“But what do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you think it’s important to study the scriptures? You must believe something about the end of days. You mean you haven’t thought about it at all? But how can you have faith if you don’t know about end times?” She looks alarmed, and genuinely confused by my obstinacy.
“I don’t really think God finds it terribly important whether I have correct doctrine about the end of the world. I can’t imagine God punishing me for choosing the wrong academic stance on the Rapture, since it’s something that I have no way of knowing about anyway. If something like the Rapture does happen, I imagine it will take care of itself, regardless of my opinion of it. I just don’t see it as very relevant.” I’m talking too fast and I can feel a flush start to creep defensively up my neck, and I know this conversation is starting to get away from me.
“But the Bible DOES tell us what will happen in the end times. How can you not care? It says right here,” she flips frantically to John 4:23, “that Jehovah wants worshipers who will worship in spirit and in truth, IN TRUTH, so how can you not be concerned with the truths of the Bible?!” She looks at me in pained frustration, her voice thinning at the top of her speaking range, palms open in helplessness at my appalling lack of interest in eschatology (the doctrines about End Times).
This is a conversation I had several years ago with a family member. Or as near a re-creation as I can manage. Actually, this was pretty much the end of that conversation because my head was starting to hurt from flipping back and forth through at least half the books in the Bible, trying to follow her train of thought around a maze of proof-texts. (“Proof-texting,” by the way, if you don’t know, is the practice of flipping triumphantly to some particular verse in scripture, usually taken out of context, and waving it in a discussion as if it “proves” your point and makes your position unassailable. It’s often accompanied by the phrase “The Bible CLEARLY says.” Or that’s my definition. Others may have a different experience.)
There are a lot of things I could say about that conversation, but the particular moment described above is the part that has stayed with me for years because it gets at the heart of something I’ve been trying to name for a long time. It has something to do with what defines fundamentalism and separates fundamentalism from genuine spirituality. It’s something that I need to name for myself, as a recovering fundamentalist (first an atheist fundamentalist, then a Christian fundamentalist). I am going to try and write my way around it and make some kind of sense, and I called this post “Fundiementals 1” because I imagine it will take me more than one post to find what I’m trying to say.
Going back to the conversation with my Very Concerned Relative who was so worried about my lack of interest in “biblical truth.” Every fundamentalist I have ever personally known (Christian, Jewish, and atheist) was very, very concerned with the Truth. It was/is a central preoccupation of his or her life. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Everyone should be interested in truth; life is pretty pointless if you’re living a lie. Poisonous thoughts can make you (and everyone around you) miserable – this is a basic premise of both theology and psychology. And the spiritual tradition that I now find myself anchored in, the Christian tradition, has some very nice things to say about truth. “The truth shall set you free.” “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” “For this I was born and for this I came into the world – to speak the truth. All who are for truth hear my voice.” (Okay that last one was translated from Master and Margarita, so I”m not totally sure if it’s a real Jesus quote or not and I’m too lazy to look it up.) But somehow when fundies tell me I should be concerned with “truth” (and I have been both the fundie and her hapless victim), the fundie always seems to mean something very different than what I am coming to understand “truth” to be.
When I was a fundie (and I surely have some fundie bits still clinging to my soul – it’s a long road out of hell), I was very concerned with having the “right” beliefs. This started with my Randian atheism, and I was encouraged by my father, Ms. Rand, and others, to cling to those beliefs as if I were clinging to reality itself. They were my badge of proof that I was “enlightened,” that I was “tethered to reality,” that I wasn’t one of those poor deluded fools who still believed in superstitious, barbaric, capricious, and bloodthirsty gods, and who clung to their imaginary men in the sky in order to avoid the fear and pain and responsibility of Real Life. I was lucky to have graduated from such silliness at a young age so that I could live my life to the fullest, free of cumbersome and archaic institutions, freed by Science and Reason and Ms. Rand herself.
Then I had a radical encounter with God that I don’t think will be undone in this lifetime (although never say never), and became a Christian. I say this like it was past tense, but in fact I still encounter God on a regular basis, and am still a Christian, though not like the Christian I was for the first year or two. For the first year or two, I’d say I was still a fundie. I took my preoccupation with being “Right” and easily transferred it to my new beliefs about my encounter. Like all fundies, I was a purist. It was self-evident to me that all my old beliefs had been false and that I now had the Truth, and it was important to me to talk to people about the Truth because I wanted them to have the same joy I had. It was sincere and well-meant, but still fundie, because I mistakenly believed that it was my new beliefs that had set me free, and that I had to cleave to the new beliefs.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the beliefs that set me free, it was the Encounter. I’m going to say that one more time because it’s worth repeating. It was not my beliefs about my Encounter that set me free, it was the Encounter itself. My beliefs about it were largely irrelevant. I dwell in the Christian tradition, so I call it an encounter with the risen Jesus, and that works for me, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s just call it an encounter with Reality.
Second spoiler alert: Reality is not the same thing as your beliefs about Reality. Reality is this huge, cosmic Thing with so many billions of colors and parts and aspects and characterizations that no one and nothing can hold even the millionth part of it wholly in their minds. No idea, doctrine, philosophy, theology, person, institution, academic institution, or belief system has the lock on it.
I’m going to take that second point first. I went to a workshop once on how to have a true dialogue, and we were given an object lesson on the nature of truth. The facilitator brought out an opaque box, like a large shoe box, and it had two peep holes cut in it – one on the top and one on the side. He asked a volunteer to come and peek through the top hole, and a different volunteer to peek through the side hole. Then he asked them what was in the box. “A triangle,” said one, while the other answered simultaneously, “A rectangle.” We all chuckled, and the leader asked, “Who is correct? Who has the truth?” The leader then lifted the top and sides off the box to reveal the contents – a triangular pillar. From the top, you could only see the triangle. From the side, you saw the flat rectangular face of the pillar.
The lesson here is obvious, but I’m going to expound upon it anyway. Both volunteers were correct, and neither had the Truth. In the workshop, this was a cute lesson, and it was civil because both participants knew they only had part of the truth. They were still momentarily confused by their different descriptions of the hidden reality in the box. Each briefly suspected that maybe the other was messing with him, or was in cahoots with the facilitator to play a prank on him, or maybe just didn’t have kindergarten level geometry, but nobody was up in arms about it, and we all had a good laugh when we saw what was causing the confusion.
Imagine what might have happened if neither of them knew there was a second peephole in the box, and they both got really invested in being “right” about what THEY saw in the box. It’s silly to get really worked up about something like that, but that’s exactly the kind of silliness that happens between fundies of different stripes all the time. They find a little piece of truth that was laying across their particular path and they get so excited that they start waving it around and mistaking it for the Whole Truth, and then they get really angry and defensive and frustrated when someone else is insisting that they see a triangle in the box when CLEARLY it’s a rectangle.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek truth. Again, living a lie is pointless, and can make you either malicious or ignorant. And I’m not saying you haven’t found some truth, or that any of your beliefs are necessarily incorrect (although I’d like everyone to be able to acknowledge the possibility that they might hold an incorrect belief, or two). I believe we are all given at least one piece of the puzzle, and at least one person to love. But even if all your individual beliefs are exactly correct, they still can’t help but be incomplete, because of the natural limitations of any one person’s experience. So all I’m suggesting is a truce in the War Over Truth. I’m going to suggest that we follow the workshop facilitator’s advice – in any conversation or encounter with another human being, assume that their perception and experiences are genuine, and of equal value to yours. In fact, go ahead and assume that they might have some very valuable perspective to share. Maybe they’ve been farther into the box than you. You don’t have to abandon your whole world-view, which is also legitimate because it comes from your experience – just be open to the possibility that this person has discovered some small piece of the puzzle that you haven’t, and that you might discover something new if you listen carefully. Listening first is a great way to take the log out of your own eye before worrying about the splinter in the eye of your conversation partner. It also offers your conversation partner the dignity of their honest experience. It’s non-violent conversation. It’s also a form of humility. I’m sure there is a reason that humility is so often paired with wisdom in the scriptures.
Speaking of listening first, here’s what the facilitator had to say about listening. This changed my life. Seriously. If it doesn’t change yours, then you’re probably much more mature than I was at the time of the workshop. The facilitator explained to us the five levels of listening. (There’s a high likelihood that I’m remembering these imperfectly, but this is the best I can do because I’ve long since lost my notes). They are:
1. Not listening (e.g., checking facebook while you pretend to listen, multi-tasking, completely distracted). I am totally guilty of this on a regular basis.
2. Listening only for your turn (you know the person who only listens for an opening to interrupt and insert their own story/opinion/etc, usually only barely related to the topic at hand? Yeah.) Also guilty.
3. Listening to form a response (you’re spending your “listening” moment organizing your response instead of really taking in new information). Still guilty.
4. Related to #3, listening only to agree or disagree (listening so you can evaluate, or form a judgment). Also guilty.
5. Listening with your full attention. At this level, you are not worried about your opinions or response yet. Not that you won’t form them later, listening is not the same as agreeing, but you are fully present to what the other person is saying right now. You are receiving their story and perspective to the fullest extent you are able, without being distracted by external noise (#1) or internal noise (#’s 2, 3, and 4). I occasionally achieve this.
Listening at level 5 is extremely important for certain relationships in your life. Your marriage, your kids, your close friends. God. (Meditation is a form of Level 5 listening). Anyone who has been listened to at that level knows it to be a deeply affirming experience. Anyone who has listened at that level knows it to be a shared deeply affirming experience.
Even in more casual conversations with acquaintances about religion or politics, listening at #5 makes the exchange extraordinarily positive in tone, even between people with vastly different belief systems.
And you should be able to allow yourself to do this because at the end of the day, what you think about the nature of the universe is really not that important. Some thoughts and forms of truth are important, and those are coming up in future posts. For example, if someone is getting hurt, if injustices are being perpetrated, etc., by all means make a lot of noise. I truly believe that your opinion of the Rapture does not fall into this category. Your opinion of the Rapture by itself is going to neither make you miserable nor set you free. Your opinion of the Rapture is not that important to your search for meaning and purpose in life.
What’s important is Encounter. With your deepest self, with others, with Reality. It has been my felt experience that some people get there through religion.*** And some people get there through science. And some people get there through yoga or meditation or nature. Some possibly do get there by studying the scriptures devoted to eschatology, and to those people, I apologize for treating it lightly here.
Encounters are life-stretching things, and we can use our beliefs to either try to make sense of them, or try to shield ourselves from them. I’m going to give examples from Christianity and atheism here, because those are the two faith demographics that I know most intimately, but I think the principles apply across many religions and belief systems.
To the extent that your beliefs about Jesus give you a framework for understanding your encounters, and your “faith walk” stretches and humbles and awes and challenges you, and you see more love in the universe with each passing season, and you are more inspired and challenged to care about the suffering of your fellow man because of your deepening sense of justice, then you are using your beliefs to make sense of your encounter.
To the extent that your beliefs about Jesus keep you safe and shielded, and reassure you that you are in the winning group, and make you either combative, judgmental, or condescending (hint: if you are often trying to point out to others the error or inadequacy of their beliefs, or “sell” them the gospel, then you are listening at level 2, and it’s condescending), then you may be using your beliefs to avoid encounters. You might be putting the cart before the horse.
If you are an atheist, then to the extent that your experiences with science and reason and the world give you a framework for understanding and creating meaning in your life, and your journey stretches and humbles and awes and challenges you, and you experience deeper and more profound love with each passing season, and care more about your fellow man out of your deepening sense of morality, then you are using your beliefs to make sense of your encounters.
If you are an atheist and your beliefs about science and reason reassure you that you are more intellectually evolved than those cretins still attending churches, and you wear the progress of science like a badge of “rightness” instead of letting science deepen and broaden your questions, then you may be using your beliefs to avoid reality.
It’s not an either-or proposition. We all live on a spectrum, and we all have some days that are better or worse than others, and some beliefs that we hold in a more fundie way than others. And as I grow, I am still working on excavating the remaining fundie thoughts and practices I still carry around with me. I’m sure it will take a lifetime.
Agh. This post took me weeks to write. And it’s only the first of a series. (I started in February.) Next up: Description vs. Meaning.
*** A note here to my more staunchly conservative Christian friends who are going to be very worried for my soul after reading that I think that only some people get to truth through religion, because isn’t Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Yes. Jesus has saved, and continues to save, my life in more ways than one, many times, in this life and presumably in eternity. And for me, atheism was a dishonest stance, because I had already experienced the Presence in childhood, and atheism was an intellectual prop to make me feel slightly less miserable about myself. However, I have some good friends who are ex-religious, and for them, religion was the intellectual prop – for them, walking away from religion really was walking away from a false god, something they had constructed themselves, or had received uncritically from people in power over them (like parents), and it is in atheism that they are getting closer to reality. And because I believe that God is the ultimate reality, anything that brings someone closer to reality brings them closer to God, whether we are calling it God or not, whether they describe it as an experience of an external presence or not. Jesus himself said that there would be some big surprises at the end of times about who was really following him and who wasn’t (see: the sheep and the goats). So while I am happy to unapologetically discuss with anyone my experiences of Jesus, my love for God, my faith, and the pulsing, furious Love that animates the universe, I don’t particularly believe that it’s up to me to judge up front anyone’s eternal status just because their beliefs about the world are radically different than mine. By all means, share the gospel, tell people how wonderful it is, because a lot of people need it (I did), just strive to be nonviolent about it, because a lot of other people have been deeply wounded by using the gospel as a weapon or a threat (I have).