Archive for the 'Musings on the sacred' Category

My Yom Kippur

For the Jews, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. I don’t pretend to know why, or what day Yom Kippur actually is. I’m also not a Jew, so technically, this might be cultural appropriation. But by cracky, today is my Yom Kippur.

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I had an epiphany this evening that can’t be ignored. I was reading E. J. Dionne’s new book, Souled Out, which is one of the many books I was thinking about in my previous post, “A New Age.”


Souled Out is about “reclaiming faith and politics after the Religious Right,” according to the subtitle.  Dionne’s opinion is that the Religous Right (distinguished from those who are both faithful and political by their representation of religion as “a realm of cultural combat in which only abortion and gay marriage matter”) is done, and that people of faith are tired of being told that they must either hate gays or be unChristian.

“I would insist… that believers eventually get around to asking whether what they believe is true,” Dionne writes. “…few believers are blind automatons who never subject their beliefs to serious inquiry. Mother Teresa was not alone among believers in asking why she was not hearing from God.”

Here is the main point of my atonement. Without knowing it, I have always nursed a secret arrogance about believers. I have always believed (without realizing it) that I was smarter, stronger, more flexible and open than those who believed. Religion of all types has worried me, and I have taken that worry too far.

I don’t take back a single post I’ve ever written on this blog. I have believed and meant everything I’ve ever written, and that’s not what I feel I should atone for. What I feel I should atone for is the dark jewel of judgment that I’ve feared in others but tonight found in my own jewelry box. Why did I believe that most believers were judgmental morons, while knowing some of the most fantastic people in my life were believers? Julie, Tina, Mary, Wendy, Deb, Dawn, Sarah, Mike, Buddy, Michele, Gail, Heather! Why did I assume that all these people were exceptions to the rule, believers who questioned, that I had had the good fortune to meet, while still nursing this unexamined belief that believers never questioned?

I know some of the reasons, of course. Being agnostic means being told repeatedly that you’re not paying the least bit of attention to what’s all around you. Being unchurched means being told that if you’d just come to church… And being gay means being told that you’re bound for hell, hated by God, and have no choice but to change or deny who you truly are if you’re going to be re-embraced by God.

But that’s not the true reason I’ve felt this way. I’d love it if any of it were, and I’m sure that all of it helped me to justify it. But the fact is that I’ve been just as tribal as those I accused of tribalism. I assumed that those like me were intelligent and questioning while those not like me were not, even if they would like to be.

Without going on further, because that would sound like justification: I apologize. I atone. I ask forgiveness. I was wrong, and I hope to stop being wrong.


Christian agnostic?

I found a new blog that I might just love. It’s called The Christian Agnostic, and it’s written by Candace Chellew-Hodge, a self-described recovering Southern Baptist who is an associate pastor at a United Church of Christ church in South Carolina. Not only did she turn out as a liberal Quaker on the “What’s your theological worldview” quiz, as I did on the Belief-O-Matic quiz, she has read the Tony Jones book I just mentioned in my previous post. (By the way, I turned out as an emergent postmodern on the theological worldview quiz. I’m also being tested to determine whether I’m hypoglycemic. It’s self-knowledge day at the Agnostic household!)

Anyhoo, she seems irreverent and funny, like so many cool Southerners I know. Check out her post about heaven and hell, it’s good for a laugh (especially the last line).

A new age?

I was at the bookstore this morning with a bit of time to spare, and so I got to do what I love to do: wander the aisles and peruse the titles. I do it at the library, also. To wander among books just puts me at rest. Anyhoo, I included the religion section in my perambulations and I couldn’t help but notice that there were quite a few books that had to do with the insufficiency of religion as it’s practiced today.

None of these were screeds against the faith in question. All were “why this isn’t working” kind of treatises. For example, Tony Jones’s book, The New Christians, caught my eye. It discusses the emergent church movement and how young evangelicals “have decided to recreate church for postmodern times.” Another book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, by Ibn Warraq, explains where (in the opinion of the author) Islam went wrong. “It is well to bear in mind while reading this book the distinction between theory and practice; the distinction between what Muslims ought to do and what they in fact do; what they should have believed and done as opposed to what they actually believed and did,” Warraq begins.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but it’s nice to think of times like these as at least potentially groundbreaking. Karen Armstrong’s The Axial Age describes how religion changed massively and yielded monotheism, Confucianism, Greek philosophy and Buddhism. It was a time of massive religious and spiritual invention, and to this little agnostic, it seems like we could use a bit of that kind of thing today.

By the way, did anyone see “I Am Legend,” that movie with Will Smith about how a virus turns humans into rabid maniacs? I’m not sure I’d recommend it, but it had a neat little dialogue about God and science near the end. I don’t know if it meant to, but it left me with the impression that the author of the screenplay thinks science and religion can get along just fine.


Argh. I just tried to read a book that I was really interested in. Huston Smith is a genius, as far as I’m concerned, and I loved his The World’s Religions. And so last night I started reading The Soul of Christianity, which is intended to describe “a path between culturally rigid, intolerant evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity and nontranscendent, liberal Christianity.” Sounds fascinating, right? Right.

Well, I ran into a snag right away. Smith begins with a discussion I’ve often heard, how science purported to replace religion and turned out not to be able to do that. I actually agree, but I’m of the opinion that science and religion can work together and that proponents of religion don’t need to be all “na na na na na, science, you suck!” any more than proponents of science need to claim that religion is irrelevant.

But the real snag was something he mentioned in passing. He described proponents of science as “conveniently forgetting that humanity is fallen and in need of redemption from its sinful nature.” It occurs to me that this might be Reason # 11 for why I’m an agnostic. I know the Biblical basis for this belief, and I know the historical basis for it. But I simply can’t share it.

I don’t think that human beings need God because they’re fallen. I think we need God because our job in life is to rise. Whatever you think about evolution, history tells us that we’ve been trying for millenia to be better and failing pretty frequently. But it also tells us that our belief in God has made a huge difference. Or our faith in humanity, or innate sense of justice, or the prophets who have come forward to push us forward by a few centuries in terms of justice and compassion.

But I object to the idea that humanity is fallen. A child needs help, instruction, and time to learn to be a good person. They start out with nothing and they improve and fall back, improve and fall back, and do their best to transcend the amoral state they’re born into. Or they don’t, and cause harm. But how deeply negative to think that humanity needs to apologize for some fallen state! We may need to be saved from ourselves, often from a catastrophic failure to transcend ourselves. But fallen? Can’t go there. However, I also can’t be very articulate about why. So I’ll return to this subject later when I’m less spluttery.


While I’m ruminating on the future of yon blog, I must report on the latest book I’m reading. It’s by John Dominic Crossan, author of A Historical Jesus, which I tried to read a few years and simply got bogged down. It’s a fantastically researched book but it got a bit too dry for Ms. Short Attention Span.

I have a different feeling about his latest book, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. It’s about the United States and its (arguable) status as the new Roman Empire. Of course, we don’t claim to be an empire, but there are plenty of people who would call us an empire, whether admiringly or critically. God & Empire is probably going to be a disturbing book, both for me and any Christian who reads it. Rather than try to summarize arguments I haven’t read yet, I’ll quote the questions he poses in his introduction:

Since the Old Roman Empire crucified our Lord Jesus Christ, how can we be his faithful followers in America as the New Roman Empire? …Is our Christian Bible violent or nonviolent – is it actually for or against Jesus’s nonviolent resistance to “this world”? …Is Bible-fed Christian violence suppporting  or even instigating our imperial violence as the New Roman Empire?

Yikes. Stay tuned.

The life to come

It’s been a couple of days since the funeral that made me mad, and I’m still kind of crabby. Fortunately, I’m on the couch with a little red dog and a big glass of red wine. Don’t worry, I will not allow the vino to blunt my spiritual instincts. Yet, anyway.

Here’s the thing. I’m fine with the focus on the life to come, whatever it may be. Any of us would rather think about what comes after rather than being stuck in a box in the ground, and I think there’s more to life – real life – than what we can perceive through our limited bodies.

But it just doesn’t do justice to the one who has passed to focus only on the life to come, because funerals aren’t just empty rituals. They perform an important role for those who have lost someone, and who can’t get them back, at least not in this life. They’re the rite that helps those who loved that someone to start letting go and to think and feel deeply about what they’ve lost. It’s fine to talk about the life to come, but not before the person has been properly mourned. Mourned, dammit. This is a loss and it’s not right to skip over that fact because it’s easier to talk about the life to come than it is to talk about the life that’s over.

But the truth is I’m also mad that we can send a man to the freaking moon, invade other countries, and create a beer bottle whose mountains turn blue when the beer is cold enough, but we can’t figure out how to keep breast cancer from killing sweet women who quilt, love their daughters and sons, adopt new sons, and plant black-eyed Susans in their back yards. I’m mad that she got 56 years of this life, which can be painful but can be sweet, when creeps like Augusto Pinochet can live to be 91. And I’m mad that my dear friend, her oldest daughter, only gets to know her mom now through pictures, memories, and her heart. That’s not nothing,  but it’s all she’s got of her now and it’s not right.

I know it’s a uniquely American thing to get all bitchy about something as natural and inevitable as death. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to lose or have expectations that line up with reality. But I’m not ready to care about the life to come yet; this life has been cheated out of a lovely lady. Safe travels, Julia Lowe. I miss you.

Funerals make me mad.

It’s true, they almost always do. My aunt’s funeral made me mad, my former partner’s brother’s funeral made me mad, and I went to a funeral today that (at times) made me mad. Unfortunately, I think an awful lot of pastors and other officiants make the mistake of talking more about Jesus than about the person who died. I get it, the idea is to emphasize eternal life over this life, but that’s what makes me mad.

For one thing, the pastor mentioned Paul’s question, “Death, where is your sting?” He then said that the sting of death is knowing you’re about to be judged for your life. But I don’t agree. To me, the sting of death is not always the fear that you’re going to meet your Creator and have to account for your sins. Sure, that’s a concern for many people, but the sting is in how sweet this life can be and how the dying person is going to have to lay it down. It’s in how the people who are left behind must make sense of their lives now that it doesn’t include their friend or relative or loved one.

So yep, I’m being all pouty right now. More on why very soon.