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Monday, March 15, 2010

An Essay of Unbelief

This is an excerpt from an email exchange I’ve been having with a friend of mine who was curious about my spiritual journey over the last few years. Personal references have, of course, been omitted and I’ve reshaped some of the transitions in order to accommodate this forum. Just so you know, it's pretty long.

I would like to state that this is not a detailed explanation of my beliefs, but merely an overview of my journey and where it’s led me. This writing isn’t about proving that I’m right, but merely demonstrating how I got to where I am.

My struggle with belief rarely had to do with the people involved in local churches, although I was put off by the treatment of people at the hands of some religious people (and still am). I always found joy in a fellowship of believers who were open and honest with each other about their struggles and encouraged each other with love and non-judgement. No, my contentions with faith arose out of intellectual and moral issues I had with belief in a divine being, particularly the one put forward in the bible. Essentially, the more people I met in my life journey, the more I realized that you don't need God to be a good person; that loving people was a universal ability that anyone could have and employ fully. But let me start at the beginning.

All through my years at Central Baptist Church there were questions concerning faith that I was willing to put on hold or not pursue for fear of what they might do to my faith. For me, simply believing in God was more important than satisfying what I perceived to be my fallible curiosity. Questions about the idea of creation and how it lines up with modern science, questions about issues of translation and transmission of the scripture, and also questions about how God sacrificing himself in order to appease his own sense of justice in order for us to love him made any sense.

While at ETBU I took a course in world mythologies comparing different creation myths. We also examined the story of Genesis in comparison with the other myths. While I think that the Genesis story certainly stands out as unique in comparison to other creation myths (in that the earth and man were made out of God's will and not out of violence or sacrifice, as in the other stories), uniqueness does not equal divinity. My discomfort with Genesis and how to make sense of it was finally laid bare. I had begun reading enough science books to understand that I couldn't possibly take it literally. So then I tried to explain it as the creation myth of the Hebrew people which still communicated a vast truth about God; that He created the universe and desires a relationship with man.

This standing back from the scripture enabled me to make sense of some contradictions I could never make sense of before, primarily the difference in the nature and workings of God in the old and new testaments. The more I looked at scripture, the less and less comfortable I got with the conflicted message I was getting. I just could not understand any justification for the genocide and general violence that God commands in the old testament. So I began to see certain parts of scripture as things used by men in order to justify their actions, with some expressions of truth embedded in the midst of it (such as Jesus' teachings on forgiveness, the Beatitudes, God's continual reaching out for the oppressed of Israel, etc.). However, I soon realized that distinguishing between these two views in scripture had no objective basis and that I was simply picking and choosing the things I found to be morally good and those that I found to be morally detestable. Some external morality was guiding me to accept and reject parts of the bible. I'll say that again: I found there to be a morality external to scripture that was determining what I found to be morally acceptable.

I saw that I either believed the scriptures completely and literally, in which case I would have to accept actions done in the name of and at the command of God that I found reprehensible, or that I would accept it as man-made and pick and choose the parts I found acceptable. Either way, I would be picking and choosing which parts would apply to my life, as there is much in the Old and New Testaments that people happily ignore and explain away as "cultural differences."

At the same time, I became more and more focused on the idea of what it means to love and serve God. I was raised to believe that merely professing faith wasn't enough; you had to live it for it to mean anything. And in scripture I saw time and time again God calling for people to be faithful in action, not just in words. The teachings of Jesus emphasized this strongly: it's in our actions and in our treatment of the poor that the Kingdom of God is made actual, not through religious ceremony. And, as Rob Bell says, "it's simply the best way to live." So I set out to love people as God loves them, freely giving of myself, for that was the love I felt I had received from God. God's love was made known to others through me. This idea of loving others freely and completely was all I was holding onto at the time; it was what made my faith unique and what made it worth holding onto, because I felt that nothing else in the world could advocate for and bring about selfless love in people.

Over time, however, I understood that this wasn't altogether true. As I began to meet various people in Chicago and in Texas, I came to see that Christianity does not hold the monopoly on love; that it is a universal concept that anyone can tune into and employ, though it is often difficult. One of my best friends in Chicago is a Buddhist, and through him I saw one of the most selfless and loving people I have known. Not because he gives away all of his possessions to the poor or through some overt action such as this, but through his daily interactions with people; his overwhelming compassion and concern for people that guides his every decision. But if people outside of Christianity can have that kind of love, a love that I thought was impossible to possess without a relationship with Christ, then what does that mean? How could they be judged if their actions mirror those that Christ called his followers to? The concept of God began to become more and more ill-defined. I began to realize that God's unlimited love was the Christian expression of that universal truth, that it's better to love people and live generously in community. But in the end, it's about people loving people.

I finally decided to fully face my declining belief and make a decision about where I stood at the time. I categorized the areas I struggled with into three areas: 1. examining literature on evolution and creationism, because the idea of a creator god is a central tenet to the Christian faith and any faith with a divine being 2. examining issues of translation and transmission, how did we get the bible we have today? 3. Morality, what morality do we derive from scripture, and how can we account for the presence of suffering in light of a loving and all powerful God? Also, what do I make of the fact that a morality of love can exist external to a belief in God? It's what I've spent the last two or three years doing and it's brought me to where I am today.

So where am I today?

I no longer find the idea of a creator God to be tenable in light of modern science, as well as in light of some natural moral issues (e.g. why is Nature such a violent and cruel place? If it's a result of the Fall, then why is all of humanity, and all of the world for that matter, being punished for one man's mistake, if Adam was, in fact, one man? That is not loving or just). While questions concerning the origin of life are still (and probably always will be) unanswered, I think that evolution through natural selection is the best explanation for the diversity and complexity of life that this planet has witnessed.

I don't believe the Christian expression of God to be true anymore, or any belief system that espouses a semi-knowable entity that is present and interacts within time and space. Perhaps there is some sort of "energy" that unites all humans together and helps them find connection with each other, but I believe this stems more from a biological understanding of humans as a species and is not "supernatural."

Similarly, I no longer hold the bible to be a divine or cohesive source of morality for my daily life. The conflicts of morals within it and its inability to address modern day issues in a way that is consistent and humane has led me to reject it as authoritative for my life. It does possess some truths, however. Truths that have and will continue to shape my life and the way I respect and treat others and myself.

The phrase “fallen away from the faith” is one I hear often. However, I believe it to be a misnomer to say that I've "fallen away" from the faith, as that would imply that I simply stopped caring or that something beyond my control pulled me away. Instead, this has been a careful and intentional "walking away" from faith that has come as a result of self-examination and the pursuing of truth. I still seek to lead a moral life while being true to myself and loving to those around me. Because of my conflicts with belief, however, I did not feel that I could do that and continue to call myself a Christian. It has been difficult to walk away from something I have known all my life, something that has bound me together with countless people who I still dearly love and respect. But I feel at peace with my decision, and, I hope that through dialogues like this one, others will as well.


Mike said...

I've already left you a personal comment via email and a public comment on FB, so now I need to complete the trinity. :) Mahatma Gandhi subtitled his autobiography (which I am currently reading), "The Story of my Experiments with Truth." His entire life was a series of experiments, ranging from dietetic to political to legal to interpersonal to, well, simply everything. His life goal was the pursuit of truth, and he made many wonderful friends of all faiths, including Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and others. It is inspiring to read how he learned lessons from his many Christian fiends that have served him well throughout his life, though he did not find their path to be truthful to him. He dedicated his life to such pursuits, and it is a beautiful thing to witness through his own writing.

Keep seeking truth via experiment, because the best-sounding, most logical theory in the world doesn't mean cr@p if it doesn't bear out in reality.

David said...

Christian fiends, huh? The moral outrage of this (pssssst...David, fiends is a typo of friends....)oh. Hey Mike, have a great day!

Mike said...

LOL! Oops! Darn spell check didn't catch that one because, doggone-it, fiends is a word. Yep, should be "friends."

David said...

Seriously though, Ryan, you give me a lot to think about.
I just have one thing to talk about. What really stuck out to me was one of your concepts and it had to do with morality. I am also going to draw a bit from C.S. Lewis, because you and him share at least one thing in common: ya'll are both a lot smarter than I am. C.S. Lewis believed, much like you are discovering, that morality is something that exists outside (or inside, if you will) us. We know "right and wrong" instinctively. Lewis' example to prove this was to walk up to someone who didn't believe this and punch them in the face, or steal their possessions etc, and your point is proved when they are outraged. Lewis believed that this morality exists because the world was created that way. My music teachers had three golden rules for music theory of which I can only remember two. The first was do not trust any textbook written before 1970. The second one that actually applies here is the practice precedes the theory. In music, this means that people were doing certain things in music before those things had a name or had been written down in a book saying "this is how you do this." I think it is only natural that you can find this morality of love and goodness external to the Bible, because the morality IS external to the Bible because the Bible is just the book (I believe) that tries to capture the natural order of a designed world.
As far as some of your searching about the accuracy/divinity/God Inspired/God written whatever about the Bible and other issues, I don't have an answer. But I think about you all the time, and I wish and pray the very best for you, and I want you to succeed in everything you do! I am always interested to hear about your journey and the steps you take and the road you walk!