Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The War for Christmas: Jesus versus Santa

The idea of a "War on Christmas" is silly. Sure, Target doesn't let their employees wish customers a "Merry Christmas" and you can't put a nativity scene in front of the city hall. Yet, the religious aspects of Christmas have been less diminished by any conspiracy than by people changing how they themselves choose to observe Christmas. Rather than a war between Christmas and secular Grinches, it's more appropriate to think of a war between two Christmases, one about celebrating the birth of Jesus, the other about Santa and presents. The second Christmas is winning, easily.

Christian Christmas is no fun and entirely inappropriate for children. The story of the birth of Jesus is lurid, involving teen pregnancy, homelessness, and a bizarre intrusion by big government, mandating a meaningless mass migration to everyone's home town so that they can be counted. Near the end of Matthew's story, all of the baby boys in Bethlehem are butchered; this is absent from your classic Joseph-in-a-bathrobe Christmas pageants. The story is supposed to tell how God was born in human form, but all we see is a silent baby in a creche. For the Christmas story to have a grander meaning, it needs extra context, how this God-child is supposed to be sacrificed as a propitiation for our sins. I would rather wait until Seasonal Affective Disorder has completely overtaken me, say, in February, to contemplate my sins and mortality; in the mean time, I'll enjoy the fun Christmas.

My Uncle Bart says that Jesus came to bring us Christmas cookies. He died so that we could be saved, but that's what Easter is about; Christmas is for Christmas cookies. I like the song about Rudolph who wasn't allowed to join in the other reindeer's games; as the kid in first grade who was kicked out of the Bat Club for having cooties, I find Rudolph to be a relatable character. The story of how he saved Christmas by being himself is inspiring. I like egg nog and I'm glad that we, as a society, have restricted its use to one month out of the year, for the sake of our own health.

It's obvious to everyone that the true meaning of Christmas is presents. I got fossils of a trilobite and a fern, and lots of comic books, and a mandoline. I gave microscope slides to one brother and to another, a steering wheel for his Playstation. Both were delighted, and I like it when my brothers are happy.

Religion loses ground with people less from being proven wrong and more from being proven dreary, irrelevant, or boring. I suppose that I stopped believing in God for rational reasons, this was a result of a careful thought process. What was more difficult for me was coming to a happy acceptance of my non-belief. I became a happy non-believer when I saw ways in which beliefs in God and heaven and spirits didn't give me as much fulfillment and orientation as reason, literature, science, my job, my friends, my family, and good coffee. People aren't, on the whole, going to consider atheism unless they think that it will make them happier and healthier. Secularists succeed when they promote non-belief in ways that are less like arguments and more like fun Christmas.

Some inspiration from "If This Sleigh is A-Rockin', Don't Come A-Knockin'" by Sarah Vowell, act two of The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Suit on This American Life.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Notes and references from How to Talk to Christians

The following are notes and references on a talk I gave to the Secular Student Alliance at UMBC on 2010-10-19. The talk was called "How to talk to Christians (politely) with examples regarding evolution, homosexuality, and abortion."

Terror management theory:

  • Film: Flight from Death (Hulu)
  • Article on response to messages about drunk driving: Shehryar and Hunt. A terror management perspective on the persuasiveness of fear appeals. Journal of consumer psychology (2005) vol. 15 (4) pp. 275
  • I found out about Terror Management Theory by listening to Reasonable Doubts episode "Denying death"
  • The plot of Bush's approval ratings is from Wikipedia, the data was taken from Gallup and USA Today polls

"Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have."

-James Baldwin


  • Genesis 1-3
  • Romans 5:17
  • On the date and context of Genesis 3: Mendenhall, George E. The shady side of wisdom: the date and purpose of Genesis 3. In: A Light unto My Path Old Testament Studies in Honor of Jacob M. Myers. 1974. (You can email me for a PDF.)
  • The Problem of Pain, chapter 5 The Fall of Man, CS Lewis
  • The Literal Meaning of Genesis, St Augustine
  • Enuma Elish lines 135-146 on the slaying of Tiamat to make the sky

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn."

-St. Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis



  • Psalm 139:13-15
  • Exodus 21:22-25
  • Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's essay, "Abortion: Is it Possible to be both "Pro-life" and "Pro-Choice"" or "The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers"
  • Evidence of high incidence of early loss of pregnancy and miscarriage: Wilcox et al. Time of implantation of the conceptus and loss of pregnancy. New England Journal of Medicine (1999) vol. 340 (23) pp. 1796; Wang et al. Conception, early pregnancy loss, and time to clinical pregnancy: a population-based prospective study. Fertility and Sterility (2002) vol. 79 (3) pp. 577.

"When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

-The Supreme Court on Roe v Wade


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Regina rabbit in her cage

When I was a kid, I would save my allowance to buy toys; my little brother would spend his allowance on candy. I would rather have toys later than candy now, because candy is temporary and toys last forever.

The rabbit that lives with me, Spots Regina Leonora Bandita Cookies and Cream Skeptical Empiricism Obama, has no concept of progress. She lives in a cage and eats salad and poops it out into her litter box. She will die someday. She doesn't seem to believe in God or heaven. She can't write literature or invent technologies. She will be completely forgotten eventually. She passes her time playing with her favorite toy, a ball that has another ball in it, with a bell in the smaller ball. She picks up the big ball with her mouth and throws it across her cage and the little bell rings. I can't imagine anyone being so callous as to call her life meaningless or hollow.

During the troubles last summer, when I had a hypomanic episode, I couldn't feel my normal feelings about what matters. I was obsessed with ideas about efficiency and rationality, and I was both terrified of and hoping for a future in which robots took over the earth.

During this time, on a particularly painful day, a friend let me hold a rabbit. I felt a little better. I thought it might be nice to get a pet. A couple of weeks later, this friend decided that she had too many mammals and gave me the rabbit that I had held, and that's how Regina came to live with me.

My feelings were contorted during the troubles, I had trouble figuring out which of my old values were still important. I wanted to make a better world, but I had trouble imagining what a good world for me would be like. It was easier for me to imagine a better world for Regina. I make salad for her every day, I let her out to play, I give her toys, I keep her safe. Maybe that doesn't mean much, but it's easy to tell how much taking care of Regina matters: one rabbit's worth. Taking care of Regina matters more than that: by practicing taking care of her, I think I'm a little more compassionate and gentle, in general.

(Now, Regina does not live in natural circumstances, with other rabbits, in a warren, underground. She only gets to really run around when I let her out of her cage, and I don't think she'll ever really get used to wood floors—she slides on them. She isn't about to be eaten or to starve. I don't know whether it's better to be a wild rabbit or a house rabbit, but Regina lives in a house now and I don't think she would do well in the wild anymore, and so I take care of her.)

When on the manic end of the mood scale, people with bipolar disorder are more prone to form mental connections between ideas. I was thinking a lot about how I'm a mammal and how I'm connected to other mammals and how mammals are interesting because their reproductive strategy is, rather than to have a lot of babies, like turtles and fish and flies, we have a few and we nurture them carefully. I thought a lot about how Regina and I are connected by being living beings. Everything that limits meaning for her, being small and mortal and forgettable, applies to me, too.

Siddhattha Gotama was a prince, who had grown up in three palaces, one for each season. His father, the king, kept him from pain all his life, hoping that the prince would be an apt successor. When he was 29, he secretly left the palaces, and went out into the world. On different trips, he saw an old man, a sick man, and then a corpse; on each trip his chariot driver explained to him what he saw: aging, sickness, and death had been alien to Siddhattha. I wonder if Siddhattha felt despair, as he lost belief in a perfect world. If I were in his place, I suppose I would be distraught and confused. I wonder if he felt that he'd lost a world free of pain; can you feel loss about something that was never real? There is suffering in this world; is there any full and lasting relief from it?

When I stopped thinking that God exists, and, with that, any sort of belief in heaven or hell or any place we can go to that isn't in this universe, I felt confined. This universe has an age and a size and a lifetime; the matter might last forever, but, eventually, everything will wind down. Is there any meaning to be had, or is everything vapor?

I think that Regina lives a meaningful life. Who would say that Regina's life is void or meaningless? Who would say that about humans? The main differences between Regina and I are that I live in a bigger cage and that I have thumbs.

It's tough to say whether Regina is happy or sad, overall. I see her relax a lot, but, being a prey animal, she gets frightened easily. Actually, rabbits are unusual because they play. Other animals play, but few animals that play are herbivorous; play is practice for hunting, for most animals. Sometimes, when Regina is out of her cage, she jumps and dances, it seems, for no other reason than fun. It's difficult to compare the emotions of humans and other animals, so saying whether Regina is happy or sad the way you and I feel happy and sad is not straightforward. What is certain is that she is not suicidal or lackadaisical, so maybe she finds her life meaningful to the extent that a rabbit can think about meaning; she always finds something to do that matters to her.

Lessons I learned from Regina:

  • Eat lots of fiber.
  • If you're scared, you can hide under the futon. You can relax under the futon, too, if you feel like it.
  • If you're not in danger of being eaten, playing with toys is your top priority.
  • Exercise is important, and most fun on a red rug.
  • Most things are bigger than you, and that's scary.
  • It's okay if humans make you nervous.
  • Always pay attention to how things smell, because, why not?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A letter to my high school English teacher

[Note: This is a letter for my high school English teacher, but I can't find an easy way to get in contact with her. If I could, I would have sent this to her, first. Some parts are cut for the sake of politeness; at other points, I provide extra context for readers who are not my high school English teacher.]

I am at the beach for the weekend; I have gone "downy ocean" as you would have said in your lesson on dialect. In addition to the library books I'm reading, I wanted to bring an old, small paperback work of fiction that would be safe to read on the beach; I brought One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's pretty good. There are a lot of elements of the story that I wouldn't have noticed or appreciated if I hadn't taken your ninth grade honors English class. I hated that class.


In the first week of school, you made us take qualifying exams so that we could decide if we wanted to stay in your class. You graded harshly. When I complained of having gotten a D, a 66, on the first exam, a lot of my classmates told me that I shouldn't; I had gotten a very high grade, relatively. About half of the class quit and went to the next-easiest English class. Those of us who stayed were apprehensive.


After reading Of Mice and Men, we had to write essays about the book. [If you have not read it, at the end of Of Mice and Men, the main character, George, kills his best friend, Lennie, rather than have Lennie die at the hands of a mob. When I read it, I thought it was the saddest, most pointless ending to any book I had read.] I wrote that I didn't like it because I'm a Christian, and so I believe that God works everything out in the end. We have a hope for heaven, where things will be as they ought to be. Stories ought to end with a positive resolution. I didn't like Of Mice and Men because it didn't mean anything to me, I didn't learn anything from it; I didn't see any virtue rewarded in it, and it didn't entertain me. I forget what you said about that essay, but I remember getting a bad grade on it. I think it was around then that I tried to get out of your class, to join the regular English class, but it was already filled with students who had previously left your class.

I remember when you gave us assignments on "situational ethics"—my words, not yours. We had to consider various bizarre situations: ten people in a cave, with a fat man blocking the exit, or people on a lifeboat deciding who to eat first, or a person standing at a track switch as a trolly approached, with the trolley about to run someone over or to go off a cliff, depending on how the track switch was thrown. We had to write essays in which we considered possible choices in these scenarios and whether they're right or wrong: is it acceptable for the spelunkers to blow up the fat man with a stick of dynamite, so that they could escape? I thought, at the time, that you were trying to undermine my belief in a God with a set of absolute laws, and that you were trying to make me into a moral relativist. Maybe you were.

When considering whether throwing the track switch is right or wrong, everyone ought to be able to provide a better justification for their decision than "because God says so" or "because it's right". Everyone needs to be able to apply moral reasoning to difficult problems. As I recall, my answer to my ethical dilemma is that if one had faith, God would intervene to resolve the scene.

It's not right for a public school teacher to impose beliefs on students, or to undermine their spirituality, and you certainly did this at times. Regardless, I'm glad you made me write essays about ethics. When I stopped thinking that God exists, I needed a way to figure out how to live a good and meaningful life. Those assignments helped me think about meaning and morality on real, human terms. You did more than any other teacher I have had, in public grade school, or all through college, to prepare me for life as a non-believer.

One time, you criticized a student for starting an essay with "I feel". You made it clear to all of us that starting an essay with "I think", "I feel", or "I believe" is immediate justification for an F; our personal beliefs don't matter as much as whether we can explain them and defend them. I am prone to starting essays with "I think" to relativize what I'm writing, out of some fear of being wrong. Whenever I'm tempted to write "I think" I remember your rule and I find another way to phrase my text.

In reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I've been paying attention to how Miss Ratched, "Big Nurse", a woman, is at the top of the social structure of the ward, then the other nurses, then the black orderlies; the white male patients are at the bottom; in the ward, mental illness is more significant than race or gender in determining class. Chief Bromden is an unreliable narrator; Kesey uses Bromden's narration to emphasize that all stories are perspectival. Bromden's fear of the Combine, the personification of machines and social systems, is a dominant theme. (I've only read fifty pages of the book so far.)

When I was taking your class, I asked why we had to study literature. I understood that reading and writing are important, but I wasn't expecting understanding literature to be part of my job, in the same way that math and science would be.

I don't think anymore that God exists. I used to think that he could define meaning, he would tell stories that we fit into. As I passed through doubt, I read apologetics, then Christian philosophy, Kierkegaard, trying to make sense of God. I read secular philosophers, trying to find a solid, objective purpose in life. The philosophers that I look to now don't write dense logical prose like Hegel, they tell stories. I read fiction because it lets me practice understanding the world and deciding how I want to live in it. And, I don't just read fiction that's supposed to mean something big, I'm reading fiction for fun; fun matters.

After I finished the school year in which I took your class, I spoke ill of you to other people, calling you mean and crazy. I am sorry for that; please forgive me. I could bring up other grievances about that class, but I won't. You challenged me, you made me think. I don't think this was part of your job, but you made me question my beliefs, and I'm glad, now, that I had that practice.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Or else, what?

I remember one time I was walking across campus with a friend, we were having a chat about what it would be like to be an atheist. As we turned a corner around the fountain, I said that I'd commit suicide; my friend agreed that he probably would, too, either that, or he'd be an unrestrained hedonist.

A few years later, I was starting to doubt earnestly. Doubt didn't sound, in my head, like I would have expected it to. In the Commons, by Pete's Arena, the crappy pizza place, I ran into a friend, and he asked me how I was doing. Always loath to give a one-word answer to any question, I said, "I think that I'm becoming an atheist." We chatted a little, then I said, "Well, I'm going to go burn down a church or something," and we laughed a little. And I guess that was funny because it wasn't true, I didn't want to burn down a church, but I didn't know how I was supposed to feel. After that I got supper.

We could go about knowing whether God exists by looking at common knowledge, or reason, or history, or spiritual experiences, or science, or some combination of these; these are all information. Regardless of the personal consequences of believing that God exists, say, salvation or damnation, these ideas about what my belief or non-belief would bring me aren't evidence about whether God is real.

Non-belief carries the threat of another sort of damnation, a death of the mind, in which my capacity to know God could by shut off by my doubting, my perceptions would be confused, maybe my heart would be hardened, as was Pharaoh's in Exodus. Or, maybe my doubts were dishonest in the first place, because I didn't want to submit to God's rules, or tradition, or to the idea of a spiritual entity bigger than people. Any of these might be the case, but there is no way to account for them in my thought process.

Apologists like Ravi Zacharias insist that we can't have a real morality without God, so it is imperative that we believe in God. Even if the nonexistence of God meant moral nihilism, that's no evidence that God is real. Presuppositional thinkers like Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Haddon Clark, and Francis Schaeffer insist that any worldview that doesn't presume the truth of the Bible and the existence of a triune God, any such worldview would be either inconsistent or futile. Schaeffer said, "If the unsaved man was consistent he would be an atheist in religion, an irrationalist in philosophy (including a complete uncertainty concerning 'natural laws'), and completely a-moral in the widest sense." Even if Schaeffer were correct about the implications of a non-Christian worldview, that wouldn't mean that it's logical to presume that God exists; it's not logical to assume that God exists just for the sake of making one's system of thought work smoothly. These arguments don't persuade non-Christians, they only make religious people more stubbornly religious.

I'm not unique in having confusions about God; knowing God is difficult for all human beings. There isn't a majority opinion, among humans, about what God is like. No matter who you are, most humans disagree with you about most important things about God: clearly, human beings aren't consistently good at knowing God. Maybe our minds are too small to comprehend God. Maybe God can only be known on his own terms, when he sends a sign or when he opens one's heart to receive him. There are many ways to impugn human perceptions of God. When figuring out whether God exists, threat of damnation, hope for salvation, suspicion of one's own cognition, none of these are evidence about God, regardless of how they weigh on one's mind.

Maybe doubt is a sin. However, the rule, "Believe in God, or else!" is meaningless without something following the "or else!" If God doesn't exist, there is no punishment for doubt. If God does exist, but would punish people for doubting that he does exist, this punishment would be unjust.

If doubt is a sin, I couldn't know if God exists. I might refrain from considering whether God might not be real; I might not pick up books by atheists, I might avoid non-believing friends, or at least, avoid listening to them with the idea that I might want to agree with them. I would avoid asking questions like, "What would the universe be like if God wasn't real?" or "If God disappeared all of a sudden, how would we notice?", or I might ask those questions, and be satisfied with weak answers. I might make my mind an aluminum-foil-lined house, impervious to secular influence, yet there would be a voice between my ears that would ask me if I knew that God is real, or if I was just too afraid to ask. I would sit in a rocking chair in this house, wondering if I knew that God is real, but afraid that I lied to myself saying that he is.

To this idea of, "Believe in God, or else!" it is sensible to respond, "Or else, what?" If God isn't real, there is no loss. If God is real and loving and good and worth having over for tea, God wouldn't punish me for doubting.

So, there's this distinction between evidence that God exists, and feelings and hopes and fears that one has about the idea of God, and this distinction is relevant, logically. Disentangling these two categories is slow, painful, and difficult, though.

The idea that God is infinite makes thinking about God a quagmire, because one can't be unbiased. I want an iPad, and I saw that I can enter a drawing to get one. It would be so useful, I could read articles on it, I wouldn't have to print things out on paper, I probably print about a hundred pages a week. There's a neat game where you tilt the iPad and a marble rolls around on it past obstacles. I was thinking about which carrying case I should get for the iPad when I realized that the odds of me winning the iPad are very low. Anyway, I was afraid that, if God didn't exist, there would be no way to have meaning or morality in life, everything would feel hollow. If God were real, experiencing his perfect love would be worth forgoing everything else. I wanted to believe in God so much that I was afraid that God isn't real and that I'm just biased to think that he is.

I recently had to buy a car. I didn't have any special knowledge on how to buy a car. There are a lot of uncertainties when buying a car, like how safe it is, how much it will cost to repair it when it breaks down, and how likely it is to break down, and how long it will last before it breaks down completely and must be scrapped. These are probably the most important things about a car, but I don't know how to know them, so I picked out my car based on price and how good its cup holders are and whether I can plug my iPod into it.

I can't think of any story in the Bible that rides on a person's belief or non-belief that God exists; what matters is how people deal with God, whether they want to be on his team. When the Israelites approached Jericho, the people of Jericho were not atheists. The people of Jericho were afraid precisely because they thought that the God of the Israelites does exist‚ and would destroy them like Og and Sihon of the Amorites. Rahab was different from everyone else in Jericho, not because she believed that God exists, but because she believed in him, she put her trust in him, she wanted to join his side, and she was rewarded for this faith.

In the Bible, the word "believe" is used in two ways, meaning either to suppose as true, or to rely and trust upon. In "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31) "believe" means rely on. James makes it clear that these two meanings are distinct, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder." (James 2:19). Thinking that God is real isn't what saves one, so mere doubt can't damn one, either. The people of Nazareth doubt Jesus (e.g., Mark 6:1-6), they have no faith, but this isn't a show of equanimous non-belief, "they took offense at him" because "prophets are not without honor, except in their home town". Similarly, the Pharisees seem to doubt Jesus, but they're not intellectually considering him, they're casting aspersions on him because he's a threat to their power structure.

Yet, religious people treat honest doubt like it's a sickness or a problem or a sin; this does more to ensure conformity among believers than to reassure doubters.

I was compulsively ruminating on contradictory ideas, that non-belief in God is empty and void, and that belief in God is a desperate fantasy. This psychological tension didn't enlighten me about God. I decided to live in a way that would be as meaningful as possible if God isn't real, and in a way that would let me find and relate to God if God is real. When I didn't think that God exists, I still tried to have faith in him, to rely on him, and not myself. By trying to minimize the consequences of my vacillating belief that God exists, I was able to think a little more clearly. Was God hiding from me because I was sinful? Was I mistaken about God not existing? How could I have meaning? How could I know what is right to do? I still had questions like these; even though I knew they didn't show me God, I anguished over them.


A previous post, The God I want to believe in, has some ideas related to this essay.

"I want God to be real, and I want to relate to him. I look for God carefully, but I don't see him. Not at all that I think that I'm saved by any of my own virtues, but if God would damn me for not believing that he exists when that's not what I have honestly seen or experienced, I don't find that God to be worth bothering with."

There is another important meaning that the phrase "Or else, what?" has for me. Normative statements, statements about what ought to be, rules of morality, for example, are meaningless on their own. "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass." isn't meaningful;

  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else people will become sad from the ugliness of the overpass."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else God will be angry at you."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else you'll regret it later."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else you might get arrested."

are meaningful statements. Thinking about norms, things like values and morality and purpose and meaning, by posing them this way, has been helpful for me as I've tried to make decisions as a non-theist.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Icon veneration

I think that icon veneration, as practiced and taught by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, is idolatry, it's a violation of the second commandment. Let's discuss in the comments.

Graven images

It's pretty common for inquirers into Orthodoxy to be troubled by icon veneration, it seems like idolatry to us. I heard some statements about the practice that provided color, like, "Some people kiss photographs of loved ones; they don't love the photograph, but their affection applies to the person in the picture."

The second commandment says that making and bowing before images is wrong. It is a clear condemnation of practices observed in the cultures around ancient Israel. What made Orthodox icon veneration different from idolatry? What does the second commandment mean?

The explanation that I got was that icon veneration is different from idol worship because in idol worship, the actual idol is being worshipped, while with icon veneration, the icon is just a focus, and that honor passes to the prototype through the icon. That's not true, though: this distinction between honoring an object and worshipping a god, this distinction is also made in many pagan religions. It's not like people were commonly trying to confound an image with its prototype. If the second commandment were limited to making this distinction, it would be near-irrelevant. What could the second commandment mean?

In Chemosh is a god not an idol I write about this in more detail. This quote is relevant:

In Bible times, worshippers of Ba'al Hadad would make sacrifices in front of bull statues. No one ever thought that Ba'al Hadad was actually a bull; he obviously looks like a human being. However, everyone knew that Ba'al Hadad was powerful, and so are bulls, so by sacrificing to a bull statue, one might hope to manipulate Ba'al Hadad to access his power for one's own purposes.

St John of Damascus wrote a famous defense of icon veneration, but he was mostly writing to address iconoclasts, people who thought we should make no images at all. (The second commandment obviously doesn't mean that we should have no images, because the priestly code has many instructions about making images.) He makes several arguments, but the one I find notable is that he says that honor ought to be paid to icons, not worship, so worshipping an icon would be wrong, but honoring an icon of Jesus would bring worship to Jesus himself. St John emphasizes that worship does not belong to icons, only honor.

I thought that this explanation was interesting because the difference between sin and piety would be a matter of degree, honor an icon, but don't worship it. However, it sounded to me just like what one would say to justify icon worship if one thought icons shouldn't be worshipped, but one wanted to worship them anyway. Orthodox Christians light candles for icons, they wave incense before them, they bow before icons, and heathens treat idols in this same way. There isn't much that non-Christians do before idols that Orthodox Christians don't do before icons. The difference between sin and piety would have to be one of subtle internal spiritual orientation. I wouldn't expect myself to have this right orientation consistently enough for icon veneration to be safe. Does the second commandment speak to having a certain internal spiritual orientation? How is it possible to violate the second commandment? What does the second commandment mean, anyway?

I would wake up in the middle of the night, startled and sweating, and I would lie back down and try to sleep and I couldn't. I had bad dreams about the seventh ecumenical council, the one that affirmed icon veneration. In my dream, the bishops at the Seventh Ecumenical Council conspired to teach icon veneration, even though it's wrong. When I woke up, I didn't know if I should trust myself or the bishops. All of my reason told me that icon veneration is idolatry in disguise, but I also didn't want to trust my intuition. The bishops had studied theology, practiced intense spiritual disciplines, and had the support of the laity. Would you sooner listen to them or to me? On the other hand, Chico Marx said, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" I felt insubordinate not trusting these wise people, affirmed by the church, with the weight of scholarship and diligent spiritual practice behind them. Yet, I myself couldn't believe that icon veneration is what God wants.

I was comparing two stories about how icon veneration got to be accepted by the church. In the first story, icon veneration was always accepted by the church, just never mentioned in the Bible because it was so normal. However, this practice was uniformly supported by the tradition going back to the apostles; Luke, the gospel writer, painted icons also. The iconoclastic controversy was more about cultural responses to Islam than about any theological development. Icon veneration felt funny to me, but that was just because the Protestant Reformation left a strange aftertaste. I could trust that icon veneration is correct; it was accepted by the entire identifiable church at the end of the eighth century. If I could trust God to speak to me about little things, I could trust God to be clear to the whole church about something important.

The other story was that icon veneration is idolatry. It was alien to the apostles. Icon veneration was idolatry repackaged, brought into Christianity by converts keeping old practices, or Christians adopting non-Christian practices to be more accessible to outsiders. Culture can shift to make many wrong things seem acceptable, and Christian culture isn't exempt from this. Eventually, the whole church endorsed a wrong practice because the church is made out of human beings who are frail and prone to err.

If I believed the first story, I would have become Orthodox. It's internally consistent, but not the story I would expect if God were to intend icon veneration. It's suspicious that there's no mention of icon veneration being encouraged in the New Testament, there's minimal mention of the practice before the first Nicene council. Icon veneration seems so similar to idolatry, but the distinction between the two is not made clear in the scripture or in the writing of the early church fathers. If God really did intend icon veneration, I would expect him to assure me of this through scripture and consistent witness of leaders in the church, not just because a lot of people venerated icons for a long time. But if the second story were true, what would imply about the church, myself, and God?

I started to look into Orthodoxy because I had given up on scripturalism and was looking for something more decisive. Scripture alone led to divergent interpretations, and I wanted a sound way to know what God wants that isn't just someone's opinion—opinions are cheap. I wasn't happy with just listening to my own opinion, either; if I can't rest with another person's opinions, I can't rest with my own. I didn't think that scripture was bad or wrong, it's just that using scripture alone led to inconsistent readings of the Bible about important things. On the other hand, traditionalism, in Orthodoxy, and in Catholicism, too, led to enforcement of wrong practices. I would like to hold a compromise position, but a person who believes the tradition except for when he doesn't isn't halfway in the middle of the two approaches, he's a well-read scripturalist.

I wanted a good understanding of revelation. I posed this in terms of knowing doctrine. Revelation isn't just about logic and information, it's about function. I don't care if proper doctrine can be deduced from scripture alone because scripture hasn't been consistently understood. I'm more concerned with how well people actually know God than I am about a theory of revelation, of how they ought to go about knowing God. I think it was helpful for me to think in terms of doctrine about important, concrete things, like who should be baptized, how should church government be structured, and whether icons should be venerated.

I didn't care so much about these issues of doctrine, though, as I did about the world and myself. I didn't learn until I was 17 that a fifth of the world's population is malnourished. Poor people aren't just a few people in my neighborhood who need some canned goods, no, most human beings live in a state of physical hardship and suffering that I had never been close to being forced into. Also, I believed that to not know Jesus is to spend eternity in torment, and, because most humans aren't Christians, pain forever was what they would face, barring an intervention. On campus, I was seeing evangelism take no effect; I could count on one hand the number of conversions I saw in the college fellowship I was in for over five years.

I had to look to find a church where poverty and justice were spoken about regularly from the pulpit, and even then, it's rare for me to hear a Christian teacher speak with penitence for the role that Christians have played in injustice. Christians ought to teach with urgency and fear and hope about suffering and damnation that are imminent for most people, providing concrete advice on how to respond radically to crisis. I didn't just want a good understanding of revelation, I wanted to see what God was up to and know what he wanted me to do to help.

Advocates of religious pluralism often make reference to the story of the blind men and the elephant. One might feel the side of the elephant and say that an elephant is like a wall. Another might feel its tail and say that it's like a rope. Another might feel its ear and say it's floppy. They're all right, they're just talking about different aspects of the elephant. This is a critically incomplete analogy, because elephants can't talk. Is God silent, only allowing us to know him by groping for him in the dark?

There are different kinds of disagreements. There are differences of perspective or emphasis or phrasing, and then there are flat contradictions: icons ought to be venerated or they ought not, the church should be led by bishops or the Pope or a number of elders or by a congregational vote, babies ought or ought not be baptized.

Idolatry is a sin because people use idols to manipulate and misrepresent God. I started seeing other things that Christians do as idolatrous. People make up rules and say that God commands them—this is idolatrous. People cause harm to people and say that this is good because God wills it—this is idolatrous. People bargain with God, or they try to pray with a special technique, or they butter-up God with compliments that they don't mean, hoping to get what they want—this is idolatry. People say that scripture provides sufficient knowledge for salvation, but God didn't say that, the Bible didn't say that about itself, even; this is idolatry. When people give tradition the weight of divine revelation, this is idolatry, too.

The second commandment forbids making and bowing before graven images, and the Orthodox and the Catholics and anyone else who uses art as a proxy for God are guilty of this. We should be surprised if it weren't the case that many Christians are idolaters, if the church is anything like the ancient Israelite culture that it is supposed to be a continuation of. To judge by the Old Testament, the people of God live in cycles of idolatry, judgment, repentance, and deliverance. Why should God's people today be any less frail?

I don't think the Orthodox and the Catholics are the worst idolaters. Bowing in front of an image is a violation of the second commandment, but it doesn't seem to harm any human beings directly. When a sick person is told that she will get better if she has faith, she might falsely blame herself if she gets sicker. People with psychiatric conditions are told that God doesn't want them to take pills. Charlatans extort money from people who can't afford to give it, telling their marks that God will pay them back a hundredfold. It makes me angry when people give bad advice and false consolation, and support what they say with a "thus sayeth the Lord".

I like Orthodoxy. I like paintings. I like the icons of Jesus and the saints and the angels, they inspire me. I like the stories told in Orthodoxy. I've found ancient Christian spiritual practices to be helpful to me. My objection to Orthodoxy, and to Catholicism, is not to people bowing before marble or wood and paint, but it is to the establishment of the church as a proxy for Christ. The church is an image of Christ, but it isn't him. The church is imperfect, it makes mistakes, it is fallible—I'm convinced of this, and so I did not become Orthodox or Catholic.

After I first learned about the extent of injustice in the world, and the church's insufficient response, I stopped calling myself a Christian—I called myself a Jesus-follower or something, instead. I felt like I knew better than the rest of the church, that I could see injustice and care about it in ways that the rest of the church couldn't, which is such an adolescent attitude to have. Fortunately, that phase only lasted for about a week.

Revelation doesn't work. Protestants can't come to agreement on basic, important things, and the Orthodox and Catholics have converged on bad conclusions. I could privilege my point of view, and say that I have the insight to see through a mistake made by the ancient church, or that I have the insight to get good-enough doctrine for myself from the Bible. I decided that it would be immature for me to think that I have some sense of spirituality that most people don't have. When I stopped assuming that I'm special, I didn't think I could do much better at figuring out God than most of the people that I disagree with.

God is supposed to be all-powerful. The Bible could have been a little more specific on important things. The history of Christian theology made me despair over whether I could figure out God in a meaningful way, myself. In evangelicalism, finding out God's will for one's life, listening for the Holy Spirit's direction, praying for guidance, these things are normal. Yet, if I couldn't trust God to be clear to the whole church about something important, like icon veneration, how could I trust God to speak to me about little things?

I wasn't just looking for something to cross-stitch and hang on my wall. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was horrified by global injustice, and that people around me were satisfied with the meaning they found in living comfortable lives. What did God want me to do about war and hunger and disease? What did God want me to do about helping people know him? I had thought that God had been leading me, inspiring me, giving me understanding, but maybe that voice was just my own little idol.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Rosenbaum's Agnostic Manifesto

On An Agnostic Manifesto by Ron Rosenbaum:

This article is frustrating. An excerpt:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

I… I didn't know that was a thing that atheists were concerned with this. Do atheists, in general, say that we know why there is something rather than nothing? They certainly don't infer an unknown cause and call it God.

It's amazing how the New Atheists boastfully stride over this pons asinorum as if it weren't there.

Rosenbaum uses a latin phrase to make atheists look unsophisticated. He's made the discussion between agnostics and atheists boring, because he's removed it from what human beings are concerned with, meaning, morality, purpose, joy, and posed the labels in terms of an obscure philosophical problem.

I've heard various self-described agnostics describe their label as any combination of the following:

  1. I have no knowledge of any God.
  2. I don't know if a specific God exists.
  3. I don't know if an unspecified God exists.
  4. I don't know if something exists that someone calls God.

I use the first definition. I don't mind atheists calling me a "weak atheist" and lumping me in with them; ever since I was kicked out of the bat club in first grade, I've been looking for acceptance. Rosenbaum seems to follow 3 and 4. I'm sure that Rosenbaum and I agree about most things about magic and meaning. The divergence between agnostics and atheists is a subtle philosophical one. We have the same challenges, it is sensible for us to be cultural allies. Rosenbaum's critique of atheism is nit-picky and detracts from this cooperative relationship.

The cool aunt

I think everyone has an aunt who, when in her twenties, had spent a few years studying Hinduism at an ashram in India. At funerals and family reunions, her eccentricities get glossed over in conversation. Now, she wears a lot of scarves that look "ethnic" and she's a vegetarian, and she peppers her speech with words like "lifestyle" and "mojo" and "flow". She's been divorced, twice, and is now dating a guy who has a pony tail and calls pot, "cannabis". The only people who think she's cool are the people in the family who weren't born yet when she was in India, but, for these nieces and nephews, she's the coolest relative that there is.

In a family where everyone grew up Lutheran, everyone's been a Lutheran, going back to Luther himself, the only sort of person who would convert to something as extremely different as Hinduism would have to be sort of a doodle, like Aunt-so-and-so. She went to India to get real Hindusim, not just white-people yoga-studio Hinduism. She wasn't looking for the word, Hinduism, she was looking for truth or transcendence or meaning. I think that a lot of these aunts would have stayed home if the Vietnam War hadn't happened.

So Aunt-so-and-so ran off to India, alone; nobody else in the family did, they were concerned with graduating college or getting married or getting partner at a law practice. What's striking about Aunt-so-and-so is that she eventually came back from India; she doesn't call herself a Hindu. So, while she was in India, everyone in the family would mutter about how irresponsible she is, and when she came home, everyone would look at her, "Told you so". It's just that Hinduism seemed to her to have something real, in a way that it didn't for anyone else in the family. She's a realtor now, though.

As I'm thinking about my Aunt So-and-so, I wonder if she went to India to go to India or to leave the US. She told me that when she was watching coverage of the march on Selma, with kids getting teargassed on the bridge, Grandpa said something about how he thought that black people should be treated better, but that these demonstrations were more trouble than they were worth. She talks now about how the war in Iraq is cleaner than Vietnam, but no better. I found out about the Japanese internment camps from her.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I had grown up Presbyterian, and my denomination placed a strong emphasis on the belief that God had power over absolutely everything. We were contrasted with, say, the Baptists, who emphasized our free will to choose to trust in God or not. The problem with the Presbyterians, the Baptists would say, is that they don't treat humans as beings who are capable of meaningful actions. The Presbyterians would criticize the Baptists for undermining the sovereignty of God. When I was discovering Orthodoxy, I wanted to learn the Orthodox stance on free will versus God's sovereignty. I found it very difficult to accept the Orthodox church's teaching on how free people are, but when I did, it didn't feel like I was rejecting belief in God's sovereignty at all. Not only that, but I didn't even understand why there was a conflict about the matter in the first place. It just seemed like the Baptists had gotten a little confused in one direction, and the Presbyterians had gotten a little confused in the other, and they went back and forth, arguing, and drifting apart.

Orthodoxy felt like the opposite of wild mood swings. I was used to either feeling smug when I did right, or guilty when I did wrong, but I was being taught in the Orthodox church to be more concerned with finding life than with judging myself one way or another. Whenever things get too busy for me and I have papers all over my desk, I gather them up in a pile. I pick the top paper off the pile and do what I need to with it: file it, note a to-do, throw it away, whatever. Then I pick up the next paper and deal with it. The feeling of sensibility that I get from doing that with paper, I felt that way, that simple single-mindedness, about Orthodox thought. Orthodoxy felt unreactionary to me.

Even before investigating Orthodoxy, I had felt despair about whether we could know right doctrine confidently. I was thinking of things like whether to baptize babies and how to get saved and what the ground rules are for church government; if God thought these things were important, why didn't he have the Bible written more clearly? I had always supposed that Christian truth was somewhere in a circle drawn around the Bible. I started asking, though, "Why would God leave only the Bible as authority if it can't be made sense of consistently?" and wondering why I hadn't asked that before.

In my discussions with Orthodox Christians, I was encouraged to ask that question. For God to be anything other than cruel, he would have to make doctrine, at least, the very important bits, clear to the church. Not only that, but it would have to be the same truth, for Christians in India and Egypt and Ireland and Bolivia now and in the Middle Ages and during the Roman Empire and through the Industrial Revolution. To me, that meant that Christianity had to look something like the Orthodox or the Catholic church, something like what the whole church looked in the first millennium, before the split.

There was a four-hundred-year-old oak tree in the back yard of my house I grew up in. When I was building forts or gathering acorns or spying, I felt safe near that tree, because it was big and old.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I'm noticing as I'm writing this that I'm talking about my experience of Orthodoxy in a not-Orthodox sort of way. Prayer and fasting and worship weren't things that I just discovered, these were things that Christians had been practicing since the time of the apostles, and so I was connected with Christians throughout time and around the world. Before that, I had invented spiritual practices, like reading a chapter of the Bible and then writing something about it in a journal, or waking up early to study, or going for a lot of walks to pray, and these were all helpful, but I would do them for a couple of weeks or a couple of years, but intermittently. In Orthodoxy, I was doing old disciplines, I was trying things that people had already tried and refined; I also felt like I had moral support from those who had gone before me.

One Friday afternoon in January, I went over to the home of Fr Gregory, the Orthodox priest, to have a chat. On my way there, I had gone to 7-Eleven for Pop-Tarts and coffee, I ate the Pop-Tarts on the way there, and struggled to finish the hot coffee during the 15 minute drive to Fr Gregory's house. I suppose I woke up around 11 that morning, and was to meet with Fr Gregory at around 2. Buying Pop-Tarts at Seven-11 is a bad deal; I must have forgotten to go to the grocery store for proper breakfast food. I would have gotten doughnuts or something at Seven-11, but it was a Friday, and Pop-Tarts are vegan. Then, I got worried because I was running late, and then, I felt ashamed, because who runs late to a 2 PM appointment because they overslept? I'm sure my disturbed sleep came from my psych issues, but I was blaming myself for being lazy rather than going to the doctor.

Anyway, I got to Fr Gregory's house, and I apologized for being late, I was maybe ten minutes late. Of course, he was forgiving. Most people don't mind if you're ten minutes late. There is a difference between saying, "It's not a problem" and "I forgive you" and I felt Fr Gregory warmly forgiving my tardiness. We sat in armchairs in the living room. I told him that I was interested in Orthodoxy, that I was almost certain that I was going to become Orthodox. He told me that it was good that I was so eager, but that it was important for me to not just have good reasons to become Orthodox, but to practice knowing God through the life of the church.

He also suggested that I pray the psalms, so I did. I'd gotten advice on spiritual discipline before, but I know that I took that tip—pray the psalms—differently than advice I'd gotten before: the advice came from a priest. I was used to the idea that pastors are the same as anyone else, but pastors and priests aren't just like anyone else, they've studied a lot about spirituality, they teach it, and they are noted by their communities for their diligence and perseverance and wisdom. By thinking of Fr Gregory as not just like everyone else, it helped me take his advice more seriously. Having grown up Protestant, I had been warned about priests causing harm, spiritually, leading people to compliance out of fear of their clerical authority. That's not what I felt that Friday afternoon. Fr Gregory wasn't inventing a new rule for me out of nowhere, he suggested that I pray the psalms because he knew it had helped people for thousands of years and thought it would be helpful for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I had a roommate who had depression. Sometimes, it was so bad, he would just hit a wall. He would literally hit a wall, he was so wound up. Sometimes, he would feel washed out, as if he'd just gotten over a 24 hour stomach bug. His mom ran a gym, so she knew some things about health, I guess. She recommended that he try Red Bull, because it has a lot of vitamin B, which, she says, gets burned off by depression. My roommate let me try a Red Bull, and it made me feel better, too. I'd had problems with anxiety for a year at that point, and the vitamin B might have rounded off some of the jitters. This might sound counter-intuitive, it might not even be right, but the caffeine helped me with the anxiety because it helped me focus, to get a grip on reality.

My anxiety was worst while I was sleeping. I would wake up in the middle of the night in panic. I would look out the window, just in case something was coming. I only ever saw the tree, the parking lot, and the dumpster.

Red Bull is pretty expensive, but I found Red Thunder at Aldi for 75 cents a can, so I drank a lot of that. I would pop a Red Thunder first thing in the morning. Sometimes I'd mix it with orange juice, a Red Thunder screwdriver. The caffeine would jolt me awake. You know how, when you wake up in the morning, and you've been dreaming, you sometimes think that parts of the dream are real? The Red Thunder would help me wake up past that.

The first times that I went to Orthodox services, I was mostly confused. I started going to Vespers services regularly, and I found them therapeutic; I could feel the anxiety dripping off my elbows and down through my shoes. My favorite words in the service were in this part that was a call-and-response for intercession. The priest would sing, "For travelers, by sea, by land, and by air," and "For this city and all the people who dwell therein" and "Help us; save us; have mercy on us; and keep us, O God, by thy grace", and we would sing, "Lord have mercy".

That line, "Lord have mercy" is peppered throughout the prayers and songs. To some people, at first, it sounds like the Orthodox are perpetually afraid of a bloodthirsty God, that they need always to be asking obsequiously for a stay of execution. That's not how the "Lord have mercy"'s felt to me, though. Whenever I sang, "Lord have mercy", it wasn't with an attitude that I needed to plead God for mercy, that he would give it to me begrudgingly, but with the faith that that was exactly what he wanted to give me, and that I was praying the prayer he wanted me to pray. There is a prayer, the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I had a prayer rope, and I would count knots on it, one for each prayer; I was encouraged to pray the Jesus prayer a lot. In this praying for mercy I felt safe; the discipline was apt.

I started fasting, too, which wasn't too difficult for me. Fasting, for the Orthodox, means being vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays and during a few fasting seasons. I was already vegetarian, so being vegan a couple of days a week didn't seem difficult. In the protestant church, I had only ever fasted for the 30 Hour Famine, as a sort of publicity stunt for world hunger. There was one time when I had a crisis and needed divine insight, so I fasted, but I got very hungry, so I took a break and went to KFC, and then got back to fasting. Fasting was the sort of thing that was done as a last resort, or I knew some guys who fasted before they proposed to their girlfriends.

I think it's good that we have to sleep, and that we get colds sometimes. We're limited, but we're so used to being limited, that we don't notice it. Fasting dropped the ceiling on me, and it made me feel my human limitation more deeply and I felt ready to be filled by God.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Heirloom furniture

I heard many stories about protestants becoming Orthodox; a common event in these stories is a realization of the beauty of the church's expressions. Some people are overwhelmed by the smell of the incense or the ornate robes worn by the priest or the icons or the chandelier. The Orthodox have great chandeliers, and in some services, the lights on the chandelier get turned on when the divine light is mentioned in the chant. The chants sounded familiar to me; I realized that much of the services are directly drawn from scripture. I suppose some westerners are put off by how alien the Orthodox services are. The music is in different keys than we're used to. The paintings don't show perspective properly, they feel like pop-up books.

In an Orthodox service, every sense is affected. The atmosphere is benevolently strange, not strange like being alone-in-the-woods-at-night; the space feels fantastic, as in fantasy. Halfway into Divine Liturgy, one would expect talking animals to appear and join in. Maybe they would wear clothes, like Peter Rabbit in Beatrix Potter's stories. I was running a Dungeons and Dragons game at the time, and looked to Orthodox services for inspiration.

Badgers were an inside joke in my D&D group; at one point, I and a few other players made it our characters' ultimate goal to get pet badgers. I heard that the Orthodox believe that the Bible isn't the only authority, but that there is authority in tradition. I Googled for the words "saint" and "badger"; if anything came up, Orthodoxy was not to be taken seriously.

St Piran was a missionary to Cornwall in the sixth century. Upon arriving there, he started building a cell. Animals helped him, so his first converts were a fox, a bear, and a badger.

I asked about this; is it necessary to believe that St Piran evangelized a badger for one to be properly Orthodox? An Orthodox friend told me, no, the tradition can't be taken like that. Just because someone, somewhere, is telling a story doesn't mean that the whole church backs that story. There are some stories that are wrong and false, there are some stories that are fun and helpful but of dubious veracity, there are some stories that probably happened and are good to remember, and then there are the things that the whole church affirms and has always affirmed and that are essential to fellowship with God. Having grown up a biblical literalist, I found this nuanced understanding of truth to be helpful. I don't think that St Piran actually baptized and taught a badger and a fox and a bear, but I think it's a nice story that makes me smile, and it reminds me that you can tell a lot about someone's heart based on how they and animals get along.

I was then beginning to appreciate how mature Orthodoxy is in its approach to truth, and to see that maturity in other things, too. At some church fellowship meals, wine would be served—that's classy. It was understood that everyone would be reading good spiritual books. People kept in their homes hand-painted icons.

I have a particular attachment to the booklets that were given away for free in the lobby. I remember that the booklets were printed by Conciliar Press, I appreciated them so; I would pick them up and hold them and look at them. In evangelicalism, I had seen shoddy gospel tracts, like Chick tracts, that seemed to do good only to the people handing them out. These Conciliar Press booklets, though, are well-written, sensible, regarding things that inquirers into Orthodoxy would like to know about. They are excellent examples of writing that is suited to its audience, but they're also notably well-printed booklets, cleanly designed, and printed on sturdy bright white paper. I'm agnostic now, it's been three years, and I still can't throw away my Conciliar Press booklets.

Around this time, I remember sitting in my church and thinking that it wasn't as classy as an Orthodox church, but there were some good things that were in common. I looked around the sanctuary and saw a cross at the front of the room and paintings on the wall. Our cross was probably made out of a bannister, our paintings aren't on wood, our music was nice but not as mysterious as chant. I wanted to make sure that I was becoming Orthodox for important reasons, not just because I wanted to be classy. And then, looking around my church, I saw a praise banner being waved; it had four arcs: red, white, blue, and camouflage.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


One Saturday afternoon in November I went to see a murder mystery play alone. I went because I had a friend who was acting in it, but I didn't know anyone else to go with. The seating was at tables and hot dogs and salad were for sale for maybe a dollar each. I didn't want anything. I had just become a vegetarian that summer. The play was in a middle school cafeteria or gym or something; I sat at a big round cafeteria table with some old people that I didn't know. The play let out at four or so.

I figured that I might as well drive by the Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church; the priest and his wife had talked on campus at UMBC a week or two before. I wandered in, and found some people up near the front of the temple, puzzling over a chalice. It turned out that there was a special class on Saturdays for inquirers. Fr Gregory was giving a tour of the building and explaining the significance of different parts of the art and architecture. It was fine that I had moseyed in. There was some time between that class and Vespers, and I talked with Peter, a middle-aged man with a beard who wore a cap and glasses. Peter had been a protestant, a Presbyterian (PCA, the same denomination I'd grown up in), and he had become Orthodox some time before. He told me a little more about Orthodoxy. He mentioned that back in the 80's 2,000 evangelicals had converted to Orthodoxy, all-at-once, under the leadership of some people from Campus Crusade for Christ.

I had just planned on showing up for Vespers, and was glad that I'd accidentally showed up early. Before the service, I asked if there was anything I needed to know. Peter told me that, no matter what, I wouldn't be able to keep up, but that's expected so I should enjoy myself. There were books with the words from the chants, but I was told that it's better to listen at the first few services one goes to and just absorb. The only tips that I got were how to make the sign of the cross and that most people stand for the whole service. There aren't even chairs, except for a few on each side, for the people who can't stand for an hour or two. The temple had a lot of thick oriental rugs with good cushioning.

There was a lot of chanting, and some of it sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. The walls were covered with icons, but I couldn't see them very well, because the lights were out. The deacon came out with a metal shakey thing and shook it around; it made clangy bell sounds and smoke came out. We all bowed and he shook the incense shaker at us. Fr Gregory was in a robe, doing something at the front of the room, but I couldn't quite tell what he was doing, because he was behind a wall. The wall had a doorway with a low gate in the middle, so whenever he was near the doorway, I could see him, but he was mumbling things I couldn't hear. The gate reminded me of the door to a cowboy saloon. I figured out why the chanting sounded familiar; the psalms were being chanted. I hadn't read the psalms, just a few of them, but I suppose that a church kid like me would have heard a lot of bits growing up.

All of a sudden, everyone made the sign of the cross and bent over, touching the floor. I was the only one standing for a moment and I felt embarrassed. I tried to mimic everyone; they bent down again, and once more. I felt the same way that I do when I'm doing the electric slide at weddings; I know the general direction to go in, but I'm always a couple of steps behind.

After the service, Peter invited me out to coffee so we could talk some more, but it turned out that there was free food in the church basement; the kids were watching Veggie Tales. I had grown up watching Veggie Tales; they seemed so un-Orthodox. I had thought the kids would watch special Orthodox kids' videos about thirteenth century Russians or icons or something. So we ate supper, spaghetti and peas (it was Advent). Someone there invited some of us to her house to hang out and talk; she lived just a couple of blocks from the church so we walked.

I felt like I was getting some special attention. There were half-a-dozen of us at Catherine's, and not all were properly Orthodox, but I was the least Orthodox there, so I had a lot of questions. Peter told me his story. He and his wife had been having problems, back when he was Presbyterian, so they went to the elders for advice. The elders gave them a Bible study to do on the first chapters of Genesis to learn about gender roles. Peter and his wife wound up divorcing. Peter told me that, in retrospect, it should have been clear that a worksheet on how to analyze a couple of chapters of the Bible wasn't going to save his marriage; their problems had gone far past that point.

Some time later, Peter wandered into a Divine Liturgy. Peter said that he's not the sort of guy to cry easily, but he burst into tears, right in the middle of the service, because the Divine Liturgy was so beautiful, it felt like what church should be like.

I was trying to figure out what the Orthodox believed, or, rather, how they went about believing. I had gotten tired of denominationalism and trying to figure out what was real doctrine and what was a reaction against a reaction against someone chopping up a pipe organ with a hatchet in the fifteen hundreds. Some people say that the Bible can be made to say everything, and I didn't think that, but I was still concerned by how far the Bible could be stretched. Sola scriptura, scripture alone, seemed like a good idea, it would be nice if God had given us a book with all the answers that we could generally make sense of, but the number of points of view, the dozens of denominations, was proof to me that the Bible wasn't quite clear enough.

Peter told me about the Commonitory of St Vincent of Lerins. The Orthodox interpret scripture using tradition, and St Vincent had a good way of putting how they do that; they believe that "which has been believed everywhere, always, by all." I had grown up Presbyterian, and we placed a strong emphasis on our heritage in the Reformation; that by studying the Bible, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin were able to return the church to right practice. The whole idea was to not believe what everyone had always believed, but to believe what the Bible said. I decided to read more about this later.

Catherine's living room was full of books; some were in cardboard boxes, I forget if she was moving, or if she just had so many books. She made tea for us. I drink a few cups of tea every day. I liked talking with smart people who read a lot and cared enough about believing and doing the right thing to start going to a church where the traditions were strange and different, where it was easy to be embarrassed just by being new and not knowing any better, going through that change for the sake of finding truth. I drank a cup of lemon ginger tea with them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One holy catholic and apostolic

The day after I saw Stranger than Fiction, the priest of a local Orthodox church and his wife came to UMBC to tell us about Orthodoxy.

Father Gregory talked about the Nicene Creed, or, really, one phrase in it, we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church."

My eighth grade Sunday school teacher, Miss Cathy, taught us about how in church, it's important not to say something you don't actually believe. The example that she gave was that she used to omit the word "catholic" when she would recite the Nicene creed. She then talked to a pastor or elder or wise person, one day, when it bothered her enough, and found out that it means "catholic" as in universal, not as in "Roman Catholic". I wonder if Miss Cathy ever would have found out what the word, catholic, means in the Nicene creed if she'd not held her breath when everyone else in church said it.

I think it was from Miss Cathy that I learned what the word catholic means; that no matter what we call ourselves, no matter how much we botch theology and mangle worship and abuse the pulpit, no matter how much we ignore and separate ourselves from the Christians we disagree with, all of us who are saved by Jesus are the church. Some Roman Catholics might be Christians, but probably not the ones who think that they're saved by works.

Father Gregory wrote a list of five cities on the markerboard in that meeting room: Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. He talked about how, for the first millennium of Christianity, the leaders in the churches in these five cities represented all of Christendom, how every Christian in the world was connected especially to one of these five cities. Except for Constantinople, these been centers of Christianity since the apostles, with Peter and Paul leading the church in Rome, James growing the church in Jerusalem, and so on.

I forget the structure of what he said, but hearing him made me feel like I should find the wholeness and the oneness of the church in its roots. I had been bothered a lot, around then, by denominationalism, and it seemed to me that the Orthodox way of thinking about things would help me make sense of confusing doctrinal controversies.

Father Gregory's wife, Frederica then got to talk. In the Orthodox church, the wife of the priest often gets a special title, typically meaning either "priestess" or "mother". I had grown up in churches where women weren't allowed to be pastors or elders, but the only jobs that seemed like they were made especially for women were cooking at potlucks and changing diapers and teaching Sunday school for kids. Adult Sunday school classes had to be taught by men if they had male members. I'm impressed by how the Orthodox church has developed special, strong roles for women who are good teachers and leaders.

Frederica told us that she had been thinking about how to best express Orthodoxy in the fifteen or twenty minutes that she had to talk with us. She had decided to talk about the idea that the church is a hospital. This idea grabbed me. I had been suffering from problems with anxiety for the past year, I was overwhelmed and unfocused and had had an existential crisis and became a vegetarian and I was still anxious. I wanted to lie in a bed with white sheets and recuperate. Healing is a strong theme in Orthodox theology; I suppose there is a greater emphasis on the idea that Christ heals us from being soul-sick, from sin, than on the idea that Christ paid for our sin by dying on the cross in our place.

One day, as I was walking to the library on campus, a man came up behind me and invited me to study the Bible with him; he introduced himself as Peter. At the time, I was leading a Bible study, and was in other Bible studies as well, I didn't need one more Bible study, and, even if I did, I would know where to look. Peter was insistent that there was something special about his Bible study, and that I would be missing out on something important if I didn't join him. I didn't believe him, because so many Bible study leaders had made a hard sell like that to me, claiming that they had some special method.

Frederica talked about how patients in a hospital can tell people outside the hospital about how they're getting better, but that it's not like they have anything to brag about. This was an important idea to me, as I was coming to understand that the Orthodox church was something that I wasn't in but maybe should be. I shouldn't be obsessed with figuring out the absolute truth about God for myself, but I should look for where I could be made whole, in myself and with the church.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Headline news

Evidently, two rich men with television shows that people watched and were amused by have had a scuffle; a rich company was also involved in the scuffle. I have spent more time talking about, reading about, and hearing about the showdown between Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, and NBC than I have actually watching either Conan's show, and that I only saw clips of on YouTube. I'm not anti-Conan or anti-Jay, I'm just not watching television at 11:30 PM, period.

In regard to this, my friend, Matt Morrison tweeted,
If more of the 18-34 year olds on #teamconan on Twitter actually watched The Tonight Show, there would be no need for #teamconan. #irony.

Celebrities get more press than a lot of important things, like coverage of wars and politics and the economy and science, I'm used to that. The bit of gossip about O'Brien and Leno is notable, though: the buzz about who gets to have their show at 11:30 has a moral charge.

I'm with Coco

The story isn't just that things didn't work so well, ratings-wise, with Jay Leno at 10 and Conan O'Brien at 11:30, so NBC rescheduled them and that made them sad; the attitude that I see, on Facebook and Twitter and people's personal blogs is that Conan is a good person and Jay is a bad person and we must ally with Conan to stop Jay because he is bad. (NBC is automatically bad, because it is a corporation.) [Matt wrote a piece on the story that interrogates who failed where.]

An earthquake killed a lot of people in Haiti a couple of weeks ago, and it's caused a lot of trouble for the survivors. Everyone's talking about how we should give to relief agencies, you can txt HAITI to 90999 to give a $10 donation to the Red Cross's efforts there.

It shouldn't have taken an earthquake to make people want to help Haiti. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was so poor that many people were literally eating mud cakes to quell their hunger pangs. Why didn't we care then? [A friend's thoughts on this disingenuousness.]

I went to two protests about the genocide in Darfur. That was so 2006. One protest was in front of the White House, the other, in Central Park in New York City. At the protest in Central Park, there were tens of thousands of protestors. I bought a neat UN Peacekeepers' hat, to wear around, to tell people about how we should get the UN involved in stopping the genocide. Things are just about as bad now as they were when the crisis started, but I don't hear many people talking about it now. My hat is in a Rubbermaid tote in the basement.

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis wrote something about how it's sensible to think that God exists because everyone has a moral sense, a conscience, and this has a divine root. Lots of other people have said this, too. For a lot of people, the idea of morality doesn't have anything to do with God; this worked well enough for the ancient Greeks, I suppose. I think it's common to believe that consciences give us meaningful information about an absolute sense of right and wrong.

Consciences keep people from lying and stealing and shunning, and they seem to tell us consistent-enough things when we're dealing with people in the flesh. I suppose that we could be like ibexes and bang our horns together if we were to have disputes, but we have rules that we all generally follow and so we can spend more time doing productive things, like reading rumors on blogs about the iPad. When it comes to big things, distant things, like gossip and genocides and world hunger and war and slavery, our consciences are like airport metal detectors that would let rifles through but would beep at the zipper in one's pants.

I hope that Lewis isn't too right about our consciences saying something about God or an absolute morality. Does God say that it's more important to help people in your neighborhood than people who are more needy but farther away? Does God say that you should do more to help people when catastrophes happen to them, but that it's less important to help when they're dealing with boring problems like bad drinking water? Does God say that young comedians are better people than older comedians?

I find it liberating to not expect my conscience to say anything about truth, it helps me lower my expectations of myself to the point where I can meet them. I used to think that I was a bad person because I feel more concern for people around me, and less passionate about the genocide in Darfur or world hunger or the wars in the Middle East.

My little sister, Secilee, wrote on the blog belonging to her rabbit, Oreo, about the earthquake in Haiti. She asked the readers of Oreo's blog to donate food and money to Haiti, and to pray for Haiti.

On one hand, my little sister is disingenuous for not paying attention to Haiti until the earthquake hit. On the other, my little sister has no reason to care about Haiti: she knows no Haitians, she doesn't watch any Disney Channel sitcoms set in Haiti, if I were to ask her if she's used any products from Haiti, I don't think she'd could name one. When she heard the news about the earthquake in Haiti, and how much people are suffering, she blogged about it; Mom tells me that Secilee wants to know what more that she can do about helping Haiti. I think that's beautiful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sympathy and prayer

I've been writing stories about spirituality for me in chronological order. The next step in the narrative is the time that I almost became Orthodox. The large amount of information I would need to convey about Orthodoxy for the story to make any sense to someone who doesn't know a lot about Orthodoxy makes the writing difficult enough; I think there are other complications, as well. I'm pausing posting about that story for a week or two. In the mean time, I might write shorter essays, like this one.

I have noticed that I've become less devout in some ways; I don't pray very much, I don't read the Bible devotionally, I still go to church, but it doesn't feel the same. I was more excited about getting an espresso machine at Christmas than I was about the religious root of the holiday. I've found other things that sort-of replace some of my former practices; I read the existentialists and some Buddhist texts, I meditate some. It's not the same, though.

One of my brothers is having some troubling medical problems, he was hospitalized yesterday. When I found out, I didn't feel particularly sad or wiped out, I didn't feel connected to his problems. The was no difference in my mood before and after finding out about my brother's hospitalization.

I felt kind of bad about how little I felt about him, but I think that, in general, I'm a little less prone to empathize than average. I think that's okay, the more important thing is actually doing something.

Just now, at five PM on Monday, I got an email from Dad; he had stayed up all night with my brother. I'm sure he's exhausted. I thought, "I want to call home and let Dad know that I'm praying." All of a sudden, I teared up, which is unusual for me. I was sad for my brother. I called home; Dad was out, but I got to talk with my sister. I reminded her to pray.

A few minutes later, I got a call from a friend, he's having a crisis today, and asked me to pray for him. I've tried previously to explain to him that I don't think God exists and I don't pray very much any more, but that didn't make a difference, he kept asking me to pray for him. Now, when he calls and asks for prayer, I quickly pray a silent prayer. This makes me feel like a slightly-more-honest person, rather than not praying at all. I know that I'd forget to pray after the conversation.

When I got the email from my Dad, I saw that a lot of people were CC'd on it, relatives and friends of the family. Dad hadn't specifically asked for prayer, but I knew that was the implication. And, I wanted to pray, genuinely, not just for my parents' sake. It feels more productive than just feeling sympathy, even though I don't think God exists.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


At UMBC, I had talked to a lot of non-Christians, and had had difficult conversations with them about God. One time, an atheist got spitting mad at me, because I had the gall to believe that the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt but had become free; this atheist was expecting some historical evidence for millions of people escaping slavery, and, given that there isn't much outside of the Bible, he wasn't compelled by Christianity. I had talked with that spaced-out guy with long hair who waved his hands over his yogurt and prayed before he ate it, this guy had a spirituality that was made out of several parts, including Hinduism. I had a classmate who was a militant atheist, but converted to Islam. I even had a roommate who thought God exists, but didn't want to become a Christian; he's happy just being an ethical person.

I had read a lot of books on apologetics, so none of these people were particularly troubling for my faith, I knew how to rebut their arguments. The difficult non-Christians were a couple of guys, Zach and Graham, who wanted to hang out with me and a fellow Christian every week and talk about why we believe what we do and why they believe what they do.

Most non-Christians were so ambivalent about Christianity that it was difficult to get them to talk about it at all; most of the rest were so angry that it was difficult for me to be friends with them. Either way, until I met Zach and Graham, I hadn't been friends with smart, independent, non-Christians who would give me challenging, original things to think about on a regular, long-term basis.

Zach was interested in talking with Christians because he had taken a class on the history of genocide. He saw how much of it was motivated by religion. Not only that, but the stories in the Old Testament about the Jews entering Canaan and driving out its inhabitants, Zach saw those as being stories that glorified genocide. With the war in Iraq in full swing, and with the religious right largely supporting it, he wanted to make sure that Christians weren't plotting a fascist take-over. Most non-Christians would avoid deep conversations with Christians, but Zach realized how important understanding us is. I think Graham's interest wasn't too different, but who can say?

I had been trained to focus on connecting non-Christians with experiences of God, rather than getting stuck in quagmires about fossils and manuscripts. I tried to tell stories about God leading me in my life. I didn't think that God talked to me with word-for-word clarity, but that God did work on me in substantial ways. However, when I tried to tell Zach and Graham these stories, they weren't persuaded. I didn't blame them; what sort of profound spiritual experiences has a grad student had that demonstrate God's existence in a powerful and new way? My stories could just as easily have been explained by natural maturing and personal development, or confused by the complexity of human emotions. I didn't have any secret knowledge.

We wound up talking a lot about things like intelligent design. We read together Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman; we talked a lot about textual analysis of the earliest Greek manuscripts of the gospels. I was having some doubts, not because they had great arguments that dismantled my belief in God, but because the only demonstrations of God that I could give them were very pedantic.

In our conversations, we were all talking about God in such a cerebral way that belief in God couldn't have seemed compelling to them. If God's existence couldn't be demonstrated in a concrete way, why should I expect Zach and Graham to be convinced, if that would have meant anything risky? I was realizing that everything that I'd tried in evangelism, ever, had led to zero conversions, and this was threatening to me, because I thought evangelism was very important and I had a big zero, which meant I wasn't doing very well at all. (Well, I knew that it wasn't me, but the Holy Spirit, who saves people, that I didn't have too much influence on the process. On the other hand, I was expecting the Holy Spirit to be doing everything that he could; if you had to pick one of us to blame, would you pick me or the Spirit?) People were going to hell and there wasn't anything that was changing.

I was thinking about all of this as I left my lab one Monday night in November. As I walked up the big hill to my car, it was dark, but just a little foggy, so the streetlights had clouds of light around them, they weren't just points of light. I thought, "What of Christianity is really real? What is a good reason for my friends to believe?" Then I thought about the disagreements that all sorts of Christians have with each other. "If I were to expect God to be doing anything real in the world, wouldn't I expect God to be doing something sensible in the church? If God can't keep us together, what can he do?"

At that point in my life, I would often go alone to the theater to watch movies. I figured, I have to be quiet for an hour and a half to two hours, so what's the point in being in a quiet, dark, room with your friends as opposed to anyone else? I drove from my lab that night to see Stranger than Fiction, the Will Ferrell movie in which he plays Harold Crick, a man who finds out he's a character in a novel. Harold Crick finds the manuscript for the novel that he's in, and finds out that it's a tragedy, that he's supposed to die at the end of the story. It's a very existential movie, I was in the mood for an existential movie because I'd been going through an existential crisis the previous few months.

After I saw the movie, I went to Giant, the good Giant, not the one right near campus, but the one with the olive bar and the big produce section. I had just become a vegetarian as part of the existential crisis, and I was looking for soy sour cream so that I could make some sort of casserole involving tofu and peas and chow mein noodles. (I didn't find the soy sour cream. It wouldn't have made a difference, I don't think, the casserole was disgusting. It wasn't my idea. I was just following a recipe as well as I could; I didn't really know how to cook vegetarian food then.)

Anyway, I was at the Giant at about midnight, and I was thinking about the movie. At the end of the movie, Harold Crick decided to jump in front of a bus to save a boy; he knew that this would happen, he knew that he would die as a result, because he had read about it in the manuscript of the novel. I thought a lot of thoughts like, "Did Jesus know that he was going to die? Did he know that he would rise again? What intentionality did he have about his own death? How human was his death?" And I felt very quiet and humble, wandering from aisle to aisle in Giant. It wasn't the Giant that I normally went to, so it had all of the same things I was used to, but they were all in different places, so I walked back and forth across the store looking for the groceries I needed; I was thinking about Jesus, or, more, feeling about Jesus. I didn't have any new ideas about Jesus that I needed to figure out, I just had a very strong sense that he is deeply good and loving.

I had started that evening feeling afraid about how I would show Jesus to Zach and Graham, what evidence did I have? By the end of the night, I felt a deep tranquility and beauty. What happened in the middle wasn't any facts about Jesus, but a movie that maybe wasn't even trying to be about Jesus, but that had some ideas about beauty and meaning. I didn't have any good answers to that theological riddle about how much Jesus knew, but it didn't matter: Jesus was human like Harold Crick or me, he would have washed dishes and eaten fruit and pooped. That idea still makes me tingle.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How do I know I'm not a wingnut?

Earlier that school year, I had given a talk for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's large group meeting. In it, I talked about how my little brother, when he was a toddler, was a great helper. He would offer mom Oreos that he had sucked on, before all his teeth had come in. He would follow her down to the basement when she did laundry, and she would let him crawl into the dryer to pull out the last couple of socks. Mom thought my brother's soggy Oreos were gross, and it was inconvenient for him to pop in and help with the laundry; Mom could have gotten the socks more quickly. However, my brother helped with eagerness and love, and that's the way we help God, we aren't terribly useful, but that's not what is most important to God.

At another point that year, my brother was put in the psych ward; he was experiencing onset of juvenile bipolar disorder.

Shortly after the time I sat up all night, talking with non-Christians, James came to me after an InterVarsity large group meeting, I guess it would have been about ten on a Thursday night. James was one of the other leaders in the fellowship. He told me that he felt called to prophesy to me. He spoke in tongues, and then would translate into English. He told me that my brother would get better and would get back to being so sweet and helpful.

The problem with James' prophesy is that I have more than one brother; I had told the story about helpfulness about one brother, and had asked for prayer for another. James was no prophet; God would know which of my brothers is which. James had similarly approached other members of the fellowship, offering to prophesy to them. Sometimes he encouraged them, sometimes he told them that God told them to give to James' church.

Around that time, I had broken up with my girlfriend. A couple of weeks after that, after church, Brenda, one of my friends from church, told me that she wanted to talk with me about something. It was private, she said, so we went to the nursery. She told me that I was wrong to have broken up with my ex, that we were supposed to get back together, and that she, Brenda, was supposed to be a mediator for us. I asked her how she knew this. She was timid about saying it, but she said that this was how God was leading her.

On the way home, I thought about whether I had made the right decision, to go through with the break up, and I was sure that I had, I had had no second thoughts until then, even. I only reconsidered because I wanted to respect Brenda.

I spent the rest of the day being mad at Brenda and trying to find appropriate Bible verses. When I was trying to figure out whether to go through with the breakup, I was conscientious. I was concerned about doing right, about making the right decision. I prayed for a couple of weeks. I fasted one day, but I got very hungry, so I took a break to go to KFC, but then I got back to fasting the next day. I talked to some close, wise friends that I trust.

Brenda told me to get back together with the woman that I'd broken up with. She said that God told her. What would it say about God, if he didn't make his will clear to me while I was praying and fasting, but, instead, told Brenda a couple of weeks later?

The Eucharist
During the summer I spent in Philadelphia, we would visit a different church each Sunday, to see a profile of urban churches. The night before we visited The Church of the Advocate, Don and I were up late talking. We sat in Brian's living room. (Brian didn't have air conditioning, so he compensated by having a powerful ceiling fan. Don and I would make jokes about decapitation occurring if the ceiling fan jostled loose from its mount.) We knew that the eucharist would be celebrated at church the next morning, and Don and I weren't sure if we should take the elements.

In the Presbyterian church that I grew up in, we were taught not to take communion at a church that isn't in our denomination. At that point, Don and I both thought that communion is a remembrance, a symbol, but that Jesus isn't materially present in the bread and grape juice. (We both came from churches that would use grape juice instead of wine.) We had been taught that, when communion was observed with an understanding that Jesus is actually being eaten and drunk, it's as if Christ is being crucified again. Jesus died once for all, he doesn't need to be killed in every church every Sunday morning. There were other ways in which we were suspicious of the Episcopalians, they seemed too Catholic. Also, didn't they split from the Catholic church just because the king of England wanted a divorce?

We talked about it, and we prayed for wisdom, and we decided to partake of the eucharist the next morning. This was a big step for us. A year or two before, I had visited an Episcopal church with my dad and we abstained from the eucharist, this was when I had gotten the ideas I did about Episcopalians.

Granddaddy wasn't religious. I suppose he thought that some sort of God existed, but I don't think he went to church regularly. He was a good person, though. He dropped out of school so that he could get a job; his parents had trouble making ends meet, and he wanted to help out. At a yard sale, he found a set of the Harvard Classics, "The Five-Foot Shelf of Books". He read some of them. That was his education.

He was notably scrupulous. He sold insurance, and wouldn't make dishonest deals. Mom has memories of lying in bed, before she would go to sleep: she could hear Granddaddy sitting at the kitchen table, counting coins. He didn't make as much money as the other insurance salesmen, and so he lived frugally. His customers trusted him, though, and would consult him after he retired, to make sure they weren't being cheated.

He was a friendly person; when he moved into a new neighborhood, he went from door to door, saying, "Hi, I'm Floyd Stewart, I'm your new neighbor."

He painted portraits of important people, judges and politicians and so on. Sometimes they'd offer to pay in cash, so that he wouldn't have to pay taxes on that income; he'd refuse, or he'd pay the taxes anyway.

He was a smart person, a good person, but he wasn't religious.

He died a couple of years before I was born. I never saw him. I visited his grave once.

When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see him, I wondered if he was in heaven. Of course, there's no way to know, for sure, who is saved and who isn't, but I didn't think that he was. We didn't know of Granddaddy repenting of his sins and asking Jesus to save him; being good doesn't save you, a relationship with God does.

Granddaddy didn't have to give up much to become a Christian, his only vice was smoking cigarettes. Why wouldn't he want to become a Christian? Why wouldn't he want a relationship with God?

I have heard Christians tell a story about people who are good but who aren't Christians. They say that good people that don't repent are using their own goodness to justify themselves, and that they should be looking to God, instead. They would say that people like Granddaddy don't bow before Jesus out of their own stubborn pride. I know, because I've told that story. Some sort of a story has to be told.

It's easy to tell a story as to why James and Brenda ought not be believed when they say that God is talking to them: they're wingnuts. That's the story. I could speculate further, maybe they want attention, they want to be seen as special, they want control. There are all sorts of stories we can tell about them.

It was harder for Don and me to tell a story about the Episcopalians. Don is a Baptist and I grew up Presbyterian, and we knew that there are very smart Baptists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Smartness shouldn't even matter. Jesus said in Matthew 11, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." I think is a beautiful verse: when it comes to knowing God, there is no priority given to people just because they're well-educated. Does God care more about geniuses than the retarded? Does God prefer the people who could pay to go to Yale over the people having trouble getting loans to go to community college? What would it say about God if he preferred smart people?

Don and I could tell stories about non-Christians not believing in God because they want to do drugs or have promiscuous sex or simply because they want to be number one. We could tell stories about charlatan preachers of the prosperity gospel, who are clearly defrauding their congregations. I don't know what would motivate an Episcopalian to crucify Christ every Sunday if they knew that that wasn't necessary. We couldn't tell a good story about how the Episcopalians could be so bad. We all have the same Bibles. We all have smart people. We all have good people; The Church of the Advocate was a strong center in the civil rights movement. We all want to know God, or, at least, we say we do.

It's easy to distrust bad non-Christians, the drug dealers or the vendors of collateralized debt obligations or the people we're at war with, to say that they don't think that God exists because they don't want him to cut out their pleasurable yet evil behaviors. I have more trouble telling a story about why Granddaddy didn't want to be a Christian. It's very tricky to tell a story about how Grandpa, my dad's dad, who was raised a Lutheran, didn't want to become a Presbyterian.

I know how to tell some stories about denominations and other lines that Christians draw amongst ourselves. There's a story about anabaptists hiding in the bushes whenever Martin Luther would go for a walk by the river, so that they could anabaptize him against his will. It would have been for his own good. There's a story about the anabaptists that more people know of today, the pacifists, who gave up war in a reaction against the anabaptists who would deal with people they disagreed with by means of violence. There are stories about the old line drawn between the Oriental Orthodox and the rest of the church, over whether Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human, or one nature that was divine and human. Today, as the Oriental Orthodox are talking with the rest of Christendom, it seems as if we broke up over a translation error.

I can't tell every story, though. I don't think a story can be told about every doctrinal dispute. There are some things that people disagree about, like who Melchizedek was, that don't matter very much, and that's fine, but there are lots of good, smart, humble people who think that babies should be baptized, and lots of good, smart, humble people who think that they shouldn't; there are lots of good, smart, humble people who think that it doesn't matter very much. I have my opinions, but I don't think that any of the disagreements about baptism can be settled, arguing only from the Bible. You can tell that sola scriptura can't work because it hasn't.

After James and Brenda prophesied at me, I was thinking about this problem a lot. They're extreme cases, sure, but what I find tragic about their stories is that they are so confused that they don't know how confused they are. I didn't think that I was confused in the same way, but once I got to thinking about their problem, how one could be so confused that one can't know that one is confused, I didn't know how I could tell that I wasn't just as much of a wingnut as they are. Sure, I didn't speak in tongues or tell people that God was delivering secret messages to me, for me to pass out to others, but maybe I just found a way to be wrong that looks more polite.

If the Episcopalians are bad, cannibalistic, feasting wrongly on Jesus' flesh, and not only that, but so bad that they don't know how bad they are, how do I know that I'm not just as bad, in another way? James and Brenda seemed goofy, but the Episcopalians that I met were a bunch of very sweet grandparents; after church, we had cake and coffee together. Some are raising their grandchildren as if they were their own; they have a program at the Church of the Advocate for GAPs: Grands As Parents. Maybe the Episcopalians aren't so bad, maybe they shouldn't be blamed for crucifying Christ twice. But, the doctrine about what the eucharist is and means, does that doctrine matter? Saint Paul seemed to think so.

I thought about what it would be like to be a little kid in a church that was having a disagreement about something important. If Jesus treats little kids as if they are just as spiritual as adults, how would he show his love to these kids during a controversy? How would they wind up believing the right thing? Maybe the kids couldn't parse the Greek verbs necessary to figure out what the right doctrine is, but, hopefully, the kids would be safe trusting their parents or other wise adults, really trusting that God is working through them. I was confused, and I wanted to find some wise grown-ups.