Long Reads

Autophagy #2: My Agnostic Christianity

On questions we don't want to ask and answers we don't want to hear.

This post is the second in my Autophagy series. Click here to read the first.

In this post I attempt to explain what I mean by “My Christianity”, and furthermore, what I mean by “Agnostic Christian”. I structured my text in sections: Why Should You Care?, Why My Christianity?, Why am I religious? Why am I a Christian? Agnostic Christianity, Mysticism vs Unspiritual Religion, More on Agnosticism, and How should I live? The Law of Love.

Why Should You Care?

A good friend of mine asked me, “Lucas, I don’t understand why you went to study theology at McGill, and Concordia. Why didn’t you go to a seminary?“. I told him I don’t like echo-chambers, to surround myself with people who already agree with me. I believe Truth should stand all questions, or else it cannot be true. Maybe I’m just too curious. I think that is why I have been a bit all over the place in my Christian walk: Pentecostal, Baptist, Reformed Baptist, independent churches. I believe my favorite church gathering in Montreal is Presbyterian, but the church I currently attend (every so often) is Anglican. Some of my favorite professors are Catholic, some of my favorite Christian writers were Russian Orthodox, and I draw great inspiration from Origen of Alexandria, an early Church Father who was condemned as a heretic three centuries after his death, for having dared to think and wonder too far. This pilgrimage, of sorts, has been trying: I feel that when I started by beliefs were a large rock I could stand on, a great mountain of answers to everything. With the fires of questionings, doubts, learning, deconstruction, disappointment, and an open mind, that large mountain has been reduced to a small stone. A precious stone.

Being all over the place can be rather lonely. Much of what church gives you is a sense of community and belonging, which is hard to maintain when you question everything. Most people want to settle down, stick to their answers, go home and watch football. It wouldn’t be a problem if their convictions didn’t matter, but here’s the thing: religion matters. What you believe about the universe, your self, humanity, morality, redemption, the meaning of life, death, and all of these questions religion addresses, has direct impact in how you choose to live. On what you think of yourself. On what you think of other people. When you believe you are absolutely right because God once wrote a book that agrees with you, it’s very hard to convince you otherwise. It is dangerous. When you think these questions don’t matter too much and you will just follow the way you were raised, or whatever your pastor or priest tells you, it is also dangerous: you become an easy subject to control. Of course, it is also unwise to throw the baby out of the water, and choose not to think of these questions at all, in a simplistic materialism as if spirituality and religion are a collective delusion. It’s too much arrogance and misinformation to say all religions are the same, all belief is the same, and that the whole thing is dumb. You are responsible for your mind, and I believe that if your answer to these questions can be reduced to one catch phrase like “I believe the bible” or “I believe in science”, you haven’t considered the questions fairly. 

Why “My” Christianity?

Dictionaries call Christianity “the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth“, and I am comfortable with this definition. The thing is, what did Jesus teach? That’s where the problem lies. We can investigate it historically, which gives us a space to discuss this objectively, with, for example, good exegesis of the gospel texts corroborated with other sources. Yet the historical method has its limits. I own my religion and call it “mine” because I acknowledge there are countless groups that also call themselves Christian and with whom I disagree on several points. Some I would call Christian. In others I see only nationalism and prejudice dressed in Jesus lingo. Still I want to be humble and be clear that my understandings are educated best guesses. I wish I had met the man Jesus. I find myself with a feeling that somehow I know him. Or maybe it’s something else, which I call Jesus. What I am trying to do in this text is share where I stand today. Tomorrow it may change, but as I look towards Jesus with all my biases and experiences, I want to welcome you to look at him with me, and to share in my questions. As I look back to myself and I share what I see, I welcome you to look at yourself, too. I will write what I think, and I welcome you, reader, to reflect on your own beliefs.

Judge me if you may, but judge yourself with the same measure.

Why am I religious?

Short answer: I was raised as a Christian. I questioned it when I became older, and the Jesus thing seemed logical and true enough to keep on believing, but I want to be careful with anything beyond that.

Long answer: I believe there is a Divine. Something out-there, or inside-here, that makes our experience of life something sacred. I believe everyone can have access to it, if they tune in just right, in humility, gratitude, and love. My experience is that most people don’t experience it: all they have is a code of ethics accompanied by a mythology and a few superstitions handed down from their parents. They call it religion. Throughout history, a few people have been specially in tune with the Divine. These people, mystics, felt connected to transcendent aspects of reality, and they understood a few principles like All is One, that death is an illusion, the self-destructive nature of evil, the need for reconciliation, and the transcending power of love. They tried to communicate these concepts which escaped their own minds, using teachings, limited by their own culture and time. Sadly their followers, albeit full of admiration, did not all share in these experiences themselves. All they had were the communicated stories, teachings and sayings which, transcending ordinary experience, could not be understood to their full. In their attempt to propagate these teachings and stories, the followers ended up making it a rigid code of law, a doctrine, and institutions of authority.

In a way, that’s how I see the Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, and every great prophet that became a founder to a religion or wrote a sacred book. For example, Jesus revolutionizes the teaching of the Kingdom of God passed down from the prophets, proclaiming it is here, calling against institutions of oppression of his time, reminding people that being on God’s side is a matter of love, that possessions and human institutions (such as family) are temporary and less important than the Kingdom. He tells his disciples they are one with each other if they love each other the way he loves them, and that way, they are also one with God, just like he is one with God. He teaches them to love their enemies and bless those who persecute them. Then, 400 years later, his followers have turned his revolution into a checklist about whether or not you think he’s fully God or just kind of God, and they actively persecute anyone who disagrees with slander and the sword. Jesus revolutionized the thinking of an oppressed people and proclaimed liberation against human power, of which the Roman Empire was a symbol; his followers, somehow, began a new Holy Roman Empire: the same institution in new dressing. From a revolution of the oppressed, the Christian movement began an institution of oppression. Or, the Buddha, who turned the ritualistic Vedic tradition into a philosophy of self-understanding that leads to abandoning suffering, acknowledging the unity of all things by understanding that the self is an illusion, teaching compassion and respect for life, but whose followers, in centuries to come, used government to oppress the people into Buddhism, confusing it with national identity, killing for hegemony.  To this day, despite the calls for peace from the founders, Christians, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on, have all waged war between themselves and against each other. To me this is sufficient proof of a great chasm between the mystical founding of a religion, and its institutional following.

What I want is to discover and experience the things these great mystics attempted to portray. I want the heart of religion, not its ugly institutions and power games. To accomplish that I need to immerse myself, seek the experiences, and learn to read through and beyond the complications and twisting from dogmatic doctrine.

Why am I a Christian?

Even though I am critical, I try to learn, and I respect, all of the traditions above. I want to know more and live more of all of them. I have an Om (ॐ) tattooed on my left arm because the symbol was central to my healing once I realized some wounds I carried from my institutional Christianity. Still, I believe there is something special about Christianity, which still holds me: the historical claims. Christianity makes, from its first creeds, an expressed effort to ground itself on historical evidence, as early as the writings of 1 Corinthians 15. Today it is fairly certain, historically, that in the first century there was a man in Galilee called Jesus, who was crucified, and whose followers claimed he resurrected. The communities of his followers wrote books about him, taught each other his teachings and stories, and did their best to reconcile what they experienced around him – let’s call it the Christ Event – to their already present beliefs about God, gods, humanity, religion, government, prophecy, etc. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I understand that what they wrote was their best way to put it. The accounts say he talked a lot about himself as the key link that can reconcile humanity and God. That he knew he would be executed, and chose to do so, because his death paid for the sins of humanity. That he said his resurrection would prove the truth of his teachings, and then, indeed, actually rose from the dead on the third day, proving himself something beyond human. But what was he, really? He called himself Son of Man, and his followers called him Son of God and Christ. Later followers eventually agreed on definitions such as “Incarnate Logos”, “Second Person of the Trinity”; in 400 years claims about his nature developed to a  hypostatic union of humanity and divinity: 100% divine and 100% human natures. I believe these definitions were the best they could come up with, in their limited time and culture. I say this because I acknowledge that I, myself,  am also limited by time and culture.

I believe what the ancient churches said about Jesus, inasmuch as I understand it was their explanation to things they did not understand. Things I myself do not understand. Whatever happened, this mystery of the Christ-Event, this sacred crucifixion and alleged resurrection, defying the religious and scientific notions of the era, was something much greater than any dogma can express. 

One of my favorite professors, a conservative Anglican, said something that elucidated much of my confusion. He said there are two sides to Christianity: The teachings of Jesus, and the teachings about Jesus.

The first part makes me a Christian. It is mostly grounded in history: We can historically investigate the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We can read what teachings of his were passed down. We can investigate the historical, social, economic, religious and political context in which he said the things he said, and understand the kinds of things he was addressing. Things like loving your neighbor to radical extents, and the subversion of power structures in society. I believe and want to follow these teachings with all my being. I would die for them. They call me to radically oppose war, violence, greed, exploitation, pride, etc. In this aspect, I am a Christian.

Agnostic Christianity

The second part, the teachings about Jesus, are mainly founded in metaphysical ideas: concepts about divinity, humanity, eternity, time, etc. I can understand the reasoning behind them, but my final answer regarding them is “I don’t know”.

See, something crazy happened when that Galilean was crucified, and his followers could only explain by saying he was clearly the Son of God, God incarnate, Lord of All. They claimed that they saw and touched and shared a meal with him after he came back from the dead. Those mind-blowing events pushed pious Jews who were firm believers in monotheism into the sketchy ideas of the Trinity. They explained it the best they could and those explanations developed into dogmas. Christianity’s orthodoxy developed out of debates trying to make sense of experience, and while I believe they really experienced these things, I do not necessarily agree with the orthodox explanations of them. Many of these explanations have served to contradict the teachings of Jesus. The New Testament shows some different perspectives on the affair within 100 years of the events, like the discussion of Jewish vs Gentile Christians, and bishops discussed it and agreed on doctrines about it 300 hundred years later, and continue to debate until today. But, although they said they reached consensus, the truth is they excommunicated and persecuted anyone who would disagree. For that reason I have very little reason to find them reliable sources. Jesus said to only trust those who care about unity, and Paul warned us against the letter that brings death, that we should focus on the spirit that gives life. It is respect for the historical sayings of Jesus that makes me question church authority.

Much of Christian Theology is a development of neo-platonist thinkers trying to make sense of the Christ Event, and this synthesis of Greek and Jewish thought became a new perspective through which they criticized their original neo-platonism. Myself, I am not a neo-platonist, therefore, I need to, and choose to, re-think the Christ Event. Here’s what that means if you’re not a philosophy nerd: Most of Christian theology is built on concepts such as essence and substance, and on naturalistic claims from a pre-scientific era, which, if you don’t hold to, becomes hard to hold together. I do not understand these concepts as objective things. To me an essence is merely a psychological category of the brain, a conventional abstraction that cannot hold dogmatic value. I will explain what I mean by this on the next post, about my existentialism.

Practically speaking, I “play along” with the Christian language found in the dogmas, of trinity, of substance, of sacrament, and of nature, but I see it as merely a language game, and I believe that agreeing on these points is something far too removed from the experience of Divine Love for it to matter. While most Christians believe agreeing on this will determine your eternal salvation, I find these debates to be, instead, an obstacle to love.

Thus, I lost my belief in much of orthodox Christian theology. I relate more to the metaphysical claims in Advaita Vedanta, the mysterious ineffability of Taoism, and the silence of Eastern Christian Mysticism, than anything Aquinas ever wrote.

However, the Christ-event remains at the heart of my spiritual language. In my own experiences with the sacred, Christianity is the language of my heart. Thus, I express my spiritual experiences and moral choices through, mostly, Christian terms. In my existential quest of reconciliation with the mystery of Being, I call it Father. I have had conversations, listened to songs, and read books that communicate much of the same concepts through Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim terms, but I find myself constantly returning to Christianity. Thus, honestly speaking about myself, I am a Christian. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest. These religions can differ a lot from Christianity, specially when you compare their institutional and dogmatic forms. But at the heart of the spiritual experience of the Divine Mystery in each of them, I find them all trying to talk about the same thing. In different languages, with different symbols. I doubt any of them is completely right, but I find in their origins an invitation to unity and love, even though all of them led to a history of war and strife.

Mysticism vs Unspiritual Religion

Do not say, Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpless, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done.” Fly from that dejection, children! There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and for all things. But throwing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God.”

– Father Zossima, Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov

I understand religion as institutionalized, or structured, spirituality. After having a spiritual encounter, a mystic tries to facilitate for others to have the same encounter. We naturally want to share our experiences, specially when they radically challenge us, but, in the case of the Divine Mystery, most people don’t want to meet it. We are deeply bound by insecurity, fear, and twisted forms of self-love and self-protection, which drive us to shelter ourselves from looking deeply at reality. We are afraid to stare into the abyss, as Nietzsche would put it. We don’t want to deal with the paradox of our cosmic insignificance and our radical responsibility towards the world around us. We don’t want to realize the world sucks because we made it so… not other people, not them, but us, you and I. That is the true meaning of Unity, of All is One: we are all responsible together; a true understanding of human responsibility cannot allow for pointing fingers. We could build heaven, but we choose hell every day. We stare into the piercing gaze of God, or the Void, or the Abyss, the Holy One, Truth, the Universe, the great Mystery, and we see how full of failure, of sin, we are. It is a crushing experience. In order to learn humility and compassion, we need our pride to be crushed. And we don’t want it. We want things to be easy. Our options to escape become to close our eyes and ears and ignore this existential call, busying ourselves away from the silence, or to create a cop out version of God. Give me a religion, a teacher or a book of rules that will tell me what I have to do, who will give me the clear lines I cannot cross, that turns this grey world into black and white, so I can make sure that I am on the right side. Do not ask me to relate, or to care, and to suffer: just give me a checklist. We become obsessed with rules, even difficult rules, to justify ourselves, because that is easier than coming humble.

See the case with Christianity: before his death Jesus shared wine with his disciples and said “This is the blood of the new covenant, do this in memory of me”. Then, for centuries to come, Christians fought each other because they didn’t agree if the wine was trans- or con-substantially Jesus’ blood, or just a symbol. Instead of struggling with the implications of that proclamation, we preferred to debate over the substance of wine and blood, so we could wash our hands from it, as if that is what matters. Again, Paul, the greatest writer in the New Testament, said we would know someone is born of the spirit by observing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in that person’s life. The Christian institution, wanting easy answers, prefers to ask whether or not you’ve been baptized, whether or not you go to church on Sundays, and whether or not you agree with a checklist we call creed.

More on Agnosticism

I am epistemologically agnostic. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that asks “How do I know what I know”?

How do I know anything is true? Today we measure truth mostly by logical consistency: does this make sense? Can we prove it? Yet, much of our reality escapes logic: things like beauty, emotions, and even logic itself. We develop methods to control knowledge, for example, the scientific method: to repeat experiments and then observe the resulting patterns so we can say, for sure, whether something will reliably happen under this or that circumstance. But hard science only applies to material things we can measure. Another is the historical method: By evaluating corroborating historical sources, we can say which hypothesis of history is the one that most probably happened. But an honest historian will admit that the most probable historical hypothesis is still uncertain. The imaginable possibilities escape human measuring, and reality constantly surprises human imagination.

The more we understand about the world around us, and about ourselves, the more we realize how little, if anything, we know for sure. Laziness and self-preservation leads us to hold on to an answer, because nobody can prove otherwise, but honesty and responsibility demands that we struggle with the murky uncertainty.

History, science, and philosophical methods are all part of discussing religion. So is understanding economical, political, social and psychological aspects of human experience. But there is more: For most people religion is really a question of metaphysics: claims about things beyond the physical world. Claims about the very ground of reality, of things that happened before the universe came to be, and things that will happen after the end of history.  I am agnostic in regards to metaphysics. I can understand a theory, but I choose to hold myself from assenting. There is no way to measure these things and verify them. Medieval philosophers thought of “proofs” of the existence of God, but when you read it, you see all they are doing is playing with language, taking our abstractions to be objective facts, which is something modern neuroscience and existential thinking have increasingly demonstrated to be unsure. The process of institutionalization of religion shows to me that spiritual teachings are more important than metaphysical speculation, thus, I am comfortable in that agnosticism. 

Now, it would be lazy for me to simply say “If I cannot measure, it cannot be true“, like the modern scientifist neo-atheist. It is an untold amount of arrogance. Why would anyone ever assume that all of reality must be subject to the human brain? On the other hand, it is also dumb to simply believe things without any evidence.

I believe personal mystic experiences are evidences. I believe people have encountered the Divine, whatever it may be. Yet, I understand we have been unable to fully express, control, or measure these encounters. This, to me, is a crucial point of human experience, the very heart of spirituality: we cannot express, control, or measure everything. There are things greater than us. We are dust.

Thus, I prefer to meet The Mystery I Call God in silence. When I hear the teachings of Jesus, regardless of my metaphysical opinion about him, my heart burns, and I will follow those teachings, and strive to be a little Christ. But, is there actual life after death? I don’t know. What happened at the resurrection? I don’t know. How will the world end? I don’t know. Is there an actual heaven and a hell? I don’t know. What are angels? I don’t know.

How should I live? The Law of Love

So how do I understand the bible and Christian tradition, and how to I apply it to my life? I believe that as people have insights of the Divine, understanding spiritual truths, they need to process that package of information, emotion, feelings and impressions with the tools they have, like anyone else. They need to communicate with words, using language, and language is deeply entrenched in philosophical concepts, in cultural prejudices, in scientific understandings.

When I encounter spiritual teachings and literature, I need to ask myself: how much of it is merely a reproduction of the culture and time, and how much of it transcends it? Every thinker in the world has been bound by their own prejudices, some which include classism, imperialism, colonialism, and misogyny.

Jesus’ teachings were radically subversive of his period’s understandings of power, society, and religion. Like the prophets before him, he proclaimed a God who chooses the weak, not the strong. He shared meals and drank with prostitutes and thieves, while shunning lawyers and priests. When he was questioned regarding the law and scriptures, he said one could only understand them by knowing him. He also said that love is the center, the heart and the goal of all of God’s laws. To me, this is a clear exegetical key, which Paul himself called the Law of Love.

This love, explicit throughout all the New Testament, is the main act of the Christ Event. This is how the story is told: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The New Testament portrays humanity as loving the darkness because we’re afraid to admit our own evil deeds. In rebellion against God, oppressing each other, and against all of Creation, we stand guilty. We are what is wrong with the world. And God, perfect, without blemish, chose to send his Son to live the life we could not live and die the death we should all die. Jesus’ sacrifice is the love that says “if anyone needs to suffer and die for evil, let it be me”. Jesus radically opposed the religious establishment that preferred to point fingers, and invites us to share in the sufferings of the oppressed instead. The Jesus I meet in the New Testament continues the political critiques of the prophets in the Old Testament, calling against his religious institution, calling against his government’s false authority, and reminding us of personal responsibility towards our neighbor: a responsibility that matters more than pious practices and religious sacrifice. The Jesus I meet in the mystical writings of John (and his disciples) tells me that if I love my neighbor, I am one with him, and I am one with Jesus: and as Jesus is one with God, so am I, and so is my neighbor, also one with God. Love brings us to Oneness, and sin brings separation, differentiation. The Jesus I meet in the gospels tells me to forgive others’ debts towards me if I hope God to forgive my debts towards Him.

Thus, this is my Theological Method for Christian ethics: I read a biblical command or prohibition, and I remember that according to Jesus, God’s ultimate command is that I should love. Jesus said that if I love others the way He loved me (the example of the cross), I will be one with my neighbor and with God. At some point in time, in culture, someone understood that the best expression of this love in their context was rule X. What was their context? to answer this question I need to do historical, social, political, linguistic, cultural and philosophical research. How did rule X translate love in that context? Now, is my context the same, or has it changed? If my context is different, how can I express love in my context?

This way, I can avoid parroting a rule out of context, I maintain love as a priority, and I continue the progressive movement of the Kingdom of God instead of trying to preserve a social order that God promised to transform.

Some radical differences exist between the contexts of the biblical texts and today. Aside from technology and scientific knowledge, or a better understanding of psychology, our social thread is substantially different. For example, the bible was written by men, to men. Women have been excluded from these discussions for most of history. The biblical passages that support the exclusion of women (basically, Paul) do not seem to indicate any transcendent insight, but instead, simply an affirmation of the culture. Yet even Paul said that in Christ, there would be no men or women. This inconsistency and contradiction puzzle biblical historians who debate the authorship of each passage. Perhaps the transcending movement of the Kingdom, which sees men and women as equal, was like a seed, planted two thousand years ago, that with a slow progression and growth has had its flower opened recently. Of course it still has ways to go, and to expand, until it is the huge tree that covers the whole world, like Jesus said.

Understanding spirituality from the perspective of women and feminist criticism is one of the central ways for theology, today, to contextualize the Law of Love into critical relevance. Another aspect is political dynamics of power. The early churches were oppressed communities, but, the institutional church in Rome, the behemoth of Christianity for 1500 years, was an empire. While Jesus died the death of slaves, popes were lavished like kings. This created a radical distance from the context of the biblical writers, which, in the last century, Christians from the third world, who understand modern relations of power and imperialism, have began to recover. One example is what we call Liberation Theology, a movement of South American theologians who seek to recover the perspective of the oppressed, understanding the tone of certain biblical passages that the European and North American Christianities could never understand from their perspectives of empire. Other important movements today are Queer Theology, Postcolonial Theology, and Black Theology, which recovers the ethos of the Israelites in captivity and exile, applying it to the experience of Afro-Americans today (The bible says Israel was captive in Egypt for 400 years. So have been African Slaves in America).

In my next post, I will talk about My Existentialism. The topics I addressed here are extensive and could lead to years of research, of writing whole books. If you want to ask questions or share your own thoughts, you are welcome to reach out.

Picture: Deesis at the church of Hagia Sophia, Turkey. 

5 comments on “Autophagy #2: My Agnostic Christianity

  1. Lucas,
    Thank you for this post. I know these are your thoughts, but I sincerely feel like you’re putting words to things I and others have felt without knowing really how to articulate them, and for that I’m super grateful. I feel similarly about how the breadth of my beliefs has changed over the years and was thinking about that earlier tonight, running the list of churches and my own journey in my head. I really loved the concept of “Agnostic Christianity”- a bunch of years ago I watched this debate or conversation a couple of theologians were having about their differing eschatologies and at one point one of the guys who (like me) didn’t believe in the rapture said “I’m not opposed to changing my eschatology mid-air” and I thought that was a very beautiful statement of open-handedness in a faith-journey and has stuck with me ever since. Jesus has been my constant, truly a rock in the shifting sands of my own mind and life experience and having that, as shifty as everything else seems to be, I somehow end up feeling like I have an immense expanse of stability or like I can move with the shifting and be ok…like I’m on a skateboard or something? The tough thing for me is the way this contracting/expanding impacts relationships with friends whose general faith is more static etc. I tend to be deferential even in my own unknowings and friends who still seem so sure about the way things go make me miss being sure or make me feel a tad concerned.

    Like

    • Lucas Fava

      It really can be hard. I like your skateboarding analogy, haha.

      I really appreciate the feedback, this sort of comment is the reason why I write :) thank you.

      Like

  2. Printed your post tonight with the icon above- many thanks.
    Chesed,
    Joce

    Like

  3. Pingback: Autophagy #4: Politics and the Kingdom of God – Theology à-Côté

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