American Grace Questions: The Fun Ones, Wherein I Appear Amoral and Finish the List

I'll finish the questions in this post, which necessarily means brevity. Since some of the quetions are long, that makes this easier to digest anyway.

15: How often do you read holy scriptures?
With a fair degree of regularity, primarily because I teach Comparative Religion and World Mythology. Also, more than casual familiarity is necessary when discussing ethics and politics in Oklahoma, especially with my students who are supposed to have grown up learning the Bible. Alas, they grew up believing what someone else told them it said.

The next two are related, and can both be answered with the same response:

How often do you say grace or give blessings to God before meals, and how often do you pray outside of religious services?
Never. Prayer, in the sense of petition, is the most pointless of religious exercises. I irritated an acquaintance one day who asked I pray for her sister. I said no. A conversation ensued, the end result of which I warned her about in advance. The usual questions: why don't you pray, don't you believe in God, etc. My final answer, I don't pray because based on what I believe about prayer I might just as well throw rocks at your sister for all the good prayer does.

And now for the really fun ones:

We will all be called before God to answer for our sins. (agree/disagree)
No. What's worse is that many theists don't believe it either. They believe theirs are covered. Nice. It's like an invitation to be a douchebag, or worse, permission.
Morality is a personal matter and society should not force everyone to follow one standard. (agree/disagree)
Terrible question. The first clause is idiotic. The subject of the second is so vague as to be meaningless, and the idea that there is one standard is a horrible assumption. Even if we agreed that there is one standard, a transcendent law/Lawgiver sort of thing, we have no way of accessing the information. Therefore, morality is communal, evolving, and so complex as to warrant better questions than this one. I think everyone should follow one standard related to rape and child molesting, but I'm happy to allow for many standards when it comes to marriage. Just a really shitty oversimplification here, survey writers.
Which comes closer to your views: There are absolutely clear guidelines of what is good and evil; OR there can never be absolutely clear guidelines of what is good and evil.
With friend Scott, I want to say that the second comes CLOSER to my view, but seriously, this is goofy. What can I possibly learn about someone from her answer to this question. This has to be an essay question. Seriously. There are clear guidelines in some cases, and there are very vague ones in others, and I'm certain that many are a matter of personal preference. This is perhaps the worst false dilemma in the list of questions.
Which comes closest to describing your feelings about holy scripture: Scripture is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; OR Scripture is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word; OR Scripture is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men?
Surely you know the answer to this one. Next.
Which comes closer to your views: Right and wrong should be based on God's laws OR right and wrong should be based on the views of society?
Okay, maybe this is the worst of the false dilemmas. Can I get another option here? The first has already been addressed above, and Scott rightly points out that Plato's Euthyphro offers the classic dilemma that theists can't consistently answer, especially when the extrapolations are considered: is something good because god wills it, or does god only prefer the good? I like that paraphrase. Anyway, the second question is also idiotic, as the views of "society" (a word I never allow my students to use) are so diverse as to be irreducible.
Which comes closest to your views: The path to salvation comes through our actions or deeds OR the path to salvation lies in our beliefs or faith?
I don't believe in salvation, unless you mean saving me from a charging rhino or a staff meeting. I would prefer theists choose the former, but more and more they are choosing the latter, and the world is immeasurably shittier for it.

The last question is about evolution, which I answered quite well in the previous post. This was an interesting exercise. What I really learned was that survey writers should have to take a technical writing class before composing questions on a complex subject.

American Grace Questions: In Which I Weary of the Process and Accelerate

Thanks in no small part to conversations with fundamentalists, I am again weary of religious talk. However, I want to plow through this exercise, so today I'm going to borrow an idea from Reverend Scott and answer several questions with short bursts, beginning with question 10. Here goes.

How important is religion in your daily life? Not at all, since I have no religion.

How important is religion to you in making decisions regarding your career, family, or health? Again, since I have none, not at all. However, we do allow the parish teen to attend services, camps, etc., when she wants to go. Usually, she only wants to go for the anthropological experience or because a friend invited her. She's a more thoroughgoing atheist than either of us.

How important is religion to you in making decisions on political issues? Very important, as in I try to deconstruct the issue by means of rational, economic, or political questions, completely ignoring the religious component. Many people think their religion is important to this process, but it takes a very short amount of time to reveal what a fiction this idea really is. It's also a terrible idea to bring religion to many of these questions. Gay marriage being the prime example of religious-based ignorance trumping a citizenship issue.

Would you call yourself a strong believer in your religion or not a very strong believer? If you mean skepticism, very strong. If you mean some sort of metaphysical claim about deity, I'm a complete skeptic but believe the question should remain open. I do think theism is goofy.

Do you consider yourself very spiritual, moderately spiritual, slightly spiritual, or not spiritual at all? This is perhaps the worst question on the list. What the hell does spiritual mean? I don't believe in a soul (except as a metaphor for a collection of neurological and social functions), and I don't believe something called spirit is clanking around inside me waiting for the day it's released. Just how does one become more or less spiritual? I suppose you can count religious exercises to quantify the question. Praying once a day would be barely spiritual. Praying 10 times a day, very spiritual, especially when combined with fasting, charity, etc. Flagellating my back with a small whip after masturbation would be excessively spiritual, I suppose. It leads to bad theology too, like Bondage of the Will. I'm weary of this word, and I'm even more weary of those who eschew religious labels and refer to themselves as "spiritual but not religious." What you mean is you prefer to construct your own version of religion, one that is easier for you to practice, and one which doesn't require getting along with people who are different than you, all of which makes absolutely no fucking sense. But, hey, you're free to do so. Buddha bless America. Almost as egregious are those who claim they too hate religion but rely on their relationship with God, Jesus, the spirit of Granny Gump, or whoever the hell they're channeling. My only response to that is: you fundamentally misunderstand the definition of religion, thanks in no small part to pastors who have contributed to the collective dumbing down by contrasting religion, meaning legalism, with relationship, meaning "I have an escape hatch called forgiveness and I think Jesus talks to me." Lovely.

Yes. I'm weary of it. I think it's starting to show.

American Grace Questions: Papa, Can You See Me? Or, Yentl Does Theology.

How important is your religion to your sense of who you are? Short answer: not at all. But there's a longer answer lurking; there almost always is.

In my pastoring days, and even before them, I was certain that I was a Christian, and I was equally certain that it was the single most important determiner of who I was. If someone said, "Who are you?" I would have felt compelled to answer the question with a list that began with my name rather than my belief, but Christian would have been in the top three. I can remember in the days of my faith's death throes telling the hhdw with absolute conviction, "If I'm not a Christian, I don't know that I can be a good person." It seems a sad statement now, but at the time it made perfect sense. I was a ne'er do well saved by the grace of God. Were it not for his activity in my life and the presence of the Spirit, I would soon return to my old ways. Turns out the activity was greatly overstated. Turns out that I was being as good as I was at the time (and it wasn't very good) because I was actually trying to be good, not because there was some magical ghost making me be good. Turns out you are pretty much who and what you are no matter what you believe about sky gods.

For several years in the 90s I was part of a Charismatic church in Oklahoma City. I worked in several different positions, including youth, singles, associate, and senior pastor. I can remember countless sessions with believers in which those of us on staff tried to impress upon these members how much it mattered that god loved them. I can remember one particularly annoying speech from a staffer to the effect that one young lady was a "daughter of the king" and therefore a "princess." (It was annoying then; imagine how I feel about it now.) I had somehow come to believe that whether or not an invisible creature in the sky loved me actually mattered to my sense of self-worth. At some point I'm sure I actually believed that it would be impossible to live without god's love in my life. It doesn't take very long as senior pastor to learn that it's the love of people that gets you through, not some nebulous quantity of wish-fulfillment love from a being you can't see, hear, or touch. My sense of self is neither improved nor diminished by believing the omni-parent (thanks, Leighton) in the sky loves me. I don't need the love of an omni-parent. I need the love of real people in my life.

Here's the trick, though, and the reason I think this question is poorly worded. My sense of self is improved when I love other people, when I live graciously and redemptively in the world. It is expanded when I learn, grow, work, struggle, and achieve. It is diminished when people think me selfish or greedy or craven. I lose my sense of self when I sacrifice principle for convenience, when I lie out of fear, when I take advantage of the powerless, or when I fail to do what is obviously right out of sheer laziness. I used to believe that what I believed about sky gods made me the kind of person I am, but it turns out I'm already this person, and beliefs don't ultimately matter; what I do matters. The question would be better put: how important is the practice of your religion's virtues to your sense of who you are?

American Grace Questions: Part the Fifth, Nonsense Questions

The next two are just goofy. I already agreed with Scott that the use of the word "personally" in these questions is epistemically empty. It's a useless modifier. It would be like placing a made up adverb in the question: How often do you orangely feel god's love in your life? That's question 7, and adding the adverb form of a color does as much good in clarification as substituting it with personally. I ONLY feel things personally; proxy feelers are not possible if the experience is to be my own. I'll rephrase the question thus: How often do I feel god's love in my life?

That's easy. Never. Based on my previous answers, that shouldn't be a surprise. One of the reasons I developed a great affection for Oklahoma City First Nazarene Church back in the day was because of their realism on this particular question. I'm sure there are members and staffers there who believe God's love is immediately present in their lives, even in the mystical sense of union. However, they also understood that most days you just don't feel anything. My mentor in grad school, Steve Green, and my friend after grad school, Jon Middendorf, used to say things that sounded very much like this: the only way people know what god is like and that god loves them, is if god's people love them like god does and act like Jesus did. Crazy talk, I know, but I still embrace the ethical imperative of that idea. Probably the best way to address my reservation on this question is to quote friend John Cheek from his comment on the previous post in which he was addressing the problem of god's absence for theism (an issue on which we both agree):

People who care about me show up when I need them to, and they go out of their way to demonstrate their affection, often at great personal effort and even sacrifice. How can it be that a superlative being who feels a similar way, is either unable or unwilling to do at least as much? This isn't an argument so much as a natural response to stimuli. If the Big Guy in the perfectly white lab coat stops placing sugary treats at the end of the maze, eventually I'm going to quit running it
Well put. One of the evasive techniques used by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike to explain the distinct lack of feeling of god's love, and I preached this sermon on at least one occasion, is that god's love was made evident in the Christ event, especially the Crucifixion. At the time, that sounded theologically sound, and it allowed me to tell people to quit whining. Only after I was working through all the reasons I wanted to leave the faith did it occur to me that this was like the man who told his wife on her wedding day that he loved her and then never felt the need to say it again. "I said it, I showed it by marrying you, now live the rest of your life with only the barest indications of my love for you." Yeah.

The eighth question uses personally, so I'll add my own adverb again: How often do you fively feel god's judgment in your life? Wasn't that helpful? Anyway, I'll say never. I occasionally feel a prick of conscience, but I've never believed conscience was god's voice or god's judgment. Conscience is socially constructed, especially in family. I'm sure in Selma, AL, in 1950, a white girl would have felt a twinge of conscience for her attraction to a black boy. Voice of god? Nope. Part of growing up is killing those parts of our conscience which were imposed on us without good reason and to no good end. Unfortunately, as I've learned over and over in teaching ethics, some people either never start or stop too soon in the process.

Wittgenstein was fond of saying that his project was to end the bewitchment caused by the poor use of words, the lack of understanding of how language functions. I was reminded of that yesterday while reading through a book I'll post on later (Ethics as Grammar). That bewitchment is most egregious, I think, where words are meant to represent real things in metaphysics, but it also afflicts the sciences, especially psychology and social sciences. Start blending the two, as in conscience and voice of god, and you've got a double clusterfuck. Good luck sorting that out. It seems to me that the easiest thing to do is construct counterexamples (like Selma) that show the absurdity of the position. The painful part is to accept the direction doubt takes us and continue to construct the counterexamples for every possible theological assumption. This was the task I set out on in grad school, and it brought me to the end of theism. The questions posed in American Grace can actually start the process working in some people, but I suspect many are content with the answers already at hand. One of my students said it best last semester: "I know it's true because I know it in my heart." Ah, bewitchment indeed.

The End of the World as We Know It (With apologies to REM), and God's Activity

Question five is very simple: do I believe the world is soon coming to an end, or not? Having grown up Pentecostal, I was trained to believe it was going to happen tomorrow, if not today, the Rapture anyway. Not surprisingly, the more you tell a kid that and the more it doesn't happen, the more he actively disbelieves. After I fled Pentecostalism, I found better hermeneutical models to explain why premillenial dispensationalism, within the context of eschatological theology, is a crock of shit. I could convert to Christianity a million more times in my life, and if I did, I could never embrace that jigsaw puzzle of sado-masochistic hermeneutics. No, the world is not coming to an end soon in a divine apocalypse. This is not to say we can't destroy it, or at least life as we know it. Those are different questions though. As to the religious one, no. Don't believe in a god who is actively involved, so it follows that I don't believe in a god who comes to tread out the winepress of his indignation. (And that, friends, is still one of the most bad ass metaphors of all time. Go, John!)

The sixth question is way more interesting, and much harder for me to answer. Do I believe I've personally experienced the presence of God before? Well, first the quibble. I typically don't impersonally experience things, so let's leave that modifier out, shall we. The answer is "I don't know." I've been honest all along that I've experienced things that are hard to explain without reference to metaphysical analogies, but that's only because I was taught to use metaphysical language to explain those things. Advances in science of mind and neurology lead me to believe that many of these "transcendent" experiences are easily explainable in terms of chemistry or brain stimuli. This is not to say that god isn't somehow involved; reductionism is surely a flaw in reasoning when it assumes too much, as well. I find it curious that schizophrenia is often associated with flights of divine fantasy or horrific visions of hellish realms. This isn't to say that all religious people are deluded; rather, it points to a connection between brain function and religious experience.

I've approached this from the opposite way of many people. The experience defines, for them, the ability to believe, but it's a bit of a cheat. If I've been taught that I'll have an experience, and that the experience is named Jesus or angel or spirit or demon, I'm not only more inclined to allow for it, I've also been handed a set of terms to describe something that is way more interesting if left undefined. How would someone who has never heard of Jesus or god describe her experience of the "the holy"? I'm sure there are those out there who claim, like Saul, that Jesus introduced himself in the midst of a vision or apparition. For most of us, though, experiencing god's presence was always an exercise in frustration. Charismatics fixed that by working up an emotional frenzy and mistaking catharsis for presence. The rest of us muddled along hoping for some affirmation that this critter called god actually existed and would throw us a fuckin' bone.

So, I decided that I'd approach it differently. The question was finally allowed, what kind of god is god, and I refused to let a truncated reading of the Bible answer the question for me. As I worked through my graduate program, I posed more and more questions to the various models of god my professors, friends, classmates, and I postulated. What I discovered eventually was that the sheer weight of doubt (the good kind) finally militated against theism. I came to believe that we used trite answers to explain god's non-presence. "He wants us to search for him with all our heart." Really? You know, I have a job and a kid and a mortgage, and if he loves us so much, why not actually, actively enter the relationship? And how does one know when "all my heart" is engaged? Horse shit. "He's god; he can do what he wants." Excellent, then you're better off not trusting him in the end, because if he can do what he wants, he can also lie about all those "promises" in the Bible. "It takes a lifetime to get good at hearing god's voice." Why? I learn my mother's voice before I'm a year old. This is supposed to be a relationship, right? It was just too much bullshit stacked on top of excuses for god's absence, excuses we'd been taught were actual spiritually mature answers. (I do fret over being an idiot for as long as I was, by the way.)

The experience wasn't allowed to define belief; belief had to answer the same questions as non-belief, and quite frankly, belief failed. That still leaves unanswered questions about experiences, but I'm in no hurry to answer them. Once I abandoned theism, it was much easier to stop being angry at god for not being around. It's rather like being mad at my dog for not being a slug; she is what she is, not what I prefer she be. God is not personal and knowable, I don't think, assuming she exists at all, and so I'd have to say no with qualifications on this one.

American Grace Questions: Part the Third, or Heaven and Hell

Do I believe in heaven or hell? No. I could just leave it at that. For reasons outlined in the previous post, the idea of continuation of consciousness strikes me as absurd, so I obviously don't believe in either. However, a few words are probably in order just in case I change my mind about the possibility of memory/personality continuing. (Someone smart please tell me how electrical impulses are able to contain data, and also, if the same principle applies to wifi, packet delivery, etc.)

First, heaven. Don't want to go. Don't want to live forever. Don't have any interest in a realm where there is no more crying or sadness. I need a little texture to life, if you please, and beating someone's ass at basketball strikes me as a good thing. As sad as I can be for the losing team sometimes, I still like the idea of winners and losers. Trivial, I realize, but I need to know we'll have a champion of heaven tournament, and if there are no more tears and all the athletes handle loss with aplomb, the place is going to suck. Hard. No one wants to watch a team full of Ned Flanders clones.

On a more serious note, I just really can't imagine the concept of eternity being appealing to anyone. Ever. Not if you think about it. There is literally nothing I want to do forever. Nothing. The very idea of it scares the shit out of me; it's a sucking black hole of ennui that will trap me in my own head for, well, forever. Fuck that. It doesn't take a kid long to figure out that masturbation starts to hurt if you keep doing it. That strikes me as a painfully apt analogy here.

Hell. Ridiculous. Anyone who worships a god that would create such a place is delusional, not a deep thinker, or psychotic (and so is the creature that creates such a place). Over against my friends Scott and JJ, I'm going to insist that Jesus in fact talked about this place, at least obliquely and possibly even directly. It's too easy to ignore those parts of the red letters, so liberal and progressive Christians reinterpret the passages or ignore them. The concept did come from Zoroastrianism, but that matters little within the context of Biblical authority. If He said it, you have to deal with it. It's far easier for me, because I don't think of the book as authoritative. Some of it is worthwhile literature; much of it is primitive nonsense, including the doctrine of hell. There is no more perverse game than to give you a choice that isn't really a choice: be obedient, or be tormented for eternity. Gee, thanks god. What a cool game. Anyone tell you the rules are a shad douche-y?

For those who insist it's merely separation from God, I don't even know what that means. I have no sense of god's presence at the moment. Nor do I on any given day. What does it mean to be separated from something of which I am unaware? Sounds horrifying, like not being able to speak Sanskrit. Perhaps it's just a kindler, gentler place than having a skewer shoved up your ass to roast forever. That makes it more palatable, but no less irrational. Why not just go all in and believe in annihilation for the bad people? Torture for a while if you want, at least until their sins are purged, and then wipe 'em out. It's bizarre where metaphysical assumptions take us.

Life After Death? Nah. I'd Prefer to Sleep.

The amazing JJ has begun her series of responses to these questions here, so if you want to see what another of the most brilliant people I know think, read her posts. She has far more personal complications with this series of questions than I do, and to read her evaulation of should I/shouldn't I is fascinating in light of how important these questions actually are to the way we assess people's character, values, and potential relationship status.

Question 2 is:

Are you absolutely sure, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure, or are you sure you do not believe in life after death?
This one will be brief, because the real questions are 3 and 4, concerning heaven and hell, but I'll preface my answers to those questions with a framework for why I think both those are nonsense questions.

Continuation of consciousness or personhood after death is what's in view here. That raises several serious problems for me. Personhood and certainly consciousness are related to physicality, especially my brain. Am I to believe that there is this thing called "soul" or "spirit" clanking around inside me that somehow contains all the active data as to my Gregness? I'll grant up front that much of what we call mind is a mystery for now, but I'm not sure how using theological words like spirit and soul would solve anything. How does something without substance store any kind of information, memory, awareness? It's no good to say that we just don't know how this works yet. Arguing from ignorance allows me to argue virtually anything I want so long as the how/what/why/who/where are unknowns.

This issue is particularly troubling when the idea of infants is considered. They have no memory formation, no personality as yet, no source of narratives that constructs their lives. They are nascent persons. What do they become upon death? Is there a way that God fills in all the details of their lives that they didn't get to have? Or in keeping with the silly idea that God has a specific plan for all of us, was early death their plan, and now they are simply to float about with the same level of undeveloped linguistic and cognitive skills they died with? Will they grow up like a regular person once they receive a resurrection body? If so, how old will they be when they finally mature? How many years does it take to make me me? It's all a little goofy. I'd rather be dead, for many reasons I've outlined previously. No life after death, please. I suspect I'd be tired of it within 3 or 4 millions years.

American Grace Questions, Part the First, wherein I finally lay out what I believe

Minister friend, the Very Right Reverend Scott "I'm not Landry" Jones, Ph.D., has created a series of responses to the questions raised by Putnam and Campbell in their (sort of) new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. The book received a thorough and positive review in a recent issue of Books & Culture. Scott pulled the questions used to create the survey cited in the book, and he's answered them, some more thoroughly than others, but that has to do with definitions, which I completely understand. I've decided to answer them as well. I have no idea why, but it seems a good exercise. What follows is a conversation of sorts in my own brain. I'm happy to clarify points. Many of you will not be surprised by my answers, although I might be. I'm far better at being the questioner, it seems.

The first questions is:

Are you absolutely sure, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure, or are you sure you do not believe in God?
With Scott, I insist on asking "What do you mean by God?" It's a fair clarification, as I learned at some point in grad school that God or god is a concept, and as such, requires definition. Many people use the word as if everyone clearly understands what it means. My mythology students will testify that I am as capable as anyone of making them wonder what the hell the word actually means. Do I believe in the omni, omni, omni Father God of Christianity? No. Jesus as God? No. God as person? No. Capricious YHWH of the Tanakh? No. I am unequivocally a nontheist. That's all the definition I have for my theological position vis-a-vis god at this point. I'm quite comfortable with that, as it allows the question to remain open but also directs my life to an ethic founded on nontheistic assumptions, which is to say, I need a good reason to say something is good or bad, not just a "thus sayeth the LORD."

As for the first part of the question, I have met those who are "absolutely sure" of their metaphysical claims. I tend not to like them, primarily because they seem too lazy or frightened to consider other possibilities. Certainty is the last refuge of the ignorant or intellectually lazy, a strong tower to buttress absurd, unverifiable claims against the siege of icky questions. Ignorance is no virtue, but you'll never convince them of that. At least twice during myth class I heard, "Why do you even care about this stuff?" as if questions of ultimacy don't impact the way we live and work and love (hate) together. The not quite sure part is fine, but I'm not quite sure how I ever get to absolutely sure, short of Jesus or Kali or YHWH or Ahura Mazda having a burger with me. For now, let's just say that I'm absolutely sure that I'm a nontheist, but I have zero certainty about the existence of a creature called, for lack of a better word, god. That troubles me not at all, because my life wouldn't be very much different if I had come to certainty in god's existence via epiphany.