Heaven Is For The Living, Not The Dead

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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“If I believe in God, and it turns out to be true, then I go to heaven. If I don’t believe, and it’s true, I go to hell. The safest bet is on believing, and if it turns out to not be true, than what have I lost?”

This is an argument that has been posited to me many times by family members and people within the church. It is known as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. He believed that there was more to be gained than lost by believing in God due to the potential for heaven or hell in the afterlife. For those who believed, he saw only a finite deficit of pleasure in the present. For those who didn’t believe, the possibility of hell was too great a loss.

If a person struggled to have faith, Pascal advised that they should not look for more proofs of God, but rather they should abate their passions and follow the rituals of the church. Through these actions, they would be cured of their ill—ritual creates belief.

This is a weak argument from every angle. The wager presents an issue that always seemed like a shoddy reason for believing—fear. Pascal tells us that we need to do our utmost to believe on the basis of fearing hell. However, there is no evidence of hell; and there is no evidence that aligning ourselves with a savior figure will take us to heaven and a new earth. Viewed from the outside, these tales seem ridiculous—ancient leftover legends that somehow still make an impact on the gullible.

The concept of heaven and hell did not originate within Judaism. At the time of the Old Testament, they believed in Sheol—a Hebrew word that is said to have meant abyss, dirt-pit, or grave. It is a place underneath the earth where the dead congregate. Families were buried in the same location so that they could continue to commune together. However, the main preoccupation of the dead was sleep. Sheol did not differentiate according to belief. Everyone went to the same place and never came back. There was no soul or spirit that departed from the body. The gate to Sheol was in the West, because the sun sets in the West—an idea directly borrowed from the Egyptians. As time progressed, our current conception of heaven developed from a mixture of sources within surrounding religions. Within the Bible, the gates of heaven are well described, but what lies beyond is quite vague. Perhaps the glory of heaven is best left to the imagination, where it remains until we go to Sheol—the grave pit.

The second part of Pascal’s Wager is the recommendation for non-believers. He assumes that the non-believer is ruled by passions, and because of this, they cannot find their way to belief. By comparison, the Christian is taught to repress their natural instincts. By suppressing an action, the thought of that action grows over time. So it is assumed, that a non-believer who doesn’t subscribe to this repression must be driven by lust and a desire for 24/7 intoxication. But this of course, is not the case.

The illness lies within the repression and remains in the idea that nature is evil. The well-balanced non-believer does not struggle with unbridled tendencies, which is to say that not all non-believers are well-balanced. There are many who have recently left the faith, and are still struggling with leftover dogma. For those that are far beyond that, or never had to deal with it in the first place, “pleasures” are a nonentity, experienced freely and hardly given a thought. They are not an issue of control; rather they are a natural part of life. There is no internal battle going on. People are not driven by “sins,” rather we are driven by the human needs for happiness, health, community, food, and reproduction. Our actions are swayed towards surviving and thriving—a phase of excess is put to bed in lieu of this.

The “sin” is an aspect of a particular belief, and is not a negative for the non-believer. It is a system of control for the group that believes—such as modesty, laws about what foods you can eat, sex before marriage, or resting on Sunday. These “sins” have nothing to do with the person who does not believe. They have no bearing, and are a means of unification for the tribe of the faithful. Avoiding these “sins” is a way for the religious to separate themselves from the pack.

The second instruction for the non-believer is to engage in the rituals of belief in order to start believing. This is another way of saying, “fake it till you make it.” In Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, ritual is the basis of the religion. Believing is not the essential ingredient. The religion is made real through the actions of ritual. But in Western ideas of Christianity, belief is the foundation for entering paradise. One must believe that Jesus existed and rose from the dead, and they must live their lives in accordance with him in order to join him in the afterlife.

When Pascal tells the non-believer to not look for more proofs of God’s existence, he is adding to the marketing campaign of every religion. Religion crumbles through the search for truth. This is why the religious are told not to question. There is nothing original to the faith of Christianity. Within other beliefs, all of the basic tenets were there for up to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Yet, Christians would like to think that their faith magically appeared from the sky. Instead, it was an evolution of ideas, a borrowing of myths, and a copycat of rituals from other religions. The story of history reveals itself as a series of political maneuvers where beliefs reflect the reigning leaders. Rather than spirit, there is conquest.

This borrowing of principles and rituals was nothing new at the time. This is why from Tezcatlipoca in Ancient Mexico to Tammuz of Babylon (to name just two of many more) people worshipped the dying and rising savior figure according to the time of year. Over thousands of years, sacrifice evolved into sacrament, and today we worship the current incarnation of the dying and rising savior—Jesus Christ.

The collective consciousness creates our story and our reality. Belief began as a form of magic in order to fulfill the desire for control over nature. At this point, we have so much control over nature that we may just succeed in destroying it.

The only thing proven by religion is that beliefs spread like a virus, and those beliefs form our culture. I would wager that the single most motivating force for conversion to Christianity is the threat of hell and the promise of heaven. It is a great marketing tool for gathering followers. So much so, that ever since, people have been saying, “Better to be safe than sorry.”

Fear controls the masses. It is a method of herding people into doing what you want them to do. When you take the veil off the fear, the fear has no power. Unmasked, we can see it for what it really is. It loses its mystery and mastery over us. We gain, rather than lose from this process, and only then can we find freedom.

 

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Breaking the Myth of Purity

December 17, 2012 § 10 Comments

As a young adult, my entire worldview was shaped by Fundamentalism.  But everywhere I looked within the church, I saw that what was being preached, didn’t measure up.  Pastor after pastor took a “fall,” usually of a sexual nature.  My own “fall” was the best thing that ever happened to me.  Unfortunately for the pastors, they lost their jobs, and sometimes their families.

See Me Naked – Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity by Amy Frykholm, was not the book that I thought it was going to be, but it was valuable all the same.  No one interviewed for the book was actually tossed out of the church or excommunicated for their sexual sin.  Yet I hear those stories all the time, particularly at creepy Mars Hill church down the street; the very last church I attended.  Pastor Mark is such a misogynist power tripper that his downfall is bound to happen any day now.

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Amy makes brief mention of the infamous Ted Haggard (mega pastor who was ousted for his secret homosexual life), then dives in to everyday people who have come to terms with bridging the gap between their sexuality and their faith.  Throughout the book, however, the interviews are tinged with a bias.  Frykholm is Episcopalian, by far my favorite Christian denomination for its all-inclusive, caring for the community spirit.  But one can’t help but feel proselytized to from the standpoint of her beliefs.  Impossible not to, I know.  Just as when I share my own belief system (Atheism), Christians tend to feel attacked or even threatened, with knowing remarks about how someday I’ll “see the light.”

While reading See Me Naked, I recognized my own path in many of the stories, though my journey had a much different outcome.

“The message she heard from every corner was: you do not belong to yourself.  You are not your own.  You belong to us and you will do what we say (Frykholm, 80).”

I remember when all of my words were bottled up inside me, held back, weighing me down.  I constantly had questions.  All through my first twenty years, I wanted to challenge what I was being told.  But if I challenged it, I would be seen as a failure.  And a person who questions the word of God is weak.

I didn’t feel strong, I felt diminutive, as though my unspoken words would swallow me up into nonbeing.  I walked through life like a ghost – not speaking, not touched, not known.

“He had “given a piece of his heart to all of them” and therefore did not have a whole heart to give to his bride.  In this conception, purity is a finite, all too easily expendable quantity (Frykholm, 108).”

The word “purity” has no meaning for me.  When I hear that word, it does not go beyond the age of twelve.  I see a child.  As an adult, purity has no value.  It means purely free of personality and life.  It signifies a person not fully formed.  Someone with little understanding of the complexity of human relationships, and how much we can learn and grow from a love that is not finite but expands and grows.  The highest value is in maturity, wisdom, and intelligence.  People who can offer these three things have value that does not flit away, unlike the fleeting “purity.”  Of course, it’s also wrapped up in the idea of innocent youth, and in an over-thirty something, “purity” is a train wreck of desperation.

For Christians on the marriage track, the fantasized about future will surely disappoint them once they are wed.  In the courtship phase, moments that should be filled with intense pleasure and enjoyment, are instead replaced with the constant danger of falling over a cliff into a deep ravine of insatiable pleasure.  Danger.  Mistakes.  Regret.  No going back.  Every touch is quantified and measured.  And if the couple slips and falls, then one has “used” the other, selfishness has entered the game, bodies are “objectified.”

I use quotes here for all the words that fail to play a role in my vocabulary.  Coming to a different worldview, has also meant coming to a new language.  When I talk to my family, I listen to the ways in which we speak two different languages, and I feel the pain of a disconnect.

Purity is a pleasure to sully.  Humans have enjoyed this sport since the beginning of time.  In cultures around the world, the male pursuit of purity has imprisoned women in unhappy marriages, subservience, and shame.  By ridding culture of virgin worship, we come to a place of equality for both men and women.

“Many of the people I interviewed for this book grew up with the idea that, if they made one mistake, they would fall into doom and misery.  Sexual mistakes had the most dire consequences.  Thus, sexuality became ensconced in fear – fear of being found out, fear of being truly known, fear of failing.  Yet nearly everyone I interviewed had found a way through fear and found their deepest intimacy with God in their capacity for wonder (Frykholm, 173).”

When I was twenty-one and had sex for the first time, it took a year’s worth of therapy to get over the discovery of who I really was beneath the Christian veneer.  The therapists didn’t do much beyond just allowing me to voice my own honesty for the first time.

With that honesty, I began to feel brave, and shared my poetry with classmates.  Through writing, I broached the pain of feeling that all of my life, I had been lied to.  It was obvious to me, that the body and sex and all of our five senses are not selfish and depraved, but immensely beautiful and giving.  I never really knew how to love until that year.  My awakening to empathy is intrinsically linked with pen and paper, and the need to write.

“If we pay very close attention, I think we will find that the pleasures of excess, hedonism, and self-indulgence are thin.  Deeper, wider, more lasting pleasures are available as we grow more attentive to and more comfortable in our own skins, and as we give up the notion that pleasure is inherently selfish (Frykholm, 176).”

Frykholm offers no remedy for the conflict between church and sexuality.  A difficult quandary when people are living ancient tribal beliefs in the literal sense.  The church would like people to think that they have no control over themselves.  The taboos loom larger than they really should be.  They are afraid of what they don’t know.  If you are afraid of something, maybe you should try it.  It’s the key to understanding your fears.

How Belief In God Limits Us

August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

The question we all have as human beings is “what lies beyond our limit?”  We just watched the film Another Earth where humans are faced with the perplexing realization that there is another earth mirroring our own, even another self completely synchronized with us.

In reality, when we come into contact with other people, their inner being transcends us.  They might let us into a few thoughts, but other than that, we will never fully know them.

But to find another replicated self – would we recognize ourselves?  Would that other self transcend us as well, as though we are looking at a stranger?  Would you feel competitive of your other self?  Would you find your other self ugly?  Would you be annoyed by your other self?  Would you love your other self?  Would you tell your other self to get over all their hang-ups and get on with life?

Just as we will never meet our other self, we will never meet our idea of God.  In Gordon D. Kaufman’s book, God The Problem, he states, “If there were no experiences within the world which brought us in this way up against the Limit of our world – if there were no point at which man sensed his finitude – then there would be no justification whatsoever for the use of God-language (Kaufman, 49).”

To embrace what lies beyond the limit, we talk of God in ways that we can understand from our experience of human relationships.

“…God is spoken of as lord, father, judge, king, and he is said to love and hate, to make covenants with his people, to perform “mighty acts,” to be characterized by mercy, forgiveness, faithfulness, patience, wisdom, and the like – all terms drawn from the linguistic region of interpersonal discourse (Kaufman, 62).”

In the Webster’s Dictionary, the word God is defined as “1 cap : the supreme reality; esp : the Being worshiped as the creator of the universe.”

When I say that I do not believe in the existence of God, I am saying that the belief of a creator and a ruler do not measure up in our current state of reality, or even within the context of the past and ancient history.  He was the explanation that existed before we had a scientific explanation, used as a way to interpret people’s experiences.  People desire to make sense of things, but the problem is, God does not make sense.

I am in awe of our cosmic universe, so much so, that I find it impossible for our existence to be so limited by this idea of God.  To me, we are looking too far out into the distance, when the answers all lie within us, within and beyond our massive and destructive home on earth.

“Indeed, we have learned, that it is precisely by excluding reference to such a transcendent agent that we gain genuine knowledge of the order that obtains in nature, are enabled to predict in certain respects the natural course of events, and thus gain a measure of control over it (Kaufman, 120).”

So there is no direct encounter and never will be – no way to interpret God outside of our own imaginings – in which case, God is actually a mirror of our own humanity – full of insecurities, the need for affirmation and praise, the desire to be close to these humans who are always so distant and cold, the desire to have their obedience, to incite dominance, to be in charge, to have control.  Why does God mirror the fickle childishness of a human being?  And if God is the creator, then who created him?  The answer seems obvious – human beings created him.

“When feeling is given a dominant place in shaping the interpretation of reality or the world, a religious world-view results (Kaufman, 214).”

Lately, every time we see my parents, my mother has to make a comment about God’s existence.  God is woven deeply within the fabric of my family.  He is given praise for all the good things.  The universe is over-simplified through Bible stories taken literally.  My mom celebrates the day that she will “go to be with Jesus.”  It’s not by my father’s intelligence and diligence in over forty years of hard work that brought them financial security.  No, it’s God.

The last time I wrote about religion, I was extremely angry for being raised without a choice.  Writing is good therapy, and I’ve come to a new place of peace and acceptance.  I feel released through my own realizations and views on life.  But I’ve also chosen to keep those views separate from my family life.  They have an idea of what I think.  The problem is, no matter how much I bring it up, they will forget it, or write it off by tomorrow.  My mom especially, has selective memory.  She blocks out the things that she can’t handle.  Especially since, according to their belief, I am “lost” – whatever that means.

When I am with my family, I do my utmost to respect them.  You cannot argue with a mind-set, culture, history, or the entire fabric of someone’s life.  They will do anything to shut out conflicting views, to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay.

Family is extremely important to me.  So I hold hands with them when they pray, I smile and say nothing over the Jesus comments, I listen to my nieces simplify the world by stating the Bible as fact.  In the meantime, I hope that as my nieces grow older, they begin to see that life isn’t so cut and dry.

Coming from children, religion makes sense.  But from adults, I expect more.  Sigmund Freud said, “The roots of the need for religion are in the parental complex; the almighty and just God, and kindly Nature, appear to us as grand sublimations of father and mother, or rather, as revivals and restorations of the young child’s idea of them… when at a later date he perceives how truly forlorn and weak he is when confronted with the great forces of life, he feels his condition as he did in childhood, and attempts to deny his own despondency by a regressive revival of the forces which protected his infancy.”

A universe that circulates around our own egos – that sounds like a man-made myth if ever I heard one.  We are all in the struggle of existence whether we like it or not.  We will all one day fall prey to death.  We have no real control.

“May it not be the case, moreover, that the very act of believing in God is in itself morally dubious?  May this not be largely an attempt to avoid taking full responsibility for ourselves and our lives by creating in fantasy a “heavenly father” into whose care we can place ourselves when the facts of life become too unpleasant (Kaufman, 14)?”

I find this over and over in people who dedicate their lives to God.  Life is just too much for them.  They would like to whitewash all the realities that are too painful for them to take.  It’s a coward’s way out.

The older Christians in my life all believe that I will come back around.  They were “wanderers” in their twenties and thirties, and are convinced that by forty or fifty, I will realize that my demise is nearing.  There are too many things I cannot control.  My body will start failing me, or friends will start dying off.  I’ll be faced with the futility of my existence.  I don’t think they understand, that I have already experienced all of those things.

It seems to me, when people leave faith behind, they fail to search beyond faith.  They avoid the question of spirituality altogether.  Then eventually, they inevitably end up going back to what feels comfortable, to what they knew in their youth.

My dad told me, “Never stop searching,” with his hands clasped tightly around my shoulders in a desperate attempt to get through to me.

I replied, “I never will.”  I wish I could please him, and be what he wants me to be, but I have to be myself.  I will never go back to where I came from.  I will move forward and live to the utmost before my body turns to dust.  And believe it or not, I’m okay with that.

 

For more on this topic:

https://laurenjbarnhart.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/god-against-nature/

https://laurenjbarnhart.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/why-i-stopped-believing-in-god/

 

 

Layers of Time and Existence

January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s always strange when the topic of one book I read leads right into the next.  Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry surprised me in many ways.  To begin with, I never got around to reading the back cover, so on the basis of the title I expected an erotic romp rather than a one-sentence reference to gardening terminology.

Then the book begins with a gruesome female giant and a boy she finds in the Thames set in 17th Century England – my least favorite time period.  I cringed.  Six pages in I wanted to toss the book in the giveaway pile because I struggled to connect with the voice of the giant.  But then Winterson’s magical gift overtook me, and I was lost in a beautiful and poetic story.

The giant suffers abuse by the Puritans, and witnesses the execution of the King.  “The Puritans who wanted a rule of saints on earth and no king but Jesus, forgot that we are born into flesh and in flesh must remain (Winterson, 70).”  She goes on a murdering spree – the best method of attack being in a brothel where the Puritans purge their fetishes in secret.

“I have met a great many Pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves… if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God.  After all, He has no need for us, being complete (Winterson, 116).”

The boy Jordan loves the giant, though as he grows realizes it’s not right to feel so tiny next to your mother.  He dreams of becoming a hero, and eventually sails to exotic places, both in the world and in his mind – beyond time, place, existence.  He finds more mysteries than answers.

“The inward life tells us that we are multiple not single, and that our one existence is really countless existences holding hands like those cut-out paper dolls, but unlike the dolls never coming to an end.  When we say, ‘I have been here before,’ perhaps we mean, ‘I am here now,’ but in another life, another time, doing something else.  Our lives could be stacked together like plates on a waiter’s hand.  Only the top one is showing, but the rest are there and by mistake we discover them (Winterson, 100).”

I once had a professor who always said, “We lead one life, but we have many lives within it.”  This is very true of Jeanette Winterson.  She was adopted and grew up near Manchester, England.  Her parents were working class and Pentecostal.  They intended her for the missionary field and by age six, she was evangelizing and writing sermons.  At sixteen she realized she was a lesbian and left home.  Her mother told her, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”  She took several odd jobs and eventually supported herself through an English degree at Oxford.  Her first book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruitcame out in 1985 and since then she has had a very successful literary career.

Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry reminds us that we are all explorers of existence.  It is in the distance between who we are now and who we will be by the end of our lives.  Catching up to a mind and body filled with the knowledge of experience – aware that we are finite in the layers of the earth – but connected to all things in consciousness.

A friend once told me that I give her the creeps because I’m like a ghost from the 1920’s.  It might have helped that at the time we were working in a Circus tent that was one hundred years old.  But she was right.  I have always felt more akin to a life lived in 1920’s Paris – busting at the seams with artists and writers.  I keep searching to find that place wherever I go.

It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to a song that was written before you were born.  You are certain you were there.  You feel everything that was felt at that exact moment of time.  Nostalgia overwhelms you.  You almost want to go back, but were you ever there to begin with?  Is it a common shared memory passed down – or do we live through other lives?

And what has really changed between the 17th century and the present? Our needs are the same – food, shelter, companionship, sex, and the need to record and understand the human experience.  All that has changed is the scenery.

Everyday at my writing table I have the gift of an amazing view of Seattle.  Buildings stretch out from downtown past Lake Union.  The space needle looms to the right and the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains stand behind it.  I watch hundreds of cars passing everyday.  And all day long people walk up and down the bridge.  I see the same people over and over, but most I’ve never seen before.  They are walking the dog, buying the groceries, going to work or the gym.

One old man never has a destination.  He is Native American and mentally ill. He walks in circles everyday, wearing the same clothes and the same cane, yelling obscenities to keep people away.  He lets life happen to him. He finds interesting things left by those who leave the past behind.

Perhaps I love the city for its endless layers.  The energy is invigorating.  People keep circulating within hundreds of overlapping stories. Their footsteps mark the passage of time.

the view from my window

     the view from my window

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