Maybe I Should Just Give Up


If I hadn't discovered Marcus Borg, I probably never would have set foot inside a Christian Church. In his books, I discovered that there was a way of seeing Christianity that was not tied to certain dogmas that I simply rejected out of hand. Given that Marcus Borg was so popular in certain circles, I imagined that there must be a vast reservoir of free thinking, rational individuals within progressive Christianity, people with whom I might not agree on every detail but who, like I, sought to fulfill their spiritual desires without giving up their intellect, who didn't share the mind numbing premises of conservative theology.

I am beginning to think that this was all wishful thinking.

The more contact I have with real world liberal Christianity (as opposed to the esoteric world of progressive thought found in books by Borg, Crossan and others), the more it seems to me that, when push comes to shove, it may not be that different from conservative Christianity after all. While it is true that liberal Christians generally reject wholesale biblical liberalism, as far as I cant tell most of them still adhere to an awful lot of what I would call magical thinking. I think that, in my desperation to find some place within the Christian community where I could belong, I may have been in denial about this. I have been bouncing from congregation to congregation, church shopping and trying to find something that would work for me, because I wanted so much to believe that I could find a home somewhere if I just looked hard enough. I've been searching for the ghost of Borg and I am not sure it can be found anywhere in the real world.

When I compare myself to liberal Christians, I think about the beliefs that many of us have had in our lives. Some of those beliefs ultimately we come to consider untenable, leading to a crisis that demanded a resolution and a new set of beliefs. For example:

  • - Age when I stopped believing in Santa Claus: 7
  • - Age when I stopped believing that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead: 16
  • - Age when conservative Christians stop believing that Jesus was physically resurrected: never
  • - Age when liberal Christians stop believing that Jesus was physically resurrected: never
From the above example, I see that liberal Christians and conservative Christians hold one very important belief in common, and it is a belief that I do not share.

It largely does boil down to the resurrection, and this was what made me so cranky at Easter time. My experience has been that the vast majority of liberal Christians are just as stuck on believing in this as a literal, historical event as conservative Christians are. And not only do they believe that, but many of them also seem to believe that it is an essential tenet of the faith. This goes even further than merely relegating my views to that of "acceptable but second class", which is mostly what I have grudgingly felt that I had to put up with up to this point. "Acceptable but second class" would mean that my views were tolerated but ignored, that clergy would never suggest in their sermons that Jesus's resurrection was anything but a literal, historical truth, but that I was welcome anyway to participate in the church life of a congregation where my views were never brought into play or given respectability.

But no, saying that the physical resurrection is an essential tenet of the faith goes much farther than that. Instead of "acceptable but second class", my views are deemed instead "unacceptable". To say that the resurrection is an essential tenet revokes even my second-class status, because instead of allowing my views as a sort of minority report within the faith, never talked about or acknowledged but at least tolerated, my views are instead considered contrary to the very essence of the religion and therefore not to be tolerated at all.

So I am left out in the cold altogether. And if I can't even make an alliance with liberal Christians, then I've got nothing. I might as well be a Buddhist.

I wrote around Easter time that the whole resurrection thing was making me cranky. I'm still feeling cranky, probably more so.

My goal is not to insult liberal Christianity, but what I am about to say will probably offend. Unfortunately, I cannot help but get this off my chest. I cannot believe that otherwise thinking, adult human beings who go about their lives on a daily basis as if we live in a rational, ordered world that obeys certain physical laws suddenly throw their brains out the window when it comes to literally believing in an extraordinary fairy tale about an event that supposedly took place two millenia ago. I expect conservative Christians to believe such things, because, after all, that's who they are. But liberal Christians believe this stuff too.

Credulity becomes a hallmark of faith. This whole belief in miracles is so, so, so pre-Enlightenment, so God-of-the-Gaps. It isn't what my religion is about. I believe at the core of my being that God doesn't intervene in the world through extraordinary means. Post-holocaust Jews can give you 6,000,000 reasons why it isn't so. To me, it is wishful thinking to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead in any literal, historical sense, a product of a belief system that was outdated a few centuries ago with the rise of the Enlightenment. In a post-Enlightenment era, the continued belief in the resurrection can only be justified out of desperation from a notion of the God of the gaps, which itself has become repudiated. This belief in a physical resurrection is, in my view, a case of wishful thinking overcoming reason and common sense.

When I first began writing this blog, I felt caught in the middle between the orthodox Christianity found in mainline churches, and the lack of Christian focus found in Unitarian Universalism. I felt dubious that I could find a religious community that would work for me. But, pushed by a need to connect with God, I decided to try looking in mainline churches anyway, to see what I could find in some obscure corner somewhere. Maybe this quest for something that could fulfill me in Christian denominations was based on a little wishful thinking of my own.

So maybe I was being delusional. And yet, I'm not quite at the point where I have given up on Christianity entirely just yet. I am willing to continue to give things a try. But I am feeling a sour taste in my mouth right now, frustrated, and not sure what to do about it. I wish it were so simple that I could just give up the core of my beliefs and latch on to a religion that offered me the answers, and all I had to do was assent to those beliefs, sign on the dotted line, and I'd be in. But it doesn't seem to work that way. I simply can't do that.


John Shuck said...

Hey there, fellow traveler.

I feel I am on the same path as you. I really don't like being constantly boxed into the corner about it as a clergyperson.

Hey, I like resurrection as a symbol! I dig Jesus! I can affirm God! What more do y'all want?

Oh well...


Heather said...

I very much understand what you mean when it comes to being treated like a second-class citizen. I've been mulling over this since you first brought it up, and think I've targeted the real reason why it's bothered me.

I've noticed this in real life, and some of the comments I've received in my own blog, as well as reactions to comments I've left in other blogs, have only confirmed it. This is going to sound harsh, but it seems as like as soon as one says something that goes against a central belief in any religion, that person is treated like an idiot. Bible quotes get flung in your face, or historical beliefs.

And that drives me nuts (and it sounds like it's driving you nuts as well). Because we are holding beliefs that don't match with traditional Christianity, so wouldn't it logically imply that we've investigated why we hold that? Take my belief that Jesus isn't God. I am more than well aware of what passages are used to support that -- and yet they get used on me as though I've never read the Gospel of John.

For your belief in the resurrection (or lack thereof), you sound as though you're in the same position. If you've expressed that in a church that you've recently visited, has anyone actually asked how you came to that conclusion? Has anyone actually assumed that you've read the whole New Testament, or studied it's history, and then asked a question along the lines of, "So how do you account for [fill in the blank]. Or have they just assumed that you're making it up to suit yourself?

And I think that might be where another part of your frustration is coming from -- they're not even trying to find out why, or trying to reach a common ground.

Sarah said...

Ah, what Heather said. It's that they just assume you have not thought about your beliefs, and if you truly thought about the beliefs, you'd agree with them.

I just had to comment because I've been reading your blog for a while now, and keep wanting to say things, but then being like, well, it is not really necessary.

Ah, anyway, I seem to be in a similar position. I've pretty much given up on mainline churches now, though.

I am a unitarian christian panentheist, and I also don't believe in a physical resurrection. I don't remember when I stopped believing in it. Sometime in the last year or two, I think. Jesus finally became real to me after I could picture him as a real person, like you or me. It was a wonderful thing in my religious journey. I've never really considered myself as a liberal christian, but maybe I just associate them with politics more than I should.

Anyway, right now I've found my place with something called the American Unitarian Conference. It is not the same as Unitarian Universalism. I don't know if you've ever heard of the AUC or not, but if not, give us a look around to see if this is anything you might be interested in. There is a small community of sorts on the forum, but, unfortunately, at this point in time, it is an online thing only.

So now I am considering a UU fellowship. It is just a little thing in the small town I am living in now. Since the UU varies so much from church to church (I tried out one closer to where I lived before and was very disappointed) I decided to give this fellowship a chance. I know the guy who runs it, and so far he seems pretty cool. I just know that I have been lacking in the face-to-face fellowship area, and that really does help me in my journey.

I have never read Marcus Borg, though, so I have no idea if the AUC is along his lines. Perhaps I should look into that.

MadPriest said...

A few points:
1) Quite often liberal Christians will say they believe something in a way that will lead you to thinking they mean literally believe (literally, as in your understanding of the word), when in fact their understanding of "believe" will be more ambiguous. A true liberal would not insist on distinctions being made. To an extent you are confusing liberals with non-realists who are literalists in reverse, so to speak, like yourself.
2) A true liberal would never dismiss your viewpoint as invalid. That would be illiberal. I'm 100% realist when it comes to the creeds but I don't only accept your right to hold your views but also that you are, at least, just as likely to be right as myself.
3) Liberals can be very conservative and they are so 20th. Century. Post-modern Christians from any background are less proscriptive.
$) The problem is that you are most likely rigid in your understanding of a truth being either/or. So perhaps you are barking up the wrong tree by aligning yourself with those with a more abstract view of existence. You have a problem in that there are few non-realist theologians - I doubt if there are any non-realist congregations. I think you'll even find Unitarianism too wishy washy for your analytical brain.

So good luck and may your god go with you (literally or metaphorically).

John Shuck said...

Mad Priest,

What is the difference between realist and non-realist? I am thinking of Don Cupitt as a non-realist theologian.

I suppose realism and non-realism are poles of a spectrum with most folks falling in-between.


Mystical Seeker said...

John I appreciate your comments and your support a great deal.

Heather, I know what you mean about people assuming that you haven't read the Bible. I know that in your own blog you have had one or two individuals who just keep throwing Bible verses at you as if that was all it took to convince you of anything.

Sarah, thanks for reading my blog and thanks for offering your comments. It's nice to hear from a fellow unitarian christian panentheist! I have heard of the AUC, from poking around the web, but I don't know much else about it. Good luck in your own search.

Mad Priest, I always appreciate your comments, even if we don't always agree 100% on everything. You are right about my reaction to Unitarian Universalism. I've been to UU services, but the ones I've been to haven't worked for me. That was why I ventured into more explicitly Christian territory.

Greg said...

For me, a central question arises, and it is one that I have been struggling with for quite some time. That question is this: What does it mean to be Christian?

There have been numerous suggestions, all of which I do not know nor claim to know. But they have included adhering to some set of so-called “fundamentals,” which include the physical resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, and other things. Some think it means going to church, displaying the cross, putting a fish on an automobile, being “born again,” accepting Jesus into one’s heart, believing that the ultimate reason Jesus came to earth was to “die for our sins” (i.e. the atonement), and a host of other things. Some think it means you’re keeping your eye on the eastern sky, just waiting for Jesus to rapture the “saved,” take them safely home and pour out all hell on earth for everyone else.

But if the word “Christian” is to mean, “Christ like,” then to be Christian is to believe in and act upon the ideas and principles Jesus taught. Those ideas are all radical in nature, and they include radical peace, forgiveness, love, mercy, graciousness, inclusiveness, and work for a just and equal society. Also included is an abhorrence of greed- and power-driven organized religion.

The so-called “fundamentals” or how one interprets the resurrection scriptures is irrelevant to me, as are other dogmatic assertions based on the writings of Paul, Augustine and other theologians. If one calls her- or himself Christian, I will be looking for the radical ideas Jesus taught and acted upon in her or his own life. And, sad to say, I’m not seeing those in the lives of most so-called Christians. Many self-identified Christians should rather call themselves “Paulites,” or better yet, “Augustinites.”

Narrow focused fundamentalism and dogma get in the way of what it really means to be Christian, and even self-identified liberal Christians can easily get caught up in the whirlwind of pop-Christian, market-driven dogma.

However, I agree with madpriest as far as liberalism's definition of "believing" something is concerned. That definition can be very ambiguous!

For example, a liberal friend of mind says to be Christian is to "confess Jesus as lord." Well, to me that sounds awfully conservative, fundamentalist even, and it turns me off!! But although a fundamentalist would say the same thing, my friend and the fundamentalist mean something totally different. My friend means believing and following the teachings of Jesus (i.e. lord meaning one to be followed). The fundamentalist would mean one must submit to the teachings of the church (in this case the so-called "fundamentals of the faith" established by Christian fundamentalilsm).

Cynthia said...

I have been mulling over this post since I read it. I have felt much the same way in my own home church and in many UCC churches since I left the local UCC church of my childhood (Norwell, MA). It absolutely ruined church for me elsewhere because it was so special, so full of the Spirit and of people who wanted to form a community that would be about transformation, both internal and external.

Thing is, I realized I was as focused on belief, what constitutes my belief system, as much as those I rail against. Sometimes my thoughts, feelings, beliefs about God can make me feel so lonely--that existential loneliness where I realize that no one can understand this world the way I understand it because I am unique. The key for me is to find some folks who are willing to huddle together in that loneliness and to act in ways that help transform each other and a piece of this world. Some of these folks go to church with me, some of them live far away, some of them I've never met except through these blogs, including you. I have to believe that these connections make a difference because the alternative would mean they're meaningless.

So, fellow friend on the Way, I ran across a small book that I thought you might find interesting.

"God: A Seeker's Companion" by David Schiller. It's filled with quotes by people from all over the spiritual map. If I had your address I would send it you, so I resort to this method instead.

You're in my prayers.

Eileen said...

John said: Hey, I like resurrection as a symbol! I dig Jesus! I can affirm God! What more do y'all want?

I'm on that same boat.

I've come to realize my spiritual path is my own. Just like I can't see the dirt on the top of my fridge (because I'm only 5' tall), I understand I can't see God the way others see him/her/the divine. I don't see God in that way, but it doesn't necessarily mean God isn't that way. I'm not convinced I'm right either - only that perhaps I have a piece of the truth - the bottom of the fridge piece.

I'm really a Christian panentheist, with a bigger unitarian-universalist bent then I'm comfortable admitting to.

I've relegated lots of doctrinal things to a waste basket of sorts. The trinity is a beautiful metaphor for me - it's a useful framework. I don't take it all that seriously because humans thought it up - and the humans who thought it up couldn't see the top of the fridge necessarily either, ya know? But, they did see at least a part of the fridge, I think.

God is. What we believe about God is probably irrelevant.

How we we treat one another, how we strive to live... I think that stuff matters alot.

So,this silly little ex-RC now Episcopal Christian-Universalist-Unitarian-Panentheist feels peace at my current church, even though I say a creed, even though we talk about Trinity, even though I'm not convinced magic happens to the bread and wine.

For whatever reason, I get fed with the spirit there.

My intellect gets fed through books, and many of the conversations I have on these blogs. The world isn't perfect. But, it's filled with some pretty good things. And yes, I do pick and choose the kind of Christian I want to be. Most Christians do.

You'll find a place. It won't be perfect, but that's ok, cuz neither are we perfect. It will be "good enough" and the rest will be between you and the divine.

Mystical Seeker said...

Greg, I really like what you wrote about living out the radical ideas of Jesus.

Cynthia, thanks for your supportive comments. Thanks for the book reference. I will have to check it out.

Eileen, I think that whatever feeds your spirit is what is right for you. I haven't quite found my own equivalent yet, but (despite the pessimistic title of this blog posting) I haven't given up yet.