This letter is a blast from the past; it was written to a friend from way back — Nashville’s David Lipscomb High School, actually — after we reconnected over dinner on or around January 1, 2009. Apparently, I was inching toward a religious debate.
The 2009 title of this post was The Reawakening of a Prime Directive. Although my attitude toward conservative/ fundamentalist religion has softened, I continue in my attempts to completely "resign from the debate society"…. particularly in my head. These days, I am more focused on recovery and working at Discovery Place in Burns, TN and working on a newish spiritual/recovery blog… thank God!
Letter to "Bat," Part One
Thank you very much for dinner at the Copper Kettle last Thursday. It was really good to see you, and I am genuinely happy for your freedom from mind-altering substances. It’s very enjoyable to have meaningful conversations with others who can relate to these issues from experience.
When I got home, I wrestled with the whole idea that I encouraged toward the end of our meal: continuing our discussion or friendly debate via email about what’s real (and what isn’t) with regard to religion, especially Christianity. In my view, the challenge that is presented in holding such a discussion is that by default we will be focusing on the scant few points we do not agree upon, rather than the much more important, meaningful, and practical realities on which we do agree.
Too interesting to ignore
On the other hand, the subject of "religion" and spirituality are obviously subjects that interest both of us a great deal. Frankly, the role of religion and spirituality (and how they relate or do not relate to reality and truth) is one of my favorite subjects to bat around.
I know you don’t like that word — religion — but I’m not sure what else to call it. Any suggestions?
It seems that both of us have, at one time or another, felt driven to uncover the truth and to find out for ourselves what is "really real." For me, this particular quest began as a child when I found a book in my parents’ library presenting 1960s-era arguments against evolution from a Biblical standpoint.
Open-mindedness is crucial
Obviously, one cannot honestly research this subject and expect to get much out of it without a high degree of open-mindedness. It is my intention to remain open-minded and teachable as long as I have the sense and ability to do so, hopefully right up until the moment of my death. This is why I still read books and websites that steadfastly defend the faith, such as Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry , as well as many other books they would find sacrilegious, such as Why Won’t God Heal Amputees.
What attitude and approach to such discussion shall we take? Do we want or intend to be open-minded and teachable? Are we willing to look at things objectively, or at least make a good-faith effort to be objective? If not, then I see no reason to continue; we should just go ahead and agree to disagree. After all, it takes a significant emotional investment, a lot of serious thought, and of course, a respectable amount of time, to engage in such a potentially sensitive discussion about religious differences.
Again, I believe that an emphasis on the more important, meaningful, and practical realities on which we DO agree is ultimately more rewarding; but of course, this also leaves many of our questions and curiosities unanswered. Honestly, I hope you DO have the desire to engage in this discussion, because I would like to learn more specific details about why you espouse your current beliefs. There are a number of questions I would like to ask you that I would not feel comfortable asking my family.
You said that you know in your heart, unequivocally and without doubt or reservation, that you know the truth, and that is that anyone without Jesus is doomed. The thing is, people of most faiths — the serious ones who are solid in their beliefs and able to defend them in a convincing manner — are equally confident regarding their own beliefs. The more honest and forthright adherents to most spiritual paths feel that same comfort of certainty in their beliefs. Can all of us be correct? Technically, of course not; but in a more important sense, I think we can. (This is hard to put into words; it’s something I examine more closely in another document.) However, any type of fundamentalist belief would appear to be incongruent with an honestly tolerant and respectful view, by the very nature of the definition of fundamentalist.
Being truly objective is not an easy thing for someone raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment. As children we were taught not to question these things. We were bombarded with the threat of hell fire and damnation for questioning the Bible as the authoritative word of God. For adherents, church members, etc., it takes guts and courage — real chutzpah — to look into these matters honestly and objectively. Furthermore, critical examination of these things does not seem to be socially acceptable in Bible-belt or Church-of-Christ circles, progressive or not. It is no small thing, and it can have real consequences.
I am fully aware that my life would most likely be quite different had I chosen to overlook my concerns and remain active in the church (i.e., the Church of Christ). I recognize that leaving the church and being honest about the way I feel, what I believe or don’t believe, etc. has contributed to my being viewed as somewhat of a rogue, by some folks at least. The reasons are obvious, and it amounts to typical human behavior: we all have a tendency to befriend those whose beliefs are similar to our own. It follows that we tend to share our resources with our philosophical cronies – including job opportunities, business transactions, and other economic activities.
Nevertheless, I cannot profess to believe something when my heart warns me against it, and this has been the case every time I have decided to give conservative Christianity another chance. The church folk with whom I am familiar are for the most part wonderful (as are those in many "opposing" sects), and the feeling of being part of a social group is integral to a fulfilling life. Indeed, there is great comfort in knowing you are a part of a loving community on which you can rely when you are dealt the crushing blows that life unfailingly delivers.
For a while, my return to church (this time at Otter Creek in Brentwood,TN) had begun to take root,
Not too terribly long ago, the most recent of my attempts or flirtations at rejoining the church (this time at Otter Creek in Brentwood,TN) had actually begun to take root (though more on a social level than a religious belief level). But inevitably came forth that damned sermon — the one delivering that same old fire & brimstone message — that I am doomed to an literal, eternal hell unless I profess that Jesus Christ is the son of a living, loving God and that he came to earth, lived as a man without error, was crucified, and then arose three days later.
The church’s "implication" (to put it lightly) is that all others are wrong and doomed. It saddens me greatly, for I believe the original intent of the so-called " revealed" religions in general, or the primary message, was to show us how to live fulfilling and happy lives (via basic, universal spiritual principles) — NOT to tell us we must believe any particular supernatural story.
I do not believe Jesus intended for us to lead Jesus-centric lives, but rather, to lead love-centric, tolerant, nonjudgmental lives. The two are not the same; in fact, they are often radically at odds.
What might rest at the root of religion?
I believe with all my heart that what unifies mankind is good (here I go, being dualistic), and those things that cause division and strife are not so good. I do not see how this can be reconciled with saying, "Unless you believe the way we believe, then you are doomed." The latter has certainly been the cause untold human suffering in the history of mankind, and it continues to this day. Sadly, there will be no end to this suffering until we finally realize on a collective, universal level that intolerant, divisive, we’re-right-you’re-wrong views are in fact the very root of the problem. I suspect that such attitudes will eventually lead to mankind’s ultimate demise. (A great read in this area is Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris.)
Why so quiet?
One reason I am not more vocal about my views is a desire not to offend my family any more than I already have; however, I’m beginning to realize that stifling myself in this manner does a great deal more personal harm than good — and even produces, feeds, or exacerbates what might otherwise prove to be only minor character flaws. At the risk of ridicule, I will go so far as to say that I feel "called" to try to share a Middle Path via blogging & writing, and hopefully play some small role in helping to eliminate religious intolerance. This dream of mine will not happen if I retain my fear of what others think; I’d surely continue to feel as though a significant calling of mine were being wasted. Nevertheless, for this and other reasons, I ask that we maintain some degree of privacy regarding all this, at least for now.
Another reason I do not often bring up this subject is because it tends to be divisive. It is difficult to have meaningful conversations with those holding opposing views in these areas without stepping on toes, hurting feelings, creating fresh resentments, etc.
The answer to the question, "Can’t we all just get along?" should be a resounding "Yes," not "Well, only if you decide to believe in this one particular supernatural event."
As I told you, in the year 2000, I made a decision to research my way out of religious confusion. (It was naive of me to believe I could research and study my way out of it, for one thing; looking back, it’s rather humorous.) I was sick and tired of being unable to make up my mind about it. Quite simply, I felt I could no longer proceed with my life in a state of ignorance regarding the whole “God of the gaps“ scenario, along with a lengthy and growing laundry list of other issues. I felt like I’d watched the season finale of a killer show (say, Alias or 24!) which ended with the usual cliffhanger. But this unresolved issue was staring me in the face in real life, and would no longer allow itself to be ignored.
Where to start?
Religion, spirituality, reality, and truth are such broad, voluminous subjects, I would have to be even more insane than I already am to believe I could actually take the time or have the patience to study it the way I would like to! Heck, even if I focused only upon all the conflicting versions of Christianity, such a study still seemed too massive for me.
So the logical place for me to begin was with a study of the Bible itself, ignoring how any one subset of Christians might choose (or, perhaps more accurately, be taught or told how) to interpret it. So I delved into a study of the Biblical errancy vs. inerrancy debate.
(NOTE: In the last decade, these debates have flourished on the Web and in books. There are already a plethora of responses to virtually every critical question about biblical inconsistencies, as you will find if you decide to delve into the issue by following the links above. The validity of the responses is highly questionable, but that’s beyond the scope of this letter.)
I must admit that when I was a professed Church of Christ-flavored Christian, I felt rather guilty when I started to contemplate the multitude of tough questions that any intelligent, studying, growing, honest Christian will surely eventually ask him/herself. It seemed strange, if not plain wrong, to question the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. There was considerable guilt.
I was soon reminded that Christians are exhorted by the Bible itself to pursue these kinds of studies and to be ready to explain the basis of their faith. Examples:
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid. (Proverbs 12:1)
…And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But you must do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak evil against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. (I Peter 3:15b-16)
Dearly loved friends, I had been eagerly planning to write you about the salvation we all share. But now I find I must write about something else, urging you to defend the truth of the Good News (contend for the faith). (Jude 3)
Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. (I Thessalonians 5:20-21a)
After several months of study, I could no longer ignore the discrepancies. Frankly, having been raised in the church and never before having the courage to objectively consider these things, it was shocking. In another way, it was also a huge relief; I was truly sick and tired of bouncing back and forth between belief and doubt. Much further study of other religious and spiritual paths seemed to fully support my new point of view. The study continues to this day, and I hope I never stop studying these things.
If Christianity posed merely a handful of perplexing errors and/or inconsistencies, I might be willing and able to overlook them. But the truth is that fundamentalist Christianity poses a truckload of such issues.
And it’s certainly not unique to fundamentalist Christianity; it seems that systems or worldviews that rely on rigid, legalistic, literal, inflexible interpretations of a given message or text often fail to realize the central message of unity, living in accordance with basic, universal spiritual principles, and so on.
I have already written a summary of this so-called “errancy vs. inerrancy” argument, but my document addresses only a few of them – basically, some of the ones that bothered me most. Here are some lists of errors and inconsistencies in the Bible that provide more coverage:
Discussion, debate will not provide answer
One thing I finally came to realize through experience is the ultimate futility of religious debate. There is no such thing as proof for any argument about supernatural events. In other words, religious beliefs are beyond the scope of rational discourse.
For this and other reasons, it is all a matter of personal choice in the end. You will believe what you decide to believe, regardless of anything else – including logic and reason. [ Far more important: Spiritual practice... experiencing communion with the mystery of the universe, spiritual connection, God, Buddha consciousness, Higher Self, or whatever else one might choose to call it. ]
This is why I have toned down the intensity of my research and ceased to initiate serious discussions on the subject. In my experience, these kinds of religious exchanges always end in one of these ways:
- Agree to disagree (the best case scenario, short of one person “converting” the other)
- Someone being too offended or frustrated to continue
- Increased resentment toward the other person, or worse
God of the gaps
The "God of the gaps" concept goes back to Henry Drummond, a 19th-century Scottish naturalist & evangelist who aimed to harmonize Darwin’s theory of evolution with the Bible. In Henry Drummond’s Lowell Lectures on The Ascent of Man. He berates those Christians (often, conservative fundamentalists who interpret the Bible literally) who point to the things that science hasn’t yet tackled — "gaps which they will fill up with God" — and encourages them to embrace all of nature as God’s, as the work of"an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology."
God of the gaps quotes
…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian
There is no ‘God of the gaps’ to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking… Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all.
– Charles Coulson, British chemist, mathematician, religious author
I believe that a large percentage of what people call disagreement could be more accurately described as miscommunication, and the purpose of this section is to avoid just that.
Effective communication that is relatively free of misunderstanding and misinterpretation requires the participants to be straightforward in the language used, and as such, it is important to define certain terms on the front end. The purpose of this section is to let the reader know what meaning(s) we’re assigning to certain terms used in this letter.
The question, Do you believe in God? is a great example. If a conservative Christian asks me that, they are most likely inquiring as to whether I believe in the deity/deities as described in the Bible. Let’s say I think of "God" as the non-anthropomorphic, ultimate cause, or that I believe God is everything (i.e., pantheism). In this case, where my concept of God (or a Higher Power) is something entirely different than hers, then my answer may be devoid of meaning — at least where any mutual understanding is concerned. A positive answer from me would likely be interpreted as my believing in the Bible God(s).
Here, I am referring to a Protestant fundamentalist: one who stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming; technically, a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism.
In more casual language, when I use the word “fundamentalist” or “fundie” for short, I am talking about one who takes a literal view of the Bible and/or believes that Christianity is the only path to enlightenment or heaven, and that all others are wrong and/or doomed.
The Original Cause, whatever that might be
The God(s) described in the Bible, esp. interpreted literally
In my opinion, one must study more than one angle or viewpoint if one is to become truly educated in a given area or discipline. If one seeks to become an expert in American politics, for example, then he must study more than just the opinions, dogma, and ideology of one political party. I believe the same holds true for religious and/or spiritual paths.
NOTE: Actually, I do believe the statements above regarding Jesus, heaven, and hell. The difference is, I do not believe they are necessarily meant to be taken literally. It is all a matter of interpretation. I have gone into much more detail on this subject in another paper.