But For One Mistake: Samael’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Samael” is a pseudonym.

My homeschooling experience was fairly positive, almost in spite of itself. My sister, who had long since moved out and was working on her doctorate by the time we started homeschooling, voiced concerns at the time, and when I look back, I too can hardly believe that it all turned out reasonably well. One of my parents was abusive, and the other either didn’t understand what was happening or else was simply too apathetic to do anything. I was socially awkward before we started homeschooling, and the isolation resulting from the switch only exacerbated the problem. And yet, I came out the other end with some of the best friends for whom I could ever ask and a truly world-class education (along with a host of personality and mood disorders, but that’s another matter). This submission is not about any of that. Instead, I should like to examine for a moment what I would call simultaneously the best and worst thing about my homeschooling experience: a truly unfortunate curriculum choice on the part of my mother.

I’m sure that many of you are familiar with David Quine’s Worldviews of the Western World curriculum, but I shall try to summarize briefly for those who are not. At its core, WotWW is a three-year course (four years if, like me, you also take Starting Points, which inculcates you with what Quine insistently calls the “Biblical Worldview,” though to my mind it is more akin to “Biblical Idolatry” and lacks any real support in the Christian Scripture) in intellectual history, beginning in pre-Classical Greece and ending in Postmodernity. It chews through a prodigious amount of Western literature, philosophy, and history, pointing out what is wrong with each work and why it is wrong.

There are a whole host of criticisms I could make about this curriculum—not least of which is its airy dismissal of anything not European in origin as not even worth mention, let alone study—but I should like to focus particularly on the concerted effort it makes to close the minds of pupils to anything outside the (militantly Calvinist) form of conservative, Evangelical Christianity that it espouses.

It must be said for this curriculum that it does involve the pupil reading books with which he or she disagrees—indeed, books with which the author of the curriculum disagrees—which makes the use of this curriculum marginally better than outright book-burning, but the way in which it guides the pupil to read them is highly problematic, and, what is worse, it creates a habit in the pupil of continuing to read everything that he or she ever reads in the same way (I still catch myself doing it now and again). Quine’s curriculum tells the pupil that he or she already possesses all the Answers to the great questions of life (prime reality, human nature, ethics & evil, etc.) and then instructs him or her to read these works to figure out why the Answers that the works provide are Wrong.

To put it in simple terms, Quine teaches pupils to see the devil in every human thought or word (excepting, of course, Quine’s own interpretation of the Holy Writ).

But this does not only color the pupil’s interactions with new media; it affects how he or she relates to fellow students and even professors when he or she attends university. He or she seeks to proselytize the other person, to convince the other person that his or her Answers are absolutely and totally correct and that the other person’s pre-existing Answers are absolutely and totally incorrect—except insofar as they coincide with his or her own Answers.

He or she does not wish to exchange with other people, to swap information and refine his or her own Answers in light of new data (and hopefully help the other person refine his or her Answers as well).

In essence, such a person becomes impossible to teach or reason with. Unless. Unless something intervenes somewhere along the way and causes the pupil to suspect that they may only be getting part of the story, that the facts touted to them by the curriculum may not be entirely accurate or the interpretations thereof may reflect no more than a surface understanding.

Looking back, it’s really quite a minor thing. The curriculum got a date wrong. A date I had known from previous study. It told me that the Filioque clause was officially added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in the See of Rome in 1054, but in fact, that had already been done in 1014 (1054 is the year that the Pope and Patriarch excommunicated one another over, among other things, the Filioque, so the mistake is at least somewhat understandable).

But all of a sudden, I was forced to admit the possibility of an error in what I had been taught: either my prior knowledge was incorrect or Quine was incorrect.

As it turned out, I was correct. And I wondered: “What other errors have I been led to believe?” Possessed of a, frankly, prodigious intellect and a powerful thirst to know, I almost immediately set about a lengthy program of doing my own research into all the historical details and making sure to read everything that the Quine curriculum “helpfully” summarized in their syllabus, rather than asking that I read (not to mention quite a few works not even mentioned in the curriculum). More importantly, though, I read them with an eye to find the truth, not with an eye to find lies.

A year later, the curriculum had me reading Camus’ The Plague, a work which the curriculum claimed to center around the question, “How ought one live in a world without God?” (While this question is certainly found in the book, to say that it is the sole focus of The Plague is a grave insult to the book itself and to the author). The curriculum also tried to tell me the answer to this question, namely, “This question is stupid, because God does exist.” But that is to entirely miss the point. Even if God were to exist, that wouldn’t invalidate the question. I myself believe that God exists—and that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Incarnation thereof—but I learned a great deal about ethics and human nature from Camus, lessons I do not believe I could have learned without considering the hypothetical and (in my belief, anyway) counterfactual question, “How ought one live in a world without God?”

In the end, this curriculum is responsible for giving me a better education than I expect I could have gotten at any “regular” institution anywhere (and I lived in one of the best school districts in the country); my father (who was never quite on board with the use of the Quine curriculum anyway) saw my frenzied attempt to supplement the Quine curriculum and decided henceforth to buy me as many textbooks or other books as I desired and leave me to my own devices to read and learn from them (being available to help, of course, if I ever got stuck, which did happen at times). But sometimes I consider how close I came, and it frightens me terribly.

But for one error—indeed, an error which could plausibly have been no more than a misprint—I could have had my mind completely closed by that curriculum.

Indeed, it remains an arduous task, trying to keep my mind from ossifying, and the balance between holding true to one’s convictions and bearing in mind that one might be wrong is a very difficult one to strike (but absolutely essential if one wants, as I do, to engage in an exchange of ideas rather than a war). It took me an embarrassingly long time to get my head screwed on straight about some things. But though I remain Christian, it is a very different sort of Christianity than the one my parents and their peers tried to force on me, and many of them have levelled accusations of heresy or apostasy, but I’m no longer afraid of that. I’m learning, and I’m going to keep learning, as much as I can, whether they like it or not.

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions: Part Three, I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on August 1, 2013.

 < Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life

*****

“If you were to say to the grown-ups: ‘I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,’ they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them, ‘I saw a house that cost $20,000.’ Then they would exclaim, ‘Oh, what a pretty house that is!’”

~Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince

*****

Part Three: I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder

The message I received growing up, from homeschool curriculums to highschool worldview camps, was a message about a dichotomy:

Everything is either for us or against us, us versus them, heaven or hell, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.

Summit Ministries, for example, reduced every belief system in the world to only three — Secular Humanism, Transcendentalism, and Theism. And if you weren’t a member of that third category (and not just a member of the category, but also the sub-sub-sub-category of Biblical Worldview Theism), you were dangerous. You were to be kept at an arm’s distance, and it would be more than an arm’s distance, except that — if you were too far away, we couldn’t evangelize to you.

But as I left my youthful suburb behind, I realized life is far more complicated. The American Christian worldview was trying so hard to make everything neatly packaged, with a pretty bow on top, so that we wouldn’t “lose the faith” in college — that it forgot to take other people seriously. Looking back at Summit’s lesson plans, I cannot help but employ facepalm after facepalm. Reading quotations from Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live?, which I remember made the rounds in my homeschooling community in highschool, I cannot help but cringe at its abundant use of straw men.

I wish I wasn’t raised to fear other ideas. 

I wish I wasn’t raised to fit people neatly into summer camp categories.

Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to fight so hard to free myself from the Biblical Worldview™ or Bust mentality. Because it took a whole lot of energy to extricate myself from that.

Once I broke free, once I began to see that what I was taught as “Christianity” wasn’t some pure set of doctrines but rather a particular moment-in-time’s interpretation of doctrines — and also a whole lot more — I began to see other religions differently, too. I began to see that they had a lot to offer me. Buddhism wasn’t just a line in a binder that gets stamped either “True” or “False.” Neither was Daoism or Hinduism or any other -ism. They were complicated movements full of people and history and ideas and passions, fueled by heartache and hope and joy and terror.

They were made of humans. They were just like me. They were asking the exact same questions I was, and for the exact same reasons. They breathed, they felt, they lived, they loved, they hated — everything that made them relatable and understandable and beautiful and tragic was everything that was conveniently omitted from my education.

I was taught to refute. I was not taught to relate.

I was taught to analyze. I was not taught to love.

I was taught to argue. I was not taught to appreciate.

As I learned to approach life with humility and openness, I began to see the complexity. I began to see what other religions had to offer. I learned so many important life lessons from this process — I learned from Buddhism, for example, how to ground my mind when my depression got overwhelming. I learned from Daoism how censorship, control, and domination are not the only forms of influence and leadership.

I learned that there are so many beautiful and good things in other religions that have nothing to do with the Biblical Worldview™. 

I can freely admit that beauty and that goodness without fear. Because I came to realize that religion is more than a set of propositions that are true or false.

It is a force that underlies and propels human thinking and interaction. At the same time it is also the final touch to that thinking and interaction, an acrylic fixative for the oil painting of human ingenuity. Human beings have a desire to make sense of their world, to find a meaning in that sense, and to be inspired by the meaning they find.

In this sense, therefore, religion is both true and false, Christian and pagan, personal and social, relative and universal, oppressive and liberating. It can be each and every one because religion is not one particular entity. It is an edifice of both the idiosyncratic and the profound. As propositional truth about the universe’s origin, it can be true or false; as revealing the delicacy of human nature, it can be beautiful or ugly; as a particular society’s intense struggle to understand itself and its universe, it can either be faithful to that struggle or unfaithful; as encompassing disciplines such as meditation or yoga, it can either be healing or aggravating; and so forth. In short, it is so much more than what the evangelical culture believes.

One cannot divide religion into the simple categories of “right” and “wrong” based on whether it affirms the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

Even if one does affirm Jesus as such, one cannot say this is the essence of religion.

To see religion from a broader perspective doesn’t need to threaten anyone. For example, Christianity’s understanding of the universe can easily be understood as underlying this analysis. According to the Book of Genesis, the God of Israel created humanity in His image. He created humanity with the tools of reason, a blistering curiosity, and the insatiable need to put together the puzzle pieces of the world into a coherent picture that makes sense of this world. No matter what religion one adheres to, therefore, since one is still human in the sense of being made in God’s image, one will experience this insatiable need for a coherent portrait of reality.

Religion as such is the product of this need. The various religions are the attempts of human cultures throughout the history of the world to create a coherent picture of reality.

Even the contemporary American interpretation of Christianity is not a flawless deduction from the Old and New Testaments but rather one more human attempt at coherence.

To some people, of course, this necessitates a cynicism or pessimism regarding religion. (To the contemporary American Christian, it just implies heresy.) If religion is interpretation, how can anyone claim to have the right interpretation? While an important question, this inquiry all too often implies that interpretation as a process lacks any sort of inherent value. I simply disagree.

Maybe I read too many children’s books, but I am a big fan of process. I am forever unfolding, learning new things each day.

I will hold onto my wonder until the day I die.

Even if the process becomes tedious, it bears many gifts. It bears treasures unto the painter, the musician, the lover, and the logician. While religions have no doubt caused catastrophic pain and suffering (and I don’t mean to diminish this fact, but my personal struggle is appreciating other religions, not hating them; I was raised to hate most of them), religions are also the artifacts of cultures worthy to be preserved in the grandest of museums—remnants of the human struggle to understand an alienating and a chaotic world; the courageous refusals to cave into meaningless; the unparalleled artistry and creativity employed to justify such refusals.

Consider the poetic fury of the Rg Veda, or the kaleidoscopic narrative of theMahabharata, an epic unparalleled in mass and muse by the greatest of Greek and Roman artists. (Really, just read the Mahabharata, period. It makes the Iliad look like a Young Adult novel.) Plumb the depths of Dante’s Inferno. Bask in the apocalypse of St. John in his Book of Revelations. Know the deeply felt vibration of the mystical Om, or the karmapa chenno of the Diamond Way. Hear the austere men of faith solemnly chat their divine liturgies, especially the “One Hundred and Second Psalm” by the Russian Patriarchate Choir; adore the children who delight in their Sunday School rhymes.

Say what one may about these people and their faiths, yet think about how amazing it is —

Human beings have created art, song, and dance; tens of thousands of gods; histories and philosophies and mythologies — all to figure out life.

And then think about something else.

Think about the negatives, too, for one moment.

You cannot escape the negatives, no matter how beautiful your religion is, no matter how “biblical” your view of the world is.

One moment the Roman Catholic Church finds itself embroiled in sex scandals—the next moment it is the American Protestant Church, as Calvary Chapel and Sovereign Grace crumble under the weight of child abuse. Before that, human sacrifice occurred, documented in the Mahabharata. Isaac of the Old Testament also intended to sacrifice his son for his deity’s pleasure. King David of Israel committed adultery. So did Pastor Ted Haggard. So did Arjuna of Hindu fame. Chuang Tzu was a lazy bastard. Prominent Buddhists are notable money machines; The Purpose-Driven Life is, too.

This is the human element of religion.

It is the element of Midas: everything humanity lays its eager fingers upon transforms into a human endeavor, no matter how superhuman the endeavor might have first manifested.

When the Buddha left his palace home to seek enlightenment, he did not intend to create a worldwide movement full of sects that constantly bicker and would try to oust each other out of power. Neither did Jesus. In the 1950′s, Jim Jones had a seemingly simple goal: to create the People’s Temple, an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. Decades later, the movement would end with over nine hundred adults and children drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid. The so-called Moral Majority seemed to have the blessing of God in 1978; by 1989 it fell apart, with many of its adherents later appearing in the news for sexual transgressions and drug abuse.

We cannot avoid this human element, any more than I think we can avoid the sense of wonder that provokes us to fashion religion. These things are essential to human being. To be human is to have a personality. And personality gives birth to the great fire that is the drama of human becoming—a drama in which religion plays a central role. It is the canvas on which we portray our search for truth.

I have come to appreciate that canvas, where it comes from. I have come to appreciate and love what each religion I have studied has to offer, and I do so with open arms, with a sincere desire to know and relate and understand.

I reject attempts to make myself and other people afraid to know and understand other humans and how they view the world from their own eyes. People who attempt that are snuffing out wonder, one book and one summer camp at a time.

I think of the child that Antoine de Saint Exupéry talks about, who sees the beautiful house and the grown-ups cannot understand the beauty in anything other than dollar amounts. Those of us who are learning to see the beauty in religions are scary to the “grown-ups” of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling because they cannot understand the beauty in anything other than disembodied doctrines:

“Does it fall under the Theism category?”

“Well, no, but I learned the most amaz—”

“Then off with its head!”

“But it contains an important truth about—”

“It’s not part of The Biblical Worldview™! End of story! Off with its head!

“But I really appreci—”

No! Off — With — Its — HEAD!”

I left that world. And I am not looking back.

If that’s what it means to be a grown-up, I’m choosing Neverland. I will live Where The Wild Things Are. Because I choose to celebrate my childlike wonder.

I choose to live in awe of the world, of humanity, of the amazingness that we — for whatever reason you want to say — have named tens of thousands of gods and created the Downward Dog pose; we sing songs and clap our hands and we eat wafers and say blood is wine; we laugh and cry together and we do all these things because we are that passionate about figuring out this maddening world we live in.

I mean, how amazing is that?

When I realized that, I stopped being afraid of other religions.

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.

< Part One

The other half involves an openness to new ideas.

I can remember people commenting on a quotation I used in one of my policy debate cases. The quotation dealt with some random technical aspect of immigration policy — the content of which wasn’t an issue. The issue was that the card was from someone who worked at the Ayn Rand Institute, and Ayn Rand was an atheist. Therefore (these people said), I needed to be careful about using this card. I remember being concerned by these comments at the time, but now I see no foundation for them. Instead, I see a byproduct of the somewhat insular community which Christian speech and debate creates.

Because the community is distinctly conservative and distinctly Christian, and because the community is centered around the ability to communicate a message, some of the most popular messages are those that create a group mentality (Jonathan Haidt has some important research about the importance group loyalty plays in conservative groups; give his works a read if you’re interested). In other words, the messages that get to the top are those that create an us vs. them mentality: Christians in a culture war, liberals trying to destroy the Constitution, America becoming increasingly immoral, etc. Regardless of whether or not you believe these messages are true, it should be clear that the combination of these narratives with the homogenous nature of the speech and debate community creates a very real possibility for students to develop a fear of outside ideas.

I can remember the first time I met an openly gay person. I can remember watching his hands to make sure he didn’t have a knife.

I listened carefully as we were talking, lest some underhanded message corrupt me. I did my best to stay polite, yet slightly gruff and on my guard (I was 14 with a somewhat squeaky voice – a funny picture, no doubt). I was confused for a while after he left. I didn’t see any attempts to undermine my faith (we talked mostly about the weather), and he was phenomenally well-spoken. This reaction wasn’t just because I thought “gay” was bad – it was because I had created an “us vs. them” narrative in my head and begun to fear people along with the idea. I had prevented myself from engaging with a human person because of a narrative I had created as a result of my fear of an idea.

But there’s a deeper reason why a fear of ideas is bad. To illustrate it, I need to introduce the concept of Hegel’s dialectic.

Hegel, a German philosopher who lived between 1770 and 1831, taught that knowledge was achieved through a threefold process: the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. Essentially, you begin with one idea, contradict it with another idea, and then get a result (the synthesis) which is closer to the actual truth than either of the originals. In other words: every set of ideas has something to teach us.

Action items:

1. Students: you’re in high school. You have barely completed a fifth of your average life. You haven’t figured things out; you don’t have a perfect conception of God. That’s not a bad thing as long as your conception of God changes. If your faith and beliefs are not changing and developing, look carefully at speech and debate to ensure the insular community is not inhibiting the process described above.

2. For judges and parents: recognize that your kids are growing up. They’re going to be evaluating ideologies that you’re not comfortable with regardless of how much your try to shelter them. Competitors may advocate for ideas in debates that are contradictory to your own. That’s perfectly fine. Debate (particularly in the NCFCA and Stoa) is a safe environment. Your decision in a debate is feedback about the comparison between the two teams — not implementing a real philosophy or policy: occasionally you may vote for teams that you disagree with personally. Again, that’s fine.

In fact, one of the worst things you can do is to take a competitor aside in one of the infamous hallway conversations and tell them that the ideas are “dangerous” or discourage further interest in them. If you really believe that what you believe is true, then you should be comfortable with people exploring the arguments in a safe environment. Be their partner in discovery, not someone that holds them back from developing a broader understanding. Otherwise you may be surprised at what was suppressed when you are no longer there to restrain their intellects.

My time in the NCFCA was incredibly positive. I learned to speak professionally. I learned to analyze topics and arguments with an acuity that I couldn’t have achieved through any other method. I’m still involved in the homeschool debate scene because I want other people to experience this tremendous growth and development and get the maximal amount of benefit from it.

End of series.

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.

A few weeks ago, I ventured back into the depths of my Documents folder and found my apologetics cards. It wasn’t long before I started cringing.

My conception of God, though still distinctly Christian, has grown significantly since graduation from high school two years ago. A large part of this has been reading some of the greatest works in religion and philosophy in college; only a few years ago, I had read virtually no significant philosophical works and had virtually no knowledge of any religion besides Christianity.

I want to tell a few stories, and then I’ll close with a few action items for both judges/parents and students who may be reading this article.

When I first started speech and debate, I never did very well in impromptu because I simply wasn’t very good at talking about something random. Then, I noticed that I would get noticeably higher rankings when I would pick a topic which involved talking about God. So, naturally, I began connecting even the most straightforward topics to some spiritual-sounding stuff like grace, Jesus’s sacrifice, or our sin nature. I remember thinking during one round “alright, and for the third point I’ll just drop my voice really soft and sound all distressed about our depraved nature and then close with Jesus.” The topic itself had nothing to do with the Christian message, but by golly I was going to put some spiritual-sounding junk in there somewhere. And that’s exactly what it was: junk.

But it got me the rankings. 

I wasn’t glorifying God by using my soft, passionate voice to talk about the virtuous stuff I threw in there to get the judges to like me. I was literally only talking about God because I noticed the correlation between my rankings and the total amount of Christian spiritual content.

I tell this story because I want to warn students against doing what I did.

You might think that this phenomenon is rare. On the contrary, I’ve seen nothing but increasing numbers of competitors catching onto this. At nationals, I judged a round of illustrated oratory. Seven out of the eight speakers spent a sizable portion of their time talking about God despite the fact that only two or three of the topics were actually about spiritual matters. Some of the analogies and methods they used to tie in “God” were so laughable that I’m sure I just had a blank stare across my face for a good portion of the round. (As much as I’m tempted to share an example, I don’t want to call a particular speech out for doing exactly what I was guilty of.) A persuasive room was similar: this time, seven out of eight speakers spoke about some topic of spiritual importance or somehow tied in references to God without actually doing any real in-depth analysis of those spiritual matters. These people are discovering exactly what I did years ago: that judges evaluate speeches with spiritual content with a lower standard.

Now, the NCFCA and Stoa are Christian leagues. I’m not concerned that students are talking about God. I’m actually very glad that speakers are able to speak to religious matters in a Christian environment. Instead, I’m arguing that students should ensure that any reference to God advances the overall message of the speech. If your message is that “sailboats are really cool and interesting,” then make that point. Don’t leave me with a bunch of random spiritual concepts you threw out because they sounded good: leave me with knowledge about sailboats.

I’m also arguing that judges shouldn’t accept spiritual-sounding junk because it’s related to religion — more on this in a bit.

There’s a big gap between the NCFCA’s motto “addressing life issues from a Biblical worldview in a manner that glorifies God,” and “mentioning God every thirty seconds to get points.” To quote Lecrae: “I used to do it too,” but I count it as one of the greatest mistakes of my speech and debate career.

So, action items:

1. For students: speak carefully about God. What you say really does have power to change your audience. Don’t use it lightly. Don’t just parrot “spiritual-ese” in spiritual-ish tones. Say something profound. Make sure your judge learns something: write your religious-themed speeches and apologetics cards such that you can teach everyone something. This means research — not just rhetorical devices.

2. For judges and parents: start listening consciously for speakers that are only throwing out Christian-sounding stuff without any real thought or consideration. Don’t excuse weak analysis or lame metaphors just because the topic is somehow Godly. I know there are judges who do this (I’ve seen it happen on my ballots) because there’s a tendency to think that talking about God is far more important than talking about non-religious things. However, this perpetuates the divide between the sacred and the secular. Listen to speeches about missionaries and spiritual matters with the same intensity that you would apply to listening to a speech about sailboats. I don’t want to disclaim any responsibility for having done what I did, but it only happened because judges actually rewarded me for it.

So that’s half of what I want to say. The other half involves an openness to new ideas.

Part Two >