The following is a somewhat-edited version of an email I just sent an interesting person who got in touch with me through this blog:
Thank you very much for this message. I enjoyed reading it.
I think the basic problem with religious fundamentalists is that they really are experiencing a failure to listen to others. For example, let’s say a fundamentalist is talking with you. When he’s “listening,” he’s really just being silent while you talk so he can plan his next line. In other words, for the fundamentalist, “listening” is a tactic. To put it in Martin Buber’s terminology, to the fundamentalist, there is no Thou; there is only I.
I must admit that it’s true that I no longer listen to religious fundamentalists. In fact, I can’t give them the time of day. I’m grateful that when I was a fundamentalist, my teachers and friends were much more patient with me than I might be with fundamentalists now! But I feel incredibly and permanently damaged by the version of Christianity that I was raised with.*
I was raised with hyper-Calvinism and a belief in six-day literal creationism. I believed in the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment, with some going to everlasting Hell, and others to eternal bliss in Heaven. When I was in Northwest Baptist Bible College (now defunct, though the seminary lives on) here in BC, Canada, I slowly began to change. Hyper-Calvinism and a literal hell were the first beliefs to go. During this time, I took courses in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and I realized that when NT writers were quoting the Hebrew Bible (usually via the Septuagint), they weren’t just quoting, but actively re-interpreting it. This became problematic in certain NT polemics when “the Jews” were accused of failing to understand their own scriptures and then damned to hell for it! At that point, I used the term “misinterpretation” rather than mere “reinterpretation” of the NT passages in question.
The NT’s misinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible–for various reasons I prefer not to use the term “Old Testament”–bothered me and slowly ate away at the back of my mind.
Then I transferred from my Bible college to the private evangelical Trinity Western University, where I took classes in biblical Hebrew. I still remember one very brave professor who had us reading parallel passages in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. It was obvious that earlier biblical texts were being quoted and then altered by later biblical writers. Sometimes–say if they were writing about history–it was possible for both passages to be true, but other times, there really were contradictions. My professor used to say, “this is how to teach Christians about J, E, D, and P in the Documentary Hypothesis.” And indeed, when I read the first two chapters of Genesis in Hebrew, I quickly saw that there were two very different, contradictory accounts.
When reading the Hebrew Bible, I realized that a lot of traditional Christian beliefs about God were not actually biblical. Take, for instance, the idea that God is omniscient. This is a standard trope in Christian theology. But when you read in Genesis chapter 3, you read the following: “then Yahweh God brought the animals to the Man to see what he would name them.” This God didn’t know the future. He didn’t know what Adam was going to call those animals. Not only that, but the animals were actually his first attempt to make a partner for the man. It’s interesting that there’s a Jewish tradition that has Adam saying something to the effect of: “hmm, let’s call that one ‘Elephant.’ Nope–not a suitable partner. Next!” And then after God has finally made all the animals and none are found suitable, he improvises and casts Adam into a deep sleep, and then “builds” (in Hebrew) the woman from the man’s bone. This God is a very far cry from the omniscient, omnipotent, and immutable God of Christian theology. And so it is with many passages, especially those which describe God as “repenting.” Actually, I’ve since realized that fundamentalists read just as much into their texts as they read out of them!
At the same time, I also took classes in psychology, and realized just how much of our personalities are due to the chemistry in our brains. It’s ridiculous, now, for me to imagine a God who is spirit, not flesh and bone, as Jesus would say, and yet who still feels anger, sadness, love, hatred, and repulsion.
It’s been many years now, since my biblical studies culminated in a M.A. degree from the University of Toronto. I regard Christopher Hitchens as a hero, and I am much less enamoured of C.S. Lewis (though I still greatly enjoy The Horse and his Boy). I no longer believe in a soul, or in any life after death. And I have read too much of all the genocides, rapes, murders, and abuse of children and women and sexual minorities that have occurred in the name of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s not only second-hand. I have in my extended family two very religious men who beat their wives and abused their children. One of these was a Pentecostal pastor who said his wife deserved every blow he gave her on the basis of his interpretation of the Bible.
Nowadays, I tend to see these three Western religions as very evil and stupid in their natures. They hold man back from achieving Nietzsche’s Overman. But I fully admit that there are many truly warm, intelligent, and “spiritual” (in the good sense) people in each of these religions, and I know many. Some of them have touched my life and helped me at critical points. But, to twist a phrase from the NT, I still see the lump of the Abrahamic religions as they are in Western societies as being lightened by the leaven of the Enlightenment: skepticism and tolerance.
My basic problem with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and also with Hinduism) is that the fundamentalists are growing in numbers and power while the mystics and everyone else in the middle is in decline. Thus you have, for instance, the Baptists and the Pentecostals (for whom I really have no respect!) growing or staying even in terms of demographics, while the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the United Church are all less than a generation away from total extinction.
It is possible that if I had been raised with a less dogmatic, fundamentalist version of Christianity, that I might still call myself a Christian. But for me, there’s just no point. Even if we say that the violence, the homophobia, the Zionism, the racism, the prejudice, the misogyny of the Abrahamic religions was simply “cultural,” while the teachings about love of God and love of neighbour, and the necessity of community, etc., are the “eternal message,” what’s the point? I can have the Golden Rule from numerous philosophies untouched by Christianity; I can have the Rule of Law from secular tradition; and I can friendship that does not presuppose doctrine–and I can have all of these on a secular basis that accepts the findings of science and tolerates others. And if I want literary tradition for spiritual guidance, I can always approach certain strains of Buddhism, or even better, philosophical Taoism.
The funny thing for me, though, is that even though I can intellectually dismiss the God I was raised with, I still feel a vengeful, hateful, controlling God in my life quite often. This God creates feelings of hopelessness and despair until I tell myself again that he’s a mere chimera, a product of theological and social brainwashing. I do feel the need to be part of something larger than myself. I long for community, safety, and wholeness. I don’t really get these in the individualist life I have now.
Alain de Botton has an interesting TED.com talk in which he says something to the effect of: “we as atheists don’t have to say, I can’t have community,” but I’m tempted to be as skeptical of atheistic churches as I am of Christian ones. After all, a friend of a friend in the secular Landmark movement once told me of people nearly coming to blows over a disagreement in their meetings. That’s every bit as bad as the incestuous, backstabbing, backbiting, power-grabbing congregation of Baptists that I grew up in. But at least Landmark never has, and never will fight a Thirty Years War over some philosophical difference the way Protestant and Catholic Christianity have!
All in all, then, I’m longing for something like faith and something like God, but the Abrahamic religions are the last place I’d look for them. Paradoxically, then, I may be living a Thou-less existence.
Feel free to stay in touch, and don’t be afraid of disagreements!
*Hyper-Calvinism was current in the supposedly more intelligent circles of the church I grew up in, but by no means did all members of the church believe in Predestination. My mother, for one, did not. But somehow I spent my formative teenage years under the impression that Predestination was more orthodox than free-will.