The Sound of Jesus Clapping One Hand

This is a transcript of the sermon preached by Ashely Crouch during the evening service at Christ Church Cathedral, in Montreal, QC, on January 21st 2018.
The readings referenced are 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 and Mark 1:16-20.

Imagine you are out getting groceries on a Saturday, and a man who you may or may not know approaches you and says “drop this grocery basket, and we will shop for people.” You immediately think “this is a great idea! I will do that!” Then, your roommate, standing next to you, also decides it is a good idea. So off the three of you go, leaving your roommate’s poor confused father in aisle five no longer sure how much pasta to buy or really what to do. This passage from Mark, written without much detail, gives us one of the simplest, slightly perplexing, and yet poignant passages in the Bible. Drop everything and follow Jesus on a mission. We have no time for meandering. But, of course.

Following Jesus in many parts of the Gospel is almost like following your favorite social media account. You get the exciting highlights of a life and a curated image of Christ. Historical biographers from Jesus’ era did not write biographies as we know them today, with ample detail into the most minute moments, interests, quirks and sometimes useless tidbits of personal information packed into a large volume. Instead they wrote the story that highlighted what they perceived to be the most important parts of the person’s life, and often they highlighted a message. Thus here we are left with a rather thin volume; four short Gospels and an array of letters on what Jesus did and what it means to follow him.

Though the lectionary passages of the day are not always a perfect match for giving a sermon, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians adds depth to Mark’s short and sweet gospel. In Corinthians we encounter Paul writing paradoxically, years later, about what it means to follow Jesus. As Paul had been known as one of the most vocal objectors of Jesus before his conversion, and having lived a life that was entirely contrary to his post-Baptismal life, he is in a perfect position to describe the significance in what Jesus means when he asks us to drop everything and follow him. According to Paul, we must live in a dualistic manner to the life we had before, but we must also keep living that same life. Be as if you are not married, but still be married. Deal with the world as if you had no dealings with it, but keep dealing in this world because you still need to eat, sleep, and do important work. Paul here reminds me of the popular Zen koan asking what is the sound of one hand clapping. Only this has tremendous effect on the lives of the people around us, the institutions in place, and the planet on which we inhabit.

Another note of importance stringing these messages together is the audience to whom they are addressed. Jesus calls out to ordinary fishermen. Throughout the gospel he calls out to numerous other ordinary, and at times, even socially shunned people. Paul writes to the ordinary people of Corinth, who have come to believe in the message of this man named Jesus. These people were not the wealthiest or most powerful people in their society. Nor were they necessarily the most pious, wise, and holy. We can note this from the very well-known example of Judas’ betrayal. We note this because the people to whom Paul wrote were ordinary people with practical problems needing practical solutions. Jesus’ message was for anyone and everyone; and it was especially for the ordinary, outcast, or oppressed person. He had a message for the whole of a person: there is another way to see the world, and there is another way to act in the world. This is how we can transform ourselves and the world around us.

In both scriptures we are given a sense of urgency, a sense that we are called to take part in something much greater than ourselves. Over 2000 years later and the words still have the ability to leap off of the page, inspiring millions of people around the world into a transformation of thought and action. These men did not drop their nets to have a brief conversation before returning to their ordinary lives; they dropped their nets to embark upon a journey. They knew it would not be easy, but their belief in his message and his deeds led them to follow him. The people of Corinth wrote to Paul because they continued to live their ordinary lives in the world, years after the passing of Jesus, and they struggled to know how to be in the world but not of the world, quite like Jesus himself.

When we consciously choose to follow the example Jesus has laid out for us, we are choosing a journey that is not always easy, happy, or simple. Life is messy, we only need turn on the news to see that the injustices relevant in Jesus’ time are still relevant today. There is still poverty, corruption, inequality, violence and greed. At times it feels as if the injustices in the world are as eternal as God. But Jesus proclaims that these human struggles are not eternal: we inherited these problems but we do not have to accept them. Paul notes this in his letter to the Corinthians when he says that the present world is slipping away. When we shift our sights to the challenge and path of following Jesus’ example, we enter a new way of being in the world. Its present form slips away in light of new truths, new faith, and actions that move beyond the individual self. The perplexing statements Paul makes display an urgency similar to Jesus… drop your net, drop your worldly commitments, drop your sorrow; the present world is slipping away and you are being called to follow a new life.

If a baptism is a rebirth, then it should follow that the world you lived in, has, even if metaphorically, faded away. Though we think of the big moments when we are called to be brave, to help others, to give shelter, to make tough decisions, or to discern vocation, we skip over the fact that every facet, every tiny facet, of our lives should be different. In stories of many historical Christian heroes and saints, we hear about the big, incredible acts and miracles they achieved. Just like Mark, they waste little time describing the daily, mundane details of their lives. We are treated to a fast and moving narrative of the power of belief in the message of Jesus. We know that we should be toppling systems of oppression, helping the poor, and performing great acts of love in the name of Jesus. We most often think and speak about following Jesus in broad terms, as if we each have a way to follow him that will in turn come to describe our lives in a fast and moving narrative with a clear purpose. We think about becoming priests, doctors, scientists curing cancer, teachers of a new generation of children, or creating powerful and moving music. But following Jesus is a constant choice and a constant re-orientation to everything in our daily lives.

When Jesus commands us to follow him, he calls us to follow him in a capacity that is feasible and practical, even if at times difficult. Though his faith was strong and important, he was a man of action. Being made human, he shared our world so that he may show us the perfect example of how to be in the world but not of the world. Over 2000 years later, we are called to the same large and urgent matters, but we still have to eat, sleep, shower, clothe ourselves, go to work, get groceries, and do our laundry. Following Jesus is a mentality, part of the reason we take communion, and the reason we remember our baptism each Easter.

If we are baptized, and if, as he asks of us here, we have chosen to repent and choose to live as we have never lived before, then each thought, each moment, and each act is to be an affirmation of that faith. Sometimes we see our impact on others and the world when we do tangible things like volunteer at a soup kitchen or tutor a struggling student, but we never know how our most minute actions, interactions and choices may be profoundly impacting the world around us, or indeed, even ourselves. Our daily choices and thoughts shape our character, and in turn this shapes our life’s path.

Can we live each moment presently? Can we live each moment conscientiously? Can we find beauty and gratitude in the most minute details and moments? Can we stop before we speak and think about our chosen words? Can we pause before our quick trip to the grocery store and remember a reusable bag? Can we stop when we make judgements or assumptions about groups of people and challenge those beliefs? Can we slow down and observe the small ways in which we can be of service throughout our day? We cannot be perfectly mindful and perfectly of service all the time, but we are called to try, to do our best.

We are not Jesus, we are not perfect, and that is why Christians throughout the centuries have given confession, or prayed forgiveness, and why as Christians we continue to read the Bible and study its messages throughout our lives. We need those daily reminders, daily renewal, and daily opportunities to continue that journey.

Nor are we called to be Jesus; we are called to follow his way. We cannot, individually, bring about peace on earth, save the environment, eradicate poverty and hunger, eliminate racism, sexism, classism, or any of the seemingly endless –isms that affect our social sphere. Yet, when we each individually live our daily lives as if the present world is slipping away and we become centered on Jesus’ path, those small thoughts, moments and actions add up.

Many monastics live in a monastery because it is easier to focus on living a righteous life where there are less distractions. Our great challenge as lay people, and as ordinary people, is continuing to follow Jesus each day in an increasingly fast-paced world filled with distractions and competing worldly needs that seem never-ending. But just like the fishermen that dropped their nets, and just like the people of Corinth, if we believe in the message of Jesus, we can let passages like these be our guide. Instead of rushing through tasks and our day to find time for prayer or focus, we can discover the path of Christ in each moment and every act of our day. We, too, can watch the present world slip away a little bit more each day as we learn how to live in Paul’s paradox of dealing with the world as if we had no dealings in it. In order to “fish for people” as Christ says, we must first look within and see that our own nets have been dropped and grow ever more present and conscious to the continuing call of a life inspired by Christ.

Amen.

The Author: Ashely Crouch is a Canadian queer Christian feminist. She works as an interfaith facilitator at the Concordia Multi-faith & Spirituality Centre. Ashely holds undergraduate and masters degrees in Religious Studies, and comes from an interfaith background.

Peace, War, and Thoughts “On Killing”

I recently read “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He is a former American army Ranger and psychology professor, and is currently the director of the Killology Research Group. His work pioneers a realm often left uncharted by academics: the intimate experience of war and killing. His methods fluctuate between reviewing war statistics and drawing psychological evaluations from a series of letters and interviews done with soldiers and veterans, doing his best to build on previous literature on military history. Academic research in history and psychology would be the appropriate means to test many of his claims which, as it is often common in new areas of psychology, escape the limits of rigorous scientific research and thread the blurred line between historical journalism, research, and opinion; researchers are bound to find exciting questions in his book. Given his military experience, I do think his opinion is one worth listening to, and given the pioneering nature of his work, I do not expect it to have the scientific and historical rigor found in already established areas of psychology. Nevertheless, he shows enough scientific rigor to distinguish himself from the early psychoanalytic works that set modern psychology in motion.

Theologians naturally escape rigorous scientific and historical methods: we often begin with personal and communal experiences, myths, and symbols. It is then that we enter in dialogue with the grounded thinking of rigorous sciences and a philosophical critical spirit, to then return to the personal realm and inform people’s experience of life. This is the mindset that led me to read “On Killing”: I know I am an outsider to both the military experience and the overall experience of war. I have lived in peace my whole life and I want to be a pacifist, but I am interested in understanding those who are not, and maybe even change my mind.

Over a century ago, Tolstoy wrote against the military in his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, ending the fifth chapter of his book with poignant comments against the state of the European Christian nations of his time. My impression reading his book descriptions is that already in 1894 he saw Europe preparing itself for the Great War, and in many ways wrote in the hopes to avoid it, although he also had just enough cynicism I do not think he would be surprised at the 20th century bloodshed. The argument he proposes is that military service is a contradiction of the Christian doctrine of the brotherhood of all men: first we teach boys to love their enemies and give the other cheek, but later we train them to be ready to kill and butcher their enemies at the command of their authorities. Countless poor men who have no reason to hate poor men in another land, because one powerful ruler decides he has something against another powerful ruler, are made to wear a uniform, forget their individuality,  and become tools of murder, despite believing that all men are a brotherhood under God according to Christ. This contradiction, to Tolstoy, is what explains the abuse of alcohol and opium, among a list of toxic behaviors, among the military and veterans: military life demands that men live against their conscience and reason, and  they need these things in order to avoid thinking about it. Tolstoy believed that realizing this contradiction is what leads so many soldiers to suicide and madness (p. 126-132).

Dave Grossman makes a similar argument to Tolstoy’s, using modern psychology and a record of military history and experiences, without the theology. He argues that humans have a natural resistance to killing other humans, and when exposed to human suffering we have a natural tendency for sympathy. Military progress, therefore, has been a history of learning to undermine the resistance to killing and dehumanizing enemies through aggressive ideology, propaganda, training, conditioning, sharing responsibility, establishing rituals of affirmation, dissociation, avoiding to look at the enemy’s eyes, denying any form of empathy, and maybe above all, developing manners of speech and terminology of war that avoids the use of any words that imply a soldier actually kills other human beings. He understands that bypassing the human resistance to killing is very traumatic, and according to his research, only about 2% of the population, those we consider sociopaths, do not have the natural aversion to killing (p.44, 180). This characteristic is a desired trait in combat, therefore this 2% is naturally successful in the military, if only they manage to submit to authority .

Both Grossman and Tolstoy were soldiers: Grossman had twenty-four years of service by the time he wrote the book (p.xxxii), but never killed anyone. Tolstoy served in a few battles as an artillery soldier, and, from what I can gather, did kill. His direct experience of war and the military in 19th century Russia was surely different than Grossman’s experience and concerns with modern warfare, and maybe this difference can help explain the different conclusions they draw from very similar observations.

Tolstoy’s reading of the gospels reject orthodox Christianity and any sort of “mystical” interpretation, believing Jesus’ teaching was clear, meaning we really need to actually love our actual enemies. Therefore, Tolstoy rejects military service and war, and with it every authority built on violence; to him, acceptance of violence in elaborate theologies that justify war is the evidence of historical Christianity’s deviance from Jesus’ radical but simple teaching.

Grossman does not share the theological concerns of Tolstoy. He speaks of war as a problem to be overcome, yet sometimes a necessary price to pay for freedom. He spends most of his book dissecting the ways armies desensitize and dissociate future soldiers in order to kill other men and women (and children if necessary), highlighting how highly traumatic this process can be, but never really denouncing the authorities’ decision to make war or not. As a well-trained soldier, he trusts his superiors even in the light of the atrocities of war and the numerous PTSD stories he collected; he does not try to convince the reader that war is good, being as neutral as he can while concerning himself only with the soldier’s experience. The rationale behind his efforts is summed in these words: “Success in war and national survival may necessitate killing enemy soldiers in battle. If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the result and its repercussions upon the soldier and the society” (p. 287). His driving concern is the effect of killing on soldiers and on the society responsible for these soldiers.

The main focus of his discussion is a comparison between the American Military experience in WWII and their experience in Vietnam: foot soldiers in WWII of every side were largely ineffective, it being evident when observing the amount of ammunition spent and shots fired compared to the number of enemy soldiers killed. Most kills were actually done by artillery, which is far less personal; when they returned, victorious, the allies were celebrated as heroes. Years later under new training using conditioning techniques (like Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s rats), American soldiers in Vietnam were astoundingly lethal, killing women and child soldiers when necessary; when they returned, defeated, they were condemned by their society. Now Vietnam veterans suffer the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, homelessness and suicide, while a WWII veteran “may tend to medicate himself pretty regularly down at the bar at the American Legion, but like most veterans he will probably continue to function and lead a perfectly healthy life” (p.287). Grossman acknowledges and makes sure to mention the suffering of victims of war whenever it sounds like it is not emphasized enough: the receiving end of the trigger always has it worse regardless of the killer’s own trauma and suffering. Still, as a soldier, his concern rises largely out of empathy towards his brothers-in-arms and veterans. This seems consistent with his mentions throughout the book of how military life creates bonds among soldiers that are often stronger than their bonds with their very wives; several of the soldiers he interviewed told him war stories they had never told their families since they returned home.

Tolstoy shows little sympathy for soldiers, even having been a soldier himself, largely due to his somewhat existentialist view of personal responsibility: reflecting his own experience, he believes one can – and should – reject military service and all forms of violent authority, remaining unstained from the world, dying if necessary. He believes the gospel of the Jesus who was crucified as a political agitator is clear about this. Grossman on the other hand shows a lot of compassion towards soldiers: he sees them as adolescents who sign up to protect their nation but find themselves turned into killing machines ready for command, but that is not a fundamental problem with war, and he thinks it could just be done better. As for the victims, he does not speak for them, silently showing a strong faith in his superior’s decisions.

Until reading this book, I shared Tolstoy’s lack of compassion towards the military. I remember arguing with friends who said the military are the people who make the greatest sacrifice in the name of freedom, to which I would answer that a good soldier is not the one who dies, but the one who kills. Grossman confirms this without question. However, having read “On Killing“, now I see things less black-and-white. On one hand, Grossman does not deal with the theological problems that Tolstoy does. On the other, Tolstoy does not deal with the intricate human ambiguity of choice and circumstance, such that even if his language is surprisingly clear and simple when he points out our social and theological contradictions, he is not inviting, and can often sound accusing.

Grossman’s exposition of military language as systematically dissociating from the act of killing is not exclusive to the military. I cannot recall any discourse on theories of Just War that uses the verb “to kill”, let alone speak of murder, butchering, rape, burning alive, scalping, impaling, maiming, etc. How often are philosophers, theologians, intellectuals and politicians justifying war with hygienized hands, proclaiming military service is good and virtuous, defending values of authority and obedience to an abstract “nation”, without daring to talk about what the word War really means? How many young persons’ lives are lost due to such discourse? Could it be that our weekly drinking of wine that we call blood made us forget that real people’s blood is still shed for human sins whenever we declare and justify war? Is our glorifying of Christ’s suffering purely romantic, detached, unfamiliar with the agony of an actual naked man bleeding out at the city’s gates? Quoting the title of the first chapter of Grossman’s book, are we virgins talking about sex? Ironically, yes; historically that is precisely what most Christian theologians and clergy have done. Still, the question is metaphorical: how can theologians (and this also applies to philosophers) talk about justifying war without openly speaking about its reality and effects in people’s lives? Would honest words make our theologies much harder to swallow?

Much of Grossman’s research validates Tolstoy’s description of how a young man becomes a soldier and the psychological consequences of that process. Tolstoy understood that this is pertinent not only for war but also for the maintenance of authority, through police and other violent forms of law enforcement. Indeed, he affirms that law can only exist by being enforced, and that force is always violent. However, Grossman’s book reminds me that soldiers and policemen are human, too. In their circumstances, in a lot of ways, they do the best they can with what they have. Our churches and politicians, with hygienized hands, bless them in order to ease their consciences. Still, they suffer through their choices – even through their illusion of no choice.

The moral fight against violence would liberate soldiers and the people who embody authority, too, from a life of moral contradiction and psychological suffering. The gun trigger harms both ways, and the way to resist it is by resisting the urge for desensitization. The path of love towards peace must not be a simple opposition against the people who wear the uniforms and wave the banners of authority and violence. It must be the compassionate love that forgives and extends grace while speaking the truth, embracing all the ambiguity of choice, circumstance, responsibility, and mercy.

“For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against every authority and power in the high places of this present time.”


Bibliography

Grossman, D. (2009). On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Tolstoy, L. & Garnett, C. (1984). The kingdom of God is within you : Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Photo: After receiving a fresh supply of ammunition and water flown in by helicopter, men of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade continue on a jungle ‘Search and Destroy’ patrol in Phuc Tuy Province, Vietnam, June 1966. An armored personnel carrier provides security on the landing zone in the background. (by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

On believing and ‘really believing’

This morning I read Zizek’s new article on the Independent, where he affirms: “We no longer ‘really believe’ religion but more of us follow its rituals than ever before because of ‘culture’.” and, “This is how ideology works in our cynical era: we don’t have to believe in it. Nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corruption, but we practice them – in other words, we display our belief in them – because we assume they work even if we do not believe in them”. Zizek is a known provocateur, and, as I assume it was intended, his text provoked me to think about a lot of things at the same time, and to write this. My intention here is not to respond to his article or to his point about Marx’ insights, but to take his article as a starting point and dissect what I understand belief to be, and how, as a religious person in this post-Christian society, I navigate the dynamics of belief.

My first question is what it means to believe. Zizek says that we are aware of the corruption of democracy and justice, which is something I question: did we give up on justice and democracy or have we simply realized that our electoral and judicial systems are not democratic and not just? Yet, he says we still practice them, displaying our belief, despite our unbelief. In my understanding, that practice shows we do, indeed, take justice and democracy seriously, regardless of our intellectual assent to their absence in our constitutions, courts, and ballots. We do the best we can with what we have, and maybe we have only given up on having institutions that embody these principles, not on the principles themselves.

Zizek brings this to the realm of religion, as the parallels of the ambiguity of belief are present in Christianity from the beginning, Christianity being the main tradition that informs our notions of religion and culture in the West.

In the famous Sermon of the Mount in the Gospel of St Matthew, where Jesus supposedly taught his largest audience about the coming Kingdom of God, he ends his teaching with these words:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Mt 7:21-27 NRSV)

However, seemingly in contradiction, the Apostle Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:

“…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rm 10:9)

When Paul says “believe in your heart”, the verb used is the same as to have faith, coming from the word pistis  (Πίστις). One could argue this contradiction is only superficial since this verse, in context, is making a point about how God’s salvation extends beyond the people of Israel by means of faith, rather than compliance to the Torah. However, this verse is still used today as a quick answer to what it means to be a Christian, while the Matthew passage is largely disregarded, and this is worth some attention.

Pistis as a concept meant trust, but it was also a rhetorical term for, broadly speaking, convincing someone of something through argumentation and logic. Paul had a Greek education and was versed in rhetoric, so it is very possible that he understood pistis to mean being convinced of something, an intellectual assent. This seems to be the case since the object of faith in this verse is not the person of Jesus, but rather truth claims, such as “Jesus is Lord”, or “God raised him from the dead”, which are debatable facts.

Decades later, the writer of the Gospel of St John says that “God gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16 NRSV), which portrays pistis not as a question of debate over a fact, but rather in the sense of personal trust, since the object of faith/belief is Jesus himself, going far beyond intellectual assent.

The Gospel of Matthew is generally accepted to having been written years after Paul’s letter to the Romans. Matthew has a clear focus on action (doing the will of the Father) instead of intellectual assent regarding factuality. Paul’s letters were written to follow up and correct early Christian communities who faced challenges in their Christian practice and doctrine, but Paul himself had never walked with Jesus in flesh. The Gospels were written to preserve the core of Jesus’ teachings, by mature Christian communities who, supposedly, received their teachings from the Apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus. I believe it is right to understand that Paul addressed specific questions of faith and belief for specific communities, but when it comes to the broader Christian faith and practice in all places and times, his teachings should be measured by the standards of the Gospels, not the other way around. I do not think it would be wrong to say, even, that the Gospels correct some misunderstandings that may arise by reading Paul. Still, the Gospels themselves have different perspectives, and early Christian tradition accepted to have this multiplicity of voices in the same Canon. It is no wonder that Christianity has so many branches since its beginning, and the only moments it reached something resembling doctrinal uniformity were by the means of imperial force. The Christian Gospel is naturally multivocal.

Another important text on the question of belief, also written after Paul’s letter to the Romans, which many argue is intentionally correcting any misunderstanding of/from Paul, is from the epistle of St James:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. ” (James 2:14-23)

Here, again, the words for faith and belief are all derivations of pistis. James’ letter seems to be addressing directly the sort of misunderstanding someone would have from reading Paul: that believing a factuality (such as “God is one”) can save you. James is categorical that this sort of faith is meaningless, and what matters is the faith you display through action, or works. He exemplifies this by saying that Abraham believed God, meaning, Abraham trusted God, or, the object of Abraham’s trust was God’s own self, not a factuality about God. When God told Abraham to do something (absurd) Abraham did it because of his trust in the person of God. His action demonstrated his trust, which is something far deeper than intellectual assent. One could argue that in the case of Abraham, this trust was even independent of intellectual assent, as he knew very little about God, and God’s request was absurd, and yet, he was saved through his trust. Another indication of personal trust as opposed to intellectual assent is that Abraham’s salvation is phrased as “he was called the friend of God”: this is relational trust, not being convicted through argumentation.

In other words, what James considers saving faith is your relational trust in God being displayed through action, not your intellectual belief in things about God.

Back to the Matthew passage, Jesus equates damnation with having never known him, even though the damned were saying Jesus is Lord and had used his name by doing miracles, exorcisms, and prophecies. Never knowing someone is the opposite of having relational trust. Jesus answers that it is only those who listen and obey to his words who know him and who will survive the tribulation to come, the great storm. Again, the relational aspect: trust saves, and salvation is intimate knowledge, or friendship.

What are these words we need to obey? This passage in Matthew is the conclusion to the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus says that “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). He is not referring to some future teaching, but to the words he just spoke to the crowds. In other words, taking the Sermon of the Mount seriously is like building your house on the rock, but dismissing it is like building your house on the sand.

But is this not trying to be saved by works, rather than by faith? No. It is faith, but not the intellectual assent of rhetorical faith: it is the personal faith of trusting someone as a friend. The object of faith is not whether or not Jesus died, whether or not he came back from the dead, or whether God is one or three or something in between. It is the person of God whom we meet through Christ. How do we know we trust him? By following his teachings when we hear them. Does it matter what we think, or believe, intellectually, about Jesus? Only inasmuch as it affects the way we follow him.

Going back to Zizek’s point, after this quick exploration on the views of belief in the bible, what does it mean to ‘really believe’ our religion? For a Christian, does it mean being awake at night praying and afraid of hell because we had a sexual thought for someone who is not our husband or wife? Does it mean having the name “JESUS” on a bumper-sticker? Does it mean church attendance? Does it mean baptizing our children and getting married in the church? Does it mean making prophecies and exorcisms and miracles in the name of Jesus? Does it mean saying “Jesus is my Lord” in public? Does it mean thinking that a Galilean rabbi coming back from the dead 2000 years ago is a historical fact? This sort of belief is going up and down throughout the globe.

Or does it mean doing to others as we would have it done to ourselves? Giving the other cheek? Walking an extra mile? Avoiding judgement? Being generous? Forgiving others’ offenses against us? Blessing those who persecute us? Loving, as Jesus loved his disciples? I am not aware of any research that has been able to measure this in statistics, although maybe people’s priorities in their political choices may be a good indicator: is our society choosing money, war, and power, or our neighbors’ well being?

And lastly, are these mutually exclusive? I do not think so. I believe even in our post-Christian society, even without institutions that we could trust, we can still, like Abraham, hear the words of an absurd God as a friend’s invitation for a trusting relationship into the unknown, to be friends to our neighbors and even our enemies, and be called friends of God.

…Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 cor 13:13)

 

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

This is a long text. I build on different concepts and I suggest reading one thing at a time. You can jump to each section clicking here: Ritual and Myth, Sex and Marriage, Marriage and Sin, Early Christian Marriage, Love, Imago Dei/Imitatio Christi, and The Law of Love. I hope that after reading you will understand in a deeper level what the bible means by marriage, and how the gospel of Jesus radically changes our relationship to one another: even our sexual relationships.

Ritual and Myth

The work of theology is, always, to assign meaning and symbolism to things that were already there from the beginning – or if you prefer, not to assign it, but to reveal it. Theologians are mythical storytellers, not inventors. In telling stories that communicate who we are, where we are from, and what our purpose is, theologians form, inform, or challenge, the symbols and the imaginary of people’s relationship to God and to their own lives; our image of God, after all, shapes our own image.

The process from a spontaneous thing or event to a systematic ritual and theory is organic: as people ask “why do we do this?”, the leaders explain things the best they can, often with a good amount of imagination and best-guesses, and that process slowly shapes a community’s theology and symbols. That is exactly what the author of Exodus tells us Moses instructed the elders of Israel to do when he established the ritual of Passover (Easter):

…You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’… (Exodus 12)

This ritual, Passover, defined the people of Israel and still defines modern Jews, as they celebrate it every year, retelling the story and remembering that day of liberation. Passover was central to Christianity because on the year Jesus died, on Passover, he was having the special supper with his disciples and he asked them to continue doing what they were doing, but in his memory (he was not specific about how often), presenting them with bread – something everyone eats – and wine – something most people drink. He said the bread was his flesh, and the wine was his blood, and they ate and drank. In a few centuries of Christianity developing, between Jesus’ Passover supper with his friends and his friends doing the same thing over and over again, teaching their own disciples to do the same, and then their disciples asking new questions, and they coming up with answers, we found ourselves a thousand years later debating whether the bread in communion is literally Jesus with the accidents of bread or just sort-of-Jesus united to the bread, or just a symbol, getting complicated in philosophical terms Jesus never used. Not only did we get complicated on defining what was once the simplest of rituals, we actually persecuted and killed each other because of it.

There we have it: an event (Exodus), then a story and a ritual that gives meaning to it (Passover). Then again, a new event (Jesus’ last supper) that changes the original meaning of the first, and establishes a new story and a new ritual (Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) that gives new meaning not just to Passover, but to eating bread and drinking wine with your friends.

One of the main questions studying the bible, for theologians, is whether these stories, which are called myths – like reading 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 – tell how something new started, or if they were simply adding new meaning to something old. For example, baptism was a Jewish tradition: Gentiles who wanted to enter the Jewish community were baptized, Jews have several different washing rituals for different reasons, and John the Baptist, a popular Jewish prophet, had started a movement of purification asking all Jews to baptize themselves. Then came Jesus and asked his disciples to baptize both Jews and Gentiles, once and for all, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, promising a mysterious new baptism “with fire”. This was a scandalous and new, subversive addition to an old ritual. Now the idea of baptism is associated mainly with Christianity, even though Jews still practice Mikveh.

Thinking back on the Eucharist, it would be ridiculous to read the gospels and think Jesus instituted the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, or that bread and wine are God-given things that humans should not be allowed to enjoy outside Christian guidelines. We very much understand that celebrating communion is one thing, and drinking some wine while enjoying a French baguette with a friend is another, even though the only real difference is what we think we are doing. The difference is not in the bread, or the wine, but in our own thoughts, words, and feelings.

Similar is the question of sex/marriage: how do we distinguish the lines between what has happened in human history, what is told in the bible, and what we tell ourselves through theology and culture?

Continue reading Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

Autophagy #4: Politics and the Kingdom of God

You may find it helpful to read the Autophagy posts I wrote before this:

Biographic Reflections, My Agnostic Christianity, and My Existentialism.

I spent the last three entries of my Autophagy trying to write, as concisely and clearly as I could, my thoughts on myself, my religion, and my worldview. In this post and the next, I want to pick apart and organize my ideas on the way I want to relate to people around me, and the way I hope everyone could learn to relate to each other. If you are scared of the title, don’t worry, I am not writing about elections.

I will try to keep this as short as I can. I will make statements of how I think about this and that, and you are welcome to connect the dots between my last three posts and this. If it still doesn’t make sense, you are welcome to reach out to me and ask questions. My hope, as before, is that you will come to question how you see and think about these things. I have divided this post in three parts: The Kingdom of God, Humanity, and Authority and Hope. On the next post, possibly the last of the series, I will elaborate how I hope to connect these to the way I see and act in the world around me in more concrete ways.

I have a very broad definition of politics. Aristotle defined human beings as “political animals“, which means, in his terms (which I adopt), beings who live in organized relationship. Relationships that are defined, discussed, transformed, enforced, resisted, etc. Politics is the science of the Polis, the City/State, the place in which different human groups learn to live together. Whenever you define yourself in a relational way you are making a political statement about yourself: I am a son, I am a brother, I am white, I am a man, I am Brazilian, I am a Permanent Resident of Canada, I am a descendant of Italians, Spanish, and French immigrants, and of enslaved South-American Natives; I am a worker, I am a student, I am a consumer. All of these labels exist to tell others something about myself, to help organize our collective act of living together. In other words, these are my political identities, and, if you noticed, I did not mention whether I like the conservative or the liberal party, democrats or republicans, libertarians, communists or fascists, because these groupings have very little to do with who I am as a political being. Those groupings and parties which we usually equate with “politics” represent ideologies, propositions, on how we should organize the Polis, the State, our collective living. They are not definitions of any one person as a political being. In other words, being white doesn’t make me a fascist, being poor does not make me a socialist, and thinking that people matter more than property does not make me a Bolshevik.

My ideology on how we should organize politics, which defines the way I will choose to position myself towards my neighbor in our collective society, and which directs me when I choose who I should vote for on election day, is, well… complicated.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

The best word I would use is Christian, and by that I mean that I want to position myself in society according to the vision of the Kingdom of God. This “Kingdom of God” is a term which the Hebrew Testament prophets, and Jesus, used to speak of an ideal society in which people would organize and identify themselves in a new way: Not like in all the kingdoms of Man, which are ruled by greed and envy and violence, but in the way God would have us choose to exist together, in love, hope, trust, peace, and humility. A society not of domination and competition, but of mutual service and brotherhood, where the poor are considered valuable, and those with most power are accountable as the ones with the most responsibility. Today, it relates a lot to ideas we categorize as socialist, anarchist, and even communist, but it also transcends them.

Jesus came from Nazareth, in Galilee. It was barely a village, a very poor place north of Samaria, the ancient capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which suffered heavy prejudice from the Jews – the people of the Southern Kingdom, of Judah, where we find Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the cultural, economic and religious capital of Judea (land of Judah), where the Temple was, and it was controlled by a priestly class and ruled by a king which were both under the control of Rome. In other words, Jesus grew up in a world where his immediate government was a corrupt puppet government, in a land occupied by a powerful, and ruthless, empire. Jesus was killed in the most brutal way possible, nailed to wood outside the city by the crossroads, to suffer a slow death that anyone going in or out of the city could see, naked, bloody and exposed, under the charges of political insurrection and blasphemy. There was a sign on his cross so that everyone walking by could understand the reason for his execution: JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS, written in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin – the language of the local peasants, the international language of the time, and the language of the imperial capital. It was the brutal display of an empire showing what happens to anyone who challenged its political authority.

The average Christian today will tell you Jesus stayed out of politics. They say it because they have a narrow definition of politics: they understand that someone is political only if they run for office. However, politicians themselves, including kings, emperors, and even high-priests, all understand that politics is something much broader than running for office. Politics happens whenever people think about how they should organize themselves in society, and a man who preaches a new social order, a great feast of God in which the poor are welcomed and the abusive powerful are thrown away in the darkness, was duly recognized as a powerful political force. Even though Jesus refused to be proclaimed King and start an armed rebellion, the pharisees and priests of his time, who valued their good relationship with Rome, did not fail to recognize in his discourse that Jesus was making himself to be “the rock cut out not by human hands“, from the book of Daniel (chapter 2), which would become a mountain and cover the whole earth, reducing the Kingdoms of Man to dust.

What I mean is this: Jesus’ career was extremely political and he died for that reason. He did, however, stay out of the power dynamics of the Kingdoms of Man. This is because he was not interested in winning the human political game, but, instead, introduce a new dynamic, a new game, which he claimed to be divine, and already available for us right here, right now.

In order to see the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about, one needs to be born again. To change their mind (μετάνοια, usually translated as “repentance”). To become born of the wind/spirit, someone free. To become a new creation. This means that Jesus’ Kingdom does not spread by military conquest, by assassinating a king, or even by election. It spreads through a change of mind about the nature of humankind, of authority, of property, of power, etc. After all, that is precisely how politics begin: you have ideas about yourself and about society, political principles, and those illuminate the way you think that things should be done. Systems of thought, be it a religion or a philosophy, or both, always have political implications.

One could say that one of the incredible things Jesus understood and incarnated in his ministry is that true change, and the arrival of the Kingdom of God, is bottom-up: changing the minds of individuals, these individuals naturally become a new form of society. The Kingdoms of Man, which Jesus refused to participate in, are top-down: we have leaders who force everyone else to obey their system. The historical human disposition when we want change is to seek power and then force others to obey. Jesus chose, instead, to empower the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, not himself. The Kingdoms of Man are built on hegemonic centralized power, and the Kingdom of God is built on liberating marginalized power.

It makes sense that Jesus got killed. I have a hard time picturing anyone being angry at Jesus if he really was just speaking of the afterlife. Like Nietzsche said in his critiques of Christianity, convincing slaves that the next life will be better is, precisely, the best thing a slave-master would want. The Kingdom of God was dangerous and subversive because it convinced everyone that there is no difference between this life and the next, that eternal life begins right now, and that Today, not tomorrow, is the day of redemption (when slaves are bought out and freed). I would argue that the way the church has over-spiritualized Jesus’ words is to make his revolutionary tone palatable, something that Bishops needed desperately in order to have the acceptance of the Emperor, making an effort to preserve the society Jesus came to destroy. The powerful hope for the next life in the New Testament does not rise because the early Christians were complacent workers, but rather, because they were persecuted, and they were persecuted because they lived a life of resistance, not complacency. The foolish and confusing resistance that blesses its enemies while staying unmistakably resistant.

As Daniel foresaw it, this movement has not stopped. When we see the advance of Western Civilization since the Christ-event, we can see these Christian ideas of the Kingdom of God affecting the very roots of our society. We see our collective ideas about government evolving as we progressively abandon totalitarian monarchies and empires and as we move slowly towards becoming democracy and empowerment of the margins. Our presidents and ministers are no longer our lords: they are our public servants. We progressively care about empowering all of society, refusing to give our political voice to those who already have too much power, and choosing to give a voice to minorities. Yes, we still have centralized governments that enforce themselves through violence, but progressively we move towards governments whose primary function is regulation and administration, not military self-preservation. This progression in the last 2000 years has not been linear, but dialectic: a succession of progressive movements answered by reactionary movements. Two steps forward, one step back. But still, overall, we have stopped worshiping our emperors as demi-gods and we have stopped throwing people to lions. The Kingdom blooms slowly.

A fully actualized Kingdom of God world-society would look like the Church described in the fourth chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles; in other words, a sort of anarcho-communist society: Anarchist in the sense that nobody was called master or lord, but instead, everyone is a brother or a sister, and all decisions are taken together. There was a central administrative group, for logistic reasons, for the redistribution of wealth, but it was all voluntary. It was a parallel spiritual community independent of the government and of the religious establishment. It was Communist in the sense that there was no private property, everything was shared and the community provided welfare to those who could not work.

I am thankful we had a historical glimpse of that society, and I understand why it didn’t continue: the powers of this world could not accept it, and Jesus did not teach military resistance, but, instead, sacrifice. The first Christians had their blood shed in order for the movement to continue onward, in the margins of history, slowly changing society. A seed must die before it blooms. We had a small glimpse of what it can look in a small scale. Our hope is to learn to bring it beyond it.

HUMANITY

Jesus and the Apostles spoke of humanity, as a collective, as enemies of God. We are given life and love and being every day by God, as his children, and yet, we live full of pride and greed, separated from God because we prefer to live as if we are our own gods: the center of our own worlds. From this pride, envy and greed, we exploit and kill each other because we want more things. Jesus, reflecting the prophetic tradition before him, spoke of God’s work of redemption, the Day of the Lord (when the few that live according to God are delivered from the wicked, and the wicked are destroyed) as something final and dramatic. The biblical authors and editors used the symbols of the Day of the Lord when they described the crucifixion of Jesus: darkness, earth shattering, the dead raising, etc. It was the final act where the Kings of Earth, the Powers of this World, the Enemies of God, the Sons of Adam, chose to kill the Son of God, the new Man, to protect their power. His resurrection is the act in which the Son of God, and the New Humanity, answer to the Kings of Earth and to Darkness and Death themselves that they cannot overcome Light and Life. Jesus incarnates not only God, but Humanity, in a stubborn resistance against oppression that refuses to join it. The Death of God in Christ is the incarnation of his refusal to answer evil with evil. The Resurrection of the New Human incarnates the hope that goodness persists, and that violence cannot overcome love.

However, just like Jesus’ life as Messiah surprised, to the disappointment of many, the expectations of a military uprising against Rome, his teaching of the Kingdom also surprised his own followers who, expecting the end of the world within a few decades, did not see it come to pass – or, at least, not as they expected. Jesus death – and resurrection – did not bring the destruction of the world as a whole. What it led to, in a prophetic way, was the destruction of the Jewish world: The City of Jerusalem fell on 70AD after a long siege by Rome after a military uprising, and the temple was burnt down. This temple has not been rebuilt until today. All of Jewish religion and society was transformed by that event. Animal sacrifices had to cease, the priestly class was replaced by rabbis, etc. The world may not have ended for these Jewish peasants in the first century, but it certainly felt like it did.

Yes, Jesus was a religious figure, but he incarnated a God who owned the destruction of the oppressive religious establishment (who were serving as puppets to Rome), and who encouraged the poor and the rich to organize themselves in a parallel egalitarian community independent of the Empire, facing the foreseeable collapse of the society he knew.

This parallel society was born as the beginning of a new creation, a new Humankind. This new human is meant to live in the world until all the enemies of God fall, until all of creation is transformed. A human who is not driven by the base instincts of fearful self-preservation, but instead is ready to sacrifice itself for the sake of others. A human who is not driven by pride, but by humility. A human who will not take by force, but who will be patient. A human who will not despair, but hope. A human who will not fight its enemies, but bless them. A human who will not live in competition, but in cooperation.

Historically, the “new human” discourse has served for antagonizing and demonizing. One is either one of us or one of them. In the New Testament discourse of New Creation, however, the perspective is this: we are all like Adam: created and beloved, but choosing to betray God. Called Sons of Adam, the old human, we are all the greedy self-preserving violent beast of pride and egoism. Such are all of us. Yet are all welcomed, with forgiveness and acceptance, to be transformed into the new, spiritual, sacrificial, humble and cooperative human. None of us deserves it, everything is a gift. Grace. We are all invited to be like the Centurion who, after presiding Jesus’ execution, and seeing his last breath, realized “Truly you are the Son of God!“.

A key point in this conversion, however, is that although the language is of transformation, progress, and novelty, the story of the kingdom is also a return. The pattern of Creation-Fall-Redemption, or Prosperity-Exile-Return, found in most biblical narratives, speak of a return to an original state. Jesus is not “the next step of humanity” but rather “humanity taking the right step”. He is not an inevitable reality in an impersonal evolution; he is a reminder of our responsibility in our collective personal transcendence. Participating demands intentionality.

The Christ-like response to the Other must be of welcoming, and the resistance against oppression is always by sacrifice, never by violent struggle. According to Jesus, as written in the book of John, the sign of true discipleship is Unity. Loving your neighbor, and your enemy, as yourself. Understanding that we are all affected by each other, and thus, we are all responsible for each other. According to Paul, the sign of being born of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the New Testament definitions of what it means to be Christian. To me, the fact that the pseudo-Christian institution that rose out of that movement decided to define one’s Christianity not by these things, but, instead, by theological assent to dogma, shows its departure from the Christ-movement. Again, to me, the fact that these institutions have persecuted each other instead of blessing each other, shows that, as Jesus once said to the Pharisees, they are not children of his Father.

All in all, nobody has been a perfect follower or a perfect actualization of this new humanity, but there has been much progress. Christians understood from the beginning that complacency is not an answer, and that one’s sanctification and transformation from the old humanity into the new one is a daily effort. One of my favorite ways of phrasing this is Martin Luther’s opening statement from his famous 95 thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent” (Mt 4:17) he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This means that if you take Jesus seriously (“believe in him“), you work everyday on transforming your own mind (repentance, metanoia). The Apostle Paul himself said so, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, in a present imperative tense that implies continuity. Much debate has happened in Christian Theology over the idea of faith and works, of the dynamic of God saving you and you saving yourself. Overall, practically, both happen together: you take Jesus seriously, you act accordingly. You have faith, you work. The point is not to get the right semantics as if life is an academic test. The point is to live it.

Putting it simpler: Humans were created to be kind, in unity, cooperation, and love. For some reason we choose to be proud, competitive, and egoistic instead. We are called to recover our true humanity, and return to unity.

AUTHORITY AND HOPE

Authority implies power, respect, and right. We usually assign and communicate that authority with titles (Lord, Master, President, King, Emperor, Your Excellence, Your Holiness, etc.).

The Gospel records show Jesus refusing to be called good (Mk 10:18, :Lk 18:19), him criticizing people who call him Lord but who do not actually follow him (Lk 6:46), and him telling his disciples not to call anyone Father, Master, or Teacher, but instead treat each other only as Brothers and Sisters (Mt 23:8-10). He tells his disciples that the people they should honor as “great” are not their lords, but their servants (Mt 23:11, Lk 22:26, Mk 9:35). Before his death, he made sure to demonstrate what true lordship looks like by washing his disciples feet (Jn 13), a job that only slaves would do at the time, and he commanded his followers to imitate him.

One of my favorite analysis of our ideas of society is from Leo Tolstoy in his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, which can be found in Anarchist libraries. He speaks of how we think men are special because they wear certain costumes, like uniforms and crowns. We trust people to make decisions for us, to imprison us, to punish us, to boss us, to kill us, simply if they wear a costume. They spend the money of the poor in parade and pomp to make it look like they are more than what they are, and we actually believe them. We are the ones who give them this power, precisely by believing in them.

Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom invites us to look at the world precisely like that. Jesus says Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I know this saying (and its different versions in each Gospel) has often been used to debate whether babies and children go to Heaven or not… Please forget this over-spiritualizing of the Kingdom. Jesus barely, if ever, spoke of the afterlife. Think of the political Kingdom of God. Think of a society without the pretense of adulthood. One where you trust people because they make sense, and because they show good will towards you through service, and not because they wear a badge and carry a gun. Remember you are a child, stop lying to yourself and to others about how grown up you have to be, and look at the world again. Return home, and look at how things really are, not the way you were taught they must be. Ask yourself, why do you spend hours and hours making someone else richer while some people starve? Ask yourself, why do we throw away food? Ask yourself, why are we destroying the planet? Don’t be content with simply accepting it because someone important wrote somewhere that this is the law, that this is how things are, that if you don’t obey, a man with a costume will come and make you give him paper (money) or else shoot you. A child wants to know more, to ask why, without the pretense of trying to look more respectful than they should.

How would your life change if you treated everyone, including the people you hate the most, as a brother or sister? How would your life change if you dropped the pretense and pride you carry, which stops you from hugging and laughing and questioning? How would your school or workplace change if you treated the janitor with as much respect as the CEO? How would your city change if you refused to leave people abandoned because some other big baby wants to be greedy and keep all the food and houses and toys for himself?

It’s not necessarily about changing other people, although you need to invite them to live like you. Paul said so once, in chains, to a king. “I wish you would become like me, except for these chains”. The first step is changing yourself, and how you see yourself in relation to the world. Instead of asking “what do I do with my money”, ask “how am I stewarding God’s gifts?”. Afterwards, “what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Share the good news with your neighbor: you are not in competition! We are one! I will be responsible towards you! I care! We can be good! We can refuse to perpetuate the cycle of violence and greed! We can actually love our enemies, not just in word, but in action! We can offer the other cheek! We can do it! We can hope!

That is the Gospel. The Good News. Life beats Death.

It’s been 2000 years and things have gotten easier, perhaps less brutal. Maybe it hasn’t, which makes this movement of resistance still more relevant. If the government, or your boss, has something against it, well, give Caesar what is Caesar’s. They want paper? Let them have it! But do not let them have your life. Do not let them have your conscience. Do not let them have what belongs to God. You will be a blessing to all around you, and you will change what you can as much as you can for the good of all, without ever disrespecting the sacredness of life even in your enemies. Good thing is, in a democracy, we can do a lot more than in the Roman Empire.

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Be ready to carry a cross. Be ready to be killed and persecuted by those who love their power too much. Be ready to be ridiculed by those who call “mine” the things they were given to steward, the things that were here before they were born, which they cannot bring along to their grave.

As I finish writing this, I am amazed at how much I find myself quoting the bible, more than even my post about my Christianity. These are the principles by which I want to live my life, the way in which I want to follow Christ, and the way in which I want to relate to my neighbors. Any organized relationship with my neighbors is “politics”. I invite you to reflect on how you see these things, whether or not you believe a guy 2000 years ago may or may not have come back from the dead. In my next post, I want to speak of some concrete ways I think these things can be lived today. I am not interested in empty idealism. Yes, Idealism, and hope, and maybe even utopia, like a child. At the risk of crucifixion. Not empty, but full of grace and truth.


Picture: La Confession du Centurion, by James Tissot

Autophagy #3: My Existentialism

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

In the first post of this series I said the best way I have found to describe myself is an Agnostic Christian Existentialist. In the second post (here) I have laid out what I mean by “Agnostic Christian“. Now, I want to explain the Existentialist part. My text is divided in the following subtexts: Self Awareness and Babies, Language and Symbols, Being and Freedom, Responsibility, Ambiguity, Oppression, Essences and God, and My Christian Existentialism.

I will continue my process of autophagy and regurgitation, and, again, I invite you to join me and digest your own experiences and thoughts, to lay out everything you cannot digest, and make yourself comfortable in the mess until it starts making some sense.

I am writing this because I believe you, and everyone, can profit from thinking about these things. Existentialism is a modern school of thought, or tradition, in philosophy. Philosophers are people who like to ask questions and think very seriously. They think about everything, including about thinking. They debate and analyse everything that science, history, physics and hard sciences in general cannot deal with, such as what is good, what is just, what is right or wrong, what is life, why do we exist, why do we do what we do, etc. Philosophy is the mother of science and all other forms of methodical thinking. The Love of Wisdom. My point is, philosophy is important; the world would be better if everyone took the time to think about what they do, say, and believe. So, even if this is usually not your thing, let’s think together

There have been many different philosophers, and theologians, who spoke of existential ideas. They did not all agree about everything.  Some who influenced me the most to date are Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Jung, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tillich, and Freire. I dare include also the Tao Te Ching, the Tibbetan Book of the Dead, and even the Bhagavad Gita as powerful literary influences. Yet, as I write, I write of my existentialism: I have consciously learned from others, but I am not interested in defining and defending any one idea, but to digest and share my own thoughts.

Writing about these things is hard. I want to be understood by everybody and anybody. Thus I find myself in need of help, and I dare to ask you, reader, to work with me. Be patient with my text and with yourself. Read each paragraph slowly, ask yourself if you understand what it says, and then move to the next. Be conscious and intentional of your own thinking process. Think about what words mean.

I write, and it is up to you, the reader, to read.

SELF AWARENESS AND BABIES

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If you would for a second, try to imagine yourself as a fetus, back in your mother’s womb. I know, this sounds crazy, but please actually stop for 2 seconds and imagine it.

There you are, a small bundle of flesh, blood and bones, enclosed in warmth. One day, suddenly, there is pain, there is a push, and you find yourself being dragged somewhere. There is light, and air. Your eyes and lungs hurt for being used for the first time. People talk around you but you don’t understand because you haven’t learned the language yet. All is noise, your own crying, and laughter. Your skin tinges at the sensation of moving your arms and legs against air and cloth and skin for the first time. This world out here is not as warm as the womb was.

When you were a baby, you had no tools to process or express any of these feelings. Whether right now you think that this experience sounded terrifying, or very exciting, at the time you simply felt them, without words, without concepts. Your brain was pure elasticity receiving wild inputs from the world around you, and all you could do in that existence of pure emotion and sensation, was to cry. Your brain did not even keep an organized memory of your birth, because your experience was too chaotic to record.

Eventually, you learned to pick up on patterns: you recognized faces that gave you comfort, you became attached to toys, and you realized you could move your limbs and stand up straight. Eventually, you learned words. First, nouns. Then you learned other concepts such as time, so you could speak of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow, and tell the difference. If your parents spent their time talking with you, and asking you questions, eventually you learned to talk about your feelings, instead of simply crying. Maybe your parents didn’t, and maybe nobody did, and maybe you grew up without the concepts and words to make sense of and express your emotions, so now dealing with them is still difficult. Maybe you recognized a pattern with your parents that whenever you asked something you would receive it, so today you feel like everyone owes you something. Or maybe you never got what you asked, so you tell yourself that you don’t matter and nobody owes you anything. Maybe there was some balance in your life and you learned to ask and accept what comes your way.

One of the greatest breakthroughs in one’s development, but which many people still find difficult, is self-awareness. Self-awareness is precisely this: to be conscious of your self, including thoughts, feelings, and emotions. To understand “I am feeling this” and “I am thinking this”. Without self-awareness, we have the tendency to say “the world is this way”, instead. It is the huge difference between saying “clowns are scary” and “I am scared of clowns”. Knowing that the emotion is yours, not a property of other things.

The reason why this self-awareness is important is that it allows us to understand perspective. The understanding that I feel this way, and someone else feels another way, and both feelings are valid. That my feelings are not the way the world is, but rather, they are my experience. That other people have their own experience. That someone else’s feelings are legitimate, even if I don’t feel the same way.

My own experience of existential self-discovery has brought me to this realization: I am still that small fetus in the womb; I am still that baby; I am still a child. I have been around this world for 24 years and I have learned words and concepts, I have had experiences, I have asked questions, I have made friends, I have gotten a job, I have moved countries, I have defined and re-defined myself, but at the end of the day, I am still that baby; I am still me.

I am a confused baby in a wild world, and so are you.

This image, to me, is the best way to convey the complicated existential ideas that I hope to unpack in this text. Human history, human knowledge, civilization, science, language, words, politics, wars, religions, medicine, philosophy, technology, from quantum physics to the wheel, every single thing we think we know, every answer and every question, have all been a product of human experience as a collective of confused babies in a wild world trying to figure stuff out and get by.

Scared babies who, insecure, in need of comfort, would prefer the world to be less wild, so we choose to have an answer instead of navigating the world as Unknown. We tell ourselves we actually do know what and how the world is. To make ourselves more comfortable, we change the world around us, both literally – by building shelters and farms to ensure we have food – and in our own abstractions when we explain things to each other. We want to civilize the universe and each other, because we feel threatened by the greatness that escapes our knowledge. We give ourselves answers to questions we ourselves asked, and we actually believe those answers. We share these answers in order to bring comfort to one another, instead of dealing with the wild world we exist in and the wild people we live with.

I believe this happens in a cycle of trust (which is good) and laziness (which is bad). As a small child, for a number of reasons, I trusted my mom had all the answers to everything. I would never question her, because I trusted her. If she told me her answer to something, I would believe it was the absolute answer. Most, if not all children, are like this, until parents, or someone, make an effort to teach the child to be critical. My mom was very critical of others, so, watching her, I eventually learned a bit about being critical. Some of us never learn even when we’re old. Life constantly gives us chances to question the things we believe in, and we choose whether we will prefer to ask the questions and risk deconstructing everything we believe in, or, if we will prefer to be lazy, and afraid, and turn back to our comfortable answers. Likely, we stay comfortable until our answers fail us.

Think of the child who asks his mother, “Why did daddy go to war?”… Mother answers “daddy is a hero who is protecting us against bad people”. In this child’s brain, a concept is formed: “Daddy went to war because he is a hero who protects us against bad people”. Yet, somewhere else, across the world, there is another child, asking another mother, about another dad. That mother gives the same answer to her child: dad is a hero, who went to protect them against bad people. Both dads are fighting each other, heroes, protecting their family against unnamed “bad people”. There is a contradiction, as both dads cannot be both heroes and bad people at the same time, but for each child, and maybe even for each mom, and even the dads, that is their experience of war. They are heroes fighting against evil. The only way for them to question and deconstruct that belief is to seriously consider the other side.

The child hears the mother and simply accepts her answer as a fact. “Dad is a hero who protects me from bad people”. Eventually, the child learns that dad is a soldier. To him, all soldiers (on his side) are heroes. One day that child, 20, 30, or 50 years later, learns about the horrible things that happen at war, and how the other side suffered. The child is faced with the pain of having his beliefs questioned: maybe soldiers, and daddy, aren’t heroes. Maybe the enemies aren’t bad people. Maybe the full story is a lot more complex.

Facing that decision, maybe the amount of emotion, time, and effort invested in telling that original answer to himself has been great – lets say, by now, the child is also a soldier, also fighting a war, telling himself the reason he is shooting a stranger is because he is doing the right thing – so it would cost far too much, psychologically, to challenge that belief. So the child chooses not to ask further questions. He tells himself he can only afford to care for his own family, not for a stranger, so he pulls the trigger. He tells himself his commanders know best. He tells himself he would not be there if it wasn’t the right thing. That God would not allow this to happen if it wasn’t the right thing. He repeats to himself all the ways he can try to justify his actions, and he refuses to go further.

Or, maybe, the child has devoted more energy, time, and emotion, into telling himself that it is important to protect those who cannot fight, and to fight for justice, and chose to do so by doing social work, or by becoming a medical doctor, rather than a soldier. He did not invest a lot into justifying the military. When the child learns that the other side of the war is also full of poor people suffering injustice, poor people who are also trying to protect their own families, then, although it hurts to question, it doesn’t hurt as much. Rather, he is actually motivated to know and defend the poor and those who cannot fight for themselves, even if they are called “the enemy“. So he stops, and he ponders the complexity of his original question. He allows himself to ask more questions, to dissect the idea that “Daddy went to war because he is a hero who is protecting us from bad people”: Who is daddy? What is his personal history and motivations to go to war? What is war? What is this specific war that daddy went to? Who are these bad people? Why are they bad? What is daddy protecting? Why does he need to be the one protecting it, if he never met those people before? Why did he choose to be a soldier? Why didn’t dad stay home, and the other dad also stay home? Why did they have to fight? Who is profiting from this? Who is making and selling all these weapons? Why doesn’t the media show both sides?

Hopefully, the child will realize “I am a child who asked a question, my mom is a child who gave me an answer, and I believed her answer”, and start treating those answers accordingly. Hopefully the child will become self-conscious, and choose to remain curious, looking at both sides, and understanding that every answer is someone’s answer, and that we are all together trying to discover and understand the way things are. That every book ever written was written by someone, by a grown-up baby full of thoughts and feelings and emotions that are undeniable. That every time someone did the right thing, it was really the best thing they could, and there is no book or tablet anywhere saying what is the right thing to do in any given situation. That every time we speak of meaning, of value, of importance, of identity, we are using ideas that exist in our mind only, ideas that depend on language, and that can always be questioned another time.

One of the major breakthroughs of my own life was to accept that I have feelings and emotions, and to try to get to know them, and own them, and live with them, because they make who I am, rather than push them aside. Feelings and emotions hurt, they make me vulnerable, they make me volatile. I’ve been told that logic doesn’t, that logic is neutral, that it doesn’t get dirty. So for most of my life I tried to ignore my feelings and to believe I was being completely logical and rational. I would often project that belief of rationality into God, and believe that I was saying the truth as long as I was quoting the bible, never realizing that behind that facade of logic I still have biases and tendencies and interest. I thought that if I avoided saying “I think” and said “it is” instead, I would be less biased, not realizing that all I was doing was detaching myself of my own thoughts. I would believe that through the bible, and science, I had a direct lens into what nature is, into what reason is, as if they are disconnect from people. The way things are. If someone disagreed with me, I wouldn’t believe they really disagreed with me, but rather, that they did not really understand how things are, how the world is, natural reason, or what God said. For example, the Apostle Paul affirms that nature clearly teaches this and that, in his letter to the church in Corinth. When I accepted that we are all grown-up children, including Paul, I asked myself, why does Paul think that nature teaches this and that?

LANGUAGE AND SYMBOLS

Understanding that different people think and feel things differently than I do,  even when we are both perfectly rational and intelligent, was a big lesson, even if it seems rather simple whenever I see two people describing the same object differently. Accepting this about myself and others has been essential to navigating the world. It taught me to listen more, and to pay more attention to my own words. One useful way to conceptualize this is making the difference between Subject and Object. This is a difference we find when studying language, and as we are, our brains are accustomed to thinking in terms of language (knowing more than one language opens up your concepts a whole lot!). When we discuss these things, we are speaking of patterns in the brains of human beings, in the way we, as humans, conceptualize our experience. For most of history, before the modern era, philosophers did not make this distinction. From Socrates to Aristotle to Aquinas, philosophers discussed words and definitions as if they are true objects in the world. By the time of Kant, the difference between our experience and our concepts, and things in themselves, began to be stressed in philosophy. By the time of post-modernism, we embraced the fact that our thoughts are always subjective, not objective. In other words, that my impression of some thing is my impression, not the way the thing is.

Again, language. Subject is someone, someone with a perspective, thoughts, feelings. I am a subject. An object is a thing, static, or the target of an action.

When I say the sentence “I am writing to you”, the word “I” is the subject, the word “talking” is the verb/action, and the word “you” is the object. The subject is the agent of the verb/action, and the object is the one that receives the action, or, in classic English, the one that suffers it. This is just language, syntax, but let us break it down even further, back to reality, by thinking of the meaning of these words: As I write “I am writing to you”, I am experiencing what it is to be me, and I am fully my own subject. Only I have all my thoughts and feelings and experiences, and that is what I mean when I say “I”. When I say “you”, I am thinking “the person reading this text”. I do not know your feelings, thoughts, emotions and experiences right now. I do not even know who exactly is reading my text. All I have is a “reader”, a static, abstract, object. However, in reality, as you are reading this, you do not know my feelings, thoughts and emotions, unless I tell them to you. You may not even know who I am. But you know your own feelings, thoughts, and emotions, and you are your own subject. We experience the dynamic of subject and object in reverse. It is always paradoxical.

In other words, in this moment, you are your own “I”. You are the most evident reality in your own experience of life, and I am just an abstract “author”. You might not even be thinking of “author”, but maybe just “blog”, or “post”. In your experience, you are the subject, and this text is an object. So here we have two subjects communicating, but experiencing each other as objects. One writes, the other reads.

The meaning of the word “to objectify” lies in this. I believe this is very important, it is at the center of my religion, and of my existential experience. Whenever I treat another human being as less than a subject, I am treating him or her as less than she or he is. You are not just a reader. I am not just a student, or just a worker, or just a taxpayer, or just a Brazilian, or just a Canadian Resident, or just my mother’s son, or just an immigrant, or just a white person, or just a cis-male person. I am. The meaning behind “I am” transcends all of these things, but I live in a world that does not experience my life as I do. I live in a world where most people see me as just a young white cis-male from Brazil who immigrated to Canada, studies theology, works, and pays his taxes. Most people, directly or indirectly, will see and treat me as just that.

BEING AND FREEDOM

These labels and identities were put on me by other people, as the answer to “what I am”. My existential attitude is to own and transcend them.

On one hand, I am a human being. That means, this being, that I am, is human. As a human being, I am also a historical and social being. Historical, because so many of the things I am (white, male, cis, Brazilian, Canadian, student, worker, etc.) exist in history, they are tied to events and ideas of groups that developed over time, and that are always being rethought. I exist in history, because I was not born complete, and I will not die complete. I am not the same yesterday and will not be the same tomorrow, even though, through changes and development, I still am. I am historical because there are things I know, and things I don’t, but, knowing my own ignorance, I have the possibility to address it. I am historical because being taught one narrative of history, and knowing its subjectivity, I can transcend it by learning other narratives about the same history and gain a broader vision. I am historical because I am part of my own narrative of history, and every action I take shapes my future. I am social, because everything I know, I know because of society. I depend and exist together with other humans. Other humans depend and exist together with me. Being historical and social, I am political. I am part of groups, and these groups have their history with other groups. Being all these things, I have different possibilities and limitations than other groups. Being male, I cannot be pregnant. Being white in the Americas, I do not come from a history of slavery. Etc.

On the other hand, I simply am. I am beyond all of these groups, identities, and categories. In my constant change and transformation, I choose what to do next. What I do next, defines what I become. Unfinished, I exist existing, I am being, and I become becoming. I was given all of these contingent aspects of myself (being white, male, Brazilian, etc), but I am the one to choose what do I do with them. Life, the Universe, God, History, Society, together they give me aspects of what I am, but it is up to me to answer “What are you going to do about it?”, and transcend what I was, and become, every day, more me, by making my own decisions, or less me, by simply doing what is expected of me by contingency. I am the one who can decide to be just another Brazilian, or, to choose to know what makes me Brazilian, and then keep my actions in check, so I can act as I choose to act and not just reproduce my culture. I am the one who can just be another male, and treat women the way society taught me to, or, knowing and understanding my own socialization as male, transcend it, and treat women as I choose to, rather than just replicate the way I was raised.

RESPONSIBILITY

Although I was given a list of contingent aspects of my self, I am the only one who can choose what I will do about it. This is what I understand Radical Freedom to mean.

Radical Freedom, however, also means Radical Responsibility. I choose what I do with what I happen to be, and thus, I become. It means that, when I want to blame my actions on contingency (the things I happen to be, like, young, or, a student), I am being dishonest. Whenever I act as if I had no choice, I am acting with “bad faith”, or mauvaise foi.  When I say “Oh, yes, I catcalled her, I mean, I’m a man, and look how she’s dressed!”, what I am really saying is, being a man, and being socialized to catcall, and having sexual instincts, I choose to not control them, but rather, to pretend like the woman is responsible for my own actions. When I say “Well, he offended my girlfriend, I just had to punch him”, what I am really saying is that he made me punch him, with his actions, and I had no control: I am just a machine that responds to input. When I say “Well, there’s nothing I can do, this is just how I am”, what I am really saying is that, at some point of my life, I stopped changing, I stopped learning, evolving, becoming, and now there is nothing I can do about my actions. When I say “It’s not my fault you’re offended by what I said, I’m just being honest”, what I am really saying is that I have no control on the choice of my words, rather than owning the fact that I chose these words, that I could have chosen better words, and apologizing. When I say “It’s not my fault, I was just following orders”, what I am saying is that, the moment I hear orders from a superior, I stop having a brain, I stop thinking critically, and I become a machine that executes commands, instead of being a full subject, a person, who listens to an order and then chooses to follow it.

Passing on our personal responsibility is one of the primary ways we allow for evil in this world. Whenever we assume ourselves as an unquestionable part of a group, and we forego our personal responsibility, we project our choices and our thoughts and our feelings as abstract objects outside ourselves. These abstract objects (the empire, the nation, the government, the market, the church, the will of God) become the agents of evil in the world, and because they are abstract, and detached from any one person, they become extremely difficult to address when you are the one suffering in its hands. Instead of saying things like “Mr. Smith and Mr. Simpson decided to fire 5.000 workers nationwide instead of risking lowering their margin of profit or reducing their own salaries”, we say things like “Due to the current state of economy, the market dictated a shift in the workforce”, as if the events are unrelated to human choice.

We also forego our responsibility not just by objectifying ourselves, but also by objectifying others, and pretending they are not subjects. Whenever Romans treated other peoples as “barbarians”, whenever soldiers killed or bombed “enemies” and “terrorists”,  whenever men refused to listen to “hysterical” women, whenever white people refused to treat “negroes” equally, whenever a person was reduced to “slave“, whenever people working are referred to as “human resources”, whenever there is oppression, we use language to justify treating people as less than subjects – as objects. We choose to call people by words that do not express their subjectivity, words that reduce them to less-than, in order to justify our actions. It is easy to bomb the “enemy“. It is easy to advocate the imprisonment of “criminals“. It is easy to tell a “hysterical” woman to shut up. It is easy to force “barbarians” to learn your language and customs and dress your clothes. It is hard, on the other hand, to make oneself responsible to care about each of these people’s names, dreams, hopes, history, families, preferences, etc. By learning to stop using words that steal people of their subjectivity, labels that steal someone’s individuality, we can learn to treat each other as full subjects, just as we are.

Not all of it is evil, however. This radical freedom we have is terrifying. Being responsible for what I become is a lot of responsibility. Nobody can live my life for me or prepare me for every choice. I learn by doing it, which means I will make mistakes. When I was 21 I chose to leave psychology and study theology, and I can never go back to 21 and choose neuroscience instead. Every choice is final, and I have to learn to live with it. Every relationship that ended, every word I could have said, every passing moment, every thing I do ends the potential of a thousand other things I could have done. That is the weight of existence, the weight of freedom. Having simple answers, being told what to do, accepting our group identity without question, accepting the role someone gave us, is maybe the only way we can live and not have to deal with that weight. The easy way, but not true, and not responsible.

AMBIGUITY

How do I live, then? Living in that tension between the finite – all the ways I am limited, knowing the universe is bigger than me, that I do not have a lot of time, that I have limited opportunities – and the infinite – so much I could do, I could quit my job, I could light myself on fire, I could start learning a new language, I could pack up my things and go to a different city, I could quit my university program, I could join a trade school, etc – is the paradox that, when I stop to think about it, we all face every day, at every decision, and it is terrifying. Kierkegaard believed that thinking about this reality makes people feel an immense amount of anguish, and running away from that anguish is one of the driving motives of our daily lives. It fills me with anxiety because I realize that I am responsible for my own choices, and even when I blame others, ultimately, I am the one to choose.

I could kill myself anytime, yet, I choose to live. Why? (pause.)

The scary thing of “I could do whatever I choose to”, as long as I am ready to deal with the consequences, is that I realize that my life is in my hands. Yes, there are circumstances, and limitations, but I am the one who chooses what to do with these circumstances and limitations. Do I choose to be paralyzed and scared that whatever I do may be meaningless? Do I give up on every possibility just because I cannot realize them all? Or do I choose to do something?  (pause.)

I mentioned in my first post that I have an immune deficiency. Every month I choose to get a shot of antibodies and live to see the next. I don’t have to. It is my choice. Walking this thin line between owning my freedom and responsibility, and assigning them to something else to make my decisions for me (governments, media, church, parents, etc.), is the thin line between being subject and object. I want to be the subject of my life. I want to be the one living, feeling, thinking, deciding, acting. I want to tell the story of things I did and thought and felt, not the story of all the events that happened to me. I want to live my life, not simply watch it, not simply suffer it, but live it.

I want to live a responsible life, to be an active agent, someone who consciously does what he wants. To do that, I need to acknowledge and understand the ways my life is objectified, how I am a passive receiver of so many things around me, how I am tossed around by circumstances. I need to understand the same thing about others. We cannot escape objectification, but by understanding it, and being responsible about it, we can transcend it.  Whenever I interact with a human being, directly or indirectly, I need to be conscious of the paradox between both of our subjectivities meeting each other, both freedoms clashing, objectifying one another. When I say something, I experience all my intentions and thoughts and emotions, but the person I am talking to does not, and vice-verse. I need to transcend that barrier by choosing to care for the other subject as much as I care for myself, with empathy, active listening, and perspective. Conversely, I need to open myself to others so they can understand me as a subject.

Whatever I choose to say, whatever I choose to do, I am responsible. How do I know I am doing the right thing? I don’t. There is no easy line, no easy answer. I need to meet every situation with care, by treating every person as a subject, trying to understand how to act in the best way. In other words, the only guideline I have is to love my neighbor as myself.

OPPRESSION

Oppression is a popular word nowadays. It is hard to talk about politics without hearing about it, but, what does it mean? For a long time I only had a vague idea, a caricature.

Oppression is denied freedom. Contingency is not oppression, for example, I am not being oppressed by having an immune deficiency, even if it severely limits my freedom (being away from Canada for more than a month may imply my death, or, at least, having to pay hefty amounts of money to get the injection I need). Someone having a lot of melanin, or being born as a female human, is not being oppressed. That is simple contingency.

Oppression is freedom denied by someone. It can be directly, for example, when human traffickers kidnap illegal immigrants and sell them as slaves. But it can also be indirectly, or systemic, and often times, even unintentional. Even when unintentional, however, we are still responsible, because oppression is always caused by someone, so only someone can stop it. Oppression happens when the freedom of one person, or of a group, denies the freedom of others.

For example, if you were born with lots of melanin, that is mere contingency. Being African-American, or “Black”, is, on the other hand, a historical and social matter. It means that your ancestors were brought to the continent as slaves, while my ancestors (I am white) were brought as masters. It means that when your great- great-grandparents were set free, they had nothing, while my ancestors had the accumulated inheritance of 300 years of profiting from slavery work. The white children had wealthy inheritances, education, and were sent to the best schools, to get the best jobs, and treated as the best citizens. The black children had to fight much harder for any money, did not inherit anything, and could not afford an education, which gave them the worst jobs; they were grouped in ghettos, and treated as lesser citizens. A hundred and fifty years went by, and the effects are still seen today. So even when, as a white person, I do not have anything personal against any black person, I understand that I have privilege, while they come from a history of oppression. My family is of European immigrants who came to Brazil running from the Great War. At the time, racism was strong and blatant, so my hard-working grand-parents, who are white and European, even though they had to work hard for every penny, were given the option of living in neighborhoods and working at jobs where black people were not welcome. They accumulated wealth much easier than the black families. They never had to prove themselves, but rather, by merely having white skin and blue eyes, people already assumed they were intelligent and capable. Coming from families that valued education, they sent my mom to an expensive school, while most black families, trying to simply get by, had their children leave school as early as possible in order to be able to bring some income home. When my parents divorced and I was living in a very poor area of São Paulo with a young single mother, and many of my friends came from the favelas around, even though we are “equal”, and my mom worked hard for every penny, I need to be honest that she was accepted at jobs not just for her resume and skills (acquired through expensive education), but also for being blonde. I am not specially smarter, but my mom read books around me, while many of my friends’ parents never could afford much of an education. Yes, both my mom and my black friends’ parents are “equal” before the law, but to deny that my mom’s freedom and her range of choices in life is much greater than that of my black friends, is to be blind to history.

It is not the active racism of any one person. I am not “racist” as Hitler or the KKK, but I was born, and I profit, from a society with a history of racism. But how is this oppression? It is not the active oppression of any one person. It is the consequence of the inaction of countless people who act like this was never anyone’s responsibility. We talk of slavery as an abstract thing that happened, rather than the choice of individuals who actively enslaved others. When slavery was abolished, these individuals contented themselves with “now everyone is equal before the law”, and that was it. The damage of almost 400 years of active oppression still lingers, in the form of systemic oppression: the maintenance of a status quo that benefits one group above the other.

Or with women, who were denied to vote, to have social and political power, and who had to fight for it. Who, still today, are blamed for men’s actions whenever men choose to trespass the limits of their bodies. Who, still today, are treated as just sexual objects. Who, still today, hear jokes about how women cannot be understood, as if they are not subjects who think and feel and communicate. Who, still today, are told by men what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies, without ever being asked their own opinion. Who, still today, are told to “know their place”. Women are subjects, individuals, selves, just like I am. My girlfriend thinks, feels, and experiences her life as truly and as intensely as I think, feel, and experience my own life. When she says no to something, she means it. When she disagrees with something, she means it. When she expresses her opinion, she means it. And I need to believe that, believe that she is her self, and not just “a woman”, not just “my girlfriend”, with an assigned role. She is free. Whenever men, neglecting their own responsibility, and neglecting her subjectivity, treat her as less than she is, she is oppressed. Whether they meant it or not. The fact that our culture does this systematically, and I need to police my own actions because I know I was raised in a misogynistic culture, is why I choose to be her ally when she wants to fight for women’s rights.

When men say women cannot be logical, that they cannot work, cannot choose their own clothes, cannot do certain tasks, cannot do whatever some men think women cannot do, they are telling women they have less freedom than they actually do. When men say they raped a woman because of what she was dressing, they are pretending it wasn’t their choice, reducing their own freedom, saying they are as incapable of controlling their own instincts as mad dogs, while at the same time, limiting the woman’s freedom to dress what she wants, and giving her the burden of being responsible not just for her own actions, but also for men’s.

Again, think of what I explained earlier: people are subjects, not objects. Treating people as objects, and bringing them to believe they are objects, is oppression. When your use of freedom limits the freedom of others, you are oppressing them.

For example, Mussolini thought Italy was being wronged for not being allowed to have colonies, like the rest of Europe. Looking around at the other European countries, Mussolini felt like Italy as excluded. The Italian people, refusing to think for themselves, believed him. They chose to use their freedom to invade Ethiopia, in order to colonize it, failing to recognize that they were not treating Ethiopian people like subjects, who have as much freedom as themselves. Disrespecting the other’s freedom, they entered conflict. Thinking that the standard of freedom should be that of the European oppressors, Italy made itself another oppressor. Thankfully, Ethiopia became independent of Italian control in the aftermath of the second World War.

Or, when Christians, in their missions, colonizing the Americas, treated native peoples as barbarians, forcing them to attend Christian schools, dress Christian clothes, and worship the Christian god, they treated the native peoples as if they were objects, not subjects with inherent freedom, to be respected.

When tribes enslaved each other in Africa, they treated their brothers like objects. When white Europeans enslaved Africans, or purchased already enslaved Africans,  they perpetuated that objectification, becoming part of that system of oppression. When policemen reproduce the racist culture they were raised into, so that they never stop to wonder why is it that they always assume a black kid is a criminal, but always treat white kids nicely, being ready to shoot one while accommodating the other, they are being part of a system of oppression and racism. Maybe not because they personally choose to, but because they are too lazy and coward to question their own beliefs and to own the responsibility for their actions.

When people tell other people, or even themselves, that they should do this or that, or that they cannot do this or that, because they are born with a penis or a vagina, they are denying the freedom of others and of themselves.

And above all, whenever someone thinks that because he has a lot of money it is his freedom to just make more, infinitely, while people who do not have money should just work to make him richer, and he projects his actions into abstract ideas that absolve him from responsibility, he is oppressing them.

Our very systems of law, of writing down an abstraction such as “murder is a crime” or “murder is a sin”, are ways to deny our freedom. The language games that lawyers play in public tribunes are enough proof of that, justifying all sorts of injustice. I will not murder because I respect life. I may want a murderer to be punished for disrespecting life. But choosing not to murder because someone decided to call it “crime” or “sin“, is a failure to own my own actions. In the same way, I will not cheat on my girlfriend because I choose not to make her sad, not to betray her expectations of me, not to damage our relationship. If I did not care for her, it would not matter if people called cheating a sin or not.

Choosing to stay comfortable and unaware of subjectivity makes it easy for you to be manipulated. If I tell you a group of people sold weapons to this other group of people, so they can kill other people. You ask me, who are these people? …I could tell you that John and Mary sold weapons to Robert and George so they can kill Jimmy and Andrew. You would ask me their motivations: Why did they do this? Why do they think it is a good idea that Jimmy and Andrew die? On the other hand, I could say that Americans sold weapons to the French so they could kill terrorists. Now you, most likely, automatically think that is a good thing. Terrorists should die. But, there are no terrorists: There are people. We choose to reduce them to the label of terrorists. One could also say that guerrillas sold weapons to terrorists to kill Americans. The people telling you the story, the people who choose if they call a group “freedom fighters” or “terrorists“, “heroes” or “villains“, “brave soldiers” or “enemies“, have an immense amount of control over your opinion if you simply believe the labels they give you.

The government could make it a crime to have green eyes, and then the media could tell you that brave policemen invaded a criminal resistance and arrested several “criminals” to bring them to jail. You could think “oh well, good job mr. policeman, you got rid of criminals“, and support a great tragedy in the name of a false justice. This is, in a large way, how the Holocaust happened. Most German people were well-intended citizens who believed what Hitler said and trusted the government. Most German soldiers could have been brave men who chose to do the greatest sacrifice and follow their orders, even if they didn’t understand them. But when the time came for moral decisions, when their conscience tightened, they chose to just follow their orders.

Again, unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We are all responsible.

ESSENCES AND GOD

Coming back to the subject of words, one of the words we have made up in the past is the word “essence“. This is a very important word in the history of philosophy. An essence is the answer to the question of “what is this?”. For example, a square is a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles. Thus, the essence of a square, is a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles. A lot of classic and medieval philosophy treated essences as actual things. In other words, “a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles”, to many classic and medieval philosophers, was not just the way the human brain tries to make sense of the thing we call square, but rather, an actual thing, out there somewhere, of which we had innate knowledge, that as human beings we recognized when we looked at squares. This idea was expressed in different ways by different philosophers, from the Platonic theory of forms to Thomistic Realism.

Although I see the logic behind these ideas in general, my impression is that they depend on a lot of confirmation bias. The more I learn about psychology, neuroscience, and even other metaphysical worldviews from Eastern cultures, along with anthropology, sociology, and phenomenological thinking, the more it seems to me that, again, what is really happening when we speak of essence is the projection of our thoughts into reality, where we detach ourselves from our ideas and treat them as actual things.

The reason I bring up this subject is because essences are at the heart of how orthodox Christian theology has developed over the centuries. God is spoken of as “pure essence”, and it does not surprise me that modern and not-so-modern atheists accuse theists of worshiping a projection, an imaginary friend of sorts. This essentialist thinking allows, indeed, for that. Pretending that we know how the world is, and how things work, and what God is, we limit our ideas of God to our limited understanding, to our culture, to our biases, and to our contingency. We end up speaking of a God who is white, male, and wealthy. We end up speaking of a God who is far too much like us.

MY CHRISTIAN EXISTENTIALISM

The God I meet in the Prophets and in the Gospels is a God who actively works to subvert human ideas of order, power, knowledge, etc. God encounters Man as Other, as pure Subject who, when asked for its name, answers “I am that I am”. When Prophets meet God, God is the utterly Unknown, Wild, Beyond. In their texts, the prophets, still speaking with the language they were used to, and addressing God in human terms (an all-powerful male Lord/slave-master or King), they showed their bewilderment and lack of understanding as they spoke of this God who subverts everything they think they know.

As a Christian Existentialist, I cannot accept a God that is just a projection of my contingency. I cannot even accept a God that is a projection of my choices and preferences, of my sensitivities, of my political stances. God is the God that encounters me, who challenges me, who subverts me and everything I know. God is the Life-giving Spirit, the Logos behind creation, the one in whom we live and have our being.

God is the mystery behind what I call Existence. He is the Subject behind the world we are all trying to discover together. Being itself. God is Life, and Truth, beyond myself and beyond my pretensions of knowledge. God is the subject responsible for all contingency. God is the void that stares deeply into my soul and shows me I am dust. God is the fullness that bursts from within me in love and laughter.

God is, and I am not.

Yet, I am, like God.


…On my next post I will speak of how my Agnostic Christian Existentialism defines my stances on politics. I hope this text has helped you learn more about yourself and the world you live in. I hope I gave you good questions to pose. If you want to ask or share your own thoughts, feel free to comment or to reach out to me.


 

Picture: Non, je ne regrette rien, 2007, by Wanguchi Mutu

Recommended Bibliography

The Karamazov Brothers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Siddartha, Herman Hesse

Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre

The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir

The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich

Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche

Tao Te Ching, Laozi

Autophagy #2: My Agnostic Christianity

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. 

Autophagy #1: Biographic Reflections

This post series is an exercise of autophagy and regurgitation (Which is why I created this blog). I am writing to get some things clear to myself, to identify and own my contradictions, while also offering, to you, dear reader, the chance to participate. Everything here is a bit of a mess, and I hope to make it a clear mess, and, hopefully, communicate the sense I find in it. If you are one of my friends who have been all too confused about what exactly I think or believe about this or that, I hope this will bring clarification. As I regurgitate where you stand, I hope you will be moved to do so, too.

Today my ideal is to be a conscious child, who can make-believe and play the games of adulthood, while laughing at anyone who takes them too seriously. Some of these games are religion, government, money, authority, etc. But as the Christ, and the Buddha, and Krishna, who join humanity from above the human self-complications, I do not want to be a nihilistic cynic, self-destructive and bored, but rather an actual child, bursting with life and creativity, able, above all, to suffer, especially at the sight of those who harm themselves because they believe too much in the wrong things, such as possessions, rules, or group-identity.

This text is divided in parts. My goal is to discuss ideas, but I have lost my belief in disembodied ideas that can be argued outside of human reality. Therefore, the first part deals with important transitions in my life, and the process through which I became de-churched. Honesty demands that I be clear regarding how my personal history is part of shaping my thoughts. Love demands that I be vulnerable. I am not a floating brain in a vacuum, alone with my thoughts for eternity, therefore, I don’t believe in pure rationality or abstract ideas detached from a context. I am not a computer, and neither are you. My ideas surged within my contexts, and both are needed to make sense of each other. I hope this leads you to empathize and to reflect on your own history, asking how your ideas relate to the story you tell yourself about yourself. I hope you will see how both affect each other.

The next posts, to come, will discuss my agnostic convictions, my Christianity, my existentialism, and how these shape my political stances.

Part 1 – Biographic reflections

I was raised by a very young single mother, after an ugly divorce, in the inner city of São Paulo, Brazil. I grew up in a Pentecostal church; there we firmly believed and preached the supernatural, and in our Sunday schools we read and studied the biblical text very seriously. We firmly believed the bible is the Word of God and everything it says is true. From that young age I was very passionate of apologetics – the defense of the faith – and I went through a fair share of debates, with friends and strangers, defending the truth of Scriptures. I would read and listen to lectures on the historical truth of the bible, rebuttals to neo-atheism, defense of Intelligent Design, and so on.

Coming to North America at the age of 17, I found the average Christians I met here to be rather ignorant of the bible. In bible-study discussions, I would mention stories, characters and verses from the New and Old Testament, showing that I understand the internal references in the canon, instead of commenting  things like “when I read this text I feel this way”. Adults around me would answer “Oh, Lucas, you know so much! Did you go to bible school?”. I was disappointed at the comfortable Christianity I saw around me. While in the violence and poverty of Brazil Christians can quote scriptures as a lawyer quotes the Law, the Christians I met here seemed to meet on Sundays for feel good sessions. My pious young brain screamed silently, in judgement: “How are you calling yourselves Christians if you don’t even know the bible?” “How can you say you understand the Gospels if you never read Isaiah, or Hebrews, if you never read Deuteronomy?” – I was an anguished idealist kid. I was also rather lonely, and depressed, living in a new, cold country, where I couldn’t carry a conversation in English without someone correcting my pronunciation (or pretending to understand when they didn’t), where I didn’t feel smart because I did not have the vocabulary to express myself, and where I did not speak the actual local language (French), so it was hard to make friends outside a few limited circles. All my friends were thousands of kilometres south. I spent a lot of my time on the internet, unaware of my own loneliness and depression, projecting them in existential and theological questions: Did God care? Was He going to help me? Would I find a girlfriend? Was it my choice to come here, or was it destiny? It pained me to come to a place where I know I will not have the same chances at financial and social success as people who grew up here: as much as I am white-skinned and won’t suffer the prejudice other immigrants suffer, my family name still sounds strange, and I will never get all the cultural references, the unspoken social rules, etc. I don’t like hockey nor baseball. I will always be an outsider discovering the local culture. I write all of this because, at the time, I was rather unaware (or in denial?) of all this anguish and bitterness: I only saw the cosmic dilemmas, disguised in my sense of rationality. My brain felt lonely, but couldn’t distinguish loneliness from friends and loneliness from God/Life/Universe/Cosmos. All I could see was my mind, my rationality, God, and the big questions. I was blind to my own emotions and social context, even though I suffered them deeply. Oblivious of myself. I find it important to underline all these circumstances today to remember that maybe I was the one being bitter and judgemental, that maybe I am an emotional and social animal who suffers with isolation. That is ok. It is ok to be human. I am human, and I tried to hide my flesh-and-feelings humanity by only thinking of God.

I was 17 and I had no idea how severely sexually repressed I was. On one hand I wasn’t too confident, and language barriers made me unable to communicate and sound smart, which is half of my charm, so I was hopeless with girls. On the other hand, I needed the assurance that my relationship with God was good, and it depended on me to show that I truly know and love him by living a chaste life, which meant staying off of pornography and masturbation, of finding a good Christian girl, dating her, receiving her father’s blessing, and only then, after marriage, having sex. On one way I repressed sexual thoughts and feelings, on the other hand I idealized sex as a mystical experience enclosed in sacred matrimony. This paradox of repression and idealization led to a cycle of pornography, guilt, intense emotional prayers for forgiveness, and confession to my Christian brothers. They were sympathetic, because every single Christian young man who followed the traditional ideas about sexuality had a pornography problem, and we were encouraged to confess to each other, whether or not we had real intimacy as friends outside church walls. These constant failures to live up the ideals of chastity led to constant questions regarding my salvation: how legitimate was my repentance? Would God ever deliver me? Isn’t my lack of self-control a lack of fruit, evidence against my salvation? Again, projecting that loneliness into a disguise of rationality, I became obsessed with the dilemma of determinism and freewill: Calvinism versus Arminianism. I found assurance and belonging watching sermons by Pr. Paul Washer (whom I still respect above most evangelical pastors), who cries against the comfortable middle class Christianity in North America, where people call themselves Christian without any effort or knowledge derived from their Christianity, living in a bubble of social seclusion and self-affirmation, denying the demands and challenges of the biblical text. Pr. Washer and others became symbols of a movement of Neo-Calvinists, the Young, Restless and Reformed, recovering a form of puritanism in modern times. Many of these new reformed Christians, including me, spent much of their time calling out against other forms of Christianity that did not seem smart or invested enough to understand the “Doctrines of Grace”. The paradigm of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace brought my internal conflicts with sexuality to a cosmic scale: Instead of dealing with my view of women, relationships, and institutions, I projected that anguish into wanting to fix the church-world around me and find people who took it all as intensely as I did, to experience Christianity in its true form.

By God’s grace I met incredible friends who became brothers to me through great experiences. We would meet every Saturday, study the bible, cook and share a meal together, and bring sandwiches to homeless people around the city while hoping to have a chance to talk to them about their need of salvation. We shared bread and wine, glad of our fellowship away from the hypocrisy of the institutional churches we belonged to, obeying Jesus and organizing ourselves instead of waiting until a church set up a schedule with a program for us to do it. This sort of anti-institution Christian community, a religious anarchy, enabled me as a person, taking me out of depression and loneliness. I was happier, and nicer. It also eased my brain to continue to consider the cosmic questions. Working on my ideas led to changes in my self and my environment, and changes on my self and my environment led to changes in my ideas. Feeling less lonely, I felt less bitter, less judgmental.

The answers I had – being the rebel Reformed Christian who wanted to challenge the religious status quo – were working out for me, even though my discontentment and doubts were fermenting as I studied psychology, read philosophy books, and learned more of the history of my own evangelical beliefs. Yet again, pure rationality wasn’t enough to break through as long as it all, at the end of the day, worked out for me. I was dating and in love with a good Christian girl, and we were already planning our next two or three years until marriage (every church discussion about relationships or sexuality was a talk about marriage, so there was no way to not talk about it). I only allowed myself to take my doubts seriously once my answers failed me. Once we broke up, the ideals of commitment and self-giving, of forgiveness and understanding, of community support, of promise-keeping, and so many things I deemed essential to the Christian life, crashed through as insufficient, because at the end of the day, my church friends and surrounding thought we didn’t owe anything to each other until we were actually married. I felt angry at God: I felt betrayed, lied to. I belonged to a community that would not welcome a relationship unless it aimed at marriage, but that at the same time, gave no value to the relationship until the wedding. A community that preached that once married, we would need to stay faithful and together regardless of any differences. It seemed to me, in between the lines of all the talks I had with church friends, that the church’s stance on marriage was: If you don’t have a ring and if you haven’t signed the contract, you are not allowed to have sex, but you are free to break each other’s heart and you don’t need to keep promises, but if you do get that ring, and you do sign the contract, you can have sex, but then you have to follow your promises regardless of abuse or unhappiness. Everything else was idealized talk to justify it. At the core, it seemed like senseless legalism, which people needed constant affirmation and self-reminding in order to continue believing in it.

It was then that all the doubts and discontentment that had been fermenting on the level of intellectual ideas broke through: Maybe modern conservative notions of marriage are, indeed, remnants of old patriarchal structures that treated women like property. Maybe the reason why no man I know keeps the chastity ideals is because these ideals simply do not, and will never, work in our social context (since we can’t arrange a marriage when we’re 13, and we try to treat women like equals). Maybe the reason we need constant preaching to ourselves to keep believing this works is precisely because it doesn’t. These questions shifted from pure intellectual curiosity to serious questioning, and I felt myself distancing from my church communities. Still, the Christian brothers and sisters I made outside church walls, in that religious anarchy, remained close for much longer (one of which is Gabe, co-author in this blog, still one of my best friends). Other friends who remained close regardless were the ones who knew all sides of me: the ones who knew me in church, at work, and in school, both as a Christian and as Lucas.

In the midst of all of this, oblivious to myself, I pondered: Who exactly is Lucas? Who is God? Who was Jesus? What do I really believe? If the bible is out of context when we speak of marriage, is there anything else in it worth questioning? Isn’t this just my sinful heart looking for the answers it wants to hear?

I read, I studied, I thought, I struggled. I met my pastors in private to discuss my ideas on the bible. I stayed within church, I joined “church plants” in the hopes that by doing more, by diving deeper, that believing harder, I would find answers to my doubts. Making drastic decisions because of a breakup is unwise, so I let myself get over the heartbreak while remaining active in church. I wanted to calm down and think things through, investigate and study the answers to my questions, and not simply turn away from everything in late teenager angst. At the same time, I slowly opened myself beyond church. I felt more and more distant from the forced-intimacy friends from church, who would openly proclaim and sing how we are a family while barely knowing me, and I gradually became closer to the actual friends I made outside of church who understood my existential questions. I was reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Buddhist books, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, learning some actual philosophies and theories behind feminism, gender, etc… I studied marriage as a sacrament and also as a tool of patriarchal oppression. I studied the bible as Word of God and also as a piece of ancient literature. …As my questions became louder and the easy answers insufficient, my convictions slowly crumbled. Black and white became increasingly grey. I was not sure what to believe, yet, I trusted God. I never doubted the existence of the All-Mighty, only what exactly God is: The universe? Life itself? A Super-Being out there? Or Being itself? Is God personal? Is God good? Does God care? The silence I received as an answer was too loud to endure.

In the dark, I prayed: “God, I am a sinner. Have mercy on me. Show me the way. Whatever you are, a projection of my mind or the real Mystery of Being, if you are true, if there is a true path, if there are answers, show them to me. I believe you can answer my questions, so I will not be afraid to ask them. God, I need to see things for myself, and I cannot continue denying myself because someone told me what someone told someone who told someone who told someone who said they understood this or that from a book. If you are God, if you are alive, and if you love me, have mercy on me. I will follow your rule of Love, because in it I see the Divine, but I am not sure of any other rule. Miserere Mei”.

Two of my best friends introduced me to psychedelics. Experiencing it helped me identify my internalized anguish, my social anxiety, my presumptions, my arrogance, and my need of healing, of discovery, of being the child God made me. Life brought me very close friends who shared the same religious past as I did, and who understood the quest I found myself in. It was no longer merely about “answers”: the idea of a sentence that solves everything is ridiculous. It was about reconciliation, peace with oneself and with the All. It still is. In that time I began to go out, I got drunk with friends, we played music at 5am, we danced. I began writing poetry and allowing myself to feel. I learned to voice my emotions, to communicate better. I discovered sides and faces of myself that I would never have if I kept repressing myself due to rules and theologies I was not sure about. Psychedelics helped me identify my lack of peace regarding sexuality, something I needed to heal. I realized all the girls I was close with were from church, and they had the same repressed and perverted views of sexuality that I grew up with. I needed to know people who thought differently, to speak with girls who weren’t thinking of marriage in the first date. I allowed myself to flow with the moment, to not care. Eventually, at the right moment, I experienced the mystical act of uncovering one’s body and discovering another’s nakedness, embracing it. I learned to embrace the momentary, because all of life is momentary. I learned that maybe the need of promises comes from insecurity… and that is ok, too. At later times, I also experienced what it is like to be with someone as less-than-person, as simply a body, as an object of desire, or to fill one’s loneliness. Some of the grey turned a bit blacker, some a bit whiter. I learned to talk to women as friends and not as strange other-world mysterious beings. I learned to understand consent, to communicate my emotions, to recognize the pretense of masculine rationality and to allow myself to befriend my body. I allowed the deconstruction of everything I believed in, while praying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and after everything, I met only Love. It was during that period of one and a half years that I started this blog and wrote my first post.

…Then I almost died.

I had a really bad case of pneumonia where I discovered that I have an immune deficiency. My body basically has no natural working antibodies, and therefore it is unable to fight infections. At that time, I still attended church, I still lived with church roommates, and I shared about my health situation on social media. The people who visited me in the hospital and cared about how I felt were my family and those friends who would not be welcome at church: my hippie friends, the de-churched, even close friends I originally met on Tinder. My church friends who sang of how we were a “family of servants in a mission, sharing life together” never contacted me. My roommates were very helpful and cared about how my health was going, but were also very interested in explaining to me what they thought the bible says about marriage, whenever they had a chance. My pastors texted me, not to ask about my health, but whether or not I felt convicted for sleeping with someone without signing a marriage contract before. It was sad, but at the moment I simply felt at peace about it. I knew they didn’t understand, but I wish they would have shown love in any other way than just trying to correct my theology (or make it fit their dogmas).  My experiences and formal learning together made me appreciate the bible more than ever before. My health did not worry me; I had an inexplicable sense of peace, I knew I would live. Still, during the days I spent in the hospital, I questioned, closely than ever, life, death, and existence. I felt the intoxicating joy of being alive, the immense gratitude for all the efforts of humans who lived before me which keep me alive today, and the ineffable anguish of knowing that with my old conservative theology, which loves to talk about “nature”, one could argue it is“God’s will” that I should be dead. After all, I was born without a natural working immune system, and I survive by artificial means. I wrote many poems in the days I was interned. Since then I take an injection of antibodies every month. Every month I decide to live the next, every month I stop and ask myself, do I want to continue on living?

Understanding what it takes for me to live another month helped me comprehend that I do not exist simply in my inner world, and not only in the cosmic divine world of absolutes, but also in the social world: an intricate web of every human being that ever lived, of which I am part of. I have antibodies to continue living because there are humans who donate blood. I am not homeless or dead because the left-leaning government of Quebec believes I deserve medical care even if I cannot personally pay for it. I am grateful, and indebted. Learning critical social and historical readings of the bible in my theology courses helped me understand the political tones of Jesus’ message in his time, the political meaning of the word “neighbor”, and the meaning of love as a bridge across the walls of power. Feeling the weight of society in my skin, I understood how much Jesus’ message matters, how critically relevant it still is, and how little it has to do with penal substitutionary atonement.

Today I am living with my girlfriend, who is agnostic, but understands me and my Christianity. She has challenged me to inform myself on politics and economy, on oppression, on my privileges, and much of the social aspect of living that I neglected most of my life. I grow daily understanding, with her, what it is to love. On the other hand, life has brought distance, again, between me and some of my best friends: be it physical distance or just busy-ness. I am taking a break from theology classes as I take my time to recover from the still-lingering weakness of immune deficiency and to take care of my mental health. I am finally being able to digest the last six years of my life and write all these things down, and I hope I have brought you to reflect. I am not afraid that strangers will come across this and know these personal things about me: I do not belong to myself, I do not live for myself, and I hope all of this will be helpful to someone. If you know I mentioned you here, or even if I didn’t, but you relate anyways, don’t be afraid to reach out to me.

On the next post, I hope to explain what I mean by “My Christianity”.

Picture: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio

 

Charlottesville and the Cross: On Identity.

As a Christian, I have come to understand that proper theology includes understanding Self, God, and Neighbor. I invite you to read this text with these things in mind.

Lu, do you think we can record that song on your phone right now?

Sure!

With our beers in hand, sitting in that old basement while some friends smoked outside, we set things up to record a song. One of the verses she sang has made me smile for the past two years:

“Pathmaker, there is no road!

Only Atman, only Soul.

This is our great truth:

I am You.”

What does that mean? It is difficult to unpack. It is about identity.

A  while ago I saw a Facebook post which asked people to answer the question “Who are you?” without mentioning nationality, religion, race, gender, or profession. You may want to give yourself some time and think about it. Who are you? Continue reading Charlottesville and the Cross: On Identity.

Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics

The world has seen the inauguration of an American president whose online supporting community proudly calls “the absolute madman”. The world has also seen, in the past decades, the same country engaging in vicious forms of capitalism that subjugate and exploit poorer countries’ workers, accompanied with more bombing and killing than any other country, terrorizing and decimating families across the globe. The world has seen this country’s public debate overtaken by questions of police violence, constant shootings and gun control, racial struggles, LGBTQ movements, feminism, privilege, and revolts against the acclaimed 1% richest of the world in times of economical unrest. With all this struggle, being “politically correct” became pejorative, and increasingly labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are tossed back and forth in a constant polarization. All of it with the USA as some sort of symbol for several other countries, with its liberal and conservative, left and right dichotomy being reflected back by them, with a rising tension everywhere between those who push for one side and the other: the stereotypical religious white fascist defending traditional family and good values, versus the colored women and queer socialists who attempt to claim their rights for choice and equality. All of it being led by smart educated people on both sides, who are followed by uneducated, unquestioning parroting masses unable to break the dichotomy, unable to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to agree with one point and disagree with another without defending indefensible party positions.

Amidst this global chaos, of which America is the eye of the storm, I see some Christians affirm each other by saying it is all going to be OK. That their citizenship is in heaven alone, so none of this is their business, they can sit back and mind their lives.

It makes me want to cuss, badly. Continue reading Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics