Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Atheist spirituality

I was delighted to receive an email from an atheist who found my blog, espouses atheist spirituality, and disagrees with atheists who vilify everything religious. You can read his own words at The Case for 'Spiritual Atheism I recommend Asylum for Broken Rabble if you like to examine ideas in depth, whether you agree or disagree.

For ddjango's site, I wrote a guest post On Enlightenment reflecting on common ground between enlightened Christians and enlightened atheists—how we agree, how we differ.
I quoted the statement, “He is a spirit,” to show how exclusively male language not only distorts gender relationships, it distorts our ideas of what we call God. And the word “a” disturbs me even more than “he.” As the little word "a" indicates, this deity is an object, something out there, an individual separate from the other individual things and persons in the universe. Worshipping such an object is a form of idolatry. If Christian leaders would add God-She and God-Her language to the exclusively male pronouns, the resulting variety would dethrone the male idols and force awareness that what we call God cannot be defined.

I’m also reading The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, identified on the book jacket as one of France’s preeminent contemporary philosophers. This book and dialogues with atheist friends help me to clarify my thoughts about spiritual matters.

Comte-Sponville observes that theistic religions propagate “belief in one or several deities.” So true. My atheist friends are disgusted by naïve Christian belief in a sky god and a dying-and-rising redeemer god, who obviously parallels pagan gods.

A year ago I wrote a post entitled,Buddhist Christian about an ordained minister who described himself that way as a result of living in Thailand. He echoed my title when he repudiated “the big guy in the sky.” Significantly, he gave his talk at St. John’s University. When my book came out last year, I was surprised by the response it got from monastic religious persons. They are among those who best understand the Christian myth as myth. They understand because they delve deeper into religious meaning than people immersed in the secular world.

So why do they remain faithful to our religion? Why do they identify as Christians when Christian language encourages naïve belief? And why do I stay in this theistic religion? I wrote answers to this question in my first chapter, but Comte-Sponville offers another good one in a joke he tells.

Two rabbis discuss the existence of God long into the night and conclude that God does not exist. The next morning one rabbi catches the other one absorbed in ritual morning prayers. He asks, “What are you doing? We decided God does not exist!” The other replies, “What does God have to do with it?”
Elsewhere in his book Comte-Sponville provides the sequitur to this story:
There has never been a great civilization without sacred myths and rituals, beliefs in certain invisible or supernatural forces.
This evinces a basic human need. Enlightenment science shows that the particular forces imagined by past (and present) civilizations do not exist, but it has not destroyed the human need for relating to Transcendence.

I rarely use the term “supernatural” anymore because I think Transcendence lives right within Nature and is part of everything in Nature. Readers can learn more about my thinking on that in the miracles part of my chapter, “The Man Jesus.”

So I am still Catholic, culturally Catholic. Those of us who have these understandings could also be called Buddhist Christians or Christian Buddhists, depending on which emphasis we prefer. More possibilities—we are Christian atheists or atheist Christians.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mystic atheist & theologian

Mysticism is the direct experience of what we call God. Children experience it. Persons of every possible age, place, and condition feel it. Philosophers and theologians in the past felt it and wrote and spoke about it, and in some cases their expressions of the transporting experience birthed new religions or spiritual movements, or just added to the fund of thinking in a certain religion. Christianity has had many such, Thomas Aquinas, for instance.

The apostle Paul was a mystic. His mystical experience with the crucified Jesus produced the new religion of Christianity.

Mystical experience is universal, which is why atheists experience it and might go so far as to use words like “grand” and “mysterious” if they shy away from “spiritual.” Rare is the atheist today who recognizes his or her experience as a cousin of Christian piety, though that’s what I think it is.

Jesus of Nazareth was a mystic who strove to console his needy fellows—the poor, the lowly, those who hunger and thirst, the peacemakers, and the persecuted—by connecting them with this inner experience, turning their attention to the mysterious, invisible realm within, which supersedes the everyday world we have to live in. Thus the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-10).

So how can someone as intensely aware of the inner reality as Comte-Sponville (see previous posts) disbelieve in God? He clearly directs his disbelief at the theistic god, the man-like individual. He refers to “a God,” to a “subject” he can’t believe in, and he writes this: “ . . . to believe in Someone! . . . the God of Abraham and Jacob, the God of Jesus or the God of Mahomet—is what I personally do not believe in.”

I also don’t believe in the god that many adherents of these religions imagine, and neither do thoughtful Jews/Christians/Muslims. The esteemed Catholic theologian Karl Rahner writes,
. . . the mysterious and incomprehensible . . . can never be defined by being distinguished from something else. For that would be to objectify it, to understand it as one object among other objects, and to define it conceptually.
Rahner’s “object” is Comte-Sponville’s “subject,” and the two agree that this imagined object/subject does not merit belief.

It thrills me that these thinkers, one an atheist philosopher, the other a Catholic theologian, both insist on this fundamental realization—God is not an individual alongside other individual things and persons in the universe. This is what distinguishes God from a god.

Rahner quotes the terms “absolute being” and “ground of being.”
Comte-Sponville writes of being confronted with “the mystery of being.”
Rahner writes, “The infinite horizon . . . opens us to unlimited possibilities.”
Comte-Sponville writes, “We are finite beings who open onto infinity.”
A Hindu writer in Parabola glories in the “abundance of The Vastness.”

Vastness, Infinity, Eternity, Being, Void, Mystery, Energy, Force, Consciousness. These abstractions increasingly serve as synonyms for God among Christians whose ancient liturgy still exalts a god modeled on pagan deities. Christian belief is in flux. For more on this, go to my blog index and click on “God is not supernatural” under atheism.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Atheist mystic

Atheists and agnostics help me to clarify my ideas about spirituality. Their beliefs are closer to mine than the beliefs of most Christians—well, those dominating the media, not those close to me.

But my atheist friends reject the word “spiritual,” unable to separate it from religions, to which they direct a mix of contempt, pity, frustration, and anger, assuming that all religious people believe literally and naïvely in religious myths. I confess to having similar feelings as I grew in awareness of the myth of Christ, and I also identify with those who, as one atheist wrote, “have become open about their atheism at personal cost but out of a feeling of moral necessity.”

Personal cost and moral necessity. Yes. Moral necessity because going along with “lies,” as they see it, violates their conscience. Personal cost flamed into view recently in a local paper’s guest editorial. It suggested that pagans and atheists “strip naked and dance around in the moonlight,” and “face life devoid of joy or hope.” The author followed the “promise to live at peace with you in brotherhood” with the promise to try “not to snicker when you freeze your behind off.”

This was such an obviously vicious attack that it generated rebuttals and, I suspect, most readers knew it for what it was. Ultimately it probably did more good than harm.

Because my atheist friends resist discussing spirituality, I’m excited to be dialoguing with an atheist for whom spiritual atheism is a passion. A blogger from Raleigh, North Carolina, at P! (yes, it's a link—go ahead and click on it), he criticizes the new atheism’s (Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, et al) “illogical rejection of all things god, christian, and religion,” and he considers it as dogmatic as Christian fundamentalism. In his view, atheist militancy,
outdoes evangelism by a far piece, conveyed with a Rovian arrogance that is very disconcerting.” And he agrees with my high regard for The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, which he finds “brilliant and comforting.

Comte-Sponville not only endorses spirituality; he’s a mystic, an atheist mystic. How’s that for a paradox?
Here’s a sample of his deep spiritual awareness:
For any finite spirit, the truth of the universe must indeed be mysterious. How can we expect to understand and explain everything, given the fact that the ‘everything’ was here long before we were, and formed us, and permeates our very being, and surpasses us in every direction? One does not need much lucidity to grasp the fact that being is a mystery.
The mystery permeates us particularly at this time of year, the winter solstice, but the author professes disbelief in God. More about that soon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Trinity & idolatry

The Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) tell us, “You shall not have other gods besides me.” This prohibits idolatry or worshipping idols. I see idolatry whenever I go to a Christian church, where the God-talk never fails to conjure up images of male gods.

Christians defend the Father-Son language by saying they need the comfort of a personal Spirit. But if this were all, Mother-Daughter language would be accepted. Well, goes the argument, we respect the tradition. So let’s look at the patriarchal tradition. Relentlessly we are assailed by the liturgy’s “He,” “Him,” and “His” references to individual male figures.

More damaging than nouns such as “king,” “lord,” and “father” are the masculine pronouns, “He,” “Him,” and “His.” Insidiously they drip into us, conditioning us to feel that ultimate divine power is male and that male power is natural, normal, proper and right, while female power is unnatural, abnormal, improper and wrong.

The pronouns’ deep effect was revealed by the theologian who tried to correct the mistaken perception but tripped over it instead when he wrote, “God is not male; he is a spirit.” No wonder people talk about the Transcendent Mystery as if it were one male individual or three males—3 guys in the sky!

When I entered the world of theology, blows from the he-man language came immediately and oppressively. Secular writers show more sensitivity to women than Christian writers, a painful fact that destroys the Church's credibility when it speaks out on respect for human rights and world peace.

Even in the apophatic Christian tradition, which is intensely aware that Spirit transcends any ideas we can imagine, God-He language intrudes. It spoiled my reading of the classic medieval work, The Cloud of Unknowing. This stirring meditation on the ineffability of Spirit dropped with a thud when the Great Ineffable was reduced to hehimhis.

Another such deflating description was written by Martin Luther, who wrote,
"Nothing is so small but God is still smaller, nothing so large but God is still larger, nothing so long but God is still longer . . . He is an inexpressible being, above and beyond all that can be described or imagined."

The one thing Luther could describe or imagine was its maleness. He can be forgiven his inability to move out of the patriarchal envelope of his time. I am less inclined to tolerate church leaders of today, who have abundant opportunities to learn inclusive language.