Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jagged Little Pill

Rather than reposting the whole discussion--which wasn't long, but why bother--I offer up a link to a post I made on Goosing the Antithesis some time ago. It's a subject that, in a way, I've been thinking about a lot more in the last few weeks, ever since the Skeptic's Annotated Bible actually managed to surprise me. Is the SAB the red pill or the blue pill?

What if reality was not what you thought it to be? In many ways, this is a sticky question most of all on the religious front. Most of us feel we're logically justified in not expecting a "Matrix"-style awakening, and definitely, there is very little reason to think that the wool is being pulled over our eyes to such an extent. Yet at the same time, it's the intangibles of the world that are always on some level very open to questioning. How do you know that your government has anyone's best interests in mind, much less your own? How do you know how the people in your life feel about you, really? How do you know that your brain is functioning right, and you're not insane? And how do you know that your beliefs about god(s) or lack thereof are on the mark?

The thing is, the day I was writing the ASAB blog entry (not the GtA one) I was experiencing a great deal of mixed emotion. I've said it before, and I really mean it, that there are days that I wish the whole Christianity thing was just a bad dream I'd wake up from and find that the universe is somehow simpler. I'm not the sort of person who believes that morality cannot exist apart from God, but definitely in the absence of God, there are numerous moral obligations that completely lose their foundations. In various parts of the Bible, religion is referred to as a "burden" that it would be a shame to saddle someone with unnecessarily, and if the Bible says it, it must be right, eh?

Anyway, the prospect of finding a serious flaw in the Bible was exciting. I've said many a time that while I'm aware of minor glitches in the Bible, the real thing that most Christians worry about is the possibility that there might be a doctrinal error. It's one thing to not know how many chariots Solomon had, it's a whole other issue to not know whether performing a particular action, failing to perform a particular action, or performing a particular action wrong will cause you some sort of torment at the hands of an angry supreme being. So while I would stop short of calling the (potential) problem a serious doctrinal error, the idea that contradictory punishments might be doled out, not just for a crime, but for a rather dubious crime was extremely troubling.

I've always liked Plato's Allegory of the Cave: the idea that we in the world are like people in a cave who only see dark, distorted shadows on a wall when the truth is bright sunlight out side that we didn't even dream of. Plato hypothesized that anyone forced to leave the cave and come out into the sunlight would be essentially traumatized by the change, and might at first fight against it. The fact is, we all believe that our own world-view is correct; that's natural and healthy. Although there might be a better, bigger truth out there, a first glimpse of it might be blinding or painful, and it would inevitably be scary to face the prospect of having to change everything that you know to fit a new set of perceptions.

For myself, the journey into Christianity was like that, and if I should discover it not to be true at some time in the future, the journey out would be similar. Nobody wants to discover that everything they thought made the world what it is is only a lie, even if the world they know is unpleasant. When Morpheus sits before you and offers you those pills, he doesn't give you a glass of water to swallow it with, you've got to choke that thing down, and on the way down it scratches a throat that is straining to reject it.

Maybe you should reject it. Many Christians would tell you that anyone who is trying to lead you away from Christianity is only a servant of Satan in some direct or indirect way. While an atheist isn't likely to appeal to the supernatural, many of them consider evangelistic Christians in the same manner: just charlatans looking to pull the wool over your eyes so you can join the flock and be fleeced along with the rest of the sheep. Whichever position you personally take, it bears contemplating. When I saw The Matrix for the first time, I thought the scene in which Neo is offered the two pills was incredibly creepy. Imagine yourself in a strange house you've never been to before with a bunch of freaky people you just met that day, and one of them says, "Hey, if you take this pill, you're going to see some wild stuff!" My personal response would be, "Uh, thanks, but I tried that stuff in college, and I think I'm pretty much done with it, okay?"

Of course, as I mentioned in the notes of the original post, there was a similar scene in the movie Total Recall in which the hero of the story is also offered a pill that will supposedly make the fantasy world around him disappear. He rejects the pill, and although the ending of the movie is left with a touch of vagueness, we are generally led to believe that rejection was the right choice, and the pill was a deception. In a less philosophical (and cinematic) vein, some people believe that when they take LSD, they are having some sort of supernatural experience of expanded consciousness, while others simply believe that the chemicals in their brain are being made to fire randomly, and it's all garbage. Who in the end is to say whether an atheist or a theist is the one who is having a "bad trip"? Each is convinced in their own mind that they are seeing the true reality.

The funny thing is, it's like you're sitting there with Morpheus, he holds out the pills and says his little speech, and as you reach for the pill, someone chimes up, saying, "Wait a minute, I think you've got it backwards. I'm pretty sure it's the blue pill that makes you wake up from the dream." On a side note, something I've always wondered is what would have happened if Neo had taken both pills? (Edit to add: Apparently, I'm not the only one to muse on this.) Of course, the pills being essentially a metaphor even in the original story, I think the whole thing breaks down at that point. The only reasonable alternative to taking one pill or the other is to take neither and just walk away. (I suppose in my metaphorical take, that would be like agnosticism.) In the real-world scenario, I think that's the choice I would take.

But not too many of us find ourself sitting in a room with a mysterious man offering us two pills that represent radically diverging life-paths. Most of us live a very mundane life. Still, those choices are offered to us nonetheless. "I can't think of any reason why I wouldn't take the red pill," says one commenter on the old post, and yet every day, so many people turn their back on the possibility of knowing the truth, certain (metaphorically) that the blue pill is all the reality they need. This is not a criticism of atheism; this is a criticism of closed-mindedness. Whatever it is that you believe, you should know and accept the possibility that you might be wrong, as logical and well-founded as your beliefs may seem.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Protesting protestantism

There's something I love about irony.

If you ask an evangelical protestant Christian why they are not Catholic, they'll probably have a short list of things that they perceive as being somehow wrong with the Catholic Church. Now, I don't have a source for much of what I'm going to say here, only personal experience from having now lived a fair portion of my life among Protestants, you'll just have to take my word for it if you're not in the same sorts of social circles in which I tend to find myself.

What's wrong with the Catholic Church? Well, it tends to boil down to authority. Maybe it's an American thing, since the U.S. is a country that was largely founded on the rejection of supposed divine authority, but there is this feeling that it is clearly wrong to have a person (a.k.a. The Pope, or maybe your local priest) who tells you what to think when it comes to spiritual matters. The Church (I'll henceforth use a capital "C" when referring to the Catholic Church) apparently has all these rules that you have to follow. The Bible has a specific meaning that the Church teaches; worship is done in a style that the Church dictates; communion, baptism and various other rituals are carried out with a specified liturgy the Church prescribes; etc. Sure, there are other issues, but aside from a few deeper theological issues that most people don't really fully understand anyway, most of it boils down to the fact that rather than a free church in which we all are equals and exist on the same level, the Church has this complicated hierarchy of authority figures that dictate every aspect of your faith life.

The irony in this all is that in the end, most of our evangelical protestant churches have discarded this sort of structured hierarchy in return for a hidden, more vaguely-defined one. Even early on in my experience as a Christian, the first church I ever attended had special meetings to welcome newcomers into their congregation. I actually remember very little about those classes except for one thing that I thought odd at the time. The pastor who was running the class repeatedly informed us, in an odd manner that seemed proudly sly, that "At this church..." (subtle dramatic pause) "...we don't wear ties!" Apparently having grown up in a much more formal church, this guy was very interested in this fact, and seemed to be sure that everyone else would be as well. Big whoop, right?

Yet, there was something about this that in a way he never admitted, perhaps least of all to himself, was indeed a big deal. At the time, I always suspected that the fact that he even brought it up implied that it was a big deal to him. I thought, "You know, I wonder if he'd prefer to wear a tie anyway?" Maybe that's it, and maybe it's one of the smallest examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Sure, he doesn't have to wear a tie, but I suspect that although it's not written down anywhere, it is the case that he is not allowed to wear a tie. Not that this is solely a church thing; I've worked in offices with relaxed dress policies, and people tend to give you dirty looks if you show up wearing a tie.

But the institutionalization doesn't stop with an unstated dress code, people talk about how more traditional churches have rituals and liturgy, and sing old traditional songs. At our church, we have once again our own unstated liturgical service, and it's one that's similar to every evangelical church I've attended in my dozen or so years as a Christian.

At the appointed time for church to start, the worship leader will get up on the stage with the band, take his guitar and welcome everyone to church. He will welcome everyone to stand, which is not expressly required, but everyone with the exception of a few elderly people and those in wheelchairs will do so. Most people will show up five to ten minutes later, perhaps as much as twenty minutes if they have children. Around this time, the band will pause and an associate pastor or perhaps a deacon will walk onto the stage. He will welcome everyone again, compliment the band, and invite everyone to sit down. A short speech will be given about upcoming events, the need for more volunteers in children's ministry, and an admonition to visitors not to give money for the offering, but merely fill out a visitor card and drop it on the bag. He says a short prayer, and the band plays a song while the ushers pass the offering bags around. Everyone is asked to stand again, one more song is played, the worship leader asks everyone to shake hands with their neighbor, and everyone sits down as the senior pastor takes the stage and the band exits. The sermon opens with a bad joke or perhaps a humorous movie clip on the screen. Everyone pulls out their sermon notes, which consist of three bullet points with a missing word or phrase to fill in. After about forty-five minutes of talking, the pastor apologizes for his sermon being "so long", wraps it up and excuses everyone. People with children pick them up; every child has a craft project in a white paper sack with a Bible verse sticker on it. People mill about on the patio eating donuts if it's an a.m. service, cookies if it's p.m., and either way there is also coffee, juice and water.

Deviate from the above in any way, and the congregation will freak out. I had a pastor whose wife was a ballet instructor, and at one service, during the music phase, some dancers came out on stage and did a little routine. In principle, there's nothing wrong with this, but departing from routine was bizarre, and a few people got up and left.

Now, there's nothing wrong with routine actually. Like I said above, these things happen in the secular world, too. What about the deeper issues of theology? Surely those are the real vital ones, right? In the Church, if the Pope says things are a certain way, then that's the way they are, and supposedly, that's bad to have a single person driving and defining faith for a large group of other people.

First of all, it has to be understood, as I myself did not understand until a few years ago, that the Pope's every word is not somehow law on par with scripture. At times, the Pope does choose to speak with such authority, but most of the time, he's a lot like a senior pastor of a worldwide church, simply being there to guide and teach like any Protestant pastor would do.

Second of all, who says our little local churches are so different? When my pastor stands up at the lectern on a Sunday morning and says "Jesus is trying to say such-and-such through this passage of scripture," is it at all appropriate or acceptable for me to stand up at my seat in the congregation and say, "Excuse me, but I disagree with your interpretation?" Of course not (in general: as I have mentioned elsewhere, my church does a yearly "open mike" service where anyone can ask the pastor any question they want), that would be incredibly out of the norm; the church would sooner stop serving coffee on the patio!

Lastly, there are a few things to be said about this. Most churches, including my own, have a "statement of faith" which is a document which outlines our theological position. Anyone who wants to join the church has to read the document and sign a statement saying that they agree with it and will not oppose it within the church. While it may seem to some to be a shade totalitarian, it makes sense that you would have such an instrument to foster unity in the church. If you don't agree with it before you join, why would you want to join? If you come to an understanding that disagrees with it after joining, why would you want to stay? At the same time, if you have a question about an issue, there is no rule against discussing it with a pastor or fellow member of the congregation, only against actively opposing it from within the church.

Many things that I have said here in my blog would shock numerous people at my church, (many drop their jaw at the mention that I'm a registered Democrat, which I think is the least of my issues) although I don't keep the existence of this blog a secret; I don't think anyone from my church reads it. If I were to say some of the things I have said in this blog at any sort of official church meeting, I think it's possible I might lose my membership, I'm not sure, but I think it would be fair, actually. Still, I have the right to say whatever I want outside of church, and the thing of it is, that doesn't make me any different from Catholics. In truth, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Catholic that has complete and undying devotion to the Pope; most I have met admire and respect him, but also have occasional issues on which they respectfully disagree with him.

Is the pastor of a church just a little Pope? Sure, we Protestants recognize that the pastorate and the laity are two categories of people between whom God makes no strong distinction. At the church picnic, he's just another guy you josh around with, chat about work, play frisbee with, etc. But on Sunday morning, he's the one standing on the stage, telling everyone what the Bible means, and while you may share the same theological position as he does, you're not going to take his place on the stage Sunday morning as easily as you took his place in line for the hot dogs Saturday afternoon. While the board of elders (or whatever) can have him replaced if necessary, in a very real way, while he is in office, the pastor is the church.