Becoming Human

Mic’ed up and with cameras recording, the interviewer asked me point blank, “Do you believe in God?” Immediately, numerous responses flooded my mind, but quickly a question formed. As if I were having an out-of-body experience, I heard myself ask, “Which God?” 

There was a short pause and then the conversation continued. It meandered about in numerous directions, while my internal dialogue continued in the background. Eventually the mics and cameras were turned off, small talk ensued and finally warm goodbyes were exchanged. Then, as if nothing significant had occurred, life quickly returned to normal. However, in the background, my internal dialogue continued to ebb and flow. Why had I asked, “Which God?”

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Loaded to the Hilt

When replying with a question, I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or snarky. I was sincerely searching for a context. Which one? Allah? Yahweh? Vishnu? Ganesh? Jesus? Apollo? Ra? The Universe? Ether? And we wouldn’t want to exclude women: Athena? Aphrodite? Sophia? The Holy Spirit?

In that moment, it would have been helpful if the question had been phrased, “Do you believe in my God?” After all, if this conversation had occurred centuries ago with the Jewish Patriarch Abraham, he undoubtedly would have asked, “Do you believe in…MY GOD…the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

Obviously, the topic of “believing in God” is always personalized and often loaded to the hilt with emotion. As it concerns Allah, one has to establish which version is being inquired about. Sunni? Shia? Khumra? And we shouldn’t exclude the marginalized Sufis. Personally, I’m a big fan of their witty and humorous poet, Hafiz.

When it comes to Greek or Norse gods, our modern day society has largely decided to retire them to a mythological status. However, they are experiencing somewhat of a big-screen revival thanks to CGI and millions of contribution$ from Marvel, DC and Warner Brothers. The scads of obscure island gods have yet to claim the same mass fame, largely remaining on small, local stages entertaining gawking tourists. However, I’m hoping Aquaman can open a door for a few of them.

Continental gods, such as those throughout South America, have largely died from starvation, due to a scarcity of young virgins and bleeding hearts. On a small scale, eastern gods have extended their lives by appealing to hippies and hipsters. In India, it seems no amount of deities have proven sufficient enough to provide an upper hand or leg up. And recently, the Judeo-Christian Jehovah has been stumbling a bit, first with the Holocaust and now with ceaseless conflict in the Middle East. However, he did manage to get a win in the 2016 Presidential Election. #MAGA

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Cherry Picking

When it comes to Christianity, many assume the discussion would be obvious and understood. But with a disputed 30+ thousand sects active around the world, it’s proven to be quite the opposite. For those of us who’ve gone on short-term mission trips, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Located within blocks of one another, you’ll often find a dozen, maybe even twenty or more denominations competing for converts. They all read from the same book and practice faith in similar ways. Though rarely, they are on speaking terms. Why? Financial support aside, their ideologies keep them far apart as the east is from the west.

Orthodox? Catholic? Protestant? Baptist? Pentecostal? Charismatic? Methodist? Lutheran? Fundamentalist? Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Prophetic? Apostolic? Non-denominational? Inter-denominational, Unitarian? Universal? Whew! I’m out of breath and I haven’t even gotten started! Obviously, the divide is massive. Maybe now’s a good time to admit: we’ve been cherry picking sacred texts for a long time, crafting preferred versions of the Divine we either could defend, or stomach for a season.

With such an admission, I know I’m asking a lot. After all, confession is rarely easy. For me, it took a few years of self-searching and decluttering. In the beginning, it seemed heroic to dismiss and ignore all the divine decrees regarding diet, menstruation, fashion dos & don’ts, polygamy, celibacy, justified violence and slavery. As a matter of fact, I was often praised for doing so, and encouraged to continue.

Later, when I was willing to relinquish the pro-misogamy references, I experienced my first serious pushback. But the heat really got turned up when I did the same with anti-LGBTQ references. All I can say about that is, “WOW!” Nonetheless, each experience caused me to dig deeper. Eventually, I could no longer ignore the countless contradictions, both within the Bible and within myself.

beinghuman_us Being Human – One of my all-time favorite series depicting the struggles of a vampire, ghost and werewolf reclaiming their humanity. It portrays the ugliness and beauty of finding love, forgiveness and redemption.

Becoming Human

In the end, I was left holding onto a very thin sliver of what some still considered sufficient for faith. It was largely a collection of metaphors, a bit of sacred poetry and a few words of wisdom. I lovingly held it close for a season, until one day I had an epiphany: My relationship with supernaturalism was over, and I would survive. Heck, I might even thrive! So, with the same veracity of commitment and moral devotion of my religious past, I decided to pursue simply being human and all it entails.

It wasn’t long until I discovered, my humanistic endeavor was considered by many as heretical and foolhardy. In some faith circles, simply being human is actually tantamount to committing a crime. Nonetheless, I’m undeterred. After all, everybody is a heretic to somebody. In my defense, I like to point to the fact that most religions share a similar narrative: at one time or another, many of the gods (including “God”) pursued the same thing—becoming human.


Postscript

I’m not so naive to think that this article will answer all my critics, or for that matter please every one of my supporters. What about NDE’s? The afterlife? Eternal punishment & reward? OI VEH! For now, I suggest we stay on point with what it means to be human. Personally, I feel this topic is far from being exhausted. Here’s a few links to get things started:

Ze Frank: Are You Human?

Daniel Wendler: What Being Autistic Taught Me About Being Human

Erwin Raphael McManus: What Makes Us Uniquely Human?

Sonia Sanchez: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Bob McDonald: What If Everything You Know Is Wrong?

 

Killer Conundrums

Her unfamiliar face and obvious baby bump solicited stares and hushed whispers. She was new and different in a community which wasn’t accustomed to the like. The only new and different things making an appearance were those speeding through the only four-way stop in my tiny town. However, here she was at a full stop, parked in my home room with a compelling story very few were willing to approach or inquire about.

Cigarettes & Short Skirts

Sadly, I confess I never spoke to her. Her “condition” was far outside of my comfort zone. Besides that, my parents would have grounded me if I had done so. I was already out of their good graces for coming home smelling like cigarette smoke. My girlfriend had borrowed my jacket, lit up and left me with the lingering odor of rebellion.

In case you’re wondering, that is the truth and surprisingly my parents actually believed me. Nonetheless, I was buried alive under loads of extra-chores because… having a girlfriend was forbidden! The fact that she was a cheerleader made my offense seriously grave. My parents cringed when they thought of how every Friday night she could be found dancing around the gym floor in a short skirt before a rowdy home crowd.

Sternly, they warned me how I was to “live in the world” but “not be of this world.” From now on I was to avoid scandalous relationships, which could potentially screw me out of experiencing God’s perfect plan for my life. Clearly, I would have to be careful around the new girl in my home room. Thankfully, I had a lengthy chore list in hand. My dad believed firmly that manual labor would cleanse my soul, and I honestly had no reason to doubt him.

Inoculated

My off-the-beaten-path public school was a perfect place where pregnant teens could lay low for six months. Then, as spontaneously as they had appeared, they disappeared, arriving home alone as if returning from an exchange student program. Sorry to say, due to the general ruse and temporary nature of the situation, befriending them wasn’t a high priority. Furthermore, heavy doses of religious fear, swallowed three times a week on Sundays and Wednesdays, served to inoculate me against having a conscience.

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The drama of teenage pregnancy is as old as the Bible and still much older. During the Christmas season, it’s rigorously celebrated with ritualistic fervor. For weeks on end, the airwaves swell with tunes and melodies extolling the pregnant maiden who was whisked away by her gobsmacked fiancé to give birth in a stable. Certainly a scenario like this today would prompt someone talking to someone, an intervention at the very least or maybe even criminal charges. But who wants to be a “scrooge” by disparaging a beloved tale?

Killer Conundrums

Amidst plastic replicas of singing angels, serene barnyard animals and eastern wise men illuminated by a cheap star blinking overhead, the matriarch of teenage pregnancy is enshrined. People of faith worldwide gather to stand silently in reverence before the blessed maiden and her holy child. They rehearse her story with hushed whispers and humbly bow to the fruit of her womb, a molded plastic baby representing the “Sacrificial Lamb,” a.k.a the ultimate human sacrifice.

Obviously, to this day, remnants of ancient blood rituals live on in the religious psyche, enlivened by centuries of sacred paranoia. These time-honored superstitions serve to provide irrational justifications for a host of killer conundrums and bad behavior. Sadly, opportunities for dialogue, understanding and meaningful relationships often get placed on altars of blind obedience.

Rarely do faithful adherents consider what has truly been sacrificed. I should know. For the longest time I never stopped to think, just like I shamefully never thought to speak to the pregnant teenage girl sitting in my home room.

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Lightning Rod

For most religious devotees, their particular faith tradition is inherited and reinforced by their immediate culture, i.e. legacy. Rarely are they challenged to seriously consider another viewpoint. And if they are, it’s generally opposed with extreme bias, lacking in fact and objectivity, i.e. cult, false religion, idolatry, perverts and satan worshipers.

Certainly, this was true for me as an evangelical in the American Midwest. To say the least, my general knowledge was firmly rooted in cliquey, sheltering group-think. It’s taken me years, but I’ve since remedied my deficiencies.

Atheists Know More?

In 2010, the Pew Forum Research Center conducted a Religious Knowledge Survey involving 3,412 participates. Out of the thirty-two general religious knowledge questions, the average participant answered only sixteen correctly.

Recently, I reviewed the sample questions and got a perfect score. The questions were so basic, I was saddened by how poorly participants performed. However, I wasn’t surprised. Ironically, atheists and agnostics got the most questions correct with Christians coming in dead last.

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In 2013, sixty-three related studies were reviewed and the results showed a “significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” Experts theorized as to why this was so, offering a hypothesis summed up as such: more knowledge = less belief in God.

Open to Experience?

In my opinion, the focus on intelligence versus belief has merit but is narrow. It doesn’t fully capture an understanding as to why people choose to believe in the supernatural. I personally know a number of very intelligent persons who practice their faith with great commitment. For me, offering clearer insight is a Harvard study done by Shenhav, Rand & Greene. Rather than focusing on IQ levels, their research honed in on personality traits.

Their findings suggested that the deciding personality trait is being open to experience. This type of person displays a willingness to re-examine social, political and religious values. If he/she is an intuitive thinker, cultural influencers often steer them in the direction of spirituality. If he/she is an analytical thinker, the same often motivates them to be a skeptic. Clearly, for either type there is more common ground than most are willing to acknowledge.

On a personal level, this explains why my closest friends are either humanists or spiritualists, and why my marriage works so well–me, an amiable skeptic and she a delightful mystic. In contrast, it sheds light on why I, and my spouse, have always been lightning rods for closed-minded fundamentalists.

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Veggie-ligion

I was talking with a friend last night about an upcoming interview I’ll be doing. I’m no stranger to interviews, but this one will be different from those I’ve done in the past. It will be on camera. I’ve always stuck with print and audio only, affording me time to decide which side is my good side—right or left? I guess I’ll soon find out.

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As far as the interview content is concerned, I’m not lacking in confidence. It will focus on something I know a lot about: former clergy who’ve transitioned out of professional ministry, and the adversities they’ve faced in doing so. For many of my peers, the transition has proven extremely demanding and destructive on numerous levels. 

Fortunately, for me, with the support of my spouse, kids and dear friends, I was able to avoid many pitfalls. With that said, I still encountered adversity, setbacks and discouragement, but with each new day I was able to put it all in my past.

Perspective

Last night, I reached out to my friend for some perspective. Although she’s aware of my past, she’s only known me in my current role as a project manager, never as a minister. As we talked, I asked her what she thought about former clergy wanting to leave the ministry? Her response was intriguing:

First, she referenced the few ministers she knew besides me (neighbors) and talked about how nice and capable they were in their roles. Although she herself does not attend their churches or any church, her general attitude was positive towards active clergy.

Secondly, the thought of active clergy desiring to leave the ministry for good had never crossed her mind. And honestly, why would it? But, as a business manager who hires qualified people for high level positions, she felt strongly that ministers offer a wealth of experience for the job market—management, sales & marketing. Her actual comment was, “Why wouldn’t I want to hire a former minister?”

Thirdly, when I asked how she felt about a minister who actually stopped believing in the supernatural, she wrestled with wrapping her head around that idea. Even though she has no desire to actively practice her former Catholic faith, she feels belief in some kind of a higher power helps cope with stress. Tongue in cheek, she suggested a “head of lettuce” might be a sufficient god of sorts.

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Ancient Egyptian ceremony depicting lettuces offerings to Min god in the temple of Kalabsha, aka the Temple of Mandulis.

We laughed and agreed that a vegetable would not be the best choice. In talking further, it became clear that religious faith and coping skills are two very different things. To contrast, I can think of a few examples:

The Babble Method

I once worked with someone who, every time she got stressed or mad, started babbling loudly in tongues. When she did so, it was always quite uncomfortable; especially, since we worked together in retail. I remember thinking at the time, this must be her religious form of cussing!?

The Retreat Method

Another friend of mine, when stressed, would retreat to his “secret place” with a jug of water to fast and pray for hours, sometimes for days. I never saw an improvement in his communication skills or marriage. However, upon his return he always had interesting “visions” to share, none of which pertained to his day-to-day life.

The Lecture Method

As a former minister, I often sat in services where peers delivered messages, which were not applicable for the majority of the listeners. Clearly, he/she had issues with one or two in attendance, and had chosen to vent from the platform. This approach is not all that surprising when you consider ministers are primarily trained to lecture.

The Avoidance Method

Other peers of mine often used their “busy schedule” to avoid dealing with challenges and conflict. For many, the avoidance lasted only until things either exploded or they “felt called” to a new position elsewhere. Others used their “busy schedule” to hide the pursuit of unhealthy habits—addictions, affairs, etc. In hindsight. I think their blind reliance on the supernatural and their lack of coping skills drove them to self-sabotage, i.e. implosion.

Think About It

Obviously, avoiding, retreating, lecturing and babbling solve absolutely nothing. Sadly though, religion often not only strengthens these methods, it encourages them. Think about it: 

  • If you’re a stressed out charismatic, you’re told to speak in tongues. 
  • If you’re a stressed out mystic, you’re told to retreat and pray. 
  • If you’re a stressed out leader, you’re told to call sinners to repentance. 
  • And if you’re one of the nameless faces who once attended church, you’re still inclined to seek divine help, maybe even from a… head of lettuce?

Hey, perhaps being a vegetarian is far more than just a lifestyle or diet choice?

#Veggie-ligion


If you’re interested in getting “down to earth” with acquiring legit coping skills, check out these links:

Centre for Studies on Human Stress
Psychology Today
VeryWellMind
Eliminate Stress at Work
Anxiety & Depression Association of America

 

Strange Brew

Mark Taylor, a former firefighter from Florida, has been making quite a splash before and after the recent midterm elections. At the end of a 20-year career, symptoms of PTSD forced him to retire. Shortly thereafter though, he learned his trauma-induced hallucinations were actually visions from God!?

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Quickly, his prophetic predictions have spread like wildfire, via Christian cable network shows, podcasts, various prayer networks and magazine articles. All of this eventually netted him a book deal and a movie, The Trump Prophecy, funded and produced by Liberty University.

Strange Brew

If you are inclined to entertain the following conspiracy theories, you’re sure to love his weekly updates direct from heavenly realms: 

  • Earth is hollow and inhabited by supernatural beings
  • Nazis live under the Antarctic ice
  • Satanic vampires are feeding on aborted babies
  • Amber Alerts are part of a government conspiracy to cover up human trafficking 
  • Special US Forces are secretly fighting demonic, human hybrids
  • The POTUS is God’s ordained weapon to “trump” satan’s apocalyptic agenda

In years past, such topics were considered embarrassingly distasteful among the religious general public. However, times have changed, and the appetite for strange brew has increased dramatically. 

During my career as a local church pastor, I was frequently accosted by parishioners intoxicated with consternation—fear of world events, freemasons, demons, science, academia, politicians, psychology, illuminati, gays, persecution, fake news, etc. It numbed their rational senses and blurred their vision of reality, leaving them paranoid and inclined to hysteria.

In their desperate state, they often desired for me to confirm their suspicions. Furthermore, they hoped I would use my position and platform to call “doubters” to repentance. Uhm…nope. Sorry… not sorry.

Trashy CGI

Like numerous low-budget movies before with trashy CGI, “The Trump Prophecy” sought to cash in on religious superstition by portraying fiery demons and apocalyptic scenarios. And with the release of the movie right before midterms, it endeavored to inspire believers to cast their votes for God’s agenda, i.e. Trump’s agenda. Some would argue, this puts the film squarely in the horror genre.

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The movie genres of Sci-fi and Horror have their roots in classic stories which sought to confront social injustice and ethical abuses of science, technology, government and religion. Sure, there are plenty of examples where the only focus is on blood and gore, but in general these genres endeavor to unmask fear and manipulation.

Liberty’s “The Trump Prophecy” clearly had no interest in debunking absurdity, nor quelling fear-mongering. Rather, it unashamedly cashed in on age old superstitions while encouraging the self-fulfillment of insane prophecies, i.e. Mark’s hallucinations.

Don’t Call Me

Mark’s prophecies predicted not just a “Red Wave” during the midterms, but actually a “Red Tsunami!” Obviously, neither occurred, but he has a creative explanation which involves an imminent “earthquake” and demonstrations that are actually “demon-strations.” Oh, and there are massive arrests of democrats soon to take place with martial law to follow!

Don’t bother phoning him for a clarification. He’s only taking calls from friends. “After all,” he explains, “those who are ‘attacking’ me are only operating in the realm of intellect.” Obviously, the phrase “don’t call me” has a double meaning — Don’t call me and don’t call me out!

PTSD Info & Resources

PTSD is a serious condition. Help and treatment is readily available. For more on the symptoms, causes and risk factors, see the following link: Mayo Clinic. Also, click the pic below for information on available hotlines.

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Don’t Call Me An Ass

Some might say I’m an apostate, agnostic, atheist or anything else starting with the letter “A” deemed derogatory. I’m resolved to not take issue, so long as no one calls me an ass.

I once was a religious insider myself, well versed in the labeling and categorizing of heretical outsiders. So, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to divine what many may be postulating about me personally: 51-ZTwr3slL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_“Is he possessed? Has satan deceived him? Is he delusional? Hurt? Confused? Rebelling? Why in God’s name would he turn his back on his upbringing and walk away from his calling?!” Thus it is for all those who’ve dared to question their inherited, deep-seated beliefs, and even more so for those who once served in a professional capacity such as I did for 25+ years.

The stories of former clergy like me are heart-wrenching and too numerous to recount. Sadly, the tragedy of being ostracized, humiliated, shunned and often terribly impoverished is a common thread running throughout. For a society [the Church] claiming to be built on foundations of grace and unconditional love, the question which begs to be answered is: “Why is it necessary to demonize and shun those who doubt, question and/or choose to simply be a good human being apart from all the religious trappings?” Some have suggested the answer lies in the past, starting with the early European settlers of America.

Puritanical Heritage

It’s been my observation that most churchgoers throughout the Bible-belt and America’s Heartland possess very little knowledge of their particular sect’s history. Furthermore, in my opinion, they are woefully lacking in objectivity as it concerns the cognitive behavioral motivators both past and present. From sea to shining sea, the American Christian culture remains deeply influenced by the puritanical heritage originating with the first Thirteen Colonies. Researching this history of Puritan influence, the historian John Coffey has noted:

New England exercised a disproportionate influence on American ideals…thanks to a powerful intellectual tradition disseminated through its universities, its dynamic print culture and the writings of its famous [Puritan] clergy.

Today, the Puritan’s ideology is largely championed by the rise of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Emphasizing this, is an article published in 2015 by The Gospel Coalition entitled 8 Reasons Why We Need The Puritans. The article concludes with the following quote by the contemporary theologian John Piper:

My own experience is that no one comes close to the skill they [the Puritans] have in taking the razor-like scalpel of Scripture, and lancing the boils of my corruption, cutting out the cancers of my God-belittling habits of mind, and amputating the limbs of my disobedience. They are simply in a class by themselves.

It’s been my experience that very few evangelicals would privately disagree with Piper’s summation, though publicly opting for a softer, more digestible, “seeker-sensitive” version.

Scarlet Letter

Piper’s “lancing, cutting and amputating” are obviously figures of speech. However, it is reminiscent of a familiar aggressiveness known to his Puritan ancestors whom he puts in “a class by themselves.” Certainly, when it came to dealing with so-called sabbath breakers, smokers, merry-makers and dissenters, “no one comes close.” Employing the same torture devices they had once fled, they religiously shackled, branded, cropped ears and stitched scarlet letters on the clothing of so-called sinners.poster8x-whi-z1-t-the-scarlet-letter

For persons of differing faith traditions, namely Quakers and Catholics, tolerance was in short supply. Often, their ears were cut off, and hot pokers pushed through their tongues. Others were publicly flogged, imprisoned and either hung or burned at the stake.

Fortunately, in our modern society, such physically brutal reprisals are forbidden. Sadly though, the wording Piper uses implies old, puritanical attitudes which remain to support harsh, cruel behavior. For instance, with those who dare to question inerrant, sacred text, they are told to “cut it out” or risk being “cut off” from fellowship. Almost instantly, news of their offense travels quickly in the form of “benign” prayer requests dripping with juicy, exaggerated gossip (i.e. lies).

Usually, the resulting drama is enough to bring the backslider “back into the fold” quite quickly. However, for those who persist, reprisals akin to shunning end up producing tremendous, physical pain. For former clergy, the price that is paid is horrific (i.e. divorce, loss of income, no network to find another job, broken relationships with friends, family, children, grandchildren, stress related illnesses, depression, PTSD, etc.). Adding injury to loss, the “razor-like scalpel of Scripture” in the hands of the religious zealots produces horrific scars for life.

Abduction Please!

Interestingly, in Puritan times, life was so hard for children, some often preferred to be abducted by the neighboring Native Americans who were freer in thought and practice, valuing equality between the sexes. I guess it comes as no surprise so many, led by today’s evangelical youth, wholeheartedly refuse Piper’s amputations and dream of abduction by progressive, critical-thinking tribes. While doing so, many brave the constant threat of being branded and forced to wear the scarlet letter (i.e. apostate, agnostic or atheist). I would implore all rational, compassionate minds to not consider them an ass for doing so.


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