understanding of God, and he openly challenged them. It was too much for them to take.

Today, I don’t believe that I have to believe in all the statements about Jesus in order to be a child of God. I too believe that we are all children of God, just by being human. I don’t believe that “no good thing exists in my flesh” but rather than I am a vessel with a capacity for evil and good. I might not have a Holy Book or religious text to support my beliefs, but I’m not sure that I need one. Even though I share some beliefs with Moors and Yoruba people, I am not eager to convert to a new religion.

I was just telling a friend that my primary mode of devotion is through my studying and writing. I may not fast, build altars, or light candles. I may not find it necessary to bow or kneel when I pray. Prayer to me is an open communication with God; it’s a conversation. Jesus said “The kingdom of God is within you.” I might not feel that I have to enter the kingdom of God in exactly the way that he said, but I can still believe that my body is a temple that houses the presence of God.