So now you're not a Christian anymore. Maybe you've not been for years, or maybe it has been a few intense days. You're a free man or woman, and... when you're really scared, you wonder about God. When you hear about the apocalyptic end of the world suggested by climate change, you can't help but think of the Apocalypse of St. John ("Revelations.")
Christianity isn't just a varying set of beliefs around a core drama -- its a fractured and ancient culture. It's a set of symbols, and those symbols are so hard to exorcise precisely because they are powerful, potent, and deeply buried.
When you burn yourself, you jerk your hand back -- often times with far greater force than is necessary. When you "stop" being a Christian, you often find yourself seeking solace for what's missing in rational science, in a naturalist point of view (eg, only things I can experience exist, everything else is theory or hyperbole,) or perhaps you embrace a new religion -- the number of ex-Christian Wiccans is astounding -- and by Christian or ex-Christian, I mean one who's world was shaped by those beliefs to the exclusion of others, whether or not they themselves fully and zealously embraced it.
My breaking point came during my last lunge into the faith -- a variant of the same crisis I assume most of the interested readership has shared; I had never had a particularly strong relationship with my father, though I would be the last to suggest his intellect was anything short of "bright guy." We had never had much to discuss until I was in my late 20s and we were able to engage in extended discussion via email. We discussed theological issues, church history, etc.
Being an autodidact, when I want an answer to something, I start reading. In the case of the church, of course, I went straight to the history books and discovered the council of Nicea. Through that, I discovered the Greek church, its history and... how everything got blurry right around the 4th century. The bible was, at that time, assembled by men 350 years distant from the alleged historical Christ.
My father's position, as a Presbyterian was Reform theology -- that's the basis of most western Christianity that is not specifically catholic, episcopalian or Anglican. The split between the catholic church and the heritage of the protestant churches was the notion of "Sola Scriptura," which means "by the scriptures alone," or, that matters of the faith were not to be arbitrated by councils of men as much as by the bible itself. Yet, when I brought my points to my father, he would cite Augustine, various catholic philosophers and so on to support points that they ultimately and logically would grant credence. When I finally asked about the sacrament of baptism -- infant baptism -- he suggested that this is essentially what had kept me looking to the faith, that being sprinkled with Indianapolis city water by a fat dude as an infant had somehow sealed my bond with God. Initially, this idea provided some comfort -- that all of my frustration and confusion -- the contradiction between my experiences and what I was supposed to believe -- was a trial by fire that would ultimately end in a kind of enlightenment and spiritual accord.
It did indeed, but not the way a Presbyterian deacon would have it. With this tenant of faith revealed, the last thread connecting me to Christianity turned a brilliant white, glowing and... like a filament in the air, burned out and snapped very quickly. The sheer absurdity of the proposition, and the logical tenants that followed simply fell flat in the face of the obvious: You can't know anything until you know yourself. You cannot know yourself if you are depending on someone or something else to make clear to you what you are. And if the source of guidance for your self-knowledge suggests that you deny yourself exploration, the right to question, and the right to be dissatisfied with answers -- then that source -- person or institution -- is fleecing you.
So take a moment, recall the last time you came into church late, or had some reason to be looking into the faces of the congregation from the choir or a balcony. Did you look closely?
For the most part, the congregation of any church or temple represents well-meaning people who are seeking authoritative answers about the nature of the world they live in. An illiterate and an academic will experience equal awe confronted with a southern sky filled with stars when no other distractions are present. The simple person may be satisfied with any explanation about what those stars are -- something that fills the question-slot and allows that person to move on -- others won't be satisfied until they're in a spaceship with a very large tape measure on their way to confirm what they've been told.
In this sense, faith is no different. Some people are comforted by someone simply suggesting that there is a God that hears your prayers -- others want to touch, see and interact with the creator. It is very obvious that the patrician God we knew was built in such a way that an august man could kind of fill in for him at the pulpit.
The need to touch God, the need to see a star up close, the need to know what you cannot know -- whether the person you're partnered to genuinely loves you, or has been putting on a spectacular act for 5 years -- are examples of the painful need for answers that drives many people to seek them at extraordinary risk.
Consider the life of a freethinker in the middle ages -- a life that often ended at a pyre. Despite their indoctrination, their upbringing, the pressure of the community around them, and, of course, the threat of their comfort, livelihood and death itself were not enough to dissuade them from their explorations. Eventually, enough of them over enough time with enough courage were able to shake loose the stranglehold of the western church in legal matters -- but even today, it haunts us through cultural values, and the symbols embedded in our minds through our own indoctrination. Our base notions of right and wrong, how we understand our relationships to other people, are filtered through the aggregate experience of our culture generally, and then through our individual personalities and experiences. A bit of your worldview is inherited from the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Aboriginals, English, German... Chinese... and the Judeo-Christian milieu that dominated the civilizations that would come to dominate the world's thought and means for the last thousand years or so.
So, we come around to the point: Christian, Judaic and Roman ideas, symbols and values inoculate our culture, and our minds as individuals. Every time you catch yourself saying "God," -- "Godd____t," "God only knows," "Jesus that was amazing!" Think of yourself like a wounded soldier who still has bullets in their body -- little pieces of "God" that were never properly removed. What of your ideas still maintain a heavily Christian DNA -- If the world isn't going to end because of Armageddon, then it must end in a climate conflagration? Or is that just the need of the Christian in you for an end of the world scenario that serves as a great excuse for not claiming your power in this world? Do you find yourself looking for another religion to fill the cavities Christianity left? Did you jump to the other side and declare yourself a cynic with a strictly scientific worldview because anything intangible or irrational had to be flushed out along with God (... the baby with the bath-water?)
Don't let Christianity steal the joy of mystery, the profound embrace of the unknown, or your sovereignty as a free individual with a duty to this world and the other people in it in because of the painful stretching of the surgical scars left from your God-ectomy.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)