“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.

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.

Beliefism [Part 3]: Evangelists on the Rebound/ Belief is Biological

Evangelists on the Rebound

Life without God offered plenty of substitutes:  self-help and its academic sibling positive psychology, “New Thought” churches that tried to make a science out of religion; Age of Enlightenment intellectuals, rationalists, humanists, skeptics who were determined to purge our thinking of nonsense, materialists who think “the meat thinks,” and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative healers,” magical thinkers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies — confident, happy, friendly, an doften rich , And unlike me — the Christian evangelist failure — they  had no problem evangelizing like crazy. Part of that was a sign of the times — evangelizing was trendy back then, corporations were in the first wave of creating job descriptions like “brand evangelist,” which meant a salesperson on a higher plane –credentialed, trustworthy, cool.

Plus there was all this God-talk. In my Christian days we were careful about too much God-talk, lest we scare off the lost/unchurched. These Christianity substitutes didn’t have that problem. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they didn’t use religious vocabulary  — xcept for the ubiquitous “God,” which eventually morphed into “the Universe.” Free of old religion language meant they were free to carry on like that good ol’ time religion – for example the atheist group that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, and fellowship. Seriously.

One of the more fascinating new religions was atheism. I was just starting to suspect I’d become one of them when I discovered the “new atheists” and their “four horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett). I thought this will be great, these new atheists will help me with my new atheism. I sampled a couple of Sam Harris’s books, and they were ferociously evangelistic. They and the other atheists, humanists, rationalists, and skeptics I came across always seemed to be looking for a fight  – they were out to convert you. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens and his book Mortality. I read it twice, and we’ll talk more aboutthat topic another time.)

I suppose it was like being on the rebound – having just left one broken faith relationship, it was tempting to bounce into another, but for me the temptation wasn’t hard to resist. I wasn’t ready, all that similarity made me wary. So I kept my foot on the brake, watched, studied, took notes. After a few years, I started to see that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, religion vs. non-religion, it was believing in the first place. Like Christianity, these new religious substitutes all started with things you couldn’t know, you could only believe (or not). The whole structure grew from there.

I was seeing Beliefism in action. As I said last time,

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed.

Beliefism 101:  Belief is Biological

If there’s anything we need to understand about belief, it’s that belief is all in your head. The phrase usually comes with an eye roll:  you’re out of touch, delusional. Strip out the accusation and the more precise version is, “At this moment, your brain is creating different beliefs about reality than what my brain and the other brains in our cultural context are creating.” Belief is both individual and communal, and it happens in our heads.

Belief is biological. We believe with our brains.. Our brains are cells, tissues, differentiated regions, pathways, circuits, hormones…. That’s where beliefs, ideas, dreams, visions, things we imagine, causes we support, ideals we embrace come from. They’re all biology in action.

We weren’t taught that; we don’t think that way. Instead, we think beliefs come from an alternate reality – Someplace Other that’s not made of the same cosmic stuff we are. Beliefs aren’t grungy like the here and now, they’re elegant and aloof, enduringly above the rabble. They have classy names like Mystery, Eternity, Heaven, Somewhere Else, Up There, The Other Side of the Veil. Beliefs give us Spirit and Past Lives and The Universe, the Eternal Soul, God and gods, Angels and Archangels. (Devil and Demons, too, which you’d think we could do without, but not so fast – the bad guys have their own useful purpose.)

If we’re going to have there and here, them and us, we need passageways and communication links. Trips back and forth (round trip for supernatural beings, one-way for humans) are invested with special solemnity, fear and reverence, and communications come with special zest and fervency – they’re not just more spam, they’re revelation, awakening, inspiration, conversion, flashes of brilliance and insight, dramatic impact. We’re taking Moses and the Ten Commandments, the voice from Heaven, the disembodied fingers writing “mene, mene, tekel, parsin” on the wall.

All those connections engage and empower us, connect us to Truth and Higher Power. They line us up with all the meaning and purpose that all the supernatural beings and ancestors and wise ones who live in that invisible realm of spirit, soul, truth, celestial glory and power are a position to offer us – all of them “up there” who “look down on us” and care enough to magically set things in motion to teach us a lesson or even give us a hand now and then. We want all that, and we’ll go to great lengths to get ourselves properly aligned to keep the channels open.

All for the sake of something that happens in our brains. All that transcendent, invisible, spiritual, mysterious realm that accompanies us through life exists in the spongy stuff inside our heads. Belief in God is generated by the same biology that distinguishes a tree from a toadstool.

Belief is biological.

Got that?

We need to get that.

We almost never do.

There’s a piece of lab equipment they call “the God helmet.” The lab tech puts it on you and zaps a certain area in your brain (the same area that’s responsible for epileptic seizures), and you have a religious experience. They tested it on a group of nuns. Their response was, “Isn’t it wonderful that God put a receptor in our brains so we can communicate with him!” Science can create religious experience, but nobody – scientist or not – can prove or disprove God or anything else that exists in the realm of belief. You can only believe it or not, and when you do, you bring it into existence. You become the belief’s God, it’s creator and lord. So, brain-zapping lab tech or not, if you want to believe it’s God making your religious ecstasy happen, you’re going to believe ii.

Most people like it that way. Too much “it’s all in your head” makes us feel small. We’d rather follow the grand tradition of dressing up the Other and what it has to say with poetry, and writing it in a book:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:  8-9

And then, having said that, we fill up the book with God’s thoughts, having just said we’re not capable of knowing them.

Anybody else see a problem with that?

How can we do that? Easy:  God and God’s thoughts both exist in our brains. They sit in there not far from each other, with highspeed wiring linking them together. Belief makes the trip from “I can’t do this” to “I can do this” in a nanosecond.

Belief becomes Beliefism when it grows up. We’ll talk more about it next time.

Beliefism [Part 2]: Evangelicals and Evangelizing

Believers had a double duty:  to be evangelical (believe the right stuff) and to evangelize (tell everybody about it – also known as “witnessing”). The first part came naturally — I was a good student,. The second part, not so much. Of all the things I ever did as a Christian, witnessing was hands-down the most awkward and humiliating. I was a total witnessing failure from the get-go. That was a problem because if you were in love with Jesus you’d want to tell everybody, wouldn’t you? (Well, um, no, not really. I mean, my wife and I, we just sort of… dated. Which means I spent a lot of years wondering if I really loved Jesus after all.)

Witnessing

Early on, I met some Baptists for whom witnessing was their highest and best good. That’s how they fulfilled the “Great Commission” — where it says in the Bible we’re supposed to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I was still wondering if it was okay to smoke marijuana now that I was born again when they pushed a stack of “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts into my hand and said, “There’s a Billy Graham movie in town next week. You can be a counselor.” (Apparently if you’re a newbie it strengthens your faith if you start witnessing right away.)

My job as a counselor was to execute the basic Billy Graham evangelistic closing strategy. The movie would end with an “altar call” – an invitation to “go forward” and “give your life to Christ.” A few of the counselors would go forward right away (one at a time, so it didn’t look preplanned), so it looked like they were answering the call, and then crowd psychology would kick in and make it easier for other people to join them. Then the counselors would work the crowd and share the Four Spiritual Laws with the sinners so they would “come to Jesus.”

One night the only person who went forward was one of the counselors. He stood there alone for a long, awkward time before the lights finally went up. I thought about joining him like I was supposed to, but I went with some of my “unbeliever” friends and… well, I just didn’t feel like it. I have a vague memory of going forward and “sharing the gospel” only once, talking to a guy while his girlfriend looked on, and never closing the deal. Like I said — a total witnessing failure.

The Surprise Exit Strategy

As it turned out, being a witnessing failure turned out to be my exit strategy.

Evangelizing wasn’t optional — everybody needed to pitch in to help save the lost because for one thing the Second Coming wouldn’t happen until we finished the job, and besides you were a total loser if you didn’t. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but a lot of us were witnessing failures, so we looked for approaches that didn’t involve cold calling or the Four Spiritual Laws.

The last nondenominational denomination I belonged to was founded by a former L.A. music producer named John Wimber who looked just like Jerry Garcia. He got “saved hard” and figured out how to start a church for ex-Jesus Freaks who’d tried to grow up and get real jobs but missed that 1960’s vibe. He called it Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which became “the Vineyard” (which was confusing, because there was a wine shop by that name) and it went viral (before “viral” existed) in the 80’s. It started as a “church renewal,” but that didn’t last long – people got tired of trying to renew a church that already had to live through the 70’s and really wasn’t in the mood for more of that, so Wimber and the Vineyard settled on“church planting” as its Great Commission fulfillment strategy.

Church planting meant putting together a good soft-rock band, funny sermons, recovery groups, food banks, “newly single” Bible studies, and generally being hip and young and trendy and cool enough to draw a crowd to your converted freshly painted former warehouse with an awesome sound system. Plus, we weren’t trying to save the lost, we were trying to make it cool for the “unchurched” – a more clinical, managerial term – to come to church. Same dif but hey, words matter.

“Church planter” was the highest level of cred in the Vineyard, so of course I had to be one. I bailed on my career, sold our house, loaded the family into the minivan, and followed the moving van 1500 miles to plant a new church for the unchurched. My wife starting crying before we left the Denver city limits, and kept it up all across Kansas. If ever there was a sign from God for how my church planting mission was going to go, that was it.

Turned out I was a victim of my own success:  I was good enough at drawing an unchurched crowd that I got blacklisted for “sheep stealing.” The problem was that they weren’t all unchurched — some of them came over from the sponsoring church, and the pastor was pissed that I was “sheep stealing.” Never mind that Wimber’s official church planting policy was don’t worry about that, they don’t belong to anybody, they’re all God’s sheep. (Christians like to talk about how people are like sheep. It’s a Bible thing – the book was written when counting sheep was like counting money.) Official church planting policy or not, sheep stealing still got me kicked out, and that’s what got things rolling on eventually getting me all the way out.

Once I was out, the good news was, I didn’t need to evangelize anymore. The bad news was, my life was ruined. But the truth was, I was the one who had ruined it by believing what I believed. I’d been playing by the believer rules, but they’re set up so the house always wins — you’ll never get it right and when you don’t it’s always all your fault. (Duh – that’s what “sin” is all about, right? Note to self:  maybe you’re free to believe what you like, but there are consequences if you act on what you believe – as some of the mob that stormed the Capitol found out when they went home and got a knock on the door and it wasn’t Jesus standing on the other side.)

Faith on the Rebound

Between life with God and life without God, I ran across lots of church substitutes:  self-help, positive psychology, “New Thought” churches, intellectuals. rationalists, humanists, skeptics, and materialists; and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative” healers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies, and they all evangelized like crazy – plus there was more God-talk than in my Christian days. (We were always careful about too much God-talk, lest it scare the lost and unchurched away.)

The most obnoxious evangelists were the “four horsemen” of the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. I thought this will be great, they’ll help me with my new atheism,, but I only made it partway through a couple of their books. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, which I read all the way through twice. We’ll talk more about its theme later on in this series.) The same was true of the other atheist offerings I came across –associations, conventions, websites, books, webinars, video series, TV specials, interviews. It was always the same menu:  arguments for and against God and why life without God was better. Like you could argue God and a better life in or out of existence.

From what I could tell, the whole mixed up crowd of Christianity substitutes was a lot of people on the rebound — rushing from one broken faith relationship to another. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they had a different vocabulary – like one atheist group I came across that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, fellowship…. Seriously.

The issue wasn’t God, it was the believing part.

In time, it became clear that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, it was believing in the first place. Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed. Years of wandering through the land of religion substitutes and studying how they worked revealed they all shared the same dynamics, which I’ve come to call beliefism.

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

More next time.

Beliefism [Part 1]: The Accidental Atheist

Seeing the Light

I didn’t mean to become an atheist. It just sort of happened until one day I checked the “none” box and made it official. No ceremony, just a realization. “Atheist” wasn’t an option for “religious preference” – “none” is less dramatic than “do you consider yourself to be one of the faithless, the godless, the terminally backslidden?” Well yes, as a matter of fact  I do, but that doesn’t mean I dash from cover to cover to evade the Heavenly Zot Finger. In fact, being an atheist isn’t at all like I once thought it would be.

Then and Now

I went to church when I was a kid because everybody went to church when I was a kid. After a year of Hippie wannabe partying my first year of college, I became a Jesus Freak, then a Pentecostal, a charismatic, an evangelical before there was such a thing, a fundamentalist although nobody would admit that’s what we were, plus I booked time in “nondenominational” churches and “parachurches,” and along the way hung out with Baptists, Catholics, Episcopals, and Lutherans. A journeyman Christian, we’ll call it.

The Redemption Story

All those versions of Christianity pretty much believed the same things, plus each had its own points of doctrinal purity that justified producing under its own label. Mostly, we preferred just “Christian” –our way of signaling don’t worry, we’re not sectarian here, we’re in the sweet spot, right down the middle, no other adjectives needed. The basic story was pretty much the same everywhere.

  • The human race enjoyed a utopian past when life was good.
  • But then we blew it. We “fell.”
  • In our defense, we had help – the Devil made us do it. But still it’s all our fault we’re so screwed up.
  • Before we get blasted by the heavenly zot finger for being terminally incompetent at life, we get a knock on the door of our “heart” (not the one that pumps blood, but the one that chokes you up when you get emotional). If we answer the knock, Jesus is standing there with an invitation back to the Garden. We’d love to go, but we can’t get there, not in our current condition.
  • So we’re going to need help. We need God to forgive us for falling, and we need a Savior to handle the necessary arrangements. That’s Jesus, too.
  • Once Jesus gets things fixed up with God, all is forgiven and we get citizenship in God’s Kingdom. People today who’ve never had a king in charge before think having a king is just the greatest thing.
  • Plus, everybody in the Kingdom is related, so we’ve got all this new family we never knew we had, with God himself presiding fatherly-like at the head of the table. There are definitely benefits to showing up for family gatherings and remembering birthdays.
  • Having a king means we’re subjects and servants – which people today who’ve never had a king also think is just the best thing – which includes being conscripted into the King’s army, which means we’re always marching off to war with the cross of Jesus going on before. Since our new King is more powerful than any human pretenders, that means we get to totally waste everybody who’s not part of us, because if you’re not with us you’re against us, and if you’re against us you lose. We have God on our side, after all.
  • So we go along through life and if things go as promised (they never seem to) life is better than it would have been if we’d never answered the knock (which by now seems a long time ago), except that part of the deal is that we need to suffer and be persecuted and if we’re lucky we might even get martyred. (You don’t get free grace for nothing.)
  • What keeps us going through all those trials and tribulations is that one great day (which is always going to happen any minute now and never does, but we need to live on the alert in case it does) we’ll have it really good forever and ever amen.
  • If you die before that day comes and you believe all the right things, you get the pre-opening move-in special to Heaven, unless you’re a Catholic, in which case you might need to wait in a giant waiting room for awhile.
  • Meanwhile the heavenly zot finger has been charging up all this time for one good last blast. Some branches of the family think we’ll get a free pass out before that happens and everybody else will be Left Behind where they’ll get a taste of what hell is like before they get there for good. Other branches aren’t really sure the world is going to blow up quite that way, even though we could do the job ourselves with nukes or climate change.
  • One way or another, when you get to your own end, it could be anything from “no worries, it’s all good” to “this is really going to hurt.”

Okay, so maybe that was a little snarky.

But it is a fair summary of what I heard and learned and personally believed for over two irretrievable decades of my life. Snarky gets old fast, and I don’t want to make it a habit, but it has its place. The pen is not always mightier than the sword, but irony and sarcasm can put things into useful relief. I go back to snarky now and then, like I did above, when I want to remember what it felt like to look around and wonder, did I really believe that? Looking at it now, it seems so complicated. convoluted, contradictory. Snarky is the voice of anger, and we need anger to tackle big challenges — like refashioning an outlook on life .that’s different from what you’ve been believing and practicing for a long time.

Snarky gains traction by fueling inner outrage. For me, that involved being willing to admit that I had some not so nice and friendly feelings about where I’d come from.

  • Regret and resentment about what my God days cost me.
  • Disgust about what the Bible actually says, and dismay that I never noticed.
  • A revulsion reflex that kicks in whenever I see Christian symbols or see Christians doing Christian things or speaking or writing Christianese. (My wife is a Jesus fan. She says I’ve developed an anaphylactic reaction.)

Regret, resentment, disgust, and revulsion keep me alert to the reality that there are consequences to what I believe. Feelings like that weren’t welcome during my Christian years. You weren’t supposed to feel that way – you needed to forgive and be forgiven, put it behind you, be grateful that you were reconciled to an angry God who had every right to punish you for that original Adam and Eve transgression.

Emerging from the Christian faith is hard.

But it’s harder to resist the dawn.

Impossible, really.

“It suddenly dawned on me,” we say. Dawn has its sudden moment when the sun finally crests the horizon, but it’s been coming long before — gradually, inexorably. From the first hints of light, it’s going to happen, and no holding it back.

“I saw the light!” Christians sing, describing lightbulb flash conversion– like the Apostle Paul getting blasted off his horse with a heavenly light and a voice from heaven. People who had “testimonies” like that had special status in the Christian groups I was part of – you were cooler if you got “saved hard,” as one Christian leader liked to say. So you would make the fish a little bigger and little harder to catch every time you told your own fish story. I did that — most of us did — like my AA friend who said his group liked to tell “I got so drunk one time that…” stories.

By contrast, getting unsaved wasn’t like that. No light bulbs, no heavenly light, no getting saved hard.

Just the dawn.

Father Abraham Had Three Sons

Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had Father Abraham,
I am one of them, and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord.

We need to move past the Sunday School doggerel. They teach children that stuff – bouncy tune, fun motions. I don’t remember learning it — obviously I did, because I remembered it enough to Google it. Click on the image and listen. I lasted one verse, then reality set in:  Father Abraham’s children are killing each other; they’re killing us; they could kill the whole planet. Father Abraham’s children are on the world’s longest running international crime spree – committed in his name, on his behalf — that old story, those old promises.

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing; I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:  1-3

And there was more:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.  Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him,  “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 

I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17: 1-8

That was a long, long time ago. And now a world Father Abraham could not possibly have foreseen is living with his progeny and promises. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you”? No. Not that. It never has been that. It is not that now. It never will be.

.  .  .

Father Abraham has three sons, actually. They are, in the order they were born, Israel, Christianity, and Islam. Like father, like son:  each son is a Patriarch presiding over his own transnational clan.

The Abraham family chronicles begin in the most ancient part of the Bible. Each clan has its own Bible with portions added later, but all include the part where the story of Abraham’s family and legacy began, so the three are called the “Abrahamic” religions. Each of Abraham’s sons believes the ancient promises are his alone, and will one day be fulfilled on his behalf. It’s a vain hope and a senseless and stupid goal:  none of them will ever prevail, and here are billions of Abraham descendants in the world, far too many for every non-believer to ever be extinguished. But the sibling rivalry never lets up, never goes away, never leaves the rest of us alone.

Their battle lines of the family feud were originally drawn around “the whole land of Canaan”– a small patch of land outsized in ruin. But Canaan was only the staging point. From there, the family’s war has spread around the world. The three sons’ jealousy, treachery, and ambition – Abraham’s legacy – are everywhere. There are other family histories in the world just as enduring and rotten — in the East, North, and South – but the Abraham family conflict has drawn them in, too.

.  .  .

I can’t imagine, Father Abraham. I really can’t. I can’t get inside your head, what it was like when…

God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Genesis 22:2

Who was more deranged in that moment, you or your God? And what was it like to be your only son, whom you loved? Did you really? Love him I mean. Did he suspect that you were preparing yourself to slash and burn him?

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,  I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,  and through your offspring  all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Genesis 22:16-18

A story like that cannot have a happy ending. How could it ever go well for that boy ever again – that boy bound and waiting for the father’s knife to fall? I don’t want that story to have ever been written. I don’t want stories like that to be told. You were a beast in that moment, Father Abraham, and your God was a beast maker. But I don’t think you ever came to realize that, otherwise the story would have been told differently – maybe about how you were so deluded you almost went through with it.

But your sons, they revel in it. It inflames their allegiance to you — no, not to you, but to the idea of you and the idea of those promises. And especially to the idea of themselves as those who are the only ones who have the right to inherit what was promised. They have usurped you, usurped the promises, appropriated them, made them their own and only their own. It is through them that all nations shall be blessed, and they will destroy each other until that day comes, and then they will keep the blessing for themselves. Only the one who destroys his brothers will be forever blessed, and the others will be the eternally damned. But you’re dead, Father Abraham – you don’t know they believe that, have done that, are doing that. You can’t stop them even if you would, and the way that story went, and the way your sons all love it, I’m not sure you would.

.  .  .

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Israel is the smallest, Christianity is the largest, Islam is almost as big as Christianity. Together the three of them make up about 3 billion people on a planet approaching 8 billion. Like the stars and sand…. yes. That promise has been fulfilled.

“All nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” No. That promise was a lie, or has become one, by neglect or inte4nt. All nations on earth have been terrorized because of you, Father Abraham. Your obedience was wasted. Your progeny has defiled the promise. There has been no blessing.

You couldn’t have known. Nobody could have. You were a patriarch, now we have your sons as patriarchs – autocrats as sovereign and unaccountable as you and your God. You fathered the Abrahamic nation; now we have extreme nationalists – each one of them divinely sanctioned by their own Godto destroy the infidels of the other nations who stand in the way of their promised destiny.

Your nation had its own God, now each of your sons has its own God, given to them to fulfill their destiny. They are not patient for the day; they rage against it. If each could just be rid of the others, be the last one standing, the favorite son and his clan left finally and forever alone in the divine favor of their own God, themselves and their God triumphant, the other sons and their Gods banished…. It never ends. It goes on, like the teaching of doggerel. It has never ended in all these thousands of years. The world lives on in thrall to their unfulfilled destiny – the promise of blessing not kept, the promise that never will be kept.

.  .  .

What was it like, Father Abraham? How did the Lord say to you, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you”? How did God say, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love… and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering”? How did the angel of the Lord call to you from heaven a second time and tell you not to do it?

That was long ago. Too long ago for anyone to ever know. Too long for the answers to matter.

.  .  .

Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.

Genesis 25: 7-8

What might the world have been if it had been left at that – you died, were mourned and buried, the end?

It’s a stupid question to ask – as pointless as this one:  What might the world be now if we could leave it at that?

What if this time you were gathered to your people… and left there?

Christmas — No Christ, New Merry

I take long “walks” in my wheelchair most days – long as in 5, 6, 8. 10 miles. Yes, in a wheelchair. True story.

People seem happy to see me – inspired maybe, surprised mostly. They say hello, good morning, nod, wave, sometimes comment, offer encouragement. Guy in a wheelchair, out here doing this? Show some love! Way to go, guy! I don’t mind. I smile, greet them back. People out here, enjoying this wonderful trail through the woods along the river? Way to go, people!

A few times lately it’s been “Merry Christmas!” I’m always surprised. “Oh yeah. Christmas. Merry. Right.” Seems the Merry doesn’t still go ‘round so much for me nowadays – hasn’t for several years, actually. For me, that’s not just 2020, when the Merry didn’t go ‘round for hardly anybody except the extremely annoying, apparently excused from reality few. I’ll leave them unnamed.

Christmas for me used to be… well, Christmas. I was self-righteous about keeping the commercialism out of it and Christ in it – also seriously deluded. Back then the kids were growing up and I had a career that paid (remember those?), so I loved to pull off commercial extravaganzas. Like the year the entire American Girl Dolls assemblage – clothes, furniture, stuff, stuff, and more stuff — flooded out from under the tree and across the living room, and no one had seen it coming.

I loved the art of Christmas – especially the places that had the quality gifts and the best gift wrappers – the way they filled their beautiful shopping bags – the big ones, with the handles – with works of art in ribbons and bows. Plus the lights – nothing visible from space, just enough cheer – and the Solstice bonfires and all the greenery and goodies and the you name it. If you’ve done it yourself, you know.

And yes, we kept Christ in those Christmases. Christ was still the reason for the season – observed in everything from schmaltzy bedtime stories and movies to the annual stately Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge and the packed candlelight Christmas Eve service in a church thick with incense. But then the light started dimming, eventually faded and died –the way potted plants die – not tragic so much as well, that’s over. Things end, we move on.

A couple days ago, I was trying to remember when exactly the Christmas Merry started to quit going ‘round. It think it was somewhere around the time we painted the basement and bought some mountain lodge furniture and a cool rug and put up surround sound and a wall TV and it was going to be a place for friends to hang out. Nice idea but a couple poetry slams and that was about it. But the first year we had it, I thought wow, I can watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, so I camped out in one of those comfy leather mountain lodge chairs and watched it, and there was plenty of Merry the whole Christmas season that year. But then a year later it was a little less oh wow, and by the third year it was, hey wait, this is just a big commercial launch – one long extended infomercial in praise of buy, buy, buy. Creeping cynicism. Peter Pan finally starting to grow up.

That would have been… what?… 2009 or so? Right after the crash of 2007-2008, which I had observed by making possibly the most badly-timed, badly-conceived, and badly-executed Go-For-It, Live Your Dreams! launch in the history of life. (But I’m giving myself way too much credit – lots of people have of course done seriously dumb things in the name of living the dream. No way I cornered that market.) My big leap into dreamland bombed, of course. I deserved it. But the good news is, it changed everything forever. Mostly it changed me, But until we all had enough space to be philosophical or resigned about it, the family became post-Crash Okies, rambling toward being poor with all our belongings piled in the back, toward me being disabled with a crappy neurodegenerative… thing… and all of us trying to figure out what happened back there. It was somewhere around then that the Merry quit going ‘round. And it was also about then Christ either fell out of the back of the truck or we didn’t wait for him at a rest stop, and either way it took a long time to notice.

It’s hard to explain how it took 20 years to go from being a Christian – not just a “nominal” one (as we used to say, arrogant as hell) but a true believer hallelujah! – to an Atheist. Or to explain how one day I just sort of noticed that’s what happened and I was just kind of well okay then, would you look at that, I guess that’s what happened, and I guess I’m good with it. The Merry was gone, and so was Christ, and then came a few years when everything church went from normal to cringeworthy to annoying to revolting. I can’t explain it, but I’d see billboards and marquees and hear conversations, and I would shudder. Not quite gag, but my whole self would cringe and tense up and shudder. Writing that, I can just hear what the faith I left would have to say about it.

Fast forward to this year, to Christmas 2020, which you would have thought would have been the most run-screaming-from-the-room Christmas ever. But then – way more surprising than hearing “Merry Christmas!” from random strangers on the bike path – it wasn’t. Christmas 2020 was the year the Merry came back. Who could have seen that coming? Not me. But it did — Christmas without the baby Jesus in a manger – God the Father’s great idea for how to introduce his son to the world by putting an infant in a cattle feed trough, so we could all celebrate the maudlin reality of our crappy lives and prepare ourselves for what signing up for that whole story was going to be like. Also no shepherds or wise men from afar, being uncanny and insightful, and especially no angels trumpeting (have you noticed how hard it is these days to use the world “t-r-u-m-p” or any word that has “t-r-u-m-p” in it?) one of the biggest lies ever told (the Bible has a lot of those in it):

“Peace on Earth, Good will to Man!”

Seriously. We still get that every year.

And since you can’t go anymore in a pandemic, almost none of that endless and endlessly wretched Christmas music everywhere you go, except for where you can’t avoid going, like the grocery store, but especially not like Starbucks, which starts its Christmas soundtrack of dismal creativity on exactly November 1st so I have to boycott it for two months every year (not like that’s so hard to do). I could rant on, but I’ll struggle to overcome.

And I thought I was over the post-Christian shudder reflex. Maybe not.

Anyway, Christmas without any of that.

This year there was just some cheese and fruit on Christmas Eve, and fresh donuts Christmas morning, simple gifts opened and shared digitally on both occasions to account for different time zones here and on the other side of the globe. And then on Christmas Eve there was Klaus, which I read in my Medium feed on Christmas morning we shouldn’t have watched because it’s racist because there’s a hangman’s noose in it. (I’m sorry, I get it, but nooses weren’t always an icon for racism. Humans have been doing horrible things like hanging each other for a long time – a lot of them in the name of Christ.)

And somehow, after choking back the tears and loving the movie and then heading for bed without visions of sugar plums exactly, more like a sense of maybe pretty lights once a year in during the dark days around the Winter Solstice might not be such a bad idea… and then waking up on Christmas morning and finding that the Merry had come back.

I never saw it coming. Any more than I saw the big Follow Your Dreams crash coming. Any more than I saw 20 years of losing my faith coming.

Today is “Boxing Day” – and if you’re non-British like me the first time you heard about it you were like, what?! — so “Merry Christmas” is over, and I’m grateful that there’s a new Merry on the scene:  Merry without the shudder. Maybe Merry like that will be okay next year – which is surely another year in another time in another life. If another Christmas manages to arrive, which these days I’d rate about 50-50.

Merry like that.