gargoyle (IMG_4743 by Brian Jeffery Beggerly)

In Bad Faith, Part 6: Is Your God a Tribal Strawman?

So, it seems to come down to this, I’ve had these experiences, experiences that I was shocked to read about in my first year religion course at Loyola Marymount in a book by Rudolf Otto called The Idea of the Holy. The Latin phrase was mysterium tremendum et fascinans, and I completely understood what the author was talking about. I felt connected. At the same time I didn’t see visions, I didn’t hear voices, I didn’t go to another realm of reality. In fact, if it weren’t for my Catholic/Christian upbringing and a friend who was there at the time, I wouldn’t have known how to interpret these experiences. And there, perhaps, is the source of the difficulty.

In Bad Faith, Part 6: Is Your God a Tribal Strawman?

Had I been raised in a different community on a different spot on the globe than the language of my experiences, how I would have interpreted my experiences, would have been different. Had I not had my first experiences during the “Jesus People Movement” in Southern California in the mid-1970s then the direction of my life might have been entirely different. Instead of being a Religious Studies major at Loyola Marymount and then getting a BA in Biblical Studies at Biola University, I might have joined a monastery in Europe or Asia or entered into training to become a Mullah or Rabbi in the Middle East. I wonder, if I had taken those other paths, would those traditions have allowed me to examine their early tribal heritage and eventually find fault with systems of interpretation that don’t hold up to modern scrutiny. I guess I’ll never know. But what I do know is that, experiences not withstanding, I cannot faithfully recite any of the creeds I’ve known without massive mental re-editing. So it would seem that once I moved from “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” to interpretation or human understanding something or perhaps everything got lost in translation.

One of the beauties of Faith is that it tends to wrap all of the difficulties of life into one little package and say that all you have to do is “X” and all of these things will go away. When I was a teenager that was a life-saving moment because nothing made sense and everything I wanted to do was inconsistent with the beliefs I’d been raised with. And then, thirty-years later, when my heart was being completely broken, this divine love seemed to break through and offered me meaning and purpose. Those were difficult, life changing days. But as soon as I went from experience to interpretation it was back to nothing but difficulty, complications and failure. It was as if someone had said to me, “The good news is that Jesus loves you and has a plan for your life, the bad news is that you are still you.” Thanks. So I tussle between my thirst for understanding and rationalism and my experiences of oneness and connection.

Some time ago my brother and his late-wife were socializing with their Episcopalian priest when the priest commented to my brother, something about the difficulty of bridging the gap between modern life and Faith. My brother quipped, isn’t that the sign of greater intelligence and faith, to be able to live with the ambiguity of unanswered questions? My brother has lived a somewhat similar circuitous life of faith and rationalism. I love my brother dearly, and I’m sure that he can balance the ambiguity between the faith we were raised with and the modern contradictions we run into daily, but I’ve already spent 15-years going around saying “I don’t know” when it comes to issues of Faith. More to the point, and perhaps in spirit of his response, maybe the problem is that there are no simple answers. Or maybe there’s only a problem if one insists on a vision of God who plays favorites and orders one tribal community to commit genocide against another tribe, a God who would have a father kill his son to prove his faithfulness, a God who would require the murder of an innocent man to fulfill his need for justice. Or, like Bart Erhman‘s professor at Princeton remarked, maybe the biblical writer(s) got it (all) wrong.

When I heard religious scholar, Karen Armstrong, say in her NPR interview, that it’s a shame in our modern era that our theology is stuck in the dark ages, I had to hear more. During the interview she quipped that Dawkins’ attack on “old man in the sky” notions of God was a bit unfair, in that not all religious people hold to that view of God. But she admits that the discussion needs to be taken to a higher level where the central issues of compassion, connectedness and transcendence are not only emphasized but acted upon. If this former-nun can bring together Jews, Muslims and for god’s sake Anglicans, then maybe there’s still hope for this disenfranchised former-Jesus-freak.

NPR Fresh Air interview of Karen Armstrong Builds A “Case for God”


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