Stargazer's Story

Stargazer wrote a story which demands a wider audience:

I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my adult life believing what you so often state about the Spirit, being led by the spirit of God, etc. I grew up in a conservative evangelical setting, where even C.S. Lewis was considered ‘iffy,’ (he smoke, drank, and enjoyed bawdy jokes, you know!), but he was allowed. In my late teen years, I expanded my reading to other writers, and found my way eventually to where I felt most at home, with the mystics of the church. My intro to this world was through Evelyn Underhill, Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton—from there I found my way to the Theresas, John of the Cross, Julian, Hildegard, many others and eventually committed myself to a lay contemplative group connected to a Cistercian monastery. Over those same years my church experience and theological outlooks, at least to my mind at the time, broadened and deepened. Like you, the experiential became more foundational than the intellectual, and everything I read in scripture or in the writings of Christian authors and teachers was seen through the lense of my experience. After all, I had opened myself to the spirit of love, the spirit of God, and had come to trust that I would be led into the truth, since that was my deepest desire.

I became the standard by which all things were measured—my perceptions and understanding of the truth were a very subjective measure, and when my perceptions came into conflict with those of my fellow contemplatives, it began to raise more questions. We were all committed to God, we all supposedly desired truth, how did we come up with so many opposing ideas?

I was with that group for about 15 years, and then went into formal spiritual formation training with the goal of becoming a spiritual director (I blush now to think I even allowed myself to think I should do this!). While the experience was very positive in the relational aspect, I found myself beginning to wonder how on earth we could end up in such different places, using the same basic source for our beliefs.

The problem was that, essentially, we become our own ‘popes.’ Even when I would say that my relationship with God was born out by the evidence of experience, it still resulted in belief system—there were things I believed about God and things that I did not. You mentioned offering another option other than liberal and conservative views of scripture and belief—but I think what it comes down to is that it is just another system. And it again results in the cherry-picking that has been mentioned in various posts on this blog. It offers no more of an evidential support for belief in God than any other system of belief. We believe that God is love, we believe that the spirit guides us, we have felt this love and the spirit in our innermost being. Problem is…when I came to the point where I had to honestly admit I no longer believed in a personal god, I would still have that experience—but it was connected to things I would read about the cosmos, or when I would lay outside under the trees and just look at the world around me. I get the same sense of awe, the deep, heart-thrilling, take-your-breath-away sense of being overwhelmed just be the sheer beauty of life and the amazing fact that I am alive in all of this. Part of this comes, I am sure, from no longer having to feel like I have to get it “right” about god. That is done. Now, I just live and learn

I’ve been reading a recent book, Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian priest who resigned from parish work and is now teaching. She talks about how, for the first several years of her life, she remembers having tremendous joy in the natural world, experiencing a deep oneness with that world, and then says when she finally went to church for the first time at the age of seven, she “got the impression that the people who were there that morning had figured out a way of talking about their feeling (equating that with her experience). They seemed to know where it came from , who was responsible for it, what it meant, and how to respond to it.” When I read that and what followed, I felt very sad. Though for her it remained a positive experience, because it made her hungry for God, it also led her to a way of thinking and being from which she found later she needed to extricate herself. She now is at a place where God is much bigger to her than the church will normally allow, and my guess is if she continues on the path she is on, she may well find herself letting go of all the definitions.

But that is where I now find myself—I’m back in the world again, knowing that I’m a part of life. I want to know and understand as much as I can. I want to know about novas and supernovas, I want to learn some languages, I want to get back to my music, I want a telescope for Christmas, I want to know more about fractals—you name it, I want to know it. I feel like I have been in a cocoon far too long—it was often comfortable, familiar, warm, but dark. And the real me is finally allowed to be. All those spiritual experiences—they were wonderful at the time, but they kept me from asking my deeper questions.


Bryan Riley said...

I really appreciate it when people share their lives. Thank you for including this story on your blog. And thank you, Stargazer, for being willing to share. It is definitely good to hear a bit more about another's journey. I'd love to hear more about the life circumstances and not just the intellectual journey. Perhaps sometime I can share my own.

goprairie said...

I am such a bore with my comments about instinct and evolution, but i really think that concept explains so much. If you look at brain structure, and I know I am simplifyiing, we have the reptilian brain and then the mammal brain and then the primate brain in layers and finally the outer layer of human brain. The brain did not become human as we evolved, but rather added layers to what was there, retaining the same basic functions in the old brain parts. So much of what we do and decide is based on instinct still carried out in the 'primitive' brain layers. Our instinct to avoid predators and to be on the prowl for prey. Our instincts to mentally map our local world in terms of potential food sources. Our instincts to 'nest' to make a home for out deveolping offspring. Our instinct to gather and cooperate with others of our species. These sorts of instincts are quieted when we are indoors or in an artificial world, but when outdoors in a natural world, those instincts snap into alertness and begin to function again. It is that heightened functioning of all the brain layers that gives us that feeling of euphoria out there and makes us feel so 'alive' and when we are in a natural area where there is a balance of being enclose enoug to be safe from predators yet open and varied enough to provide richness of prey and raw materials for food and shelter, we are 'happy' - in short, we arrogantly assume our greatest joy should come from our higher human brain, but in reality is does not usually - it comes when all the 'brains' come together and all instincts are awakened. A state of hyper alertness that then allows one to hyperfocus on aspects of the environment. This is my own theory from reading and experiencing and I am a rank amatuer in this area, so i would appreciate any anthropological, sociological, psychological, or other scientific input.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Stargazer,
But that is where I now find myself—I’m back in the world again, knowing that I’m a part of life. I want to know and understand as much as I can. I want to know about novas and supernovas, I want to learn some languages, I want to get back to my music, I want a telescope for Christmas, I want to know more about fractals—you name it, I want to know it.

Thats me! When I finally realized that there was no god, I realized, "HEY, IT MATTERS! YEEEEHOOOOO!" I love science so I went to Itunes, did a search for science and literally listened to five years of science podcasts in a year and a half from from every source I could find (does it show?). Then things just started clicking and falling into place, my confusion was being resolved, things made sense finally!

Then, among other reasons, I decided to share that with people like I used to be who are sitting the fence in a quagmire of confusion and John accepted my offer to contribute.

The world is a much better place because now there is real mystery, and there is a real chance to figure it out! And I have better self esteem to boot! Man, life is great when you take the reigns and take responsibility for your own destiny!

Honestly I have to say since I threw off the yoke of religion I have become elated! The truth indeed will set you free!

Jennifer said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I can definitely find parallels and have monastic tendencies. I too, would love to hear more.

I have some questions, if you have time to read and answer...

When you shared this:

"We were all committed to God, we all supposedly desired truth, how did we come up with so many opposing ideas?"

I was curious to know how this manifested? When Paul and Barnabas separated, they had different directions in which they were being led to it along those lines, or were there ideas that diametrically opposed others? Did you find that the people, who's names you mentioned, did have unity of thought when it came to essential things like: love, truth, justice, mercy, kindness, honesty, forgivenes, et....?

I would be interested in hearing what you think of the book, "The Way of the Cross". It is online here if you are interested or have the time. Roy Hession claims that they were led in unity and I would love to know if your experience was similar.

I was also wondering about what you said about pursuing knowledge...were you not able to? This would be a difference in my story as my parents encouraged liberal learning and I continue in that path. I figure that if God made the world and He made it for us, it's ours to care for and experience and discover...not hands off or mind off. Maybe that's not what you were getting at though.

I agree completely with what you said about sytems. We can't seem to get away from the need to create organized systems. I would be in the camp of Jaques Ellul who is for a form of anarchy which depends upon love. I know that sounds pie-in-the-sky, but that's where I am. He wrote a book called, "Anarchy and Christianity" but here is a translated excerpt.
I'm not sure the world can run without systems, but it would be wonderful to be free from them in practical ways as well as internally.

I will look for the book by Barbara Brown Taylor at the library, it sounds like it's about where I am now...not in church, but still believing.

Jennifer said...

I should have said was in referrence to Jaques Ellul, he is no longer living.

Jennifer said...

Here is the link for The I'm sorry for so many posts here...stepping back.

Chris said...

Stargazer- I am wondering how you can go from being led by the spirit of God, to no longer believing in a personal God. Is it your opinion now that you were not being led by the Spirit of God? What was it that you were experiencing that was so easily set aside by the writings of men?

Stargazer said...

Hi, folks,

Thanks to you all for your kind responses and questions, which I will try to respond to as time allows (my guess is that it will be sometime this weekend). And thank you, John, I'm honored that you found this worth reposting. I was in another part of the state all day today, and came home to find all this!

I have never been much of a writer--though reading is one of my big loves. So my comments here, which have been rare, have usually been triggered by something that has made me feel I MUST say something. I've always been frustrated by the writing process, because it seems so often that I simply cannot find the right words to express exactly what I am trying to say; and I don't like being on the defensive and being called on to explain myself--but if I am going to keep faith with the folks here, I think it is something on which I am just going to have to bite the bullet so to speak.

I know I have been affected by the stories shared here and elsewhere, and if my own experience can help someone else, it's definitely worth the effort. At the same time, I'm already seeing where it is helping me find clarity as I continue to try to understand where I've been and where I seem to be going.

I do want to respond to your questions and will do so, but please be patient with me. My responses are not likely to be immediate, and because of my work schedule, my time at home on the computer is limited.

Bryan: Thanks--yes, there is more than the intellectual aspect at play in my journey. It's part of what I am trying to get a grip on as I start to sort this out in writing.

Goprairie--what sources have you encountered that presented your information? I'd like to do some reading in that area myself.

Thanks for your comments, Lee--using Bryan's reference to the intellectual as a small springboard here, I want to reiterate your "HEY, IT MATTERS!!" From early on, while the knowledge/intellectual aspect of my self thrived on learning and exposing myself to whatever ideas I could get my hands on, my spiritual community, especially during my teen years, tended to dismiss the academic world and intellectual pursuits. In fact, in my thirties when I had returned to college, I remember one especially painful incident when discussing (with a VERY important person in my life)some ideas I had come across in a class--in the midst of my 'monologue,' he broke in with "Who really cares?" and walked away. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I think part of what moved me to the total immersion in the spiritual was not simply that I was innately drawn to things contemplative--which I was and still am (though the objects of my contemplation are decidedly different); it was due to the fact that to most of the people I loved, most of the people for whom I had great respect for their wisdom and loving character, placed most value on things of a spiritual and religious nature. I could say more here, but I want to think more carefully before I continue. I'd better move on and finish this post. :-)

Jennifer: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I can't do your first question justice tonight, but I will give it some time in the next couple of days and get back to you on this.

RE: The Way of the Cross--I will check that out. Thanks for the referral.

RE: Pursuing knowledge--my father encouraged me to some degree, and in my childhood and youth I practically lived in the library (those blessed librarians!). But I kept my reading and ideas pretty much to myself, sharing only now and then with my father. The church I was connected to, while not what I would call fundamentalist in today's terms, was definitely conservative evangelical, and there was a real de-emphasis on intellectual development, especially outside the boundaries of the 'approved texts,' so to speak. In my late teen years and at college (I attended Houghton College, sister college of Wheaton, member of the Christian College Consortium), I would find a professor or two with whom I could broach some questions and concerns that could not be aired elsewhere, but again, it was limited. As I matured and began to explore on my own, I felt more free to investigate and found a few kindred spirits here and there along the way.

I crossed paths with some of Ellul's writings quite a few years ago; I'd have to go back and re-read to adequately respond.

And thanks for the link to the book...

Chris: There are several things that brought me to the point of no longer believing in a personal God, and I will try to be more specific about those things as I continue to write. Yes, I now believe I was not led by the Spirit of God, but by my own desires that my beliefs and the beliefs of all those before me really be true. I don't know if you have heard Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God." In one part of her presentation, she talks about faith and evidence, and reminds herself that her faith and belief have been based on the evidence of people whom she loves, voices of those she has respected, and voices of those who have had authority over her in some way. That was all part of it for me.
As I began to explore other forms of Christianity, questioning the form in which I had been raised, my picture of god began to change, my understanding of relating to god changed. It got to the point where it all could be questioned. And when I began to know other people from other faith traditions (Buddhism, Judaism, Islam) who would share stories of conversion, spiritual experience, etc., that could have been word for word from the mouths of the Christians I have known (and the Christian I had been), that added fuel to that particular line of inquiry. A pivotal question for me (there are others) stated by the Outsider Test--could I look at Christian teachings, doctrines, etc., with the same sceptical eye that I used with other faiths, and if so, what would I find.

Finally, none of what I believed was easily set aside. It has been years of study, questioning, and it's not been the writings of men that have been the problem--it's been the claims both by and about the 'word of God' that has been the problem. And it was not the 'writings of men' that made this happen. It was finally fully using my own mind, my own ability to reason, my own judgment of evidence that I reviewed over many years. For years I had allowed the judgment of others make the call on what and how I would believe. No more. I am not a great intellect, but I am certainly going to use what I have and make the best of it!

I guess that is it for now; I'm feeling a sense of frustration at leaving so much hanging; as I've been writing there have been multitudinous memories and ideas that just make me want to go on and on (me, the non-writer!). I'll keep on trying to get my whole story down in a coherent fashion, so please bear with me!


Jennifer said...

I think you are a wonderful writer. My writing is very crude as I have many interuptions during the course of typing, so I may not be a good judge, but what you write is easy to follow and flows well. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out when doing so is out of your comfort zone.