Friday, September 21, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Symbolic Disguisings of the Truth

In May 2003, I defended my Masters Thesis in physics.  The subject matter of that thesis was one I had worked on during the previous two years.  It was something that I researched and thought about every day during that time, so I was fully prepared on the day of my defense.  I had become fully acclimated to the rigors of the scientific method, and the procedure by which scientists hope to inch forward, ever so slightly, in their pursuit of knowledge and truth.  I was very privileged to be the tiniest part of that process.  I was but a mere blip on the radar, and I was honored to be in the shadow of my professors and collaborators, who were most brilliant men and women I had ever met.  I had changed immensely since I had first enrolled at NMT as a 31 years old freshman in 1995.  I had taken the first steps toward becoming critical in my thinking, and understanding the importance of methodology.  I was immersed in the world of scientific inquiry and investigation, and the naïve religious beliefs of my youth seemed a million miles away.

No I was not an atheist.  I still considered myself a Christian.  I still believed.  In something.  What exactly I believed in during that time was a little vague, ill-defined, and evolving over the course of time.  I would not say that it was syncretistic.  I was not trying to combine all religious beliefs into a single true one.  I did not think that all gods were the same.   The only religious tradition that made any sense to me was the one that I was raised in, and the one I converted to in Calvary Chapel.  I believed in Jesus, of course.  And of course he died on the Cross as an atonement for our sins.  Yes, of course, he died on that cross and rose again three days later.  He was the All-Mighty after all.  But my old beliefs about an His literal ascension into Heaven – well, I knew far too much astrophysics and astronomy at this point to know that this post-mortem destination of Jesus could not be taken literally.  The disciples of Jesus are said to have watched Jesus float off of the ground and rise into Heaven.  The disciples peered into the sky to watch Him disappear into the clouds.  The person who wrote those Biblical scenes some 2000 years ago obviously thought that the abode of Jesus was in a place located in the sky beyond the clouds.  But I knew what was up there.  My research work and thesis was in astrophysics.  I had done work at the VLA radio telescope observatory, and had spent many evenings in the Etscorn Campus observatory just for fun.  I understood, better than any of the ancient Gospel authors, what actually comprised the heavens.  So where exactly did Jesus go when he lifted off the earth?  What was his real destination?  Somewhere in the cosmos?  Was he blasting through outer space until He reached his Heavenly Throne?  If not, where did He go exactly?  This small part of the Gospels, like so many other small parts of the Bible and of my Faith, retreated into the world of metaphor and myth.  Quite what these stories meant, I did not exactly know.  All I knew was that stories like this could not be taken as literal truth.  They were true, in some non-literal sense.  But again, I did not know what non-literal sense I could make of these things I knew to be still somehow true.

All I knew was that the Christianity in the literal and exclusive form that I believed in Calvary Chapel was wrong.  It was simplistic and willfully ignorant of too much science and heretical Worldly Wisdom.  The world was vastly more enormous and complicated than the Biblical writers could ever have imagined.  But at the time, I did not dwell on these problems too much.  I had other priorities in mind – like working on my Masters thesis, research and teaching freshman classes.

My way of reconciling myth and metaphor in my religious beliefs, and what I knew of physical reality came one evening when visiting a friend.  He introduced me to a VHS tape the he had on a shelf.  “You never heard of Joseph Campbell?  Oh, you would absolutely love him.  A whole new view of the world.  He has some very interesting ideas.  Why don’t we watch some if it!”  Yes, this is the kind of thing we did for entertainment in the tiny farm and university town of Socorro, New Mexico.  So I watched a bit of Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, on the Power of Myth.  This was the first time I can remember hearing somebody compare, even equate stories from the Christian Bible with pagan mythology.  Campbell spoke endlessly on the mythology of the hero, and how the same hero-themes occur again and again in our mythologies.  These myths, I later learned, are the chain of literature and imagination that can be linked back to antiquity and beyond our earliest rememberings.  These themes bridge cultures and time, and somehow strike a nerve in all of us.  They are the same themes that occur often in literature – because they are the same themes that ultimately make a good story.  Campbell paid particular attention to the hero-themes in a story like Star Wars, and why we seem to resonate with these stories so well.  But these themes are also present in our mythologies and our religions.  They are even present in our Biblical mythologies and traditions.

Joseph Campbell was my introduction to comparative mythology.  This captured my imagination, but I dared not extend that too far into comparative mythology and religion.  Campbell did dare to do this, and I had never heard such potentially dangerous ideas before.  But I was not too shocked.  I had learned by this time in my life to not be so thin-skinned and ready to be persecuted as I was as a Fundamentalist.  In fact, it was somehow comforting.  By this time, I was fully aware that much of the Bible could not be taken literally as I had once thought.  I was at a loss as to how to reconcile my evolving Christian beliefs with obviously non-literal Bible stories like Adam and Eve.  But somehow, Joseph Campbell and his comparative mythology allowed me to admit that Adam and Eve was just mythology – but mythology with common themes like God’s love and justice, humanity’s faithlessness, pride, and foolish propensity to be deceived.  God could inspire the Bible, and use myth in His inspiration.  Myth was the way God could communicate these ideas of love, justice and redemption in a way that transcended all cultures.  Since myth contained elements and themes that were ubiquitous in stories and ideas, people could readily understand what was in the Bible as myth, but with deeper meaning.  Myth at its best, I came to believe, was just “symbolic disguisings of the truth”.

With this new rationale, I was able to admit that the Bible did indeed contain myth, but it was no less inspired by the Divine.  Some parts of the Bible, particularly the fantastic parts in Genesis, could finally be reconciled with my scientific knowledge.  And as long as I did not travel too far down the trail of comparative mythology, as long as I did not take comparative mythology to some of its ultimate conclusions, I felt confident that my Christian beliefs, although evolving, were still ultimately true.

I had never met a non-believer before I attended University, but I thought I knew a little bit about them.  I had been told by Pastor Skip that atheists lived meaningless and empty lives.  They were miserable people because they believed in absolutely nothing.  Skip told us from that pulpit that atheists should just end their misery, and by following their own rules of logic, should just go and kill themselves.  I had never met a real atheist before, so it was easy to demonize these godless people.  But after befriending one atheist, then another, and then several more, I had to admit that their lives seemed anything but hopeless and empty.  There was that cultural divide again.  Most of my friends were foreign students from places like Germany, China, Romania and Croatia.  When I found out that some of them were in fact non-believers, it was not because they advertised it.  It just slipped out, like when I asked one of them about her belief in the afterlife. 

“Heaven? Hell?  That is superstition.  When I die, I will die.  That’s it.” 

Yet they all seemed somehow normal.  I thought they were mistaken, and that surely our spirit would live on through eternity.  But they were not the raging, hateful maniacs that Pastor Skip told me they would be.  They were not miserable and hopeless; at least they did not seem to be.  Pastor Skip would often say that people without Jesus often seemed to be happy, but that was just a mask for public display.  We do not know their real spirits and true intentions, and deep inside they are all desperately lost, and seeking for God to fill the aching hole in their hearts.  Pastor Skip constantly warned us about the hypocrisy of non-believers, but I grew tired of imagining that behind closed doors my non-Christian friends were actually depressed, lost and miserable people, and I grew tired of imagining that I knew their hidden but true state of conscious hopelessness.  Pastor Skip confessed that we did not know their secret thoughts, but he went on to tell us what they were!  According to him, not only all Christians, but only Christians, had fulfilled and purposeful lives, but I came to understand that this simply was just not true.  I had been as fervent a Christian as I could be, yet I had to leave such exclusive beliefs behind for my own sanity.  At the same time, these non-Christians from all across the globe were certainly not so miserable that they would be better off committing suicide.  How dare Skip Heitzig!!  He had no business to tell these fine friends of mine or anybody else to go and kill themselves!  What in the world is wrong with Pastor Skip?

The further I got from Calvary Chapel, the more I discovered, little by little, that nearly everything Pastor Skip told me was false.  Just wrong.  Of course he did not lie. I thought, he was just ignorant of the facts.  All his thoughts were just tainted with his own religious paradigm that he could not think outside of.  He was still, underneath, an upstanding and moral man.  But at the same time I could understand why many Christians were reluctant to send their children to a public university only to be exposed to subversive ideas, cross-cultural pollination, and contrary views.  It could do nothing but puncture insulated and untainted naiveté.  Knowledge was dangerous, just like it was symbolized in the myth of Adam, Eve, and the tempting, powerful and corrupting fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

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unkleE said...

It is interesting, HiS, that the beliefs you describe here are pretty close to my own, which have lasted for several decades now.

I wonder why you didn't stop there, but I did?

I think part of the explanation must be the influences in our earlier lives as christians. You had Pastor Skip, whereas my main influence as a young christian was CS Lewis. There would be big differences between these two!

CS Lewis was a scholar of history, language and literature. He thought Genesis was myth - though a divinely inspired myth - and he thought the mythical element slowly crystalised into historic fact through the Old Testament. I saw nothing unbelievable or difficult about that.

But even in the NT, we have to be careful. For example, the ascension of Jesus. CS Lewis said, what was God going to do?

Just have Jesus disappear without anyone seeing him go? That would be very confusing!
Have him disappear instantly in front of their eyes? That would be scary.
Have him ride off into the sunset? That would send a message that he was somewhere else on earth.
Have him drop into the ground? What message would that send?

No, the only way to get across what his followers needed to know was to have him rise into the air and disappear - then they would know he had returned to his father.

Of course they believed at that time that heaven was 'up there', and we know now it's not, it must be in some other dimension entirely. But that doesn't matter. CS Lewis also said that once christianity interacted with the philosophy of the time, they were quite able to see that heaven wasn't literally up there, but until then, this was the best way.

So I believe he did go up literally, but that was for their benefit, not because he was going into outer space.

Thanks again for sharing your journey.

HeIsSailing said...

unkleE, had I been allowed to believe that myths were contained in the Bible, who knows where I would be today? The tension caused by the things Christianity was forcing me to believe caused me to snap. But I only snapped by leaving Calvary Chapel. That is not what finally made me leave Christianity.

Your view of the ascension was exactly how I would have stated it as a more enlightened Christian in college. Jesus was just meeting his followers where they were. But these rationalizations can seem pretty arbitrary. Take this bit:

Have him disappear instantly in front of their eyes? That would be scary.

Any more scary then flying up into the clouds? Witnessing a transfiguration? Walking on water? Seeing a dead man walk? How does CS Lewis know what the witnesses of the miraculous and fantastic would have found more or less scary? And why does that even matter?