Monday, July 14, 2014

Stepping Away

This is the last post I'm writing about religion for a while. I've sworn it off for the next two months, minimum. I'm not going to mention religion on Facebook for two months either. I need to step back. I've been too mouthy, commenting when I probably should have just bit my tongue. I need to give my religious friends a break, and I need to give myself a break. I feel my attitudes hardening. I feel skepticism taking a turn toward bitterness. Not toward religion in general, or toward Christianity, or any other religious tradition, but toward fundamentalism--fundamentalism in any religion. Toward the idea--held with so much certainty by so many--that all we need to do to fix the world is follow every letter of one old, pre-scientific set of writings or another.

Of all the issues in the world, I don't fully understand why fundamentalism bothers me most of all. I think a big part of it right now is that my two best friends in town are a lesbian couple, and I see what they have to deal with from fundamentalist Christians. They have high school friends who won't associate with them now, who tell them how they're sinning in the sight of the Lord. They love each other as much as any couple I know, but they can't even hold hands or kiss in public without getting dirty looks. They tell me they've always been attracted to women, and never had any choice in their sexual orientation, and I believe them. Who would know better than them, and besides, did I have a choice? But the fundamentalists think they know better. It's just a lifestyle, they say. A choice, and the wrong one. It makes me sad and angry. It's getting very hard to forgive the people who are denouncing them for who they are.

Or maybe my problem with fundamentalism is my view of science and nature. I see science as telling an amazing, beautiful story of the evolution of the universe--of nature, in the largest, grandest sense of the word. I even spent several years trying to write a book about it (unsuccessfully), and made an educational poster and website about it (somewhat more successfully). It's all based on mainstream science and hard evidence; on data painstakingly collected by scientists over centuries. As for me, I've spent way too much of my life reading way too many books, trying to teach myself how this stuff works. I've forgone things like marriage and children because I'd rather try to figure out what's true and how it might fit together. I'm not an especially hard worker, but I've worked hard on this. I'm no brilliant scholar, but I've done my best to understand how science and nature work.

But there are many who think it's all baloney. Who? Once again, fundamentalist Christians. Why? Because one single book, written by ancient people who thought the Earth was flat, tells a different story--a story featuring a talking snake, a man made from clay, and a woman made from his rib. It is a grand story, to be sure--one of the taproot myths of our culture--but it's based on tradition, not evidence or data. Yes, it claims the universe is millions of times younger than science says, and yes, you would have to abandon most of modern science to believe it literally, but people still want to teach it in science class. In public schools. Whether the students are Christians or not. Because government, as well as science, should be based on that one book, too. And everybody should be a Christian, anyway, because if they're not they're going to hell.

So. Some of my dearest friends are sinners, science is mostly wrong, and the universe is not remotely as grand as I thought. Not only that, but because of something my distant ancestors did (the clay man and the rib woman), God decreed that I was born deserving to be roasted in hell for all eternity. But he loves me! Of course, I can avoid all that, if I agree not to to think for myself and draw my own conclusions; but to accept on faith that his son died for my sins. As the tone of this paragraph might suggest, it's enough to make me a little bitter.

Anyway, it was last night when I realized I need step back last night, while reading about...religion. My interests go in cycles. I'll read everything I can find about one topic for a month or two, and then lose interest and move on to something else. Last month it was geology. This month it's been religion: philosophy of religion, textual analysis of the Bible, the history of Christianity and its ideas of God, and so on. But I got tired of dry and scholarly works, and had picked up a book called The Book of God. It's a novelization of the Bible, published by Zondervan--an evangelical Christian publisher. Which isn't the kind of thing I normally read, but it was written by Walter Wangerin, a well-regarded author who won a National Book Award for the fantasy The Book of the Dun Cow. So I gave it a shot.

It's pretty good, at least so far. I recommend it if you want to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the the stories of the Bible, which (whatever you believe) are a major cultural foundation of the western world. I have read the Bible, but as usual, I had forgotten too much of it, so I wanted to reactivate some of those memories without tackling the whole thing again.

I was enjoying it, too. I mean, parts of it disturbed me--God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham's unquestioning willingness to do so, God killing the firstborn children of Egypt (were they to blame for Pharaoh's stubbornness?), Moses butchering those who had worshiped the golden calf--but I was glad I was reading it. It is one of the world's great epics, after all.

But then the Israelites got to Jericho. Jericho is one of the oldest settlements in the world. People have been settling near its desert springs for the last 11,000 years--almost back to the end of the ice age. When the Israelites got there, led by Joshua, they destroyed it. Utterly. As Joshua 6:15-21 tells the story:
15 On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. 17 The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live because she hid the messengers we sent. 18 As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys. [Italics added]
Then Joshua cursed anybody who ever tried to rebuild the city.

His curse didn't take. Jericho was rebuilt, and is still there to this day. In fact, there's no archaeological evidence that Joshua's destruction of Jericho ever happened. Most historians think it didn't. I find that rather comforting, but still, it's a truly brutal story. One of the world's oldest cities destroyed, and its population--human and animal--slaughtered, by an invading army aided by of a violent God who prefers one ethnic group over another.

I had just started this book, and already multitudes of men, women, and children had been killed. And not by the book's villains, but by God and his chosen people. I had to take a break. So I got on my computer, and stumbled across the poem The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver. I don't want to post the whole thing here without permission, but click and give it a read, if you would. I'll wait.

I don't exactly know what the word "spirituality" means for most people, but that poem captures what it means for me. It isn't dogmatic or violent. It's gentle, observant, questioning, and reverent. She doesn't claim to have all the answers. She doesn't declare who made the world, or what prayer should be, or what happens after we die. She asks. She wonders. You wouldn't want to live your whole life according to that poem, probably (though I almost have) but there's a lot of wisdom there.

Anyway, after the brutality of the story of Jericho, the poem soothed me. The juxtaposition sent me into one of those mellow, thoughtful, half-melancholy/half-sublime states we all need ever so often. But it wasn't that late yet, so I went back to reading The Book of God.

I should have waited a while. After the battle of Jericho, Joshua's armies lost their nerve and were routed by the armies of Ai. God told Joshua he had taken their nerve because Israel had sinned against him. One of them had taken loot from Jericho. It was Achan, a man who Wangerin had made a sympathetic character. And so, according to Joshua 7:
24 Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, with the silver, the mantle, and the bar of gold, with his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, 26 and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger.
That was enough for me. I turned off my Kindle and went to bed, depressed. That's the God I should worship? That's the God of love I'm always hearing about? I mean, I can see how that's the same God who decreed I would go to hell for the sins of my ancestors if I don't think the way he tells me too. But I'm just not seeing much love in all this. Am I crazy? Am I missing something obvious that others can easily see? Am I the bad guy for saying that these are terrible things this God is doing? I know some people who will say so. And I will never, ever understand.

I know the majority of religious people, including most fundamentalists, are basically good at heart. They are mostly trying to do the right thing, based on their understanding of what the right thing is. I know many of them are better people than me--kinder, more selfless people than me, often as a direct result of their religion (but based on books other than Joshua, I suspect). Some of them are far smarter and more learned than me. But I cannot and will not worship Joshua's God. I can't even believe such a God exists (though perhaps a grander and more universal one does). I'm convinced that if people insist on following those old writings about that violent, tribal God, we will never rise above our violent, tribal past, or see beyond the small, pre-scientific universe of our ancestors. We have to step away from fundamentalism, before it ruins us. And I have to step away from thinking about it, at least for a while, before it drives me crazy.

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