DAY FIVE of Atheism for Lent is a video seminar by Peter Rollins, introducing the thinkers we will meet this week:
- Protagoras, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher; “Man is the measure of all things.”
- Epicurus, a Greek philosopher concerned with modest pleasures as the greatest good
- Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic who believed philosophy could soothe the pains of life
with these three as the ones who started the transformative conversation critiquing religion, a conversation that has led directly to Atheism for Lent and that will continue long after everyone who’s alive now is dead.
- Jean Meslier, a priest known in life as kind, caring, compassionate, faithful, but whose writings (found after his death) are an incredible diatribe against God, Christianity, and religion in general
- Derren Brown, an illusionist who exposes charlatans and specifically demonstrates how people can easily be manipulated by psychology and Christianity; “If watching me makes you feel uncomfortable — well, that’s kind of my point.”
- Charles Darwin, whose depth in his Christianity led directly to his critiquing that religion
- Robert Ingersoll, whom Rollins calls “the Christopher Hitchens of his day”
- Anthony Flew, an English philosopher and lifelong skeptic
The goal this week is for us to see that these philosophers and writers and creatives aren’t giving us definite answers; instead, they’re sparking questions and discussion. Definite answers end the conversation. Questions and poking around at possibilities keep the conversation going.
Today, I’m keeping the conversation going by sharing some initial thoughts I had while listening to Rollins introduce these philosophers and the bare bones of their concerns. I’m particularly taken up with (as Rollins would say; I love this phrase) the idea that myths are symbols of our faith. This idea comes from philosopher Paul Tillich, whom Rollins mentions briefly in today’s seminar.
The Un/Broken Myth
In Tillich’s “myths” concept, a myth stands as a symbol for something that is of utmost importance to us, a thing that is of ultimate concern. If I’m understanding correctly, an example would be:
- Your ultimate concern is feeding the poor.
- Therefore, you believe in the myth that a man named Jesus wandered around 1st-century Palestine teaching that we should feed and clothe and shelter the impoverished.
Part of Tillich’s view is the “Unbroken Myth,” a myth that’s accepted as a literal statement of reality. So, in the “feed the poor” concern,
- the “Unbroken Myth” is your belief that Jesus’s parable (Luke 16:19–31) about “Poor Man Lazarus” and “Rich Man Dives” is a literal depiction of heaven and hell; you believe that innocent Lazarus literally “rests in the bosom” of Father Abraham, while the greedy, selfish rich man literally burns in flames for all eternity, and the two men can see each other across an impassable gulf.
- Furthermore, you believe that if you care for the impoverished during your lifetime, after death you will join Lazarus and Abraham and all the other good people; but if you hoard wealth and refuse to help others, you’ll die and be tormented in Hades for eternity.
The “Broken Myth” is the myth that you have accepted as informing your faith, but you see its elements as symbols that make statements about the reality we live in.
- Lazarus represents the impoverished in all times and place.
- The rich man represents the greedy, the selfish, and the power-hungry in all times and all places.
- The impoverished will receive comfort.
- The greedy only hurt themselves and will end up in terrible isolation.
- Where there is life, there is hope, a chance for improvement of self and improving the lives of others.
Why is all of this important to me right now?
I grew up in a conservative Christian denomination in which there were hints of forward thinking as well as hints of fundamentalism. This particular denomination has no centralized leadership; every congregation is autonomous. I also grew up worshiping with a congregation composed mostly of members of the United States military; so every few years, my parents and I found ourselves worshiping with a completely different set of people. What’s more, these Army and Air Force members came from many different areas of the United States, mostly hailing from autonomous congregations of this particular denomination.
This meant that everybody had to be flexible. One family might be used to more rigid interpretations of scripture back home; another might view it in a much more liberal (*GASP*) manner. Both had to learn to work together — because an unofficial tenet that happened to be prevalent in all of these autonomous churches was/is that you don’t go worshiping outside the denomination. So if you’re gonna go to church, you gotta learn to live together.
It worked out, mostly.
Anyway, I grew up in this weird, shifting, oddly flexible mishmash of Christian views. It helped that I have parents who are complete weirdos, and I mean that in utter love and affection. I love who my parents are. They’re conservative, and yet they’re the kind of people who uprooted themselves and their three-year-old kid back before anybody had email, cell phones, or FaceTime, and they moved us across an ocean to the other side of the world where they didn’t know anybody and didn’t speak the language, just so my dad could become the artist he wanted to be. (He’s an opera singer.)
They’re weirdos and I love them.
They taught me to adhere to everything I read in scripture to the best of my ability, yet they also insisted I think deeply and thoroughly about all of it and draw my own conclusions. They raised me in a conservative denomination that has a lot of fundamentalist trappings, but they also changed their minds about a great many things over the years, becoming more open and less rigid and sharing those new conclusions with me.
I grew up a religio-cultural mutt.
I guess it was inevitable that I’d eventually start dismantling all the myths.
The hints of this already lay in what I learned from my parents and our life together and our life with the church. But it reeeeaaaaallllly got going during the spring of my final year of high school (a German “Gymnasium”), when my atheist friend Thorsten K. issued me a challenge.
Thorsten and I didn’t really start becoming friends until that final year of school. I don’t even remember what sparked our conversations, but especially that final semester, we started hanging out about once a month and talking 42 (though Hitchhiker’s Guide wasn’t even a blip on my radar yet). He was exactly one year older than me and one of the best students in our grade. He was the bass-playing, hard-rocking, self-proclaimed atheist German; and I was the academically mostly-average (but excelling in languages & arts), goody-two-shoes, bookwormish pseudo-German American Christian. We were never a couple, but we were an odd couple. Our talks were one of my favorite things about life then.
Long story shortish, Thorsten asked me why I believed in God. I said something to the effect that I just always had believed, I couldn’t imagine not believing, it was part of my family life to believe. I got a little defensive. And Thorsten said to me, “Courtney, I don’t care if you believe in God or not. That’s your business. But you have to be able to say why you believe.”
I was floored. Explain my faith beyond “that’s what my parents taught me?” Nobody had ever demanded this of me before. Little did I know that what he was really asking me to do was to challenge the Unbroken Myth. I went forth with a shovel, a pickaxe, and a jackhammer, ready to delve deep and unearth my true whys.
That was 24 years ago. Almost a quarter of a century. More than half my life ago. I am still delving, and that’s why I’m writing this. The conversation begun by Protagoras, Epicurus, and Seneca has resulted directly in this blog entry and the thoughts captured within it.
In true a/theist form, I move within the uncomfortable gap, the “slash” between the words. The discussion was sparked, and from the realm of the Broken Myth there is no turning back. I am alienated from my own beliefs, and I am allowing myself to feel that alienation.
Is it awkward and uncomfortable? Yes. Is it scary? Yes. Is it regrettable? Hells no. Be the belief right or wrong, if the believer refuses to entertain doubt and questioning, then the belief is rendered meaningless. I think about my conservative upbringing. I think about the hints of fundamentalism in it.
Fundamentalism does not mean having certainty about something.
Fundamentalism means refusing to question. Fundamentalism means refusing to break the Myth.
Fundamentalism is repressed uncertainty.
This week, AfL brings us the writings of Jean Meslier and Charles Darwin, both of whom engaged in critique of their respective religions as a result of being so deeply in their religions. I can relate. I delved so deeply into mine, I spent four years as a part-time missionary and then six more years as a full-time one. You know that old adage that you can’t learn something fully until you’re teaching it to someone else?
Well, I taught a bunch of people about Jesus, and I learned deep enough to come out someplace I didn’t expect.
My critique of my own religion, my own beliefs, my own faith — it comes from reaching so deeply into it all, taking it more seriously now than I ever have before.
In the realm of the Unbroken Myth, we don’t question our beliefs. We don’t want to question them, and we don’t consider them questionable. In my own religious history, there are a lot of things we aren’t allowed to question. The “infallibility” of scripture. Sometimes even the “infallibility” of translations. The vital necessity of “studying the Bible.” The directive of full-body immersion in water “for the forgiveness of sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The benefit and requirement of moving continually in spaces we call “church.” The so-called “5 Acts of Worship.” The “silence” of women in the church.
You don’t doubt those. You don’t question those. And if you do, then you’d better accept the apologetics that “give a ready answer” to what you’re asking. Otherwise, you’re in rebellion.
“Hey Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?
–“What do you got?”
As I mentioned on Day One, I spent 8 of my adult years with a local, autonomous, consensus-oriented group of Christians that met in homes. There was a lot of freedom from the traditional, institutional mindset of hierarchy and authority and gender roles. Some of it was enlivening. Some of it was soul-sucking. Here, as in the “higher”-church institution, there were also things you don’t question: “Jesus is Lord, the Son of the Living God.” Spend more time with the group than with other friends or family. (That one was always an alarm bell for me.) Don’t push community service if part of the group doesn’t feel “ready.” Once, someone requested I not quote a certain author. (I summarily refused to acquiesce to the request.) Oh yeah, and don’t question the “infallibility” of scripture.
The main reason the group imploded was that the list of forbidden questions (and forbidden phrases, and forbidden words, and forbidden activities) got longer and longer. The Unbroken Myth looked different from the institutional denominations most of us had grown up with, but it was still no less Unbroken. Unassailable. Fundamentalist.
In the meantime, my Myth has broken.
I’m living in the gap, the slash, the uncomfortable place, the uncertainty no longer repressed. I’m rubbing my nose in it. Dirt is only dirt when it’s out-of-place: when it’s on your floor instead of in the sandbox. I’m done with the allegedly crystal clear, the unassailable, the binary.
Without lightlessness, radiance does not exist. We must have both, remembering that radiance comes in gradients, never in stark contrasts.
The Broken Myth. The uncomfortable gap. The slash. True a/theism is freedom from the entire structure of some Big Other in all its secular and sacred forms. The Big Other, sacred or secular, acts as an external authority demanding that we act in certain ways. A decentering practice such as AfL is designed to free us from that Big Other, thereby bringing us into the heart of theology:
the experience of salvation.
What am I rebelling against?
What’ve you got?