The Answers or the Quest

Those of us who have moved beyond fundamentalism or even Christianity need to help others understand that our changes are spiritual growth, not spiritual abandonment. In fact, I would argue that they honor the moral heart of Christianity more than any adherence to traditional orthodoxies ever can. Let me explain:

One of the most central themes of Judaism and then Christianity is an ongoing hunger, a quest to understand God more deeply and completely. For over 3000 years, our spiritual ancestors have been working hard to figure out answers to life’s most important questions: What is good? What is real (often framed as what is God)? And how can we live in moral community with each other?

Each generation of our ancestors received a package of handed down answers to these questions. This package contained the very best answers their ancestors had to the questions. But those answers were always imperfect. They had bits of timeless wisdom and insights, but they also had bits of culture and superstition that had somehow gotten God’s name on them. In order to grow, our ancestors took these received traditions and asked: What here is mere human construction, what is superstition, and what are my very best judgments about the divine realities that lie beyond the human piece?

The first Hebrew scholars, the writers of the Torah or Pentateuch did this. They sifted through the earlier religions of the Akkadians and Sumerians. They kept parts (some of which are in the Bible to this day), and other parts they discarded as mere culture, superstition or even idolatry.

In the New Testament, the same thing happened. In the gospels, Jesus said that the Law had become an idol in itself. What is an idol? An idol is a something man-made, something that seeks to represent or articulate god-ness and thus to provide a glimpse of that Ultimate Reality. But then, the object itself gets given the attributes of divinity: perfection and completeness, and it becomes the object of absolute devotion.

Instead of simply accepting the old package of answers, the writers of the gospels offered a new understanding of God and goodness. They didn’t throw away everything; in fact they kept quite a bit from the earlier Hebrew religion and from the religions that surrounded them. But they took responsibility to sort through it. They gathered the pieces that that seemed truly wise and sacred to them, and they told a new story about our relationship to God and to each other.

During the Protestant Reformation this process happened again in a very big way. Even thought Martin Luther and John Calvin had some horrible bigoted and violent ideas, in their own context, they genuinely were trying to cleanse Christianity of what they saw as accumulated superstitions, things like worshiping saints and relics, paying indulgences, the absolute authority of the Pope, and the church putting God’s name on the political structure that kept kings and nobles at the top with other people serving them. They scraped away these superstitions, until they got back to a set of religious agreements that had been made a long time before, in the 4th Century when the church decided what writings would go in the Bible and what the creeds would be. Then they stopped there, thinking they had found the most true understanding of God.

But Christianity just kept on growing. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, scientific learning mushroomed with discoveries in fields as diverse as linguistics, anthropology, psychiatry, physics, and biology. By the beginning of the 20th century, with all this new information about ourselves and the world around us, many Christian theologians said, “We need to rethink our understanding of the Bible, Jesus, and the Christian faith.” A new phase of Reformation was born. This generation decided that they should examine every bit of Christianity for signs of human fingerprints. They went way back and opened up even the agreements that had been made by those Church councils of the 4th century. the ones who decided what would be in the Bible. They even began looking at other religions with new eyes and seeing bits of wisdom there.

When this happened, some people fought back in defense of the fundamental doctrines that had dominated Christianity for almost 1500 years, the doctrines that are laid out in the creeds: one god in three persons, original sin and universal sin, the virgin birth, the unique divinity of Jesus, cleansing of sin through blood sacrifice, salvation through right belief, a literal resurrection, a literal heaven and hell. A series of pamphlets entitled "The Fundamentals" said that these beliefs were absolute and off limits to questions. From the title of these pamphlets we get the word "fundamentalism." The fundamentalists said, “If you don’t believe these things, then you can’t call yourself a Christian and besides you are going to hell.” They said that their kind of Christianity was the most true because it was the closest to the religion of our ancestors.

I used to think that, too. But now I realize I was mistaken. By trying to keep the same beliefs as our ancestors, fundamentalism forced me to betray the very heart of Christianity: the quest to better know and serve a God who is Love and Truth. To keep the traditional beliefs of our ancestors we have to abandon their tradition of spiritual inquiry, of “wrestling with God.” We can accept their answers or we can accept their quest, but we cannot accept both

I now affirm that the best way to honor the Christian tradition, to honor the writers of the Pentateuch, and the writers of the gospels and the reformers—and ultimately to honor the Ground of Love and Truth-- is to do as they have done. We need to take the set of teachings they handed down to us, their very best effort to answer life’s most important questions. Then, just like them, we need to continue examining those answers in light of what we know about ourselves and the world around us. For each of us this is a sacred responsibility and a sacred gift, the gift and responsibility of spiritual growth.

It might seem to some like I have abandoned the path I was on, to love and serve God. But I haven’t. I am still on that very same path, only my understanding of God has grown deeper and wider. That is why the songs and preaching and churches that used to fit for me don’t fit any more. And, in fact, even the word “God” seems terribly humanoid and limiting as a term for the astounding Reality that spiritual and scientific inquiry allow us to glimpse.

Religious people, at least Christians, often draw boundaries between believers and non-believers. So do former Christians. But I think we need to talk publicly about a different sort of differentiation, one between those who honor the answers of our spiritual ancestors and those who honor their quest. Even within the boundaries of tribal religion, there are people who honor the former and people who honor the latter. I suspect there are also many who would move from the answers to the quest if only they understood the story at the heart of their own tradition.


goprairie said...

"our changes are spiritual growth, not spiritual abandonment." While that may be true for some who have rejected Christianity, many who call themselves atheists also view the concept of a human soul or spirit to be as mythical and illogical as the concept of a god. Brain science does not support any sort of soul or spirit any more than other areas of science support a god. For me, I found myself unable to believe in formal religion first and retained a concept of a god, then I found myself unable to believe that and retained a concept of individual human spirits, but after a great deal of reading on psychology and brains research, I no longer believe in even the existence of a soul. Looking at how similar animals are to us and how much genetic material is the same and how the behavior of primates in terms of family and group interactions brought this all to question. Where in evolution did the soul enter the picture? Which pre-modern humans had it and which didn't? Where did it come from? What is unique about humans is our ability to understand time. To understand a past and future. This is the only thing that separates us from higher primates and turns our creativity from in-the-moment tools for food and shelter to things we consider higher thought and higher level creativity - planning for and thinking about the future and contemplating the past and our origins. Any stories that can be made up to support a soul or spirit begin then to smack of the same sort of pretending involved in theist apologetic explanations. I look forward to reading others' beliefs on soul and spirit and where it might come from and when it evolved and how. As well as others' views on why they do NOT believe in soul or spirit.

Lorena said...

I agree with Valerie in that , at least partly, leaving the faith is a result of spiritual growth.

In my case, it was until one day I decided to live out my faith that I eventually came to realize it was all bullshit.

I did grow spiritually by reading the Bible and praying. I came to understand that I had no right to discriminate against gays and lesbians. I saw how wrong it was to believe that only Christians were "saved," and the rest of people were doomed.

That was the first step.

Then I realized that I had become more spiritual than Bible God. I respected people more than he did. I had more compassion on my fellow humans than he did. Human suffering provoked my tears, while God seemed to be happy with it, even ordered a massacre or two.

I outgrew God spiritually ;)

So whether spirituality is something mythical that belongs to the realm of the improvable is highly debatable.

If you see spirituality as being a member of the human race and respecting the lives and rights of others, I don't see how we can do without spirituality.

But it all depends on how you define it.

Nathan said...

I'm not sure exactly what Valerie means by "spiritual," but I agree with goprairie that there is no evidence for the existence of a soul that is seperate from our physical brain activity.

A lot of this post makes sense to me, but I don't know if I'm comfortable calling this growth "spiritual" simply because that implies the existence of spirits. The human growth that Valerie talks about is, to me, nothing more than that: human growth.

When I talk about my non-belief with my religious family, I tell them that it was just a part of my personal growth and search for Truth.

As a species, we probably would have grown a lot faster if we had never invoked religion in the first place, so I don't really see religion as a stepping block but a hinderence.

franith said...

Hey valerie i really love this post. I think so much here (on this blog and other similar ones) is picking a fight at the wrong levels, and sometimes it seems like we've forgotten that the atheists and christians - especially the ones hanging around here - are really not that different. Both are deeply concerned with metaphysics and what you really can call 'spirituality', trying to come to grips with our comprehension of the infinite despite the clearly finite nature of our bodies.

It always pains me that Christians i talk to assume that i, as an atheist, am despairing or selfish or just somehow empty. I think it's the kind of understanding that Valerie is talking about that really helps us move forward.

I have to recommend a book, 'A Secular Age', by Charles Taylor. Apparently he's catholic, but reading it as a former catholic i still find it a stunning history and insight in the development of religion and society and i think it really touches on some very deep truths.

Evan said...

I agree with the original post quite strongly, and I also see the point of goprairie and others who reject terms such as spiritual.

I solve this dichotomy by realizing that spirit really just means wind.

A spirited horse is not something I believe can't exist. I also believe a high school can have school spirit. I think here on DC we have spirited debates (long-winded ones certainly). So when I see "spiritual" used in a way that I can find a reason to think is honestly being used to describe the striving for life that all creatures do -- I just think of it as wind and it makes sense.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Valerie,
nice post,
I have been thinking about reconciling believers and non-believers for a while now.

To that end I have been listening to a bunch of college courses that I downloaded from berkely and the teaching company.

Here is some feedback to your article that hopefully can augment it.

-Those of us who have moved beyond fundamentalism or even Christianity need to help others understand that our changes are spiritual growth, not spiritual abandonment.
I think there is good evidence to discredit the concept of the soul.
I don't like the word 'spiritual' either. I think in reality 'spiritual' is a euphemism for 'emotional'. So it would be 'emotional growth' rather than spiritual. I have come to realize that emotional reasoning plays a much bigger role than I ever thought. I came to this realization studying biological base for behavior. I also think there is something about the brains ability to think in the abstract and metaphor that strongly correlates to emotion, art, music, and religion.

For over 3000 years, our spiritual ancestors have been working hard to figure out answers to life’s most important questions: What is good? What is real (often framed as what is God)? And how can we live in moral community with each other?
I owe some credit to one of our christian commenters Harvey Burnett for getting me to think about what religion was. In studying cultures, religions, and philosophy, I have come to realize one common denominator is the search for the 'right way to live to get along with everyone'. In my view this is the motivation for religion. It is a search for the way, the truth and the life. In fact if we substitute the word 'god' or 'father' with the word 'ideal' or 'perfect circumstances' in a lot of religious phrases and substitute the word 'spiritual' with 'emotional' we can see that some of the ideas are sound, and should be kept. In my view, the bible above all is book about the perceived philosophy for how to live a righteous life. However there are disagreements we all know, even among members in the same religion.
The buddhist philosophy says that there are many paths to god which, in my view, seems to be the most reasonable (of course changing the word spiritual with emotional).
Whether we study the bible, or the ethics of philosophers, or buddhists we are all on a path, looking for the way to the ideal.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, scientific learning mushroomed with discoveries in fields as diverse as linguistics, anthropology, psychiatry, physics, and biology.
I have heard it said that we are in new Axial age, like the time of the revolutionary thinkers between 800-200bc in china, india and the occident. I think to a degree this is true. After the push back to the resurgence of fundamentalism, I don't think the world is ever going to be the same.
Additionally, The increases in technology over the last thirty years, The use of nano-technology, and satellite imagery, and monitoring, brain imaging and monitoring and genetics and molecular biology, have the potential to bring us into another 'industrial revolution' type of pivotal period of the sort you are referring to in that phrase. I know that what I have learned over the past year has really filled in the details for the more general stuff I heard about growing up.

Then, just like them, we need to continue examining those answers in light of what we know about ourselves and the world around us. For each of us this is a sacred responsibility and a sacred gift, the gift and responsibility of spiritual growth.
Absolutely! ( replacing spiritual with emotional of course.) We all need to learn how to get along and respect each other. And we need to learn about where we come from, the mistakes we have made in the past and realize that no one is smart enough to have all the answers, and the only way to get all the answers is to look together and depend on each other, and the only way to do that is to 'get along'. Accept a certain percentage of mistakes to encourage learning and moderate risk taking, Mutual respect above all, the correct application of 'the golden rule' or in more secular terms 'the principle of reciprocity'

We can do it, we just have to get rid of this heuristic we have to categorize everything as either 'bad' or 'good'. 'Bad' or 'good' depends on context, and is dependent on the consideration of new information, just like everything else.

goprairie said...

spirit, soul: perhaps a crutch to avoid dealing with the possibility that this might be all there is and death might be the end of it all? if you are an atheist who does not beleive in the soul, did you for a time after giving up on god still beleive in individual souls?
sacred, responsibility for spiritual growth: starting to smack of judgementalness - if i want to be happy with going to my job and coming home and watchng tv and doing it all again tomorrow as long as i hurt no one, that is okay. i have no obligation to seek deeper meaning or learn any sort of truth. as long as i do no harm. yeah it's all good to learn and seek and question, but to think we are somehow obligated to that or better because we do that strikes me as . . . as arrogant as cristianity often is.
reconciling believers and atheists: probably not possible ever. what is at stake is someone's eternal soul. the more one beleives in that the more one beleives in their obligation to convert and 'save' and the more one attributes people like us to being of some opposite force and evil. we may be able to see most of what they do as neutral, but the strongest of the beleivers can NEVER see atheism as neutral.
and: This is why religion is kept separate from government to assure that we still have the freedom not only to practice any religion but to NOT practice religion and we should be hypervigilant to keep it that way. Because a religion with a god in inherently intolerant of non-belief.

Thranil said...

I loved this post. I'd also like to point out that this is a wonderful book which may help those struggling with the 'spirituality' verbiage: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

Valerie Tarico said...

Thank you for all the thoughtful responses to this post. When I use the term spiritual, (I often identify myself as a 'spiritual nontheist') what I mean is pretty modest: Just that the three questions listed in the article are at the heart of my identity: What is good? What is real (often framed as what is God)? And how can we live in moral community with each other?

In this frame, there is no need to assert mind/body dualism or the independent existence of some entity called soul. Goodness--those ideas were thought up by people who had no concept whatsoever of the human brain and nervous system, and thus no other way to explain intelligence, joy, love, or even our ability to move our limbs. Our ancestors did the best they could to weave a coherent narrative around their experiences. We honor them and ourselves by doing better.