Saturday, November 29, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1102 - Spirituality (#5)


This will be the last post in the sub-thread on spirituality. Although I could easily write another several dozen entries, I don't want this blog to be consumed any further with this topic, for reasons which should become evident below.

I think it was 1982. There were 4 couples gathered around a dinner table in a building that has since been razed on the University of Waterloo Campus. Each of the graduate students in the group had been working with a history professor in the graduate program who "specialized" in mentoring students from evangelical backgrounds through the treacherous waters of secular graduate studies. With some students, he was successful. With others, the result was what he would term an unmitigated failure. All of those at the table were "failures".

"So, Don, do you remember when you first began to doubt?" someone asked. It was a clear allusion to the testimonial type meetings often found midweek in Baptist and Pentecostal prayer services. Individuals were encouraged to relate how they first came to give their hearts ("and minds") to Jesus. Any further changes were, by implication, insignificant. No personal evolutionary development in spiritual thought was considered possible.

It was conversion only that was the reigning metaphor. Convert one way, and the keys of heaven were yours. Convert another way, and they would unceremoniously be ripped from your hands, indicating the worst of all possible sinners - someone who held the truth and then surrendered it willingly, wilfully.

The table erupted in laughter, with everyone else in the room clearly wondering what was so funny about the mystical Anabaptists, or the stern and "oh-so-assured" Calvinists and Zwinglians, or - my speciality - the tightly knit, mild mannered, proto-Fellowship-Baptists of a group led by Pilgram Marpeck in cities of southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Don't laugh! I could easily have made a very comfortable living teaching Radical Reformation studies in many university campuses across North America and Europe.

This story is meant to illustrate what it was the led me away from evangelical Christianity to where I am today. I will go into no further details. Each milestone has been part of a journey of development, a journey whose itinerary has given me wealth beyond measure.

It included, among other things, a decision to let questions of morality and ethics dictate my spiritual interests. Issues like the limited roles of women in the church, the fear factor used so brutally in the fight against rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons.

It included a refusal of the notion of the infallibility of scripture. Historically, one cannot deny the failure of Christianity, especially when dogma trumped praxis by means of proclamations of the infallibility of person or dogma or text - slavery, racism, and other 'isms throughout church history. Crises in the history of Christian religion and spirituality are often linked with surrendering logic and reason to revelation. When revealed truth is seen as limited and symbolic (the finger pointing at the moon is clearly not the moon), then I have no problems with most religious thought and practice.

It also included a realignment with modern evolutionary thought. Darwin loves you every bit as much as Jesus does.


So to conclude...

It wasn't about an emotional event, some kind of personal betrayal, failure, or conflict between ideal and actual. There were plenty of those, naturally, but they didn't determine my world view.

There were many milestones in the last 36 years, each of which was truly significant to me. My response, as it is with cancer, was further study, open dialog with others, and an inflexible demand that no matter how many mistakes each of us may make along this road, hindsight should never be confused with foresight.

Mistakes? I have made an incredible number of mistakes. But overall, when I hold up my evolving thoughts about spirituality and religion, and compare them with my responses to cancer, I feel pride. In either case, I claim nothing more than an attempt to find truth, to give words a chance, to tell stories, and to find peace wherever it might be hiding.


Anita (Mix) said...

Thanks Don.

I'm not sure I am able to follow everything you have shared. What I understand you to be saying is that you feel that evangelical Christianity chooses to remain in blind/static ignorance... even denial. Am I somewhere in the right arena in my understanding?

If so, do you feel that Truth evolves or simply our understanding of Truth or ...? (You really don't have to answer that question especially if it only produces a weary sigh ... smile)

One thing that I feel rather strongly about is that whatever our understanding of life and faith may be, we were not designed for ignorance, stagnancy and denial. At the same time living on the edge of seeking Truth requires a certain form of courage - at least for some. Most of us like safe ground and don't realize that in keeping safe we lose the freedom that results from pursuing Truth... at risk.

Again, thanks for sharing. I hope your days remain full of continued discovery and possibility.


Don Spencer said...


I'll answer your direct questions and then suffice to say, we would probably need more in-depth discussion for follow up. But I don't think I'll have the energy or even the confidence to do so until I am sure the opiates aren't interfering.

I don't think I would want to say that evangelical Christianity chooses blind ignorance. There are too many evangelicals I have known who have dispositions towards truth that I admire, towards thanking their God for gifts to humanity (including rationality) - much like you - for me to make such an unequivocal claim.

I get frustrated with those who feel compelled to defend doctrines like infallibility of Scripture or any other biblically-based doctrine which "goes against the grain". I simply think it's unnecessary to achieve the same objectives as those without an adherence to such doctrines.

For me, the question about Truth is both important and impossible to answer. The human brain continues to evolve and with it the capacity to understand things which we previously couldn't appreciate.

Truth is, in my view, and because of Evolution always provisional. Truth usually becomes absolute when it is no longer questioned seriously.

Then, it is either true because it is iconic and not worth the effort to debate any further - e.g. all races should be treated equally.

Or it is declared truth by fiat - someone else saying that is true, and since that person has the authority to make such a declaration, it has to be true. This is usually the case with revealed truth. But even here, I'm not entirely opposed to a category of "revealed" truth, only that those categories are entirely symbolic and not the stuff from which to build church doctrines or denominational affiliations.

I'm having M. check this (and everything else I write now) and then will probably ask for off-line conversations if necessary).



ken coe said...

I was interested in your spirituality comments over the last few weeks. My late parents had a minimal attachment to the United Church whilst I was living at home: Sunday service most of the time and occasional choir and administrative roles as well, if I recall correctly. A neighbour took me to some Pentecostal services when I was pre-school and my parents had not yet attached themselves to a church.

I can recall the excitement and general enthusiasm of that congregation especially after comparing it later to the United Church I was compelled to attend until I was old enough to say “no” or exempt myself with part time jobs.

I am intrigued by those who have a genuine religious belief. I have never had one. If heathens could be congregated, I would be there. From my first conscious moment in a church, and later visits to other religious services, the idea of a supreme being, angels, prophets, fishes and bread, revered hills, trees, monuments and lesser deities always seemed unfathomable. I felt I had the same likelihood of a soul as the critters causing stomach cramps.

But I envy those who have faith in what is not visible and touchable. It should provide some extra comfort throughout one’s life that is not available to us heathens. Your religious journey has, like your medical one, provided some unique information to those of us fortunate to share some of your thoughts.

As always Don, our thoughts are with you and yours.