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Archive for the ‘Humanism’ Category

Ojo Taylor, former Christian rocker turned agnostic humanist, got into a long discussion on Facebook recently in which he said some things in his comments that resonate with me.

At one point the conversation turned to the value of intellectual evidences for Christianity vs. an “encounter,” that is, a mystical experience. Ojo responded:

 I want to acknowledge yet again your need for and experience of an encounter. I am glad to set the record straight by saying that contrary to what you wrote in another place, I am impressed, unless you meant impressed to the point of action. I accept everyone’s encounters but not everyone’s explanations or interpretations of them as factual. That seems prudent to me. I read your last post above earlier today but had to run to the studio for a long day of music, another of life’s great joys and honors for me, so I had time to think it over.

What immediately came to mind was an encounter I had just yesterday. I have them all the time. I was suddenly overcome, so full, so alive, felt so fertile, it was remarkable, and I can’t explain it or its origin. I told no one about it but it was beautiful. I have them all the time, very often. They are divine encounters if it is at all true that God is love. I don’t feel any need or compulsion to attach my encounters to a doctrinal cart and all that goes with that, nor is all that doctrinal baggage endemic to the encounter.

My own experience is that I have them much more often, more meaningfully and more intensely than I ever did as a practicing Christian, and I am more compelled to action as a result. I know that’s impossible for Christians to grasp, assent to or even consider, but it’s true. Now perhaps others’ encounters have been more ecstatic than mine. I truly have not had an ecstatic experience along the lines of a Lonnie Frisbee devotee or St. Paul. I can only point out that people of all faiths have those encounters and the families into which they are born has more to do with who or what that encounter is attributed to than anything else. I really think it matters little the god-ideal that people assign to their experience. If it is love, it is divine, by the Christians’ own Word (in a multitude of places).

While honoring your encounter, I also find myself in a place to honor everybody’s including my own. There is no encounter, no experience, no sense, no emotion, no depth or practice of love, reason, no divine favor for the Christian that is any more valid, valuable, divine or legitimate than anyone’s of any faith or no faith. People have encounters all the time and attribute them to whatever and whomever they attribute them too. So yes, as you said, the encounter is paramount to the intellect. But when the intellect is invoked, then the intellect will surely have to respond, again by the Christians own Word. There should be no convenient moving of the goal posts back and forth between intellect and experience to serve one’s own needs though. Put another way in simpler terms, I think, nay, I “know” that love is more important than correct beliefs, more important than any belief at all. All peoples have and practice love, no sect more than others. That’s just my pagan view. I am not saying it to proselytize or confront, just to share. Isn’t Facebook grand? Thank you. I dearly appreciate your friendship too.

Later on, after someone expressed being sad that Ojo no longer holds his former views, he made a nicely worded declaration of universalism.

Jon, I agree with you in one very important way. I believe Love is at the heart of the universe, at least my universe. Of course we don’t mean that in nearly the same ways, but there it is. It is not blind chance at all, but as Einstein said, “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.” Let’s not be reductionist here. It is not either love or chance, Yahweh or despair. There are many ways people access love, what they deeply and certainly consider divine, often rooted in the same types of Encounter you describe. I’m sure conservative theology will have none of that, but again, it is undeniably true as a survey of peoples through time and geography attest over and over. Whence conservatism when we’re talking about God? A god of correct beliefs is no god at all.

It seems, and I may be wrong, that you have built a bridge for yourself from your legitimate encounter to what even you admit is a conservative theology. How did that happen? The encounter is the easy part for me, but the bridge is where I run into trouble, especially when the encounter is somehow presented as any kind of evidence for anything outside your own “alone in this existence” experience (beautifully written, by the way). I accept it as your own testimony but cannot accept the explanation or interpretation as factual except that they are to you. Are we to think that the ecstasies of Padre Pio, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi or any number of Catholic mystics require assent to transubstantiation, purgatory and the Immaculate Conception? What of the Sufi mystics, Buddhists, and all the others? Do they obligate us too?

I dated a woman for some time not long ago who also had a dissociative Encounter that lasted for many hours, changed her life immediately, permanently, changing the DNA of who she really was. That this came from an “old man in the sky” god-ideal was the farthest thing from her imagination and she chuckled when I asked. I have heard her story and it’s incredible. I hope she documents it sometime. But again, to take that to mean something beyond her own experience? No can do. Those of us who have not been given a bye on faith by the “knowledge” coming from an Encounter are left to other devices. I have to disagree with you; I do not loathe that sort of mysticism. But neither does that mean I feel obligated by it or accept it as divine revelation.

Perhaps finally, this sadness is on behalf of Jesus! You have suggested as much before also, that to move away from Orthodoxy is to break the heart of God. Again, there is no need! To any living, loving deities, Jesus, any, I am a resounding and unequivocal “Yes!” I call out to love, cry out with open arms for any way I can know and relate as intimately as I can! The heavens have kept their secrets well, so I am left in the absence of ecstasy to stumble along on my own, doing the best I can “imperfectly” with what I have at my disposal. I simply will not believe what I “know” is not true or what I even suspect is not true, what we have learned is not true. I’m done drinking the kool aid. If there is “sin” it is that, the denial of my conscience, my heart, and yes, my intellect. Nor do I expect you to violate yours.

You have pointed out before that I seem to you “data driven” or some such language. I have suggested that it is when objectivity is invoked that it must be met with the appropriate methodology and syntax. But here again, I relate most strongly to Einstein, who uses language similar to what you noted on Campbell:

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery-even if mixed with fear-that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms-it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

Anyone asking me, also deeply religious in that sense, to travel that bridge from mystery to a dogma is going to have to do so with more rigor, elementary and primitive though that may be, than theology and poetry can muster. The myth is critically important, but cannot do the heavy lifting. The argument that A must be true because not-A is untenable seems so formally invalid that I can hardly take it seriously, but whether to despair or not is a choice, not a foregone conclusion. There are many good options, but that’s just my view.

 

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Back in the day when I was most active in the Christian church as an adult, I also was buying and listening to a lot of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). There were dozens of artists I’d never heard of that I was having a good time getting to know. Some of it was passable entertainment, some of it was actually good in its own right.

After I left the church I also left behind a lot of the music. But there were a handful of artists that I kept in my collection and continued to like — and mostly still do — because whether or not I agreed with their theological stance, I found their music to be worthwhile on its own creative merits. And as I moved from indifferent agnosticism into my current universalism (more on that in the next installment of “My Pagan Soul,” which I promise is coming), I regained an appreciation for some (not all) of the lyrics, albeit from a perspective the songwriters might not have intended.

For the most part, the common thread among the artists that I continued to like was that they were older and had some life experience, and wove themes of faith into lyrics that were about the real struggles of life. The other side of the coin, those I liked for a time but didn’t keep going with after, were generally younger people whose songs were simply platitudes with no weight behind them.

In some cases, the artists grew in ways that kept me interested. The young Amy Grant’s work falls generally into that latter category, a kid who grew up in the church, didn’t know any particular hardship or pain, trying to tell us about life. But then she endured a painful divorce, and the scrutiny of a very judgmental fan base as her known friendship with Vince Gill turned into her second marriage, and then her songs became more reserved, introspective and painful. No longer a kid who thinks she has the answers, Amy Grant matured into a woman who’d been through some stuff and had discovered the value in questions.

Amy Grant was an aberration. I continued to like some of her earlier work, despite the lack of life scars that marked her later on. But the album she released in 1997, Behind the Eyes, is a raw and heartbroken work that rips away the veneer of superficial faith (which is what about 90 percent of CCM is), and exposes the rawness of human weakness and pain. It’s a remarkable album, easily the best of her releases. But because of the insular and judgmental nature of much of the CCM audience, it sold poorly.

DC Talk is another aberration. By all rights, I should have left them on the scrap heap when I left the church. Three kids who grew up in Christian homes, went to a Christian college and immediately out of that into CCM stardom as one of the most accoladed CCM groups of all time. They were essentially a CCM boy band. Hard to see where they had any great struggles to overcome, so when they sang about how Jesus brought them out of a past of sin and depravity (“Free At Last”), it was hard to believe they had ever really had such a life. And yet the mix of rock, soul and rap they achieved was so infectious, especially on their latter albums, it was hard not to enjoy a song of theirs when they came up now and then on the iPod.

I did not follow their solo careers after the group split up, though. The magic had been in the blend, and while I did pick up one CD from each member just to see if they were still doing interesting things individually, I had to conclude that they weren’t. Toby McKeehan (TobyMac) sounded the most like old DC Talk, but he was the rapper and his solo work was heavier on the hip-hop than I cared for. Michael Tait’s solo album was a decent enough rock record, but featured nothing that stood out. Kevin Max, the closest thing DC Talk had to avant garde, released an album that I sorta liked but had a hard time digging into.

So I didn’t really pay much attention to any of them for many years. And then recently, I read somewhere that Kevin Max had spoken up in support of Rob Bell, the pastor who recently wrote a book espousing universal salvation (there is no hell) and earning himself the scorn of much of the evangelical community in doing so. And in the Facebook post supporting Bell, Max said “I too am a Unitarian at heart.”

As you can imagine, this intrigued me. So I started looking around for more info and didn’t find much, just a number of web sites repeating the same quote and opining in various ways. I was forced (forced, I tell you) to ‘friend’ the man on Facebook so that I could read his wall posts.

And what I’ve found is a real and likeable person there. Whether or not he’s a UU I don’t know (he does follow UU World magazine on Twitter), but it’s pretty clear he’s been on a long personal and spiritual journey since the DC Talk days, one that is similar to mine in some ways. Whether this journey away from traditional Christianity started during or after his DC Talk days I don’t know, bu I suspect it might have been starting already while the group was going strong.

As a side note, while I was searching for information on Kevin Max, I found another old name from the CCM scene, Ojo Taylor, who’s now a full fledged agnostic humanist. Taylor was in a band I never caught on to, Undercover, but he also produced one I liked, and like, a lot: Adam Again.

All this is to say that people grow and change. My life wouldn’t have been significantly poorer had I not heard of the changes with these people, but I think being able to renew my fandom of people I liked a lot at an earlier time of my life in a very different context, and find that they have not been frozen in a time bubble the way others from their industry have been, is a validation for we who are ever on the journey.

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I’ve been listening to a podcast called Spirit in Action, produced by the liberal Quakers at Northern Spirit Radio, and it’s added some nice confirmations to my theory of the secret UUs.

John Shelby Spong was on a 2005 podcast that I just heard today. He and the host spent a few minutes on the idea of ongoing revelation, and the host asked Spong what books he might add to the canon of sacred scripture if he could. Spong named Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letters From a Birmingham Jail,” and works by Dag Hammerskjold, among others. And elsewhere in the interview he talked about incorporating the findings of science into one’s spirituality, naming Charles Darwin and Karl Jung in particular.

Among the six sources of spiritual wisdom UUs recognize: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

In a more recent podcast, Philip Gulley was discussing his latest book, If the Church Were Christian, and through the course of the conversation mentioned that Fairfield Friends Meeting — the Quaker meeting he pastors — includes Baha’i, Jews and atheists.  And as for himself, he told the host he’s not concerned with calling himself a Christian. As the first chapter of the latest book suggests, he sees Jesus as a model for living, not an object of worship.

Sounds kind of like a UU congregation, doesn’t it? I was also reminded that in the book, though not in the podcast, he mentions that he would rather have a congregation of kind atheists than mean-spirited Christians.

Among the seven UU principles are a respect for the worth and dignity of each person; encouragement to spiritual growth; and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

I don’t mean to make more of this than it is. I doubt either Spong or Gulley would call themselves UUs. But the theologies they espouse, in particular their shared emphasis on action over belief and acceptance of people as they are — and their theological ideas which bear many similarities to one another and not many at all to the traditional Christian settings each of them came through — suggest that they would be comfortable and very much at home in a UU congregation.

More to the point, I think that the broad universe of liberal religion has more similarities than differences. If atheists can attend a Quaker meeting, and a former Episcopal Bishop can speak unreservedly of wanting to add Martin Luther King to the sacred canon (and rip Leviticus out of it), then we’re drinking from the same well. Add many reform Jews, the United Church of Christ and other liberal Christian denominations, humanists, many or most neo-pagans and various unlabeled liberal-spiritual types, and we have a movement that’s considerably larger than it might seem.

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