21 January 2016

A shift in my religious bias

Dear weblog,

I’m happy to report that I’ve finally shaken off my antichristianity. This is not the same as saying that I’ve accepted Christianity—I just mean I’m no longer persuaded by the antichristian stance. I hope that this is what they call becoming enlightened.

I’ll try to sketch a rundown of my own religious inexperience below, for the sake of reminding myself how impressionable my mind is, how often it is prone to change, and thus how trustworthy I amn’t. But, first, here’s the gist of my realization…

The insight was so simple and obvious, I’m ashamed to admit that it only occurred to me recently. In the past I’ve asserted (ad nauseam, I suppose) that I distrust the judgments of GROUPS—I favor taking each person as an individual, instead of associating them with whatever system they claim to embrace. A system is like a mob: it’s a guide for thinking; a shortcut, as opposed to a thorough perception. Christianity is a system that I reject; howbeit, when I act according to anti-christian principles, I only become the reverse of that popular clique: I end up assessing individuals carelessly — not in accordance with my direct experience of their thoughts and actions, but on the assumption that we each fit neatly into our group.

I’ve probably already cited earlier, amid the screens of this electronic diary, the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” THIS is the stance that I want to remain in accord with. Also the following sentences, which occur just before the above quote in the same essay (“History”):

This life of ours is stuck round with Egypt, Greece, Gaul, England, War, Colonization, Church, Court, and Com­merce, as with so many flowers and wild ornaments grave and gay. I will not make more account of them. I believe in Eternity. I can find Greece, Asia, Italy, Spain, and the Islands,—the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.

It took some time for the belief system that I was raised in to “take effect.” I mean, during the early years of my existence, I didn’t think very much about why or what I believed, or even if I believed in any particular religion—I was unaware that there were alternatives to the Protestant Christian church that my family attended weekly. (This strikes me as funny now, because the word “Protestant” itself implies that something is being protested against—in this case, Catholicism.) I just accepted that this is another thing that boring adults do: go to church. I didn’t question it—like brushing my teeth, I attended the service because I was told that I must.

So, throughout childhood and early adolescence, my stance toward religion was to avoid its tedium as much as possible; I had no sophisticated reason for this: church was just a realm that felt stuffy and irksome. …But then in my twenties I began to consider belief more seriously. It was like a slow-acting drug had been administered to me as an infant, and only now, decades later, were its effects kicking in.

As I grew out of babyhood and developed into my own self—as I graduated from being the mere child of my parents and became Bryan Ray, an American, one of the roughs (quoting this makes me wonder: What if I had been raised on Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ instead of C.S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’!)—I began to think more seriously about my religious heritage:

What does God mean to me? What does the Bible actually say?

Up to this point in life, I had not questioned God’s existence—I just accepted it as a given: it never occurred to me to doubt it. Likewise, I accepted it as a given that God’s own Holy Spirit wrote the Bible as a grand unified masterpiece of coherent wisdom; as opposed to seeing it as a collection of various stories, poems, letters, arguments, etc., whose authorship could be attributed to brilliant humans.

So, starting in adolescence and continuing into my twenties, I faced the big questions of my religious upbringing. I said to myself: If the things that I have been taught about God are correct, then I should live my life in the closest accordance with them—anyway, there’s no point in trying to thwart the plan of an omnipotent being—and the only way to discover whether or not what my parents’ church taught me about God was correct is to study the book that they claimed the deity wrote.

(I was able to entertain doubts about the teachings of my parents and their church, because one of the beliefs of their system was that humans—including the church’s highest leaders—are prone to err; but, I repeat: I dared not question the existence of God or the trustworthiness of “His Word,” the Holy Bible.)

The Bible is a big book. It’s long, varied, ancient, and complicated. If you approach it determinedly expecting to find a certain viewpoint, you will likely be able to succeed. This is because the book does not read itself—the believer’s own mind must interpret the scripture’s contents; in this way, its readership participates in the creation of the Bible’s meaning. To read the Word of God is to become God’s coauthor: a holy ghostwriter. And this is why doctrine is of utmost importance to churches—doctrine tells followers what to think of the text, what the text means, and what to conclude about the text, whether or not one actually studies the text. Doctrine keeps the group on the same page. (However, even the clearest doctrines, alas, must undergo interpretation by individual readers.) Thus, biblical scholarship is like cloud-gazing: each reader finds whatever he or she wants. Here’s an exchange between Hamlet and Polonius [3:2]…

Spending time in conversation with churchgoers (from laypeople to deacons and pastors of different denominations) opened my eyes to the tendency of believers to see what they want in their scripture. And I realized that I myself was doing the same, on instinct. But I didn’t conclude that we are all wrong to be reading thus inventively—contrariwise, I saw it as proof that our mind is inherently creative: that imagination is the active essence of divinity in humankind.

I began to see churches and their doctrines as the enemies of God, since they exist to hinder and limit the imagination. This was my problem: I fell into the easy trap of treating individual believers as a group—whereas, just because they proclaim allegiance to a church does not mean that they cease to be people. And I recoiled from the system of Christianity by affirming the counter-system of anti­christianity. All that this did, I now understand, is lend credibility to the game of religion, which pits group against group. If I am truly FOR the individual and AGAINST group mentality, then it’s better to remain aloof from every group; and to engage in the difficult task of hearing out each soul, no matter how derivative their ideas: to sort out what I think has value from what I reject, among the chaos of the “gray area” (as opposed to the black-vs.-white world of absolutes)… Here are some lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (§21):

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

Just as the act of engaging heavily with the church (and Bible) itself is what eventually led to my rejecting Christianity, it was my reading about the extremeness of my favorite poets’ antichristian attitude that awoke my mind to the shortcomings of that posture.

In conclusion, I’m glad when we souls share our heartfelt opinions, for then future ages can profit from our flaws—and, this way, things might keep getting better.

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