Ten years out of fundamentalism

It was fall 2003 and Rachel and I were driving down Highway 37 having one of our increasingly frequent gripe sessions. We were frustrated with the church we were attending – actually, with the entire fundamentalist tradition in which we were raised. We were changing, seeing our Pentecostal Holiness churches with new eyes.

We had been changing for quite a while. Thanks to the internet I had begun to discover the religious world outside our small group of strict, independent fundamentalists. I was realizing that we were not (in the words of an Audio Adrenaline song) the only ones moving toward Jesus. Also, I had discovered theology and other forms of religious thought far more rigorous and exciting than anything I’d ever encountered before. As Rachel and I discussed these things we both became curious about life outside the narrow world of our church.

Once we discovered liturgy, hymnody, and the ritual of the Christian calendar we began, stealthily, to visit a local Lutheran church. We were stunned by the beauty we found there.

We attempted to work what we were learning into our Pentecostal church: Rachel sang hymns in the services and I introduced theological concepts into Sunday School lessons. We went as far as creating an Easter production that was nothing but thinly veiled liturgy. We still believed we could stay where we were.

Then we attended an Audio Adrenaline concert with our friend Jeremy and his youth group. Audio Adrenaline was a Christian rock band – music that was at the outer edges of acceptability in our churches. If our people hadn’t believed jewelry was a mark of harlotry there would’ve been a great deal of pearl-clutching once they heard about where we’d gone. The consequences were serious for Jeremy, less so for us. But those events and the discussions that followed them allowed us to see more clearly the nature of the churches in which we were involved.

We began to realize that our people had a far too narrow view of religion and the world more generally. They were legalistic and, if you fell out of favor, they could be incredibly cruel. We were taught that the world was populated by demons and dangers. Yet as we tiptoed out into it we found a wonderful and thrilling place opening up before us.

So as we drove down Highway 37 I asked, half jokingly and half hopefully, “Why don’t we just leave and join the Lutheran church?” To my amazed delight Rachel replied, “Okay.”

After a few difficult, tearful conversations with family and friends, we started attending the Lutheran church on the first Sunday of 2004. We finally felt connected to a faith with a history and a link to the universal Church. We were intoxicated by the beauty of the ritual. Where previously I had only read books of sermons written by an approved list of authors, now I was driven by the joy of discovery to read whatever captured my interest. Later that year I stood in the sunlit sanctuary on Easter morning singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with tears in my eyes and the deep conviction that we were home.

But, like everything else in the universe, we continued to change. In 2006, two years later, our daughter Darcy was born and introduced a happy disruption to our lives. I continued to explore new ideas, often reading books that I only half-understood. I continued to have conversations online with fellow theology nerds. I had discussions/debates with Andy, whose friendship I had recently regained and who was himself going through serious changes. He presented me with questions that had a slow but relentless effect on me.

In 2009 we moved into Bedford, further away from our Lutheran church and within two blocks of an Episcopal parish. This proximity caused us again to consider whether we were in the right place. The denomination to which we belonged officially banned women from the ministry and semi-officially taught Young Earth Creationism (the belief that the world was created in six days less than ten thousand years ago).

Over the past five years we’d gone from politically and theologically conservative to politically liberal and theologically moderate. We accepted the scientific consensus on evolution. We no longer believed the Bible was inerrant. We believed women should fully participate in every aspect of the church’s ministry. We believed in the full equality of our LGBT sisters and brothers and acknowledged the holiness of their sexualities and gender expressions. Although our Lutheran church was a warm and welcoming place and we had no reason to believe we would encounter any difficulties, we believed that the Episcopal church would allow us the freedom to fully embrace these changing beliefs. So we made the move.

“Whatever IS will be WAS” (Bhikkhu Ñanamoli).

A friend from my fundamentalist days once said to me, “You’ve changed, Jeremy. You didn’t believe these things before.” And she was right. Unlike her, I do not consider it a compliment to say of a person that their beliefs have never changed. We have new experiences, new questions, and new encounters which curiosity and honesty compel us to incorporate into our mental universes. The alternative is to filter out any challenges to our beliefs. In that way, we avoid all psychic disturbance, but at the price of creativity and growth.

So far my emphasis has been on beliefs. This is because much of my life has been consumed by beliefs – acquiring them, changing them, ordering them, comparing them. Over the last few years I’ve detected this imbalance in my life. As my conception of politics grew from concern over the electoral horse race (something from which you can disengage between election cycles and legislative sessions) to a concern for the distribution of power and the ways in which we live together (something from which you must never disengage), I began to see that, like many introverts, I was living inside my head. I was very good at acquiring the right opinions, but not so good at acting on them.

This led to the feeling that I was wasting my life. I became resentful of my job and daydreamed continually of doing something else. Below the surface I lived with a continuous sense of dissatisfaction. I made a few half-hearted attempts to get involved with various causes, but none of them took.

Meanwhile the chatter continued in my head. I was trying to integrate my various interests – Anglo-Catholicism, Buddhism, mysticism, Protestant liberalism – with my developing politics. Finally, in January 2013, I had a panic attack. Sitting in traffic at the intersection of Highway 37 and Vernal Pike I suddenly had an intense, overwhelming desire to rip everything I knew about religion out of my head and never, ever remember it. That’s when I realized I needed to take a break. I stopped reading about and discussing religion. I decided that God (who/whatever s/he is) didn’t need me risking my mental health over problems I wasn’t going to solve anyway.

More changes came. Rachel and I became vegans and got involved in an effort to get a farmed animal sanctuary up and running. It is one of the most fulfilling projects we have ever been a part of. It has given me the opportunity to act on my beliefs in a concrete way and relieve that dread of wasting my life.

My work responsibilities have also grown in complexity and quality. The boredom and frustration that once filled my days is gone.

But 2013 has not been an unmixed blessing. The lingering effects of my religious neurosis (that’s what I’ve decided to call it) and my increased professional responsibilities have resulted in a few relatively minor panic attacks and bouts of anxiety. I’m learning how to deal with them. More change. More change.

I have no idea where I’ll go from here. I could never have predicted we’d be where we are. In fact, if you would have told me twenty years ago where I’d be today I would have been terrified. Just goes to show you that the preachers were right: Christian rock and intellectual curiosity will damn you every time.

Some days I worry whether I have it all wrong. Still, I know certain paths are closed for me. There is no way back to Christian exclusivism. Whatever God is, God is not parochial. God has not set up a system in which large segments of humanity will be tortured in hell because they have not properly arranged their mental furniture.

But most days I find that beliefs are unimportant to me now. I don’t care what you believe; tell me what you’re doing. Whatever God does, God is not actively intervening to improve the world. That, apparently, is our job. As Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Rachel and I are now ten years out of fundamentalism. Despite the pain it has sometimes caused, I would not undo the decisions we have made. Above all else I am thankful that we have travelled so far together. She is a delightful companion.

I know more change is coming – and sometimes I feel the panic creeping up the back of my neck. Then I breathe deeply, tell myself I’m okay, and greet my old fears with a smile.

“The mere fact of human fallibility shouldn’t be enough to paralyze you into inaction.”

The mere fact of human fallibility shouldn’t be enough to paralyze you into inaction. In all of our human endeavors, there are two ways to go wrong: we can mistake falsehood for truth and act in error; and we can fail to see a truth we need to act on, and so do nothing when action is urgently required. The most strident opponents of reform are often those who are so afraid of the first kind of mistake that they persistently fall headlong into the second. It’s important for reformers not to do the same thing in reverse. But it’s even more important to act on conscience.

When we do, we should seek dialogue with those who resist the changes we are trying to make. We should seek to understand the human needs and feelings that underlie that resistance. And where there is truth to be found in our opponent’s concerns, we should integrate that truth into our reform efforts.

But sometimes resistance is so strident and entrenched that no such dialogue is possible. What then? Do we give up? Do we “wait” until the society is “ready”? Martin Luther King’s words about “why we can’t wait” resonate with authority for all who stand witness to grave injustice. But so do his words about nonviolence and love, about reliance on methods of pushing for change that do not shut the door to future dialogue, that do not shut out the prospect of the Beloved Community.

Eric Reitan, “Those pesky Protestant progressives

Beyond comfort at any cost

There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

Pema Chodron, Awakening Loving-Kindness

Disguising power as piety

In an article for Christianity Today, Bret Mavrich recounts his visit to Lamppost Farm. Lamppost was founded by Steve and Mel Montgomery as a nonprofit “ministry” where Steve attempts “to kill chickens as God intended—and, by that, connect people with the goodness of God and his grace that overcomes human sin and limitations.”

Mavrich describes the chicken slaughter process and recalls how Steve coached the various participants past their disinclination to kill. After the second killing doesn’t go as smoothly as the first, Mavrich admits to Montgomery that he is disturbed. Montgomery replies, “It’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.” Mavrich writes:

That simple truth resonates long afterward. Everything at the farm, from Steve and me to the chicken to the land, has a Creator. And because of this, I hold no ultimate mastery over the bird I have just killed, because it wasn’t mine to begin with. The hen was a gift. I’m intimately bound to a chicken in a relationship because I took its life, in the sight of God and with my own hands, to nourish mine.

Suddenly, I’m thinking new thoughts, the kind the Montgomerys had hoped for. Food doesn’t come from a grocery store. The grocery store delivers to me, a consumer, not chickens but pieces of chickens, without a trace of the process, much less the living animal. Food doesn’t even come from Lamppost Farm, a sustainable, gmo-free, free-range paradise that’s as close to Eden as you could hope for in Ohio. No, food comes from God.

Here, at Lamppost, knowing this enhances what you’re eating because every hen is a gift, and has been received as such and treated as such every step of the way. And if we’ve overlooked gifts as bountiful as these, where else have we missed God reaching out to us in small ways, maybe all the time?

This is pious sentiment designed to obscure a relationship of power and dominance.

Mavrich claims not to have mastery of the chicken he killed. But he clearly does. He took the chicken from the cage, hung it upside down, and slit its throats. He’s holding the knife; he has the power. I’m sure there were God-fearing Southerners who regarded their African slaves as gifts entrusted to their care by a gracious God. It doesn’t make it true.

The chicken was not a gift. It did not offer itself and God did not hand it to Mavrich. Mavrich willingly participated in a system that raises and slaughters chickens simply because we enjoy the taste of their flesh. We have engineered this system – even to the point of altering the DNA of chickens so that they will produce more white meat. We use chickens to satisfy our desires. Invoking God as giver is pure post hoc rationalization.

Yes, I’m a vegan. Yes, I’m involved in efforts to rescue farmed animals. And, yes, many people regard those things as slightly crazy. But let us at least be honest about the exercise of our power and not pass it off as God’s design. That’s been done before, with disastrous results.

Whatever walked there, walked alone.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. Now that’s how you start a ghost story.

“The ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn”

Telemachus climbed aboard.
Athena led the way, assuming the pilot’s seat
reserved astern, and he sat close beside her.
Cables cast off, the crew swung to the oarlocks.
Bright-eyed Athena sent them a stiff following wind
rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea
as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates:
“All lay hands to tackle!” They sprang to orders,
hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm
in its block amidships, lashed it fast with stays
and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sail high.
Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out
and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow,
sang out loud and strong as the ship made way,
skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal.
All running gear secure in the swift black craft,
they set up bowls and brimmed them high with wine
and poured libations out to the everlasting gods
who never die — to Athena first of all,
the daughter of Zeus with flashing sea-gray eyes —
and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn.

The Odyssey, trans Fagles

Montaigne: Our death is no great thing

When we judge of the assurance of other men in dying, which is without doubt the most noteworthy action of human life, we must be mindful of one thing: that people do not easily believe that they have reached that point. Few men die convinced that it is their last hour; and there is no place where the deception of hope deludes us more. It never stops trumpeting into our ears: “Others have certainly been sicker without dying; the case is not as desperate as they think; and at worst, God has certainly worked other miracles.”

And this comes about because we set too much importance on ourselves. It seems that the universe somehow suffers by our annihilation and that it has compassion for our state; because our vision, when altered, represents things to itself as being likewise altered, and we think they are failing it in proportion as it is failing them; like travelers at sea, for whom mountains, countrysides, cities, heaven, and earth move right along with them and at the same pace:

We leave the port, and lands and towns retreat. [Virgil]

Who ever saw old age not praising times past and blaming the present, charging the world and the ways of men with its own misery and chagrin?

The old man shakes his head and heaves a sigh,
Compares the present day with days gone by,
Praises his father’s lot, and to satiety
Prates of the dead, and of their piety. [Lucretius]

We drag everything along with us.

When it follows that we consider our death a great thing, and one which does not pass so easily, nor without solemn consultation of the stars: so many gods in an uproar about one single head [Seneca]. And we think so all the more, the more we prize ourselves. What? Should so much learning be lost, with so much damage, without the special concern of the destinies? Does a soul so rare and exemplary cost no more to kill than a plebian and useless one? This life, which protects so many others, on which so many other lives depend, which employs so many people in its service, which fills so many places, is it displaced like one that holds only by its one single knot? Not one of us is convinced enough that he is only one.

Montaigne, “Judging the death of others”

Montaigne on Skepticism

Why, they [the Pyrrhonists] say, since among the dogmatists one is allowed to say green, the other yellow, are they not also allowed to doubt? Is there anything that can be proposed for you to admit or deny, which it is not legitimate to consider ambiguous? And where others are swept – either by the custom of their country, or by their parental upbringing, or by chance – as by a tempest, without judgment or choice, indeed most often before the age of discretion, to such or such an opinion, to the Stoic or Epicurean sect, to which they find themselves pledged, enslaved, and fastened as to a prey they have bitten into and cannot shake loose – to whatever doctrine they have been driven, as by a storm, to it they cling as to a rock [Cicero] – why shall it not be granted similarly to these men to maintain their liberty, and to consider things without obligation and servitude? The more free and independent because their power to judge is intact [Cicero].

Is it not an advantage to be freed from the necessity that curbs others? Is it not better to remain in suspense than to entangle yourself in the many errors that the human fancy has produced? Is it not better to suspend your conviction than to get mixed up in these seditious and quarrelsome divisions?

What am I to choose? What you like, provided you choose! There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know.

[The Pyrrhonian] expressions are: “I establish nothing; it is no more thus than thus, or than neither way; I do not understand it; the appearances are equal on all sides; it is equally legitimate to speak for and against. Nothing seems true, which may not seem false.” Their sacramental word is ἐποχή, that is to say, “I hold back, I do not budge.” Those are their refrains, and others of similar substance. Their effect is a pure, complete, and very perfect postponement and suspension of judgment. They use their reason to inquire and debate, but not to conclude and choose. Whoever will imagine a perpetual confession of ignorance, a judgment without leaning or inclination, on any occasion whatever, he has a conception of Pyrrhonism.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”

Montaigne: “we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot”

Of this there is general agreement among all the philosophers of all sects, that the sovereign good consists in tranquillity of soul and body. But where do we find it?

In short, ‘neath Jove alone the wise man dwells:
A king of kings, free, honored, handsome, wealthy;
Save when he has a cold, above all healthy. (Horace)

It seems in truth that nature, for the consolation of our miserable and puny condition, has given us as our share only presumption. This is what Epictetus says, that man has nothing properly his own but the use of his opinions. We have nothing but wind and smoke for our portion. The gods have health in reality, says philosophy, sickness in thought; man, on the contrary, possesses his goods in fancy, his ills in reality. We have been right to make much of the powers of our imagination, for all our goods exist only in dreams.

Hear this poor calamitous animal boast: “There is nothing,” says Cicero, “so sweet as the occupation of letters, of those letters, I mean, by means of which the infinity of things, the immense grandeur of nature, the heavens in this very world, the lands and the seas, are revealed to us. It is they that have taught us religion, moderation, greatheartedness, and that have wrested our soul out of the shadows to make it see all things, high, low, first, last, and middling. It is they that furnish us with means to live well and happily, and guide us to pass our age without displeasure and without pain.” Does not this man seem to be talking about the condition of God, ever-living and almighty? And as for the facts, a thousand little women in their villages have lived a more equable, sweeter, and more consistent life than his.

A god it was, great Memmius, a god,
Who was the first that way of life to find
Which we call wisdom now; whose artful mind
Brought life from such great storms, such depths of night,
Safe into such a haven, such clear light. (Lucretius)

Those are very magnificent and beautiful words; but a very slight accident put this man’s understanding into a worse state than that of the lowest shepherd, notwithstanding that Teacher-God [Epicurus] of his and that divine wisdom.

Nothing is so common as to encounter cases of similar temerity. There is not one of us who is so offended to see himself compared to God as he is to see himself brought down to the rank of the other animals: so much more jealous are we of our own interest than of that of our creator.

But we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot, and sharply and boldly shake the ridiculous foundations on which these false opinions are built. As long as he thinks he has some resources and power by himself, never will man recognize what he owes to his master; he will always make chickens of his eggs, as they say. He must be stripped to his shirt.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, trans. Donald Frame.

Lest anyone be tempted to declare Montaigne a radical, let’s be clear: only pages before this he was advocating submission to the authority of the Church and her teachings. Which means he’s not even a modernist, let alone a postmodernist. What strikes me as most valuable here is his 1. rejection of that cult of the philosophers which forgets they also shat and copulated and had runny noses, and 2. recognition that “a thousand little women in their villages” have lived every bit as well as Cicero. I suspect that, for Socrates (and those with similar turns of mind), an unexamined life would not have been worth living. Yet there have been millions of people unnoticed by history who have lived noble lives free of philosophical introspection.

The source of Montaigne’s appeal to the English (and to me)

William Hazlitt managed to squeeze Montaigne, as well as Rabelais, into a piece called “On Old English Writers and Speakers.” He justified their inclusion thus: “But these we consider as in a great measure English, or as what the old French character inclined to, before it was corrupted by courts and academies of criticism.”

If they like the Essays’ style, English readers were even more charmed by its content. Montaigne’s preference for details over abstractions appealed to them; so did his distrust of scholars, his preference for moderation and comfort, and his desire for privacy – the “room behind the shop.” One other other hand, the English also had a taste for travel and exoticism, as did Montaigne. He could show unexpected bursts of radicalism in the very midst of quiet conservatism: so could they. Much of the time he was happier watching his cat play by the fireside – and so were the English.

Then there was his philosophy, if you could call it that. The English were not born philosophers; they did not like to speculate about being, truth, and the cosmos. When they picked up a book they wanted anecdotes, odd characters, witty sallies, and a touch of fantasy. As Virgina Woolf said a propos Sir Thomas Browne, one of many English authors who wrote in a Montaignean vein, “The English mind is naturally prone to take its ease and pleasure in the loosest whimsies and humors.” This is why William Hazlitt praised Montaigne in terms guaranteed to appeal to an unphilosophical nation:

In taking up his pen he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind, in its naked simplicity and force.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live


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