Which is More Powerful? God? Or Belief in God?

The word “atheist” is fluorescent light clinically accurate. Here’s the formula:  a [without] + theos [god] = without god. Godless. God not present, not in thought, word, deed, or intent. Add ist [one who is, does, or makes], and an atheist is someone without god — a godless person. Add ism instead [system, doctrine, practice], and atheism is godless practice.

I never thought I’d be without God, a godless person, or engaged in godless practice. But now I’m all three.

“Atheist” usually calls up the notion of belief or lack of it – we say that an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. The corollary assumption is that God is out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter, waiting for us to get with the program. If we don’t get with it, we’re an atheist.

That’s the way it usually goes down. It’s not the way it was with me.

“Without God” is risky. You need to be careful of your surroundings. Aatheism is punishable by death in thirteen Muslim countries. Hindu regions offer up lots of gods you can get crosswise with and ways to make you pay if you do. In a quarter of countries around the world, being an atheist won’t get you killed, but don’t go having an attitude about it or the anti- blasphemy laws will get you – which is currently the case in Pakistan, where it’s okay to be an atheist but a 26-year old woman was recently sentenced to death by hanging for posting caricatures of Mohammed on her WhatsApp account, joining 80 other prisoners currently held under sentences of death or life in prison for violating anti-blasphemy laws.

Here in the USA, patriotism is the state religion, fueled lately with heavy doses of Christian Nationalism. We have our own iconic images that you don’t desecrate – some of which are caricatures of themselves – like football field sized American flags or the line “one nation under God.” As for God, we, like the Muslim countries, aren’t too concerned with offending Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna or the rest of that bunch, but mostly concern ourselves with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – minus the Muslim modifications and plus the Christian ones.

You really need a good guidebook if you want to practice safe religion.

But belief is invisible, so how could anyone know what somebody else believes? Well, they could make like Pope Sixtus IV and authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to round up Jews and Muslims who acted like Christians but were obviously faking it, and let the Grand Inquisitor’s 28 Articles torture the truth out of them. The Inquisition started in 1478 and didn’t end until 1834. That’s a long time to torture the invisible belief out of people. The USA declared itself into existence about fifty years before the Inquisition finally ended, and several former colonies passed laws banning atheists and ministers from public office to ensure separation of church and state. Presumably a minister would admit to being a minister, but I wonder how forthcoming the atheists were. It took a couple hundred years, but the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared those laws unconstitutional in cases decided in 1961 and 1978, but some of those laws are still on the books, and lately Republicans have been trying to get the minister ban lifted. The atheist part? Not so much.

And then of course there’s always the Taliban to keep the world pure.

Moving right along…

About the time the Inquisition had gotten several decades of brutality under its belt, French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote an essay in his Pensées (thoughts) that deals with the high stakes God vs. without God issue. His resolution is known as “Pascal’s Wager,” and people still rely on it (although I’m guessing most don’t know it by name – I never did, not until I became on atheist).

“God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline?” Pascal asked. Trouble is, “Reason can decide nothing here.” Uh oh. At least in this country we like to do our own research and make reasonable decisions (on things like Covid vaccination vs. horse de-wormer). But now here’s this French guy telling us we can’t reason our way to God. Yes, there are people who claim they’ve done it, but somebody else always comes along and makes them look stupid. So now what? “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is,” Pascal suggests, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Ironically, although you can’t reasonably determine that God exists, it’s reasonable to bet that He does. (The Bible’s God definitely uses male pronouns, and with initial caps – kind of like referring to yourself in the third person.) Since we can’t know if God exists, we can save ourselves by believing that He does instead. It would be unreasonable not to, since the consequences of not believing are so bad. If God exists, we’re good, and if he doesn’t then nothing ventured nothing gained. But if God exists and we don’t believe, we’re seriously screwed.

It’s not reasonable to think God exists, but it is reasonable to avoid punishment. And oh by the way, that punishment happens on the other side of death’s door, so there’s also no reasonable way to know if it’s actually waiting for us when we snuff out.

Seriously?

Pascal’s Wager is Basic Childhood 101 – the religious version of “Wait ‘til you father gets home.” The threat of being eternally subjected to the Grand Inquisitor? No way to know. Better play it safe.

Just take the Wager, Dude. It’s not that hard. Anybody up for pizza?

I never heard of Pascal’s Wager when I was a Christian, and never settled my God issues that way. I just unthinkingly bought the assumption about God being out there waiting for me to get with the program. We used to claim that our faith was reasonable, but looking back at it, it was reeaonable only in the same way that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable – you start with belief, and reasons steps in to clean up after that fact. It’s reasonable to believe in order to acknowleddge the existence of God, which can only be done by believing. After that, every “reasonable” thought falls in line with what belief got started.

Okay. I think I got it.

But then the unthinkable – the unreasonable in light of beief thing – happened:  I became an atheist, but not by choosing to not believe in God anymore. God vs. not God was never the issue – not when I became a Christian and not when I un-became one. The whole thing went down the way Screwtape told Wormwood it would:  “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It all happened — slow and ( not always) easy like. Life changed, I changed, and along the way God just kind of… went away. It was like being on a road trip, taking a rest stop, and realizing a ways down the road that God hadn’t gotten back in. For years I tried to figure out how to go back and find him, haunted by a proverb I’d heard at church– “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” If God hadn’t gotten back in, it was my fault. (That’s how it works in Christianity – it’s always your fault.)

I never did find the way back. I went seeking for it but did not find it. I thought maybe God would do the seeking and finding – you now, flag down a passing motorist and chase me down – a modern version of Jesus’s parable about the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one that wandered off.

Apparently the expiration date on that parable had expired.

In the absence of finding or being found, my life made a slow motion U-turn from “with God” to “without God” and neither God nor I seemed to mind.

Years later, I had the most stunning thought:  I made that happen by not believing.

I know, duh. But stay with me.

Belief was the common thread in all of that torturing and law passing and philosophizing, also in my first believing in God and then not believing anymore. None of that happened without belief or lack of it. Either way, belief rules – by its presence or by its absence. God goes away if there’s no belief in him. That makes belief more powerful than God. I bring God into my life by believing in him. I delete God from my life when I don’t believe anymore. God present or God absent, and all the things the human race does and has done in the name of God – all of it depends on belief. Belief is more powerful than God – it can bring God close or send God away.

The Inquisition? Dying for lack of belief in Allah? Laws against blasphemy that threaten you with death by hanging? Laws against ministers and atheists holding public office? None of it needed God to happen. None of it needs God to keep happening. Belief made all that happen., and belief can take it from here. Belief does all the work. There doesn’t need to be a God out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter. By believing, we rule.

I didn’t abandon God. He wasn’t out there, existing apart from my opinion on the matter, waiting for me to say I was sorry and take the first step, rev up the belief again, reach out to him and reconcile. I thought God would care, would make the first move, but he didn’t. Now I realize I did all the work, by believing or not. God was irrelevant, absent.

Hell wasn’t on the other side of death’s door.

My old man wasn’t going to come home and give me a whoopin’.

And Pascal just probably needed some time off.

The self-helpers and life coaches love this stuff about the power and primacy of belief. They’ve been telling us we can believe the Italian villa with the Lamborghini out front into existence for some time. But let’s not go gently into the good night of Napoleon Hill’s “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” It’s dark over there. Belief has a dark side that poses a greater risk than Pascal’s Wager.

Let’s talk more about it next time.

Start With Anxiety, End With Regret: The USA’s Chronic Systemic Stress Legion

“When Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’”

Mark 5 ESV

“My name is Legion, for we are many.”

A Roman Legion was 4,500 – 6,500 soldiers. That’s a lot of demons. You and I will never see something that awful. Let’s hope, anyway.

But what if we already are?

What if something like that is already going on around and in us, that we don’t see?

There is.

Think of it as a deal you’re being offered. It begins with a foregone conclusion that you are inadequate. Failure is certain. You lose. Period. You’re born that way, but that doesn’t let you off the hook – everything is still all your fault. But never mind that, it’s all up to you to get it right. You can’t fail. Everything rides on your success. It’s all up to you. But wait, I just said there’s no way you can do it. If you try and fail, it was to be expected. But you still have to try, and you have to stay positive – you owe that to the rest of us, and we owe it to you. What’s to stay positive about? Well, um, not much. When things don’t go the way they’re supposed to (they never do) it’s all your fault.

Some deal.

Suppose you take it. Then what?

You live in a state of constant anxiety. You can never get it right. Failure vs. success is the ultimate issue in life. Nothing is more important. Your survival depends on it. So does your ability to move beyond survival – being able to thrive, not just survive. But remember, it’s all up to you. You can’t count on getting any help. So good luck out there. But there is no luck. You’re on your own. And that’s a good thing. The best thing. A thing worth everything. A thing worth dying for. The right to do it all your way, even if you can’t. To take survival into your own hands. To be able to say “I did it my way.” – even if everybody else can see the game was rigged.

It’s rigged because the deal is a fraud — all lies, all promises made and broken at random. Everything is always subject to change without notice, and every change works against you. You can and will be overruled. Bait and switch is the norm. There are no ethical codes, everything is at whim, arbitrary. Someone higher up always calls all the shots. You’ll be told what’s good and bad, right and wrong, what’s rewarding and what’s not, what to embrace or avoid… all of which is always changing, so you’ll never really know. But no problem – you’ve got your self, remember? The self that you’d rather rely upon. The self that’s responsible for everything, even if your self was born to be inadequate.

But surely there’s a reward?

Well yes, kind of, sort of – I mean, you have to take it on faith, because you’ll die before finding out for sure, and once you’re dead, you can’t tell the rest of us one way or the other. In the meantime, stay positive, keep your attitude up – that’s your duty, too. Let your guard down, you seal your own fate. Keep believing, that’s the thing. Keep on keeping on. Keep the faith, baby. You owe it to the rest of us. We’re doing our best all the time, too. We’re working hard, just like you. Hard work is the way we can all agree we’ve got good sound character, the right stuff.

How’s that feel? Well, um, it’s a lot of pressure. But you’ll do your best, mean well, want to please, even though you can’t and never will. You’re a loser from the get-go, remember? If you ever let down your self-reliant, positive attitude guard, you’ll feel guilty and ashamed, full of regret. You’ll try to make amends, make sense of confusing and contradictory instructions. Meanwhile your brain will be stuffed with all the times you screw up, embarrass yourself, fall short again and again and again. You’ll have to constantly confess your faults — all of which are held against you, whether you admit them or not. Every conversation will begin with saying you’re sorry, you don’t deserve anything but the worst. Next comes begging for mercy. Self esteem? Not a chance. You’re a worm – a conniving, weaseling worm.

No wonder you’re afraid, stressed out, overwhelmed, despairing. No wonder you’re full of regret.

Some deal.

Would you take it?

I did.

So have millions, billions of others. It’s what people do all around the world, but I don’t live all around the world, I only live in the USA, so I’ll only talk about my home country.

What are we talking about? An abusive relationship? The boss from hell? Yes, that. And much, much more. Way worse.

Welcome to the USA’s Chronic Systemic Stress Legion.

Life in the USA is characterized by systemic, chronic stress. Ubiquitous, unrelenting stress. Stress so everywhere and all the time that we don’t even know it’s there or what it’s doing to us.

We’re talking about the American Way.

The deal is the American Way.

What do we get for the deal? Here’s a short list, from the Mayo Clinic:

Anxiety
Depression
Digestive problems
Headaches
Muscle tension and pain
Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
Sleep problems
Weight gain
Memory and concentration impairment

Here’s a longer list, compiled from other sources:

Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
Avoiding others
Low energy
Headaches
Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Insomnia
Frequent colds and infections
Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Constant worrying
Racing thoughts
Forgetfulness and disorganization
Inability to focus
Poor judgment
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke
Obesity and other eating disorders
Menstrual problems
Sexual dysfunction
Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon

Good stress is when our “executive function” — the thinking, planning, organizing part of our brain — goes to work on a specific task and motivates and instructs us how to get it done. We feel some pressure, but we need that kind of stress. We rise to the challenge. We take it on. We make it happen.

That’s not the kind of stress we’re talking about. We’re talking about chronic, survival-level stress that’s everywhere, all the time, always in and around us, always shaping and warping and plaguing our outlook on life –- the kind of stress that pokes our lizard brain until it wakes up, snaps its chains, and lashes around, making a mess of us and everything and everybody else – stress that sounds the amygdala’s fight or flight siren and never shuts it off.

That’s systemic chronic stress.

Chronic stress becomes systemic when it’s pumped into moment-by-moment life by innumerable invisible psychic energy sources – thoughts, emotions, accusations, judgments – that function like the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy:  it shapes, defines, organizes, sustains identity and worldview, culture and custom, behavioral norms and character-defining criteria  – how we view life and how we respond to it in all the ways that make us instantly recognizable as the people we and the society we live in think we are.

When stress is both chronic (always) and systemic (everywhere), it floods us and our lives with harm, individually and collectively.

It creates the Legion that torments us.

How did this happen?

It didn’t happen. It’s always been this way, since the beginning. It came to the New World on the first boat. We’re just seeing the latest, most fully developed version. Legions don’t stay static, they progress. Our Legion is cultural – chronic stress is the American way, how we do life, our worldview and modus operandi, how we create and evaluate the world and ourselves and our lives in it. It generates what we see and feel and taste and touch, how we think, what we value, what we believe. It tells us how we’re doing.. It’s also cellular – rooted in our brain cells and the cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine producing organs of our bodies. We’re so immersed in chronic stress, and it’s so embedded in us, that we don’t even notice.

It comes from our founding ideologies – Protestant Christianity and the Protestant Work Ethic. They’re so intertwined that “God and Country” and “One nation under God” seem like natural and obvious things to say.

Let’s take a quick tour.

Christianity.

“Peace on Earth, good will to men” might be the biggest lie ever told. Want the truth? Try this:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Matthew 10:34-36 ESV

What does Christianity want from us?

Perfection.

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 ESV

That might be the scariest verse in the Bible. Perfect like God is perfect? The God of the Bible is the brutal, blood-lusting, war-mongering, hyper-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, totalitarian, authoritarian despot who arranged Jesus’s murder by torture and has committed himself to the final destruction of the world and the eternal tormenting of its people.

Some kind of perfection.

Be perfect, just like that.

You’ll need that sword.

Only trouble is, you’re a sinner. You screwed up before you were born. Ever since you’ve been making things worse.

As it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” Romans 3:10-12,Psalm 14:1-3,Psalm 53:1-3 ESV

You want to get a deep look into Biblical stress, check out Psalm 22 ESV. Christians think it refers to Jesus. Talk about somebody who got a raw deal. Here’s a taste:

“I am a worm and not a man” Psalm 22:6 ESV

Yeah, that about sums it up. If it was written about Jesus (centuries ahead of time), then this is God’s beloved Son we’re talking about, remember? The one whose loving Father arranged for him to be tortured to death – which is another thing that’s all our fault. He’s the one who told us that we can believe anything we want into existence.

 “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

“All things.” Nothing left out. Carte Blanche . Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

So let me get this straight – the beloved Son who was really a worm and no man said the rest of us can make mountains move by faith, as long as we never have any doubt about it, but then God arranged to have him killed.

Right. I think I got it.

So I’m supposed to never doubt I can throw a mountain into the sea.

I don’t even need to be a sinner for that to be a set up to failure.

Let’s look at another set up to failure.

Capitalism

No, not all capitalism. The kind of capitalism that pulled us out of the Depression, set up a massive social safety net of health care and retirement benefits and worker protections, won a war, rebuilt the USA and world economies, floated all boats, built the middle class, made Horatio Alger upward mobility a reality, sponsored the Civil Rights Movement and a Great Society, and even made a Republican President propose a universal basic income… that kind of capitalism worked just fine.

Today, capitalism like that would be called “Socialism” – the ultimate insult to anything that would look like government for the “general Welfare,” like it says in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. But never mind, government like that is bad now. Today, government’s job is to sponsor capitalism for capitalists (only). We’ve got that thanks to the “free market”  version of capitalism  — another contender for the Biggest Lie Ever. Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics said it was science and they had proved it. It wasn’t, and they hadn’t. What they did was to come up with clever equations that they proved mathematically, and never mind real life. The equations were so smart that smart people won Nobel Prizes for them, so they had to be good.

Then along came Reaganomics and the Gipper’s “trickle-down” economists. Make the rich richer, and it will be good for everyone – another contender for biggest lie ever that explains why we now have economic inequality as bad as what brought on the Great Depression in the first place. We’re repeating history, just like we’re supposed to, and this time the version of capitalism that bailed us out back then is available because it’s not capitalism anymore, it’s socialism. (Shudder when you say that.)

All of that was supercharged in the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair era of we don’t need no stinking social safety net and besides if we privatize everything it will all work.

Then we “won” the Cold War, which proved that Communism was a bad idea (it was) and meant that everything that wasn’t free market trickle down bless the rich economics was socialism (it isn’t). Which trashed the old style capitalism and gave us today’s interplanetary version.

So now we’ve got half the country who thinks “Freedom” means “I by God get to do anything I want and the gummit better keep its hands off my guns and its needles out of my arms, and if I still think Trump won, then he did.”

Well at least they’re right about one thing.

The American Can-do Spirit

America used to be the land of can-do. We got behind stuff –went to the moon, did the impossible (just like Jesus said). But then can-do metastasized. Christian faith moving mountains became think and grow rich, which became the power of positive thinking, which became self-help, which became believe whatever the hell you want, it’s all fake news anyway. Meanwhile capitalism metastasized into entrepreneurs and corporations making gazillions of dollars, paying no taxes, and duking it out to be the first to colonize Mars.

So now we’re got a bunch of believe-whatever-you-want, gun-toting warmongers bringing the Kingdom of God to the USA, and it sure as hell ain’t socialism. And now “work” – i.e., holding a job at low pay and no benefits or promises – is considered a certificate of good character, and if employers can’t get away with it anymore, not after COVID gave their work peons a new outlook, it means that “nobody wants to work anymore.”

Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the aisle still believe in bootstrap social mobility. Anybody else remember this?

“It’s a simple fact:  The more education you’ve got,
 the more likely you are to have a good job
 and work your way into the middle class.”

Pres. Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address

Good job?! Middle class?! Not anymore, not in 2021.

And education? Say no more.

But the Democrats still believe it.

The Republicans used to believe it, too. Now they just believe in Donald Trump (that was their 2020 “platform,” remember?).

As for Donald Trump, there’s no evidence he believes in anything other than he was born to be king, and the best way to fulfill his destiny is to rally Christian “dominion theology” fundamentalists and keep his “base” enraged and free enough to bring down American democracy – the final blow to which is officially scheduled for the 2022 elections. That’s when it ends. After that, it’s just a matter of time before King Donald takes his throne.

I wish I was making that up.

The Legion Howling in the Tombs

That’s life in the USA in 2021.

We’re talking about the world’s biggest religion, its dominant economic system, and its most powerful country. Christianity. Capitalism. The USA.

Stress. Anxiety. Fear. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Frustration. Unworthiness. Regret. And all the rest of the list.

That’s how we live in the USA. We’re a nation of cortisol, adrenal, epinephrine, norepinephrine junkies. We have to be, to survive. Nobody’s got our back – except for the people taking aim at the targets we’ve got painted there.

But how about the people who are supposed to protect us?

Don’t trust the protectors, all I’m sayin’.

How’s that working for you?

Oh, you know – opioid addiction, obesity, the other stuff on the list. Just normal — our steady self-destructive diet, the polluted air we breathe, the rocks we cut ourselves with.

But we deserve it, remember?

“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?

Dopamine No More! (I miss it)

I miss dopamine.

I miss the sweet emotion (queue up the song).

Dopamine makes us want to do things. Dopamine inspires and motivates, conveys purpose and meaning, makes us believe that dreams can come true.

Our hairy ancestors apparently needed it. Otherwise life was just too hard, so why bother to survive? Evolution said that won’t do – here, take a shot of this, that’ll get you going.

I was a dopamine junkie. I overdid it. Dopamine fuels belief, belief gets the internal resolve going, which fuels more dopamine which fuels more belief… The more you use, the more you want. The more you use, the more you need. You’re invincible when you’re on it, an anxious slug when you’re not.

The addictive cycle.

Pretty soon you’re out of touch. Your risk-reward regulator goes out of whack. The further out you get, the closer you get to the edge, the more thrilling it is. You’ve gone beyond surviving, now you’re thriving. No normal drudgery life for you. You’re the exception.

So you think.

It’s a lie. And the crazy thing is, people who have their dopamine under control buy the lie with you. They cheer for you, say you’re inspiring. You’re on a Hero’s Journey. You’re living the Redemption story – the Hollywood standard:  get a crazy idea, sacrifice everything, lose everything, everybody turns against you, you crash and burn, all is lost, everything is hopeless…and then… you did it! Happy ending! Hero worship! Glorious sunset! Stirring overture!

I miss all that.

I read an article about “dopamine fasting.” It’s an anti-self-help self-help technique that’s been making the rounds for a few years. I could see that. I’ve been working on it myself for about that long. Once I saw how dopamine had ruined my life, how fraudulent and full of lies and false promises it is, how it would keep ruining my life if I didn’t get it under control, I swore it off. No more periodic crash and burns for the sake of a survival need that started with getting our butts out of the cave to join a Mastodon-clubbing party.

I meant well, but I lapsed now and then. I couldn’t seem to go cold turkey – dopamine was too sneaky. One little hit – one idea that seemed so cool in the moment – and I was back in the cycle. So I needed safeguards, needed to learn not to trust my ideas, how to squelch my hopes, not follow my dreams. Life was still on the edge, but not the fun kind of edge. The new edge was overlooking The Void — an imminent drop into meaningless, purposelessness, despair.

It helped that I was overtaken by a dopamine-impairing neuro-muscular disease. It advanced slowly at first, didn’t get diagnosed for a few years. By the time I got diagnosed, it was like somebody else said – “I got diagnosed, and 6 months later I had aged 15 years.” It also helped that I became poor. Old, impaired, and poor – three things I thought I’d never be, and now I was. All three hammered my dopamine supply. Crazy ideas need lots of energy and money. If you’re old and impaired, you don’t have the energy. If you’re poor you don’t have the money. It helps.

No, I don’t sit around whining. I’ve learned to do things without feeling like it, learned to live without motivation and inspiration, without hope and joy. Don’t be disgusted at my crappy attitude. I’m not wallowing. I’m living an experiment. How do you live without all that good stuff? How do you rise above slug level when your brain doesn’t have the chemical it needs to keep you squirming along?

I can’t tell you, but I do it every day.

Truth is, there’s still some dopamine flowing up there, or I’d be done. Enough to keep me surviving, although sometimes I wonder. Enough that I still lapse now and then. My routine now is treat it like an annoying child – stop what you’re doing, give it attention, hear it out. And then, once it’s feeling better, go away and wait. That might be enough.

If it comes up again, try to find out why. What’s the hook? Soothe the idea, make it feel better at the source. You can’t do anything about it anyway – you’re too old, infirm, and poor, remember? No, it doesn’t want to hear that. It’s a child – it doesn’t process adult limitations like affordability or mobility challenges. It just wants to play. So go ahead – after awhile you’ll want to sit down and rest. Maybe it will pester you again, maybe not. It might go away right away, maybe overnight, maybe a couple days. Usually no more.

Dopamine episode solved.

You’re safe until your dopamine idea-maker fires off another one.

Rewind, repeat.

I’ve learned to deal, but I miss it. I miss believing, hoping, trusting. I miss having dreams and visions, feeling like I can do cool stuff. Life was more fun when it was full of magical thinking and delusion.

I sometimes think how easy it would be to get on meds — instant chemical relief for crappiness and despair. But then I think I’ve had quite enough magical thinking and delusion for one lifetime. When Nietzsche recognized that God had died, he worried that people wouldn’t be able to live without the sense of meaning and purpose that God had given them. His solution was to invent Superman.

It takes a lot of dopamine to be Superman. Lots of testosterone, too – another survival drug.

Superman was a disaster. Thanks anyway Friedrich, but we’ll sit this one out. No Superman for me.

And for now at least, no meds either. I’m more interested in finding out if you can actually live on the edge of The Void. I know, I know… it’s just another version of my old living of the edge – kind of a pathetic version at that. But despair is what I’ve got right now, so I’m working with it. I work out, do my learning and reflecting and reading, create my artwork. I do it because I do it. I do what I do because that’s what I do. No Hero’s Journey, no Hollywood, no motivational speaker self-help guru fame and fortune. Just getting stuff done whether I feel like it or not.

It’s probably a phase – another fit my inner child is throwing. I’d like to be a child again. I miss that, too. I never wanted to grow up. All the magic, delusion, dopamine highs.

But no. Here’s to survival! To the Void! To despair! To the nothingness Nietzsche was worried about!

And all that other adult shit.

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).

The Trouble is, We Believe

Belief is something humans do.

Beliefism is belief metastasized — belief unmoored, unhinged, runaway, with no object but its own self-referenced purification.

Every belief carries the seed of beliefism– the potential to grow into something toxic, with no purpose but to propagate more of itself.

Which is why…

Belief is a clear and present danger.

Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and so we don’t — we just go around believing things like it’s no big deal. What we believe is a big deal. We should be more careful.

We’re probably careless because belief makes life feel better. It provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic, fired up to do great things.

Belief is how we get to act like God.

Belief is how we create worlds, build civilizations, found nations. Belief anchors us in collective and individual identity, defines who’s us and who’s them, carves out space for us in the world. Our brains are wired to value those things.

Our brains are wired to believe.

Belief is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care what’s believed, what’s fact or fake. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality. Our brains have a bad case of “whatever.” If we want to believe it, they’re good with it.

Belief isn’t choosy.

Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. It’s amoral, indiscriminate, undiscerning. Belief only makes self-referential judgments — what conforms to the thing believed and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish and ban.

Our brains don’t discriminate.

Our brains readily swap belief in this for belief in that — religion, science, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives… they’re all the same.

Belief is fun.

Beliefism is about getting inspired, believing impossible dreams, going for it, realizing your unique calling, becoming your authentic self – all those things that make Hollywood and self-helpers and entrepreneurial heroes rich and famous.

Sound familiar?

Belief has been king in the New World for 400 years. The New World brought it from the Old World, where it was king for millennia. Belief is America’s root religion. It gave us the Puritans. Now it gives us the self-helpers, alternative healers, life coaches, and evangelizing Christians and atheists. We do belief in the USA. We’re belief experts. We got it down.

But there’s more:  belief morphs into beliefism.

Beliefism is when belief goes public. It’s the Unicorn IPO, the blockbuster premiered. In psychological terms, beliefism is when belief emerges – moves beyond internal subjectivity and takes on form and substance in external human reality, becomes ideology, builds institutions, develops its own mythology and metaphors, becomes law and economics, dictates cultural norms.

Beliefism turns what’s believed into knowledge.

Beliefism is evident in a street evangelist’s pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” he said, “so there must be a God who does.” He could have understood but he didn’t. He took a shortcut – he believed instead of knowing. Then he reversed the order:  his belief became knowledge — he knew what he believed.

Beliefism is unethical.

Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it. Beliefism has no ethics – it runs in a circle; there’s no outside reference, no checks and balances, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it. Belief is unaccountable, therefore unethical.

Beliefism polarizes.

Beliefism separates who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe. It manages entrances and exits, reinforces conformity, and punishes dissent.

Beliefism radicalizes.

Once it’s got a cause, beliefism takes it to an extreme. Belief becomes fundamentalism. If you’re not with us you’re against us. No neutrality. You go to the edge or you suffer and die.

Beliefism trends to fundamentalism

Fundamentalism decrees doctrine, prescribes ritual; banishes and punishes discourse, doubt, and dissent. It builds silos and hunkers down; lobs bombs at them. Fundamentalism can be religious or secular – same dynamics either way.

Beliefism practices mind control.

Beliefism runs on brain conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults are built on mind control. Every belief-fueled cause is a cult in the making. Nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions… they’re all built on mind control. None of them exist if we don’t believe them into existence. The process of entering and sustaining membership is the same no matter what.

Beliefism lives in our blind spots.

Beliefism runs in stealth mode. 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 what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality — we just know the reality that emerges from it.

Beliefism promotes delusional thinking.

Beliefism removes belief from examination and critical thinking. Unmoored belief trends to delusion. You become a danger to yourself and others. Your risk/return matrix warps. You drink the Kool-Aid. You storm the Capitol. You flock to super spreader events.

There’s good neuroscience behind beliefism.

Beliefism works because we’re biological beings. We’re powered by hormones, chemicals, electrical charges. We believe from the inside out — our bodies and brains construct our reality from what’s around us, including how other people are constructing reality. We share perspective with each other and a shared reality emerges. We build things together to support and perpetuate that reality — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons. The “higher” portions of our brains dream all this up, the “lower” portions keep it rolling.

That warning label idea is no joke.

Beliefism has hurt a lot a people for a long time. It still does. It hurt me. It might be hurting you.

Maybe we should talk about it.

Follow Your Dreams?

No.

Don’t do it. It will hurt you. It’s not like you think. There’s no magic that makes dreams come true.

You don’t want to hear that. You’re psyched up, ready to roar. I get that. I did the follow-your-dreams thing several times — upping the ante each time until the crash and burn (which happened every time, and will happen to you, too) was so big that I finally got… not the dream but the personal transformation it required.

I wasn’t in it for the transformation. I was in it for the dream. The dream didn’t happen. The transformation did.

Dreams require personal transformation. You might get the dream, you might not, but if you stay with it long enough, you will get the transformation. Most people don’t stay with it long enough. If they do, the transformation is sure. The dream? Not so much.

The reason you’re not living your dream already is that you’re not qualified for it. You’re not the kind of person living the kind of life and doing the kinds of things that line up with your dream. Your life is not structured around living your dream – if it were, you’d be living your dream already. Your life is structured around not living your dream. Therefore you’re not. Simple math.

It’s not just that you don’t know the right stuff or the right people, or that you don’t have experience doing the thing you dream about. All that is true – you don’t — but that’s not the point. The point is that your dream is a dream – something far away from what you are and do and have right now. The gap between you and your dream is wide and deep and long and high. There’s no getting around, under, through, or over it… not in your current form.

What your dream needs is to not be a dream at all – instead, it needs to be just the next step – the next logical, obvious thing for you to do, so that it’s not a dream at all, just the next thing. What you need to make your dreams come true is to get to that point. And to get to that point requires a complete remake of you and the circumstances of your life. Without that, there’s no getting there from here. That’s where personal transformation comes in.

Transformation is the hardest, most ruinous thing you will ever do. Transformation is a complete tear down followed by a complete rebuild with the salvageable parts (not many) plus a bunch of new ones, most of which you won’t like. It starts with the obvious — what and who you are, what you do and what you think, the company you keep, where you live and how – the usual stuff. All that has to go. You need a complete replacement of all things. That will feel hard, and you’ll be surprised and amazed, disillusioned and despairing just to get that far, but once you’ve gotten through that, transformation will be just getting warmed up.

You have no idea much it’s going to cost or how hard it’s going to be. You can try to imagine, but you have no idea. All those adjustments take time. And money. And hardship. And more – more than you think you’ve got to give. And then some more. And then a whole lot more.

There are no shortcuts. There is no magic. You think there’s going to be magic because your brain fills up with feel-good hormones when you feel inspired by your dream. Just thinking about your dream makes you feel good – like it could happen, yes to you! Don’t be fooled. That feel-good stuff is a warning signal. Think about it:  you can feel what it will be like to live your dream without doing anything toward making your dream happen. Doesn’t that make you nervous? It should. It should make you wonder what you’re missing. You’re not there yet, you’re not anywhere close, and yet it feels like you are.

That makes the self-helpers jump for joy. They’ll say, “Just look at that! Your brain can’t tell the difference between wanting something and actually having it! Isn’t that cool?! That means your brain will act like you’ve already got it, and – shazam!! – you actually will!”

Anybody who would tell you that – and there’s a whole industry full of them – is not your friend. They know just enough brain science to be dangerous.

Just thinking about your dream makes you feel good – is that a problem?

Yes it’s a problem. It’s why everybody gives up on their dreams – they’re too hard, they cost too much, and all that feel-good stuff doesn’t help at all. By the time you’re ready to actually do your dream, you’re so beat up and worn out from not being who you were when you felt good about it that you can’t believe it was you back then, wanting what you wanted and thinking you knew what it would be like when you got it, and now look at you. The reason you’ll feel that way is because you actually won’t be who you were. You will have gotten a whole psychic/biologic makeover. You will have been transformed.

Welcome to the caterpillar-becomes-a-butterfly story, in real time. Trust me – the part about being reduced to goo inside the cocoon is… well, let’s just say I could live without it.

If you’re lucky – and it will take a lot of luck – and if you do the right stuff and learn the right things and get to know the right people and learn from them and generally get yourself to the point where of course you are the kind of person who can do the thing you want – I mean, it’s right there, the next logical thing for you to do — then you might have a chance. Might. Maybe. Not guaranteed.

But if you’re really lucky, you might be okay with that.

I know all this because I’m living the dream. And trust me — if I had known this was the dream, and what it would cost to get here….

Well, no way.

All I’m sayin’.

For awhile I gave seminars on this. Then I realized people didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe I meant it when I told them, “you will suffer.” After awhile, I quit doing the seminars. It was unethical, carrying on with something I knew people wouldn’t believe, and flooding them with disclaimers and warnings wasn’t enough to make it so.

You’re waiting for me to say, “But it was all worth it.”

I won’t, because it wasn’t.

You’re waiting for me to say, “But I have no regrets.”

I won’t, because I do.

I will say I had a lot of crapola that needed to get exposed and taken care of. And I will say that once the transformation process really got rolling, I got in touch with just how little I have control over. I’m grateful for both those lessons – and some others, too. It would have been nice to learn them without all the trouble, but that never would have happened. The trouble and the learning were inseparable.

For more about how I made every mistake in the book plus a few others, check here. For a Jungian look at transformation, check here. Both links take you to  free downloads — free like a crummy old couch by the dumpster with a sign on it that says “take it” is free. They’re not bait and switch. Honest. I’m out of the seminar business, remember?

We Seriously Need to Get Over Our Addiction to Ancient Wisdom

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

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

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

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

Not exactly the answer I had in mind.

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

Sigh.

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

Or something like that.

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

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

Not so.

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

Not a chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicely said.

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

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

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

Which isn’t saying much.

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

Quick review…

“Beliefism” refers to the dynamics of belief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweating blood? This is from healthline.com:

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

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

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

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

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

Some Father….

Its gets worse.

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

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

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

Mind over matter.

The power of positive thinking.

The passage continues…

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about bait and switch.

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

The Good News That Isn’t

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

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

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

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

Requiesce in pace.

Beliefism [6]: Christianity and Self-Help Do The Impossible

I was a Christian for two and half decades and a self-helper for a few years after that. Both had the same source code for doing the impossible. Jesus was the original coder and pitchman:

“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

This is classic mind over matter – or more accurately, heart over matter. Ask “Where’s your heart?” and most people would point to the place in your chest and throat where you feel strong emotion. The belief that moves mountains is something you feel strongly. Plus you need to not doubt. Doubt is when you switch the channel to your intellect and wonder if it’s really going to work. Finally, you have to believe that the thing you want “will come to pass.”

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

That’s classic power of positive thinking – no surprise that self-help is all over it:  visualize, use “affirmations,” create vision boards, keep it fresh by buy buy buying more books, classes, seminars, and conferences, and if you’re really serious, hire a coach.

Jesus, on the other hand, preferred to ramp up the emotional commitment with inspirational stories about being persistent (the widow who pestered the judge, the guy who pestered his neighbor, etc.) and about going all in on your heartfelt ideas (the pearl merchant who sold his entire inventory to buy one perfect pearl).

Let’s give this a try.

One night a circuit-riding evangelist told our campus Christian group we could use all that believing in our hearts, not doubting, and believing we had already received it to heal anything we wanted. I was nearsighted. Next day I put my glasses in my pocket and sailed out across campus. People kept saying hi and I didn’t know who they were. I felt stupid and antisocial, and was getting a headache. I put my glasses back on.

When it Doesn’t Work

Beliefism’s response when the mountain doesn’t move is…

  • It’s all your fault.

You don’t have enough faith. You’re doubting. You don’t actually think it’s going to happen./

As in Jesus’s stories, belief only has one solution:  go deeper, further, invest more, take a bigger risk. Belief seeks its own perfection through the elimination of doubt — that’s why extreme belief always  ends up as fundamentalism. Once you’re in, you need to get further in, and you can’t look back and start questioning, because that would be doubt. Trouble is, if it didn’t work the first time, it’s probably not going to work the third or the thirtieth – you can double down, triple down, quadruple down, but nothing is ever enough. You’re trying to move a mountain – or walk across campus without your glasses – which is something you’ve never done before, and of course you’re going to be wondering if it’s going to work or not. But as soon as you start wondering, that’s doubt, and doubt means it’s over. So cover your ears and eyes and plunge forward.

Rewind, repeat.

How much faith do you need?

Jesus makes it sound like it shouldn’t have to be that much.

“For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”[a] Matthew 17:20 ESV

Most of us have never opened a package of mustard seeds to see what size they are, but we assume from the context that a mustard seed must be small, so when it comes to believing things, small is beautiful. That’s how this advice was rendered when I was a Christian.

Nothing like a little false consolation on Sunday morning.

Start talking about mustard seeds and now you’re trying to measure faith. Christians did that all the time. “I don’t have enough faith.” “I need to pray harder.” “I wish I had more faith.” “I need to stop doubting.” Things like that. It’s crazy-making.

One thing is sure:  the buck stops with you. If the thing you want doesn’t happen, you fail. You didn’t believe enough, you’re doubting, etc. etc.

But there is something else you might try….

Schmoozing the Old Man

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” John 14:13 ESV

“Be sure to use my name when you ask my dad for stuff,” Jesus advises, “he likes that, because he likes to take the credit for what happens.” That advice is why Christians end prayers with “in Jesus’ name, amen.”

But wait… we started with Jesus saying we could tell themountain to move. Now we’re fussing about asking.

Read the fine print, I guess.

One of Jesus’s disciples refined it further:

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

So if we want to be confident – i.e., not doubt – we need to ask “according to his [God’s] will.” As a friend used to say, we need to ride the horse in the direction it’s already going. This is Belifism’s second response when the impossible doesn’t’ happen:

  • The thing you want has to be God’s will.

The impossible we want has to be something God already has in mind, otherwise it’s not going to happen. Even Jesus wasn’t couldn’t get a free pass on this one.

We’ll talk about that next time.