Archive for January, 2010

Christian: Protestant

Posted in Faith Experience on January 31, 2010 by RWZero

The Ties that Bind

In the past, if someone asked me why I was a Protestant, I said that it was because I didn’t believe in transubstantiation, purgatory, celibate priests, or any of these other distinctly Catholic doctrines. If someone asked why I was evangelical, I said that evangelicals were the only Christians who take what they’re doing seriously.

When someone asks me these questions today, I have more to say. I still do not believe in transubstantiation, purgatory, or the perpetual virginity of Mary, but this is not why I identify as Protestant. I still believe that evangelicals—in spite of their faults—are much better than most mainline Protestants at comprehending the implications of what they believe. But once again, this is not why I cast my lot with them. I am perfectly capable of respecting that quality from afar.

In truth, I cannot deny the tradition that has made me the person I am. I cannot distance myself from the people who have shaped so much of my life—not even in those cases where I thoroughly disagree with them. I will never understand another Christian tradition the way that I understand them. I have thought all their thoughts, and I have felt all their feelings. I cannot simply walk away from them and discuss them with other people, as if they’ve nothing to do with me. I do not see the Protestant denominations (or even the Catholics) as fragmented camps, each making claims to absolute rectitude. Beyond the basic beliefs that bring us to call ourselves Christian at all, I see them only as groups of people. This is the one that I am a part of.

Richard Dawkins

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on January 24, 2010 by RWZero

Britain’s Archbishop of Atheism

Something strange has happened. At the beginning of the 21st century, a biologist has become the most well-known spokesman for atheism, and a chief public authority on philosophy, religion, and the existence of God. He has not accomplished this by exceptional powers of reason or specialized knowledge in these fields, but by saying things that nobody heretofore has been willing to say.

I can hardly forgive myself for writing an essay with his name as the title, lest I glorify him even more than he already has been, but I cannot resist. Richard Dawkins is amazing, because he is the embodiment of something that we never realized was so thoroughly lacking in our culture—simple intellectual honesty.

At the time of writing, I have not read all of Dawkins’s work. The opinion that I express here could easily be altered, were I to read more. Nonetheless, I have the distinct impression that he is a very reasonable man. He asks questions that need to be asked, and he makes points that need to be made. I find it almost amusing to watch him drown under the backlash that arises from his lack of propriety, because political correctness has so seldom hampered the expression of atheistic opinions. What goes around comes around.

Dawkins asks the simple questions about religion that adherents ought to ask themselves. He asks whether solid evidence plays any role, and if so, what. He asks whether there is true altruism, and whether there is any use for a particular religion’s morals if the world’s peoples have shared a sense of morality across cultures. Perhaps more important than all of this, is the sense that Richard Dawkins is a man with whom one does not need to argue about the facts. One need not write him off as a nitwit for his inability to apprehend the facts—as is the fate of shallow arguments in today’s light-speed debates that never reach the bottom of any singular issue. Dawkins does not mix his facts and opinions—the prime source of controversy is in his treatment of the facts. It raises the hairs on the back of my neck to hear them represented properly by an opponent, no matter how incapable I am of accepting his conclusions. There should be no self-deception in a person strong enough to render them impervious to logic (so far as logic goes), nor to silence the suspicion that it may—at any time—be unseen, and lurking nearby.

I must also observe that we are drifting in a sea of endless arguments in which the participants recite their own viewpoints without the slightest attempt to discover why they disagree with each other. Dawkins, unlike many of his followers, recognizes the value of apprehending viewpoints before deconstructing them.

A man is not great simply because he is properly vulnerable to all airtight morsels of reason. Nonetheless, I regard no man as great who lacks this quality.

On Retreat

Posted in Faith Experience on January 17, 2010 by RWZero

Space Between the Lines

“You’re going on a what?”

I was going on a retreat. I didn’t know if anyone else used this word, but that’s what we called it—those dark, cool Friday nights where the church lobby was piled full of sleeping bags and rucksacks. The empty school bus rolling up to the curb, the city disappearing behind us in a stream of lights, the sound of the gravel road as we trundled along, the many times we were lost and without bearings. The noise would rise and fall as we switched from seat to seat, talking in hushed voices about the things below the surface of our lives; we shared common fears and hopes; the stop for food was like a visit to Fiddler’s Green on a journey through the vacant places between worlds.

I always stared out the bus window. I watched a menacing crowd of teens gather around Anthony in the parking lot of a Tim Horton’s, their leader shouting and gesturing, raging at these people who would believe in a God who let terrible things happen—who would let his father die. Anthony stood there and listened.

In time we arrived at the place; empty wooden buildings and cabins huddled together like survivors in the night, with no sense of belonging to anything greater than themselves. We were somewhere else entirely.

The morning revealed the change that had happened during the night. No amount of exploring would take us back where we came from. We were free to sit quietly by the wood-fired stoves, laugh loudly, and see the world as it was before plunging back into life, as if back into a dream.

Apart from the youthful sense of wonder that is difficult to remember, let alone recover, I have kept something from those church retreats that I will never forget: that God exists in the spaces, and that the context of the everyday is meaningless. I do not wish to see myself as a stranger to the world because I will eventually die, but because that is the only way to keep clarity. The places without rules and time, that contain only known people and the unknown natural world, these are the important ones. They are the only proving ground for the ideas that I live by.

Mindset Maintenance

Posted in The Narrow Path on January 10, 2010 by RWZero

The Plausibility of Purity in Thought

A belief in morality is a huge burden. If it were as simple as subjecting each deed to moral judgement, that would be one thing, but morality is inherently tied to the concept of intent, and the mindset that underlies each deed. It is difficult to say which thoughts are involuntary, and which thoughts are intended. It is even more difficult to distinguish motivation for an action from the mere awareness of its context. Even those who claim that the mind is determined, and that intent is an illusion, still use the words “should” and “should not” to describe their thoughts and actions, and this discussion is no less relevant to them.

I have become very frustrated with the church’s failed attempts to police the thinking of Christians. It is so often said that we must not act out of pride, selfishness, lust or greed. Perhaps this is true, but how obvious do we expect it to be? People rarely set out to be greedy for greed’s sake. Here we encounter the problem: only the individual has free access to his or her own thoughts, yet the aforementioned sins can be posited as motivation for nearly anything. The onlookers are free to endlessly accuse, and the individual is free to endlessly rationalize.

But Christians do not think that they rationalize anything. They are notorious for accusing both others and themselves of thought crime. If it could be an ulterior motive, it probably is. I realize now that I just wanted to be liked. I did it all for myself. This sentiment is too pervasive to always be the truth, and I believe it is because we cannot accept our failures. We cannot accept that they correspond to real limitations, or that they have cost us anything. We would prefer to believe that God has taken issue with an invented mindset that motivated us, or that the desire itself was tainted, and our inability to achieve it has kept us from sin. In fact, the crime is that we blind ourselves to the truth, content to pave our lives with good intentions. The attempts to justify it are called rationalization.

The speeches you give about your pride, your selfishness and your greed are all part of the person you are. They can just as easily be threads in a web of sinister self-interest. We in the church are so caught up in the purity of thought that our defenses have evolved to accommodate the concept.

I should elucidate: I firmly believe that people will always find a way to do what they want to do, and that they will find a way to justify it. The mind is a powerful thing. This is why I do not believe in bluntly pointing out the greatest faults in others, if these faults are tied to the things they hold dear. A person will not give up their treasure overnight, but they cannot live with the criticism overnight—intellectually, they must agree with their critics, if their critics are right. In this way, a defense is engineered that eliminates the dissonance, but retains the bad behaviour. The faults remain, and they are even farther out of reach than they were before. You are seeking pity. You are a hypocrite. You people do not practice what you preach. Who can live with these accusations? We will plead guilty only to the aspects of the charges that we do not feel guilty about. We will create straw men for the altar. We will be more careful in the future to protect our behaviour, pushing it farther from the conscious mind, to a safer, darker place. “You might think I’m telling you this because I want your pity,” a man might say. He knows that by raising the point, he cannot be accused. People will not bite down on an argument that has been put into their mouths by another. He will not even accuse himself. How could I say that and still be seeking pity? My conscience would never permit me to do something so obvious! This is precisely the manner in which things become obscured, and are no longer obvious. It is not that we have lost access to the truth, but that we have tamed it enough to keep it under control.

There is no value to incessantly combing through our thoughts to find the bad ones. It is not hard to find the bad ones; it is hard to admit them. That we spend so much time trying to find sinful thoughts, yet have such an easy time talking about them, is an indication that we are doing little more than playing games.

I’ve written previously of my opinion that desire cannot be extricated our actions. If something were not desirable to us, we would not do it. We may sacrifice base instinct for lofty idealism, but we never do anything that is completely divorced from desire. As soon as we pretend otherwise, we tread on dangerous ground.

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[1] As a specific type of introvert, I cannot comment on whether some people actually require outside help to discover the truth about themselves (to “find the bad ones,” so to speak). I have always felt that the truth about my actions is stowed in the back of my mind. The observations of others tell me only when they have seen the very thing I have fought to suppress and deny.

Hardship

Posted in Faith Experience on January 3, 2010 by RWZero

The Cost of Living

If you ask someone to sum up his or her perspective on life, you will often discover a quote that they have stored away for the occasion. Truism, conclusion. Life is complex, but dealing with it need not be. Indeed, the subjectivity of individual perspectives on life is strongly evidenced in the sweeping statements we make about it, and I believe that these perspectives are closely correlated with hardship. Strike that—I believe they are closely correlated with the type of hardship that we experience.

I have often felt that my life is not hard enough. Everyone who lives comfortably in North America has had these thoughts: I turn on the tap, and water comes out. I work for less than one hour, and I can buy enough food to last me a day. Either I should be happier, or my life should be harder. Yet despite how much higher our standard of living is compared with the world’s population, we are not proportionally happier. Moreover, we are surprisingly unsurprised by this fact. How do we explain it away? We are aware that many people groups do not chase after the same things as us, but we imagine that they would, if they were enlightened. After all, we have the power to chase after what they have—but we do not.

There is a certain measure of condescension in our pity for those who experience hardship. I have heard many people espouse a philosophy of life revolving around fun and games, so long as nobody is harmed in the process. But for most people, life is not about fun and games. It is true that many around the world would like to live like us, but there are also many people who do not even aspire to fun and games as we do; such activities are mere windows into a warm place full of significance. We suffer long days of depression, feel a lack of purpose or self-actualization, and suffer over our dreams. We are full of meaning, and we struggle to find containers to stow it in. Nobody who has lived a harder life is bound by these things, and even in those aspects of our own lives that have been difficult, we are free. I was rather poor as a child, and since my adolescence I have never felt that I lacked anything in the way of material possessions.

I am not merely proclaiming that everything is relative, but that we all suffer in ways that are commensurate with our life history, and our circumstances. The same applies to our aspirations. Life may seem like a credit card, with the goal being to max it out before death, crawling into the grave with a silly grin of exhaustion. But why should we accept these feelings at face value? Do we ever consider that it is possible to discover aspirations for higher things, rather than fulfill the ones start out with? Experiencing visceral hardship is not a virtue in and of itself, as if the sum of total hardship in the world need be more smoothly distributed. I would sooner offer what I can to those who are in it, and acquire those sensitivities that I lack.

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.