I've generally made this distinction about myself (especially since starting at Whitworth): I am spiritual, but not Christian. Christianity has many negative connotations for me. Corrupt churches fomenting and preying on fear, perpetuating a system of inequality, committing and justifying genocides (manifest destiny, et al), and generally practicing hypocritical intolerance. One of Lani's favorite quotes is from Gandhi, and I like it too: "I admire your Christ, but I do not like your Christians" (or something to that effect). I admit that my view has been one justifying my dislike of Christianity, justifying my agnosticism, which have always been inseparable, but it isn't hard (for me) to see why. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and manifest destiny (colonialism in general?) to name the obvious ones, all serve as examples of the general intolerance and persecution practiced by the church (seen in the Christian Right, and the persecution of GLBTs today (I know this isn't all Christians, but it's there)). The idea that one group of people is privileged with the one correct answer sets my teeth on edge. It defies the ethics of argumentation (as discourse) and logic that only certain naming principles and rituals would be privileged with eternal salvation. It would seem to violate any concept of a benevolent construct of a divine being that that being would need to be called "God" in order to be "saved." Why not "Allah," or "Yhwh," or "Enlightenment," or "flying spaghetti monster"? Why would that matter more than deeds, or a more general sort of faith? The sort of spiritual elitism that Christianity (and perhaps other religions as well, certainly Islam) engenders has been part of my barrier. I have students who believe devoutly that their Hindi friends are going to burn eternally in hell because they don't call it "god." This saddens me. How could a creating divinity want us to be close-minded? To be exclusivist? I refuse to accept that.
I had a two hour chat with a former student today. He was in my Core (for non-Whitworthians, Core is the "western civ" class required of all WU students which serves to codify/regularize the worldviews of the student population to a reformed Christian point of view. I "teach" in the program. Perhaps the subject of a post later on) discussion group, was generally agnostic, and kind of flunked out the semester I had him. But I continued to meet with him through that year, and then today saw him for the first time since last spring. Sprinkled in with the other good news in his life in the first fifteen minutes of catching up was this: "Oh, and I believe in God now."
He's a smart guy, very intuitive and perceptive, and while I have worked very hard (**I'm-about-to-offend-some-of-you Alert**) to overcome my (obviously absurd) idea that Christians were uniformly lazy thinkers, and generally not as smart as me (I don't think that any more, fo rizzle), my initial reaction was, "Oh great, we lost another one to the void." Thankfully, the conversation moved into how this happened, and he started asking me questions about my faith (when I say "faith" I don't mean "Christianity." I mean faith in something bigger than me, something less definite or absolute) and doubt. I said I don't think there can be faith without doubt. Blind faith should have another term, but for me doubt is the essence of faith. For many years, I've had (and I described this to him) this image in my head when I think about religion, or about faith, of a dark wall, which is sometimes a little translucent, and on the other side of that wall is light and sound. The purest light and sound, and I cannot see what the light reveals, nor hear the sounds distinctly enough to identify. But I know they are good. Good. They could be absolutes.
He said, smiling, "That's God. Behind your wall. That's God."
I'm not sure I believe that. But maybe.
My student said he prayed regularly, but he always felt like he wasn't talking to anyone. He was in Starbuck's one day, and prayed, and looked up and saw a sign in front of him that said, "I hear you." And he took it for a sign. I think there is something about being open to things which allows those things to transpire, and perhaps he was at a place in his life that allowed him to be open. I've always hoped that a sign would be obvious, something I couldn't possibly mistake or write off to coincidence. But I'm wrong about a lot of things.
The conversation progressed. I believe in Love, and I believe in Beauty as the embodiment of love. We talked about the naming of things. I raised my question about exclusivism. This wasn't, I should point out, a conversation in which either of us was trying to convince the other. We were just asking each other questions. He said, "This is what church should be like." (He has similar hangups to my own regarding the institution of "church.") I've often heard, and he repeated this: God is love. So I asked, "Then why do we need to call it God? Why can't we call it Love, and still be 'saved'?" Why does there have to be a club that only certain people get into? Why does someone have to be right? There's an arrogance there that I don't like. It also assumes that we humans have figured "it" out, which given the general assumptions about the omni-everything of God (or whatever) seems a bit presumptuous, to the point of being ridiculous.
He asked, "What about Christ? Did he die for us?" I think that Christ existed. I think he was a great man and teacher, an example of virtue and compassion. I also believe that he was a man, mortal and capable of "sin." And that he did "sin." He was human, and humans err. But I don't believe his death provides me with salvation, at least not the way Christianity describes it. I came to this line of reasoning, with my student's input: Christ was an example, a way. The same way Mohammed was, or Siddhartha (thanks Herman Hesse, for getting all that jumbled in my head), and that the culture they were in glommed onto them and ascribed religious properties to them, codified/distorted their teachings for their own human ends (which in the beginning of the various "ministries" was probably altruistic), and after centuries of getting it wrong (and sometimes right, maybe), we ended up with the religious system we have today.
But if I take "Church" out of it, and focus on some things, I can see a way to get there. My student asked me about the Big Bang, saying he believed in evolution, but that the Big Bang seemed a bit ridiculous. I've always thought that the Big Bang and physics were actually the best proof of a supreme creator. If energy can be neither created nor destroyed, then eternity exists. If everything comes from something, than the energy that created the Big Bang already existed. So where did it come from? God (or whatever) provides a convincing, but also convenient answer. (I am aware of the problem that we have much more to learn about the makeup of the universe, and that physics is a developing science, and that answers today can be proven wrong tomorrow, but it gives me somewhere rational to go for an answer, or a way to an answer.) The next step in that logic though is where did God come from? Well, if God is energy, then it always existed and always will. Eventually, I think this leads to the traditional soul/body problem. Okay.
On the way back to campus (we met off campus, which was nice, he said that if we'd had the same conversation on campus it would've seemed like trying too hard to have a "Whitworth conversation") I thought of this (realizing that it obviously wasn't the first time it had been thought, but it was for me): Humans weren't created in God (or whatever)'s image. But maybe our souls were, and are a manifestation of that original, primordial and eternal energy. I'm still trying to think through this, and will now be a well-conditioned academic and read lots of books about it. But if that is true, then the body, humanity, is what is fallible and mortal. It is material which houses our "divine spark," if you will (knowing how old/archaic that phraseology is). At this point, decisions about intentionality might need to be made. Is this original energy conscious? I don't know how to answer that yet. If the body is what makes us human, is the body what makes us...I don't want to say evil, but that idea certainly has a long tradition. This is one of the central questions/issues of Gnosticism. I know Deism also explores this idea to some extent (though perhaps moreso the intentionality question. Research, research).
But why does it need a system? Is the Christian heaven just a return to the original source of energy? How can anyone assume they have the answers to all of these questions, and that they are the right answers?
After I'd had my (to me) possible-epiphany about the nature of the soul, I parked, got out of my truck, and headed towards my office. I heard music. Bagpipes (among my three favorite instruments) somewhere in the distance. Of course I thought of my student and his sign at Starbuck's (what a weird place for a "conversion" experience, or maybe not), and the idea of being open to things. I went inside, wondering about it. The bagpipes weren't playing any tune I could recognize, just kind of the general bagpipe melody (Scotland Forever? Go Highlanders!). I wondered about it for a few minutes (had to pee), then decided I wanted to see if I could find the source of the music (craving as always, obviousness and confirmation). As I was walking toward the sound, it became "Amazing Grace." And it was gorgeous. Now, this wouldn't necessarily be unusual for Whitworth, where most music is somehow tied to religion. I could rationalize it away. Pretty easily. About a block later I could see the piper off in the distance, near one of the dorms, with their back to me. The tune changed. It was still lovely, and I walked back to my office. But it was just about my favorite kind of music. And I've never heard bagpipes being played on campus in 14 months here. I don't know what it means, but at the very least, I am open to it.