Saturday, July 31, 2021

Dipping a Toe Into Orthodoxy

I attended my first Orthodox catechism yesterday. A group of around 10 of us met in the church’s old temple. That was where I attended Divine Liturgy at that church for the first time, more than a year ago. The community has since grown so much that Sunday services had to be relocated to the much larger dining hall. Nice problem to have, when you consider how church attendance is in sharp decline in so many places. It seems that people are yearning for the certainty of strong faith in these tumultuous times. The Orthodox, by their very nature of being Orthodox, certainly provide that firm foundation. Even better, they manage to do it without being overly zealous, scripture-flinging fundamentalists. I’ve had my fill of that for one lifetime.

The deacon who led the class gave a good overview of Orthodox soteriology. Similar to the Catholics, the Orthodox see salvation as an ongoing process, not as a one-and-done intellectual assent that happens during the emotional peak of an altar call. When folks of a one-and-done mindset ask if someone is “saved,” Catholics often reply: “I was saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.” See, for example, Ephesians 2:8, Philippians 2:12, and Romans 13:11. 

The Gospels themselves lean toward a past-present-future basis of salvation. When Christ affirms, for example, that loving God and neighbor is the key to gaining eternal life (Luke 10:25-29), he didn't mean just offering up a single act of love: You have to keep working at it. (And no, that doesn't equate to “salvation by works,” as Protestants so often claim of Catholicism. It just means that being a follower of Christ entails walking in his footsteps and following his example.)  

There is a difference, though, between the Catholic and Orthodox views on soteriology. Having been on both sides of the discussion, I’ll try to offer a fair summary.

In Catholicism, your continuing salvation is dependent on your ongoing fidelity to the church and the frequent reception of the sacraments – in other words, being a “good Catholic” in obedience to Rome. Catholics once took the notion of extra ecclesiam nulla sallas – no salvation outside the church – to mean that you couldn’t be saved outside the Catholic church at all. The church has backed off that stance in recent years, but Pope Boniface VIII declared unequivocally in a 1302 proclamation that “it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” More than a century later, coming out of the Council of Florence, Rome was again adamant that “none of those existing outside the Catholic church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the ‘eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.’”  

It was also decreed at the Council of Florence that the soul of any person with unconfessed mortal sin on his soul at the time of death, or who was not relieved of Original Sin through baptism, would be sentenced to eternal torture in hell. So get yourself baptized and confess to your priest before it’s too late.

In Orthodoxy, the church itself is not the source of your salvation. Rather, the church helps orient you toward salvation. Through active participation in the life of the church – which includes reception of the sacraments – we become more like Christ through an ongoing process of purification that leads us through this life and beyond. That’s the heart of theosis – becoming by grace what God is by nature, in the words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

Of course, being partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), the very heart of theosis, is only possible if you believe that man is inherently good, the crown of God’s creation, made in his image, with the potential to become as pure as we were before the Fall. As the deacon at our class illustrated, the concept of theosis has never been popular in the West because of the negative – often extremely so – Protestant view of humanity. Luther, of course, famously referred to human beings as dunghills whose inherent ugliness can only be hidden from view by the pure white snow of God’s grace. We never actually stop being dunghills; our filth is merely covered so God can bear to look upon us. Thus, we never really become cleansed; God’s grace is imputed but never infused. Our inner nature never changes. Consequently, we never progress toward anything better. 

Luther probably adopted this view because of his own extreme scrupulosity. He would spend hours compiling lists of his sins and going to daily confession, only to find no relief from his view of himself as nothing but human waste. His solution was to proclaim that all humans could not be otherwise, that his warped conception of himself must hold true for all people in their fallen human state. Spurred on by his (reasonable) opposition to the selling of indulgences, he went on to launch a religious reformation that held his deeply skewed view of humanity at its core.

The total depravity of mankind, of course, is one of the five points of Calvinism – which therefore has just as dim of a view of the nature of humanity as Luther did.

All of this has always seemed to me like an ungrateful slap in the face of the God who proclaimed that his creation was good.

There was, however, one point in our discussion that flung me back into my own personal struggles with the idea of the “omni-God”: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent. Our deacon went through Calvin’s view of predestination, the bleak notion that no matter what you do, now matter how holy of a life you might live, God has already chosen whether you’ll be saved or damned. 

I’ve always found that idea abhorrent. Yet my struggle to reconcile free will with divine omniscience makes it difficult for me to reject the idea outright.

Here’s what I mean: If one of God’s attributes is omniscience, then he always knows what choices we’ll make before we even make them. If I’m presented with Options A, B, and C, an omniscient God always knew I’d pick, say, Option B. So do we really have free will, or is it just an illusion? Were Adam and Eve always destined to eat of the tree? Are we just puppets on strings?

I struggle to work through the implications of where this idea leads. It doesn’t seem to leave us much agency, and while it’s not the same thing Calvin proposed, it more or less gets us to the same place, in that we don’t have much say in the fate of our souls if the scripts of our lives have already been written. And it seems to reduce “free will” to a stark binary choice of doing things God’s way or being cast into eternal torment, which is less a choice and more an ultimatum.

I won’t press the point any further for now, except to note that I also struggle with the tension between divine omnipotence and omnibenevolence on one hand, and suffering and evil on the other. Coming to grips with the omni-God in the context of the world we live in is not a new dilemma for me, as I’ve documented here recently. But it is something I need to sit with before I can make any significant progress on this tentative journey and press deeper into Orthodoxy.

(Photo by Nuta Sorokina, from Pexels.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

This Is Why I Hate Humanity

I made the mistake today of checking in on the news.

It seems Maskapalooza is making a comeback, because a surgical mask will totally stop a virus that’s about 1/30th the size of the pores in the mask, never minding the massive air gaps. And it’s all the fault of those who have the audacity not to submit to having an experimental, potentially cytotoxic vaccine injected into their bodies, to protect themselves from a virus with a 98.3% survival rate. It’s a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” after all. And apparently, immune systems don’t exist.

And “tolerant” “liberals” from Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s former HHS secretary, to CNN’s ever-reliable nitwit Don Lemon think that all the filthy unvaccinated swine shouldn’t be able to shop, work, go to ball games, or have access to their own kids. Because, you know, a virus with a 98.3% survival rate is an existential threat. And even if you're vaccinated, you still have to fear the Great Unwashed, for some reason.

Tyrannical lunatics like Gavin Newsom are even starting in with the painfully predictable “you don't have a right to drink and drive” crap. Because letting a drunk person get behind the wheel of a hunk of metal and glass moving at a high rate of speed is totally the same thing as putting already vaccinated people at risk of getting a virus with a 98.3% survival rate.

All this guilt, fear, and shame, over nothing. The only thing these control freaks do is stir up unhinged people like this, who, like so many today, lets his emotion override any semblance of common sense:

Maybe we should just reintroduce “coloreds-only” sections in public places and turn them into “unvaccinated-only” areas. That way, the vaxxed — who for some reason are being told to mask again, even though they’re supposed to be protected from the Black Plague of Our Times — can be protected from the untouchables. Or maybe we should bring back yellow stars and internment camps. That would be neat.

The current news cycle is deliberately propagandizing the public into fearing and scapegoating “the unvaccinated.” Don’t believe you’re being manipulated? Try this on for size:

Bad, bad noncompliant freethinkers. If the world can’t get back to normal, it’s all their fault. 

And it seems like most of the public is lapping it right up, being played like a fiddle, just the way they did last year when all this nonsense began.

Seeing all that Chicken Little garbage today was quite enough for me to remember why I stopped paying attention to current events in the first place. Christ, if we devolve back into mandates and lockdowns again, I think I’m going to lose my freaking mind. And if we do, it has nothing to do with the unvaccinated and everything to do with all the clueless morons who are incapable of turning off their damn TVs and thinking for themselves.

I’m just dumbfounded. I’ve always felt like I don’t belong in this world, but that sense of alienation has reached new heights over the past year and a half. Fifty years, and I still can’t figure people out. Fortunately, I have a kindred spirit in my wife, who says she must be an alien with amnesia: She can’t remember what planet she came from, but she knows she sure doesn’t fit in here. Just two lost souls living in a fishbowl, as Pink Floyd put it. Thank goodness for her, because I don’t think I could have survived all this irrational madness without her.

Humans suck. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Pope Who Hated His Own Church

You've probably heard that Pope Francis has decided to crack down on the Traditional Latin Mass. Ironically -- or perhaps not -- Francis' decision came on the anniversary, to the exact day, of the beginning of the Great Schism of 1054, when Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida excommunicated Michael Cerularius, the patriarch of Constantinople. The split would never be healed, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy remain today as two separate expressions of the Christian faith. 

The Schism was the end result of years of disagreements -- theological, cultural, and otherwise -- between the Eastern and Western churches. It's difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the West was the primary antagonist in the matter, with its insistence of papal primacy over all of Christendom, rather than having the bishop of Rome acting as first among equals. Orthodoxy continues its practice of collegiality among its bishops and patriarchs, while Catholicism continues to hand down its unilateral edicts from one man in the Vatican.

The latest papal edict is the reversal of the liberalization of saying the Latin Mass. Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, in arguing that the Latin Mass had never been abrogated following the Second Vatican Council that modernized the Catholic church, officially authorized its continued use. That was a big deal for traditionalist Catholics who had long bristled at the reforms that had come out of Vatican II. Up until that time, the Mass was said in Latin all over the world, as the priest, facing the crucifix and the altar, recited the Mass mostly inaudibly, with only the altar boys making responses. At high Masses, a choir would sing some of the prayers, but churchgoers quietly prayed with their rosaries or reverently followed along in their missals with side-by-side translations. That was how the Mass was said for 400 years, ever since the Roman Missal of 1570 established the Tridentine Mass

The reforms of Vatican II were an attempt to bring the ancient church into the modern world. The Mass would now be said in the local language, the priest was turned around to face the congregation, the people were given the responses once limited to the altar boys, and the altar rails where the faithful once knelt to receive communion were torn out, in favor of having people walk up to the priest (or a layperson authorized to assist) to receive the Body of Christ.
Some traditionalists contend that Vatican II was a conspiratorial attempt to undermine the church, with its heavy focus on ecumenism and the active involvement of Protestant "observers" at the council. And while I don't know enough to take a stance on those claims one way or another, it's undeniable that the church lost its sense of reverence and holiness by making the Mass more mundane, for lack of a better word. 

The Latin Mass was transcendent in its beauty. It directed attention toward, and promoted contemplation of, the Almighty. It was all oriented toward offering a sacrifice to God. After Vatican II, the Mass became a contemporary participatory event between priest and congregation, almost like a dialogue between the two. It was now this-worldly, rather than otherworldly, with the Eucharist itself reduced to little more than a picnic. The inevitable result of all this was that God was no longer center stage at Mass. At its worst, the modern Mass became a sort of entertainment directed at the individual. I'm not talking evangelical Protestant rock-concert-level entertainment, mind you, but in comparison with the old Latin Mass, the contrast was still quite shocking. The script got flipped.

I was born after Vatican II, so I only ever experienced the so-called Novus Ordo Mass growing up. Some of the Masses I can remember from my youth were garishly awful, with guitar-strumming lectors leading us in contemporary hymns that smacked of feel-good me-and-Jesus Protestantism. These Masses reflected the church buildings themselves, generally modern and ugly, devoid of transcendent beauty. I wouldn't discover the Latin Mass till many years later. But once I did, I could see a night-and-day difference between the old church and the new one, and I was left to wonder how the Catholic church could have ever cast such splendor and beauty aside -- and why. 

I'm not saying Novus Ordo Masses can't be done well. But with the relaxed attitude of the new Mass came relaxed attitudes toward Catholic theology, to the point where priests were delivering the equivalent of pep-rally sermons, designed not to offend and often reducing a rich, centuries-old theological tradition to "be nice to each other." Little wonder, then, that catechesis is so bad these days. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that a mind-boggling 69% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine at communion are merely symbols of Christ, as opposed to the church's teaching that the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Of those surveyed, 45% didn't even know what the church's stance was.

That kind of failure to even understand the basic tenets of your own religion comes from the top down. Either priests aren't learning what they need to learn in seminary, or they aren't bothering to make sure their congregations are well catechized. I know all this stuff because I constantly asked questions in my younger days, wanting to understand exactly what I was supposed to believe. But I shouldn't have had to force the issue. Some adult in my life, some priest, some catechism teacher, should have been able to sufficiently explain everything to me. Instead, to the best of my recollection, no one ever gave me more than the bare-bones basics -- pretty much enough to get through my first confession, first communion, and confirmation. 

If that's typical of the contemporary state of Catholic teaching, and the Pew poll suggests it is, then is it any wonder why the churches are emptying out? If you can't make an argument for why people should stay in the church, then they're not going to stay.

But you know where Catholic church attendance wasn't sagging? In Latin Mass attendance. A 2019-2020 survey of 1,779 Catholics found that 98% of those aged 18 to 39 who attended Latin Mass were weekly attendees. In comparison, Gallup reports that just 22% of those aged 20 to 29 who attended the Novus Ordo were weekly churchgoers. 

FSSP coat of arms
In addition, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), an organization of priests and seminarians who train specifically to say the Latin Mass, have consistently reported exponential growth in their parishes. Some have doubled in size in recent years. Here in North Idaho, our Latin Mass parish, St. Joan of Arc, saw a nearly 30% increase in its numbers as of 2019. St. Joan outgrew its original building and had to construct a larger one. And that's not unusual: "At some of our Masses we will have as many as maybe 350 people, and so not everyone fits, and so people are actually sitting outside the doors, looking in through the open doors," said a San Diego priest. Another priest said that his church added a fourth Mass when 200 people were coming to worship, When it did, another 200 showed up.

I've seen that kind of attendance myself. St. Joan offers five Masses on Sundays, and on the occasions I've attended, the church was packed. The same goes for our Immaculate Conception parish run by the Latin Mass-observing Society of St. Pius X, where I've seen the overflow standing in the narthex, all the way back to the front door. (More on the SSPX in a moment.)

Religious vocations are on the rise in the FSSP and SSPX, too, where the rest of the church continues to see a decline in men pursuing the priesthood.

So, of course, given the popularity of the Latin Mass, the natural thing for Pope Francis to do would be to strangle the life out of it

Bishops must now approve of the use of the Latin Mass within their jurisdictions, and some will inevitably say no. Any priests ordained after Francis' edict will have to get express permission to celebrate the Latin Mass from their bishops, who in turn will have to get Vatican approval. Latin Masses can no longer be said in parish churches, no new pro-Latin Mass groups can be fomed within those parishes, and those churches can't create new parishes for the sole purpose of saying the Latin Mass. In other words, any Novus Ordo churches that offer the occasional Latin Mass can no longer do so, but those Masses can't be moved to a new parish, either. The only option for them is to either move to a non-church building or cease to exist. Pretty much the only place the Latin Mass can be said now is in parishes that already exclusively say the Latin Mass. 

That means Latin-only FSSP churches like our local St. Joan of Arc are safe -- for now. But our bishop now has the power to pull the plug on the church whenever he wants. And given his seeming antipathy toward anything resembling Latin Mass practice in the Novus Ordo, it wouldn't surprise me to see him bring the hammer down now that he can. 

So why is the "liberal," "tolerant," "who-am-I-to-judge" Pope Francis doing this? According to him, too many people who populate the Latin Mass are doing so in a show of rejection of Vatican II. But rather than take the growth of the Latin Mass as a sign that maybe the church needs to fix some glaring problems, Francis would rather suppress the movement that points to those very problems. 

I know that some people who prefer the Latin Mass are rigid, unbending, and uncharitable, and that they use the Mass as a weapon to express a kind of pharisaical self-righteousness to the world, and by extension to the modern church. I get that. But Francis is using that minority of people as an excuse to attack the entire edifice of the Latin Mass. 

My sense is that most of those who attend the old Mass just want an authentic Catholicity where theology still means something, and they can't find it in the modern church. Those who attend the Latin Mass are well catechized. Unlike those in the Pew poll, they know very well what the church believes and is supposed to teach. They see that the modern church is failing to pass on the faith, and so they've sought out a place that still resembles the Catholic church of centuries past. 

The old Mass is also appealing to young people with large families. Go to any Latin Mass (while you still can), and by and large, that's what you'll see. And they're there because they're looking for meaning in a chaotic, narcissistic, and nihilistic modernist world that leaves them adrift, directionless. The boomers who foisted their ugly, empty modernism on us seem incapable of comprehending the mess they've made, or why young folks are rejecting it.

You can count the 84-year-old pope among the clueless of his generation. And he will have none of your dissent if you force the issue by way of the Latin Mass. In fact, Francis' right-hand man in the Vatican, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, is reported to have said, shortly before Francis' edict, that "we must put an end to this Mass forever." Meanwhile, Archbishop Arthur Roche, who in May Francis appointed as the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was said to have gloated that Benedict XVI's Latin Mass liberalizations were nearly dead and that "we're going to give the power back to the bishops on this, but especially not to the conservative bishops." Roche was known as an opponent of the Latin Mass at the time of his appointment, and there was concern back then that Francis' decision to pick him meant bad news for the future of the Latin Mass. Turns out that concern was well founded.

So Francis can't be bothered to do much of anything about the sex-abuse scandal in the church. He has largely stood by while the German church pursues policies sharply at odds with Catholic teaching. He threw faithful underground Catholics under the bus in striking a secret deal with Communist China regarding control of the church there. He attacked church leaders who thought people should still be able to come to church and receive the sacraments during the COVID outbreak. He smeared people who opposed useless mask mandates. He says that those who refuse an experimental vaccine for a virus with an astronomically high survival rate are engaging in "suicidal denialism." Hell, so far he hasn't even spoken a word about the spate of church vandalisms and arsons in Canada. But if the only thing you want to do is worship in a manner that promotes transcendental beauty and upholds Catholic tradition and theology, well, that's just going too far.

It's hard to imagine that history will remember Francis' pontificate fondly. In attempting to promote a view of the church as kinder and more Christ-like, he has succeeded only in forcing a rigid leftist idealism on the church that is frequently at odds with the church's own mission and theology. But it's also no surprise that we've reached this point, as the theological drift ever since Vatican II was always heading precisely in this direction -- and it's hard not to think that where we've ended up was the plan all along. For instance, I recently read of an Orthodox priest who was told, as he sat in on Vatican II, that "we'll get rid of Mariology very soon," as if the Mother of God was a problem the church needed to rectify. And indeed, I can remember well the Catholic churches of the '70s and '80s that shoved their Mary statues into closets, in their wrongheaded attempts to play nice with Mary-hating Protestants and the Christian-hating modern world. 

Now the church is reaping what it has so foolishly sown. In its obsessive desire to be "relevant" in a world hostile to its very existence, the Catholic church is in danger of meaning nothing to no one. And anyone who wants to engage in meaningful Catholic worship is being told to go away. 

SSPX insignia
I imagine many will. The SSPX, which has a somewhat tenuous relationship with the Vatican, performs exclusively Latin Masses, like the FSSP does. I wouldn't be surprised if the SSPX sees an influx of traditionalists as a result of Francis' edict, nor would I be surprised if the Vatican decides to cut ties with the SSPX to make a point. If that happens, I would expect an uptick in sedevacantism -- the Catholic movement that has rejected the legitimacy of every papacy since John XXIII's, on the grounds that Vatican II, begun on his watch, was an illegitimate reform of the church. (I can't say the sedes are wrong.)

In light of the crackdown on the Latin Mass, it's notable that Cardinal Humbert's excommunication that triggered the Great Schism came about because Patriarch Cerularius resisted Vatican pressure to make the Greek churches in southern Italy conform to Latin practices. If they didn't, they would be forcefully shut down. Sound familiar? History does indeed repeat itself, and the arrogance of Rome remains the same. 

In any event, Francis' attack on the Latin Mass came two days before I decided to attend a nearby Orthodox church. The Eastern church on the other side of the Schism has held an interest for me for many years now, but the only headway I ever made into Orthodoxy was to join an Eastern Catholic church, which is Orthodox in its liturgy while remaining in communion with Rome. I made that move in part because I just wasn't ready to make a clean break from Catholicism, and because I could still receive the sacraments. Not so in Orthodoxy, where I'd have to go through a lengthy catechumenate process first. 

Now I think I'm ready to get off the fence and make the leap, as I can no longer in good conscience remain in a church (even if I'm only nominally "Catholic" at this point) led by a man who shows such utter contempt for its own teachings. Never in a million years would an Orthodox patriarch attack his own church's Divine Liturgy and demand its suppression. Nor will the Orthodox church ever need to call a council to modernize its method of worship. Orthodoxy doesn't conform to the world; rather, one conforms oneself to Orthodoxy. 

Indeed, there's something to be said for a church that prioritizes the eternal and unchanging truths of its ancient teachings over bowing to the compromise of modernist "relevance," that doesn't water down its theology for the sake of getting along, and that doesn't practice the "development of doctrine" that has landed the Catholic church in this spot in the first place. Orthodoxy sticks to its guns, come hell or high water. (Especially hell.) 

To some extent, I don't have a dog in this hunt. My ongoing interest in Christianity has more to do with a love for Mary and the Sacred Feminine, a need for something transcendent to hold on to in these maddening times, and an allegiance with the values of Western Civilization than with any need to feel "saved" from something. It's just that, being raised Catholic, I can appreciate the benefits of following the Catholic faith, so long as one's faith is well formed. Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Mass clearly haven't encouraged the development of well-formed Catholics, and they really can't, because the modern Mass doesn't take us out of ourselves. It's earthbound and puts humans instead of God at the center of worship. 

And that's exactly why the modernists are attacking the Latin Mass: It holds a mirror up to their own failures, and to the destruction they've wrought on the faith. The very existence of the Latin Mass calls them out. 

It's not surprising that those who have infiltrated the leadership positions of the Catholic church are doing exactly what their woke leftist political contemporaries are doing: making phony calls to "unity" that are really just cloaked demands to do things their way. They're authoritarian to the bone, and they're hell-bent on destroying the traditions and institutions of the Western world. That includes traditional, devout expressions of an ancient faith. 

Meanwhile, we can all see the consequences of a narcissism-run-amok world where universally agreed-upon truths to hold society together are growing scarcer by the day. At some point, there won't be enough cultural glue left, and it will all come crashing down. Deluded leftists think that won't happen. As they always do, they think their utopian fantasies will work this time.

One can only hope it's not too late to save us all, including the church, from their destruction.

Monday, July 12, 2021

On Suffering, Despair, and a Long-Shot Hope

I've been wrestling with some kind of physiological and/or neurological ailment ever since I was in my late teens. It used to consist mostly of panic attacks and insomnia, but it has manifested itself in increasingly physical ways as I get older. 

No doctor has ever been able to tell me what exactly is wrong. I even took three months off work a few years back, during a particularly severe flare-up, to try to get to the bottom of it all. But after being bounced around from doctor to doctor and specialist to specialist, and after undergoing any number of blood panels, CT scans, brain scans, and other invasive procedures, no one could tell me what was wrong. Something is clearly amiss -- even the "experts" agree on that -- but I don't seem to match up with anyone's university textbook definition of a clearly defined illness, and Western medicine appears unable to think outside the box for an answer.  

Now in the midst of another flare-up, I'm doing my best to hold things together. But as I've been devoting most of my free time to immersing myself in studying religion, spirituality, and philosophy, my current bout inevitably stirs up memories of my first significant episode, and how it shaped my relationship with religion.

My adoptive parents were Catholic converts, but Mom especially had an evangelical streak that she could never break. She'd watch preachers on the local religious channel, serving up fiery sermons as they stomped around and yelled, prowling the stage of their megachurches, microphone in one hand and Bible in the other, railing about the atheists and the homosexuals and, yes, the Catholics, and how everybody needed to repent and hear the true gospel before Jesus came back to take all the faithful to heaven. 

I never understood that kind of worship. I only ever found it chaotic and neve-racking, with a wild emotionalism that felt deeply at odds with the calm, ordered, structured, mature, thoughtful rationality of the Catholic Mass. I always felt comforted within the Catholic rituals and traditions, the beautiful architecture, the music, the candles and incense, the statues and stained glass, the organ and choir, the predictable rhythms of the yearly church calendar, all of it. 

I always had trouble taking the teachings on a literal level, and I had a never-ending litany of questions about what we were expected to believe, yet there was something deep and meaningful underlying it all that always drew me back. I was rescued from an abusive bio-mother, and that abuse left its marks -- mentally more than physically -- and I think that the church offered me a place where I could go to make sense of everything and feel as if everything was going to be OK, because someone out there might just care about what I'd gone through. No one used the term "safe space" back in the '70s and '80s, but that's pretty much what church was for me. Mary, in particular, was the mother of unconditional love that I never felt I had. She was my beacon of hope through some pretty hard times.

So fast-forward to my late teens -- I think around age 17 -- when my childhood anxieties blew up into raging panic attacks, completely out of context from any immediate threat. I'd get dizzy and disoriented, my vision would blur, I'd experience brain fog, I couldn't sleep, and my head felt like it was going to explode. I truly thought I was going to die. The attacks sometimes went on for weeks. I'd never know when another one would hit me, but they always came back. 

Even back then, doctors could offer me few answers. One genius physician decided my dizziness was the result of an ear infection and flushed the wax out of my ears. Naturally, it didn't help any of the other challenges I was facing. The most I ever got from doctors were best guesses, pills, a referral to a shrink, and advice on how to breathe and relax. But all those things ever did was lessen the symptoms I experienced during a flare-up. They didn't treat the underlying cause, whatever it was. 

My adoptive dad was a believer in healing through the laying on of hands. Our hometown church had a "charismatic" (as they called it) prayer meeting in the church basement once a week, with people speaking in tongues as they gathered to pray over the sick. My dad and my godfather both attended every week, and they both engaged in the glossolalia that always left me feeling rather uneasy. But if people could be healed of their ailments, I eventually figured I'd put aside my unease and go along with the program in hopes of a miracle. So I asked Dad and my godfather to pray over me. They did, and nothing happened.

My mom, meanwhile, was little help, mostly telling me to snap out of it while guilt-tripping me for not having enough faith.

I can't remember how old I was when I found myself alone in the living room with the TV tuned to the religious channel my mom liked watching so much. There was a pastor on the screen, telling his viewers that God was giving him word of healings that were happening even as he spoke. We, his viewers, could all be healed, too, he claimed. He said to put our hands against his on the screen and to pray with him. That was during a particulary bad bout, and I can vividly remember being on my knees, sobbing, feeling broken, and begging for God to help me and heal me. 

And again, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, I'd watch these revival meetings where the pastor, acting ostensibly as a conduit for the divine, would make people seeking a miracle crumple lifeless to the floor after he touched their foreheads. They'd regain consciousness and jump for joy as they tossed away their hearing aids and wheelchairs, healed by the Lord, their bodies renewed. And all I could ever wonder is why the Lord wouldn't heal me. Didn't Jesus say "Ask and you shall receive"? Didn't he and the apostles heal people in need? So why not me? Hadn't I suffered enough from my early childhood abuse? Why did I have to carry this physical-slash-neurological affliction on top of everything else? 

No one could answer me. All I ever got from Mom was the implication that it was my own fault for not having enough faith. All I ever got from the clergy were unsatisfactory answers about why an all-loving, all-powerful God could stop suffering but doesn't.

I eventually put my beliefs away and drifted off into Buddhism, which at least has an official doctrine of why suffering exists. No special pleading for a God who doesn't help; no hand-waving excuses that "God works in mysterious ways." No, Buddhism simply says that we suffer because of our desire for things to be other than what they are. The world is what it is, and if you've tried and failed to improve your situation, then the only thing left is to deal with the hand you've been dealt. 

That's a hard slap of reality to be sure, but at the time it offered a certain kind of cold comfort. To me, it seemed to beat the wishful thinking of pretending there's a God out there who actually gives a shit about you and your suffering. After all, if he doesn't stop war, famine, disease, natural disasters, abuse, rape, or murder, then why would he care about my problems?

Buddhism's cure for suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path of skillful, compassionate living -- essentially coming to peace with your lot by meeting the world with loving-kindness, with the knowledge that all other people are suffering in their own ways right along with you. There's just one catch (there's always a catch, isn't there?): Your karma might drag you into another existence after this life is over. The only way to get off the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth is to live such a life of equanimity that you finally burn off your karmic debts and retire to the eternal peace of Nirvana.

I have to take a moment here, because I know someone will raise an objection, to acknowledge that Buddhism technically doesn't teach reincarnation like the Hindus do, since reincarnation presupposes the existence of a soul and Buddhism denies that souls exist. But whether your soul is reborn or your karma is, you still have to come back for another round. To some extent, it's a distinction without a difference.

Either way, the concept of rebirth just sounds like a nightmare to me. I don't want to suffer through another life of so much physical misery. One is enough. But I'm nowhere near enlightenment, so for me it would almost be a sure thing that I'd have to come back and do this all over again. No, thanks. 

And I'm not alone in feeling this way. In fact, this is precisely why Pure Land Buddhism holds an appeal for so many in the East. For those in the Pure Land tradition, all you have to do is call on Amithaba Buddha at the time of death, and he'll take you to his heavenly realm, where you can burn off your karma in peace. It's strikingly similar to sola fide Christianity in that regard. Some snarkily call it "stop-trying Buddhism" because it puts no pressure on the practitioner to have to work toward enlightenment in this life -- a goal that might be easy for secluded monks but not so much for normal people with jobs and everyday responsibilities.

But being a Pure Land Buddhist isn't easy if you aren't Japanese. I've been to a Pure Land service, when I lived in Seattle, and while the people were kind and welcoming, it was quite clear that I'd never fit into the Japanese culture that the temple's members were explicitly attempting to protect and preserve. I don't blame the Japanese for doing that at all. If my temple had been shut down during World War II and I was shipped off to a prison camp merely for being Japanese, I imagine I'd want to guard my culture and traditions when I was allowed to come back. 

My last stop in Buddhism was at a Shingon temple, also in Seattle. The priest, a lovely Japanese man married to an American woman, wanted to build an "international" temple that was welcoming to people of all backgrounds, not just Japanese-Americans. I appreciated that, but in the end I still felt as if I was intruding on someting that didn't belong to me. And I don't think I was alone, in that I saw plenty of white Americans coming and going during my time there, while the older Japanese-American folks were the only ones you could count on to be at the services faithfully, week in and week out. 

Having gone through the experience of visiting Buddhist temples that were built by and intended for those of Japanese ancestry, I got a feel for what Buddhism is really like in its original Eastern context. It's nothing like the Western Buddhism that has been stripped down to a kind of meditation-based self-help psychology. The upper-middle-class left-leaning suburban white people who tend to populate Western Buddhism are fond of saying that Buddhism isn't a religion -- and they're sort of right that their Buddhism isn't, but the thing is, their Buddhism has only a tenuous connection to the very religious way Buddhism is celebrated by and large in the East. 

I can't say I blame them for reimagining Buddhism, as I'm not convinced that Buddhism is capable of translating very well in its native forms to the Western world. Zen, which by its nature is severely austere and minimalist, and therefore resistant to most cultural accumulations, may be the exception -- but it would arguably be the only one. Either way, Buddhism ended up being something of a dead-end for me. I took some useful things from the experience but chose to move on.

Since then, I've bounced around from one religious philosophy to another, trying to find a place that feels like home. I continue to find appeal in Taoism, but its foreignness makes it hard for me to warm up to it, in the same way I struggled to fit in with the Buddhist path, and sometimes it feels as if its simple philosophy of harmonizing with the way of nature is just too simple to serve as a substantial spiritual foundation.

But that's on me, and not on Taoism. To its credit, the Tao Te Ching doesn't expect you to put your brain on hold and accept all manner of exotic dogma and harsh commandments in exchange for some kind of eternal reward. It just helps you live a quiet, harmonious life. Religious Taoism does exist, but it's so innately Chinese that it could never have any cultural relevance to the average Westerner.

Meanwhile, the tradition I was brought up in continues to hold some kind of draw for me, and I struggle to understand why. I don't believe in any of the teachings on a literal level, and I find the God of the Abrahamic religions both logically impossible and morally reprehensible, often acting with more evil intent than Satan himself. 

I also find it repugnant that so many believers are so obsessed with sin and think of humans as nothing but irredeemable piles of shit -- Luther, perpetually drowning in his own self-loathing neuroses, literally likened humans to dunghills -- insisting that we all deserve eternal torment and that our intellectual assent to believing in an atoning human sacrifice is our only way out. It's such a negative and anti-human view that it almost takes one's breath away to truly confront it.

Let's consider a few problematic points about Christianity as it's understood by most in the West.

First off, God, being all-knowing, always knew from the beginning of time that Adam and Eve would sin. So why create them in the first place, when he knew they'd fail? He just set them up to stumble. Which can only mean that he enjoys inflicting suffering on his creation.

You don't get it, I hear you saying. He made us to serve and worship him.

Why would a perfect being need someone to serve and worship him? 

He loves us and wants a relationship with us!

Then why does he demand our unquestioning subservience and obedience? Why does he toss us in hell forever for merely failing to obey him? "Love me or burn" is not a relationship. It's the threat of a psychopath.

We have to have the freedom to resist him. He gave us free will so we wouldn't be robots!

Free will is an illusion if an all-knowing God knows every choice you'll ever make before you even make it. You never had a choice if he always knew what you were going to do. Why do you think the Calvinists always talk about predestination? 

But those who believe in his son are guaranteed everlasting life!

Why does it have to be conditional on a human sacrifice? 

Because God needed someone to pour his wrath upon. God is so holy that he can't look upon sin. But by sacrificing his son, we can cover our sins with his atoning blood.

Why is God so hung up on bloody sacrifices? In the Old Testament it was innocent animals. In the New Testament, it's Jesus. Being all-powerful, he could have just forgiven us with a snap of his fingers. 

His ways are not our ways.

No, definitely not. I don't tell people not to kill and then turn around and order mass genocides. I don't tell marauding armies to keep the virgins for themselves, to dash babies against the rocks, or to rip open the bellies of pregnant women. I also don't flood the entire world, animals and children included, because humans did exactly what I foresaw they would do before I even created them.

Do you want to face God's justice too? What does it cost you to just believe?

I don't believe things just to avoid being punished. 

But the Bible says...

The Bible is an ancient collection of stories, some contradictory, and many of them violent and atrocious, written by primitive people who needed explanations for a world they didn't understand, and a god who could beat up the other tribe's god. The stories do express certain universal truths to us from across the ages, but taking the stories only at literal face value misses the point of what they're trying to tell us and forces you to believe in absurdities and reject objective facts about the world. Just ask Galileo.

They're not just stories! God literally created the earth in six days. Evolution is a lie!

And on and on it goes. 

The way I see it, you can express your faith in one of two ways: through love of neighbor, or through fear of punishment. And the more believers I encounter, the more it seems that they choose the latter. Their religion is little more than fire insurance. (Side note: Why am I supposed to be scared of the threat of hellfire when the nervous system in my meatsuit will be dead? I never quite got that.) 

These are the self-proclaimed torch-bearers of Christianity who ignore Jesus' call to lovingly follow in his footsteps and instead quote-bomb Paul, a man who never met Jesus and never says a word about Jesus' life or teachings, to remind us that women should sit down, cover their heads, and shut up, and that gay people will never inherit the kingdom of God. 

But at the same time, they say that all you need to get your free ticket to heaven is to say you believe in Jesus. That's it. Nothing else. Despite the entire Sermon on the Mount, despite the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, you don't actually have to lift a finger to ever help anyone, love your neighbor and your enemy, turn the other cheek, do unto others, or care for the poor. What do you think this is, some kind of works-based salvation? Be as rotten as you want to, even if you're the only face of Jesus others will ever see. None of it matters, because your ticket to heaven is punched and irrevocable. Who cares about anything or anyone else?

Ranting aside, let's be honest: The story of Christianity, if you're expected to take it literally, makes no sense whatsoever. It may have made sense when humans believed the earth was at the center of the universe and God accordingly had a special interest in this planet. But now that we know that Earth is just one of trillions of planets, not even at the center of its own galaxy, which itself is one of trillions of galaxies, it defies all logic to think that the God of this incomprehensibly vast universe would give two craps about one insignificant little blue dot in the middle of nowhere, a grain of sand in a vast cosmic desert -- and then that he would show favoritism to one particular tribe on this insignificant planet, and then that he would micromanage the dietary, sartorial, and sexual habits of the people of this one particular tribe. 

"God gets quite irate."
This God did a passable job as a local tribal deity of storms and war, but I think it's safe to say he wasn't cut out for his promotion to god of the entire universe. And, of course, the blame for that falls not on an ancient Jewish conception of God, because you really couldn't expect anything more from a primitive warrior tribe, but rather on those who continue to insist on taking these ancient stories completely literally, and then demanding that everyone else believe exactly the same way. As such, I don't "hate" God, as I'm sure any fundamentalist reading these words would claim, but rather I reject both the fundamentalists' particular concept and interpretation of God, and their insitence that I and everyone else share their viewpoint of, and unquestioning obedience to, their concept and interpretation of God.

And despite all that, here I am, suffering through another rather severe bout of my lifelong mystery illness, an illness that the God of love has chosen to ignore, and against all logic and common sense I still feel a pull back to the religious tradition I was raised in. Am I that stupid? What the hell is wrong with me?

The only thing I can figure is that we all crave comfort, safety, and familiarity in times of stress. If church was my safe space when I was a kid, an oasis of calm and beauty where I could at least pretend something greater knew about me and cared about me, maybe I'm craving that again as an adult. Not only has the outside world gone mad, but when I've lived in constant pain and discomfort for the past four or five years, maybe I just need to hold out hope, however slight, that something really is out there that cares, and that maybe it cares enough to one day bring me relief from my unrelenting suffering. Obviously, wishing doesn't make it so, but you can't blame someone for trying, especially when all else has failed.

What's more, the figure and story of Jesus continues to hold tremendous appeal. There's a reason it has endured. The idea that the God of the entire universe would love us so much that he would choose to put on human flesh and humble himself, by entering into the world to suffer for our sake, has life-changing power. There's a reason they call it the greatest story ever told. It's incredibly compelling, even if not a lick of it is literally true. 

Yes, I've repeatedly used the word story here, and that was a deliberate choice. My wife, a fiction writer, would argue that humans need stories, and I think she's right. In our materialistic and coldly scientific world, we ignore the deep truths embedded in fiction, myths, and legends, discarding them as useless tall tales of a bygone age, not realizing that doing so cuts us off from stories that help us navigate the world. 

After all, we humans are more than just a temporary collection of atoms, bones, flesh, and blood, no matter how much a scientist might try to deconstruct us that way. We are living, breathing creatures with curiosity and emotions and social impulses and physiological needs. Moreover, we have a consciousness that makes us aware of our existence and our mortality, and as such we have a desire to make sense of the universe and our place in it. Philosophies and religions both seek to grapple with the Big Questions, and just because a certain religious system might be embedded in outdated notions of the physical world and makes certain extraordinary claims, that doesn't mean it has nothing useful to teach us.

Protestant theologian Rob Bell once made a good point that the modern world misses the point of religious stories from both sides. Funadamentalists, for example, will insist that you believe that Jonah literally lived inside a giant fish for three days, while materialist atheists will scoff at those who can still believe in such ancient fables. All the while, we miss whatever deeper meaning the story is trying to get across. 

Our culture seems to struggle with metaphor and symbolism in general, and we perhaps see it nowhere more than in the interpretation of religious writings.

Another way of stating it is that while there may be no way to verify religious beliefs on a literal level, they still convey truths on a metaphorical level. Here's Bret Weinstein:

And so we find we can point to constructive reasons to hold to our religious beliefs -- reasons that transcend the fundamentalist impulse to try to impose a rigidly literal religious viewpoint on the world. Jung, in fact, would go a step further and suggest that the religious impulse serves a universal human psychological need. Materialists, who in many ways are merely the mirror image of religious fundamentalists in their exclusive worship of what can be observed, measured, and weighed, have neglected to take this into account when they reduce human beings to a collection of biological processes. They accept the human but disregard the humanity, what it actually means to be human. They thus promote a worldview that's rationally watertight but lacks any inherent meaning. That view of the world has the potential to be every bit as harmful and destructive as the fundamentalist religious view of the world.

I suppose that search for balance -- delving into religious traditions for truths about the human condition, without having to check one's brain at the door -- is one thing that keeps me coming back to the spiritual world. As far as the story of Christ goes, I'm always drawn in by three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus delivered what I believe is far and away the greatest moral and ethical code ever expressed, in the Sermon on the Mount. If we all lived by its words, this planet would virtually be a paradise. It's all enough to make you overlook the horrendous atrocities of the Old Testament God. 

What's more, the suffering of Jesus, when understood in the context of Christ as the incarnation of God, helps give meaning to my own suffering. No one will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to me why an all-powerful, all-loving God would allow so much suffering in his creation, but at least our human suffering seems to take on some relevance in the sense that Christ, God incarnate, suffers alongside us. Conversely, his willingness to submit himself to great suffering gives us the courage to push through our own suffering in imitation of him. In this sense, suffering can be redemptive, like a cleansing fire. 

The old pre-Reformation churches get this. As Jordan Peterson once said, the driving view of the Orthodox church is to "pick up your damn cross and stumble up the hill," as that is the only road to theosis -- i.e., "becoming by grace what God is by nature."

That view actually gives meaning to being a Christian, rather than the empty and childish evangelical idea that you should love God and accept Jesus just so you don't go to hell, and that the only chance you have of getting into heaven is to drown the shit that you are in sacrificial blood so that our wrathful God can even bear to look at you. The Orthodox conception of Christ and Christianity gives us something to strive toward, rather than something we simply need to accept if we want to avoid eternal punishment. 

Accordingly, in Orthodoxy, the concept of sin is seen as an illness of the soul, with the church acting as a spiritual hospital and God as the merciful divine physician; where in the legalistic Western church, sin is a moral failure worthy of condemnation by a vengeful cosmic judge, with the church representing God's courtroom. This is why, if I ever do make my way back to the church, it will most certainly be to the Orthodox church. 

Then there's the matter of Jesus' mom. Mary has been a constant throughout my religious and spiritual life, even when I was as far away from Christianity as I could have been. Like I said before, she's the mom I never had, and for me that makes her a powerful symbol. My attraction to the Sacred Feminine also puts her in a place of prime importance in my theological worldview. An all-male conception of the divine puts both our spiritual and material worlds out of balance and has done real-world harm to women for millennia. 

Protestants either ignore or denigrate Mary, but I think she's essential to a Judeo-Christian view of the world. I look at it this way: As Jesus is the incarnation of the Father, the Word made flesh, so Mary is an embodiment of the Mother, Sophia, the Wisdom of God. The pre-Vatican II Catholic church took criticism for essentially handing the role of the Holy Spirit over to Mary -- but the thing no one ever says is that there was never anything wrong with giving her that role, inasmuch as Sophia is another name for the Holy Spirit, and that Sophia came to Earth in the person of the Immaculate Virgin. In her many apparitions to the faithful over the centuries, she continues to fulfill the role of Paraclete, the Comforter that Jesus promised to send after his departure from Earth. What greater comforter than a mother?

But of course, that's a heretical view, so I could never express it out loud in a church. What I can do is put myself close to her, in a church tradition that continues to at least honor her place as the Theotokos, Mother of God. If that's the best I can do, if it's one of the only things I can salvage from Christianity, so be it. I can see myself holding privately to Taoist philosophy, while taking what meaning I can from the religion of my youth, where I can follow the example of Christ, hold out hope for a health miracle, and take refuge in the compassionate arms of Mother Mary.

Sometimes I wish I could turn off my brain and be as uncritical and unreflective as most people are about their beliefs. But I can't, and I've never been able to. Part of me also wishes that I could just hang up this religious impulse and deal with the world as it is, without the need of a security blanket. But I'm not even sure that going down that road is healthy for humanity, as I think we need a balance between a scientific understanding of the world and something that speaks to the human condition in a meaningful way. 

And besides, when your health is perpetually fucked up and the world has gone to hell, sometimes you just need that hope of a divine lifeline. It may never come, and it may not even exist. But holding out for the possibility that it might be there helps make an existence of unrelenting misery seem just a little more tolerable. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Unexamined Life
In my last post, I expressed my struggle with the seeming paradox between free will and divine omniscience. As I continued to explore the tension between the two ideas, I reached the conclusion that there is no logical way for what I'll call the "omni-God" (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent) of Judeo-Christianity to exist. Indeed, as someone who's flirted with the idea of atheism in the past, I think this is where a lot of modern minds get off the bus with regard to old traditional religious views and scuttle their beliefs altogether.

But I think that's selling spirituality short -- throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater, if you will. Rather than proclaiming that God doesn't exist, maybe the problem is that we had the wrong idea of God all along. A God who is separate from his creation, perfect in all ways, demanding of worship and of rigorously following his rules, and ever ready and eager to punish those who disobey, like some divine law-and-order judge, seems more a projection of ancient cultures conditioned to the unbending rule of a monarch, emperor, dictator, or some other kind of rigid autocrat who liked to make examples of those who challenged the lawgiver's authority. 

Frankly, the idea that we might live in a universe governed by such a tyrannical being is the stuff of existential nightmares. It's the very kind of God I've never been able to wrap my head around, yet it was the one I was always told existed when I was a kid, by adults who I assumed knew better. "God just put a big red X in his book," my adoptive mom would tell me anytime I did something that went against her beliefs. I always jokingly used to blame the Catholic church for my guilt complexes, but really I think Mom had more to do with it than any priest or church doctrine did.

And yet I still can't find a good substitute way to frame the God of the Bible. In searching for an avenue of thought to pursue over the past few weeks, I hit on a concept called process theology, which grew out of an idea from early 20th-century thinker Alfred North Whitehead. Process theology neatly explains away the Problem of Evil -- how can an all-knowing, all-loving God allow bad things to happen? -- by proclaiming that God is subject to natural law, directing the evolutionary process yet himself evolving alongside us. He persuades us to do good but is unable to force us. Instead, he is "the fellow sufferer who understands." 

Sounds great on paper, and it keeps God from being a tyrant -- but is a God who's unable to actually do anything really a worthy substitute? I'm not so sure that rape victims, people who lost a loved one to murder, or parents who lost a child to cancer are going to be comforted all that much by knowing that God really cares and hurts along with them. The idea is well intentioned, and it does resolve the problem of why God doesn't help us in times of need. But it really only replaces it with a new problem: Why should we even bother with a God who's so powerless?

And so that puts us right back to Square One, with the omni-God. The funny thing about this God is that church leaders tell us he's eminently unknowable, yet those same church leaders are always the ones who insist on the omni-ness of their God, and they're also awfully quick to mete out God's judgment for him. For a being they don't know very well, they sure do seem to be able to act decisively on his behalf. As Susan B. Anthony once observed, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." I guess some people were just born to be hall monitors. 

Maybe most of humanity is OK with that, and maybe that's why such unhealthy religious beliefs persist. After all, if the past year and a half has reminded us of anything, it's that most people are blindly obedient to authority. They won't question any narrative that comes from an "authoritative" source, even if obeying is to their own detriment. We are instinctually tribal animals, and the tribal elders would never lie to us. They only have our best interests at heart. It's been shown over and over that this is how the majority of people think. And it's a significant part of the reason humanity can't advance. 

Add fear to the mix, induced by the tribal leaders themselves, and not only is obedience strengthened, but anyone who challenges the narrative is seen as a danger to society who must be silenced for the good of the community and the preservation of the status quo. From Jesus hanging on a cross, to the murders of Gandhi and Dr. King, to the exile of Snowden and the imprisonment of Assange, to contemporary woke censorship, the story is always the same: Challenge the prevailing narrative -- the one on whose power the ruling authorites rests -- and suffer the consequences. 

The point being, maybe so many people are OK with the idea of a law-and-order God handing out harsh punishments because they're OK with the human equivalent. In fact, I'd posit that many would feel unmoored and frightened without that kind of authority ruling over their lives and telling them what to do. It's easier than thinking for yourself, after all.

I should pause here to explain that I've never looked at the world the way most people do, and I'm painfully aware of it most days. Maybe being abused at a young age had something to do with the way my brain developed, or maybe I'm just naturally wired differently from most. My bio-mom was a drug-abusing schizophrenic, so it's hard to say what I inherited and what is just me being a weirdo. I just know that most normal kids don't suddenly stop playing one day as the terrifying existential question Why am I me? roars into their head from nowhere. There's been no end to my quest to explore the Big Questions ever since. 

The point is, I've always felt as if there was something wrong with me on many levels -- one of them being that I reflexively recoil from the idea of blind, tribal, fear-based obedience. I've always been this way. Even when I was a kid, annoying my adoptive parents in church by asking them question after question about what we were supposed to believe, I just couldn't understand why, if God gave us rational brains, we shouldn't use them to question the things we were told. 

Carl Jung.
I admire the story of Christianity at its core. I just can't wrap my head around a lot of it if I'm expected to believe everything on a base surface level. If, however, I can approach the teachings on a deeper level, as Jung did with his idea of universal human archetypes and the collective unconscious, then I can embrace the entire framework as one of speaking to our fundamental human need for finding meaning and transcendence. As we all possess that need, Jung believed that God was an innate part of the human psyche. (Which means that Nietzsche was wrong when he proclaimed that God was dead, since God, as a psychological construct, can't be killed.) 

Thinkers from Pascal onward have further argued that we all have a "God-shaped hole" in our hearts, and that if we don't fill it with God, we'll fill it with something else -- whether the pursuit of material gain, celebrity worship, Wokeism, or what have you. Best, then, to attempt to fill it with something reflecting its intended purpose -- something that will lift us up rather than drag us down to our basest instincts.

Anyway, I couldn't resort to atheism with any sort of intellectual honesty. I actually think it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a theist, as there's simply too much about the universe we don't know, and there are things that suggest to me some kind of divine blueprint. And so, while I waver some days between agnosticism and a weak belief, I do my best to take some concept of "God" as a philosophical and psychological given. 

I've stumbled across some mind-bending arguments that see consciousness as an innate part of the universe, and it's a small step from there to postulate God as a kind of universal consciousness from which we all draw, reminiscent of Alan Watts' Hindu-ish observation that we are all pieces of God playing hide-and-seek with himself. Now, see, that conception of God I can easily understand. It's just the ones that anthropomorphize God into a violent cosmic judge that have never made any sense to me. Those conceptions of God seem to say far more about the people who wrote them down than about anything resembling what the actual nature of a divine being would have to be. 

And so I continue to tussle with the peculiar Western conception of God the best I can. It's never easy, but pondering the possibilities of What's Really Out There makes for good mental exercise, and I'd certainly rather live with some theological uncertainty than with the rigidity of fundamentalism.

Here's the way I see it: On a literal level, Christianity makes almost no sense to me. On a spiritual level, I understand what it's getting at, even if the message quite frequently seems lost in today's churches, buried under layers of dogma, corrupted by fundamentalist self-righteousness, or watered down into meaningless feel-good platitudes by liberal theologians. But on a symbolic and psychological level, I can mostly get on board with everything Christianity teaches -- though even that depends on the flavor of church. For example, I like the contemplative tradition of the Quakers, I admire the simplicity and the Sermon-on-the-Mount-centrism of the Anabaptists, and there's something about the pre-Reformation traditions and high-church practices in general that have always deeply resonated with me. But the hands-in-the-air emotionalism that usually exists in tandem with a belief in the total depravity of mankind? I can't run away from that stuff fast enough. 

Indeed, I love the ancient traditions that the Orthodox keep alive, and I feel a sense of transcendence when I'm in the presence of a beautiful old church -- Catholic, Orthodox, or otherwise -- with its ornate architecture, the statues and icons conveying their silent theological assertions, the rafter-shaking pipe organs blaring out their majesty, the choirs sending a chill down the spine. It's like bringing an image of heaven down to Earth. I might struggle with belief, but insofar as the church pursues and venerates the transcendental ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty, it succeeds in bringing me out of myself and connecting me with something bigger. 

Moreover, on a cultural level, the Catholic and Orthodox churches make me feel rooted in my own Western heritage. Western civilization wouldn't exist without the church, particularly Catholicism, and in some sense I think I feel an obligation to honor that connection and help keep it alive -- especially now, when our bedrock Enlightenment values are under such relentless attack.

It's times like these that make a lot of people clutch on to the security blanket of fundamentalism. But fundamentalism only drives people away from a spiritual tradition that they might otherwise find fulfilling and enriching. And that's not to mention the actual violence that fundamentalism can visit on its enemies.

It's tough to escape the fundamentalists these days. They're everywhere, not just in the churches. You have the cold, mechanistic, atheistic view of the science-minded materialists, who reject any semblance of spirituality as thoroughly as a fundamentalist insists on a literal reading of Adam and Eve. You have the disciples of the Republican and Democratic parties proclaiming their team as savior and the other as the devil. You have medical fascists ordering us to shut down our lives, deny ourselves human contact, wear masks that do nothing but signal obedience and compliance, shoot experimental vaccines into our bodies, and carry around privacy-invading vaccine passports if we want to participate in "normal" society again -- all over a virus that gives most people mild symptoms and has an astronomically high survival rate for the overwhemling majority of the population. And of course, you have the Woke Left that thinks in irrational absolutes and possesses all the religious zeal of the Inquisitors and witch-hunters of old, demanding that you recant on bended knee for your ideological sins, lest you be sacrificed on the Altar of Cancellation.

And so those who desire the honest pursuit of knowledge with the least bias possible (we're all biased about something, after all) are left to fight with groups of people who by definition limit the acceptable range of inquiry. 

What do you do with that? That's been the puzzler for me as I've been gorging on the ideas, thoughts, and theories of people both ancient and modern, in an attempt to suss out what a realistic spiritual path would look like for someone of my temperament. I've been exploring numerous paths over the course of my adult life, and while I've picked up useful ideas from many of them, the two I keep returning to are Taoism and a very eclectic kind of philosophical Christianity. 

Taoism holds the appeal of simplicity, with no arguments for or against God, no complex theology, no commandments, no damnation. You simply follow the Way, using nature as your guide, as you attempt to harmonize the complementary opposites in the natural world -- light and dark, warm and cool, even the energies of male and female -- to achieve the balance of a unified whole. The well-known tai chi symbol of yin and yang represents that balance, with its waving lines suggesting the effortless flow of opposites from one to the other in a continuous dance, and the circle in the deepest part of the opposing color suggesting that one aspect is never fully separated from the other. Indeed, yin and yang define and complete each other. 

This can be a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp, as we're so accustomed to thinking in terms of a clash of opposites rather than a unification of them. Accordingly, I've seen more than one person from the West thinking that yin and yang somehow suggest a blending of good and evil -- as if evil somehow is complementary to good. In truth, the tai chi symbol is a representation of what "good" looks like when opposites are in harmony with each other. "Evil," as we think of it, would be a yin-yang symbol out of balance. The world can't be in a "good" place if half of it is evil. 

For Western minds coming to the Tao, the challenge is to flip around so many of the assumptions we tend to hold. As the Tao Te Ching -- the central text of Taoism -- will repeatedly remind you, the supple tree that bends with the breeze will remain standing, while the old, rigid tree will come crashing down in the wind; and even though water slips through your fingers, given enough time it will wear down the highest mountains into canyons. 

The overarching Taoist philosophy, then, is one of persistent but relaxed patience. Using wisdom and intuition as your guides, you address things as the circumstances dictate, rather than pre-plan a response that may not adequately address a changing situation. You let things happen in their own time, rather than forcing an outcome. And you achieve that aim through the practice of effortless, spontaneous, non-striving action. You might say that Taoism is the art of knowing when to simply step out of the way. By yielding or strategically withdrawing when appopriate, rather than forcing one's will, one has a greater chance of surviving the onslaughts that are sure to come one's way. The onslaught anticipates your active resistance; when you don't give it, the power of the onslaught has no place to go. Think of the passive resistance with which Gandhi brought down an empire. Force only knows how to react to force, which is precisely the reason that passive resistance is such a powerful and successful tool of change. 

Taoism's simplicity was in part a reaction to the rigid, Pharisee-like legalism that Confucius had brought to ancient China. Confucius believed that imposing rules and hierarchy on the people would create a more harmonious society. And it did, but at the cost of human freedom and independence. Its influence continues today, as a convenient tool of control in Communist China. Taoism, in contrast to the Confucians, implored leaders to be virtually invisible, governing only to the necessary minimum and leaving the people to think that whatever has been achieved was done by the people themselves. 

As for the Christian side of things, I know of no denomination that mixes silent contemplation with an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount while keeping to the transcendental beauty of the ancient churches and allowing people the freedom to approach the teachings on a psychological level. But the truth is, I miss the groundedness that the rituals provide, and I miss being admist a community that shares something mystical and beautiful together. 

In our atomized society, and especially following the government-enforced and mass-fear-enabled isolation of the past year, we need rituals like these to hold our society, culture, and nation together. They act as a social glue. I'm not a very social person, but I still understand the need for institutions, rituals, and shared beliefs. Some rituals are slowly coming back, like ball games and concerts, which serve an important secular need -- although if states, companies, and venues institute proof of vaccination for entry, they're not going to help the situation at all. Creating an entire class of untouchables, with "unvaccinated only" sections of people treated like diseased pariahs, is the exact opposite of what we need at this moment in our history. We need to move beyond the fearful superstition that has gripped our world and accept what is for most people a low risk, letting us all come together again as one. 

The problem is, most of the churches couldn't kick people out fast enough last year when the lockdowns started. The very institutions that should have stood strong as a beacon of faith were among the first to shut their doors -- and even those that have reopened have largely instituted rules and restrictions that unmask their lack of belief in the very things they teach. They've revealed the subordination of their own mission to political authoritarianism and social panic. And they don't in any way reflect the fearless Jesus who ran toward the sick when others shunned them. 

But they do remind us of the churches that likewise shut out the faithful in medieval Europe. St. Charles Borromeo went out to meet the plague victims crying out for help and mercy in the streets of medieval Milan, Italy, when even the priests were hiding out for fear of getting sick. He urged the clergy to help him serve the ill rather than run from them. "Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to an early one," he rightly chided them. Consequently, he was able to rally enough support to be able to perform outdoor Masses, hold catechisms, and distribute the sacraments to the sick and homebound. And thus was the church able to carry out its mission -- for what good is a church that's only there when it's "safe"? 

St. Charles did the right thing and made the brave and Godly choice, inasmuch as the Christian path calls the faithful -- and especially the clergy -- to selflessness. Yet you can count on one hand the churches that defied political authority and remained open during the hysteria that gripped the world in 2020. Most of them blindly obeyed and hid like cowards. And even now, Pope Francis is shaming Catholics into injecting experimental poisons into their bodies, proclaiming a "moral responsibility" to vaccinate and any resistance to doing so a "suicidal negativism." I'd think he'd want people to exercise their conscience in the face of a a virus that, again, for most people brings only mild symptoms -- but as we've seen, the church has demonstrated nothing over the past year more clearly than its obedience and subservience to Caesar. If nothing else, at least Francis is making sure the tradition of Catholic guilt remains alive and well.

In times of political and theological uncertainty, new churches have risen up to meet the needs of the people. With church membership in a seemingly terminal decline and the numbers of religiously unaffiliated people rising as quickly, it feels as if we're at one of those pivotal moments in history. I've been doing research in pursuit of starting my own chapel precisely because I find the intsitutional churches lacking in significant ways, and it's clear I'm not the only one. But it seems like a lot of trouble to go to simply to start a new church for my own satisfaction, so I'm attempting to balance a church I envision with one that might be able to help others who are similarly floundering. Maybe they grew up with Christianity like I did, but they don't know how to make Christianity work for them anymore. I'd like to be able to reach some of those folks, let them know they're not alone, and maybe build a community for the like-minded -- even if it only ended up being half a dozen other misfits. Openness to Eastern thought and an embrace of the Sacred Feminine wouldn't hurt for anyone who wants to come my way, but I think having an independent streak and a willingness to think outside the box would be the most crucial component of all.  

What I don't want to do is feed the narcissistic beast that's tearing us apart. For example, Tara Isabella Burton's book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World chronicles an American trend of "remixing" religious ideas from across traditional and pagan practices into something whose driving force seems to be nothing more than expressing personal emotions -- not building a rational theology for a better world, but for achieving the narcissistic goal of how it makes "me" feel. In a world in which people make themselves into individual gods, reimagining their identities in their own images and declaring it blasphemous for others to raise an objection, it isn't surprising that these "remixed" religions would elevate the selfish and irrational over the social and reasonable.   

"Weird Catholic Twitter,"
by way of NYT.
I'm sympathetic to Burton's argument in a New York Times editorial that people are searching for meaning and groundedness in a ravenously capitalistic society that has turned even religion into a commodity. Quite literally, nothing is sacred anymore. But her proposed solution is, I think, bound not to work for her intended audience: a retreat into the old, sacred forms of Christianity that I've been talking about here. The problem is that she's arguing for dropping self-proclaimed "punks" -- people with a postmodern view of the world -- into a context that can't possibly resonate with them, given its conservatism on matters of life-and-death issues, its emphasis on traditional gender roles (including female submissiveness), and its view of heterosexuality as normative -- not to mention the inherent need for humility, obedience, and relegation of the self to something bigger than oneself. 

In the article, Burton name-drops Rod Dreher, the American Conserative writer who in his book The Benedict Option argues for traditionalist Christians to drop out of the culture wars and form intentional communities based on their shared faith. But that idea works for Dreher, because his worldview is already in tune with traditionalist Christianity. If Burton thinks postmodern punks can co-opt the form without embracing its meaning, I think they're only going to find more hollow dissatisfaction. If your sales pitch for the Latin Mass is "Gothic Architecture" and "Veils! Veils! Veils!," you're missing the whole point. Not everything is an ironic postmodern joke that can be removed from its context for self-serving ends. 

Latin Mass attendance is rising, contrary to most religious trends in America and the West. There is value in the old forms, for certain, but do they only represent a yearning for meaning in a time that's now long past? Can we even go back to a culture where such deep and rich traditions held meaning in a larger societal context? Can interest in the old ways change the tide? 

If I ever returned to church, it would probably be to Orthodoxy, whose ancient forms, defense of tradition, and theological stances hold great appeal for me. On principle alone, I can't return to the church of Pope Francis, with his constant hectoring of people who don't toe the line on obeying the Caesars of COVID dogma. Which is sad, because it was Francis who helped bring me back to the church with his pastoral and compassionate approach. I thought he struck a sensible middle ground between the legalistic fundamentalists who never got the memo that the Crusades were over and the fuzzy-headed liberals who festoon their churches with rainbow flags while draining their theology of any meaning other than "be nice like Jesus." But Francis seems to have lost the script. I get now why traditionalists never really liked him.

There's nothing inherently wrong with blending different theological ideas into something new, provided the new thing serves a uniting and uplifting purpose and isn't just a weak, self-serving expression of someone's transient feelings. After all, it's often forgotten that even Christianity was the result of a "remix" of Hebrew and Hellenistic ideas. Plato's ideas exerted their influence on the early church, Plotinus and the Neoplatonists informed Augustine's theology, and Aquinas drew from Aristotle. Maybe the answer, then, is to go back to the beginning, to those great Greek minds, and see how they influenced Western thought and religion in the first place. In doing so, we might be able to revitalize the ideals that the West was founded on. Maybe we can get the West back on course, whether that means a return to the ideals of the past or the beginning of a healthy new direction based on those bedrock values. Either way, maybe it's not too late. 

In fact, maybe philosophy is exactly what we need in this pivotal moment. Maybe we need to open ourselves again to ask those Big Questions about existence and its meaning. We're so eager for answers when maybe we just need to sit with those questions for a while, in the liminal space of "I don't know," and see where the speculation leads us.

At his trial, Socrates held that the unexamined life is not worth living. Like so many before and after him, he died because he challenged society's power brokers. And yet even after he was sentenced to die, he didn't flinch from his conviction that nothing was so important as the tireless pursuit of wisdom, which for him came through relentless questioning. In following his example, may we also find our way to a wisdom that will lead us forward as one, whether that means a return to the old ways, an adoption of a rational new way, or a little bit of both.