Miracles

Last week I spoke of struggle. This week I struggled. I didn’t know where to start after watching a show on Netflix I heard about on a podcast. Here’s a trailer for this cause of my cognitive dissonance (NSFF/trigger warning: not safe for faith):

You see, I always held out some openness to the idea of faith healing. I was never fooled by the charlatans on TV, but I have known people who have experienced what they sincerely believe to be healing through prayer. So I partitioned that subset of faith off as a mystery that I may never understand. That is, I knew it would be unlikely to draw me in because I couldn’t buy into the culture of charismatic spirituality, yet I was open to other’s claims to have experienced real spiritual events.

I went to a revival once. I’d been to charismatic worship services and seen people speak in tongues many times. However, this particular event was a travelling show by the people of the Toronto Airport Fellowship. My father had been to one before reported an openness to their legitimacy. This gave me some confidence about their ministry that it was sincere if the spiritual flash-in-the-pan of the era. I was invited to attend from acquaintances who had been. They even lent a car to this poor then-student to get out to the suburbs. Others I knew had also been and recommended it. So I went but with a caveat.

At this point, I was already well into my Anglican transition. I was a sophisticated Christian now. I had put childish things behind me. So if I was going to go to this thing and risk opening old scars from failed charismatic forays, it was to be on my terms. To be sure, I wanted to experience the blessing and was doing my best to be open to it. However, I refused to get caught up in some sort of musically driven frenzy. I felt that if God can heal, God shouldn’t need gimmicks and formulas. If these guys were legitimate, the Holy Spirit could heal me even though I hated their music.

Then the smoking the Spirit like a “cigarette” started. At some moment in the process, we were asked to put up our hand if we smoked. I was a closet smoker at the time since people can be so judgemental about smoking. It’s bad for you, I know. How could I miss the warning labels? But there were people I knew seated behind me and I didn’t want to deal with the judgement.

Needless to say, I didn’t put my hand up. However, I decided I would to still follow along. Then they told us to inhale the Spirit like a “cigarette.” I use quotations because these sweet innocent Evangelicals sheltered from the world were miming smoking a joint, not a cigarette. So we were supposed to be getting literally high on the Spirit as we mimicked the act of getting high on weed. I guess that’s pretty Pauline (Or Pseudo-Pauline if you prefer).

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit

Ephesians 5:18

To no one’s surprise, I did not receive a blessing that evening. Still though, I held out an openness to the experience of others. I couldn’t get my charismatic fix but others seemed to be able. To each our own.

Until, that is, I watched the above show on Netflix. Derren Brown, a magician, recreates a revival without belief. He is a self-proclaimed atheist but still put on a “show” like any revival complete with healings and slaying people in the Spirit. I was more affected by this hour long show on Netflix than the revival I attended. I was rocked. I had held onto some hope that different expressions of faith work for different people. Maybe I was called to litugical worship while others were called to charismatic worship. To each our own.

That openness is gone now.

The near-perfection in which this show was presented all but proves to me that faith healing has more to do with psychology than it does spirituality. It’s a tough pill to swallow but it actually confirms my suspicions of late. Medication does more for me than God ever did. Over the last few months, I’ve settled on a new raft of medication that has helped me improve my life more than anything else ever has. The things I hated about myself and begged God to heal are slowly diminishing as I take my meds and work hard to do the things I need to do for my mental health. I’m exercising, reading, writing, and yes meditating like I haven’t in decades. I’m happier than I’ve been in years all because I gave up waiting for God to fix me. I took matters into my own hands.

I’m sure there is a clever spiritualization of this experience. Maybe God wants me to grow and change by myself because it’s better for me that way. Maybe. Either way, the results remain the same: I am better because I am taking care of myself as opposed to waiting for God to. One of the things that’s helped me is working on my executive functioning skills. These days, if I’m an evangelist for anything, it’s for bullet journals. It’s a day-timer system that actually works for me. Check it out if you like. Or don’t. I don’t care. To each our own.

All this serves to confirm a working theory I have. People need stories and structure to build their life around. For some, charismatic worship makes their life richer. For others, bullet journals do. If it works, do it. This isn’t some kind of hedonism. Quite the contrary! Whatever structure and narrative you need to grow into a fuller human being is good. I suspect that if God truly exists, God wants us to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Maybe we find that wholeness in a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Maybe we find it on a weekly hike into the mountains. Or maybe we need to write a blog about our experiences to help us understand ourselves better. To each our own.

To each our own so that we can come more fully into our own.

Blessing the Mess

I have a suspicion that my quest is quixotic. I’m tilting at windmills thinking I can reach some sort of comforting conclusion. But that’s been the problem all along hasn’t it? Human beings see a mystery they don’t understand and create a theological narrative to help them tame their wild wonderings. I suspect that the whole thing is just a mess. I’m convinced the sorting and selective editing we do distorts rather than clarifies. I’m going to tell three stories to explain why stories are dangerous. One is historical, another is current, and the last is from a movie.

I have been reading a book about Christian history called, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacColloch. If you have any interest in Christian history but are not an academic, this is the book for you. His approach to Christian history is both open to the modern historical tropes that emphasize the influence of politics, power, and sex as well as the possibility that spirituality actually plays a role. How nice! Since I mean to be honest, I will confess that I have tried to read this book many times. Even now, I’m not really reading it. That is, I’m working through a single period of Christian history in the book, namely the Reformation.

Unsurprisingly, the Reformation did not appear out of a vacuum when Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg. There were grumblings and failed attempts at reform for decades and even centuries beforehand. Furthermore, the influence of the Renaissance and humanism were essential predevelopments. The stories we like to tell often romanticize one moment or figure that stoked a fire that had already long been smouldering. Not only that, we often forget what else is going on. Consider that the Spanish Inquisition took place in the 3 decades leading up to Luther’s stand. One of the Royal decrees by the Spanish crown expelling Jews and Muslims from parts of Spain occurred in 1492. You know what else happened in 1492? You know it! Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You know who employed Columbus? The Spanish Crown did. So much is happening around this time that it is impossible to separate the Reformation itself from the messy historical context within which it rests. Oh and MacColloch also manages to include the possible influence of the onset of a syphilis epidemic!

It was a mess. The reformation took place while the world was being opened up to Europeans both in the sense of physical exploration and in the intellectual and artistic sense. Europe was a creative mess.

I am writing in a time of pandemic and mass protest. Shit is getting real and it is a total mess. COVID-19 has spread from China to the rest of the world with alarming speed. As a result, we’ve been ordered to maintain social distance around the world. The US, in particular, is reeling with the poor leadership in response to the pandemic. In the middle of this unprecedented moment in modern history a black man was horrifically murdered by several police officers in Minneapolis. His name was George Floyd. The video recording of the crime was so brutal (almost nine minutes of a man being choked pleading for his life) that mass protests erupted defying the pandemic lockdown and spurring more violence and shock from around the world. These protests are occurring while I am writing and COVID 19 continues to spread throughout the US. Protest and pandemic in an unresolvable conflict. We can’t tell them to stop because they’re cause is righteous but whatever positive results ensue, the historical footnote of the impact of contamination will forever be included.

It’s messy. But there is real hope that systemic change is afoot.

If you can handle the gore, watch the climax from Gangs of New York. The whole movie is leading up to this final confrontation between the Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon and Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The scene opens with a bloody battle to match the brutality of the whole film. I can’t even rewatch it to confirm my memories because it turns my stomach! You’ll have to tell me if I got it wrong. The story’s dramatic arc unfolds into a final confrontation between villain and protagonist as expected. That is, until something truly unexpected interrupts the sanguinary spectacle. At the exact moment of the gang brawl, Civil War draft riots break out and the Union Army soldiers come in guns blazing. While the main characters finally meet, the grand narrative of history breaks through their personal vendetta being fought out.

It’s a mess. The importance of main story melts with the greater historical significance of the mass slaughter called the American Civil War.

I’ve managed to make a mess this spiritual blog. Can I find my way back to some semblance of a narrative? Nothing happens in a vacuum. Every event that we decide is historically significant is set within a context that is rich and complex. But it’s also hard to get our heads around the whole context. So we create more palatable narratives so as to be able to work with them. But the stories we end up telling always have important details left on the cutting room floor. A syphilis epidemic may be scintillating but including it would disrupt the sexy hagiographies we create for our spiritual heroes. Unfortunately, too many historians would rather reduce all spiritual history to power and sex. Neither approach is complete.

The history of faith is a history of power and sex. But it is also a history of faith. It’s a mess. But to clean it up for a PG rating distorts reality for a comforting story and to reduce it to a modern hermeneutical historical perspective is just as naive. If God is and God does act in the world, it’s going to be as messy as everything else in the world God created. Perhaps from the panoramic perspective of the heavens it looks neater on a macroscopic scale.

I can’t see it.


Evolution

I embraced evolution early. That is, while I was still a congregant of a church and amongst fellow believers who rejected it, I decided to affirm it. I still remember proudly proclaiming its falsehood in science class while my teacher smiled patiently to himself. I’m still embarrassed about that moment, even though it’s been decades and I really should get over it. I was a teenager, for crying out loud. Have you met teenagers?

I should be careful here, though. My father was the pastor of my church. While I do remember some occasions in which my parents put forward challenges to evolutionary theory, they didn’t seem to care about it much. The majority of the indoctrination came from well-meaning Sunday School teachers and some less than well-meaning blowhards that find a home in any good church. In fact, my parents’ best friends who are also (naturally) Christians named their first born son Darwin. It took me too long to realize what radicals these family friends were.

Evolution made sense to me. I soon accepted that it needn’t contradict scripture. One could faithfully read Genesis and still accept evolution. The more I thought about it, the more I came to see the two (yes two!) creation accounts in Genesis as in minor conflict with each other. If the writers of the scriptures couldn’t decide, why should we be so rigid in our stance on another much more reasonable story about how the world came to be? I mean it just makes sense, doesn’t it? Our common human experience (thanks phenomenology!) confirms it even without a detailed understanding of evolutionary biology.

The church didn’t see it that way in the 19th century. Broadly speaking, both the Roman Catholic Church and the modern Evangelical movement reacted to Darwin’s brilliant theory by doubling down on their respective sources of authority.

Ex Cathedra was introduced to the Roman Church at the first Vatican Council. This put more authority into the hands of the Pope. When he (gender purposefully masculine for obvious reasons) so chooses, he can make infallible statements. This has only occurred twice, though. Once it was enacted to pronounce the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and another to pronounce the dogma of her Assumption into heaven. This means if the Pope really enjoys his halibut one day and says, “This is good enough for Jehovah!” he will not be making an infallible statement. But if he likes it so much that he decides to state that he is speaking ex cathedra, then that halibut is now infallibly delicious.

Despite this reaction to Darwin, however, it needs to be said that the Roman Catholic Church does not reject Darwinian Evolution. Most non-Catholics would be surprised by how reasonable the Roman Church can often be. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Evangelicals. Care must be taken to acknowledge my simplistic generalization here. “Evangelical,” despite being a perfectly Biblical word, is too vague a term. We all think of something different when we hear that word. The usage here refers to the greater non-denominational evangelical movement that finds its foundations in the U.S. It will never be a very precise usage. Rather, I’m sure it will end up too often being a straw man at which I can hurl my resentment.

The broadness of the term comes with its lack of central authority. Generally speaking, they responded differently to Darwin’s scientific revolution. It is in this period that we find the concept of scriptural inerrancy start to become more popular. New ridiculous arguments arise hoping to debunk Darwin like the concept of a young Earth (only 6,000 years old!) or micro-evolution (fine, we’ll accept that there is some evolution like dog breeding, but that’s it!).

I couldn’t stomach this nonsense. I embraced evolution wholeheartedly as the enlightened individual that I am. As I learned about biblical studies, I came to understand that Genesis was probably edited and updated regularly before it became canon. I learned how similar the first creation story is to Babylonian myths from the same period that the Jews were there in exile. Not only that, but the differences between the Babylonian and Jewish accounts were more striking than the similarities. Take, for example, the fact that God created human beings, both male and female in God’s own image in the Jewish version. That’s unique in ancient religions. So my relationship with evolution was firmly planted and unshakable.

Unfortunately, my relationship with God was not. If I left it there, I would have been fine. Just accept both and move on without thinking. But something started to nag at me. I suspect it came in the form of a particularly pithy quote from that magnificent bastard, Christopher Hitchens. He said,

Evolution is, as well as smarter than we are, infinitely more callous and cruel, and also capricious.

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Callous, cruel, and capricious. He’s right. Or at least, I can’t figure out how he’s wrong. I mean look at the world we live in. There is majesty, to be sure. Ocean sunsets and mountain vistas inspire us to look heavenward. But orcas tossing seals in the air for the sheer fun of torturing another animal? That’s much harder to find the influence of God’s loving hand. There are countless examples of creatures exploiting and torturing other creatures from the ducks’ corkscrew penises with painful spines to sea otter necrophilia. How is this part of God’s loving plan for the creation?

I haven’t been able to find a sufficient answer. Most arguments I have been able to find in regard to evolution refer only to the mechanics and particulars of creation accounts. I haven’t been able to find a theological defence of the horrific process of evolution. The closest I could get was my own attempt at a loose connection between the crucifixion being God’s entrance into the suffering he created within the world. But that feels like a stretch or, at least, my mind can’t make a clear and reasonable argument for it.

I know I’m supposed to conclude with some kind of resolution of the conflict. Welcome to my world. I live in a constant state of inner conflict. I would rather that than living in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. I would rather say nothing than say something wrong about the being that demands to be honoured as almighty. I want to believe a loving God exists and I firmly believe evolution is the best explanation we have for how the world came to be what it now is. Unfortunately, I cannot reconcile the two. I’m ok with that. I’m not thrilled but I can live with it.