The Bound and the Unbound: Religion and Transcendence

I recently listened to a fascinating conversation between the Catholic writer Arthur Brooks and the atheist Sam Harris about the role of spirituality and religion in a healthy life. You will need to get a subscription to either the Waking Up app or to Harris’s private feed to listen to the section in question. I leave your support of Harris up to your own discretion.

For the time being, let’s set aside the political and ideological differences I have with both these men. I’d like to focus on a fascinating difference between Brooks and Harris. 

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Sacredness in a Godless World

Theists often struggle to understand how I can maintain a deep sense of sacred awe without believing in the supernatural. They seem to assume that a life without God is a dry, artless, wonderless existence. As I discussed with Matt Langston in a recent episode of Sacred Tension, my personal experience is much the opposite. I feel like nontheism has ripped away the veil between me and the fundamental mysteries of reality. The utter inexplicability of being, without a God to rely on as an answer, is the most sacred and mysterious thing I have ever experienced.

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There is Only Consciousness: On Minority Experience and Universal Humanity

Several months ago, I had a meditation experience the likes of which I’d never had before. The instructor advised me to take note of the feeling of being a subject looking at an object. He then said, “look for the one who is looking. Turn awareness upon itself, and look for the subject who is perceiving the object.”

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Giving Up On Calling Myself Christian

I love Christianity. I love the symbolism, the myth, the ritual. I love Augustine, and Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Aquinas, and the Saints, and the story of the cosmic Christ who came to earth to save us all. To my very core, I love it. But I feel it’s time to let go of the label Christian altogether, primarily because I’m exceedingly tired.

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Fundamentalism is a Drug

I’ve been reading Chris Kratzer’s book Leatherbound Terrorism — a heartfelt diatribe about how thoroughly Evangelical fundamentalism has destroyed his — and everyone else’s — life. He writes with the fervor of an end-times prophet, except his message is an inversion of the usual religious pessimism: Evangelicalism is killing the vulnerable, oppressing minorities, destroying hearts and minds, and imperiling the whole world with their blunt denial of human diversity and scientific truth.

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When Doubt is Terminal

When I was deep in the Evangelical fold, doubt was sometimes discussed as a temporary and seasonal necessity. Doubt was talked about as a period of testing, in which we just had to lean in to prayer and trust, even in the face of an insurmountable void of evidence. Inevitably, they said, this season would come to an end, the winter would turn to spring, and you would know without a doubt that God is real. In other words, doubt was understood as a sort of spiritual flu — a seasonal disruption that builds our immune systems.

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Does an Afterlife Make This Life Meaningful?

Around this time last year, I buried my cousin. Ian was a vegan, atheist, and environmentalist so dedicated to the cause of caring for the earth that his principles extended even to his death. After a physicist gave a science lesson on what would happen to Ian’s body, and how he would nourish the tree that would be planted over him, we took shovels and buried what was left of Ian. He was wrapped in purple linen, and the cancer had reduced his frame to a frail shadow of his former fit, powerful, athletic self.

The ceremony was void of any spirit, symbol, or God. I was disquieted by the that, and yet I was moved. I was moved by Ian’s commitment to science, and his care for the earth. I was tempted to call the funeral hopeless, but realized that wasn’t right. The funeral was full of love, conviction, and hope, and didn’t need to say anything about an afterlife. That wasn’t the point of Ian’s life – Ian was about the here and now, the earth, the injustices that plagued the planet now. He didn’t believe in the afterlife, and that lack of belief thrust him headfirst into the present. Plus, it wasn’t my funeral. Who was I to cast judgement on Ian’s wishes? That would be tasteless.

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Religion as Language

My faith is evolving from a religion of revealed truth to a religion of language and symbol. The faith of my childhood and young adulthood – taking for granted that a personal God is real, that scripture is God breathed, and that there is an after life – is now effectively dead. I question all of that, now. I don’t know what happens after I die, but I think “nothing happens” is the most likely answer. My understanding of God has expanding into something so abstract and impersonal that I can hardly call it God at all, and the personal God of my old faith is long gone.

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