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

screen-shot-2013-07-30-at-8-26-49-pm

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.

David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock: Jeri Lofland’s Thoughts

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 12.26.23 PM
Summit Ministries’ Jeff Myers and David Noebel on James Dobson’s radio show.

Jeri’s post was originally published on her blog Heresy in the Heartland with the title “Time Makes Ancient Good Uncouth.” It is reprinted with her permission. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”, and “His Quiver Full of Them.”

*****

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

~James Russell Lowell, 1845

I ordered David Noebel’s booklet “Christian Rock: A Stratagem of Mephistopheles” from Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs as a teenager sometime in the early ’90’s.

I needed to know that Gothard and my parents weren’t crazy, that other intelligent adults had reasonable arguments with which to oppose Christian rock.

From the back cover: “It is The Summit’s purpose to arm Christian young people with facts and information concerning God, home and country so they will be able to hold fast to the true and the good in building their lives for the future.” I wanted facts; I wanted information.

And it turned out that Noebel supported my parents’ position:

“The church is beset with a relentless beat which weighs on the nerves and pounds in the head. And the syncopation evokes a most basic sensuous response from the body, since it is purposely aimed at the physical and sensual.”

“Squeezing in a few ‘thank you, Jesus’ or ‘Hallelujah, it’s done’ in rock music does not cleanse rock of its evils. Indeed, the lyrics were not its main sin for some time. The beat of the music was its evil.

Noebel presented 30 reasons, plenty of Bible verses, a study involving houseplants, and claims about applied kinesiology by a John Diamond. He quoted Henry Morris (a civil engineer and ardent young-earth creationist also opposed to modern art) and had a lot to say about sex and Marxism. Additionally, he linked the rock beat to atheistic Soviet communism and objectionable art styles like cubism and surrealism.

David Noebel is the author of "Understanding the Times," a book popular in evangelical and homeschool circles.
David Noebel is the author of “Understanding the Times,” a book popular in evangelical and homeschool circles.

I knew nothing about David Noebel.

I was not familiar with his much earlier work Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, published in 1965–long before my birth–by Billy James Hargis’ Christian Crusade.

In one reviewer’s words: “Noebel is compelling because he’s intelligent, coherent, and well-researched, despite being absolutely paranoid and utterly mad. Aside from some inconsistent use of the Oxford Comma, he has a clear, if discursive thesis:

“Rock ‘n’ roll is turning kids into gay, Communist, miscegenators.”

Billy James Hargis was a right-wing evangelist and radio and television ranter long before Rush Limbaugh. He saw communist plots everywhere: in the NAACP and the civil rights movement, in the assassination of JFK, in water fluoridation. According to TIME magazine (Feb. 16, 1976), he founded American Christian College “to teach ‘antiCommunist patriotic Americanism'” from the city he called the “Fundamentalist Capital of the World”. From there, he promoted a hard line against drugs, homosexuality, sex education, abortion and the Beatles and toured with the college choir.

David Noebel was an aide to Hargis for twelve years, speaking around the country, founding The Summit in 1962 as a Christian Crusade program to combat anti-Christian teachings from secular universities (like the University of Tulsa) and contributing to Hargis’ television show where together they decried marijuana use and rock music. Later, Noebel became Vice President of Hargis’ new American Christian College in Tulsa.

In 1974, Noebel was staggered when students confided to him that Hargis, ardent promoter of traditional morality and father of four, had had sex with several of them.

Eventually four men and one woman exposed Hargis’ sexual abuse and manipulation over a period of years. TIME reported on the scandal in 1976, Hargis was forced to resign, and the school closed its doors the following year. Noebel went on to effectively “fold” Christian Crusade into Summit Ministries, building it into a successful international worldview training/brainwashing center targeting all ages, but teenagers in particular.

Noebel was an aide to Billy James Hargis, a right-wing evangelist and radio and television ranter who saw communist plots everywhere.
Noebel was an aide to Billy James Hargis, a right-wing evangelist and radio and television ranter who saw communist plots everywhere.

Postmodernism has replaced communism as the bane of our times. According to an article by Summit’s Steve Cornell,

“[The] pre-modern era was one in which religion was the source of truth and reality…. In a postmodern world, truth and reality are understood to be individually shaped by personal history, social class, gender, culture, and religion…. Postmoderns are suspicious of people who make universal truth claims…. Postmodern thinking is full of absurdities and inconsistencies.”

As a postmodern myself, I find it ironic that the decades have softened Noebel’s hardline position on Christian rock.

Apparently Mephistopheles has released it for other uses. Students at Summit’s youth conferences speak of the meaningful “corporate worship“, which now includes rock songs like “How Great Is Our God” by Chris Tomlin and “Jesus, Thank You” from Sovereign Grace Music.

The teens attending the worldview lectures today were not yet born when David Noebel penned Stratagem and would likely be surprised to learn that the religious anthems they find so powerful are actually “estranging them from traditional values”. According to the now retired, but still involved and revered, “Doc” Noebel, “although the lyrics might acknowledge the concept of true worship, the music itself expresses the unspoken desire to smash it to pieces.”

Summit’s John Stonestreet writes, “Truth does not yield to popular opinion. Unlike postmodernism, the biblical worldview can withstand all challenges and still speak to the dominant culture.” This belief is at the core of Summit’s “worldview” training.

And yet, Lowell’s line rings more true: time does make ancient “good” uncouth. Morality and truth are, in fact, shaped by history and culture.

As Summit’s stance on Christian rock illustrates so well.

Maybe, in another 30 years, Noebel’s successors will stop fighting same-sex marriage and even give up warning kids about “the gay agenda” as they “keep abreast of truth”? One can always hope…

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions: Part Two, When Buddhism Saved My Life

mandala

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on July 30, 2013.

< Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

*****

“It’s not difficult to see why Eastern religion is such an attractive form of salvation for a post-Christian culture. It assuages the ego by pronouncing the individual divine, and it gives a gratifying sense of ‘spirituality’ without making any demands in terms of doctrinal commitment or ethical living.”

~Chuck Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, 2004

*****

Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life

There were two particularly eye-opening moments I had during my 12 months studying Eastern Classics at St. John’s College, and both revolved around Buddhism.

The first was when my discussion group read a Buddhist text. Going into the discussion, I expected that there would be a lively debate. After all, my class consisted of people with diverse religious beliefs — atheists, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and more. I assumed that disagreement would be plentiful. What I did not expect, however, was that the lively debate occurred primarily between the Buddhist students.

It gave me flashbacks to highschool when Christian homeschool debaters spent hours arguing with each other over free will versus predestination. 

Oh… there is more than one type of Buddhist, I realized. Which was a simple reality. But it was a reality that Summit Ministries, for example, omitted when they taught me about Buddhism. And it is a reality that makes a really big difference.

The second moment was when I became friends with a Buddhist for the first time in my life. I’ll call him C. here. C. was my best guy friend during my time at St. John’s. He practiced Diamond Way Buddhism. And he was nothing like the Christian stereotypes I had heard about Buddhists. In fact, he was the most emotional male I had ever known — and I mean that in a thoroughly positive way. He embraced emotions. He taught me that not all Buddhists believe that “enlightenment” is reached by avoiding emotions. Some Buddhists believe that you need to face emotions head-on, acknowledge their existence, let them be what they are, feel them fully, and then let them pass. Learning to master one’s emotions, he said, wasn’t a matter of ignoring them.

You look your emotions in the eyes and say, “Oh. Hey. You exist. I am going to feel you. Maybe even for a long while. But then you will pass. Because you are not me.”

What C. taught me about emotions is one of the most important lessons I have ever learned in my life. Growing in the conservative Christian homeschool world, where first-time obedience and purity culture were rampant, I was taught to distance myself from my emotions, to be afraid of them:

Don’t be angry at adults. Anger is rebellion.

Don’t look at attractive women. You will lust.

Don’t be sad. You must set an example for others.

Buddhism made me realize that emotions are. They exist. This is just a fact of life. It is ok to feel them.

When I feel attraction towards a woman, that is ok. The woman is attractive, and therefore I experience attraction.

It is ok to feel attraction.

When someone does something that is mean or unfair, I experience hurt.

It is ok to feel hurt.

While this might seem like common sense, it wasn’t common to my experience growing up. And it made me realize that this stereotype I had of Buddhists — emotional asceticism — was actually more descriptive of Christianity than Buddhism — at least the Christianity I was raised in.

It was my American Christianity, not Buddhism, that needed to be told Jesus wept and that was ok.

I owe something else to Buddhism as well, something really big. I owe Buddhism my life. While I never converted to Buddhism, I did practice meditation for that year at St. John’s. To be honest, I pretty much hated the process. I do not like sitting cross-legged, and I do not like keeping my back straight and closing my eyes for an hour. But I did it just to say I tried. And in the years since then, when my depression flares up and my suicidal tendencies become overwhelming, I always find myself going back to my Buddhist meditations.

There is nothing religious about this fact. It is, for me, purely psychological. When all else fails, when my body is shaking and all I can think about is ending my life, it is the repetition of karmapa chenno and the visualizing of running mandala beads through my hands that can get my mind re-grounded. These things — though distant memories from almost a decade ago — are lifelines back to reality when my mental health distintegrates.

Buddhism, not my American Christianity, taught me how to mentally ground myself.

On more occasions than I’d like to admit, Buddhism has saved my life.

People who have difficulty with understanding how complex the human mind is, and how complex religions actually are, would find this a terrifying prospect. You can’t be a real Christian and at the same time appreciate Buddhism, the line might go. But I am not terrified by this idea. Because I do not see Buddhism, or Christianity, as set of propositions that are either true or false. I see them as so much more than that.

I see that I cannot step foot into a Christian church (and have not been able to for years) without experiencing a panic attack. And I know that this honestly has nothing to do with the truth-propositions of Christianity. It has to do with just about everything about Christianity other than the truth-propositions. In the same way, my positive experience of Buddhism — that it has saved my life — also has little to do with truth-propositions.

This is a key part of what I mean, then, when I said in Part One that, “Religion is a complex totality of human and other elements, only one element of which is the sort of truth-claim that one can package into propositions.”

This is also a key reason why I am not ashamed in any way to say that I love more than one religion.

*****

Part Three: I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder >

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions, Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

screen-shot-2013-07-29-at-7-46-16-pm

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on July 30, 2013.

*****

“Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible world-views are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society.”

~James Dobson and Gary Bauer, Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids, 1990

*****

Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

When I enrolled in the Eastern Classics program at St. John’s College back in 2005, I encountered many and varied responses from fellow evangelical Christians. Some proved encouraging and others not so.

The most common response, though, was: “Are you a Buddhist?”

As the months passed and the time of graduation grew closer, the question changed, but only slightly:

“Have you become a Buddhist?”

At first the question provoked but a smile. As it grew more regular, however, and as I began to know more about Eastern philosophies and religions as well as what actually occurred in the minds of the questioners, it provoked a thought process. I realized that, to many Christians I knew, “Eastern” meant “Buddhist.” And “Buddhist” meant some tranquil species of rebellion against the American Jesus — like if Satan made Xanax for the mind. I vividly remember one individual who commented that, if I were to study Eastern religions, I better not become a Buddhist: Buddhists have no emotions whereas, you know, Jesus wept.

Such comments are likely the result of ignorance regarding world religions. A good number of the people who asked this question in 2005 did not shun inquiry. They merely lacked familiarity with Buddhism. They did not know (as I did not know prior to a year of study in the Eastern Classics) that Buddhism, like Christianity, has a dizzying number of denominations, each vying for doctrinal dominion. Consequently, when someone asks me now if I agree with Buddhism, I experience great difficulty answering the question: “Which denomination?” I have to ask. I have great fondness for the emotional freedom and experience-based practices of Diamond Way Buddhism, for example, whereas I dislike the asceticism of Theravada Buddhism. American Zen Buddhism is another story.

I have thus realized, after these conversations with friends and fellow students, that the American Christian mind (maybe even the American mind) has a paltry understanding of some of the longest-standing and deeply rooted ideas of the world. American evangelicals especially do not take time to appreciate, let alone understand, a good number of their strongest opponents in the sphere of religion. Those who have taken time (seemingly not much) only do so to construct flimsy card-houses with the purpose of a surprise attack.

You have groups like Summit Ministries and Worldview Weekend, training up the next generation with nothing more than an arsenal of generalizations, simplifications, and shameless reductionism.

No one seems interested in taking the ideas of other religions at face value and learning to see any sort of beauty or value in them.

To say that other religions can be beautiful or valuable is not an exercise in relativism. But granting this beauty or value will likely suffer the fate of being interpreted as such by many of today’s “worldview” champions. The old guard of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling — Dobson and Bauer, from this post’s opening quotation, and people like Summit’s David Noebel and John Stonestreet, or homeschooling’s Kevin Swanson and Ken Ham — is terrified of anything that sounds “postmodern.”

Postmodernism is like intellectual dub step to the old guard.

In today’s evangelical culture, a defense of religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon seems indistinct from a defense of religious pluralism and intellectual apathy. But that’s because this culture is so afraid of “liberal” arts to the point that it cannot comprehend some basic philosophical and sociological concepts. The fact is, to understand religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon grants humanity the freedom to explore a ground to aesthetics and society that condemns, rather than condones, an unwillingness to pursue truth.

But first: what does “religion” mean? And what would it mean, that one can perceive this noun’s content as “aesthetic” and “social”?

To the evangelical culture, religion is either Christian and thus true or pagan and thus untrue. This proves a stunted understanding, however, because religion is neither one nor many truth-claims which one can either affirm or reject. Religion is no doubt a phenomenon which entails truth-claims. But it also entails much more. Religion is a complex totality of human and other elements, only one element of which is the sort of truth-claim that one can package into propositions.

We need to start seeing religion — and any particular religion — not as a mass of disembodied doctrines but as what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “world conspiracy.” “World conspiracy,” in fact, seems the best definition for religion.

What does this mean?

In The Sacred Canopy, Berger explains that,

“The condition of the human organism in the world is…characterized by a built-in instability. Man does not have a given relationship to the world. He must ongoingly establish a relationship with it.”

The world abounds with the sort of innate precariousness that a Buddhist would term as impermanence — “All things pass,” sighs Kaoru, one of the main characters in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. This line is almost identical to Solomon’s sentiment in Ecclesiastes.

Human and other life forms, buildings and projects, ideas and romances—these all rise and fall, constantly, perpetually, each and every day. As a result of this precariousness, human beings go about selecting structures of meaning in which they can operate. Humans construct families, work places, technology, and institutions in which to control the elements of the world that bear chaos. Out of their constructions human beings hope for an order, a society. Peter Berger says,

“Society, as objective reality, provides a world for man to inhabit. This world encompasses the biography of the individual, which unfolds as a series of events within that world”

But humans need more than order: they need to feel meaningfulness within that order. They require that order to be “ordained” in some way. Thus,

“a meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.”

This nomos is religion:

“Religion is that human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established, wherein ‘cosmos’ implies not a galaxy but order.”

This final addition to the human world-building project grants the project and its everyday objects and endeavors a sense of purpose, an all-encompassing reason for pursuing the ends of the society. Berger terms this sense of purpose or reason a “sacred canopy” cast over world-building. It is a “world conspiracy” in the sense that humans work together to give their reality a meaning:

“Religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant”

What Berger as a sociologist calls a “world conspiracy,” or “sacred canopy,” a theologian like N.T. Wright might term “worldview.” (1) Jamake Highwater, a historian and philosopher of sexuality, preferred the term “mythology” in his 1991 book Myth and Sexuality:

“All human beliefs and activities spring from an underlying mythology—those metaphors, informing imageries, and paradigms which deeply influence every aspect of our lives and which determine our attitudes about reality—about the world and about ourselves: good and evil, normalcy and abnormalcy, fact and fiction, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, power and powerlessness.”

Whether one prefers world conspiracy, sacred canopy, worldview, or mythology as a descriptive, the common factor among the ideas is that human being itself contains within it a hope and passion for carving out a home in a hostile existence.

This hope and passion — and all its nuances, quirks, failures, and successes — is the stuff of religion.

*****

Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life >

Burn In Case Of Evil: Cain’s Story, Part Four

Burn In Case Of Evil: Cain’s Story, Part Four

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

*****

In this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

*****

My Home “Education”

A lot of people read this site and remark on how accomplished, out-spoken, and well-educated we all seem.  Many have remarked that it was obviously homeschooling that made us who we are.  The answer to that question is complicated because I am what I am because of, and despite of, homeschooling.  When your entire social life and community K-12 is homeschooled, of course these influences significantly impacted my life.  But much of my adult life has been spent “re-learning” everything (from social skills, to history, to biology, to relationship etiquette).  I was taught about all of these things through homeschooling.  Some subjects I was never taught properly in high school and my insufficiency handicapped my educational opportunities.

My mother was the primary instructor and, bless her heart, she only had a GED and a few college classes.  It’s not that my mother is not smart, or stupid; it’s that she was not qualified to give me a high school education.  I consider most of my educational experiences before 8th or 9th grade to be generally positive.  I excelled in spelling, math, science, and language arts.  I really had an interest in science at an early age – I can remember enjoying earth science, nuclear science, and astronomy/space.  As I entered high school, a few things happened.  First, we got involved in ATI (a homeschooling cult) when I was about 10, but by my high school years the “Wisdom Booklets” became my primary textbooks (other than math).  Second, I became involved in NCFCA/CFC when I was 13 – started debating at 14.  Third, I started liking girls and “rebelling” by falling for them and having innocent phone and text conversations.

We used Saxon math as a supplement to the Wisdom Booklets.  I excelled at geometry, basic algebra, and word problems.  I’ve always enjoyed problem solving.  As I got involved with advanced geometry and algebra II, my mother simply could not keep up.  I would call my older sister, who was pursuing an engineering degree, and she would try to help me through it.  But math-by-phone is no substitute for a math teacher.

I think about 15 or 16, when I got involved heavily in debate, my mom stopped requiring me to do math.  Debate literally took over my life and I spent about 40 hours a week researching, writing speeches, and talking to friends in homeschool debate.  I consider my friends from CFC/NCFCA as the closest thing to a “high school class” because they were the only social group that I interacted with somewhat limited parental oversight.  I excelled at debate and it fed my father’s interest in history and politics.  So for three years all I did was debate, which was vastly superior to Wisdom Booklets.  My education with Wisdom Booklets made me think that AIDS was a gay disease and my sex mis-education was downright reckless.  I “learned” about logarithms intertwined with the tale of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes.

When it came time to submit my high school transcript for college (and to apply for state scholarships) my parents sat down at the computer and literally made up my transcript.  Debate-related activities and research were labeled under lots of different titles (American History, Composition, Logic, Civics, Public Speaking, English, etc).  Of course, I got A’s in all of these categories.  Now, my parents had some semblance of ethics and they decided I needed to complete some science courses to qualify for the state’s college entrance requirements.  My science courses in high school were pathetic, with the exception of computers because my dad worked in the industry for his entire adult life.

During most of my junior and senior years, I worked full-time and debated.  There was a long-distance Latin course from PHC, chemistry, and biology course interlaced with working and debate.  I got C’s in all of these classes and I’m pretty sure I had to cheat on two of the finals just to pass.

Technically, I took a chemistry and biology course, but in reality, I learned nothing about those subjects.  My mom wasn’t that knowledgeable in sciences. I used the Apologia biology textbook.  I remember bumbling through the biology book, not understanding anything I was reading.  Mostly because there was no grand narrative, like evolution, to make sense of all the different species.  I excelled in college biology, but not until I understood the topics from an evolutionary perspective.  My chemistry course was me and my homeschooled friend learning from his father, who was a doctor.  The “classes” lasted for maybe a month or two, but then life got busy and I stopped going.  He didn’t really follow-up, for whatever reason, and my parents didn’t seem that interested either.  So I taught myself chemistry?  Nope, I suck at chemistry – on a very basic level.

As a side note, I’m great with computers because of my father, but I never took a programming class beyond Visual Basic.  He tried to teach me about things, but it always seemed like I was missing part of the story – like he wasn’t “dumbing it down” enough.  Looking back, I realize it’s because my father was trying to teach me only the practical applications of computers while never learning the scientific theory.  I know he knows all about it, but I don’t know that he was qualified to teach it to a child.  It’s not like I gained marketable skills from my computer education.

I was also a huge asshole when I began college. I’m sure you know the type: fundamentalist Christian debater.  I had no idea how to navigate relationships with non-homeschooled people and it took a year or two, many broken friendships, and loneliness to find friends.  I was also encouraged through programs like Summit to challenge my “evil, secular humanist” professors in class – to “stand up” for Jesus in the public classroom.  I was prepared to enter an atmosphere that antagonized Christians and Christianity.

College was fantastic, but difficult and filled with substance abuse.  I realized that I had ADD, but self-medicated for sometime with cannabis.  Alcohol and cannabis helped with the anxiety –social, existential, spiritual, school and parent-related – and helped me to socialize with big groups.  I still can’t socialize with big groups of people easily and I lucked into taking a lot of Honors classes with small class sizes.  I almost lost my big scholarship (which required me to keep a 3.5) in my sophomore year because I got terrible grades in science and foreign languages.  I didn’t know how grades or tests worked, let alone how to study.  I excelled in political science and history, so that’s where I stayed.  I didn’t take biology until my senior year.  I finally understood it and, since then, I’ve developed a keen interest in neurobiology, psychopharmacology, psychology, and health care issues.  At this point, I’d love another two or three years of school to get a B.S. and another three to get an M.S., but that part of my life is over now.

I remember a time in middle school when I really wanted to be an engineer and I still think I could have excelled at it, if it wasn’t for my homeschooling.  Yes, I have an MA, but I’m confident I could have a stable, well-paying job in a science-related field.  My liberal arts education came easily to me, but I would have relished the challenge of advanced science and math.  Almost every public school student has a somewhat competent math teacher and most have access to AP calculus.  Yes, debate is a great skill and it has made me successful, but I’ve always been jealous of people who excelled in math or science – like I once did – and moved seamlessly into the job market.

To be continued.

I Have to Live My Life: Eve’s Story

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

My homeschooling experience in and of itself was not particularly awful. It started out harmlessly enough. My older brother was very ahead of his public school class in first grade and was bored so he asked my mom to homeschool him. (Or so the story goes, I’ve never actually bothered to ask if that was actually the case). I do know that there was a very strong homeschooling movement in our church and we immediately joined that group. For the most part I enjoyed school growing up. My older brother and I were very inquisitive and my mom did her best of fulfill our desire for knowledge. Unfortunately for me, much of my interest centered on biology. I was provided with plenty of Creationist curriculum, but very little that explained any actual science.

Church was a different matter for me. I was rarely happy at church. I did not understand many things and I had a lot of questions throughout high school. My questions were always met with the same types of answers, “We know best. Just trust us we’ll get to your answers eventually but for now just focus on the stuff we’re teaching you. You’re still young and the Bible says that when we are babies we need milk.” It was an empty reply and it always left me even more unhappy. When I tried to start a study group with some of the other girls my age so that we could find some answers for ourselves, we were immediately shut down. Even though we were meeting off church property we were told that in order to have a bible study we had to have one of the women from the church oversee us. Again I was left in the dark. All I ever wanted was for someone to sit with me and be honest. I needed someone to either tell me that they didn’t have the answers I wanted or to help me find them. No one would because asking questions was against the rules in my church.

I tried very very hard to have faith. Everyone around me believed so fervently in God and Creation. I went to Bible Camps, Summit, raised money and went on mission trips, joined Bible studies and read so many study books I’ve lost count, but I never had faith. I don’t know that I’ve ever truly experienced faith. This was a terrifying realization to come to. The thought that everything I was taught growing up, everything that my parents so fervently believed was not what I believed shook me to my core. I am terrified of disappointing my parents. I always have been and I think I might always be. All of my life up until college revolved around making my parents happy. I was the good kid.

Then, of course, my family became heavily involved with the NCFCA. I hated it. I  have never liked speaking in front of people. I willingly participated for one tournament and that was it. After that I supported my older brother. I had much more fun when all I had to do was help him research and then during tournaments I could run around doing whatever and helping my mom do Judge’s Hospitality. I never really made friends in the NCFCA. Most everyone loved my older brother so most everyone knew me (if only as his little sister), but I never found my own group of people. To be honest I was fine with that. I didn’t really like most of the NCFCA so I was fine just doing my own thing and living in my brother’s shadow.

Debate did, however, open me up to the world of the internet. I was suddenly immersed in research for debate, but also in everything else. All of the ideas on the internet fascinated me. I made friends with a very outspoken atheist who constantly questioned my beliefs. He never did it in a rude or antagonistic way. He could tell I wasn’t entirely convinced about my faith, but it was so deeply ingrained in me that I would never have admitted that to him. So instead he just persistently asked me why I believed what I believed. I never did have an answer for him.

In college I moved rapidly away from my parents’ beliefs. I majored in biology and was fascinated with everything I learned. When I took a class on evolution I had so many questions that I spent a large amount of time in my professor’s office. He was very understanding and very, very helpful. I stopped going to church when I moved to college and focused instead on answering all of those questions I’d had growing up. Unlike the elders in my church, my professors wanted to do nothing more than give me answers. I thrived in college. I made friends for the first time and was social. All the while, my relationship with my parents started showing signs of wear. Practically every time I went home we had a conversation that ended with my crying and feeling like I was nothing but a disappointment. All I wanted to do was figure out for myself what I believed, but because it was looking like I wasn’t going to believe what they did, they were very unhappy.

After graduating I got the hell out of my state and moved to the East Coast. I had some friends in the area but it was still a terrifying transition. I went from living near/with my family to living 18 hours away in the middle of a big city. Thankfully with the support of my friends I adjusted quickly. My parents were sure I’d be back to my home state after 3 months. I’ve now lived up here for almost 3 years and I’ve never been happier. Soon after I moved I met a guy and we started dating. He was the first guy I ever actually dated. Even when our relationship became serious, my parents never really made any effort to get to know him. He is not a conservative Christian so they don’t care to. I brought him home with me once for Thanksgiving and within 30 minutes of him being in my house my dad was trying to convert him. They  have still never actually invited him to come to their house for the holidays with me.

These days my relationship with my parents is superficial at best. I no longer feel comfortable sharing things about my life with them and they never ask anyway. Occasionally we talk on the phone to catch up a little but it’s always small talk. I do hope that one day they will begin to come around and accept that I just don’t believe what they do. I hope that they’ll realize that I still very much want to have a good relationship with them but that I can’t keep living my life just to make them happy. I will always be afraid of disappointing them and it will always profoundly hurt when they tell me that I have done so, but I have to live my life with the goal of achieving my dreams and desires, not theirs.

Currently, I no longer consider myself religious at all. I do not have any sort of faith. I would not go so far as to call myself an atheist. Agnostic would probably be the best if you have to term it.