It Takes a Different Person…

… to be a Christian.

… to be a Christian and then an atheist.

Not different like, “Um… that’s different.” Not a different kind of person — a different person, period – a person who’s been transformed into somebody else.

That was message losers like me got when we became Christians. It came in stentorian tones, right out of the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Romans 12:2 ESV

Transformation is the ultimate makeover — a change to our form – how we’re shaped, constituted, put together. Transformation alters self and life by rewiring our brain and all the biological functions that feed it. It starts in our “mind” – sense of identity, worldview, perspective, biases — what we see and don’t see, the way we habitually experience the world — and extends from there to the entire ecosystem that is who we are and how we live, inside and out. On the inside, transformation is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside, transformation is sociological, communal, societal, institutional.

Formation is growing up and growing into. Transformation is growing out of and into something else. Transformation gets started lots of ways — trauma, financial and job stress, health issues, moves, big decisions, surprises — but belief might be the most powerful.

Belief is transformational by definition. Belief conforms us to its realities — we don’t just believe this or that, we become people who believe this or that. Once we become those people, we carry on life accordingly, alongside other like-minded believers. Belief shapes our minds individually and collectively, which shapes our behavior so that we think, do, see, say, and are the right stuff. Belief results in a constant, moment by moment steeping, soaking, marinating, saturating of the brain and the rest of our neuro-biological architecture with all the requisite doctrines and dictates, rites and rituals needed to generate conforming actions, experiences, thoughts, impressions, responses, and sensibilities, which in turn generate conforming identity and behaviors.

While that’s happening on the inside, everything on the outside goes with it. Life reshapes itself –environment, community, culture, customs – around what we believe, informing what we see, hear, and feel, what we’re surrounded with and immersed in, what we think about, our assumptions and expectations, how we respond emotionally, how we dress and decorate ourselves and our environments, who we hang out with and who we avoid, where we live and don’t live, what we own and don’t own, what we eat and don’t eat, what we wear and won’t be caught dead wearing, what we do for work and fun and… the whole package.

We learn to believe by growing into it physically –belief takes up residence in our cellular structure. The more we practice what we believe, the more our biological selves conform our experience of “reality” to what we believe. Since that belief-based “reality” authenticates what we believe, we believe it more fervently. And around we go in a self-reinforcing loop, becoming stronger and more rooted in our belief, inside and out.

Belief fully formed sinks its roots into the deepest, oldest, most evolutionary and instinctive parts of our brains, where it becomes a survival skill. At this point, our lives depend on what we believe. When our beliefs are threatened, we are at risk.

We believe, we live. We don’t believe, we die.

That’s why we hold our beliefs so fervently, defend them so ferociously — doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on belief keeps us safe. Belief does all that for our own good.

Belief makes sure we are assimilated.

Belief makes sure we stay assimilated.

And yes, resistance is futile.

We transform only when we have to. Transformation is about adapting and reacting, but our brains trend to status quo and predictability. Their default setting is entropy, the current trajectory. Left unchecked, transformation is ongoing, in constant movement. Our brains won’t allow it. So we hunker down, settle in, dig in, calcify, resist, isolate, polarize, fortify.

It takes psychic dynamite to dislodge our beliefs.

I had to become a new person to be a Christian. When I drifted away, I had to become a new person to not believe anymore. It’s not that the Christian person I used to be somehow came up with a different opinion about God. Instead, I became a different person –zapped, scrambled, rearranged, shifted – and God became irrelevant. To my former self, “atheist” was never an option. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a different person in a new place, with no way to get back. That different person was an atheist — a nonbeliever, one of the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I didn’t decide my way into that much change. I had to be transformed to get there.

Transformation is change too big to be measured, described, or understood, — change that rampages, doesn’t respect, isn’t abashed. It had no problem propelling me to where I could never have possibly gone.

“Transformation” sounds so spiritual. We have this idea that it’s going to be cool – we’ll be more aware, enlightened. So we take vacations and patronize spas, head to a monastery for a week of silence. Churches sponsor retreats, corporations lay out five-star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works: put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new feelings. What used to be unthinkable and impossible becomes your new to-do list. The new normal is imminent, yours for the taking — transformation on demand.

Then comes re-entry. Go away and get inspired, then try to take it back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking. The old normal can’t tolerate it.

You forgot something. You can’t just paste all that newness on your old self, your old life. Do that, everything rips apart. You need to become new. The reason you’re not already doing the new thing is because you’re not a person or organization that does the new thing. If you were, you’d already be doing it. Duh. You want to do the new thing, you need to be transformed. You need to be made new so that you can do and be new. Trying to mix old and new just isn’t going to work. That’s in the Bible too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

Books about new wine and new wineskins were making the rounds in my early Christian days. They were books you could use at retreats – fodder for earnest conversations and strategizing — new spurred on by resounding sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. You didn’t have to know who he was or actually read anything he wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own. Apparently transformation could be a major downer. Well, maybe that worked for a 16th Century mystic, but the rest of us had jobs.

On the way out of Christianity I crashed for awhile in the self-help world and thought it would be cool to be one of those speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “this seminar changed my life” reviews. But then I started to think I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine. Transformation is messy, mean, uncaring. I didn’t wish it on anybody, so I started telling attendees that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes – they would find themselves in the throes of transformation. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. I got the impression people thought I was doing a reverse psychology number on them. After awhile I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters. When trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out. Fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence.

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.

You might join the ranks of the nonbelievers and wonder what wormhole you went through to get there.

That’s what happened to me.

You might be next.

“The Person of Jesus” Fallacy

“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”

The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.

We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.

Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.

Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.

And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.

Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.

Call me Ishmael

I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.

Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.

It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.

Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.

So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.

“Rabbi”

Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did:  travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)

Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.

Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut:  studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.

He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor:  he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.

Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”

Populism

Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.

There’s a poly-sci term for it:  populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.

Not only that, but they get free healthcare.

Healing

Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.

The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.

Messianic Populism

Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.

Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.

Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this:  one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV

“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]

“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]

The scripture in question was this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV

Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script:  “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 ESV

Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.

Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.

Populism Redux

I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.

Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.

I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.

“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”

So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:

Jesus Reinvented God

If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.

Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.

You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.

Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.

The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.

Jesus Reinvented Religion

Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.

Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.

If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change.  No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.

A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV

The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.

The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk

Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.

And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.

It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 ESV

At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Matthew 16:21-23 ESV

So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.

Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.

At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.

This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.

But then it gets worse.

The Last Judgment

When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.

Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.

But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.

These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.

Behold the Lamb of God.

That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.

Jesus Christ Superstar

By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.

Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.

That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”

Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.

The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”

How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?

Not even “the person of Jesus.”

Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.

Can we please move on?

It Takes a Different Person to be a Christian and Then an Atheist

Not a different kind of person, but a different person, period.

You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself.

Other people don’t either. There’s something different about you, hard to say what – a different energy maybe, like your wiring got scrambled.

That kind of different is why I’m not a Christian anymore. The old me didn’t change my mind about God; I became a new person, and God didn’t fit anymore. It wasn’t just a tweak here and there, but the whole ecosystem of me — self, life, world, inside and out – got shifted, zapped, scrambled, rearranged to the point that it’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore, it’s that I can’t. I’m repulsed by the idea. I’m stunned, shocked, and amazed by what I used to believe. I wonder how I could have. What was I thinking?

Now here I am — a nonbeliever, among the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I never would have believed it. Atheist wasn’t possible – it was never on the life choices list. It still isn’t. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a new person in a new place, with no way to get back. It wasn’t change, it was transformation.

“Transformation” has grandiose overtones. It sounds spiritual. We talked about transformation when I was a Christian. It’s right there in the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2 ESV

The context and the rest of verse is dressed up with pious isn’t-transformation-going-to-be-wonderful language. No it’s not. It’s going to tear you down, and everything else with it. Transformation is destructive and painful, a depressing grind. Try to make big changes and everything comes unglued. I don’t wish it on anybody.

Transformation is inside and outside – the entire ecosystem that is you and your life. Ecological change on the inside is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside it’s sociological, communal, societal, institutional. When transformation has made a mess of all that it’s just getting warmed up. Now you’ve got to figure out how to carry all that into a new life.

Good luck with that.

Personal ecosystem change is why we take vacations and patronize spas, go to a monastery for a week of silence. It’s why churches sponsor retreats, why corporations lay out five star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works:  put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new things. What was unthinkable and impossible before became your new to do list.

Personal ecosystem change is why re-entry is so hard – go away and get inspired, then try to take what happened out there back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking out there. Meanwhile you’re scheming to turn no-way-I-can-go-back into the new normal. All that inspiration and new thoughts while you’re away vs. all that dread and drudgery when you go back to the grind – it’s evidence of ecological change.

Self-help is fraudulent pseudo-religion for a lot of reasons, but it’s biggest fraud is that it doesn’t tell us about the need for ecosystem change if we want to make big changes in our lives. Self-help makes it sound like we can just paste some new things onto what we already are, have, and do. Nope. Won’t work. The reason we’re not already doing the new thing is because we’re not the kind of person who does the new thing. If we were, we’d already be doing it. Duh. If we want to do the new thing, we need to be transformed.

“Transformed” is change on an ecological/systemic scale. That means nothing left out. Nothing left out means this is going to hurt. A big part of the trouble is that transformation can’t mix old and new — get far enough into the process and the old is out for good. That’s in the Bible, too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

There were a couple popular books about new wine and new wineskins making the rounds in my early Christian years. (The Taste of New Wine and Wineskins.) They were the kind of influential books you could use at ecological change retreats – lots of earnest conversations and strategizing ways to make the new wine flow, like getting people into home Bible study and prayer groups, plus lots of great sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Our understanding of the concept was silly shallow. Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. Nobody actually read what the 16th Century mystic wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own:  transformation could be a major downer — not something you preach about on Tithing Pledge Sunday. If it got mentioned at all, “dark night” transformation got a makeover into something like a bad case of the flu you could get over.

The real thing?

Not so much.

I once thought it would be cool to be one of those self-help speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “you changed my life” reviews. But then I started to worry that I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine when I decided it was time to believe my way into my dreams – just like you’re supposed to. So I started telling audiences that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. Every would changed, and they’d have to deal with it and it would be no fun. I think people thought I was doing some kind of reverse psychology number on them. When it was clear they weren’t believing me, I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters – when trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel like at least we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out, fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence. We enter what science and environment writer April Reese calls The Fog of Grief.[1]

“I was a churning maelstrom of emotions: sadness, confusion, anger, disbelief, fear, regret, guilt. At times in those first hours, days and weeks after his death, it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I forgot things. Fatigue was a constant, no matter how much I slept. I came to understand what Joan Didion meant in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a chronicle of her grief over the loss of her husband, when she wrote: ‘I realised for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.’

“This fog of grief, it turns out, is as common as grief itself. When the neurologist Lisa Shulman lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, ‘there was some serious sadness, but that wasn’t the main problem,’ she recalls. ‘It was the disorientation. I felt like I was waking up in a completely alien world. Because the whole infrastructure of my daily life was fundamentally gone.’

“She found herself becoming lost in time, ending up in familiar places without knowing how she got there, she recalls. ‘It’s not simply a matter of discomfort or anxiety. It’s frightening,’ she says. ‘Because you feel like, as Didion said long ago, you feel like you’re going crazy.’

“Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviours that ensure our survival, takes centre stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the centre of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.

“‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’

“That perception of threat means that our survival response – ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in, and stress hormones flood the body. The work of the psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor at the University of Arizona and others has found heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bereaved.

“While the cortisol is flowing fast, the brain remakes itself – at least temporarily – to help us endure the trauma of grief. In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centres of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. Brain scans of the bereaved show that grief activates parts of the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’. Among the limbic regions impacted are the amygdala, which governs the intensity of emotions and threat perception; the cingulate cortex, involved in the interplay between emotions and memory; and the thalamus, a sort of relay station that conveys sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s information-processing centre.

“So my inability to form coherent sentences or remember what I opened the refrigerator to get is nothing to be worried about, Skritskaya assures me; my brain has simply powered down my thinking to enable me to tolerate the loss. The tradeoff is fuzzy cognition – what I’ve come to describe to friends as ‘grief brain’.

“‘Grief takes up a lot of bandwidth in the brain,’ Shulman writes in her book. ‘Odd behaviour and incoherence are expected consequences of the brain’s protective responses following emotional trauma.’”

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Ecological change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.


[1] The Fog of Grief: The five stages of grief can’t begin to explain it: grief affects the body, brain and sense of self, and patience is the key Aeon Magazine (Aug. 10, 2021).

“A Man of Sorrows and Acquainted With Grief”

Isaiah 53:3 ESV

It’s not like you think, going godless — certainly not like I thought, or from what I can tell not like other people like me — who used to be Christians but aren’t anymore – not like what they thought either.

I didn’t become an atheist because I was drowning in deep despair or off my meds. I didn’t suddenly start being evil, thinking and doing evil things; didn’t wake up cursing and muttering blasphemies; wasn’t suddenly deranged and hollow, didn’t start haunting churches and graveyards; going off on people carrying Bibles.

No, I was just being me – a generally nice guy who grew up in the Nice Person Capital of the World (Minnesota) – doing my best to stumble through a series of what one writer calls “lifequakes.” God and being a Christian were at the center of the deluge because they were at the center of everything about me and my life. They just got caught in the middle. The whole thing was a hurricane in reverse – the highest winds and most damage were in the center, so God and Christianity took the hardest hit. Not that they were exactly innocent bystanders:   my post-Christian life got started with a betrayal from the inside (a story I’ve told that story elsewhere and won’t repeat it here). For the first ten years or so I thought I would get over it, but the damage was done, the citadel breached, the way back destroyed.

From there my reverse conversion just… happened … privately, quietly, gradually… exactly like Screwtape said it would: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” he wrote to Wormwood, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It took years to traverse that gentle slope – a long slow erosion of my sense of identity and way of going about life. God and Christianity eroded away like a bank along a favorite stream in a favorite woodland that failed and faltered until finally one days it was all washed away and there was no more grass, nothing but deep ruts and gnarly exposed roots, the thick green underbrush gone and the trees falling over for lack of purchase for their roots, the life and joy and wonder of the place long, long, painfully dried up to the point that there was no possible way to kid myself that there was anything still growing there, anything that could still grow there, and now there was nothing left to do but wish it wasn’t so, and knowing that yes, it was so, irretrievably so, and I would need to find a new place with new water and soil, sun and shade.

That’s what it was like — the emptiness of a wind over a parched land, a waste land of water not falling from the sky, an endless, ever-receding horizon with nothing but heat mirages ever rising up into view no matter how long you trudged toward it.

“A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Yes, that’s what it was like.

It was a grief long-grieved through multiple iterations of shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance – an endless repetition of redoubt and redoubling, of circling back, searching and wondering, and always this feeling that this can’t possibly be me doing this, this is not happening, this was never supposed to happen.

We prefer to focus on the acceptance stage of grieving – it’s heroic, overcoming, the do-over you get after a lot of awareness and learning and deepening. Nothing to dislike about acceptance, but getting there is rugged – no silver lining, no “reason for everything.” Shit just happens.

Grief packs a wallop. Grief is always an ambush – you’re always reeling, off balance, back-peddling. Grief is your personalized apocalypse, your lonely end of the world. Grief takes you on a tour of your history, reveals things you needed to know but didn’t, all the dumb stuff you did because you didn’t know any better and didn’t know how to ask for help, and now that you know better and are willing to ask for help what’s the point because it’s too late. Grief makes a mess of things, leaves you ragged and speechless and unpretty. Grief makes you crazy mad and angry mad. Grief numbs you out, turns you into the walking dead.

Grief isn’t about what’s lost, it’s about how we deal with loss. I lost a lot when I lost my Christian faith, and I lost my faith because I lost a lot. Grief is a super-slow motion baptism of regret. I used to think I lived with no regrets – like people brag about doing – but I was wrong, ridiculously wrong. Regret is a sticky form of the anger stage of grief. I had it stuck all over me – regret over all those years of uncountable small decisions and declarations that would have been made differently or not at all if it hadn’t been for my fierce allegiance to God – all those risks taken, allegiances declared, positions staked out, doubt and despair denied, convictions affirmed, certainties avowed, doubts and wonderings squelched, comfort forsaken, moments of awe and euphoria asserted, instants of triumph celebrated…. So much life! So many faces, constantly in and out of the frame! So much said, so much left unsaid, so much gainsaid….

It has taken years to get unstuck from regret. Lately, it seems the regret years might finally be over. The memories no longer have that angry edge, like the energy of it has been used up. God and Christianity are lost and gone away – a lifetime bond broken, an identity discarded, a way of looking at life left behind – to the point that now I look at what used to be and wonder how I possibly could have lived like that all those years.

That’s what it was like. All of that.

Not like I thought.

Not like other Christians who lost their faith thought.

Probably not like you thought either.

I Don’t Love You Like I Loved You Yesterday

When you go
Would you even turn to say
I don’t love you
Like I did
Yesterday

My Chemical Romance

I’ve been waiting to hear those words. I’m not going to, and I finally know why. I won’t hear them because there’s nobody there to say them. Which means there’s nothing to end, no good-byes to make, no reasons to give.

I couldn’t think how to write about it. No longer being a Christian, becoming an atheist – lots of people write about that. I have, too. But this time was different – what I discovered was bigger than “once I believed this and now I believe that.” It was about how my faith kept me lost in an artificial childhood. I never grew up. I stayed a child because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you believe. And I paid for it.

Here’s where the idea of remaining childlike came from:

“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” Matthew 18:2-4 ESV

That sounds deep, and it gets a lot of mileage. It took it at face value, as I did with all my Bible reading. It worked great in the realm of belief, but in adult life… not so much. How to write about that? Then the idea came to me:  write to the Jesus who said that. So here goes….

* * *

The whole thing started with me feeling like a zero, screwing everything up. I needed help, and you would help me, dust me off and get me pointed in a better direction, make me into somebody I didn’t dislike, somebody useful. You would do all that because you wanted to– not only could you, but you would. It was easy for you, it’s what you were for.

All I had to do was believe in you, trust you, throw it all in for you. I did, and you came smiling into my life – strong, kind, generous. You were invincible – with you around, there was never anything to be afraid of, nothing was ever out of control (including me). You were the best of friends, the best of times, the best of company. You could keep everybody and everything together just by walking into the room. You were the big brother everybody should have but nobody does. You made things right. You straightened life out. You straightened me out — gave me what I lacked, filled in the blanks, the holes, the empty spaces. You gave me everything to believe in – a cause, a calling, a purpose. You made me strong, like you.

Now, after all those years, I finally see that there was no you and me, no you doing all that for me. Instead, I made you up like an imaginary friend, to be everything I wasn’t, to do everything I couldn’t. I didn’t trust myself, didn’t believe in myself, so I made you up to be someone I could trust and believe in – someone outside of me, out of reach of me, someone I could never be, who could do what I would never be able to do. You were the me I wanted to be but could never be on my own.

Or so I thought.

* * *

I was 17, 18, 19 when I reached out to you — in late adolescence, when children differentiate into their young adult selves. I never did — I differentiated into you. So did all my new friends that were joining the faith at the time – all of us wannabe Hippies who became Jesus Freaks instead. We were all Lost Boys. We became adults intending to be just like you. You were our highest and greatest selves – the best we could be. Better to turn ourselves over to you than keep going it alone, making a mess of things. It’s dangerous out there, everybody needs somebody like you – crazy thing is, not everybody knows it, so we have to tell them.

Or so we thought.

Children can be arrogant, too.

In your shadow I could stay a Lost Boy forever. True, according to the faith I had technically become “found,” but I was still a boy, still a child, and still lost – or on the verge of it. You encouraged us to think that way so that’s what we Lost Boys did. Plus, you told us about your father (who never made an appearance, we only had your word about him, which turned out to be way off base, but that revelation only came much later), and you said he would be ours, too. He would be the too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving father (yes, with a mean streak when he got angry, but that’s how grownups are and we could dance around it) who was rich and wise beyond measure, and who had our backs for good, just like you did. We were family now – we could count on that. There was nothing stupid we could do that you and your dad wouldn’t forgive, no need we could have that the two of you wouldn’t meet.

With all that, why grow up?

Children know a good deal when they see it.

* * *

One day decades later I snuck away from my law practice one afternoon to go to the movies. I’d heard about people doing that – I thought it was so out of line it was just plain immoral — and then I did it myself. The movie was Hook. I sat in a matinee with all the moms and kids and cried all the way through. I was Robin Williams’ character Peter Banning – maybe not quite as blatantly obnoxious, but just as lost. I looked good on the outside, my life looked good, but I had broken faith. I had meant to never grow up, but had done my best to do so anyway.

I was an adult on the outside, a kid on the inside, and had a life to match.

I left Hook and did what kids do when the adults doing something that doesn’t make sense:  I assumed it was all my fault, took the blame, vowed to do better, to make it right. I returned to my childlike ways. Never mind that others in the “family” were living by the creed of “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” 1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV Obviously they had sold out, like Peter Banning. They’d become adults. They didn’t trust and believe. They weren’t childlike anymore. They were still nominally part of the family, but it wasn’t just that they’d forgotten how to fly, they didn’t even want to anymore. Not me. I was still eager to please.

I got back to work on my flying.

* * *

Thinking that way, I committed the same crime against myself that I had at the beginning:  I robbed myself of ever knowing the adult I might have become. I never found out who I could be. Instead, the Lost Boy in me ran to your side once again, hid behind you, tried to wear your mask, tried to look and sound like you. The outcome of my new Lost Boy life was predictable – a drunkard’s random walk from this to that – always after the newest spiritual insight, the latest religious fad, the next way to prove my allegiance to the idea of you. Meanwhile I remained the afraid child who was doing it wrong, if it went bad it was my fault, who had to take the blame for what the adults did.

* * *

And then something happened that was never supposed to happen but did anyway. It’s not that you just up and left, that you didn’t come around much anymore, that you had other things to do, other friends. No, nothing like that. It was more like you started to fade – like you were dematerializing, losing substance, fading from view, getting farther away, turning into a ghost, your voice muffled, muted, softened, distanced. You lost presence. You became like a really great book that once had moved me, that meant so much to me that I kept it on the shelf to remember that feeling but never opened it again. You became a memory, an experience I once had.

I had been so practiced at generating the energy of your presence that it took me a long time to realize I had been the one doing the generating. It had been my job to make sure you kept walking into the room. You never came on our own. And now, you never came at all. I wondered at first why you didn’t seem so real as you did at first. I worried that I might have left you, wondered if you might have left me. I felt you far more in the loss of you than I ever had in the thought of your presence.

And then you were gone — faded from view. And your father too.

The Lost Boy had lost the one who found him.

* * *

In the midst of your disappearing came the beginning of growth, of self-awareness, of letting the child go and telling the adolescent it is safe to grow up, to finally differentiate after all that deferral, to become human – to recognize that no Lost Boy can be found by losing himself.

The final realization was that I had never gotten the help I needed so desperately at the beginning – not because you wouldn’t or couldn’t or didn’t, but because you weren’t. You never had been. I made you up, then lived in service to the you I created – the surrogate for the authentic version I was afraid to create. You couldn’t help me because I didn’t take on the one job we must all do, we are all unqualified to do, we can never do to the satisfaction of the rules and forms and laws we invent, but we all must do anyway:  the job of creating ourselves in the wide world. After all those years, I was finally taking it on — the inevitable, inescapable job of learning to be human, of engaging fully in this thing we call “life” as if it was something apart from us, but it is not, it never can be, it is simply us, living.

Until we don’t anymore.

* * *

And now you were gone – without the decency to tell me you were leaving. Handling it that way made you a coward and a cheat. I shocked myself, calling you that, but your leaving without a good-bye made me mad.

When you go
Would you have the guts to say
I don’t love you
Like I loved you yesterday

I mourned, felt discarded, abandoned. I felt the crush and the pierce of your neglect. And then it came to me:  you would never turn to say you didn’t love me anymore – not because you wouldn’t but because you couldn’t. How could you? You didn’t exist, you never had. You were the fabrication of my Lost Boy self’s need of you, my misguided need to be found to the point where I lost myself in you. And now I was the one who was ready to let you go. I didn’t need you to tell me why you were going. You couldn’t anyway.

* * *

For years as a Christian I heard sermons about the following passage and feared I would come out on the wrong end of it:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:21-23 ESV

Ironically, even though you said it would be to no avail, we had all done our best to prophesy and cast out demons and do mighty works. Hedging our bets, I guess – unable to believe you would actually say that, after all we did to try to please you. Now, I am appalled that some depth of me had a need to appease you, like the abused tries to appease the abuser, making excuses for the smoldering rage that lashes out, wounds and kills. In this, I have come to see that, despite all your likeability, you were unavoidably a chip off the old block – just like the father you kept so carefully hidden behind you, who I came to understand was not the good Father you said he was, but the horrible God of the Bible — the brutal, blood-lusting, war-mongering, hyper-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, totalitarian, authoritarian despot who has committed himself to the final destruction of the world and the eternal tormenting of its people. And you? You appeased him, too – all the way to your own death by torture.

Some family I had been adopted into.

I had made that father my own, as I made you my own. And now, thankfully, he is gone too – has also faded from my view – until I no longer need either of you to turn and tell me that you don’t love me anymore, not like you used to.

Because you never did anyway.

But now I’m the one who has something to say to you as I do the leaving.

Just this:

Depart from me – I never knew you.

We Seriously Need to Get Over Our Addiction to Ancient Wisdom

Where did we get the idea that Ancient Wisdom is such hot stuff?

You shrug. You don’t know, you never thought about it. I hadn’t either.

An “ancient wisdom” Google search generated the usual 89 million results in 0.65 seconds. The first couple pages were mostly life coaches trying to out-reverence each other.

Lesson learned:  call what you’re peddling ancient wisdom, and you’ll sell more of it. (Remember the opening of The Secret promo movie?)

Not exactly the answer I had in mind.

Ancient wisdom is an assumption:  of course it’s better than anything we might think of on our own — everybody knows that! It’s better because it’s… well, because it’s… un, because it’s really old… it’s so old it’s… ancient.

Sigh.

We assume ancient wisdom will give us an edge – rocket us from clueless to competitive. I mean, those ancients, they had it going. They’re the Who’s Who of Law, Art, Philosophy, Religion, History, Literature… The ancient texts. The ancient ways. The ancient teachings. The ancient books. The ancient heroes. The ancient incarnations of gods walking the Earth. Miles and piles of traditions and holidays and customs. Wars, wars, and more wars. Greed and evil, corruption and cruelty, with a sprinkle of nobility now and then. On and on and on… Ancient this, ancient that.

Ancient is most potent when it’s sacred ancient, which is as close to God as you can get. God is old – really old, older than old, older even than ancient. That means sacred ancient-ness is next to godliness.

Sigh.

We’re so addicted to ancient wisdom that we’re blind to our addiction, which makes it hard to talk about. It seems obvious, like asking why we breathe.

  • We breathe to live.
  • We revere ancient wisdom because we breathe.

Or something like that.

When’s the last time ancient wisdom made your life better? I mean really better, not just “I believe this old stuff will improve my life” better?

Here’s the problem (one of many):  We think those guys (yes, guys – ancient pronouns are definitely male) were just like us, living the same kinds of lives, dealing with the same kinds of issues, so that what they thought about how life works can help us out.

Not so.

This is the time travel problem:  the idea that if we could zap ourselves forward or backward in time we’d still be us, the same as we are now, only with some adjusting to do — so if we time-travelled Socrates into today, the bedsheet clothes would have to go, and he’d need a shower and probably a trip to the dentist, but otherwise with the help of Google Translate he’d fit right in.

Not a chance.

Humans function in context. We feel, don’t feel, think, don’t think, act, don’t act… see, perceive, conclude, decide, and all their opposites… only in context. We happen in the moment because that’s all we’ve got. We have no experience except here and now, and everything about our experience comes from our brains’ processing what we’re experiencing. We take in all the external stimuli – through our senses, through spatial and subliminal biological connections –and our brains process it all internally. The amalgamation becomes “reality.” A little of that happens consciously; most of it doesn’t. To the extent we’re aware, we are conscious only in context.

Ancient context was different. Ancient people and their ancient reality were different. The ancient human consciousness that created ancient reality was different. We and our reality and consciousness are different from theirs. We are not like those guys. They weren’t like us. If we could ever meet – which we can never do, not even metaphorically or intellectually or otherwise – we would barely recognize them as human. They would return the favor. We’d both notice the naked ape resemblance, but common ground would be hard to find. Maybe after some who-knows-how-long acclimation process we might learn to experience a new, shared context together. Until then, things would definitely be awkward.

We give ancient religion special status in our ancient addiction. We re-energize ancient events and teachings, beliefs and practices, by the application of our fervent belief. By our belief, we invest ancient relics and rituals with living virtue — antiquity reconstituted. We think we brought the ancient back to life, but that’s delusional because our believe is also processed in context – our current context. We’re making up the experience in the here and now. We cannot do otherwise.

Which loops us around back to where we started:  if we didn’t believe ancient wisdom is something special, we wouldn’t believe its relevance to us. And no, calling something “sacred” and “holy” and “eternal” and “immortal” doesn’t help — it still has to be processed through our mortal, temporal biology. We’re not creating ancient meaning and experiencing it in its original form — we’re only creating this moment’s version of it.

The best our believing can do is to treat ancient wisdom as what philosophers call a “first cause.” If you trace everything back through some impossibly tangled mega-gigantic cause and effect chain, you eventually get to the place where you can’t trace back anymore, so you need a “first cause” that gets the whole thing started.( Once you find the first cause, you sound like a parent:  “Because I said so, that’s why.” )

God is the first cause of choice. You can’t go further back than God, can’t prove or disprove God, you either believe in Him (yes, God’s pronouns are also male) or you don’t. Full stop. Ancient is the same way:  you either believe it’s good and true and valuable and worth fighting wars and making converts at gunpoint or sword point or on the rack or in the Inquisition or whatever… or you don’t. Belief is what makes ancient relevant, but when it does, it only gets the current version. Even if sacred holy other ancient could get a pass, there’s no sacred holy other compartment in our brains to process it.

Suppose we could break our ancient addiction habit – what would have to gain?

Ironically, the answer might be what we were after in the first place:  wisdom – the ability to think useful thoughts about what’s going on around us. Consider the following passage from a Pulitzer price-willing journalist, prolific author, and general awesomely intelligent and articulate human being, taken from I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, by Chris Hedges (2008).

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of consciousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others.

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

Nicely said.

We’re not such hot stuff, and neither is ancient wisdom. We’re not so in touch and in control as we’d like to think we are — in fact we bounce around and mutate all over the place – and always in context. We do our best to push back the night, still the churning seas, halt the careening clouds, tame the void to make it less awful. It’s worth the try – the effort, however vain, gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, agency. But we’re not going to banish our limitations by latching onto ancient wisdom, because the latching process ultimately takes place only in us. We are what we are in the context of the moment, just like those old guys were.

A bunch of old guys tried to figure things out. So do we.

Chances are they were about as good at it as we are.

Which isn’t saying much.

The God Syndrome: How the Puritans Destroyed Democracy

Would you buy a used car from this God?

Or share a beer with him?

Or marry him?

Or want him to be your dad?

Or run your company?

Or your country?

Well it depends.… What God are we talking about?

Ask “Do you believe in God?” in the U.S., and most people will say yes they do. (The current percentage ranges from 64% to 87% depending on how you tweak the question. See this Gallup poll.) Back in the postwar 1940’s through the 1960’s, the percentage was steady at around 97%. (See this Time Magazine summation.) But what God were those polls asking about?

  • The God of the Bible?
  • The God of “Christendom” — the loose amalgamation of European/American countries that had roots in The Church with a capital T and C?
  • Or are we talking about the God of this or that denomination, non-denominational parachurch, megachurch, lone-tree independent Bible church, living room Bible study, or men’s warrior weekend retreat?
  • Or can God just be some kind of mystical or transcendent spirit for the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd?
  • Or maybe a neighborly “Look, I’m kind of busy here, but okay, I’m not a religious person but yeah I think there’s a God”?

Baby Boomers like me grew up with a sort of Age of Enlightenment/ socially acceptable God. Miracles and taking the Bible literally had taken a hit back around the time the USA was declaring itself into existence. The Church survived thanks to its centuries-old institutional dominance and because people in the Western world still needed to believe in God to give meaning to their lives and structure to their societies. (Even Nietzsche worried that doing away with God would throw the human race into despair and anarchy.) As a result, God went with the flow, branching out like a river finding different courses that eventually take on prefixes like the “north fork,” “middle fork,” “south fork.”

One fork followed a course set in the late 1900’s by less conventional thinkers, who created a hybrid pseudo-scientific God that carried on the Age of Enlightenment preference for science and rationality while embracing the newly emerging social sciences, particularly psychology. That fork eventually drifted toward a more generalized “universal spirit” that became today’s “the Universe” as a God substitute.

The USA’s Roman Catholic loyalists and “mainline” Christian Protestant denominations hung onto ritualistic form while entertaining new substance. If church-going folk noticed, they were probably too busy to care:  from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the human races’ addiction to periodic savagery kept the citizens busy alternately patriotically supporting wars and cleaning up their messes. While the theologians and academicians reinvented God, the people kept showing up on Sundays and putting cash and weekly “pledge” envelopes in the offering plates.

In time, Christians could be Christians without ever having read the Bible, society could still function, the march of progress could still charge ahead, and the average paycheck-earning, family-raising American could still belong to a religious institution that took care of weddings, babies, and burials without making too many demands on anybody’s personal piety. Christianity became nominal – an American birthright, like citizenship – which is why I could go to college in the 1970’s and ask my new roommate what church he went to – a routine part of making acquaintance. (“I’m Jewish,” he replied. Oh brave new world!)

But for some, all this rational humanistic scientific touchy-feely religion was a serious problem. They were the Remnant – the Bible-believing literalist true believers, the true sons of the Protestant Reformation and worthy descendants of their Puritan New World early adopter forebears. Mostly, they were carrying the torch lit long ago by a New England hellfire and brimstone evangelist named Jonathan Edwards who set off an anti-Age of Enlightenment insurgency known as the “First Great Awakening” in 1741 with his signature sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (The Second Great Awakening came a century later in a storm of tent revivals.)The Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow gave us a steady supply and worldwide legacy of revivals, “church renewal” movements, Baptists and fundamentalists, early 20th Century tongue-speaking Pentecostals and the 60’s and 70’s Gifts of the Spirit “Charismatics,” and a whole host of fervency-generating events and movements that were big enough to be noticed but that mostly stayed around the edges of the mainstream.

And then a miracle happened.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the Remnant their stamped ticket to cultural dominance.

Along with belief in God, most Americans in 1973 believed that humans are “living souls” – each person an immortal divine personality placed in a mortal human body by the specific touch and intent of God. (A lot of Americans still believe that, it seems.) As a result, Roe v. Wade wasn’t about procreative biology, it was about the murder of God-given souls. The Remnant rose up in God-snorting fire-and-brimstone unity — the newly emerging Evangelicals morphed into the Christian Right, and God’s will became a political juggernaut.

All you really need to know about the Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow is the signature title of his sermon. But consider also Edwards’ famous conclusion that “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

I.e., if God is in a mood to feel charitably inclined toward us, we’re good. But if not…. we’re toast.

Burnt toast.

Literally.

The Remnant’s God is the Biblical God, which the “Good Book” describes as…

  • A “man of war.”
  • When he goes to war, the objective is genocide — men, women, children — no survivors. Except for the women kept alive for the soldiers to rape.
  • He’s misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic.
  • He is a most emphatically a “He” – a male — an iron-fisted patriarch.
  • He rules as an obsolete authoritarian. He is answerable and accountable to no laws, no moral or ethical codes – to nothing and no one. What He says goes and if you don’t like it you die – or suffer for a long, long time… forever, actually.
  • He doesn’t just want to be revered and worshiped, he demands it.
  • He has absolutely the lowest opinion of both those who revere and serve him and those who don’t. He teaches them that they’re flawed from birth, that no matter what they do, they can never please him. Each of them is born under a sentence of condemnation. But He expects them to try to make Him happy anyway. Good luck with that.
  • He has planned the total destruction of the Earth and all its people, has the means to do so, and threatens to do so at any moment.
  • After He destroys everything, if you’re on his bad side – which nearly every is – your fate is to be tortured and tormented forever. Of all the billions of people who’ve ever lived, only a few will be exempt from this destiny.
  • And all of that is a good thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the Biblical God is merciful and kind, and that He loves us?

There’s more where all that came from – lots more – all of it from the Bible, the source code for the three “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim). Christianity adds an addendum – the “New Testament” – which describes, among other things, how:

  • God arranged to have his “son” beaten, whipped, and tortured to death, even though he begged for mercy.
  • The purpose of which was to “save” the few “chosen” to “glorify” Him forever.
  • That was an expression of God’s “mere pleasure,” I guess.

The Remnant was created in this God’s image.

And it gets worse.

The Remnant has now become radicalized – turned into an armed cult, a belligerent, raucous, enraged mob ready, willing, eager, and able to do the bidding of the one they believe is God’s “Anointed” leader. Since the final year of the 2020 Presidential campaign through today, the Remnant has been openly at war with the USA’s democracy, intent on replacing it with their own fascist, authoritarian ideology, with the enthusiastic backing of their heroes in Congress and Commerce (the rise of the Christian Right perfectly coincided with the evangelistic overthrow of economics by the Friedman Free Marketers, giving us today’s Social Darwinist version of capitalism).

What we’re seeing is the Revenge of the Puritans.

The Founding Fathers convened in the context of the Jonathan Edwards vs. the Age of Enlightenment fight to the finish. They thought they had forged a new republic with appropriate safeguards to prevent the creation of the kind of God-sponsored theocracy their ancestors had escaped.

They were wrong.

If took nearly 250 years, but the Founders have finally lost. They can’t answer the Liberty Bell any more. It’s not just cracked, it’s been melted into swords along with the plowshares.

The Angry God and the Sinners in His Hands have overrun the gates of reason and science, ethics and the rule of law, all notions of community and “We the People,” and everything else in the Founders’ even-handed attempts at envisioning an enduring republic. They fawn over this God and his Anointed, reveling in his love and pleasure, carrying on as countlessothers have done for thousands of years, making sure that life is never anything other than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This God has been the face of Western Civilization for thousands of years — as long as written history – and still is. This God’s story is Western history — and not just Western history, but World history. And now, this God has entirely hijacked the USA’s history as well.

This God has poisoned the individual and collective minds of our entire species for so long that we can’t imagine life without Him.

This God is why the world’s dismal history keeps repeating itself.

We need to hold this God accountable. The trial would last an eternity. We don’t have time for it. We need to ban Him now, exile Him beyond discovery, beyond reclamation.

It will take time.

We have no time.

We need to get over this God. He has done unimaginable, incomprehensible damage to individual and collective lives for far too long. We need to write him out of our laws, our nations, our lives. We need to cleanse and detox our bodies and brains of Him.

The God Era needs to be over. We need to get over our God Syndrome.

We can’t imagine it.

We need to imagine it.

Because unless we banish this God, we cannot reinvent life to meet the challenges of the 21st Century and beyond. Because if our minds and cultures remain polluted and poisoned by our thoughts of this God and all the institutions and structures and… everything… the human race has created in His name from time immemorial… we will be unable to create anything other than in His image, as we have already done for millennia.

No of course there’s no hope that this could ever happen.

There needs to be hope that this could ever happen.

Because hope that it could ever happen is our only hope.

Beliefism [7]: When the Good News Isn’t

Quick review…

“Beliefism” refers to the dynamics of belief.

Belief promises it can do the impossible – actually do it, not just make you think it did.

Christianity and self-help take the same approach to doing the impossible – following advice that originally came from Jesus:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:24 ESV

Believe, don’t doubt, believe it’s a done deal, and there it is – the impossible! What if it doesn’t work? Self-help’s answer is to keep trying — which usually means keep buying. Christianity says it’s because the impossible you wanted wasn’t God’s will.

 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 1 John 5:14-15 ESV

Even Jesus didn’t get a free pass on that one.

We know the story, and it’s as horrible, gruesome, ugly, awful as it gets.

Jesus is about to be arrested, beaten, whipped, and tortured to death. He goes off to talk to God — his “Father” – to see if there’s a way out.

 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39 ESV

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.[a] Luke 22:39-44 ESV

Sweating blood? This is from healthline.com:

“Hematidrosis is an extremely rare condition in which you sweat blood. It’s also known as hematohidrosis and hemidrosis. It’s so rare that many people don’t know it exists or if it’s real. But sweating blood has been seen throughout history. The Bible mentions Jesus sweating blood while praying before the crucifixion. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about soldiers sweating blood before battle.

“While these may or may not have been real depictions, hematidrosis is a real condition. Blood sweat can occur on any surface of the body. The face and forehead are common locations.

“There isn’t much information available on hematidrosis. Because it’s so rare, it isn’t clearly understood. However, hematidrosis generally happens when a person feels intense fear or stress. Someone facing death may have this kind of fear or stress, for example. When you are under stress, your body goes into flight-or-fight mode.

“But in rare instances, the flight-or-fight response can trigger the rupture of capillaries in the body. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels located throughout tissue. They carry essential nutrients to different parts of the body. Capillaries are also located around the sweat glands. In cases of severe fear or stress, these tiny blood vessels can burst and cause blood to exit the body through the sweat glands.”

We know how it ends. God was committed to Jesus’s murder. He didn’t answer Jesus’s prayer.

Some Father….

Its gets worse.

Jesus is Christians’ model in all things. No surprise then, that the Bible chapter Christians often regard as definitive on the topic of faith (the book of Hebrews, in the Christian New Testament) teaches that not getting what you want is Christians’ highest achievement. It starts this way:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 ESV

This sounds familiar. We see the mountain, we want it to move, but it’s still sitting there, big and immoveable. As far as we can see, it hasn’t moved, but we have to believe, be convinced that it will.

Mind over matter.

The power of positive thinking.

The passage continues…

“And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 ESV

To get something from God, first we need to believe in God. Okay, got that – seems pretty obvious. Then we need to believe God “rewards those who seek him.” Okay, got that too – that’s why we’re asking God for what we want.

And what are the rewards we can believe God will give us? The passage answers by listing faith heroes, and then we get these summaries of how God rewarded them:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two,[a] they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:35-40 ESV

Talk about bait and switch.

We just went from moving mountains to it’s a good thing to get mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and sawn in two….

The Good News That Isn’t

I never saw this when I was a Christian. I knew all these passages of scripture, heard them taught over and over and over, but never did what I just did – never tried to follow the “do the impossible” line all the way through. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it the way I just did. I would have kept to the party line – I would have patched up the holes with all the rationales and explanations, all the convoluted theology, all the hack sermons, all the spin on why not getting the “reward” you want, why getting something horrible instead… is the “good news.”

I didn’t see that because Beliefism keeps you in the fold, keeps you close, keeps your mind from asking too many questions. But once you’re out, you can start to think again. You can wonder what was Jesus thinking when he said all that stuff about believing the impossible into existence? And what was I thinking when I spent years and years living in this failed reality? Obviously I wasn’t – thinking, that is — I was deluded, under the thrall of Beliefism.

I can’t blame Christianity and self-help, or the people who practice them. They are what they are. What made them toxic for me is that I believed. I put myself under Beliefism’s spell.

But those days are over. I don’t miss them. I don’t miss trying to do the impossible. I don’t miss Beliefism.

Requiesce in pace.

Beliefism [Part 4]: Believing is Seeing/ Belief Turns Toxic

Believe your way into a new reality – visualize it, set an intention, create a vision board… soon you’ll manifest it! You’ll get the mansion, the corner suite, the all-inclusive beach vacation! That’s how life works – it’s the law.

So goes the self-help gospel, and guess what? It works. Well sort of. The world does conform to what you believe. You actually do see what you believe. Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and there it is – right in front of you.

Only trouble is, it’s a self-validating loop. You are in fact seeing what you’re believing. And that’s a problem.

Behold Your Algorithm

Belief works like the Algorithm Gods. You shop something online, now it’s all over your feeds. You think, oh come on, that’s so obvious. But algorithms are dumb, they don’t know any better, they just crunch the data. You looked at some ads, you must want to see more, and never mind that you already bought it — algorithms are slow to get to message. Our brains process belief the same way – they’re fleshy lumps of responsiveness. Once you believe something, your brain is on it. Get interested in that car and it’s all you see on the road — it’s the same dynamic, except once you buy it, your brain is quicker to move on.

Join the Club

The Algorithm Gods offer up social media support to keep you focused and happy so you’ll tithe that five-star review. Our brains have been doing the same thing for a long, long time – long before the Algorithm Gods were a gleam in some techie’s eye, since the human race developed language about 150,000 years ago. You tell somebody what you believe, and their brain zips through the dummy algorithm belief thing, and now there’s two of you with neuropathways installed and running the same outlook on life. Then the two of you then share it with a bunch of other somebodies who share it with more, and soon everybody’s brains dutifully line up and you’ve got a group, team, tribe, cult…

When communal belief goes viral, it consolidates, strengthens its grip on all those brains. They share a similar outlook, which creates similar experience, which reinforces similar outlook, and around it goes. All that similar outlook and experience builds institutions, creates cultural norms, myths, and symbols. Now you’ve got law, government, economics, religion, literature, history….

The process is known as emergence:  what starts inside (as belief) takes on external shape; the word becomes flesh and dwells among us until we share worldview and reality. If you don’t see it the way the community does, it’s because you don’t believe. Change what you believe, and you’ll get with the program.

Beliefism 101

I was immersed (baptized – literally) into this communal belief dynamic when I went back to college after becoming a Christian during a gap year. At first I hung out with my old friends in party central, but it  was boring, listening to Led Zeppelin when everybody else was taking hits when the joint went around. So I hung out on my new dorm floor, which was not a party animal zoo, and we got busy doing the non-party things you do at college.

I’d see my new Christian friends at meetings, say hi around campus, sometimes join them for lunch… but before long I got the word:  I needed to be around more. I needed to stay “in fellowship,” needed to sit with the pack at meals, that sort of thing. I was new at the Christian gig, so I complied. I complied so well that pretty soon I’d been selected to be “discipled” by the leadership, so I could help take over and run the fellowship after they graduated.

That was the end of my new friends in my new dorm. My roommate was a nice guy from Iowa, a serious student who’d lived — , mostly as a spectator — in party central where I did the year before my gap year. After I got my calling into campus Christian leadership, I became the Christian Roommate From Hell – never around, always too tired from being up late every night “doing ministry,” nothing to talk about anymore, always doing something weird, apparently too uppity to hang out and do the usual dorm stuff. It never occurred to me to change course – my new Christian life was too important.

Sigh.

Beliefism is the same, no matter the object of belief.

What I experienced was communal belief in action – the power of a shared belief system to control thought and behavior – what I now call “beliefism.” I have since converted back out of Christianity, where I’ve learned that what I experienced back then would have been the same if I had joined a different belief system (such as the campus Communists, which my roommate accused me of doing). Beliefism readily swaps belief in this for belief in that — religion, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives, you name it, it’s all the same.

Beliefism also doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. Reason and discernment only enter the frame once beliefism has built its self-referential judgments about what is reality and how things really work – that’s when they get busy codifying what conforms and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish or eradicate. They also start keeping a list and naming names of who’s with the program and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s us and who’s them.

Communal belief and its institutions manage entrances and exits, enforce conformity, and punish dissent, resulting in a special kind of brain shutdown known in other circles as “mind control” as “brain washing” – terms coined in the Korean War and developed in the Cold War, when American fingers pointed at China and the Commies because we’re the good guys and we would never do that! Yes we would. We do it all the time. It’s an everyday, worldwide experience – it’s what happens to the human brain and to human culture when we build individual and cultural identity around beliefs.

Brain Shutdown

Beliefism shuts down nonconforming brain activity. There are some places we just don’t go – they’re out of bounds, they don’t conform. We don’t see them because we don’t believe them. Our mental options are now limited – like what was going on in the mind of the street evangelist I heard once who made a pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” went his pitch, “so there must be a God who does.” That was his proof for the existence of God, and for Creationism. He could have understood the complicated universe if he took the time to learn the math and physics, but instead he took the shortcut:  he believed instead of knowing. But then beliefism led him to take another step:  he started knowing what he believed it was The Truth, with two capital T’s. His reality was True; the rest of us unsaved people waiting for buses needed to get clued in.

He wasn’t in possession of all that Truth and Reality, his brain was possessed by it – his brain was running it over the requisite neural pathways, supported by the requisite brain chemicals. That’s why he was certain that he knew something else the rest of us didn’t. Being a decent sort of a guy, since he was now in possession of the Real Reality Forever and Ever Amen, it was worth lugging his amp and microphone to the street corner across from the bus station to tell the rest of us about it. He was there on the street corner to help us out, because part of his pitch was that if we didn’t get it right, we’d all go to hell. But the good news was, all we needed to do was believe what he believed and we’d be good, no problem.

The Path to Toxic Belief

It’s not hard to see how belief’s mind control goes toxic. Beliefism runs in stealth mode:  we see the things we believe and all the doctrines, ideologies, societal structures, institutions, and practices that support it, but we don’t see beliefism at work. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine the worldview our beliefs have created, or how that worldview creates and sustains our world. Instead, we see the emergent reality and accept it as The Way Things Are, Forever and Ever Amen. We believe in the things we believe in until we know them. And when we know them, we defend and promote them, we become faithful believers, we become evangelists.

At that point, belief becomes ideology – honored and held sacred to the point where the risk/return matrix gets warped and passionate belief becomes mass delusion and unchecked ambition, where belief’s communal mind-control becomes way too powerful for its own good — a clear and present rolling on, gaining momentum because there’s nothing to check it, no outside reference, no commitment to an external ethical standard, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it except its own good opinion of itself. Belief-as-ideology consolidates its power, crowns itself with its own authority until we’re left with only what is belief-approved – the standard, authorized version.

That’s when belief takes its final shape as fundamentalism and fanaticism, committed to the eradication of its longtime nemesis doubt. Power becomes domination becomes oppression, and belief opposes, bans, shuns, shames, punishes, tortures, and murders doubters and unbelievers. It becomes nationalistic and militaristic, launches campaigns of domestic and international terrorism and genocide. The faithful march off on the Crusades. They seek the purity of the race. They drink the Kool-Aid. They storm the Capitol. They repeat history. They replay the western civilization biograph in the name of the western God. And they call it all “progress.”

And to think it all began as a release of brain feel-good hormones in satisfaction of an evolutionary survival urge to band together and share information. We needed that, all those 150,000 years ago. We still do. Which is why belief still gives usa sense of purpose and meaning and mission, still provides incentives and rewards, still makes us feel inspired and enthusiastic, fired us up to try to do great things.

But now this….

Continued next time.

April Fool and the Easter Scandal

Noel Paul Stookey was the “Paul” of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. They were my musical heroes – I learned to play guitar listening to their vinyl – over and over, groove by groove, wearing out the record, wearing out the needle. After their 1960’s success, Paul went off on his own for awhile to become a Christian. I was doing the same thing at the same time, so he became my Christian musical hero. He did a song called “April Fool.”

“April Fool
You wear your heart on your sleeve
And though they laugh when they leave
You call it Love and I believe (you)
April Fool
Why must you always play the clown?
You have the edge you laid it down
You give it up without a sound…

“Oh April Fool
How can they say ‘love is cruel’?
They catch the ring but drop the jewel.
Like a teardrop in a pool…

“April Fool
As the heart shows through the eyes
Before you were born you were recognized
And unto the losers comes their Prize.

“Oh April Fool
Even as the hands were washed, you knew
We’d free the thief instead of you
April Fool
You said the Father was in You
You said we know not what we do
Forgive us…April Fool.”

It’s an Easter Song, and the “April Fool” is Jesus. It’s also an artistic and accurate restatement of the foundation another Paul – the Apostle – laid for the Christian religion.

Christian belief requires a commitment to foolishness.

You can’t get to God by being worldly wise, Paul wrote in a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. Instead, you need to get foolish about it.

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”[1]

When I was a new believer, people said you had to check your mind at the door to be a Christian. We protested, but I see now that they understood something essential – I mean, it’s in the Bible, after all – that we Christians didn’t get:  Christina faith only makes sense once you crosse the foolishness threshold.

Paul’s “foolishness of God” vs. “wisdom of the world” creates an airtight apologetic for Christian belief, in which Christian faith is a closed system of circular, self-reinforcing logic. You can’t get started on the Christian faith unless you leave your old thinking behind. Then, once you cross the foolishness threshold, you need to stay there, otherwise you’ll start to think the old way, which will lead you to doubt. If it looks like you checked your mind at the door, it’s because you did.

The Crux

At the crux (word chosen advisedly) of Christian foolishness is Christianity’s iconic symbol, the crucifix. To your old, “worldly” way of thinking, the cross is abhorrent, disgusting, revolting… one of the most truly horrible, indescribable awful instruments of torture the most despicably horrible and awful worst of human nature has ever designed. Further, the crucifix features a human being with a crown of thorns jammed on his head, being tortured to death on a cross after having been beaten bloody and flogged to tatters. And there’s more:  that human being tortured to death is the “Son of God,” which means that the “Father” in Stookey’s song is the Son of God’s dad.

Just stop there for a minute.

If my dad or your dad did that, they’d put him away for good.

But on the other side of the foolishness threshold, it’s okay for God the Father murder God the Son because they worked it out ahead of time. The whole thing was a reenactment of a scene from thousands of years earlier that involved the patriarchal ancestor of the ancient blood-sacrifice religion that Jesus grew up in. (The ancestor’s name was Abraham, and he is the “father” of the three “Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.) All those thousands of years ago, Abraham actually almost did it, he almost murdered his own son (Isaac) out of obedience to that angry blood-lusty God (nobody called God a “Father” back then), but God let him off by providing a lamb stuck in a nearby bush for Abraham to slaughter instead. Therefore, at the crucifixion, Jesus was playing the role of the “lamb of God” — the human sacrifice that finally set the whole Abraham-Isaac thing to right.

“Unto the losers comes their prize.”

Trouble is, God’s gift of salvation through the lamb of God came as a big surprise to us – an April Fool. Sin made us a bunch of “losers” who didn’t recognize our “prize” for what it was. As a result, we protested our innocence, which made us as bad as Pontius Pilate, ceremoniously washing his hands, trying to claim he wasn’t responsible for the crucifixion that the mob demanded. (“Even as the hands were washed, you knew/We’d free the thief instead of you.”)

That seems to be the problem with sin:  our perspective is so warped by it that we don’t even know it’s a problem. Countless theologians have spent countless centuries filling countless volumes in countless libraries trying to explain what sin is and why we’re guilty of it, but the bottom line for most of us is that we never have quite understood what we did that was so awful – kind of like the time I was playing in the backyard and my mom came roaring out and smacked my behind because my sister told her I broke a vase inside the house.

“Forgive us…April Fool”

But, understand sin or not, we’re guilty of it, which means we (not God) are responsible for Jesus dying. Even though we weren’t there, we’re what the law calls “vicariously liable” –guilty by proxy. None of us knew that we were guilty or what we were guilty of, which makes it hard to follow the proper procedure of asking forgiveness, but God had that covered, too:  Jesus asked his murdering father to forgave us since he knew we didn’t know what we were doing. (“You said we know not what we do.”) God, on the other hand, knew exactly what He was doing, but since God was… well, God… He got off, too.

Got all that?

I did, when I was Christian, I had it down cold, all the details, the permutations, the rationalizations. I bought it all. I owned it, it owned me. Now I look at it and I wonder, Do any of us actually pay the slightest bit of attention to the things we believe? By now, you know the answer:  we do, but what we see when we pay attention depends on which side of the foolishness threshold we’re on.

I’m obviously writing from my current outlook on the pre-crossing side of the foolishness threshold. From here, the “foolishness of God” is foolish indeed — as mind-numbingly convoluted and fantastical as any of the nutcase conspiracy theories currently making the rounds.  The crucifixion was “the wisdom of God” when I was a Christian, now it’s a “stumbling block.” The Greek word used in the Bible text that’s translated “stumbling block”  is “skandalon” – scandal. The cross is scandalous to my worldly outlook —  a thing monumentally ugly and awful — all that blood, all that death, all that vicious punishment for a mystery infraction.

But the scandal doesn’t stop there. There’s one last piece.

Love is Cruel

The culmination of the Easter story is that the whole horrible thing is actually the greatest form of love. “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16, “that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”

So, let me see if I’ve got this straight… God’s love is a bloody, horrifying human sacrifice to keep Him from wiping out the human race.

Seriously.

The only way you can believe something so totally outrageous if you’ve crossed the foolishness threshold., You have to check your mind at the door.

“How can they say ‘love is cruel’?” Well, Paul, because if that is love, then love is as cruel as it gets.

Foolishness for the Foolish

Paul the Apostle adds one last piece to his apologetic:  the foolishness of God is especially designed for foolish of the world – the people he calls the “low and despised in the world.” Paul the folksinger calls them “losers.”

“ For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

No liberal elite in God’s Kingdom. It’s time for the “low and despised” and the “losers” to have their moment.

When I was a Christian, we used to brag about being “fools for Christ.” We were proud of it; we rallied around our outcast status. There’s something strangely prideful and empowering about identifying with a crowd that struts its outcast stuff. I know what that feels like — I lived it for 25 years. Which is why – I hate to admit it — I know what it felt like for the “Proud Boys” and alt-right “Deplorables” who stormed the Capitol with prayers, crosses, and shouts of Jesus. Their over-the-foolish threshold minds really truly believed that they were, in that moment, the foolish wisdom of God in action, God’s fools ready to tear down the reign of the worldly-wise elites and bring God’s Kingdom to the USA and from here to the rest of the world.

It was their highest moment, the best day of their lives.

Seriously..

The Legacy of Foolishness

Belief on the other side of the foolishness threshold is why an estimated 2.5 Billion people – roughly one-third of the Earth’s population – will parade the crucifix once again this Easter, and recite once again the mind-numbing assertion that this is what God’s love looks like. Some of them will be “powerful” and “of noble birth”  – elites saved in spite of themselves. Others will be the “low and despised” and the “losers” for whom God’s foolish wisdom was intended. And all of them will perpetuate millennia of war and brutality in the name of the Abrahamic God.

In the year 1651, Thomas Hobbes described the human condition in his work Leviathan. His description is still shockingly applicable today:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes’ solution is that we need human government and societal institutions to keep us from regressing into our nasty human instincts. Great idea, but when those institutions are backed up by Western civilization, which in turn is backed up by Biblical worldview and its institutionalized brutality sanctioned by a blood-lusty authoritarian ruler (God, represented by his “Anointed One” here on Earth), with a mob of thugs at his disposal who truly, honestly believe they’re in their finest moment, what are we going to get? We’re going to get the 21st Century, when life is still “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s still that way because human beings and their institutions are still that way. Our Western Biblical worldview reigns on the other side of the foolishness threshold, and as long as it does, we will keep fooling ourselves into our own entrapment, and every Easter we will continue to celebrate what we’re doing.

“You call it Love and I believe (you)…”

“April Fool.”


[1] Bible passages in this article are from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 ESV.)