Life with Jesus

Atheism for Lent

I once gave up spoons for Lent.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, Lent is the 40ish day period right before Easter, starting on Ash Wednesday, a day when many go to church to have ash crosses smeared across their forehead. Many Christians give up something sacrificially, to remind ourselves of the sacrifice that Jesus gave.

So, spoons felt right one year in high school. To be fair, at the time, I was really into tomato soup and having to sip it out of a mug or a bowl was jarring. I know, I know- the parallels between being inconvenienced by not having a spoon and Jesus dying on the cross are breathtaking.

This year, I’m doing something a little different.

By exploring atheism as a profane practice of theological purification, we will explore its priestly power of exorcism. An exorcism powerful enough to cast out, not only religious dogmatism, but also the proliferation of all kinds of spiritualities that so often take its place.

So forget forsaking chocolate, TV or tiddlywinks and get ready to fast from the very ground of your being.

Peter Rollins, of the book that made my heart race fame, has led this Atheism for Lent course for a few years.  It came across my social media at one point and I clicked on it, read it, shrugged and then kept going back to it over and over again.

You see, last year, around this time, I binge-watched Tidying Up by Marie Kondo on Netflix and went on tear around my house, including my spiritual house.  I described a “deconstruction” process by which I went around my spiritual house, finding all of the racism and misogyny and homophobia that had been hidden among the good things my faith gave me. I tossed this refuse out onto the lawn and then declared that I would stand at the threshold of my spiritual house with a shotgun, threatening anything ugly that dared to press its way inside.

And that’s really where I’ve been for the past year- sitting in my mostly empty spiritual house, collecting books and ideas by people not traditionally in charge (women, Black theologians indigenous Christian writers, LGBT+ Christians) and stowing them away on my mostly empty shelf. I’ve spent most of my time laying on the bare living room floor watching the fan blades turn lazily.

To be fair, I’m very, very glad that there are other people out there doing the work of communicating that Christianity doesn’t have to be wrapped up in all of the ugliness I threw away. And I’ve tried, really tried, to adopt these new ways of faith, to uphold these new traditions, new ways of looking at Jesus and the Bible and the Church and the world. I really wanted them to work for me.

Alas.

It’s really cute that I thought I could just rid myself of racism or misogyny or homophobia or legalism, like those are just little things that are mostly separate from this spiritual house I’ve built, just little knick knacks that I accidentally brought into the house.

I’ve since realized these are baked into the very bones of the foundation. Some damaging and ugly theology is so pervasive that I can’t seem to rid myself of it.

Here’s an example: What is my Christian faith without conditional shittiness?

Conditional shittiness is this idea that you’re a piece of shit and you need God to make you not a piece of shit but you have to follow the terms and conditions or you go right back to being a piece of shit.

When you give your life to Jesus, you hereby leave your condition as a piece of shit and become an heir of God, chosen by God. You are a princess now. Any of the following actions will revoke this agreement and return you to the wobbling pile of dog shit that you were formerly: gossiping, cussing, doubting God’s goodness, not believing the Bible is literal, having sex outside of heterosexual marriage and/or masturbating, being angry, talking about race, drinking alcohol, not attending church regularly, going to a fortune teller, being gay, supporting people who are gay, saying the word gay in a positive connotation, and anything else at our discretion- it could literally change at any moment.”

I can obviously see that’s toxic and those terms and conditions are what I’ve been working so hard to vehemently reject. Even though I logically know that conditional shittiness is dangerous and horrible, it is still the polluted air that I built my spiritual house in. It seeped into the very walls of my house and there’s no scrubbing it out.

Even after I actively identified that that way of thinking was toxic, I simply switched the terms and conditions of conditional shittiness.

“We’ve updated our terms and conditions. You will now be a piece of shit if you: own a Make a America Great Again hat or bumper sticker, refuse to grapple with your own racist biases, choose to “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” Black people to death, aren’t an immediate and unconditional LGBT+ ally, and anything else at our discretion- it could (and did) literally change at any moment.”

Okay. I believe that those new terms and conditions are not toxic and that if you do those things you are hurting people.  I’m not saying that I never want to have expectations that the people around me will not knowingly harm others but, I’m asking myself two important questions on a deeper level: do I really think that people are pieces of shit and that they have to earn not being a piece of shit? Do I really want conditional shittiness to be a part of my spiritual repertoire forever? Because if I apply conditional shittiness to other people, then I must apply it to myself. Considering that I will never be perfect and I will always find ways to hurt people and violate the terms and conditions of conditional shittiness, even when I don’t want to, I don’t want conditional shittiness anymore.

Maybe you’re nodding along, agreeing with me that conditional shittiness sounds horrible, but wondering why I’m throwing out the baby with the bathwater when I could just take conditional shittiness out to my chiminea and burn it there.

Because conditional shittiness is baked into the walls of the house. It is a structurally crucial part of my spiritual house.

If I get rid of conditional shittiness, why do I need Jesus to die on the cross? If I fundamentally disagree that my starting place is that I’m a piece of shit, then why do I need someone to sacrifice so that God won’t hate me anymore?

Believe me. I’ve done my research on different theological perspectives on the meaning of the cross but none of them have sat right with me.  I can’t quite shake conditional shittiness, no matter how hard I’ve tried.

This is what I mean when I say it’s baked into the bones of the house. In trying to keep the walls of my house standing, I’ve unwittingly continued to keep toxic things. I haven’t been able to get away from them.

Rollins also talks about this idea of deus ex machina (god from the machine), a term that Aristotle coined to talk about how actors playing God in a play came in and solved everyone’s problems. It was seen as a lazy way of writing because there was no work or intrigue involved.

Rollins argues that we’ve created a God as a type of deus ex machina, a God fashioned to save us from discomfort and fear, a God, a liturgy, a religion who protects us from all of the scary stuff.

For me, my understanding of what faith means has helped me avoid my doubts. My religious morals have helped me feel like I was better than the non-Christians around me and helped me dodge my true fears that I am just a piece of shit like everyone else. I’ve hidden my fear of not having a purpose behind doing everything I do “for God”. My sexual purity masked my abject terror at actually being a person with sexual needs and desires.  The Evangelical brand of certainty that tells us that we’re the only ones that are right has been a hell of a drug. I still find comfort in that certainty, curled up at the feet of Being Right like a little dog (see: updated terms and conditions of conditional shittiness).

That God, the one that we’ve created, needs to die and that God dies when we face all of our fears head-on. When we stop hiding behind this God that we’ve created and let our fears in, then we can move on.

My Deus Ex Machina is part of the foundation of my house.

So, I’ve decided to burn the house down.

This probably sounds alarming. I would have been alarmed at someone saying this even three years ago.

But Peter Rollins’ work isn’t about burning shit down and running away. It’s not arson. It’s not a teenage prank or the work of a psychopath.

No, this is a thoughtful burn, a controlled burn. It’s setting the house on fire, knowing exactly why it needs to burn, and then pulling up a lawn chair and cracking open a cold sparkling water and watching the walls come tumbling down.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s continuing to watch long after the embers have grown cold, waiting to see if tender green shoots of something new press their way up through the debris, fertilized by the ash of something old.

Before I get too hopeful for you, to be clear, I’m not doing this for the ‘something new’. That’s not in the spirit of the exercise.  I’m feeling very “meh” about anything spiritual or religious right now and I either need to be in or out. I’m tired of sitting in the in-between, not feeling strongly one way or the other.

I’m afraid.

I’m afraid because I don’t know what working to combat systemic oppression looks like without having the omnipotent Creator of the universe on your side looks like. (Terrifying and impossible, mostly.)

I’m afraid because in my weakest moments, even though I don’t even really know what prayer is, I still cry out, “GOD HELP ME!”

I’m afraid because certainty has been the armor that I’ve used most of my life to protect me from the things I’m most afraid of. I don’t know what it’s like to live with uncertainty.

I’m afraid that this decision will isolate me from the community that has carried me my whole life.

I’m afraid because this will fundamentally rock my world. I’ve never known life without a spiritual home. I’m gonna be homeless.

I’m afraid but I know it’s time.

My thirst for authenticity is dragging me along.

If there is a God, I don’t want to dishonor her any longer with half-hearted efforts. If there is a God, then I have to believe that she isn’t threatened by this.

So, here we go.

light yellow fire match

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

5 thoughts on “Atheism for Lent

  1. My dear sister

    I admire your transparency.

    I appreciate the hard internal work you have been doing that brought you this far.

    I thank you for clearly describing your challenges.

    You have spoken your truth in ways that resonate with some others.

    You have come to this junction and chosen to take brave steps.

    You have courageously continued to share your journey with others in this public forum.

    A respected writer was asked for advice. The response was that good writing is easy. You just sit down and bleed out your soul. And you have done that well.

    As I zoom out from your many words this reminds me of individuals that come out of toxic cults. They must painfully have a transformation of their thinking, perceptions, values, and more. But you were not trapped on a ranch with a few dozen zealots that were devoted to a dominating leader. You came from a respectable church background.

    This reminds me of my ongoing challenges to distinguish between Christian religion and genuine biblical spirituality. These 2 are different but can appear similar. Every month I must peel back another layer of the onion in this area of my soul.

    The 5 words that have helped me hundreds of times over the decades are LET GO AND LET GOD. At first, those words seem trite. But when the heat is on and the pressure is rising I have found repeatedly that in the depths of my soul my next step is to TOTALLY release my expectations, worries, intellectual arguments, resentments, disappointments, etc. That brings relief like dropping the backpack full of stones. There is an interval of calm and peace. Then it is simple to just let God sort out the mess.

    As a fellow Type 1 on the enneagram, I do detect plenty of perfect standards for self. Your journey into personal sanctification is rare these days. But there were seasons in church history when that was common. Note that Martin Luther spent hours a day in the confessional due to his awareness of his sins.

    My difficult and painful pilgrimage has branded into my soul that God is everywhere all the time. God knows all about me and every other person in intimate detail.

    My experiences and my understanding of the Bible assures me that God genuinely loves me and deeply cares about me no matter what I say, do, not say, not do, etc. Romans 8:31 to 38. I heard that in Sunday school class but God made it my private reality in the midnight hour during times of crisis.

    Along the way, the Lord led me to writings by the founder of Dallas Seminary, Lewis Chafer. It is said that when he taught the salvation class he did not use a textbook. He just used the Bible and his tears. During his tenure, he wrote a systematic theology that contains several volumes. It is a major reference these days. There is an online article that is from his writings that helped me dozens of times. I used parts of it as fuel for my sermons.

    There are about 2 pages of text and then many pages that are an orderly arrangement of Bible verses to support what he states in the first pages. This is also called positional righteousness that you can search online. https://www.wholesomewords.org/etexts/chafer/saved.html

    Here is what I know. What you seek you will find. That is not a platitude, it is a universal law. SO I ask you, what are you seeking in this season of your life?

    My current set of lessons revolves around getting crystal clear about my intentions. The better I can think, speak and write my intentions for small and large matters that smooth my path and accelerates my progress. SO I ask you, what are your intentions?

    Surely there are major and minor things you want to let go of based on your blog post. SO I ask you, what do you now choose to let go of?

    I wish you happy trails even amidst these difficult trials.

    Shalom, my sister.
    John

  2. Do not be afraid, I am with you.

    I think you will find that you’re a lot tougher than you think you are, and we are all much tougher together. There is always a fear when trying to kick an addiction, and faith is no exception, but it really only gets easier. And there is always help if you only ask.

    Bon chance!

  3. My dear sister Beth

    I implore you to carefully monitor your thoughts and feelings during this awkward season of your spiritual journey.

    May I offer you some insights that work for me when I was muddling through confusing seasons?

    It is vital to become crystal clear about what the real issues are in the soul. Let me ask you what I asked myself. Is my beef with God or Jesus Christ or Christians or the church or politics or society or myself or my friends or my family?

    Then there are all those complications of the unresolved family of origin issues that counselors, therapists, and recovery communities help to untangle.

    So the bottom line is that life is a gigantic complicate tangled up a pot of spaghetti of overlapping and entangling issues.

    This not the discount or discredit the vital importance of dealing with the matters that currently on the front burner in a spiritual journey. This is a warning that just because one strand of the pot of noodles seems to be the source of all evil, that’s just not the facts ma’am.

    Note that as a fellow of type 1 on the Enneagram we care deeply about what is true, right, and good. Guess what. The other eight types don’t particularly get deeply concerned about such matters. They have other things that get that keep them up at night yet those do not trouble us much.

    My spiritual journey has often brought me back to carefully pondering what is a gospel message really? The paradox is that the gospel can be presented to small children who can understand and respond. A postcard size message is the tip of the iceberg the gigantic subject called salvation.

    Ultimately God is perfect in ALL of His thoughts, words, and deeds. Humans are imperfect in SOME but not ALL their thoughts, words, and deeds.

    When it seems that God has fallen short of my standards I have felt angry. But after a long or short time, I realized my error. And usually, that’s because I continue to ask God for wisdom. The Holy Spirit leads me to the next dimension of humility. And the Holy Spirit makes alive the critical Bible verse that I needed right then.

    This all points to the need for an objective understanding of human nature. What’s helped me in this area is to review the seven deadly sins. All humans have these. Each person has an abundance of one or two or three of them. And here are those seven deadly sins, pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth.

    It is these and other sins that trip us up. We want to do what is good and right. We want to love others. We want to be good parents and spouses. We want to accomplish our goals. But up from the basement, out of the woods, or down from the sky these sins and others come to sabotage us. That is just the facts, ma’am.

    There ain’t no escaping the sins that are embedded in human nature.

    Heros, celebrities, and popes commit sins that they regret.

    Some people like me turn to excessive consumption of alcohol and or drugs. Some turn to promiscuity as I did. And there are dozens of other ways to escape. There is a 12-step program for each one of them. Eventually escaping excessively leads to a hard bottom. The 12-step program says that you must call upon God as you understand God.

    The vast difference between you and me is that when I read the parable prodigal son the I identify with the younger son who went and wasted his life. It seems that you were more like the older son who stayed home and did his best.

    I have personally experienced hundreds of times when it had to be God answered my prayers and the prayers of others for me. Circumstances beat me down so that humility was the only way out.

    Yet as I have attended churches it seems to me that people that grew up in the church do not resonate with my kind of a background.

    I will stop here. It.

    Your blog post stimulated many other things in me I hope to share soon.

    • Hi John- I’ve thought more about your question. Of course, I have beef with alot of different aspects of the Christian church but I don’t think this journey is about beef. I think it’s about realizing that something is amiss and wanting to know what that is. I didn’t choose to participate in this out of anger (I did a little soul searching) but because my soul keeps telling me that there must be more.

      I’ll be careful to include that some readings this week in the Atheism for Lent course specifically cautioned against the “Praise God that *I* am not like those *other* Christians”. In some ways, I often have to fight against my one-ness because it so often has me convinced that I’ll get it right when everyone else gets it wrong. I’m under no auspices that anyone else feels the need (or even should) go on this journey.

      Here’s a quote from one of the readings this week that I really appreciated:

      “{Barth} speaks of the ‘criminal arrogance of religion’ in which people become preoccupied with ‘their religious needs’ to ‘surround themselves with comfortable illusions about their knowledge of God and particularly about their union with HIm’….The illusory god that we create in our own image to conform to our knowledge and our values provides us with confidence and security; but as we are secretly masters of this god, it turns out to be ‘No-God’ at all, but rather, on closer examination, just idols such as ‘Family, Nation, State, Church, Fatherland.’…’The cry of revolt against such a god is nearer the truth than is the sophistry with which men attempt to justify him.'”

      Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith

      • Beth

        OK, I am starting to understand.

        You said

        realizing that something is amiss and wanting to know what that is. I didn’t choose to participate in this out of anger (I did a little soul searching) but because my soul keeps telling me that there must be more.

        So you are seeking what is missing.

        Your intention is to know more.

        Those are noble pursuits.

        Gradually and gracefully God will honor what deepest thirsts sent you off on this quest. There will be lots of other noise along the way. Listen to the sounds that are answers to your questions over the roar of the external worldly traffic and internal monkey-mind chatter.

        As you are true to what authentically motivates you then what you seek you will find in due time.

        Such a core quest will require much patience and perseverance. There will be small rewards along the way. Your character will be shaped in the furnace of this journey.

        The quote from Barth you offered here has many possible responses.

        One response is related to hypocrites in the church. Many do not believe in God, Jesus, or the Bible due to the fact that a lot of folks who attend churches speak pious words in some settings yet later say or do things that make those pious words hollow.

        Those who call themselves Christians yet talk and act in non-Chirst-like ways DOES discredit them as individuals and the collective witness of Christianity. BUT it DOES NOT nullify the reliability of the Bible, existence of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the claims of Christ, and the gospel message.

        Just because the ambassador of a country is drunkard, womanizer, and compulsive gambler that does not mean that the country being represented does not have resources, technologies, and military aid that is needed in the country where they are living.

        The sad fact is there are very few spiritual mature Christians. Merely attending any religious meeting as a passive spectator does not lead to a lasting transformation of the soul. For example, if a person attends a lecture every week for years about cooking, gardening, parenting, painting, etc. yet does nothing different during the week they will have knowledge and insights but not a changed life.

        This is why I highly value 12 step recovery meetings. They allow anyone to attend. They can just listen and speak from a shallow place. But the program has proven steps that when used during the week will lead to lasting healing.

        Most Christians know a little about spiritual practices. But when they are honest they rarely practice what they know is good for them. This includes quality times of prayer, personal Bible study, journaling, going out to serve others, giving generously to worthwhile causes, fasting from what is not good for their physical, mental and emotional health.

        I have studied world religions for decades. Most people who attend religious services adapt to the cultural norms of that group. They rarely understand the essential teachings so they cannot apply them during the week. They skim along the surface like one that water skis. They do not go even a little deep like one that SCUBA dives. The best treasures are for those who go to the bottom like one that uses a research submarine.

        What makes biblical Christianity different than other world religions is that the born again Christian as the right, privilege, and authority to go to God directly in prayer. They do not need to appeal to the Virgin Mary, a saint, a priest, a ritual, a set of good works, etc.

        They can draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16

        They are instructed in 2 Timothy 2;15 to

        Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

        The sobering truth is found in Romans 14;12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

        So the Christian life is not about conforming to the shallow standards of religious peers but according to Romans 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

        During my formative years living in the communes of a New Age cult shapes how I evaluate Christians. Then each of us was doing our best with our spiritual practices and together we were supporting one another. If I had not gotten tangled up with overdosing LSD I would have remained.

        Based on that standard and earnestly studying the Bible I feel that most Christians are lazy and apathetic contrasted to the high calling on them embedded in the common sense understanding and application of the Bible. In my opinion, the exceptions are missionaries and church planters. Those are the ones that put feet to their faith. They put themselves in settings where they must trust God to answer prayers to meet needs personally and corporately.

        Beth, I trust that you are on the right track. You are blazing a trail for others to follow later. As a pioneer, there are not any presidents.

        Again as I stated before there is a difference between lifeless religion and genuine spirituality in the Christian experience. That is not found in a book but in seeking the truth earnestly.

        Shalom
        John

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