A Madman’s Theodicy

…[the ancient inventors of names] would never have connected prophecy (mantike), which foretells the future and is the noblest of arts, with madness (manike), or called them both by the same name, if they had deemed madness to be a disgrace or dishonour; they must have thought that there was an inspired madness which was a noble thing; for the two words, mantike and manike, are really the same, and the letter t is only a modern and tasteless insertion. – Plato, Phaedrus 244c (circa 370 BC)

 

The blind will not gain their sight by opening their eyes

Not for the sins of the fathers

nor of previous generations

Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous cries out?

Like lambs sent to the slaughter

hopeful, faithful

through love

for salvation

What is this upside-down glory

of a murdered God?

How do you live

knowing

one day

on the third day

(just like that)

 

life still lives

 

and even death dies?

 


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.

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

 

Call Center Existentialist

At my job I receive at least ten calls every day regarding people’s estates: the distribution of someone’s property after they die. The company I work for is entrusted with a lot of people’s financial assets; when a “client” dies someone needs to call us to inform us, and it is my job to guide them through the legal procedure to transfer the assets. Usually the caller is a close family member. My first duty is to provide the best possible customer service, which often feels like pastoral care, in the sense that first I need to exercise a lot of active listening skills, then the person expects me to tell them what to do next.

A lot is communicated in between the lines: a middle-aged lady calls because her father passed away last week, and she already has the documentation ready: I can tell her family was diligent and they have been facing the father’s imminent death for a while. Her voice is not shaken, so either she is holding it up, or she mourned his death before it happened. Old age is harsh. Plenty of other people only manage to call a year or two later, and I prefer to believe they needed time to deal with it, rather than assume they were lazy or neglectful. I often speak to old widows who have not touched their husband’s assets for ten years, but are calling now because they are preparing their own estate for the near future.

Every month I spend a few hours at the hospital receiving a dose of antibodies, donated by other people, so my body is able to function and not crumble under whatever disease comes my way. I am grateful and indebted to the kindness of everyone who put a system in place that has allowed me to live past 23 without driving me into bottomless debt. I know that in other places, not far from where I live, my condition would not only make my life difficult but also drive me into increasing debt and poverty, making it even harder to want to keep going yet another month. When I think about it, receiving antibodies is not too different from receiving food, clean water, and shelter, thanks to everything people around us have done and built. Most of us would not survive long if thrown into the wild: I would just die faster. In the end, we all die. Yet the time we do live is meaningful, to ourselves and to those who love us. We have this time to live thanks to one another. Every person has received so much not just from nature or from God, but from humanity, from every neighbor, from our collective ancestors. Much for honor and gratitude, but also much to be ashamed and to regret. We have much to learn from each other, but also much to unlearn. In all this ambiguity, we are living life together and we need each other if we want to keep doing it.

Yet this is all so easy to forget every day. When I receive calls, all I have is a voice coming from a machine, without a face, without a past or a future aside from whatever concerns our business. A voice that can be angry, kind, or simply collected, without eyes to look into, without skin, without wrinkles or laugh marks. Myself, I become an excellent customer service agent, asking precise questions, reformulating them if they are not understood, saying thank you for everything and using words that communicate utmost respect. Most people ask my name, but I only give my first name. I do not really exist in their world, I am simply the voice of the company I work for. My personality, attentiveness and clever quirks are reduced to the great service by Corporation Inc.; I am paid to do that thirty five hours of my week.

It takes a lot of effort to remain conscious of the human being across the line, someone whom I just met, even if impersonally, who needs my help to get something important done: if anything, something important to them. I have done this all day for the past few months, while they are often calling for the first time. I know every detail of what they need to do next, but they have no idea, and I need to discover what they do not know before I explain it to them. It takes a lot of effort to not let that experience be soiled by remembering that even though I am the only contact many people have with Corporation Inc., being crucial to its functioning, I am expendable. I am paid its lowest wage since it is an “entry-level job”, and there are plenty of people receiving the surplus of the value I generate, through profit distributions where those who have most receive the most, accumulating all the wealth with those already wealthy. It takes maybe even more effort to not grow mad knowing that none of this would be in place if we just stopped taking it seriously; that we are inflicting this on ourselves and each other by believing it is the only way; justifying lay-offs, wage stagnation and exploitative measures that exploit poverty in the name of “corporate needs”, even though Corporation Inc. does not even exist, much less have needs. Like the ancients who sacrificed their own children to idols they built from wood and stone, we serve imaginary entities we created with paper and pen.

So I focus on my experience, in the now, at least until my shift is over. Here is someone calling who needs my help. It is up to me to decide if I will acknowledge them as persons or reduce them to just a “client” or an obstacle to get over with. The other day a man called for his father’s account, and when I asked his legal authority to deal with his father’s business, he answered “I am his son”. Of course, being a son is no legal authority, specially in the financial market, so I insisted until he reluctantly said: “dad passed away; I am the estate administrator”. It was up to me to be annoyed at how he made me waste time instead of being to the point, or instead, choose to acknowledge how hard it must have been for that human being to voice that painful fact out loud. It was up to me to drift through the call and just get things done, or remember there was a divine human on the other side, with feelings and hardship, whether he also acknowledged me there or not. As for telling them what to do, all I could do was explain their situation and their options. I cannot decide for them.

I need to believe life and human relationships as I know them are not as good as it gets. That helping others is a better motivation than greed. I need to believe life can be better, that it is possible to serve God and not Mammon.  Even just serving my neighbor is already good enough. I know my neighbor needs it, because I need it. I need to believe this to face next month, even as I am reminded, at least ten times a day, that plenty of people won’t.

 


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.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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.

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. 

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.

Better a House of Mourning

One of my favorite things in Montreal is to walk up the Mt. Royal with a good friend, see the city skyline (the picture on the main page of the blog), then walk down on the other side, where the cemetery is. One day, passing by that place, I asked a friend of mine if she liked cemeteries. She said yes, because they’re beautiful, but she implied that she would still rather not have them — people shouldn’t have things holding them back from going on with life.

For her, monuments for the deceased held people back. She’s not the only one who thinks like that. Continue reading Better a House of Mourning