Articles of Faith


We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.

– D.T. Suzuki

Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.

If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.

Fair enough. But wrong.

I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.

That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.

Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.

We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.

In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.

The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.

In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”

The You-Turn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…But is it in your conscience that you’re after
another glimpse of the madman across the water?

– Elton John

The way I see it, we have two choices in life:

1) We keep ourselves under wraps, we counterfeit (to borrow a term from a fellow blogger) our feelings, we censor our identities. And we live a half-life at best.


2) We come out of the shadows and we takes our lumps. And we set ourselves free to be who we are. We live authentically.

But disaster looms. Coming out of the closet–any closet–promises to reach into one’s life and unravel it, thread by delicate thread. It is bridge burning taken to new levels, and it is arson by one’s own hand. We wonder if the precarious structure we call identity will be able to withstand the ensuant tremors as we begin to plumb the fault lines of our existence. And we hesitate, one foot off the precipice, one foot on, hugging the edge for all we’re worth.

These are the moments in which purpose is forged. Not in any teleological sense: no one can see into infinity. Farragut had no assurances of victory when he uttered his famous words at Mobile Bay. But he knew he would accomplish nothing by simply remaining where he was, and he knew better than to think he could go back and maintain any shred of self-respect. So he damned the torpedoes–as we all must do at some point–and leapt into the fray.

Purpose is simply this: movement. Movement that reflects who you are. Movement that honors who you want to be. We cannot know what is out there, but we can set out to meet it. On our own terms. In our own way.

But movement is, by definition, away from something, and toward something else. It implies leaving things behind: the static things, the things we can’t carry. In some cases, the people or the places. The safe. The certain. The comfortable.

It may mean cutting ties. There are relationships in this world that lift you up, and relationships that hold you back. You will know them by their deeds. The ones that lift you up also let you go, give you your head. Reluctantly, possibly, at first, but faithfully throughout. They let you explore, become, grow. They let you Be.

The ones that hold you back will strangle the life out of you, if you let them. On a deeper level, they are not real relationships in the first place, because you are not really part of them. Not really. Only the part the other allows you to reveal, just a shadow, an outline. Hollow; shallow; false.

But they feel real. And it hurts when they fall away. Which is why it is so hard to leave them behind. They are the training wheels to our bicycles, the nets to our tightropes. But these things only blight our vision. Their sole purpose is to obviate our need for wings. They anchor us to the ground; they mock our dreams of flight. They whisper to us, cajole us–this is as far as you can go, so stay. Here in the darkness, where it is safe.

Which will it be: the shadow, or the light?


Reach Out and Patronize Someone


Quite a word, that. Deceptive in its apparent receptivity. So transparently open, and yet so opaque and closed.

A word gifted from above. An idea granted as a boon.

“I tolerate you.”

In what twisted human relationship would these words be considered either warm or (even slightly) fuzzy? What self-respecting poet would swoon to hear them tumble from a lover’s lips? Not Byron, not Wordsworth, not even a giant of Suckling stature could take that phrase and make it anything but condescending and cold.

And yet…

We treat it as the height of humanity. We behave as if no other phrase in the English language could comprehend the levels of emotion contained in those three simple words:

“I tolerate you.”

Translation: I accept the fact of your existence, and the fact that it is illegal to kill you dead.

Hold me. I can’t contain the gratitude.

I do not need anyone to tell me that it’s okay to be me. I don’t need permission to think my thoughts. Your understanding and decency are welcome, of course, but they are not necessary.

What I need–what we all need–is awareness, that tolerance is NOT the highest good. It is NOT the greatest gift you or I can bestow upon our fellow human beings. Because to think such a thing implies that I am the fulcrum of everything. My opinion sets the tone. I tolerate you.


You are. I am. We are together.

Legitimacy belongs. It is not bestowed.

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…

What I Believe, Pt. 3: Dying to Be Good

Allow me to preface this by saying: I am a hopeful cynic. I know, it’s an odd combination. Many people have told me that this is paradox, that it is an impossible combination of elements that cannot exist in the same space-time, but the fact remains: I am a hopeful cynic. (And in any case, I prefer to think of myself as an oxymoron…)

On the off-chance that I’ve confused with my mixing of metaphors, I’ll define. A hopeful cynic (i.e., me) is one who believes firmly that there is great potential both for good and for progress nestled away in the bosom of the human race, and that this potential can be tapped without mediation–in other words, this potential is not dependent upon outside (read, supernatural) influence or activation. There’s the hopeful part. Unfortunately, the hopeful cynic, while believing in the possibility of these things, also has a difficult time believing in the likelihood of their ever coming to pass. That’s the cynical part. We CAN do it, but there is serious doubt as to whether we ever WILL.

The irony here is that I got this way (at least insofar as the cynical side of me is concerned) by way of what purports to be the ultimate source of hope: the Christian religion. We’ve all heard the voices, right? The Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the dot-dot-dot, for they shall inherit dot-dot-dot.” John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to give you hope and a future.” (If I had a dime for every time I heard this stupid thing, I’d have paid off my student loans by now.) Translation: Come and get your share of the hope, ’cause we’ve got it by the bucketload.

I have preached these sermons and taught these lessons any number of times. I threw these verses out like candy from a parade float. Until one day I realized that all this “hope” Christians talk about all the time is a giant bait and switch. Because it’s not really hope. Really, it’s nothing more than a gamble, and one that tends to throw the rest of the world under a very nasty, very significant bus.

The epicenter of this switcheroo lies at the heart of what pretends to be the most hopeful (and oft-quoted) of Bible passages, the good old John 3:16. All together now: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but shall have eternal life.” (I apologize for the King James–that version of this verse was beaten into my brain so punctiliously as a child that I have a hard time remembering anything else.)

Hopeful, right? We’re gonna live forever!!! And yet…

The overwhelming emphasis on this verse within Christian circles shifts the paradigm just enough that whatever hope humans may have for this life is not only taken away, it’s tarnished, its reputation is destroyed. It’s no longer needed, you see, because real hope isn’t of this earth. Real hope belongs in heaven. This life, this human existence becomes inconsequential; it’s not real life, even. Real life is eternal life, so forget the stuff going on around you in this world, and fixate on what’s coming in the next. And voila! We abandon the concrete in favor of the insubstantial, and in the end, we come to believe that the insubstantial is the concrete.

Many have remarked on the determination with which many Christians (especially, but not exclusively, of the Evangelical variety) avoid the world issues that have turned our planet into the craphole it so often is: poverty, war, economic injustice, prejudice, etc. This is often taken as a sign that Christians don’t care. While this may raise a few eyebrows, I promise you that this is not (always) the case. It’s not that Christians don’t care; it’s that they often don’t believe they can do anything about it…at least, not anything that matters. Because, since the hope is in the next life, that’s the only legitimate place to look for it. The problem is otherworldly, therefore the solution must be, as well. And, somewhat morbidly, the troubles of the global community are often even taken as proof that God’s way is the way: because of course we did it, we violated his rules. He told us, in the Bible, that there would be suffering as a consequence, and look! There it is!

This is how so many people can ignore so many parts of the book they claim guides their every move: a metaphysical problem demands metaphysical solutions. So, all those Bible passages dealing with social justice and gender equality and freedom and all that are read as metaphor (in another ironic twist, often by the same people who insist on a literal interpretation of scripture), or at the most, as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Thus, when Jesus says he came to preach the good news to the poor, that news can only be salvation at a spiritual level: as with many interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount (of the poor in spirit), what matters is not their hard life on earth, but the joy they will have once they reach heaven. Likewise, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed deals with spiritual imprisonment: mankind is oppressed by and imprisoned in sin, and it is the Christian’s job, not to touch others on any physical level, but to show them the way out of this sinful life and into heaven. And when Jesus tells the rich young man to sell everything and follow him…well, that can’t possibly be literal, can it? We must be speaking of pride. Yes, that’s it! Riches make us proud, and pride is a sin, so what Jesus is telling the rich man to do is to stop being proud. By all means, keep your possessions, but stop it with the pride thing.

This leads, I think, to the ultimate irony: Christians who not only fail to uphold or act on any of the justice-related parts of the Bible, but who even go so far as to argue against taking them up, on the grounds that they’re a distraction from what Christians are really supposed to be doing. Which is preaching the gospel. Or at least the parts of it that don’t include actually helping our fellow humans in any practical way. And I have had my share of these arguments. Sadly, I haven’t always been on the right side of them. But, then, that’s what I was taught: if it doesn’t end with the plan of salvation, it’s just not worth doing. In an unfortunate turn of phrase coined by yours truly (and of which I am not proud), “What matters isn’t what we do down here; what matters is who we take with us up there.” Followed by dramatic gesturing towards the ceiling. And so it goes.

In the final analysis, this approach to hope ends by emptying what is supposedly one of the world’s greatest ethical systems of most of its ethical content, and turning it into a giant subterfuge. I do good for the other, not out of any fellow feeling or sense of shared humanity, not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it might give me a chance to slip a tract into the situation. And that’s if I do anything at all, other than spout nonsense about the “hope that is to come.” Whatever I believe about God or the divine nature of Christ, I do believe (as do many) that Jesus was (if he was at all) a teacher of ethics, and one worth listening to, but that person becomes lost behind the metaphysical screen of spiritualized ethics, and his teachings on how to interact with and care for one another are swallowed up in the church’s teachings on how to get ourselves into glory. We choose heaven (which we can neither see, touch, nor prove) over the suffering that surrounds us on a daily basis (which we can very easily see, and even touch if we care to do it, and which is in need of no proof at all).

If you haven’t figured this out from my last few posts, I no longer count myself among the flock. Haven’t for nearly four years. And still, I struggle against this central lesson, taught to me through years of determined indoctrination (well-meaning indoctrination, surely, but let’s call a spade what it is). They say that if you tell a student she’s a failure every day, eventually she’ll get the message and become what you accuse her of being. The same, I think, applies here: a good portion of the earth’s population has for centuries heard one message over and over: humans are inescapably bad, and cannot be otherwise unless and until God “completes that good work” in them. In other words…until they die and go to heaven. We have fallen, we have sinned that “original sin” (courtesy of Augustine, who I believe to be pretty much responsible for everything that’s wrong with Christianity today). And there’s no fixing that, is there?

Put bluntly, in many ways Christianity discourages its followers from doing the good its scriptures seem to be demanding. The problems of the world are not meant to be solved, at least not by us measly humans, so why bother? Attempting to be or do good is largely a waste of time; in any case, give a man a fish or teach a man to fish, he’s still going to hell unless you bring him to Jesus, right? To the people (like myself) who tend to equate all the “Kingdom speak” with the search for a more just, equitable society here on this plane, these folks turn a mournful eye: even the suggestion of making the world a better place is greeted with consternation and contempt as being  beside the point. We’re not meant for this world, anyway. We’re in it, but not of it, after all. (Which Pauline quote, tossed around willy-nilly, does not even exist.)

So here I stand, a hopeful soul with a gun to his inner cynic’s head, wanting desperately to pull the trigger, and impeded by the very part of his past that promises nothing but hope. And that tells me something…

What I Believe, Pt. 2: What I Don’t Believe


Have you ever noticed that arguments for God have a way of either fading away into incomprehensible philosophical gobbledygook or degenerating into the intellectual equivalent of a VeggieTales video? In the final analysis, it seems that God exists…well, because God exists. Because we really, really, really want/need him to. Or her. Or it. So we make up an exalted system of apologetics that claims to be beyond the reach of critical thinking, while at the same time embracing one that requires no critical thinking skills at all.

Here’s a passage from a book I cataloged the other day, God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty, by Rice Broocks:

If you were walking through the woods and found a turtle on top of a fence post, you could rationally conclude that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone put it there. Even if you didn’t have an explanation for who did it, you would be reasonable in assuming that time and chance wouldn’t eventually place a turtle on a fence post.

I once saw a stalk of hay that had been shoved through a telephone pole by a tornado. So, I’m fairly certain that some force besides “someone” could have gotten that poor turtle on top of that fence post. But set that aside for a moment, and look at Broocks’ argument as it stands. (An argument, I might add, from a book written with an adult audience in mind.) It’s a turtle. On a fence. Can all the three-year-olds say “Heeey!?!”

On the other side of this equation, of course, we have the infamous Anselm. In the Proslogion (c.1078), the Archbishop of Canterbury first put forward what has become known as the ontological argument for the existence of God, which I quote in part below:

Even the Fool, then, is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind. And surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater. If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought. But this is obviously impossible. Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought [i.e., God] exists both in the mind and in reality.

Even in translation, this “proof” sets the eyeballs spinning faster than you can say “Anselm’s an idiot.” Here’s a paraphrase from Princeton professor Gideon Rosen:

(1) Suppose (with the fool) that God exists in the understanding alone.

(2) Given our definition, this means that a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone.

(3) But this being can be conceived to exist in reality. That is, we can conceive of a circumstance in which theism is true, even if we do not believe that it actually obtains.

(4) But it is greater for a thing to exist in reality than for it to exist in the understanding alone.

(5) Hence we seem forced to conclude that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is.

(6) But that is absurd.

(7) So (1) must be false. God must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

After referring to this proof, theologians and philosophers have a way of nodding sagely, gazing mystically into your eyes, and saying: Trust me. It’s not meaningless. It’s DEEP. All I can say is, if you can follow that, Rand McNally wants you.

So, the existence of God is either so simple a concept that any idiot can capture its essence in reductionist (read, childish) analogy, or it is so complex an idea that not only does the being in question defy the understanding, so do the very arguments for that being’s being. And these are the folks who insist that the theory of evolution is too full of contradiction to be true…

The conclusion, I think, is straightforward: We need to formulate a God who is beyond formulation, beyond “mortal comprehension,” so we devise explanations that are also beyond comprehension. At the same time, we need to formulate a God whose formulation doesn’t require a whole lot of thought, so we invent simplistic, cute little aphorisms that turn the Absolute into children’s lit. We need to live at these opposing extremes, because that keeps us from accidentally straying into the space between. Because that’s where the scary answers live.

Once we stop relying on people who are “smarter” than us, and patronizing the rest, we suddenly find ourselves forced to acknowledge the failure of our conclusions to fit the evidence. It becomes more difficult to remain the passive receptors of what, given the traditional view of God as omnipotent being, can only be called divine arbitrariness. The inescapable contradiction in the suffering mother’s need to “beg” a “loving Father” to stop tormenting her child becomes, like its object, inescapable. We begin to realize that God, as Broocks and Anselm conceive of him, is either responsible for the evil that happens in the world, or he isn’t in control; that he can’t at once be both guilty and innocent, saint and sociopath; and that none of this jives with the stuff we’ve been taught since that first Sunday School class convinced us we had it coming.

We need to stop defending God, and demand that the God-concept defend itself. When this happens, a whole new picture emerges that requires a reformulation of that concept, one that stops forcing the evidence to fit the conclusions and begins to draw conclusions that fit the evidence. I have been accused by some of being (and assumed by others to be) an atheist, a question I will take up again at another time. However, I will say this: insofar as the God of Anselm and Broocks is concerned, there is no question. I no longer accept the existence of such a being. The evidence, as I suggested before, just does not warrant the conclusion, illustrate the idea as you will.

In 2004, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, better known as Vizzini of The Princess Bride, conducted an interview with philosopher Noam Chomsky (in a book soon to appear on the Big List), and I leave you with one last quote, from that interview, in which Chomsky comments on God as ethical plumb line:

…You can find things in the traditional religions that are very benign and decent and wonderful and so on, but I mean, the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon. The God of the Bible–not only did he order His chosen people to carry out literal genocide–I mean, wipe out every Amalekite to the last man, woman, child, and, you know, donkey and so on, because hundreds of years ago they got in your way when you were trying to cross the desert–not only did He do things like that, but, after all, the God of the Bible was ready to destroy every living creature on earth because some humans irritated Him. That’s the story of Noah. I mean, that’s beyond genocide–you don’t know how to describe this creature. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy every living being on earth? And then He was talked into allowing two of each species to stay alive–that’s supposed to be gentle and wonderful.

You do the math…