I know this is an unusually high number of posts in a short period of time, but I’ve had a cold so have been sitting around at home a fair deal of the time.  Also, I’m inspired by World Youth Day, with approximately 500,000 Catholic pilgrims in Sydney currently celebrating the mass with Pope Benedict.  Sex seems to be a central theme in the moral debates surrounding the Catholic church, whether it be accusations of child abuse by priests or concerns over the refusal to support birth control and condom use.  I’d like to briefly touch on a related issue, namely that of abstinence.

The long tradition of abstienence in the church seems to be rooted in the biblical admonition in Genesis that a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. Following from this and numerous other biblical references, the church decrees that sex outside of marriage is adultery, a terrible sin, and strongly encourages abstience from its members.  This is another example of appeals to authority – scriptual and church authority – for morality.  Outside of authority, where are standards of morality defined?  Humankind suffers from instincts that lead to immense suffering.  Regardless of law and church institutions, where relationships are compromised through unfaithfulness, or where people are victimized through the unwanted sexual advances of predators, people suffer tremendously.  As such, we institutionalise morality and faithfulness to ensure a degree of comfort and safety.

Yet the basal instincts remain regardless of institutional regulation.  Not all predators can be tamed, so some must be locked away to prevent further suffering.  For the majority, who have the discipline to self-regulate their basal instincts most of the time, there are still the occasions where morality does fail.  Sexual attraction is simply common to human nature, and it can take a great deal of discipline for some to contain desire.  Even the Old Testament demonstrates many of the leading figures of the faith in extramarital relationships, demonstrating that their relationship with God did not impact their natural desires.

I believe in faithfulness as a virtue in relationships.  Open relationships may seem like a bit of fun, but do they really work?  By work I mean, are they sustainable?  Unrestrained sexual desire is a cause of much suffering in the world, and hence why restraint has been so institutionalised.  Marriage and the laws surrounding it have nothing to do with being free from sin, and all to do with maintaining a sensible moral order in society.  At its extreme, ‘God’ had the nation of Israel execute adulterers; fortunately, reason later intervened to override this lack of sanctity for life.  Yet that was just another example of rules used to maintain civility.

I believe abstinence as a virtue can work, but is useless to impose from outside of a belief system.  It is a personal commitment, to God or to the sanctity of life, that works to build a base of discipline with which to deal with the basal instincts.  The Church has failed to demonstrate that sexual desire can be successfully subjugated through devotion to God or by the force of moral institutions.  As such, the practice of safe sex and abstinence should be promoted hand-in-hand.  Abstinence requires significant self-restraint, which can be supported through the encouragement of open-hearted friends.  In other words, it can be seen as a spiritual discipline.  It views sex as having a sacred place within a loving relationship.  It is the higher ideal, the virtue that is worthy of being upheld.  Yet given the intensity of sexual desire, even the desire to remain faithful to God or the belief system can easily give way to the passion of the moment.

Sensibility is the key here, an understanding of human nature within a system of moral principles that uphold the higher virtues while supporting the lower desires.  Appeals to ‘the Bible says so’ or ‘the Church says so’ is not nearly enough; we must transcend authority to engage directly with a sense of these higher virtues, to understand their purpose to direct our lives for the good of ourselves and others.


Stages of Faith

In chapter 3 of Finding Faith, Brian McLaren answers the question, How Does Faith Grow?.  He gives us a rich description of four stages of faith, with each subsequent stage being a transition from the previous.  I will summarise these stages below.

Stage 1: Simplicity
This appears to be the majority position in Christianity – fundamentalism, being right, authoritarianism, dualistic.

Stage 2: Complexity
This stage is concerned with pragmatism; efficiency; achievement.  It’s more focused on ways of living than on right doctrine.  It can be moved to through disillusion with the previous stage.

Stage 3: Perplexity
I’d say I sit here.  This is where questions are asked, where uncertainty takes the stage.  This tends to be relativistic, as it finds no universal or absolute truth.  It occurs through finding the previous stages to be superficial and lacking of substance and depth.

Stage 4: Humility
This stage is a synthesis of the previous stages, concerned with wisdom and some basic truth.  However, it is a different relationship to authority, living, and certainty.  There seems to be with this stage an openness to life within a depth of trust in God.

As I consider these stages, I am wondering whether I have known anyone personally who has moved through all stages.  The groups I have been amongst would have sat primarily in the first two stages.  I have been dabbling in that second stage lately, though I am coming to a realization that it is just too superficial for a rich life.  One group, leaning more on the liberal side, was pretty much stuck in stage 3.  McLaren, Pete Rollins, and others within the emergent crew seem to display stage 4 characteristics.  To me, this stage embodies what I have always dreamed faith could be.

Good vs. Bad Faith

I have previously written about whether a reasonable faith exists, and have just started reading Finding Faith by Brian McLaren.  In Chapter 1, titled Does It Really Matter What I Believe, Brian distinguishes between good and bad faith.  What I found interesting is that his descriptors for bad faith perfectly label my experience of faith in the churches I’ve attended, while his descriptors for good faith are the things I’ve desired but rarely found.  The descriptors for bad faith are as follows:

  1. Bad faith is based solely on unquestioned authority.
    A rather wicked use of scripture for this assertion is “touch not God’s anointed”.
  2. Bad faith is based on pressure or coercion.
    If you’ve ever been to see the production of Heaven’s Gate Hell’s Flames, you’ll know about this one.  That is a terrible dramatic presentation utilizing fear and guilt to coerce people to believe.
  3. Bad faith is often the result of a psychological need for belonging.
    This is likely the primary reason why my family came to faith.  Churches can be a wonderful place of friendship and potential courtship for singles, particularly given the individualism of our time.
  4. Bad faith appeals to self-interest and base motives.
    The prosperity gospel and appeals to miracles demonstrate this perfectly.
  5. Bad faith is arrogant and unteachable.
    Try questioning most prominent evangelical preachers and this is what you will likely find.  ‘I am right because God says so.’  How pitifully ignorant.
  6. Bad faith is dishonest.
    I’ve mainly witnessed this with the many ways the character of God is justified in his many inhumane acts in the Bible, or in describing suffering.
  7. Bad faith is apathetic.
    This is probably my pet peeve.  Ever since my early days as a Christian, I wanted a relevant faith, one which inspires me to action.  Yet the church was nothing more than an activity of learning and focus on the afterlife.
  8. Bad faith is a step backward.
    It certainly was for me.  Rather than developing my character, I spent too many years in ignorance, fear, and guilt.  Instead of becoming a better person, I just found another channel to be selfish.

Naturally, good faith is the inverse of the above:

  1. Good faith is humble, teachable, and inquisitive.
  2. Good faith is grateful (or, worth celebrating).
  3. Good faith is honest.
  4. Good faith is communal.
  5. Good faith is active.
  6. Good faith is tough (able to cope with rigorous challenge).
  7. Good faith is relational (involves a human-divine relationship).

I have seen hints of the above, but nothing substantial, hence my lack of comments.  Given the fact that I don’t really have faith at present, I am not sure whether I can assert if good faith does exist.  I am open to it, which is the reason for reading this book.

I Am Afraid

Is this all that there is?
Can I not expect a beyond this experience?
This thought scares and disappoints me.
There has got to be deeper meaning, there has got to be more beyond this.
But I feel that what I know is mere shadow.
The darkness has descended,
And all I can feel is the emptiness.
I am alone.
I am afraid.
A veil has fallen over my mind.

You know, it is ever so hard to let go.  I don’t want to label my beliefs as superstition, but at the same time I don’t want to hold on to something that isn’t true.  I’m having to let go of so much that I’ve held dear, because I’m realizing that I’m more than a rat in a box.

The Pope’s Optimism

Pope Benedict XVI is making the headlines in Australia at the moment upon his arrival for World Youth Day celebrations, that are seeing an estimated 500,000 pilgrims in attendance, a figure larger than the number of visitors for Sydney’s 2000 Olympics.  Here’s a quote from The Australian newspaper:

“I am, finally, an optimist,” he said on his flight from Rome in response to a question from The Australian about religious apathy in his host country. “Now at this historical moment we begin to see that we need God.”

Such optimism contrasts with the Pope’s pessimism about the Australian church in 2005 when he said the “so-called ‘great’ churches seem to be dying” and that this “is true particularly in Australia”.

With sliding church attendance, Benedict had initially considered Australia to be sliding into a state of moral wasteland, but is now buoyed by the enthusiasm his visit is generating.  Really, this does not surprise me.  While Australia is far removed for America in its state of multiculturalism and tolerance, it remains at the core very much a Christian nation.  Our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a devoted Christian whose church visits regularly feature on news broadcasts, and who believes that religious values should be brought within the public sphere.  This only supported his popularity, given that he was an easy replacement over our previous conservative and Christian Prime Minister, John Howard.  What rules the roost is not reason but superstition.

This morning I was reading a report suggesting that Benedict was right to claim that without religion, society descends into a moral downslide.  Yet such arguments are not met with hard facts.  Unfortunately these claims are made without reference to the suffering that humanity has incurred in the name of religion.  Were it be that religion was the primary source of virtues such as love, grace, and compassion, then it might be said that religion should never be undermined.  However, experience proves quite the opposite.  While these virtues are inherent within the stories of religion, they are not the fruits of it.

As I have said previously, a boundary-free spirituality is more suited to our world than the present belief systems that divide and destroy.  As soon as you say, “I am a ……”, you immediately separate yourself from others, placing a unique distinction based upon your beliefs.  That is only delusional thinking.

The Religious Delusion

There are a few points that I would like to summarize in relation to my objection to religion.  These are becoming highlighted as I read through numerous books, such as God Without Religion, What’s So Great About Christianity, and The Diamond in your Pocket.  These points will become central to my future blog entries.

Religion is delusional as it supposes to name the unnameable and objectify the subjective

Whatever can be said of that which is beyond our perception and beyond our understanding will always fall short.  Language can only deal with what is; supposed supernatural events can only be explained in natural terms.  All of religion is explained through the mediation of particular individuals, often regarded as prophets or sages, who have been said to have received a unique revelation.  The substance of this message is then adhered to by followers, who find ways to verify the message through their own subjective experience.  In the subjective, there is no right or wrong, there is only experience, which is quantified to be truth.  This experience is then identified to be something that can be explained, bringing it into the realm of language.  From this religion is created.  In religion, truth is mediated from outer, rather than inner sources.  This is delusion.

Religion is delusional as it creates unnecessary boundaries

Our world is suffering due to the delusional thinking of religious followers, who insist that their higher truth demands respect.  These deluded people are willing to kill and be killed for the sake of beliefs that have no basis of reality.  Granted, such instances might constitute a minority within religious circles, nonetheless the larger problem is one of boundary – namely that one group claims to have final revelation.  These peoples have identified with mental positions based upon their respective religious texts.  What is the point of such boundaries, when all they do is inflict harm and disharmony?  From the Christian perspective, not only is there one major boundary, but also many internal boundaries, known as denominations.  Of course, this also occurs in every other religion.

Religion is delusional as it prevents people from thinking for themselves

It is my firm belief that the majority of religious texts were not written to create followers, or religious movements.  Rather, they were created out of the unique experience of individuals and groups as sources of inspiration.  It is delusional to rely on any source as final and authoritative.  Our task is to go beyond these sources, not for the sake of creating something better, but to get to the essence of that which inspired the creation of the sources.  Monotheism called this God, but this is an anthropomorphized concept, or in other words clothing the unnameable in human form.  The problem of taking these mental concepts and prescribing them to groups only prevents people from arriving to that which is beyond all thought.

Ultimately, you must search yourself and find that which is true.  Some may find themselves in this place through religious devotion, but I see religion as more of a stumbling block, for it is more likely to cloud the way.  Using the words of one who inspired a religion, but who it has been said was not a Buddhist, the Buddha used the metaphor of clouds as an apt way of describing how delusion mars the way to truth, love, peace, and happiness.