Sunday, July 6, 2008
Do This for the Remembrance of Me
The true dope on salvation is Two weeks in a clinic And a public testimonial You tell them kids Tell them not to hurt themselves Speeding fast from who you were --Mike Doughty, "No Peace, Los Angeles" In a weird way I think I should thank James for his unwelcome intrusion in to my comments a couple weeks ago. My decision to depart from Christianity was a momentary thing that took very little time or conviction once all the pieces fell in to place. But I left angry. I'd spent the last few months casting myself as the rebel, fighting to make changes from within, and been getting nothing but frustrated. When I finally decided to have nothing more to do with Christianity, I left feeling manipulated and prepared to be harassed by those who did not and would not understand. I spent about six months deprogramming myself while keeping my new self more or less secret from all but a select few. When I finally went public, it was with fists clenched, ready to fight a fight I didn't know if I was prepared for. I half expected to get hit with some argument from a friend turned enemy and lose my resolve as all my old patterns of thinking came flooding back in and overwhelmed my newfound sense of freedom. I actually started off my little Loco to Stay Sane project with the idea of taking a pause, a moment for reflection, to say, "Seyla," and to breath. Before I get to what I believe will be the final post of Loco to Stay Sane and move on to what I like to call The Field Guide to North American Evangelists, I think I need to take another moment to say, "Seyla," and reflect. Because, you see, I'm about to break down the Christ story then attempt to pull apart and explain the mentality of the modern day American Christian. It may well not be pretty. It will probably be the sort of thing that looks like an attack, and it may well be all the more harsh since it will be the words of a former insider taking taking apart the things that people he still loves and respects hold dear. It probably won't be pretty. The thing is, though, these aren't going to be words that come from anger or fear. Not any more. And, oddly enough, I have James to thank for that. Because, you see, the attack I was expecting didn't come until he showed up here. I feel that I overreacted a bit, but although I didn't say anything that I particularly regret, I certainly said it more harshly than was absolutely necessary. In the process, though, I learned an important lesson. I really don't have anything to fear. Having spent the better part of twenty-five years learning all the lessons of Christianity and taking its worldview to heart, once I rejected it I could see right through it. I spent a couple of years putting myself through a far more grueling cross-examination. I'd question an assumption, come up with a decent-sounding Biblical argument to support the assumption, then ask myself why the hell I believed what I did. In the months following my departure from church I came up with justifications for Christianity that I'd never thought of and that were way better and more elaborate than the stock answers I'd always gotten. Still, one day I realized that I totally didn't believe it any more. From then on I had no guilt and felt peace, except when I started thinking about what would happen if I was challenged. Then I worried. Now, not so much. Which means that I can let the historian in me stand aside for the moment and give the storyteller in me the floor. Before I take it apart, I feel it's only right to make something clear. I find the Christ story absolutely fascinating and I fully understand why there is a religion built around it. I just tend to believe that, as with most things, once you start building your life around that story and creating institutions dedicated to spreading it, you totally lose focus. See, it struck me one day as I was sitting in class. I think it was Modern Religious Thought, for the record. I was still trying to hold my faith together. At the same time I was reading Joseph Campbell and Martin Buber. All of the sudden I realized exactly why the Christian story was the universal story, although at the time I didn't have the words to describe it. I drew a diagram in my notebook, which isn't exactly a normal thing for me to do. I drew the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in one corner and the cross in the opposite corner. I set each of these as a World Navel, the place where the universe revolves around the actions of the mythological hero. The tree in the garden was the place of separation, the cross the place of salvation. Or, to put it in Buber's terms, the tree was the place where the I and Thou was severed, the cross the place where it was rebuilt. Looking back on it now, I realize that at the time I was basically just building a fairly sophisticated bridge diagram. For those who don't know, the bridge diagram is a thing a would-be evangelist carries around that's just a bunch of pictures of how sin creates a chasm between us and god but Jesus' sacrifice bridges that chasm. And it's kind of sad, but those who are prone to use the bridge diagram are also prone to act like it's really profound, yet I just explained everything you need to know about it in a not particularly complicated sentence. However, underneath the thin veneer of the bridge diagram connection, there may well be something deeply profound to my dual-pole World Navel diagram. You just need to strip away the centuries of extra structure and assumption built on top of the original story to get at it. And you need to realize that, at its core, religion is a fundamentally selfish endeavor. I don't mean selfish in the sense of televangelists trying to convince you to trust god enough to send a check for a thousand dollars to the TV station. I mean selfish in the way that religion is, at its core, an attempt to use god to explain why humans are the way they are. It's that place where I heard Mike Doughty's "No Peace, Los Angeles" for the first time a few days ago and I haven't been able to stop listening to it. The quote with which I started this post encapsulates everything I've come to understand about salvation over the last couple years better than any dozen posts I've written about who I was and who I want to be. From the moment we're born until the moment we die, to borrow a line from Roger Clyne, "Even in the very best company we're always alone." We're all separated, alone, trapped within our skin. We seek the divine, the transcendent, the I and Thou which will allow us to break these bonds we feel so acutely and become something different, something better. This is where religion comes in. It promises a connection to something greater, a higher power. It promises salvation. But the thing that's hardest to wrap the mind around is that one, all-important question: why? Oh, sure, we're told that it's because god made us and god loves us, but that brings up all kinds of other questions, like, "So why is god so willing to send us to hell?" So we get theological and philosophical constructs, like the question of theodicy and a bunch of stuff about how god is both infinitely just and infinitely graceful, so even though god really doesn't want us to go to hell, god's hands are kind of tied and it all sounds just a little bit stupid unless you're the sort who has invested a hell of a lot of time and effort in to being part of that world. So let's pull back. Take away two thousand years of Christian history. Take away the Council of Nicea, take away the Apostle's Creed, take away Paul of Tarsus and Simon Peter and John of Patmos. Take away John the Baptist. Take away Jesus of Nazareth. Take away everything but that story. Go back to that diagram with the two poles located on the World Navel, the one where we lose everything and the one where we get it back. That, right there, is the universal story. It's every dragon and witch, every knight and princess, every "...and they lived happily ever after," rolled up in to one. It's what we're all looking for but know we probably will never find. It's also the place where Christianity got screwed up right from the beginning. Because salvation is about "speeding fast from who you were," as Mike Doughty says. But it's not about becoming something other than human, it's about becoming fully and completely who you are and who you want to be. It's why this is a public testimonial. It's the story of me, and how I am trying to become myself. The fact of the matter is that there is no church that can tell me how to be me. Church can only tell me how I don't measure up to what it thinks I should be. It's why I'm not a Christian, but still rather like the Christ story. The story, like all good myth and fairy tale, lets me know something about who I am and the challenges I face. It's a good story. It's a worthwhile story. It's a true story, too. It's just that it's not so much true in the sense that a couple thousand years of tradition want us to believe it's true. It's true in that it's my story of separation and isolation and desire to join with something greater than myself. I don't think we understand what Jesus was trying to say, assuming we have anything even remotely resembling an accurate account of his words (more on that later, like when I deconstruct this puppy from a historical standpoint). I don't think we ever will, and the farther removed we are from Roman Age Israel the less we'll be able to understand. However, I have a hard time believing that Jesus would have approved of the greed, hatred, isolationism, and snobbish air of superiority that pervades so much of the religion that bears his name. This was a man who was filled with compassion for the outsider, the downtrodden,the weary, the sick, the wounded. This was a man who once had an adulterous woman dragged to him by a mob wanting him to condemn her and somehow convicted the mob of its own transgressions before saying, "If no one stands to condemn you, then neither do I." And yet the followers of that man are quick to condemn. I know, because I've been condemned to hell a couple of times since I left the church. A friend of mine who left at about the same time I did has at least one similar story. This, ultimately, is why I'm not a Christian. I don't think there's anybody out there who has a freaking clue what that even means. I count myself among them. I'm just more open about it than I used to be, even if only to myself.