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

 

The Study of God: on method

Recently a friend of mine who has very little religious education gained interest in theology, and surprised me with maybe the best question I have been asked in a while: what is the theological method?

If you have ever studied something seriously, academically, critically, you understand his question. Ιt is a question of epistemology: “how do I know?”. In traditional sciences, there is a scientific method: controlled, observable and reproducible experiments lead to conclusions and allow predictions. The experiment is then repeated and reviewed by other scientists who confirm or contest the conclusions, and as that happens the whole community arrives at very probable theories about a subject. History also has its method, since history cannot be repeated or reproduced, neither controlled, so it stands outside the realm of science. Math and logic, along with philosophy, all have their systems of proof testing. So when we speak of the Divine, what is our method to differ between truth and non-truth? How do we know? Continue reading The Study of God: on method

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

How I Read The Bible and Other Things

I have not written anything for a good while, perhaps a month? To me this blog is largely a tool of digestion, but in the past while I seem to have digested quite a number of thoughts without needing to write. A lot of it happened unexpectedly, by surprise. Some of it happened in class, some dancing (I am not even kidding), and some of it in deep meditation, breathing.

Most of my past struggle has been in regards to how should I relate to God. Who is he/she/it, what, why. How? Most of the answer was around the way I should look at sacred writings. Continue reading How I Read The Bible and Other Things

of Departure, Thrill, and Foolishness.

You might have read or watched The Hobbit, or the Lord of the Rings series, both by Tolkien. One of my favorite things Tolkien underlines in his narratives is the deep sense of adventure that the hobbit protagonists go through: both in the beginning of their adventure — with this fear and thrill of walking in the unknown, away from the safety and happiness of a simple life at home, being considered foolish by all those who stayed behind — and when they are back to their normal lives, with the conscience of an immeasurable gap between them and the other hobbits in the Shire who don’t have the slightest idea of the world outside, of the darkness and glory of their adventures, and who will never understand what Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin went through. Of settling down and living almost as if nothing ever happened, but knowing they are far from being the same hobbits who one day left the Shire. Continue reading of Departure, Thrill, and Foolishness.

Who Wants To Live Forever?

What is this thing that builds our dreams / Yet slips away from us / Who wants to live forever? / Who wants to live forever? / There’s no chance for us / It’s all decided for us / This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us.

Who wants to live forever? / Who dares to love forever, when love must die?

If you know good rock music, then you know Freddie Mercury and his band, Queen. The other day I was listening to their album Live at Wembley ’86, where they performed the song Who Wants To Live Forever (listen to it here). Amazing song, amazing lyrics. Right after, they perform I Want To Break Free (here), and I can’t be sure if they put some deep thought in the order of the songs or not, but these two in sequence surely brought a strong meaning to the performance. It made me think a lot, and this post here is me trying to digest those thoughts. It was so beautifully… human. I guess that is what art is about, right?

I never met Freddie, and all I know of him is from his music, and yet I have the feeling that I know him better than many people I have small talk with everyday. To me that is what makes a great artist: when you can see his soul through his art. Transparency.  Continue reading Who Wants To Live Forever?