Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

I started Holy the Firm after I finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, yesterday and finished it today. It’s a short little book but dense. I liked it better than Pilgrim although I am glad I read Pilgrim first. Holy the Firm seemed much more down to earth to me even though Pilgrim was all about earthy things.

I actually have more thoughts on this book than I did Pilgrim, too. I don’t really think these are spoilers, but be warned…

Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”

For some reason, I was under the impression she was a Roman Catholic. But this seemed very Calvanistic to me. So I looked it up and sure enough, she was raised Presbyterian. She didn’t convert to Catholicism until the 1990s. Pilgrim and Holy the Firm were written in the 1970s, long before her conversion. This is the typical Calvanistic struggle of believing that nature is evil. No matter how intune we are with nature, if we were brought up with that depravity of man thinking, we’re going to have a hard time reconciling the problem of evil. (It’s difficult to reconcile in Catholicism, too – but it presents a different version of the problem within Catholicism.) Dillard doesn’t resolve it in this book although she comes up with a lot of interesting ideas.

I do thinks she is right that the lower churches have a sort of wisdom the higher churches don’t. This is a huge generalization but I’ll throw it out there anyway because I think it fits with what Dillard is saying: people in lower churches go to church to express their experience of death and pain while people in the higher churches go to try and make themselves immune to it. Wisdom doesn’t come through the avoidance of pain. It comes with the acceptance of suffering.

There is a great documentary called "Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus" made by some British guys who went deep into the American south and filmed what it was like to live there. It’s absolutely fantastic. The thing about the extremist religious element in the south is that it is nothing like corporate fundamentalism. Corporate fundamentalism is as intentional as is any major marketing endeavor. But the religious fanaticism of the deep south is far more like an artistic expression than it is business like or controlling.

Dillard writes:

Scholarship has long distinguished between two strains of thought which proceed in the West from human knowledge of God. In one, the ascetic’s metaphysic, the world is far from God. Emanating from God, and linked to him by Christ, the world is yet infinitely other than God, furled away from him like the end of a long banner falling. This notion makes, to my mind, a vertical line of the world, a great chain of burning. The more accessible and universal view, held by Eckhart and by many peoples in various forms, is scarcely different from pantheism: that the world is immanation, that God is in the thing, and eternally present here, if nowhere else. By these lights the world is flattened on a horizontal plane, singular, all here, crammed with heaven, and alone. But I know that it is not alone, nor singular nor all. The notion of immanence needs a handle, and the two ideas themselves need a link, so that life can mean aught to the one, and the other.

This, to me, is the typical Christian struggle (Catholic or Protestant). If you revere nature and think God is within it, how do you balance that with a monotheistic world view that says God is separate from his creation? If you value nature and are Christian, at some point, you have to entertain this struggle. There is no way around it. Pantheism throws the absolute out the window altogether. Monotheism makes nature evil. Of course we can talk about Panentheism now, but clearly Dillard is one of the thinkers who was bringing that sort of understanding into focus.

The question for Dillard, as it is for all pantheists and panentheists, is whether God touches anything. She asks, “Is anything firm or is time on the loose?” It’s possible I don’t fully understand her question, but if I do, I think it is the wrong question. I used to ask something similar: If God is in everything and we are God, what happens if the universe comes to an end? Does God come to an end, too? I had been brought up with the idea of an external God in the Calvanistic tradition. Methodists were not Calvinists, but nevertheless I was brought up to believe God was good, we were bad, and he could kill us all off if he wanted and would go on just fine and dandy, probably better without us. We were to love God, not God’s creation. But if you change that and say that God is God’s creation, then what becomes of God if the creation dies? I think that is very similar to what Dillard is asking – is anything firm or is time on the loose?

Dillard wants nature to be “real” even though she recognizes everything as “transluscent”. She still wants the Absolute even though she can’t quite make sense of it. She writes,

These are only ideas, by the single handful. Lines, lines, and their infinite points! Hold hands and crack the whip, and yank the Absolute out of there and into the light, God pale and astounded, spraying a spiral of salts and earths, God footloose and flung. And cry down the line to his passing white ear, “Old Sir! Do you hold space from buckling by a finger in its hole? O Old! Where is your other hand?” His right hand is clenching, calm, round the exploding left hand of Holy the Firm.

This Holy Firm is an idea that she says comes out of Esoteric Christianity (mystical Christian traditions).

It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale,’ and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute, at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.

I think this gives her is a way through the middle of monotheism and pantheism. It allows her to hold on to an idea of an Absolute although she clearly has an almost pagan view of the world. It’s probably some of the first panentheistic musings in western Christian thought after the advent of rationalism and Protestantism. What interests me is that Dillard claims Eckhart and other Catholic mystics of the middle ages were pantheists. I wonder if the mystics were more comfortable with the illusory nature of reality and didn’t need nature to be “real” in the same way those of us who have been brought up in rationalistic societies do?

I also wonder if Native American Spirituality has within it this same sort of struggle with nature as evil? I don’t know enough about it to know for sure, but it seems to me they wouldn’t because they have so many gods and a lot of them are trouble makers. I think this struggle probably comes specifically out of western idealism which adopted Greek philosophical abstract idealism. Our ancestors were raised with an abstract God that was “good”. The Enlightenment got rid of “God” in favor of rationalism but maintained the abstraction.

Anyway – I loved this book! It’s so beautifully written and extremely personal. Her interest in Roman Catholicism is apparent in both Pilgrim and Holy the Firm. But both books feel very Protestant to me. Catholicism just doesn’t have that same struggle of nature being evil that Protestantism has. It’s far more pagan, in a sense, and much more open to mysticism. Ecumenical efforts have been merging a lot of Catholic and Protestant idealism together since the 1960s so the differences aren’t as extreme as they once were – especially now. And this has been both good and bad. But I can understand why Roman Catholicism would have appealed to Dillard more than the Calvanistic religion she was brought up in.

I’m definitely going to have to read one of her more recent books and see if she managed to come to a more satisfying resolution.

Monotheism as a Theological Problem and Religion Defined

Trying to tie up some loose thoughts:

What is religion?

If, by the traditional western understanding of religion, we claim it is a set of beliefs and practices held by a community, this rules out certain forms of Buddhism that are primarily psychological exercises and not so big on doctrine or belief in the western sense. Elaine Pagels has titled one of her books, Beyond Belief, to explain Gnosticism. While beliefs may be a part of religion, to say religion is a set of beliefs is not exactly right. Sufism claims the human reality is only a partial reality, and therefore any beliefs held by a human being are likewise partial realities. When you start really digging in to all world religions, it seems the ultimate goal is about transcending the illusion of beliefs (and maybe more specifically, the illusion of separation belief creates). When asked to summarize the Torah, Rabbi Hillel said “Love your neighbor, all the rest is commentary.”

I always liked Joseph Campbell’s definition of religion – especially since he says he has no faith or need for faith. He claims religion is the final mask before God. God, of course, as defined as reality. Religion is the final mask before reality.

In Jewish and Islamic traditions, practitioners wear a Kippah – a little cap – during their services. The purpose of this cap is protection from that reality. Directly faced with it, we would be engulfed by it and cease to be human. This is similar to Krishna’s experience of Shiva. Shiva has to play mind games with Krishna before Krishna is ready to behold him in all of his glory. And when Krishna experiences Shiva, it’s terrifying.

Huston Smith describes this mask that exists before reality in terms of a series of veils. We have glimpses beyond the veil so know that something beyond it exists. But very few of us have the courage to face what is beyond the veil head on.

So maybe, in this sense, it’s fair to say religion is a set of beliefs but with the understanding that when we come to know absolute reality, we will recognize the illusory nature of our beliefs about ourselves. Any human belief, no matter how tested or devoutly worshiped, is illusory in the face of reality. Science is starting to show this, too. The observer cannot be separated from the results – so objective reality may be a misnomer because what we observe is altered in the act of observation. (In a sense, the observed and the observer are one.)

There is the well known analogy about reality being like the ocean and humanity like a drop of water. The drop of water falls into the ocean and is consumed by it. But Smith says he doesn’t really like this analogy because it sounds too much like annihilation. The better analogy, he says, is that the drop of water opens to the ocean and in the opening, takes the ocean in and becomes the ocean.

OK – so the other loose end is something someone asked me recently because I’ve been so conciliatory toward monotheism and I’m not usually so nice about it. Huston Smith defines monotheism very differently than does Joseph Campbell, and it is Joseph Campbell’s definition of monotheism that bothers me, not Smiths.

Smith’s definition is much more general and might be summarized as there is one reality and this reality is both knowable and personal. He applies this understanding to all the major World Religions, not just the Abrahamic traditions. Joseph Campbell’s definition is much more specific and rooted in an historic context within Judaism. When the Levitican priests came out of Babylonian exile in 6th century BCE, they returned to their fellow Jews engaged in some pretty ugly forms of polytheism which included child sacrifice. So what they did was slap together (he uses the term “slap” because he claims it was very messy” editing job) five texts which are in the Canon today. This synthesized the god from the southern tribes (Yahweh – the God of hosts) with the monopluralistic God from the northern tribes (Elohim) and turned it into One god. Which would have been OK except that along with this synthesis, they declared that this God was omniscient and that no other gods should come before it. This sets up a moral and ethical problem because this is the only theistic god in all of the major world mythologies that claims to have dominance over everything in the universe. This gives the Semetic religions the moral right to claim that their god is superior to all other gods. And to make matters worse – this view of God was not challenged for 15 centuries!

(To be fair to the Levitican priests – they returned from exile to the Jewish population almost entirely wiped out. The southern tribes remained, but they had not given up their polytheism as completely as those following the monopluralistic God of Abraham in the northern tribes. The creation of One God that could have no Gods before it was an attempt to protect their identity which had been all but wiped out. And it worked.)

Prior to this synthesis, Judaism was still a form of monotheism by Smith’s definition because the Jews believed in one supreme being. They just didn’t necessarily believe their idea of this supreme being was the Only idea of it and even within Judaism, there was not one idea of it. (Smith says that the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions are technically polytheistic because the Middle East could never reconcile it’s differences. A hierarchy of angels was introduced in Judaism that was adopted by both Christianity and Islam. And the belief in Satan also defies a true monotheism.)

Anyway, the problem isn’t monotheism in the way Smith defines it. The problem is the politicization of it the way Campbell defines it within Judaism.

Thoughts on Ethics and Monotheism

In Why Religion Matters, Smith wrote that Ethics and Monotheism are inseperable. This is my attempt to work through what that means…

According to Smith:

     Moral categories do not apply in loving God…the aspect in illicit love that should be central in our love of God is its absolute, uncompromising character: illicit love – love mind you, not sexual adventure – is uncomplicated and therefore wholehearted. This contrasts with married love, which always comes with obligations…. Our love of God should have that same passionate intensity that characterizes head-over-heels romance.  One thinks of Dante and Beatrice, and Rumi and Shams of Tabriz.

     Ethics enters as a corollary of passionate love when it is directed to God the creator, who “has the whole world in his hands.”  God loves the creatures she creates as if they were her children, so if we love God we will love them too.  Ethics is absent from polytheism. It is inseparable from monotheism.

I think Smith would agree that as you go up the hierarchical chain and your view becomes more all encompassing, you move “closer to Truth”.  But the moral judgment of being “better or worse”, “good or bad”, etc. does not apply – especially at the Mystic stage where the Godhead becomes more important than the “good” creator God of monotheism.

With the advent of monotheism, ethics is invented. The two are inseparable. It has nothing to do with a person “being ethical”.  We take ethics for granted. But before monotheism, morality was not understood in terms of ethics.

When I was watching The Mysteries of the Bible series, it said that Judaism came about with the creation of the first cities. Tribal religion is perfectly adequate for nomadic people.  But, as soon as you organize a bunch of people into a compact city and especially into civilizations, it breaks down. There has to be some sort of agreed upon unifying organizing principle that is understood as good for a people within a city to coexist. India, Egypt, etc. handled this by absorbing all of the tribal gods and unifying them under a creator God. Apparently there were too many tensions between the gods in the Middle East for a similar absorption, but paganism is still part of the Judeo/Christian religion.

It’s not that the societies before monotheism didn’t behave “ethically”, it’s just that they had a completely different way of viewing morality.  If human existence remained nomadic and tribal, then there would have been no need for the advent of monotheism or ethics (ethics as the study/philosophy of moral values and customs). The tribal gods could have handled everything. But when the first cities were built, the tribal gods proved inadequate.

If human existence were to remain in civilized societies, then monotheism would be fine.  But, we are moving into a global society and monotheism and ethics are breaking down.  It’s not that they need to be replaced any more than paganism needed to be replaced.  It’s just that we need something more adequate for the new realm we are moving into.

I think Smith’s concern is that the postmodern worldview (which includes the scientific worldview of modernity) is not adequate on its own to provide for us what we will need in a global society.  He thinks we need the support of all of humanities enduring world views: the Traditionalist, Modernist and Postmodernist worldviews. That we are dismissing the traditionalist worldview in favor of the Postmodern worldview is, in Smith’s opinion, tragic. It is both nihilistic and narcissistic. Why would we dismiss the wisdom of an entire era in favor of our own?

More Thoughts on Smith’s Spiritual Hierarchy

I was thinking about Huston Smith’s spiritual personality types and hierarchy a little more. This is definitely where Huston Smith and Ken Wilber converge.

He claims the hierarchy turns on degrees of finitudes of reality.  He says to think of it in terms of looking out a window at the Himalyan mountains.  The mystic is able to see the full view so sees the mountains and the sky and the ground while the atheist sees through a downward turned blind and can only see the ground.  Both are looking at the same thing but see it very differently.

Is it appropriate to say the mystic sees what he sees better than the atheist? Or that what the mystic sees is better than what the atheist sees?  No.  But the mystic is more aware of what is there because he is able to see what the atheist sees and more.  It is not problematic that the atheist sees only the ground.  The problem is when the atheist claims that what the mystic sees is a “fiction” and declares the ground to be all there is and therefore does all in his power to discredit and invalidate the mystic world view to the rest of humanity.

Of the four personality types, Smith says “each can argue that the world ends where it’s cosmic mirror lies and that those who posit things beyond that point are merely projecting the psychological meaning of that word.” Smith also says that in matters spiritual, thinking comes closer to seeing than to reasoning. Reasoning is “knowledge about” while seeing is “knowledge of”.

The Atheist: There is No God: the physical universe as conceived by science and common sense is what exists. (15 billion light-years of dead matter with the subjective experiences of biological organisms appended).

But then what do we make of Sam Harris who claims to be both a mystic and an atheist and is calling for an end to all religions? (I’ll get back to that when I get to The Mystics”).

The Polytheist: There are Many Gods: The polytheist accepts everything the atheist takes for granted and adds spirit to it. Gods, spirits, and discarnates are taken for granted as much as chairs and tables. For the polytheist, they are fully real. And, they are not necessarily good. That there is One God may be assented to, but it has very little direct bearing in the life a person with a polytheistic world view actually lives.

A modern day form of polytheism is the appeal of Jungianism which transplants the gods and goddesses of the external world into the collective unconscious.

Hinduism is a monotheism at it’s core, yet it has polytheistic manifestations. According to Smith’s definition, Buddhism is likewise a Monotheism despite it’s ambiguity toward God and it has it’s own polytheistic manifestations (Boddhisatvas). Many Christians, Jews and Muslims will denounce the polytheism within other religions while maintaining their own form of polytheism. The hierarchy of angels which was introduced when the Jews were undergoing Babylonian captivity is polytheism. Belief in angels is one of the Six Articles of Faith in Islam and can be polytheistic. The use of saints within Catholicism can likewise be polytheistic. Most protestants believe in angels and if not the full hierarchical spectrum of them, most do believe in the devil – even if in the Jungian sense of the collective unconscious. Even in the unconscious, this is a form of polytheism.

The atheistic and polytheistic world views are both concrete. What the polytheist sees beyond what the atheist sees is what divides them. (The atheist considers these additions to his world view fictions). When you look upward, what you see is a mirror reflecting your own world view. When you look down, you see only a glass plate separating your world view from that of another. The atheist is on the bottom floor, so to speak, so only sees the ground when he looks down. But the polytheist has no problem incorporating the atheist’s world view into his own because he has no trouble seeing it, and so it goes…

The Monotheist: There is only One God. And this God is both knowable and personal. According to Smith, “This God is richly endowed with the finest qualities that human beings exemplify: wisdom, tenderness, mercy, compassion, creativity, love, and the like, which, elevated in degree, add up to glory.” Love/compassion figures especially among these qualities.

Ethics is absent from polytheism where humans are subject to the spirit world which contains both good and bad spirits. Spells and magic, angels and saints, relics and Bodhisattvas, chants and prayers are used to keep evil at bay. But ethics is inseparable from monotheism. Right behavior, thought, etc. is what keeps evil at bay. God is good which means in order to fully honor and love God, we must be good, too and love and honor all of God’s creation.

That ethics is infused into the monotheistic world view and it is not infused into the polytheistic world view does not mean monotheists are more ethical than polytheists. It is also important to realize that many people who are part of monotheistic traditions have a polytheistic world view rather than a monotheistic one. And, many of the traditions that we have considered to be polytheistic (like Hinduism and some Native American spiritualities, etc.) are truly monotheisms.

Monotheists include the polytheistic world view and the atheistic world view. They don’t denounce the polytheistic world. They simply add to polytheisms world of good and bad spirits a unifying “being” that is “good” and ultimately in control.

The Mystic: There is Only God. In monotheism, the dualities of polytheism remain, but “good” has the upperhand. In the mystic’s world view, evil drops from the picture and there is only good. (There is only God). It is impossible to make someone understand this unless they can already “see” it for themselves. They Mystic has no trouble seeing the atheists world view, the polytheists world view, or the monotheists world view. A mystic understands the experience of evil in the same way everyone else does, but can likewise see it as illusory. Just because you can see it as illusory does not mean you allow it to continue because “it isn’t real”. That’s denial, not mysticism. A mystic can both believe in God and not believe in God at the same time. There is the reality of God from a certain perspective, but from another perspective, this reality is illusionary. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, it’s just that the term “God” is an idea we construct through reason.

So back to Harris who claims to be both an atheist and a mystic and thinks all religion should be done away with. I think the problem Smith would have with Harris is his need to make his world view the only world view. That would not fit with Smith’s idea of Mysticism which allows for all of the world views. Mysticism accepts what science can prove, but also lies beyond this realm of “proof”.

I think this is likewise the problem with fundamentalism. It basis it’s beliefs on “reason” and isn’t about God or the spiritual so much as it is belief in a technology – words. Fundamentalist Christianity came about with the industrial age and actually helped to usher it in as much as science did because it functions very similarly to scientism.

Where scientism says nothing is true unless it can be proven through the empirical method and reason, literalism says that nothing is true unless it can be proven through sacred scripture. But if I believe there is more to life than what is simply observable and I don’t believe in literal interpretations of sacred texts, then what good are proofs based upon literalism and materialism in terms of my own personal world view?

I fully accept whatever truths science makes about the natural world. I have no qualms with its findings. The natural world is the domain of science. What I have a problem with is the idea that the natural world is all there is simply because science cannot prove otherwise. How could it? To me, that’s no different than a literalist claiming to know more about the natural world than do scientists based upon what it says in the Bible. It’s the same argument in different clothing and it can only point back to itself.

If you want to believe in the Bible literally, go right ahead. I have no problem with you doing so unless you insist that everyone else believe the way you do. Likewise, if you don’t see what I see that’s no big deal to me. You don’t have to see it. I believe your life can be every bit as good, happy, meaningful etc. as mine (or even more so) if you don’t. But you have no right to demand that I narrow my world view to meet with yours or claim there is something wrong with my intellect if I don’t share your world view.

Should note: It is scientism that makes the claim that nothing but it can exist, not science. Smith’s definition of Scientisim: “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with – material entities – are the most fundamental things that exist.

Robert A.F. Thurman on Buddhism – The Buddha

Thurman does an excellent of job of explaining Buddhism in the DVD, Robert A.F. Thurman on Buddhism . He has managed to clarify a lot of my confusion.

These are my notes from Part 1, "The Buddha"…

The three precious gems in Buddhism are:

  1. Buddha – teacher
  2. Dharma – teaching
  3. Sangha – community of beings trying to realize reality

All Buddhists believe that a Buddha is beyond human – he is teacher of both the humans and the gods.

Buddha is an infinite being that can manifest in finite form. They are localizable so we can benefit from them. They can also be many beings simultaneously.

A Buddha must conceive the spirit of enlightenment. There are different modes of consciousness that are not egocentric. The common sense convention of our society is that this is all there is. We only have so many years and then we are dead. Within this world view, becoming a Buddha in order to make all other beings happy would be considered insane. Buddhism doesn’t fit a westernized world view.

From the Buddhist point of view, we have to AIM to become enlightened in this swirl of animal life forms. We have the ability to choose to optimize our being together. It is not a naive teleology like monotheism where somebody made it the way it is and they are pushing everyone toward some sort of end. It’s a teleology of each of us pushing one another toward this end.

It”s not easy to imagine a different consciousness because we project on to others our own consciousness. It’s much easier to imagine six ways to kill a tiger than it is to imagine another way to be conscious.

Positive actions have merit: giving is a nice thing, taking is not. Spiritually, we become better (bigger) by giving. Over many, many life times, you develop your store of merit. By becoming moral, you become human. The mind is a subtle sort of energy. We don’t have words for this in our culture.

The Buddha rejected individual particles. He acknowledged particles, but not indivisible particles. We can understand everything because the mind has everything in it. But what a Buddha is, is a preposterous thing from the point of view of a materialistic culture. Or, you could say, it is an amazing addition to the concept of evolution.

What is added is that if you wish to transform yourself into a thing of infinite love and infinite beauty, you can do that because there is no limit to the ways in which we evolve. The danger, of course, is that if you can evolve into a thing of infinite beauty, the negative is also possible. Total happiness being the evolutionary objective of human beings is only just beginning to dawn on us in the west.

A western misconception of Buddhism is that it is life negating. (This is was what the Pope wrote). But this is totally wrong. If you become a being that is always aware of what you are broadcasting – you know that you are the world around you. When you say “I”, this is a much larger “I” than the “I” of normal people. It’s like falling in love with the whole universe.

This is the Buddhaverse. It’s a field of generosity and the power of ininite modulation. Every being down to slime gets into the Buddhaverse. Evolution can be made to have a purpose through love and compassion and that purpose is my happiness and your happiness.

When somebody asked Gandhi, what about American civilization? Gandhi replied, “that would be a good idea”. Our culture is a culture of mass suicide. We are blowing out the ozone layer, pushing poison into the food chain, driving 90% of American Farmers off of their land, and we are still haunted by our history of slavery and genocide. We are in an age of darkness.

The message is: learn, excel, memorize, be white. Also, believe we control everything and invented everything. But don’t, for a minute, enjoy anything. Meanwhile, destroy the planet more. We are a primitive culture. How many minutes does an average American truly spend on the transcendental? Most of our time is spent on the mundane.

The Buddha is a being that is the evolutionary projection imaginable by human beings.

Babylon 5 is the Dharma of the Buddhists teaching. Star Trek is Dharma.

Everyone can achieve Buddhahood. Infinite numbers have. That there is a Buddha means it is possible for everyone.

Suicide, Hell and a Faith Journey

When I was 9, I had a sort of mystical experience. I was laying on the hood of my father’s car, looking at the stars which was a rare occurrence in Houston thanks to all the pollution back then. While experiencing the vastness of the universe, I received a very strong message from what I assumed was God: “We’re all OK, we just need to be understood.” It sounds trivial, but my mother was constantly telling me I was an idiot, worthless, good for nothing… I honestly believe this “message” kept me semi-balanced through my childhood and my teen years. And it has been a sort of theme throughout my life and is quite possibly the basis of my faith.

Anyway, when I was in high school, I was quite active in Fellow Christian Athletes and Young Life. One of my friends and tennis mates that I deeply cared for was active in these groups as well. During my sophomore year of high school, he committed suicide.

It was hard enough that he was dead and no longer in my life. But what made it even harder was the discussion in the conservative Christian organizations about the state of my friends soul. There was no question among his friends – his soul was destined for Hell. This was completely unbearable for me and I went into an inconsolable depression. I knew suicide was “bad” in the same way murder was bad because only God is supposed to take a life. But he only hurt himself because he hurt so badly. What kind of God would send a good kid to Hell because he felt so bad about life that he took his own at 15? 

I quit going to Fellow Christian Athletes and Young Life because to the kids and the leaders of these organization, the teaching was abundantly clear and not to be questioned: it is only the Godless who are bent on self-destruction, and the Godless always go to Hell.

It’s not that they didn’t care about my friend, because they did. He was their friend too and well liked by most. But there was no question that he would get what he deserved and he deserved Hell.

I simply could not understand how they could be so OK with this! The prophets in the old testament argued with God to keep him from killing their friends. Certainly we should be arguing with God to make sure my friends soul went to heaven rather than Hell, not so easily accepting this horrible fate.

I kept looking to religion to offer some sort of consolation. During my senior year of high school, I started dating a wonderfully talented guy who talked me into getting saved at the 1st Baptist Church of the new little town we had moved to. He and his friends kind of tricked me into it, but I went through with it and for a while felt complete emotional elation. It felt good to “belong”. It lasted long enough for me to decide I wanted to go to Baylor University, owned by the Southern Baptists. This was in 1981 when the school was still extremely conservative. No dancing on campus or at school events, no boys allowed in the girls dorms, and if you were heard playing rock and roll records, there would be people knocking on your door encouraging you to burn your rcords. At freshmen orientation they would bring famous musicians in who would give us a concert and their testimonies. I was completely surrounded by “believers” by this point. But my questioning never left. I could never quite bring myself to “believe”.

Eventually I transferred to Texas A&M. Still a very conservative university, but not quite so religious. I took a philosophy class on Ethics and Technology and immediately decided I could no longer believe in God. So began my agnostic days. I still believed there was something out there, but I knew it was not a kindly old man with a long white beard.

Most of my friends were still conservative Christians so this was very upsetting to them. Wasn’t I worried about my soul? Didn’t I want to be sitting by Jesus at the right hand of God? My answer was why would I want to sit at the right hand of a god who sends good people to Hell simply because they don’t believe in him or because they hurt so much they end their own life? That is not the kind of God I want to be associated with. I’d rather be in Hell.

I quit going to church for several years. I didn’t really have time to think about who God was anyway. It didn’t seem to matter until I started teaching high school and was dealing with all of the horrible issues these poor kids were having to face – including another teenage suicide. I had to face my beliefs so I could help my  face their own. About that time, I met my husband who was Catholic at the time. And I also met a wonderful Methodist minister who taught me about the Christ within and a little about gnosticism. I was able to reframe my view of God – broaden it enough that all agnosticism dissolved and I was a church goer once again.

I married my husband and at his request, became Catholic. I took enough religious education classes and gained enough catechetical points that I could teach Catholicism to high schoolers at Catholic private high schools if I had wanted to do so. I knew much more about Catholicism than most Catholics and even many priests. I found it to be an absolutely beautiful, majestic religion. Little did I know, however, that we happened to attend one of the more liberal Catholic Churches in the U.S. I realized this after we moved to California where I came to understand all of the jokes made about the Catholics going to church and offering their confessions and that being the extent of their religion. After 8 years of having been deeply involved in my Catholicism, I could no longer continue being Catholic. Thinking it would likely cause a divorce, I told my husband I had to find a different religion. Amazingly, he agreed and we both ended up at a wonderful little Methodist Church where I immediately got involved and became the director of their small groups. I also enrolled in theology school, intending to become a minister.

But all the while, I was having conversations with an old boss of my husband’s about the “plastic nature of the universe”. These conversations were centered upon the possibility that we create our reality and they went on for years until when one day, I suddenly realized how imprisoned I had been all my life by my views of God and my attachment to church. This was an incredibly harsh realization. It threw me for a tail spin that I think I am just now coming out of.

What I had continued to hold on to throughout even my agnosticism is the belief in an entity that can interfere at any time and set everything right. Letting go of this belief has been the single most difficult thing I’ve ever had to let go.

I’ve wanted to remain in denial of the need to do so and have created many a distraction. Workaholism, eating too much, volunteering for and creating all kinds of different groups, and even drinking more in the evenings than I should. I was so anxious about uncertainty that it seemed a reasonable way to calm myself down. Now I realize it just helped keep me stay stuck in my denial of the impending paradigm shift. Although I thought I had actually moved beyond it, I really had not because I’ve been too scared to take those steps into uncertainty! I want the being who can interfere in the lives of we crazy humans and set everything right.

Hearing Joseph Campbell say that monotheism is the single most destructive myth in the history of mankind was a wonderful gift. It was another punch in the stomach – but the kind you need. The kind that makes you wake up and realize there is something in front of you worth looking at even if it is as scary as Hell.

We don’t need a being to set everything right for us. We’re OK. We just need to be understood. And we especially need to correct our misunderstanding! 

I Thought I was a Monotheist, but I’m Not!

Still working through the difference between Panentheism and Monotheism. Bare with me…

Panentheism is not yet defined in the dictionary – at least not in any I could find. There is plenty of information available on the internet, however. One of the most helpful I found for differentiating panentheism from other beliefs was Dr. Laughlin’s class notes at Otterbein College.

Many sights I looked up claimed that panentheism falls under monotheism. This is what I had originally thought, too, but apparantly this is not correct. Laughlin classifies monotheism as a theism, and panentheism as a monism.

The difference appears to lie primarily in whether you believe God (or the gods) to be “out there” and separate from you (theism); or if you believe that God can be found within all that is (monism). Panentheism is a little of both, and so somewhat difficult to classify.

Religioustolerance.org classifies beliefs into 4 categories: Theism, Deism, Pantheism, and Panentheism. Again, monotheism falls under theism and Panentheism gets it’s own category.

From Wikipedia.com : “Panentheism is the view that God is immanent within all creation and that the universe is part of God or that God is the animating force behind the universe. Unlike pantheism, panentheism does not mean that the universe is synonymous with God. Instead, it maintains that there is more to God than the material universe. In panentheism, God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as both the creator and the original source of universal morality.”

According to Laughlin’s notes, panentheism is a fairly modern invention – a synthesis or mixture of Western theism and Eastern monism.

After reading through this information, I can now say with complete certainty that I am not a monotheist!

I had always believed I was!! I just never thought to question it until Joseph Campbell punched me in the stomach.

[For more info. on Panentheism, check out this article.]