Friday, July 15, 2011

To Pagans and Heretics

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

This is a quote by Socrates from his trial for heresy. He was on trial for encouraging his students to challenge the accepted beliefs of the time and think for themselves.

With that in mind, I will be attempting another mini-series over the next few months. Keep in mind it is summer, so this may be slow in developing. I hope to fill a niche. It is difficult to fill niches on the Internet, but I feel this is one that exists. In my quest for information on religion, I have noticed a lack of information on liberals and moderates. Among the anti-religious, there is sometimes a complete lack of realization that there is such a thing. More often, it is simply dismissed.

This is unfortunate for two reasons. One, the anti-religious could benefit from a discussion with these more reasonable individuals. Even if they don’t agree, a better understanding of the rationale for religion could be gained. Religion has evolved just like other ideas and we can be active partners in that. A good example of this is religious and secularists working together in the “Secular Coalition for America” to educate about and promote the separation of church and state. Two, since liberal believers are dismissed, they in turn dismiss the atheists, further isolating them.

This series will address the second of those two, hopefully in a way that won’t be dismissed.

One of my inspirations for this series is a YouTube series geared for the more traditional church going believer. He recognizes that belief is a network of patterns and traditions that is not knocked out with a single blow. The system of belief must be recognized and respected. In this well produced and calmly presented series, he covers:

Logical Arguments – perceived authority, friends, family and books.

Creation – Complexity and beauty are a testament to a creator.

Bible – It contains wisdom, it must be divine and inspired by God.

Other Christians – Examples of good people and just the sheer number.

Prayer – Perception of answered prayers.

Personal Relationship with God – If he spoke to you, how could you not believe?

Morality – God is the source. If not, what else is there?

If you already are forming responses to some or all of these, then that series is probably not for you. Logical arguments are well covered on the Internet, so I don’t need to cover them again. You might use many sources other than the Bible for wisdom, you meditate instead of praying, you may not have spoke with Jesus but had some other sort of numinous experience of oneness with universe. The network of ideas I am working on looks something like this:

How do we know what we know?

Ancient Texts – How well do you know them?

Numinous Experiences – What are they?

Ethics – What is their source?

Myth – The value of stories.

Community – The power of relationships.

Before and after our lives – Creation and death are major spiritual themes.

Awe and Wonder – The universe is amazing enough without the supernatural.

Before continuing to read these posts, you might ask yourself, how far do want to go into this exploration? You could start by considering what questions you would like to ask your spiritual leaders. I am most familiar with the responses from Christian leaders, so I’ll suggest a few here, but they may map onto whatever tradition you are currently following. People have questioned their leaders about the consistency or accuracy of their teachings throughout history, so although you could hear any one of these answers today, I will place them in a historical timeline.

Prior to the 17th century, you would most likely be told that questions like that will land you in hell. Into the 19th century the more nuanced response would be that questions are good, but ultimately you need faith. In the latter part of the 20th century, leaders began to encourage people to bring their questions to Adult Bible class, or start a book group. With books such as Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, or the titles from the Jesus Seminar, there are many choices.

A much more rare response would be an offer to work together to change the doctrine. Most organizations have some way for grass roots ideas to be raised up to the highest levels. As Margaret Mead famously said, this is how change happens. Anything beyond this response would be at the level of historic. It also might be career threatening, or for you, the end of your membership. I’m speaking of actions such as Thomas Beckett refusing to recognize the young King Henry in 1170 or Martin Luther challenging the corrupt Catholic leadership or Teilhard de Chardin a Jesuit priest and paleontologist speaking about evolution in 1920’s or Carlton Pearson a successful minister for Oral Roberts who said hell does not exist. More recently the heroic individuals such as Gene Robinson, Terry Brown, Jim Swiley, Mary Albing, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, high ranking clergy who came out as homosexual.

Without these people we might still be living under the rule of kings who claim to speak to God directly and could kill you if you disagreed. Some of the people named above paid dearly for speaking up. I hope that is not discouraging. Everyone has to decide when and where it is appropriate to speak their mind. What you talk about when you visit your grandmother is probably different from what you say to your close friends. If you were invited to a Wiccan wedding, it would not be the best time to engage in a heated discussion about magic. At some point, that politeness crosses into the same type of double-think that a dissident under an oppressed government uses. How much you are willing to speak up is solely your decision.

Part II

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