Monday, July 27, 2009

Turning Points (II)

"Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you."
-Mark 11:24 NASB

That verse played a key role in changing the direction of my life. I know, I know, you gotta take the Bible as a whole, not just pick one or two, or even several, verses and try and make something from that,
believe me, I know. But this verse had been giving me some trouble for awhile. Don't remember exactly when, or why, since I'd no doubt read it countless times before and never had a problem with it, but for some reason it started really sticking out to me and not making much sense. After all, how many times have you heard that Jesus 'says what he means, and means what he says?' I've heard it countless times, and it's usually said in a forceful voice and with an air of authority, like the speaker is a politician's right-hand man on the campaign trail-
'Candidate A says what he means and means what he says, and you can take that to the bank!'
They say it like he just speaks in an Everyman's language, plain and simple and direct, no way to misunderstand the words or the meaning behind them. So what to make of this verse, then? It's pretty plain and simple and direct. Ask, and you shall receive, right? Well,
obviously he wasn't talking about anything and everything, like he's just some spiritual Sugar Daddy, waiting to hand out new cars and winning lottery tickets, right? Obviously. But I knew that. I didn't read the verse that way, because I knew better than to take things out of context, picking a verse here and there to support the things I wanted the Bible to say, like the so-called 'Name-it-claim-it' folks. I knew better than that. But I was still having trouble with it because what about the other stuff; the things that God probably does want for our lives, the things that Christians everywhere ask for in all sincerity in their prayers (whatever those things might be)? That's what I was having trouble with. Especially since over in Matthew 18:19 it says, 'Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.'
So what about that? He tells us in his plain and simple and direct language to ask. Just ask, and you shall recieve (or, 'it shall be done'). Either way, when taken at face value it simply isn't true. And remember, I'm not talking about asking for 'worldly things.' I'll get into some specific 'things' later, but for now just think about some of the things that you might pray for that maybe seem to be answered with a 'yes' and maybe they don't. But there is no 'maybe' in the verse. There's no 'no' in the verse. It's just 'ask, and you shall receive.' And it was really starting to bug me. I couldn't seem to figure it out. So, one night on a Wednesday- I had stayed home from church for some reason- I happened to be listening to the radio call-in program 'To Every Man An Answer' (similar to The Bible Answer Man, where you call in with questions about the Bible and Christianity) and decided to call those guys and ask them about it. So I asked them my question, making sure to note that I was ruling out any sort of 'name-it-claim-it' b.s. I just wanted an honest answer to the question of 'why?' Why does he say ask and you shall receive, and yet countless prayers go unanswered. All I remember the guy saying was that 'Jesus wasn't giving us carte blanche to ask for whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it.' He said some other stuff besides that, but I think I stopped listening at that point. What a letdown. What a huge, huge letdown. I don't know exactly what I was looking for for an answer, but I was hoping for something with a little more substance than 'he's not giving us carte blanche to ask for whatever we want, whenever we want...' Of course he wasn't.
Obviously he wasn't; I knew that. Tell me something I don't know. That was the purpose of the call- to maybe give me a little insight, help me see things differently, and maybe understand a little better. It might have been better if he'd just said, 'Y'know, I don't know, that verse really stumps me too.' I seem to recall them offering up 'I don't know' as an answer at times to other peoples' calls (not, however, for 'interpretation' issues). And that's fine- you don't know, just say so. I can appreciate that kind of honesty. But I really don't like attempted answers that really don't answer anything at all. This phone call was a very long time ago, and so my memory of all the details may be a little foggy, but I do recall him giving me that answer quite readily- no long pause, no 'hmmmm.... let me think...' And he (as I recall) sounded quite confident too; pretty sure of himself. I suppose part of that is just the radio business- you kind of have to be clear and confident and ready to go when it comes to a national call-in show. Voice is everything in radio. To be fair, when he was done 'answering' my question, he did ask me if that helped me, and I did say yes, even though it really didn't. I suppose I could've said no, and pressed for more. I'm not sure why I didn't. Maybe I realized deep down right then and there that it wouldn't matter. What else could he say, really? I'd spent enough time pondering it on my own, and he and his co-host offered up their thoughts, so what more could be said? Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking on that phone call and what they'd said, and how I'd felt about their answer.

And I came to this conclusion:
'Why should I listen to these clowns?'

I don't mean to say that they're just a joke, by calling them clowns, but that's what I felt at the time. And really, why should I listen to them when it comes to these types of questions? Why should I listen to them or any other 'expert?' This isn't rocket science we're talking about here. Hell, it's not even science. It's, 'what do you think it means?' It's not like I was trying to figure out Fermat's Last Theorem, or some other advanced math problem, where there is a hard-and-fast, right-or-wrong answer, as well as a method for finding it; it's not even like I was asking for relationship advice for my troubled marriage. Even that would be different because even though there are no absolute right-or-wrong answers in relationship advice because everyone's is different, a lot of people have experience that they can draw on, and offer useful advice. But this wasn't about anything like that; it was about, 'What do you think he meant?' So why should their opinions be any more valid than mine? Sure, they may have studied the Bible, and it's history, for many more years than I have, but the Bible doesn't change (for better or worse). The verses are exactly the same when he studies them as they are when I study them, so when I read the Bible with an open mind and an open heart and come away with a different take than him, or you, or pastor so-and-so, what makes anyone else more 'right' than me? My brother likes to say, 'There's only one way to interpret the Bible- the right way.' Ok, so what exactly is 'the right way,' and what if my interpretation is different than yours? If we have differing interpretations, and if they both can't be right (although both could be wrong) then how are we supposed to decide which one (if any) is the right one? I've heard Chuck Missler say that 'we use the Bible to interpret the Bible' (yeah, he's quite good at talking a lot of utter nonsense). My experience and my observation is that 'the other guy' is always wrong. Always.
Since even Christians can't agree with unanimity on everything the Bible says, how is it we're supposed to be able to know what this 'right' way is?
Here's what I think- anyone who believes that there's only one single 'right' way to interpret what the Bible is saying is deceiving themselves.

I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say on this later, but I just want to sum up by saying that that phone call was a turning point for me. It made me realize that when it comes to matters of faith, my thoughts and opinions and ideas are no less valid than anyone else's. It helped me learn how to think for myself. Never mind asking, 'What do
you think about such-and-such?' It's 'What do I think?' Other peoples' thoughts and opinions are valid and can be helpful in forming my own, but the bottom line for me, especially when it comes to intangibles like,
'What do you suppose Jesus meant when he said...,'
the bottom line for me is that I can, and will, decide for myself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Turning Points (I)

There's a book I have listed over in the sidebar called, 'Losing Faith In Faith,' by Dan Barker. You might recognize the name, as he was apparently a big name in evangelical Christianity in the late-60's and 70's, but that was before my time in the faith, so I'd never heard of him until after I left my own faith and found his book. It's a book that I highly recommend, to anyone. I've already read it twice, and am working on a third time. He's a lot more well-spoken than I am and says a lot of the things that I want to say, only better. His de-conversion process took place over a five year period, one that he describes as, 'painful.' I think my own took place over a period of about 2-3 years, and yes, it also was painful. Very much so. I imagine that it's similar to going through a difficult divorce, since, in a sense, that's kind of what it is. It also leaves us ex-believers in kind of an odd spot- people who've always been atheists tend to wonder how we could have ever believed in the first place, and old Christian friends (as well as other believers) well, they tend to have a whole laundry list of reasons why we no longer believe- everything from, 'we never did' to, 'we still do, we just don't want to own up to it and bow down to God.' It's really, really hard for anyone who hasn't gone through this to truly relate or understand. I don't expect you guys to be able to fully understand- simply because you haven't gone through this yourselves- but hopefully I can at least give you an idea. I did not just wake up one day and say, 'Enough of this crap, it's over.' Or, 'I'm tired of doing what God wants me to do, it's time to do what I want to do.'
I can't remember every single thing that led me to where I am now, entire conversations I've had with people, the way some people apparently can, but there's two main things that really stand out in my mind that really had an impact on me and my thought process, and still do to this day. These two things, I think more than anything else, led me to where I am today. Ironically, the first one was during a sort of bible study at church. It was actually some sort of class- I can't remember exactly what it was about, but the main church out in California (I want to avoid too many names, but I'm talking about K's church here, not the Nazarene church) they have some sort of bible college going on. And apparently, they offer the curriculum for sale, minus the college credit, at a reduced price to other member churches- the idea being that you could get the education of the classes without going for whatever degree was being offered. Good for folks who couldn't actually make it out there to attend, or who weren't interested in a degree, but still wanted the opportunity to be able to study under some really smart guys (being that they were college professors, and all). In the end though, as I remember it, it was basically just a bible study. They had several different courses available and one or another was picked out to start off with. I think they figured on meeting up once a week for 6-8 weeks or something like that, but I actually only ended up making it to, I think, two before I called it quits- I was living in Union at the time (at least I had a car by this point, so no more hitchhiking, or I wouldn't have been able to make it at all, since it was at night and I had to work the next day) and since I was already coming up on Sundays anyway, I really didn't have the extra time or gas money.
So here I am, in this 'class,' with maybe 5 or 6 other guys. I can't remember exactly what the subject was about, the 'nature of God' or some such thing, but that particular night we were going over something from Romans about how Jesus was 100% God, yet also 100% man (human) at the same time (sorry, I really can't be bothered to look up the exact verse(s). And everyone was tripping on it, like, 'How can this be? I don't get it, I just don't get it!' There was a lot of discussion, a lot of going back and forth, slapping of foreheads, and they were talking about how you could 'practically hear the fuses blowing' in their heads. And they totally relished it too! They seemed like they were having a really great time, not understanding. Me, I'm just sitting back taking it all in, watching, listening. That's just how I am; I'm not much of a talker. But it kept going on and on, they were stuck on that one passage, really making a big deal out of it, like they'd never read it before in their lives. And at one point, I just remember thinking something like, 'Why don't you just ask him to explain it to you, then? Why don't you just go to the Guy that wrote the book and ask Him?' (Not those exact words, of course, but that's the gist of it.) I didn't say that, of course, since that's not how I am; that's also not 'how things work'- you don't just pull up a chair and invite Jesus to join the discussion you're having about him. So I just kept on listening and watching, and I don't remember thinking too much about it afterwards. It really didn't seem like that big a deal at the time. I'm not sure when it did become a big deal, but at some point, it did.
I don't know why it never occurred to me before, or, if it did, why it never meant as much as it did then and does now. I don't know how other people can think about it and it doesn't seem to affect them like it did me. I guess it's all part of the 'mystery of God's ways,' as Dan Barker said in his book. Except that it's not, anymore. Not for me, anyway. Think about those words for a minute-

'Why don't you just ask him to explain it to you, then? Why don't you just go to the Guy that wrote the book and ask Him?'

To this day that is one of the biggest problems ever that I have with my old faith. Isn't one of the core teachings of Christianity that you can know God? Know him personally? Have a relationship with him? It's practically one of the foundations. Take that away, and you're basically back in the Old Testament where the average guy definitely can't talk to God directly, but instead has to go through a high priest
or Moses, or whoever. I remember hearing countless sermons railing against the Catholic church because of having to confess to the priests and all that- 'No,' they said. 'Jesus took all that away! You don't have to go through anyone anymore, you can go straight to the Lord himself (through Jesus)! Except that, really, you can't. Can you? I mean, that's what they say, but when it really comes down to it, it doesn't work that way. When it really comes down to it, those guys in that class were left to themselves, slapping their foreheads and talking about fuses blowing in their minds. Why not just ask God to explain it all, make it simple? Make it so we can understand? (No need to say it because I can hear it now, because I've heard it countless times before- 'But He has made it simple! He has made it so we can understand!') But there they were, asking themselves. Arguing and debating and going back and forth and back and forth, trying to figure it all out. There was no clear answer for them (not that they seemed to mind- 'All we know is that, yes, he's 100% God, and 100% man at the same time, but we don't know how or why or...' Can't explain it, we just know that it's true.'). I don't pay much attention anymore to theological discussions within the church, but I would imagine that people are still trying to figure out that idea, as well as countless others, just like they always have been, just like they always will be.

There was a post over on Unreasonable Faith recently, that I think sums it up perfectly. Just a photo, and I'm normally not too keen on these 'Demotivational' poster ripoffs, but I think this one is worth it-

It's always, always, always humans doing the talking. One of the commenters on that particular post had this to say, in response to a comment by someone else-

'You’re right… God could come to us in the form of a man… we’d probably kill him, but then he’d rise from the dead… oh wait… that all happened and people still don’t believe. God has given us every reason already to believe in him, even outside of Jesus, we see the existence of God in nature...'

But, by a really strange coincidence... that was a person who posted that comment! God may have been speaking through him (or he may not have been) but it was still a person doing the writing. Along those lines, think about how the internet has changed the volume of debate- before the internet, you had to to write books, or newsletters, or hold public debates, or whatever. Now, you've got countless- countless- blogs and newsgroups, forums and chatrooms, where all people do is debate one side or the other. People. Debating. About God. God's not doing the debating. The people are.
Us nonbelievers, sure, we have to speak up for ourselves, make our own case, because really, who else will? We don't have an Ultimate Authority who will speak for us. But have you ever really wondered what God's doing while all these countless debates are going on in his name? I picture him sitting on the edge of a chair, rooting for his favorite commenters on his favorite blogs/forums/chatrooms, pumping his fist in the air and saying, 'You tell him! You tell him!' I don't mean to sound flip or sarcastic, but really- from the Christian point of view, what is the point of it all? Why should anyone have to go to bat for God? Speak for him? Defend him? Can't he speak for himself? Or is it that old, 'He's speaking through his people' bit? Funny, though, how God always speaks through people, and not directly to people. Funny how he always uses their own voice, or their own pen, or their own word processor, to speak through them. Funny how he speaks through them, unless or until they're found to be telling lies, like Mike Warnke was, or until they're found to be a closet homosexual, like Ted Haggard is. Funny how God chooses to work that way, eh?

I remember seeing an interview not so long ago that Bill Maher did with Mike Huckabee, and he asked him something along those lines, about how God speaks to us. Huckabee answered pretty much the way he had to, the way everyone does when pressed on such matters- God speaks to our hearts, our souls, it's the 'still small voice,' it's the child's laughter, it's the quiet time by the stream, etc., etc., etc. Because whenever someone says that God actually speaks to him or her, like has a conversation with them or something, they are rightly looked on as nuts, even by Christians. God just doesn't work that way. (Of course he doesn't work that way. Why would he? It would certainly clear up a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding, wouldn't it?) So then what of all this talk about 'relationship' and knowing God personally and intimately? I still remember the whole, 'It's not religion, it's a relationship,' argument. Religion is all those other belief systems, the ones that don't include the God of the Bible (or do but add lots of man-made rules, like the Catholic church does); we're all about relationship, specifically one with Jesus. But what does that even mean if you can't actually talk with him? Ask him questions and expect real answers? With God, it's always a one-way conversation.
'You can know him personally,' they say. 'He can (and should) be your best friend,' but when you need real answers for real problems (including doubts about your faith) what you get is a 'still small voice;' one you can't even hear with your own ears because he 'doesn't work that way.' And even if you did hear a voice, who could you tell? Because even Christians look on that sort of thing with a great deal of skepticism. All you're really left with is prayer and talking to other believers, asking them what they think. Which leads me to turning point number 2. But that's for the next post. For now, I just want to say one last thing. Possibly, my tone here has come off a little strong; a little 'anti-God'. Some Christians reading this may think so, and vice versa, if there's any unbelievers reading this, they may think just the opposite. Let me be clear, this post, this blog, is not some sort of 'attack' on God, the idea of God, you, your faith, anyone's faith. A lot of Christians tend to look at any statement of unbelief as such-

I'm listing off reasons why I
don't believe, so therefore it's an attack on everyone who does believe.

Not at all. Like I say in the 'About Me' section, this is just an ' journal where I try and clear my mind of all the thoughts, doubts, questions, and other bullshit that has been building up...' And that is what all of these posts are- honest thoughts, doubts and questions that I've had now for over 10 years. And one thing I've learned over the years, is that for all peoples' talk about respecting truth and honesty, a lot of it is just that- talk. The truth hurts. A lot, sometimes. Everyone says they want the truth, and they don't seem to mind when other people get offended over hearing it, but when you start saying things like, 'How's this for honesty- I'm not a believer anymore. In fact, I can't believe anymore,' all of a sudden things are different and you find that maybe folks don't appreciate honesty as much as they'd like to think they do.
So this is just my place to be honest. I hope you'll understand.