Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

So I’ve stopped reading the Bible. I no longer pray (at least, not in the traditional hands-folded, knees-bent sort of way); haven’t for going on five years. I don’t, under any circumstances, insist that my interlocutors “praise Jesus,” although I may return a polite “You, too” when someone tells me to have a “blessed day,” simply because I’m fairly certain God hasn’t cornered the market on blessing people.

Which brings me to my point: I still want desperately to bless people. Not by proxy. Not by pointing to some undefined deity in the Great Unknown, thereby relieving myself of any real involvement in the matter. I want to bless them. Through my actions, with my words–a smile here, a wave there, a handful of pocket change, if the occasion warrants, whatever. And I want all this in the absence of religious belief (institutional religious belief, that is; everybody’s religious, but that’s an argument for a different day).

Cue cognitive dissonance…

Here’s the old chestnut: How do we explain our ability to distinguish between good and evil, or our desire to help others and avoid hurting them, if there is no Absolute Example, no Ultimate Source, in which to ground them?

Heck. I don’t know. Does it matter? Really? Or is it just one more of the pointless arguments in which we entangle ourselves, thereby obviating the question? I don’t know why I want others to be warm and well-fed, and I don’t really put too much time into thinking about it.

It seems that, to some, “good works” are not legitimate unless legitimized by particular base assumptions. I’ve heard Christians, for example, claim that unless we love “because He first loved us,” then we might as well quit the clanging and chuck our cymbals out the window. On the other hand, I’ve heard atheists suggest that Christian actions are so bedecked with “ulterior motives” that they must be suspect by their very nature. And the conversation, as it does so often anymore, breaks down again…

I leave you with the words of political scientist Robert Audi, from Political Commitment and Secular Reason (2000): “an extensive agreement in moral practice is compatible with absence of agreement or even sharp disagreement in moral theory.”

To my atheist friends: Is it really the “ulterior motive” that worries you when you see a Christian doing good? Or is it that it makes you wonder if the “God-folks” might actually have a leg to stand on?

To my Christian friends: Why are you so desperate to prove that non-Christian means non-moral? Is it perhaps that loving actions performed by non-believers hint that maybe Truth extends beyond the pages of Holy Scripture?

Would the real Jesus please stand up?

Pros & (Emoti)Cons

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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

– Inigo Montoya

As a child, after having been caught out in some mischievous trick or another, I would look at my father and plaintively protest: “I didn’t mean to!” “Ah,” Dad would answer, “but you didn’t mean not to, either.”

I never appreciated the real wisdom in his words until I started participating in online “debates.”

We use the word “friend” a lot in social media circles. Heck, Facebook is built on the concept. It’s a noun; it’s a verb; it’s a thumbnail…and we’ve forgotten what it means.

Mental image: You’re in your car, and unbeknownst to you, your friend is lying on the ground behind it. You innocently put the car in reverse, and run him over. To this point, little blame could be assigned; you had no suspicion of what was about to happen. It was an accident.

In real life, this (hopefully) is where it would end. You shut off your car, call an ambulance, and your friend is rushed to the hospital. Another day; another life saved. In real life. But not in the wonderful world of Internet commentary.

No. In that world, you throw the car into drive, and run him over again. And back into reverse. (WHUMP!) And drive. (WHUMP!) And reverse…You get the picture.

Or, imagine that you’re watching a friend being repeatedly run over in your driveway by another friend. At what point do you intervene to stop the carnage? At what point do you bring out the lawn chair and the popcorn?

And here’s the craziest thing of all: In real life, my guess (and hope) is that, under circumstances like these, it wouldn’t have to be a “friend” for you to spring into action. You might even do it for a cat or a dog (or, if you’re my wife, a caterpillar). On the other hand, as the vitriol flies in the blogosphere and your “friends” get beaten to a bloody theoretical pulp, where are you? Do you step into defend, or at least to moderate the conversation? Or are you, perhaps, one of the bullies yourself?

For whatever reason, the minute we start commenting online, some switch is flipped, and decency flies out the window. We act toward digital “friends” in ways we would never act in real life. And we patch it up with that epitome of the pseudo-personal touch: the emoticon.

“I’m sorry if I mauled you like a bear in front of God and everybody.” Sad face. Sad face. Sad face.

I didn’t mean to. Ah, but you didn’t mean not to, either.

With emoticons like these, who needs enemies?

Walkabout

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Being as how my walkabout experience (the first of many, I hope) stands as one of the seminal moments in my journey toward self-discovery, I thought it was high time I finish the story. So, as a refresher, I’m re-posting the first three entries in what I’ve come to call “The Dustmobile Diaries.”

Don’t worry, I’m not going walkabout again…yet.

Rock and a Hard Place

396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n…now that we’ve got them just where they want us.

– James T. Kirk

Question of the day: Do I want to be an atheist?

Answer: Not necessarily. Call it phantom limb syndrome or whatever you like, but a part of me still very much wishes I was a Christian. More to the point, it wishes all my Christian acquaintances would allow me to still be one.

It seems that it’s not cricket to claim a Christian identity without accepting a prescribed bill of goods. Prescribed, generally, by the same people who insist that any attempt to categorize the Divine is beyond us puny humans. I never cease to be amazed that those who speak of God and faith as beyond definition are all too happy to force that elusive definition upon unsuspecting others.

On the other side of the equation, I wish my new atheist friends would stop trying to revoke my membership anytime I express continuing affection for my Christian upbringing or any amount of regard for people who remain within the Christian fold.

Apparently, unless I’m willing to concede that all those folks, near and dear to my heart regardless of philosophical disagreements, who continue to embrace a religious worldview are near-sighted simpletons who only do good in spite of themselves, I’m betraying the atheist worldview. My wife, my parents, my sibling and siblings-in-law, close friends and long-time mentors–either I condemn them as idiots, or I’m no longer welcome in the sandbox.

So I’m stuck, between a Christian rock and an atheist hard place. I can’t even say I’m an agnostic without the hardliners on both sides accusing me of either intellectual laziness or moral cowardice.

Newsflash: I am who I am. Some days, I’m so strong an atheist that I can’t even spell “God.” On other days, I’m so sick of atheists that I consider baptizing myself again. I am who I am…and here’s what that looks like:

I am a follower of Jesus (the man, not the ex post facto metaphysical invention). But then, I’m also a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha. And a follower of U2, and Jon Stewart. And of truth wherever else I might find it.

I refuse to judge a book–any book–by the worst thing it contains, or a group of people by the most despicable individual among them. The Bible, taken as a whole, contains a lot of stuff that to our postmodern sensitivities is beyond abhorrent, but it also contains a lot of stuff that is beautiful and good. To refuse to learn from the good out of anger at the bad…well, that’s ignorance, as far as I’m concerned. And there are individual Christians out there who make me want to punch a baby, the Fred Phelpses, James Dobsons, and Franklin Grahams and such. But if I allow those infuriating, narrow-minded, self-righteous few to act as straw men for all the good and loving people who raised me and taught to me to be who I am today–heterodoxy and all–then I do Christians everywhere a grave injustice, and I’m the one not worth their time.

(Just so we’re clear, there are also individual atheists out there that I find completely intolerable, Dawkins, Harris, and the like. Anyone who can, with a straight face, tell me that these guys are any more open-minded than the “religious nuts” they go on about–well, XYZ, my friend.)

Religious upbringing is not child abuse. Sometimes abusers happen to be religious, and religion can be transmitted in harmful ways, but one of these things is not (necessarily) like the other. There are things about my childhood that I wish had been different, but that applies, I expect, to all of us. What I know for a fact is that, while my parents raised me in a very Christian home, they also taught me to be the loving, accepting, thoughtful person I try so hard to be. I owe them who I am, even the willingness to tell all y’all to take a flying leap if you suggest otherwise.

Take away the ad hominem, and we’re all just a bunch of plankton convinced that we’re whales. We’re all on the same journey, whether or not we agree on the stops along the way. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are Christians out there who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God; who don’t believe in an afterlife, or Noah’s ark, or a six 24-hour day creation. They don’t even believe in stoning homosexuals. And they are Christians whether you like it or not.

There are also atheists who are more than willing to see the beauty in Scripture (anybody’s Scripture, Bible, Koran, Talmud, etc.), and to engage Christians in respectful conversations based on an assumption of mutual intelligence. I know there are, mainly because I am one of them.

Somewhere inside me, Christianity lurks, hand in hand with the atheist’s skepticism. Why? Because it occupied the first three decades, plus, of my life. I cannot turn my back on that part of my identity anymore than I ought to turn from my search for Truth. Because some of that Truth still speaks through the Christian in me…

Population: Me

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Atanasio, que significa ‘El inmortal’, murió en el año 373 d.C.

– Miguel Catalán, La nada griega

What’s in a name?

In the fifth grade, I told my Argentine friends that my name–Vance–meant “prince.” This was an honest mistake; I thought I was relaying what my parents had told me. As it turns out, the name actually means “marshland” (or, as a somewhat sarcastic friend once put it, “swamp”). This is odd enough, and might have led to nicknames of its own, but given my unintentional falsehood, everyone referred to me (when they weren’t just calling me “el norteamericano“) as el Príncipe Azul, the Argentine equivalent of Prince Charming. For three years…

So, what’s in a name?

Just the name itself, without all the princely complications, was headache enough. The rest of my family–Steve/Esteban, Pamela, Sara–enjoyed monikers that translated quite fluidly from English to Spanish. And then there was Vance. Or “Bouncy,” which is what you get when you pronounce it phonetically. Add to that the last name–Woods, also phonetically challenging to Spanish speakers–and you come out with, roughly, “Bouncy Boo.” Which is why, for the eight years I lived in Argentina, I was known by my middle name, Eduardo.

So, what’s in a name?

Some folks become very indignant when called by the wrong name, or by the right name poorly pronounced. I have spent my life dealing with this issue, and I’m over it. I’ve been Lance, Vince, Vincent, Van to some. I even spent a year in Costa Rica being addressed as “Max” (phonetics strikes again). So, I’ve gotten to telling people to call me anything they like, and I’ll adjust accordingly. Throw in an odd sort of auditory narcissism–from a distance, many monosyllabics sound like my name–and I will, quite literally, answer to anything.

So, what’s in a name?

“Athanasius, whose name means ‘the Immortal,’ died in 373 AD.” At the end of the day, none of us is a permanent fixture. Vance, charming prince of the marshy swamp, will one day be no more.

So, what’s in a name?

Nothing. And everything.

Toad Wars, Episode V: Toad Strikes Back

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He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

In January 2014, I walked away from the Toad. But I can’t get away from him. Not altogether. The Toad, you see, is who I am.

I’ve said for quite some time that there are no endpoints on the human voyage of discovery. There are no answers without their own sets of brand new questions. Or old ones. But I let my head get too big for my britches (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor); I decided that, while I might not have ferreted out all the answers, I had at least mastered the art of searching.

Pride comes before a fall, I guess…

So, the Toad returns, shamefaced, to his former antics: there is a time and a place for everything, except for abandoning my true self. And that is no Zen statement–I’ve made more of those recently than benefits anyone, and as it turns out, nothingness is just that…nothing.

I am Toad. Hear me ribbit!