Rationalists – Effing the ineffable. Woo!
A friend of mine recently called me a Christ admiring Pagan. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized, that’s exactly right. That’s what I am.
I think Christianity has some major flaws — primarily that it’s too with-us-or-against-us, as all the monotheistic religions tend to be — and I distrust organized religion on general principle — as a UU, I don’t believe any authority can stand between each individual and their own conception of the divine. I have no confidence that anything awaits us, after death, other than the memories others hold of us, and the ways in which the world is different, because we were once here (though I could be wrong, and have no way of knowing).
And that’s enough for me, frankly. Einstein’s theory of relativity teaches us that time is merely another dimension of space. If we were once here, the universe contains an us-shape etched in time-space, forevermore. We leave traces of who we are and what we do, permanently imprinted on the fabric of reality. So it goes.
But I think the teacher, Jesus son of Joseph and Mary, was onto something important, with his teachings. Yes. I admire rabbi Yeshu.
Christianity and I parted ways when I was in my teens. I was brought up a United Methodist. I always felt a close connection with the unknowable, the unknown, when I was a child, and I called that connection God. I was going to grow up and be a missionary. I was going to save people — heal the sick, as Jesus had. Give people hope. End poverty. End hunger. When I read about the sufferings of others, I felt as if something had to be done. The church seemed most concerned about alleviating people’s suffering, and I shared that concern.
But as I entered adolescence, my faith wavered. What I was hearing from the minister and my Sunday School teachers was different in some fundamental ways from what I read when I cracked the covers of the Bible open. The cognitive dissonance got to be too much. I had to settle things. So when I was fifteen, during summer vacation, I read the Bible cover to cover. Twice. Just to make sure.
I took notes. I slogged through all the begats, the boils and plagues and horrors; I compared Matthew to Mark to Luke to John, found the gaps in their narratives, pondered them; I gaped at the psychotic splendor of Revelations.
And as I did so, the scales fell from my eyes.
The Bible was a clearly compilation of many hands, across many years. Not the unfiltered Received Word of God. You could even distinguish the different voices. What was with all those begats, anyway? Why should God care who begat whom? And frankly, some of prophets were real assholes. I mean, come on — plagues, butchery, damnation. And they were happy about it. Screw them. I’d rather go to hell, than claim those beliefs as my own on the chance that some ectoplasmic patriarch might get pissed off if I didn’t.
But when I stripped away all the parochial stuff, the stuff clearly tethered to the writers’ upbringing and cultures, Jesus had many important things to say about how to be human.
Help one another, he taught. Stop worrying about how much money and power you have. People are more than their tribal identity. We are all sons and daughters of God.
When I was eighteen, I worked for a local fast food chain called Tastee Freez. I quit the job when I started college, but they talked me into staying another seven months till they found a replacement. Finally, my last day came and went. A week later I drove down in my little tin-can Toyota, with my friend, to pick up my paycheck. $712 went a long way back then.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I looked first left, then right. Then I pulled out. In front of a half-ton pickup going maybe 60 miles an hour. I remember none of it, other than the truck bearing down as I slammed on the accelerator.
We almost made it out of the truck’s path. It struck us a glancing blow, but the relative mass of the truck versus the little Toyota was so great that it sent us flying. We rolled (I’m told) 360 degrees vertically, and 720 degrees horizontally, and ended up on the shoulder. The impact collapsed the roof and lengthened the car by three feet on the driver’s side.
I came to as I was being dragged from my car by bystanders. We had a few scrapes and bruises, and I had a mild concussion, but we were both OK.
No, I don’t think God saved us. I don’t believe in that kind of miracle. Too many people who did not deserve to, have suffered and died. No. I was just really, really lucky. My carelessness nearly resulted in the deaths of myself and my best friend. I shudder, when I realize how close to the brink I came.
Here’s something else. I had just finished writing a novel, one I had been laboring over for years. Back then, there were no personal computers. I had written it on my typewriter, and I didn’t have a copy. It had been in the back seat.
The book was dreck. But it represented a huge investment of time and creative effort. I remember as some people helped us sit down on a nearby bus bench, I looked out in horror at the pages of my book, tumbling out across the landscape in the New Mexico winds. They must have been scattered in a plume of a half a mile or more — a plume that widened as I watched.
When they realized that it was my novel, a small group of bystanders started chasing the pages up and down down the road and into the fields, rounding up as many pages as they could. They brought pages in wads and clusters, unsorted, upside down, torn, all higglety pigglety. I clutched them in my lap while we awaited the ambulance. I figured I would fill in the gaps as best I could, later on.
When I got home later and reassembled the manuscript, not a page was missing. Not a single one.
Those people didn’t know me. I wasn’t of their tribe. I was just some young idiot who hadn’t paid close enough attention, and had nearly gotten myself and my friend killed. And that manuscript had no intrinsic value to anyone but me. We’re not talking Hemingway, or Steinbeck, here. I was young and still learning my craft. If that story were ever to see print, I’d cringe. But it meant everything to me then.
You all know the story of the Good Samaritan, I’m sure. The Hebrews reviled Samaritans. They were not of their tribe. They did not follow the right cultural practices; they did not believe the right things. Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan reminded his fellow Jews that it is our actions that define us; not our beliefs.
I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the light,” when he said, “Follow me.” He meant do as I do. Help each other. Don’t pause to ask how you will gain. Don’t worry whether the person you help deserves to be helped. Just do it.
Learn how to love even your enemies. Set aside your fear. Help each other. Strive to forgive those who have wronged you.
Those people whose names I don’t even know, they were my Good Samaritans. They probably don’t even remember what they did. But I remember them. I honor them. They are my tribe.
And so are you.