Finding Religion 2016, or: “Breaking Up With God Is Hard To Do: Revisited”

james-franco-as-aron-ralston-in-127-hours-427897391In Chapter 1 of Soulfully Gay, “God Is Gay”, there is this moment of negative expression. I, a 33-year-old man, come to grips with the God of Roman Catholicism that I lost as a college freshman at Harvard. Here is the key piece of my earlier writing:

Friday, November 14

Breaking Up with God Is Hard to Do

When I was a boy in grade school, belief in a loving God came easily to me. God was the answer to my question, Where does everything come from? I prayed with confidence that my prayers were always heard.

I sometimes envisioned God as a benevolent teacher and humans as His dutiful pupils. Follow the rules, do your homework, learn your lessons, and when class is dismissed you can frolic forever in the divine playground. The classroom was sometimes stifling, but usually it was a nurturing place of joy and enchanted mysteries.

Being Roman Catholic was an important part of life during my teenage years and early adulthood. The church was where I learned to experience my spirituality—how to pray, how to celebrate the sacred moments of life, and how to cope with death.

As I became aware of my homosexuality, my faith was often a source of internal conflict. Like many others, I saw the Vatican as full of closed-minded hypocrites, and I suspected that many church leaders were themselves closeted, self-hating homosexuals. I had no desire to worship in such a church.

When I was 20 years old, I began to come out of the sexual closet. As a result, continuing to worship in the Catholic Church suddenly became very uncomfortable. However, leaving the church altogether was more than I felt I could handle, so I decided to take a break.

I called the break a “sabbatical,” and it lasted for about 13 years. From time to time, I’d attend mass. But worship always left me feeling fragmented and frustrated, never spiritually whole. When I did connect to authentic feelings, it was usually anger (at the Catholic Church) or sadness, not joy.

Religion was an integral aspect of my life, just as my hands and feet are part of my body. Remember Aron Ralston? He was the 27-year-old hiker who, after being pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder for five days, used a pocketknife to free himself by amputating his own arm.  He told rescuers that he had run out of water and his very survival had depended upon breaking free.

For many religious people, leaving their religion behind can be as challenging a decision as cutting off one’s own arm. It’s not something one does lightly, and many people will avoid the break at all costs. For example, 70 percent of queer Catholics don’t practice their religion but still call themselves Catholic, according to the Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Census.

That’s an astounding number when you think about it. Imagine if seven Republicans in ten didn’t like most of the policies of George W. Bush but stayed in the party anyway. Or what if seven out of ten members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals didn’t like animals but refused to give up their PETA membership cards?

What’s this about? According to Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, there are three main reasons why people maintain an ambiguous relationship with their religion despite “falling away.” First, they might be motivated to continue a nominal connection to an organized religion because of their family background. Second, they may be concerned that disaffiliating with their religion could harm their social standing. Third, they simply may be timid about making a final break from religion.

It’s primarily this third motivation that stood in my way of leaving the Catholic Church, because for many years I identified my religion with my spirituality. This meant that leaving the Church was almost like breaking up with God.

After over a decade of being lapsed, or “on sabbatical,” this year I finally said goodbye to the Catholic Church. I issued no press releases. I nailed no bulletins on church doors. For the most part I went quietly.

And I began the coming out process all over again. This time it meant telling people that I’m no longer Roman Catholic. The Vatican’s continual attacks on the dignity of gay people were simply more than I wanted to bear.

I respect that there are a number of gays who are staying in the Catholic Church and will continue to work for change. God bless them. I honor the difficult choices they have made, even as I know that my spiritual path is taking me in another direction.

What did leaving the Catholic Church mean to me? I finally realized that I could go no further in my spiritual growth by staying put, one foot in a hostile church and one outside. I wanted a spiritual path that I could step into with both feet. Like the hiker trapped by the boulder, I knew something invaluable was at stake: my survival. My spiritual survival.

Today I don’t have a church, but I envision the universe itself as a loving, nurturing Higher Power and benevolent teacher. And I see myself as a continuing student of spirituality. My faith hasn’t been lost so much as it has gradually grown into something new and more mature.

I predict that one day on my deathbed I will have no regrets about leaving the Catholic Church in 2003. But I will have no peace with the decision, unless I continue to explore my perplexing affinity with the Roman Catholic Church despite its many oh-so-human flaws. I must confess: I haven’t ruled out rejoining the Catholic Church as a regular churchgoing man. The decision I made in 2003 was essential to my spiritual development at the time, but I have begrudgingly acknowledged that it is not necessarily the best choice for me ongoing.

Nor do I feel that it is essential that I rush to rejoin the Catholic communion at this time, I think. I have attended a couple of masses in the last couple of  years, one a memorial service for my Mom. Unfortunately I didn’t see stars, have exploding highs of spiritual delight, or feel serene oneness with the Body of Whatever Christ I  Could. It was a lot of boredom and indifference rather than mystical union. If I choose to enhance my relationship with the Church in the future, I must weigh heavily the opportunity cost: hours of boredom and indifference … if that is in fact what I have ahead of me.

There are stories in the intervening 13 years — 2003 to 2016 — which have colored my present viewpoint. Let me relate one of them. People speak of dark nights of the soul, and mostly this is exaggerated. They don’t really know darkness of the mystic simply because they suffered human pains. They know the Dark Night of the Soul only if they have suffered quasi-human pains, divine pains, the hideous torture of the divine-in-human pain available to every one of us if we submit to our divine nature. So it was in my early 40s when I was in as dark a place as most of you can imagine (unless you have repeatedly been to the Dark Night while in a Bipolar I or schizophrenic episode): I had invented a mystical language which reorganized my consciousness and somehow, unanticipated and tragically, allowed a deluge of demons and devils into my inner world. I won’t bother defining “devil” or “demon” at this time; I’ll save that for a later blog post.

I WAS 43 YEARS OLD, AND MY LIFE COLLAPSED INTO A SINGULARITY OF GRAVITY AND DARKNESS, THE DARK MATTER ITSELF ARRIVING AT SENTIENCE THROUGH ME, AND ALL THE DEVILS AND DEMONS COLLAPSED INTO ME. DEVILS AND ARCH-DEVILS AND UBER-DEVILS CASCADING INTO MY “SOUL SPOT” … THEY CAME, AGAIN AND AGAIN … AND IF I NEEDED TO PRY THEM FROM MY BRAIN BY PUTTING FINGERS IN MY EARS UNTIL I BLED TO REMOVE THEIR IMPLANT, THEN I WOULD DO WHAT I HAD TO DO.

Or so it seemed to me, on every rational inspection of which I was capable. I was twisted and soulless and inhuman and incapable of escaping the heaviness of my consciousness. The devils had me, and they weren’t letting go. They blocked out the light and warmth. I lost hope of ever speaking to God again, for there was no lightness where I was. I was not permitted real human emotions, and I was prohibited from feeling and observing and loving and having pleasure as normal human beings do.

I was captive to a horrible enslavement of mind and body. Who could I trust to help me? Which friends could I contact with the hope that they would respond to me sympathetically and helpfully? Which spiritual leaders could possibly understand my torment and offer a remedy for a malady which began with the adoption of a magical alphabet which they did not know?

In this dark state, I turned to the Roman Catholic Church to see if I could find an exorcist to heal me. I won’t tell the full story today, except to note that I tried repeatedly and found mercy and rites of forgiveness and love in my time of need. But I found neither understanding nor, ultimately, rites of exorcism. Perhaps withholding exorcism was a bit of passive-aggressive posturing on God’s part, if I interpret the story with a sense of humor. I had said fuck you to the Church as a 33-year-old. When I pursued my path of spirituality and it led me to a devil-infested depression, was it up to the Church to heal me? No. I had brought the demonic possession onto myself, using my own wits, and if I was going to escape the Kosmic Horror myself, I was going to have to keep working at it, on my own lights, pulling myself by my own bootstraps.

I haven’t reconnected with the Catholic Church any more than I have said, but I have found religion. The idea that the universe itself is a Benevolent Higher Power seems extremely naive. According to NASA, “roughly 68% of the Universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the Universe.”

If we are going to speak of the Universe as a Higher Power, then it must be the Universe that is 95% unknown to us, full of darkness and uncertainty and chaos, seemingly oblivious to the cares of human beings. Is that really a Higher Power worth believing in? I’m not sure. (There’s a longer story here I must save for a later date. It involves the testing of this theory of the Universe itself as Benevolent. And I must say my tests are inconclusive, but they led me to introduce the “Ro” as the Arch-Enemy in The Kalendar series).

But I do know this: If we are to live through this evolutionary moment as a civilization with the greatest possibility of survival, then we must not throw out the old gods. We must evolve with them, and let the gods evolve. Let the gods tell us how to understand our relationship to the higher matters and understand the lower matters in their underworldly ways. We must let God speak again.

We can figure it out. We need the gods/Gods/God of All. We cannot dispense with them lest we eschew the greatest psychological and spiritual achievements of our species in favor of a stubborn ego in the wilderness. We might find more young people collapsing into demonic decay, nihilism of different stripes, and worse. What is worse than nihilism? I have tasted it, I have more to tell you about it at the right time.

Breaking up with God is hard to do. Breaking up with the devil is hard to do, too, when you’re addicted to egoic individualism or other maladies of the spirit which still need God as the remedy.

 

To Remedy Poverty, What About the Kingdom of God?

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How does Christianity — the religion whose founder said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) — respond to the plight of Americans in poverty? Hardly speaking in a catholic voice, Roman Catholicism is divided along ideological grounds, represented by seemingly polar opposites Rep. Paul Ryan on the right and a fiesty nun on the left. They each got their turn to speak today on the record.

According to an article at Religion News Service, Sister Simone Campbell testified at a U.S. House Budget Committee hearing today:

[Paul] Ryan, himself a Catholic, has been criticized by fellow Catholics and even the hierarchy for his previous budget proposals, though he has defended his views, including during a controversial visit to Georgetown University last year when he was Mitt Romney’s running mate on the Republican presidential ticket.

On Wednesday, Ryan argued that the nation has spent $15 trillion dollars on the “war on poverty” and yet 46 million Americans are currently living in poverty, and 20 million Americans earn an income that is less than half of the poverty level.

Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that 58 percent of households receiving SNAP have someone who is employed and in 82 percent of households on SNAP one of the family members finds work within a year. He said that shows what a crucial support the program provides to working families.

He called on Campbell to comment about those who need a little help from food nutrition programs “not so they can be in a hammock, but so that they can try to pull themselves and their families out of poverty.”

Campbell responded that for her the issue is wages — that minimum-wage jobs are “insufficient to support a family” and that SNAP is, just as intended, supplemental.

Campbell has been working with the interfaith community in Washington to craft what religious progressives call a “Faithful Budget” that they say advocates “reasonable revenue for responsible programs,” as well as accountability in making sure those programs work.

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., asked Campbell what the church is doing wrong that it needed to reach out to the government to “do something that is so directly their nature,” adding that Christianity is about serving the poor.

In response, Campbell said that the issues are so big and charitable dollars aren’t sufficient. So there is “a government responsibility to ensure everyone’s capacity to eat,” she said. “We do the charity part.”

The ideological divide will not be bridged until those on the left acknowledge the importance of individual subject motivation and actions and those on the right acknowledge the importance of collective systems and culture to create the chains which bind people in poverty no matter how motivated they are to escape. Are they still talking past each other? According to this report, Ryan merely defended his views that government ought to do less and Campbell saying it ought to do more.

Integral solutions must look beyond the Lower-Right quadrant towards approaches which raise consciousness and coordinate cultural/religious responses and socio-economic structures. Nobody seems to want to talk about the possibility that humankind has the potential to overcome this problem once and for all, but it will take a revolution in consciousness — the fuller coming of the Reign of Heaven of which Jesus preached — to see it happen.


Photo: Religion News Service

God dwells in our language, the Logos which is the force of conscious evolution

elijah-from-hoyasmeg-flickrstreamI want to write something out of my own life, its concerns, and the learning edges that present themselves to me. It’s Sunday and there’s a sacredness to the day for Christians, and mine is a path shared with Jesus — as I said in Soulfully Gay, “with, through, and beyond Christianity.”

I honestly don’t know where to begin. I don’t even know what I’m going to say until I say it. I only know that I have something to say. Take note of that (it’s important).

I don’t know what preconceptions and worldviews you are bringing. It’s always a predicament for a writer not to know his audience. Preachers and priests aren’t supposed to admit they don’t know what they’re talking about, so right away you know this isn’t a sermon or homily.

There are so many different versions of the Christian religion, so many different ways of being or not being Christian. When someone tells me they are a Christian, I honestly have no certainty about what that says about them, their spirituality, and their humanity. I do not know if they are someone I would call a friend or maybe an enemy.

Although the mere statement, “I am a Christian,” says too little, the shape of a person’s soul does come through in everything about them. And there is a certain soul-shape that is distinctly Christian, I think, regardless of the many varieties of its expression. That soul-shaping quality is something difficult to put into words but not so difficult to feel.

How does Christianity shape a soul?

Christianity shapes the soul. Mine is a life imprinted by Christianity: the Roman Catholicism of my upbringing, the liberation theology and the modern realism of Reinhold Niebuhr which I studied in school, and later the emerging Integral Christian spirituality of my mid-to-late thirties.

And mine is also a life shaped by conflicts created by the religion, my rejection of it, my refusal of it, and my love and ambivalence to what it represents. So much so that I have gone most of my adult life either unsure if I was a Christian, seeking alternatives to priests and pews, or embarrassed by my adherence. I changed one denomination (Roman Catholic Church) for another (Episcopal Church USA).

The story of my wanderings inside, outside, and on the margins of religious organizations is not what I want to speak to tonight. The conflict between belief and unbelief is not “me.” The stories of seeking and finding are not “me.” The structure of my development in faith maturity is not “me.”

Nor even, I imagine, is the experience of discovering my own divinity, the terrible and awesome realization of our Supreme Identity. That was the central turning point in my life through age 35, as readers of my memoir know, but it is not “me.”

Christianity’s mark

I’m not particularly interested in “me” (if there even is such a thing) right now, but the soul-shape imprinted upon billions of people by Christianity. It concerns me with urgency, because I find myself at last indelibly imprinted with a mark on my soul that I cannot erase and would not if I could. It is that mark that writes this blog post, not “me.”

You might have guessed that I am now to reveal that this soul-shape is God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. And you are in part correct. But the truth is, I am not sure that any of these titles are adequate to name the mark or describe the soul-shape which works through my mind, heart, and hands.

My consciousness is not my own. It is a plurality in ever greater degrees of stability, integration, and realization. There is the “I,” and then there is the “You,” and then there is the “We.”

I can ask God if He is truly God, and God says, “I am God, and more…”

I can ask Jesus Christ if He is the One, My Beloved, and He says, “I am He, Your Beloved and more, and You are My Beloved and more…”

I can ask the Holy Spirit if … He? … She? … No, We. We are the mark, the soul-shape which has been given to me by my Christian faith. And We say, “Yes. We are the Spirit of All, we are the Body of All, we are the Mind of All. We are the Ones heralded by the prophets. We are the Ones who are bringing in the New World to Come.”

Continue reading “God dwells in our language, the Logos which is the force of conscious evolution”

Why not join the Episcopal Church?

Not that you (or anyone) asked. But the question arose after an exchange with Terry Mattingly on GetReligion. Mattingly said he has asked Andrew Sullivan why he remains Catholic instead of joining the Episcopal Church. And he said he would ask Anne Rice why she converted to Roman Catholicism instead of the Episcopalian denomination. (Both have stated positions on issues such as women’s ordination and gay rights that are opposed to the magisterium.)

As I’ve stated previously, I’m an ex-Catholic and current nondenominational Christian who describes my spirituality as “catholic in the truest sense of the word: universally open to truth wherever it is found.” So it’s quite natural that I feel drawn to the Episcopal Church. I’ve said so before, and have begun explorations into possibly joining the Anglican communion.

But here are a few reservations, off the top of my head, and in no particular order:

  • Will I have a felt sense of not being “at home” there? Is it too conservative? Is it too rigid, cold, stuffy, and upper class? Is it the right focus for me, right now? My main impulse now is towards integration and spiritual practice, not listening to sermons designed to help Volvo-driving heterosexuals feel more well adjusted in their upper middle class American lifestyles. That’s what I’m afraid I’ll find as I explore the Episcopal Church… and if I do, I’m walking. It’s definitely not for me. On Sunday mornings there are also dharma meditation groups that I can join, and I’d be much better off with the Buddhists.
  • Is it simply too Christian for my tastes? I’m not even certain that I want to call myself Christian anymore, but that’s a long story. I’m beginning to think the only people who really deserve to be called Christian are those who are selflessly following Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and other hard teachings. You know, his hard teachings like sell all you have, give it to the poor, that sort of thing. Everyone else, I almost want to use “so-called,” “self-described,” or sneer marks when describing their religion. As in… Of course, Pat Robertson is a “Christian.” or… Pope Benedict, self-described Christian, says something evil again today. My religious ethos is still definitely inspired by Christ and the whole of Christian tradition, but it’s also influenced by other and conflicting impulses… various sorts of paganism, Native American religion, Buddhism, Taoism, astrology, Hindu philosophers… Do I want to join a church where I feel as if I have to hide the full diversity of my beliefs or be judged a freak or heretic?
  • Should I be directing my energy instead to creating a spiritual community that I can embrace more whole heartedly? In many ways, I’ve moved on from the institutional Christian Church, even as my yearning for a more structured, organized, and institutional religious framework remains. There are some rumblings in the integral movement that are suggestive of a new religious experience. Is there the beginnings here of a new communion of seekers who have found a common approach to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that allows them to bring all that they are into community in ways both traditional and new? In my opinion, it’s too early to say. My best guess is that integral thinking’s greatest impact will be on interreligious dialogue, and reforming existing world traditions–the “great conveyor belts” of consciousness, as Ken Wilber has described them. But there may also be something more unexpected: not only a new religious sensibility, but a new religion. Just a thought.