The Theology of Heaven’s Gate

In March of 1997, Heaven’s Gate committed ritual suicide to the astonishment and horror of the world. Over 20 years later, we are still piecing together the mystery of this fringe UFO religion: who were they, what did they believe, and why did they end so horribly? Joining me for today’s Sacred Tension podcast is Benjamin Zeller, widely considered the leading authority on Heaven’s Gate.

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On Not Believing in God But Experiencing Him Anyway

Last night before going to bed, I found myself praying the Evening Office from the Book of Common Prayer. I love the book of Common Prayer — I love the poetry and the guiding, inner choreography of the liturgy. As I prayed last night I felt that warmth, presence, and silent awe I’ve felt my whole life when I enter sacred spaces — many would call it the presence of God. Sometime, when praying, I find myself speaking in tongues, a torrent of syllables pouring from me unbidden. It feels warm in my mouth, and it feels like something outside of myself speaking through me. I also still attend church (when I can), and I experience the love and presence of an external, invisible force.

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This is What I mean When I Say I Don’t Believe in God

I don’t believe in God.

Nothing sends off fireworks in the brain for religious people quite like an admission of atheism. It’s scary, in my beloved religious community, to admit that I don’t believe in God. I’ve had some unexpectedly unpleasant conversations with friends — conversations that suddenly dipped into ferocious defensiveness, in which they assumed a lot about what I believe and don’t believe.

So, allow me to explain what I mean when I say I don’t believe in God.

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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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Games, Religion, and Walking Between Worlds

I’m the middle of a fascinating book called Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. Author Joseph Laycock explores, with great detail and insight, the parallel worlds of role-playing games and religion. For three decades, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were at the center of a moral panic involving everything from fears of cults, satanists, to a lost generation of super predators. His thesis is that role-playing games were threatening to the religious right because, if communities could create such intricate, imagined, and meaning-making worlds through games, does that mean that religion itself is a sort of game? But beneath this initial thesis lie some profound insights for people like me who still greatly value religion, even as I doubt the existence of a personal God.

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