Believing

I should really be working on Anatomy homework, but I've had this blog post burning a hole in my keyboard for about a week, and I just have to get it out so I can move on to other things.

In response to my recent post on becoming a religious free radical, I received a long personal response from an erudite and articulate friend, James Rosenzweig, which hit multiple nails on the head about what's really behind my ongoing dissatisfaction with religion. I've asked him if I can use his thought publicly, and he's graciously agreed. His email reads something like a spiritual classic, and the general thrust is that my real issue with religion is that I ask it to do things that it can't. My favorite excerpt reads:

"The reason religion feels hollow to you, in my opinion, is because you reject many claims about God and God's presence in the world...Because if prayer cannot connect me to something real outside of myself, if worship is not an expression of relationship to something larger than myself, if love is not an echo of something surrounding myself, then the rest of what church tries to do will obviously be inadequate. Since its art, its community, its attempts to do good service in the world, proceed primarily from the conviction that, above all else, what matters most in life is a connection to that person we encounter when we engage in our religion. We don't believe because it helps us write a better symphony, or help the poor more effectively. We write better symphonies and are swifter to aid the poor (when we do) because of what belief does in us."


Phew. Brilliant - I really can't imagine a better summary of the heart of religious practice. And James is right, whatever my other critiques, the core reason that I've ultimately ended up drifting out of my religion is that I don't believe in many of it's most central about God. This actually has been a complicated process, and I want to run down a quick timeline of the direction of my development around religious beliefs:

1) At 16 - 17, and on through age 21, accepted the Truth of my childhood religion, where my central beliefs were a) that faith in Jesus is the only thing that saves us from our sin and gets us to heaven, and b) that the Bible is God's Word to humanity, and is fully and absolutely True.

2) 21 - 22, Persuaded by scientific books (most importantly Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" and David Quammen's "The Song of the Dodo") that biological evolution occurred, and concurrently realized that my interpretation of the nature of Scripture's "Truth" was incorrect. Began to question the Bible as God's Word.

3) 22 - 23, Came to think of Scripture as more complex than I'd initially realized, but somewhat reliable in terms of truth content. Thought of Christianity, and Jesus' role and connection to God, as trustworthy ideas based on thousands of years of historical witness, eyewitness testimony, and my own powerful religious experiences as a teen.

4) 23 - 24, Came to think of Christianity as valuable, not b/c it possessed a holy book that contained Truth and answers to life, but b/c it contained a beautiful and real vision of God as loving, forgiving, holy, gracious, present, etc.

5) 24 - 25, Came to see Christianity as one tradition among others that teach us about a Holy God - Jesus' role was beginning to take a back seat, and my sense of need for salvation from eternal damnation slipped away into doubt and agnosticism. The idea of the Holy Spirit and God's presence with us became more central to my faith.

6) 25 - 26, Began to see Christian belief systems as a part of a larger religious dialog, less unique, and slightly less in touch with my own beliefs about God.

7) 26 - 28, Began to feel more and more agnostic about claims about God, and began to doubt the reliability of my own experiences and historical testimony about experiences of God.

8) 29 - 30, Began to think of Religion from more artistic, sociological and psychological perspective - interesting, beautiful, and valuable for many people. Began to think of myself as primarily an agnostic - first a "Christian agnostic" who practiced my religion for its value outside of belief, then as a normal agnostic who decided to stop practicing religion because I'm just not feeling it anymore.

I should point out that this has been a hugely gradual drift - I never read one damning book or realized one crucial point that changed everything, and I can't even pinpoint the time when most of my major belief shifts happened - it's just that over time my ideas have changed, and what I believe is now very different (and much less defined) than what I used to.

Along the way, the greater the difference between my current beliefs and my beliefs during my early years of faith, in general the less satisfied I've been with my experience of religious ritual and the church in general. And now, while I definitely don't think of myself as a hardened athiest (I still like to hope for a God, and Meaning, and all those things), I also definitely feel a need to disassociate from Christianity - in part b/c it's misleading to others to identify myself as a Christian, and in part because my ideas about God (or, maybe, lack thereof) simply don't fit well into the traditional Christian structure - as James said, Christian prayers don't seem to connect me to what I think there is (if anything) to connect with and Christian worship doesn't feel like worshiping the correct God (if there is one). There's a big emotional component to all of this, but it also relates back to cognitive beliefs - what I (don't) believe makes me feel out of place in church.

There are a lot of people who stick around with religion for reasons other than belief - I did it myself for quite a long time, and I've got no problem with the idea that religion has value beyond and outside of belief. But for me it hasn't been sustainable in the long term. There was just no fire in the equations, so to speak.

My goal now, I think, is to figure out what living religiously means in my new context, without a religion, and that's the most likely theme that I'll be exploring here for awhile.

In the meantime, there are a couple more posts here that I really want to get to in the next few weeks - I want to write something on my religious community in all of this, and I want to write about my role as a minister and this religious shift, because it's a huge deal, and I know that some of my readers are people who I've had pastoral responsibility over in the past.

But now I really have to get to my anatomy homework.

Comments

Josh Hosler said…
Wow, Tim! Your timeline is beautiful, and it shows just how seriously you take your faith journey. Obviously the journey ain't over yet, and you'll have more to add. But thank you for sharing this.
Tim Mathis said…
Thanks Josh - definitely ain't over. Religion has been so central to my life to this point - this stage in my life is really about figuring out an organization that works - that makes sense from a theological perspective, but that also works from a personal and relationship perspective. I'm not sure what it will look like, but I don't want to lose the perspective that faith and religious practice have provided me.

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