Friday, October 27, 2006

the bible

My first experience of Christianity was in my grandmother’s curtained, moody living room when I was very little, just learning to talk. I remember noticing a figure on her wall of a sad looking man. It began to dawn on me that the man was cut and bleeding. I was confused that my grandmother (being the essence of decency and normality) would have such a thing hanging on her wall. I looked up at my mother and asked,

“Who is that?”

My grandmother was mortified. “Oh my god, your son doesn’t know who Jesus Christ is,” she said to my mother.

I grew up without any kind of religious belief. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven when I realized that when I died I might cease to exist. The notion came upon me as a feeling of cold clean darkness. I used to lie in bed at night, thinking about nuclear bombs. I thought about thousands of nuclear bombs being detonated all over the world. I remember the image in my mind of mushroom clouds going up into a pitch black night alighting the land in deep red shadows. A great horror came over me, that everyone in the world would die and cease to exist. Just an eternal night that I wouldnt even know.

Being six or seven years old, it was at this stage in my conjectures that I began to cry. I would creep into my parents’ bedroom around one in the morning, sniffling and frightened, and crawl into the bed between them. Sometimes I would beg them for assurance. One night (and I may have dreamed this) at some weary hour my exasperated father shouted at me that when you die you die and there’s nothing.

I don’t know exactly how this era in my life ended. It went on for a few months, until one summer day I said that if this is all there is, then at least it should be happy, and I should love all these tragic souls as best I could. I accepted the end.

That doesn’t mean I stopped being afraid of ending. I think I was more afraid of the end and of pointless suffering, considering the implications.

Here, now as a grownup (at least biologically) I’ve come to see that there is something alive about me and everyone else that is a lot more profound than I understand. It is impossible for me to believe that the miracle of being alive at all is an accessory to biology. Rather, it is obviously the essence of biology.

That means I believe in god. I believe in a living spirit that transcends mere mechanics and creates all things. Yahweh, Allah, Atma, Tao, Great Spirit; praise be to all your funny names.

I’ve had many teachers, but my first and best church has been the woods. A tree is, in essence, the purest form of life. All it does is live and grow. It takes light and water and makes food for all life. It accepts all destruction and grows as long as it is able, without thought. It is basic innocence. Many trees together are a chorus of purity.

another kind of new testament

I looked for god everywhere, in my friends, in religions, in books, in my mind, under stones. I would find bits and pieces. I did not bother with Christianity because that was crazyshit, and I wasn't interested in crazyshit.

Truth is not contained in a book. Truth is as natural and indigenous to life as sun and moon. So is god. But humans are mortal and confused and imperfect and so their religions are all clumsy attempts at describing god. There are no false religions and no true religions. Like children learning how to draw pictures, human religions are gradual attempts at understanding and all religions are valuable as expressions of how god is understood in their own age. Our notions of god change just as our notions of earth, of art, of anything, change.

There are of course better religions and worse ones. Possibly one of the most irritating debates of modern times is between Objective and Relative truth. The answer is so bloody obvious it ought to be stamped on the front of every bible and the front of every postmodernism reader:

Truth is objective, the perception of truth is relative. As all humans are mortal and finite, everyone sees objective truth but they perceive it in their own way.

My hope for the future is that one day children will be given religious buffets in school. You will walk into class and several different religions will be taught. Now the Bible says this, and the Buddha says that. Questions like,

"If Coyote met Jesus at a barbecue, what icebreaker would they start the conversation with?"

But after many years of disregarding Christianity, I've decided to no longer draw my conclusions from the solid foundation of wilful ignorance. I actually read the Bible and the truth is it is a very spiritual book.

The Bible is the story of a little people called the Jews. It is about their beliefs in the origins of the world and the history of their people. The Jews are underdogs. Its a book about people struggling between the good and evil in themselves, always falling short of what they know they should be: honourable, loving and spiritual in the best sense of the word. In this history is a beautiful intermingling of humour and madness, generosity and fanaticism, wisdom and delusion. It is possibly the most profound book ever written, and now it seems no surprise that it has been responsible for the two most dominant religions in the world today (Christianity and Islam) neither of which is believed by the Jews, ironically.

But the enduring story in the Bible, the common theme is the relationship of god and humanity. The Jews are a people who are passionately obsessed with their god and regarded god as their rightful king. Perhaps quite understandably, the Jews believed that god was as obsessed with them as they were with him.

Then one day a little man who came from some hick Jewish village, told the Jews he was their god and he had some things to add. He told them that all was forgiven, that god loved them as a father loves his children and that they had a responsibility to realize their natures as children of god and make the world a paradise (the Kingdom of Heaven). So they killed him.

The Jews didn't kill him, incidentally. The Romans actually tortured and killed him. But the Romans were bigger and stronger than the Jews, so it was easier for a lot of people to blame them.

The early Christians added their accounts of this little guy to this great, passionate story of god and humanity and for two thousand years now the book of a small, insignificant tribe has endured and spread to every corner of the globe. It has been the foundation of countries, influenced millions and millions of people, it has inspired massacres, profound acts of kindness, scientific discoveries (Newton and Kepler spent their lives trying to understand god and inadvertently discovered gravity and the laws of planetary motion, respectively), oppressions, peacemaking and vicious ignorance. The Antislavery movement in Britain was championed by the Christian Quakers while many of the enslaved tribes were annihilated by Christians who saw them as demonic for their pagan religions. The vast history of this book is as complex and powerful as the story itself.

The attraction to Christianity for me is this powerful idea of a loving god who has a very personal relationship with you. And god is god, not nature, not a human, but supernatural, literally, greater than the world as it is perceived.

My repulsion to Christianity is its exclusivity. The only truth comes from the Bible. Everything else is at best useful or at worst demonic. When you read the Bible, from Genesis to the preaching of Jesus, you understand that you believe this or you're screwed. The trouble is I know that isn't true. I've found real spiritual education in sweat lodges, buddhist meditation, in the lectures of Atheists and of course walking the forests of the earth. According to Christianity there is but one path to god and it is through the Bible and Jesus Christ, but I think what many Christians fail to see is why Jesus taught in parables.

Why did Jesus teach in parables? Because he understood that the spiritual world does not function the same as the natural world, though I believe they are intrinsic to each other. You can't teach spiritual lessons the same way you teach people to count or build a retaining wall. You have to reach a part of someone's being that spends a lot of its time sleeping or half-awake (the spirit). So he tells stories about mustard seeds or a farmer and his sons. Everyone knows Jesus isn't talking about a real guy or how to plant a crop, he's talking about how life works spiritually and morally.

Jesus isn't unique among religious teachers in this respect. There are hundreds of oral and written traditions around the world that use this same method and for the same reason. But Jesus was one of the wisest and greatest of these teachers, and I think he understood his role of waker-upper better than anyone. He was ruthless in teaching people to wake up to their greater natures, constantly urging people towards purity and god. His teaching is so powerfully direct it can single-handedly transform a life or destroy one.

I do not believe that the Bible is the source of all truth about god, or that Jesus was a manifestation of god, whose martyrdom took all transgressions away from humans who accepted him as their king. The troubling aspect of Christian teachings is that it is so unequivocal it easily divides the world into Christian (towards god) and Non-Christian (away from god). I think Christians suffer from a jingoism (e.g. words like covenant, revival or the Word) which is indicative of cultish tendencies rather than spiritual teaching. There are moral and historic assertions in the Bible that are clearly cultural and have no spiritual validity unless it is rationalized by modern thinkers. I think the idea that Christianity is the only true religion harms its spiritual purity rather than preserves it, for this seeks to capture god in a book and if the Bible has taught me anything it is that god is vaster than the horizon, more profound that the wisest teacher, and god loves and embraces all things that live, Christian or not.

So in honor of that great teacher, I’ll leave you with a little parable:

There was a farmer who had two sons. The farmer told his sons, you are both restless and irritating me, go out into the woods and play.

So the two boys left the house and went into the forest to play. After many hours of running through the trees, they looked up and saw the sky darkening. The boys realized they were lost. When they were nearly in tears from fear and worry, they heard their father’s voice calling them from far away. His voice was strong but it echoed strangely off the trees and the hills of the forest and sometimes seemed to be coming from one path or another. Each boy heard the sounds coming from these different paths and in a panic ran blindly along, each taking a different way. Finally they both emerged at far ends of the forest from each other and saw their father standing at the edge of a field, his hands cupped around his mouth and calling them.
Both boys were covered in cuts and bruises from their urgency. The one brother called to the other and said,

“You took the wrong path! You cannot get to father that way!”

The other brother said, “Of course I can, I can see him as well as you!”

But the first brother argued, “Look at you, covered in cuts and bruises! And see, there are ditches and thorns in this field between you and father! Go back into the forest and come the way I have come and I will tell father you are coming!”

And the second brother said, “That doesn’t make any sense! The same ditches and thorns stand in your way as well, and you too are covered in cuts and bruises”

The two boys stood there arguing until the father yelled,

“What are you arguing about? Get over here!”