Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Sunday afternoon Even though you won't be perfect You won't be pure And Monday asking you Why did you how could you Play me for the fool? Oh there's no simple answer Oh there's no reason at all --Lucky Boys Confusion f./Half Pint, "Sunday Afternoon" I discovered over the weekend that someone, somewhere -- some absolutely brilliant human being -- decided to combine the "Agnus Dei" with Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." It's the sort of thing that you need an absolutely amazing choir to pull off, but when the stars align and it works it's breathtakingly beautiful. I would love, someday, to walk in to a room and be taken completely aback by the sound of a hundred voices singing the "Agnus Dei" to Barber's Adagio. It takes me to an interesting place, however. I listened to it, repeatedly. I listened to a recording of the standard version of Agnus Dei. I listened to Rufus Wainright do it live. I even pulled out my old Christian music and listened to Third Day do "Agnus Dei/Worthy." It all took me to an interesting place, allowed me to ask an odd question. Is it possible to have faith without belief? Or maybe it's, "Is it possible to have belief without faith?" Hell, maybe I'm still asking the wrong question. One of the things I've had a hard time shaking as I've taken apart my old religion is the growing realization that I appreciate Christianity so much more as an outsider. When I'm not around the fundies, when I'm not being told I have to believe the party line, I recognize that there's something else. There's something beautiful and timeless in belief that's muffled by the virulent strain of religion that attempts to kill, convert, and harm. There's a different strain that creates the "Agnus Dei." It's why I almost invariably have to listen to The Waterboy's "Long Way to the Light" right after I hear the choir. I enter the sanctuary, hear the voice of a girl. In that moment I find something that's always been missing. I could never find it in church, at least not the churches I went too. They were too busy talking about dogma, making sure that everyone agreed that Jesus Christ was our personal lord and savior and that religion means not drinking, not doing drugs, not having sex outside of the officially prescribed, doctrinally pure methods. Religion is about buying in to god's Ponzi Scheme and hoping you're not the one to take it in the pants. It's the way of the monotheistic religions, I guess. The curse, maybe. We see the destructive power of Islam in the actions of terrorists, but know that when no one in Europe would take in the Jews during the Middle Ages, the Jewish people flourished in Muslim lands. We look at a Muslim extremist, a Christian extremist, a Jewish extremist, and, hell, a political extremist and say, "Don't you get it? You're the same as you're enemy." And they say, "No. I'm different. I'm right." I'm beginning to wonder. Can you have faith without belief, or belief without faith? I guess I know the answer to the second question. I spent years believing in Christianity without any real faith. It was what I was supposed to believe. Deep down, though, I had a feeling that god didn't give two shits about me. Or maybe that god was just mocking me, waiting to pull the rug out from under me. I was mad for a long time, both before and after. I think I wanted to pick fights. I wanted somebody to show up who embodied all the things that had fucked me up. But at the same time I clung to that past. I gradually realized something interesting about it. That past doesn't remember me. Must have been a beautiful daydream You didn't come home 'til three Must have been a hell of a joyride You didn't once think of me Must of been a lot of people Sayin' you took more than you gave What do you take to take the pain away? --Lucky Boys Confusion f./Half Pint, "Sunday Afternoon" I kept using break up terms to describe the end of my faith. "It was an abusive relationship," I said. "God and I just need some time apart." Somewhere in the back of my mind I think I expected the phone to ring some day. It would be god. Asking me back. I had a list of suspects who I figured would take on the role of "Voice of god." I braced myself, just waiting. My phone never rang. Sure, there were a few lame attempts at apologetics. There were some questions that completely missed the point. But no one ever showed up to say what I assumed god would know I needed to hear. It was all just party line bullshit. Mostly it was all the sort of thing you hear from people who like to blame the victim. It amused me. There are so many people I know who are completely and totally willing to say, "Some Christians just don't get it," without realizing that we went to the same church, learned from the same people, were -- for all intents and purposes -- the same Christians. But, no, "they" just don't get it. Even if "they" are "us." It, too, is why I had a bad habit of ending up back at her. At the end she was my entire reason to stick around. I had friends, family, who didn't like my self-righteousness when I was still a Christian. Those same friends and family, it turns out, didn't like her very much. It's weird. I totally understand that. She was something of a judgmental bitch. But I loved her. When I've had a few beers, maybe a gin and tonic, a rum and Coke (well, Pepsi), when my defenses are down, when I lose control, I allow myself to wonder. She was afraid, you see. In a moment of honesty she told me she was afraid of becoming me. That's the sort of thing that hurts. She never understood it, never understood that I had a hard enough time being me and that hearing that from someone I loved was pretty much a death blow. She never understood that I was moving towards being a me that I liked, but that I had to go through some tough times in the process. She never understood that I didn't like who I used to be. It's not that she was worried she'd become me completely. The discussion was about alcohol specifically. She was terrified of losing control. It was something I understood more than she knew. Not long before I met her I, too, was afraid of getting drunk, doing things I'd regret, losing control. For the life of me I don't remember what was so scary. Maybe it's that old Latin saying. In wine is truth. The only truth that we find in wine is the truth that comes from watching the walls we so carefully construct when we're sober drop and seeing what's on the other side. In that balance between sober and blacked out we don't become some out of control monster, we become ourselves. I get quieter. Probably because I start asking myself questions. I can do the happy buzzed thing, but if there isn't anyone to maintain my buzz I just get quiet. I try to figure out why I'm not happy. It's why I could never actually become an alcoholic, I think. Alcohol is supposed to let the problems go away, at least for a while. For me alcohol introduces me to the problems I try to avoid when I'm sober. My problems aren't external, not really. My problems are in my head. Satan didn't put them there. Jesus couldn't root them out. It's why there was a certain inevitablity to my de-Christianization. It's why, I think, I'd be a better Buddhist. I occasionally reach a Zen-like state where I think nothing can reach me. But in the end there's always the pain. That's the thing about setting up walls, blocking out the world. Those walls are great at repelling happiness and joy, but they're transparent to pain and loneliness, probably because the only thing we let in to our cell with us is us. Sex, drugs, religion, meditation, hell, sports. They're all there to take away the pain, at least for a moment. But what do you do when the pain doesn't actually go away? What do you do when you ask all the questions, give all the right answers, and end up just as lost as you were before? What do you do when neither Jesus nor a bartender can help? At the end we return to our little cell. Or, at least, I do. It's my prison, the one where all the locks are on the inside and I bring all the pain, all the hurt, all the confusion with me. Pain isn't supposed to exist in that place, but it's right there, as real as anywhere else. Maybe even more real. I was always told that I could place all my pain and doubt and fear on Jesus and he'd take it away. I'm no longer sure why I actually believed that for as long as I did. I think there was a victim mentality involved. If I placed all of it on Jesus and it didn't go away, it's because I took it back. It's strange the way two different people can look at the same thing and come up with two totally different interpretations. To me god was always a jackass. To others, even people who went to the same church, learned from the same pastors, went to the same services, god was a cosmic good buddy. For the life of me I don't understand how that happens. I mean, I do, but I came from a place where god was some sort of party line and you could hold that line or be damned. I fully understand why I could come to the conclusion that god was a jackass, but I don't know how anyone could come to the conclusion that god was love from that. Love requires forgiveness. Love requires understanding. Doesn't it? Maybe I don't know. Maybe after all these years all I've learned is that I don't know how to love. Maybe all I have is pain and hurt and doubt. Maybe that's why Barber's Adagio for Strings becomes a completely different song for me when it's combined with Agnus Dei. Adagio for Strings was always a song about loss to me. Somehow, though, the Agnus Dei is a song of hope. I know, in general, what the words mean, but I don't think about them. I just hear voices. It's my sanctuary. It's my place of understanding. I used to test god, back in the days I had belief but no faith. I was from a saved by faith, not by works place. I've come to hate that ideology, but for reasons I could never properly articulate. It's laziness, I thought. It's foolishness. But I used to test god. I'd hold up my point of doubt and say, "God, prove it." God never did. Sometimes in hindsight I could pretend, but god never lifted a finger. For it is not our faith that saves us. It is our works. The people I learned from were completely and totally against a works-based faith. "It created legalism," they said. "It gets in the way. Only god is capable of saving, so if we involve our works we'll just be trying to get in to Heaven and it won't work." Then there's this weird works as application addendum that says that our works still prove our faith. So, then, technically doesn't that mean that it is a works-based salvation? If faith doesn't provide works, then the lack of works proves lack of faith and lack of faith proves lack of salvation. It's a vicious circle. Yet there was plenty of legalism in the world I came from. There were plenty of people who worked as hard as they could and still couldn't get it. I was one of them. I couldn't understand why god just wanted me to have faith but everything was still so hard. It's because I'm not saved by faith. I'm not saved by works, either. My works make me who I am, my works infuse my life with purpose, meaning, and momentum. I can only grow and change and find what I need by moving. The Christianity I knew was a stagnant place filled with people waiting for a mute god to tell them what to do. When god didn't speak they provided the voice for themselves. Sometimes it worked out. Sometimes it didn't. I could never figure out what the difference was between doing what god says and doing what you want to do. The answer is deceptively simple. The difference is responsibility. I tried for so long to be saved by faith. I never got anywhere, mostly because I spent my time sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. God didn't call. God's still not calling. We're all looking for something. A lot of people have a bad habit of calling that something "god." No two people look at that thing they call god in exactly the same way. It's human nature. There's a bigger journey out there. A much bigger journey than the one Eldredge or Bly speak of. There's something out there to find. I don't know what it is, I don't know where it is. But I cannot find it by sitting around and waiting for god to call and tell me what to do. I can only be saved through my works.


bluefrog said...

Thank you! I don't know what will save my soul, but I'm pretty sure I can save my sanity through works. It beats sitting on your arse and waiting to go to heaven.

hapax said...


Lots of pain in this post.

I've never quite managed the notion that "faith" = "intellectual assent to a proposition", even less that "faith" = a "warm squishy feeling when you hear a certain set of words."

I've always thought that faith *is* works, and vice versa. One acts according to what one believes. Even if I don't know how it will come out, yet I can act; even if I don't know what action to take, yet I must act.

My worldview determines how I behave. From a lifetime of actions and choices a worldview is built.

As Hamlet noted:
"Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a or livery,
That aptly is put on."

Geds said...

I've spent a lot of time lately dwelling on the idea of dwelling on the past (I know, trippy). It seems to be reflecting in what I watch on TV and listen to and even the story I'm writing over at The Repository.

I spent a lot of time on this pseudo-Buddhist theory about attempting to achieve a Zen-like state and remain still while the world moves around me. But I'd been marathoning NBC's Life, which deals exactly with the idea of a character attempting to be Zen and unable to hold the state due to a need for vengeance. There's an awesome metaphor in the show where he buys a house and leaves it empty in an attempt to live an uncluttered life. Over time, however, he realizes things about his house and furniture gradually shows up.

The emptiness of an attempt at an uncluttered existence just leaves us empty. If there's nothing in the space we can only fill it with ourselves. If all we have is pain and regret, then there's no life in the space.

I'm just trying to let the pain leave. I need some room for furniture.

Andrew said...

i've been reading through your blog, and i found this entry deeply touching. while myself a christian, i admire you for the courage that it takes to honestly ask the questions, to honestly seek, and to face the answers with open eyes. may your search lead you at last to peace.