I finished reading Gretta Vosper’s With or Without God last week, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If we admit that humankind is evolving just as everything else is, then we need to assess where we’re at (Vosper’s contention is the church) and make some changes, based on what we know to be true now. As you may have already figured out already, I don’t believe that truth stems from God and only God. [See my podcast Episode 17: Do You Have To Be Religious or Spiritual To Be Moral?] In fact I’m not sure God exists (at least in the way we’ve all created him to be). I wouldn’t flinch, in the least, if “God” is a force, a presence, a something that I don’t understand…but perfect? omniscient? personal? I’m not so sure. If you look at our religious history, we’ve slowly concocted that vision over time. We just don’t know it, because we haven’t (typically) done our research.
Well, I have. Done my research. Or should I say, I’m in the midst of it. And will continue to be in the midst of it, for I want to continue learning as long as I live.
Would it shock you to know that it’s common understanding in seminaries today (well, not all seminaries!) that Elohim, the one true God, came from the Canaan god El? That would make sense, since the Israelites (supposedly, although there’s little proof of this) took over the Canaanites. What little history we have to go on, it looks more like the Israelites infiltrated Canaan, not conquered them. [See Robert Wright's great explanation of this in The Evolution of God.] And there’s quite enough evidence in the Old Testament or Torah that the Israelites were polytheistic before they were monotheistic.
So, rather than do a review of Vosper’s book, I’m going to highlight a couple of passages, so you can see what I’m chewing on this week. If you’re trekking the same journey I am, read the book. It’ll change your perspective…and give you a vocabulary to express what you’ve been feeling all along.
Vosper pulls no punches. She says the church is very quickly becoming obsolete, because we’ve been stuck in the mire created by our ancestors. I agree. But I’ve thought that for a while now. Not a popular opinion around people who are still going to church. It’s scary when you start naming things for what they are. It’s scary when you think you’ve based your whole life on something that might not be entirely true. It’s scary. Period. But invigorating. Exciting. Because if you face the results of your research and reading, you are free to see “God” as something different. You are free not to see God.
That’s what this book is about—living in the current paradigm, being progressive enough to let go of the beliefs and traditions to which we’ve had to tip our hats and curtsy in the past but which can no longer prevail in our contemporary world. It is about finding a way to be a church that knows its past but respects the present enough to leave the past where it belongs and not use it as the litmus test for any new idea we might want to propose….And so the church, freed from its absolute and supernatural claims with which it has obligated its members, would be able to deliver a clear message of justice and compassion and play a dynamic role in the mending and recreation of a sustainable social world and a planet with which we might live in right relationship.
The average North American has not followed the conversations that have taken place within academia; many do not know that most contemporary scholarship has undermined the classic claims of Christianity and they do not care. For them, the Bible is the Word of God. God is God when they need him and pretty much not an issue when they don’t.
Are we really nourished only by our past—the idea of slavery, an ethic of self-revulsion, the subjugation of women, incest, and misogyny?
The church is also being called to account by others who have noted that the defense of a document’s truth cannot be found exclusively within itself and demand that the church acknowledge it circuitous reasoning. It is called to account by those who have sifted through the sands of the Middle East, eager to find some kind of proof for the burden of both testaments, and who have found, once those sands have filtered through their fingers, few grains of fact remaining.
And I’m suggesting that we boldly, comfortably, and confidently write our own sacred wisdom again, this time gleaning from scripture all that is life-enhancing—but none that is not—discovering new and not so new spiritual expressions that come to us from other traditions and ideologies and stretching ourselves to seek new sources of inspiration.
It is crucial that we peel away the interventionist deity concept from our belief systems and face reality. We are the origin of blessing and curse in our world, not some otherworldly deity—not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Hinduism, not in Islam, not anywhere.
Can someone’s concept of a guiding, loving God be a source of help to them in difficult situations? Absolutely. Does everyone experience help in this way? Of course not. Should the church declare and guarantee not only that an omnipotent, omniscient God will help everyone in this same way (when clearly it does not) but that everyone should seek guidance from it? Absolutely not.
Truth, what each of us means by that, is available to us everywhere, and one cannot be the judge of what another finds to be the central core of the truth he or she follows. We simply cannot fully see the world from another’s perspective….But faced with the possibilities of living in such a relativist world, we have reason to be scared. If we embed in our societies the individual’s right to pursue any spiritual path, we must be prepared for whatever direction that path takes, and I’m not sure we are ready for that….Some choices you may agree with; others you would outright reject. But we would have to grant safe passage to a whole host of behaviours, prejudices, and rituals that would be considered consistent with whatever an individual believed to be an integral part of his or her spiritual path.
On a Christian worldview and how everything about it can be contested:
God created the universe and everything in it. The second is that the Bible is TAWOGFAT (the authoritative word of God for all time). The third is that we, as we are, are unworthy of God’s love. The fourth is that Jesus is the one and only Son of God come to Earth to live and die for us. The fifth is that we can be forgiven our sinful natures by believing Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins. And on and on. Over the centuries, many things have been nailed to the post and used to establish the orthodox Christian worldview. But those who have even a rudimentary understanding of astronomy, science, history, anthropology, archaeology, or any number of disciplines, who have read the Bible and examined it with the help of critical contemporary scholars, and who have applied critical thinking to the basic tenets of Christianity will end up challenging almost every item on the post, right down to the concept of God it presents.
To get to the monotheistic god of Christianity, it is generally accepted that we first had to work our way through the belief that animals, objects (such as the imaginary spear or blue stones), and people we knew and loved had supernatural powers, and then that multiple otherworldly gods had their divine hands in the mire of mortal matters. The emergence of the single, unified God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was a late development in the evolution of belief. And true to the nature of evolution, there is no reason to assume that the evolution of belief will not further refine the God we in the West have been raised to revere.
[Circuitous reasoning] goes like this: How do we know God exists? Because it says so in the Bible. Of course, any self-respecting Christians will be ready for the question their response will no doubt elicit: How do we know the Bible is true? The answer, almost without fail, will be: Because God says so. So we move to the next question: How do we know God is telling the truth? And the final answer is: Because it says so in the Bible. A perfect circle.
It is not the Bible that must go; rather, it is the Word of God that must go. We do not, any of us—whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Baha’I, Confucian, Jain, any of us—have a corner on what the word of God is, on what religious beliefs are universally authoritative for humankind. When the Bible is no longer seen as the authoritative word of God, it takes on a completely different aura. We are freed to see it as it is. In that light, some of it can be seen as poetry and studied, memorized, and assessed as such.
But we find that we are now standing at the precipice created by our own arrogance and desire for self-gratification. Pointing to Jesus and telling people that he is our salvation is just not going to work. His words are dead to many people. The world has changed. The words don’t make sense any more, and shouldn’t.
A heretic is someone who does not ascribe to what is considered the accepted norm. Every instance of progress human history has been the result of heretical thinking. Think about it.
Once our idea of the Bible shifts away from its being TAWOGFAT, everything in it is up for grabs. Everything. That means just what it says. Everything. It’s not that there aren’t good stories or dramas we can use metaphorically to challenge ourselves and set us back on the right path. It’s that we can’t say that anything those stories say or imply is factually true. It may be, but all we can really say about it is just that; it may be. There are no definitive answers.
Those who have been enveloped within the safety of the evangelical world, however, are giving up a worldview that has ordered a much larger portion of their lives. Social activities, music, friends, and life-goals have often been nurtured by and synchronized with their beliefs. Questions present a very real threat to everything they have ever known and understood to be true. Within some religious groups, questions bring on efforts by others in the community to reinforce the established belief system. Friends and family members try to bring the individual back into the fold. Those who remain unmoved can be labeled apostates, permanently disqualified from the eternal life that came with their former belief. As belief crumbles, often family ties, friends, and profession also turn to dust. Loss is incredible. Isolation can be frighteningly huge.
I’ve included that last quote, because this is what I hear most—from friends, from readers, from acquaintances. The loneliness that comes from thinking outside the box. Yes. You will feel alone at times. You will feel abandoned. You will be labeled a heretic. You will have family members who will suddenly decide your demise is their concern (why now and not before?).
You will need to find others who are asking questions. You will need to find an open-minded community that can (and will) wrestle through the questions with you. Don’t worry about anyone else’s journey but yours. You are fighting for the one life you can save, as Mary Oliver says.
If you read Vosper’s book, you’ll see that she has great suggestions for the church, should they want to be seen as relevant in today’s world. Really, though, she says church is simply about community—about people of all beliefs who can come to a safe place where questions are allowed, where people can worship as they choose, where truth (the larger Truth) is explored. This includes gender neutral language. This includes non-theistic language that everyone can relate to. And it requires renaming the word “God.” It’s too messy a word. We’ve attached too many bad things to it. So why not use a different word? Let’s start anew. And if this sounds confusing, it isn’t, once you see what she means.
I think the word church needs to go, too. Too many negative connotations to so many people. What about “salon” or “gathering”—something that represents a vibrant and thinking and loving community, made up of people of all faiths (or none), people with various skills, people who want to figure out how to live and serve in this new world?
Many people going to church feel their church fits this description, and that’s quite all right. But I’d like to suggest to those in the church, those who are comfortable in their “my way is the right way” beliefs, to do some research, to start asking some of the tough questions. If you do, you’ll be surprised at what you dig up. Especially if you’re reading from disparate sources (atheistic, archaeological, philosophical, scientific, psychological, historical, etc.). There’s abundant knowledge out there that you haven’t tapped into, if you’re not in a quandary about your belief system. Either that, or you’ve grown comfortable and want to stay there. And I’ll concede that that’s your choice.
I’m here with you, no matter what. I’ll keep asking the questions, if you’ll keep reading. Silly me, what am I saying? I’ll keep asking them no matter if you tune in or not. But I’m happy to have you here.
Episode 24 of Living the Question’s Podcast is up. “Where Do You Go When You Need Emotional Refuge?”
[Post image: Sing a New Song 2 by sraburton on stock.xchng]