The Ambiguous Love of God

Have you ever imagined what it would be like, to be God? Not what you would do, but how it must feel? The question is far beyond me,  but I keep trying to imagine it so I can try to explain what I mean when I say “God”:

Every thought and feeling I have is part of my experience of what it is to be myself. Every day, if I am paying attention, I learn more of the bundle of psychological mess and contradiction that is me. This includes the understanding that I am myself while others are not, the ways I dissociate from my own actions and body, the ways I project my feelings and experiences on what happens around me, etc. I assume you also share that experience, of “watching oneself”. Or maybe you just think your thoughts and feel your feelings without a lot of introspection, which is precisely the point: we are different. What I imagine when I say “God” includes all perspectives, all consciousness: mine, yours, everyone’s. Feeling all the feelings, thinking all the thoughts. I do not picture God as an outsider who can be sympathetic to your experience but does not quite know it, but rather an insider, someone who really knows because they were there and they felt everything you felt, literally.

Imagine being able to fully experience both sides of a conversation: every feeling, unspoken thoughts, impressions, intents, thought processes or impulses behind every nuanced word and gesture. Imagine being on both sides of a kiss. On both sides of every kiss. Knowing, beyond words, the experience of living every life as part of your own. Do we even know where that stops? Include animal consciousness. What if everything is alive? What is it like to be the sun? The moon? The Earth? How does it feel to be one of the microbes inside your stomach, killed in mass by an antibiotic? God is born and God dies every day, yet God remains, being One who is greater than the sum of all parts.

I find this imagination exercise convulsive. I think of the word schizophrenia: “fractured voices”. Yet the voices are true, real, present, colorful. This is what I think of when I hear “we are God/the universe experiencing itself”. This is where my mind goes when I read “In Him we live and have our being”.

What would you feel, feeling everything? Knowing the fears, dreams, aspirations, anxieties, desires, disappointments, hopes, expectations, pride, guilt, love, courage, anger, sadness, joy and sorrow, of everyone? If you saw every point of contradiction, ignorance and misunderstanding, looking through others’ eyes into your selves? Would you try to avoid these feelings and thoughts, to blank them out and preserve your own sanity and sense of individuality? Would you love the voices that please you and hate the ones you dislike, wishing them to end, treating some as more “human” than the others? Would you cry at the weight of all pain, would you celebrate the ecstasy of all joy? Would you clear your mind and become unmoving, stoic, removed, or would you dance with rage and fury as Creator and Destroyer? I get exhausted of handling my own feelings sometimes, let alone everyone’s.

This fascinating thought is an essential part of mysticism: If we are united to the One, to God, and experience some sort of bliss, then God must also be united to all things and experience our not-so-blissful reality.

Christian traditions make this tangible in the way the Apostles and Evangelists wrote about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a subversive Jewish rabbi who taught God will lead a world revolution, telling us to celebrate the fact with feasts, starting with marginalized communities in a Jewish society under Roman imperial control. The authors of John spoke of him as the Life and Light of the whole world (cosmos), the Way, the Truth, the Logos (“word”, or “reason”, from which we have the word “logic”) which brought everything into existence, without which nothing could exist. The disciples wrote: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it […]the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— […] that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” They believed Jesus when he said he was one with God, whom he called Father, turning their world upside down. They experienced something, which they saw and touched, and that was the best way they made sense of it.

Jesus taught us to call God affectionately, “Father”, as he did. He told his disciples the Father loved them just as the Father loved Jesus. He told them that in loving one another like Jesus loved them, they would be One with God, as he himself is One with the Father. I invite you to ponder for yourself, and wonder, about what that means and whether or not the Christian creeds and the inter-religious debates about the divinity or non-divinity of Jesus get the point of his teaching.

I understand Jesus to be inviting me, and you, to consciously and willingly participate in God by loving each other, the same way Jesus participates in God by loving his own neighbors.

God loves us. The same authors of the quote above, when explaining their experience, say “God is love”. Not “God is loving”, which would be an adjective like good, holy, righteous, etc, but an actual substantive, something essential. God also gets called Light, Truth, Life, and Logos, but these nouns do not quite give us a sense of personality, of intention, of emotion. Nothing we can quite relate to in our humanity. Love, however, is essential to us as relational, social beings.

Love is the something-more that makes God more than the ensemble of the universe, more than the Oneness of everything, not just a cosmic Thing or Power, but One who is Someone, a Relational Subject, who we can relate to, cooperate with or fight against, be friends or enemies of. On the two sides of a conversation, of a kiss, of sex. On the two sides of a disagreement, of an argument, of violence. The mother in pain giving birth, the stressed doctor assisting her, the newborn entering a confusion of light and sound. The old man dying, the wife holding his hand. The prisoner and the law enforcer. The torturer and the tortured. The murderer and the victim. The beggar and the one who ignores. The beggar and the one who refuses to ignore. The king, the peasant. The worker, the boss. The friend, the enemy. The trusting, the betrayer. All in All, God is deep, intimate, cosmic love.

I think adding love to this picture makes it even more convulsing, schizophrenic, maddening. I cannot make sense of God’s love when I think of all the good and all the evil and I try to put it together. Yet I am invited to believe God loves me, and I am told to love my neighbor even if my neighbor hates me, not just in word but in action. I cannot handle the universe: my neighbor is simpler. Simpler, but still complicated, still ambiguous, because love is always about people, and people are complicated.

Christ loved Peter, James, John. Christ also loved Mary Magdalene, and a nameless prostitute, and his own mother. Christ also loved Judas. Christ loved ambiguously, in Truth and in Grace.

This is not a love that says all sides are equal and makes no choice, making false equivalences without commitment. Christ, loving both sides, still picked one, and stood for it at the cost of his own life. Christ stood for compassion and against indifference, for a kingdom where the poor and homeless are welcome to every feast, and against a kingdom that rewards the greedy and the proud at the exclusion of the humble. Christ stood for the kind of truth where we are compassionate with each others’ moral failures, against the appearance of “truth” that allows for religious authorities to stone someone, as if they were not sinners themselves. Christ stood for a kingdom where both sins and debts are forgiven, where slaves are freed, against all condemnation and bondage. Christ stood for a kingdom where God can walk among us and feast with sinners, who can be one with God, against a kingdom that holds God at a distance, captive to dogmas, ready to crucify a heretic who dares to threaten the rules.

What does it mean to love like Christ? There are no easy answers in the New Testament. There is no prayer you can pray and be fine for the rest of your life, no ticket to heaven, no approved stamp. There is you, your neighbor, a mad God who loves both, decisions to make, and an invitation: love as I love, die as I died, live as I live. One day after the other.

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a Brazilian theology student in Montreal, QC. He is an agnostic Christian existentialist who wishes to make progressive theology accessible.

Illustration: The Kiss of Judas, by Giotto di Bondone

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

Christmas Cheer

Last night, Christmas eve, I went to church with my family.

It was a very normal white suburban north-american church, with a stage, spotlights, electric guitars, and a way-too-often out-of-sync PowerPoint with the song lyrics. Fun times for a good Christian family.

The pastor told a few anecdotes in order to try to explain Christmas, and God’s love, and how Jesus is God’s gift to us.

One of them was about a housewife who one day felt burnt-out by washing the same dishes all the time and decided to leave her family and go be independent somewhere. Like a prodigal son but, instead of a rebellious teenager, a burnt-out housewife who dared to be independent. Her husband would call her and her children would ask her to come back, and plead, and she would refuse. Eventually he hired a private detective, found her, and went to pick her up. He found her living above a restaurant, where she would work doing dishes. She followed him back home without a word. At home, she told him that he said that he cared and asked all this time, but, in the end, she was only sure of how much he cared once he bothered to actually go the distance and pick her up himself. The pastor said this is like God, who sent messages to humanity for several centuries, and humanity did not respond, until God decided to come himself in the incarnation of Jesus.

He even talked about sin, in a second metaphor, of how sin is like garbage we carry with us, which smells, and we try to hide it from people, but we can’t hide it forever. We hide that garbage in our basement for years and it fills our house with stench, and people start noticing and keeping away from us. We ourselves can’t even get close to it anymore. Then Jesus, our savior, offers to take it out for free. I didn’t relate a whole lot since I don’t have a basement, I don’t care a lot about what people think, and “Jesus can do it for free” sounds too much like a good business deal, but I trust that people there could relate and it somehow edified them a bit.

Putting aside the patriarchal and low-key misogyny overtones, the suburban worry of what people might think of you and your house, and the business deal catch of God’s Grace, I appreciate how the pastor still preached a message of a loving God who came down to display a tangible love in the incarnation, a God we can go to, regardless how ashamed or distant we feel, trusting that he will accept us and cleanse us, if only we are humble enough to admit it and invite him in.

Still, I wish he had preached the whole message.

This Gospel, the good news of the action of God in History, humbling himself, taking our sins upon himself, living life with us and suffering our death for us, continuing in steadfast loving-kindness and always ready to forgive, doesn’t end in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are invited to be one with Jesus, and we are called Christian only because we imitate him. The Church – all true Christians everywhere – is supposed to be the incarnation of God on Earth after Jesus of Nazareth.

In other words, if you’re a Christian, Christmas is not a time for you to simply celebrate what God did for you 2000 years ago.

Christmas is a time for you to remember you are invited to do the same. Honestly, that, if you do not do the same, you have very little reason to call yourself Christian.

So, like the Almighty God who became a poor child, humble yourself to be among those who would be considered “less” than you, and leave your privileges behind for the sake of people.

Confess your sins to the people you sinned against, and ask their forgiveness before you ask God’s. Be someone whom people will always know they can confess to, someone who will always be there to forgive.

Love in action, not just in word.

Love as Christ loved you.

Merry Christmas!

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.

Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

“How strange it is to be anything at all!”, exclaims Jeff Mangum in one of my favorite songs.

It is a rather strange thing, indeed, to exist.  Maybe you don’t think so, you might think you have the answers for why we are here and where we are going, walking around with a “road map to life“. That’s ok. Personally, I find it eerie, upsetting, and rather awkward, that without your consent, without a choice, you were brought to existence, born from parents you did not choose, in a country you did not choose, taught and indoctrinated with customs and ideas about everything without ever been given a second to pause and think twice. Time keeps pushing you forward whether you like it or not, with every single choice you make remaining forever a part of your history, impacting you and others around you in infinite collaterality. Everyone who was here before you experienced this constant pressure from time, too. Everything they taught you was the best way they managed to figure out what exactly is going on, but not everyone concluded the same things, and who knows who is right?

Time never gives you a second chance. If you pay attention, you will notice decay and mortality all around you. Flowers blooming and withering, your own body changing, loved ones dying. Opportunities lost. Nothing can ever be undone, only reconciled. Offenses can never be taken aback, only forgiven.

It’s easy to feel insecure. Continue reading Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

Learning to Listen: Fundamentalism, Politics, and Opening the Mind

I recently began my fourth year of university. Throughout this journey, I have gained many vital skills that will last me my whole life. But of all the skills and knowledge that I have thus far gained, it is the ability to listen that I cherish most. Continue reading Learning to Listen: Fundamentalism, Politics, and Opening the Mind

Weak Gods, Fragile Truths, and the Unknown

“…Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.””

I think I read this text for the first time when I was 10 years old. Not every kid goes around reading the Book of Judges when they’re that young but, in the world I grew up in, it made sense. I had already read the coolest book in the bible, Revelation, several times, and Paul is quite boring until you’re old enough to get it, so the Old Testament was the place to go until I was about 13. Short stories, soap-opera family drama, cool battles, angels destroying armies overnight, tales of glory, and clear life advice like don’t kill people unless God tells you to, or, manage well your budget, don’t be lazy, listen to your parents. I highly recommend the OT for 10 year olds. Anyhow, there was I, reading the story of Gideon. Gideon destroyed a statue of Baal, a rival god, and when Baal’s followers came to kill him, Joash, Gideon’s father, defended him with that clear checkmate: If Baal is god, you don’t have to protect him, he’ll protect himself.   Continue reading Weak Gods, Fragile Truths, and the Unknown