Friday, November 14, 2014

Letting God Out of the Box: Reflections on Frank Schaeffer's New Book, "Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God"

I wanted to write a formal “review” of this book, but initially couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “Fabulous book!  Everybody should read it.”  On second thought, while I absolutely love the book, I predict that most atheists and Christians will probably hate it, and I’m not here to try to convince anybody.  The book is not a theological treatise and presents neither an argument nor an apology.  Rather, it is a personal, candid and heartfelt discussion of the author’s journey of faith, seeking to “give love, create beauty and find peace” in the face of limiting and dehumanizing dogmas.  The intimate writing style, as if we were sitting and having a conversation with the author, invites honest reflection on our own journey, and in response to that invitation, the words came pouring out!  So, I hope you will indulge me, before I return to reviewing the book.  While I am no longer an atheist and God is not per se a “belief” for me, I can very much relate to what Mr. Schaeffer has written.

I became an atheist around age 11 or 12 as a result of having attended evangelical private schools which completely turned me off to Christ.  From my perspective today, being totally in Love, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could manage to make Jesus unappealing, but they did.  In addition, I was a big fan of science from a very early age, thanks in large part to the t.v. show “Star Trek,” which I began watching with my father when I was just a toddler.  I had already concluded that the religious world-view was at odds with a factual explanation of how the universe works.  Now, I could have lived with that, if religion as it was presented had been attractive for any other reason, which it was not. 

My childhood understanding of “Christianity” could essentially be summarized as: “Everything that is fun is bad,” and God was a mean old man on His throne up in the sky, ready to send us to hell for the slightest infraction, even though He had already allowed His own son to be tortured to death on our behalf to somehow appease His righteous wrath over the predictable sins of creatures whom He had endowed with free will.  It seemed to me that, being omniscient, He should have known what would happen. Moreover, He would send starving people in Africa to hell merely for not believing in Jesus, Whom they had never heard of, and it was our parents’ fault for not giving more money to the church’s missionary projects, and by implication, our fault for not nagging them sufficiently to do so.  I had other theological doubts, but the last straw was when they told us that rock music was from the devil, which I knew in my heart of hearts could not possibly be true.  So, I threw out the Babe with the bathwater, but I felt like Something was missing.  I began to study Zen and yoga.

My atheism continued until my first year of college in Florida, when I ate magic mushrooms which grew at cow farms near my school in the springtime.  That experience of infinite Love, Being, Consciousness and Bliss demonstrated Something beyond a shadow of a doubt.  As an atheist I was inclined to believe that It was a phenomenon created by my own brain, but it must have been a part of the brain that was previously inaccessible to me.  It was Beauty and Perfection completely beyond anything that I could ever dream or imagine despite my best efforts.  People commonly called this “seeing God,” but I was reluctant to call It “God” because It bore no resemblance to the angry old man in the sky.  One of my companions, when asked if he had seen God, replied, “No, but I saw where He lives!”  Thereafter, I was motivated to study yoga/ meditation more seriously and in greater depth, and my practice really began to bear fruit.

While pursuing my degree in Philosophy, I studied theology and comparative religions and hung out with people of different faiths, including Buddhists, Sufis and Hindus.  I began to realize that my childhood fundamentalist education had been quite limiting, and maybe God really wasn’t so bad after all.  My Hare Krishna friends presented God as friendly, fun, beautiful and cool.  Like Christianity, the Hindu religion also imposed a fairly strict moral code which, if violated, could send you to a bad reincarnation for many offenses including illicit sex (anything outside of marriage, and contraception within marriage!), drinking alcohol, or eating meat.  Nevertheless, their positive input inspired me to again consider the possibility of a Personal God.

Years later in southern California I rediscovered Jesus thanks to Jon, (ironically!) a rock musician, one of the coolest people I’d ever met.  I was surprised to learn he was quietly a mystical Christian, and he also practiced meditation.  Through Jon I met some loudly Christian metal musicians and began attending Calvary Chapel, mostly because a lot of my friends went there.  The music was great and it seemed pretty hip, although I soon learned that in reality their doctrine was rather fundie.   Among other things, apparently gay people were going to hell and while rock music was not, after all, satanic, yoga was and I needed to immediately stop doing it lest demons take over my body.

Shortly after my conversion, I ran into an old childhood friend Pete who, it turns out, had been a Christian all along but I never suspected it, because he smoked pot and listened to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.  We were discussing my newfound faith and he asked, “So – do you believe the Bible is the literal Word of God?”  “Yes!” I said, as per my indoctrination.  Pete smiled, raised one eyebrow, and asked, “And you’ve actually read it?”  “Yes.”  I had, indeed, been forced to read it quite thoroughly and to memorize parts of it, as a child.  “Ok,” he said, “then what do you do when scripture says something that you just know in your heart, cannot possibly be right?  Do you blindly believe it, or do you use the mind that God gave you?”  “Is this a trick question?!” I wondered, because as far as I knew, we really didn't have a choice.

Encouraged again to trust my heart over propaganda, I kept doing kriya yoga and meditation, where with increasing consistency I encountered that Love, Bliss, Beauty and awesome unity that the humble fungi had revealed to me many years before.  Having given it much prayer and after visiting a variety of churches, eventually I found myself quite at home in the Episcopal Church due to its Liturgy and sacraments, “all the pageantry, none of the guilt,” a strong tradition of spiritual practices, ecumenism and support of vocations, and so comfortable with paradox, ambiguity and diversity even to have a couple of atheist priests among its clergy.  I enjoyed a beautiful, wonderful, ecstatic relationship with God for many years thereafter.

I tried being an atheist again in 2010 when I was mad at God.  He had allowed my mother, a saintly woman with pure childlike faith who never doubted, “Whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive,” to die a horribly painful, slow, agonizing death involving loss of limbs, sanity and dignity, which dragged out for years despite her own prayers and those of myself, my sisters in the convent, and all our faithful friends and family.   When He didn’t heal Mom and her condition worsened, we prayed for a quick, merciful death, and that didn’t happen, either.  So I decided, clearly this God thing was all a lie, a fantasy. 

I told myself that we were, after all, just clothed monkeys with guns, who threw verbal feces at each other; monkeys who made art and music for no purpose whatsoever, and bombs to blow each other to smithereens, breeding mindlessly and without restraint, to the point that we were depleting our finite resources, destroying our habitat and drowning in our own waste.  We were really just walking, breathing bags of skin containing chemicals, like biological batteries which can recharge to a limited extent by taking in nutrients until entropy finally catches up, the bag starts to leak, the chemical reactions cease and we’re gone.  Unlike batteries, these bags of chemicals were seemingly conscious and capable of reproduction, but to what end – to bring more bags of conscious chemicals into a universe with no God, no Love, no Beauty, no meaning, only eternal darkness and despair?

I tried, but it didn’t work.  It was just too awkward, like when you’re mad at somebody and trying to ignore them, but you keep running into them at the grocery store.  It was no longer a matter of “belief” for me, because I didn’t so much “believe” in God, as I experienced God.  No matter what else might be happening in the external world, when I did my yoga, I experienced that incredible Love, Being, Consciousness, Bliss that had become more Real to me than anything.  Now, when I was mad at Him about Mom, I just avoided doing my spiritual practice for a while, but that couldn’t last.  It was like cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Anyway, God would sneak in when I looked at the moon and stars, or listened to Om roaring in my ear as I surfed in the tube of a wave, or felt the kiss of the sun on my cheek.  I don’t know why He let Mom suffer so, but in our Episcopal mythology of the Incarnation, He suffers with us.

In my darker moods, especially now that I am perimenopausal, I do sometimes flirt with nihilism, but it’s become more difficult.  The yoga I started in 1976 made big promises, and in 2011 it finally delivered.   A few minutes after I began doing Heart of Yoga, a seemingly minor refinement of the breathing technique that I had just learned from Mark Whitwell, my entire reality changed.  The Love, unity and clarity that I had first glimpsed with the help of the fungi, and subsequently experienced with increasing consistency during my daily meditations over the years, suddenly burst forth and took over my everyday consciousness.  This is what yoga is supposed to do, but I was nonetheless surprised when it happened.  Since then I have experienced the Presence of God essentially all the time, closer than my own heartbeat, and Love pouring through me.

Maybe it is just “all in my head,” a new trick my brain learned from an improbable symbiosis between fungi, cows and humans, reinforced by years of practice.  It makes no difference.  Whether God is “real,” or whether we are just pitiful monkeys who, in between flinging feces at each other, make up stories to console ourselves in the face of a dark, empty and meaningless universe, either way, what else is left, but to be that Love in the world?!  I teach people yoga to allow them to experience for themselves the gospel that God is Love, and I join my voice with others in the hope of making the world a better, more humane place before the darkness swallows us all up.  And this brings us back to Frank Schaeffer’s delightful book.   

This book resonated with me on many levels, although I am no longer an atheist and I find the word “believe” problematic.  It is probably a “niche” book, but perhaps a niche whose population is growing as more and more people begin to question their childhood faith and search for deeper meaning.  If you love Jesus but hate religion; if you believe in a God Who is bigger than the Bible; if you are confused about the difference between science and religion and/or you’ve been told you must choose between them, this book is for you! 

Be honest, my Christian friends:  Do you ever feel embarrassed for the God of the Old Testament?  What do you do with the “unpleasant” bits of scripture, like (just to mention a few), the several occasions where God tells his people to kill their neighbors, including pregnant women and little babies, but keep the virgin girls as booty?  Or the incident when God sent bears to maul 42 children for making fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head?  Likewise, perhaps you find dubious the doctrine of hell, whereby God would condemn mortal beings to eternal torment even for merely having incorrect beliefs.  On a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” Bart and Lisa use an iRunes app to open a portal into a school in hell, where they see a young man writing something over and over on the blackboard; Bart asks, “Hey, pal, what are you in here for?”  “The heresy of Docetism, the belief that Jesus' body was just an illusion.” 

Frank poses the question, “Can you imagine me consigning Lucy [his granddaughter] to oblivion because she had wrong ideas about me?  Can you imagine me burning her forever because she didn’t believe in me, forgot my name, called me the wrong name, thought I had six arms… or brought me fruit when I asked for a lamb?... I am not a good man and yet can you imagine anything that would cut [his grandchildren] off from my love?” 

Faced with such issues, we have a choice.  We can do mental contortions in attempt to invent clever explanations and apologies for God, as Frank’s evangelist mother did in the previous book (Sex, Mom and God), but the results are unlikely to be satisfactory.  Alternatively, we can let go of dogma and trust God to be God.  Let God out of the box!  As we are told in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."

Some of my other progressive Christian friends try to modify the religion to be more in line with scientific and historical “reality,” which involves eliminating doctrines about miracles, the virgin birth, the Trinity, even throwing out the entire book of John (my favorite gospel!), and/or re-defining the “historical Jesus” as a mere man, which IMO is kind of like neutering the lion.   Mr. Schaeffer takes a different approach.  He is not very concerned about doctrines per se.  Rather, he comes from the Orthodox apophatic tradition, which says that God is beyond doctrine and cannot be defined by the intellect, but only experienced.

The title of the book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God” is, as my husband and many other people have pointed out, contradictory per the definition of “atheist.”  From the apophatic standpoint, “believes” could perhaps better be replaced by “experiences,” but I am sure the author was very aware of the contradiction and purposely chose the ironic and thought-provoking title.  Frank is an “atheist” in the sense that he believes in the scientific explanation of the material universe which, I think it is safe to say, most educated people do.  As I have explained previously in my blog, there is no contradiction once we understand that science and religion are two separate spheres or dimensions of human existence which serve completely different functions.  This brings us to the central premise of the book, which is that we humans are multidimensional creatures who experience reality on different levels. 

One of my very educated and intelligent friends told me, “Religion is silly!  I choose science.”  But, the question is, “Choose it for what?”  The purpose of science is to objectively explain the nature and workings of the physical universe, which it does quite well, as far as it goes.  Now, my friend would say, “Science fully describes reality, because the physical universe is all there is!”  The problem with this assertion, of course, is that any such statements about Ultimate Reality are necessarily metaphysical in nature and therefore can neither be confirmed nor denied by physical science.  It would be a circular argument akin to the fundie dogma, “The Bible is the only and complete word of God.  How do we know?  Because the Bible says so!”   

In any case, the purely physical approach is inadequate to express the entirety of our human experience.  For example, according to science, “love” is simply evolution using your hormones to trick you into breeding, passing on your DNA and caring for your offspring so that they, too, can pass on their DNA.  The magical feeling you share with your spouse that makes you believe he or she is the most beautiful, wonderful person on earth can be objectively explained by chemicals in your brain; however, it can only be enjoyed subjectively.  Love, like Beauty, belongs to another dimension of human existence:  the subjective realm of art, music, poetry, mythology and religion, the purpose of which is not explanation, but inspiration.  There are different kinds of “truth.”  It’s not either-or.  To choose science “instead of” religion is like choosing dinner instead of dessert when you could have both; you will certainly survive although you may become bored.  Choosing religion instead of science may seem delicious, but it’s not a balanced diet in terms of your physical health.

When challenged by his atheist friends, “Frank, God’s only in your head!”, he answers, “Yeah, whatever.  What isn’t?”  This is very true because, as Frank points out, ultimately the “physical world” as such is a perceptual construct of the human mind and senses, whereas we know from physics that what we perceive as solid objects actually consist of mostly empty space.  He says towards the end of the book, “My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love.”  I believe that, and it’s the same Love that holds the universe together, which I experience in the center of my being.

So, we are multidimensional creatures and in at least one of those dimensions, we can experience God.  Religion is merely the sociocultural context which frames that personal experience.   Being freed from dogma, what happens to our faith?   It is a huge relief to realize that God does not need to be defined, defended or explained.  We can enjoy religious mythology when we stop trying to pretend it is something that it isn’t.  If there is a God, He cannot be confined to the man-made box that is religion.     

Frank makes the case that following Jesus is not about believing certain doctrines, but rather, how does our experience of the sacred affect our life?   It should move us to express divine Love through our actions.  He discusses at some length the humanism of Jesus, and even suggests that the Enlightenment was a Christian heresy, the results of which can be seen in “godless” countries like Denmark today where most of the population is atheist, and yet their social policies are more consistent with Jesus’ teachings than our own “Christian” nation.   They take care of their widows and orphans, provide universal healthcare and education, and enforce laws preventing the powerful from preying on the weak.  On a personal level, letting God out of the box has made our faith stronger, our joy deeper, enabling us to give love and create beauty, and in so doing, to find peace.

2 comments:

  1. Jamie, I can really relate, and I really appreciate this blog post. There is so much I wanted to say and outlined, but I lost it becoming homeless again. May god be with you all of your days (and nights)!
    Tom C.

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    1. Thank you SO much, Thomas! I really appreciate your feedback. May God be with you and bless you always.

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