Letter to a New Convert

Letter to a New Convert

Note: This is actually a compilation of a couple of letters. Personal matters have been stripped out, and there is some reorganization for the blog post.

You have come to a realization that what really matters in this life is how one manifests love and compassion, what your relationship is to other people and to the divine. Some people never truly confront this.

We talked a bit about your experiences, and it was then that I realized you probably don’t even know that I had been a devout Jehovah’s Witness. I think I should give you more background so that you might understand where I began and where my concerns are based. As a young person, I strongly believed that the end of the world would come before I was old enough to get my driver’s license. I had all the answers, was righteous and zealous. But it began to become obvious to me that the group beliefs and dynamics were actually anti-religious: destructive, not compassionate – driven by fear, not by love.

My answers came tumbling down. For a while, I believed that God rejected me, and that was ok in a certain sense because I certainly rejected the god of my youth. That god had unreachable expectations, he was a god who could only love men who measured their spirituality according to time-sheet accountings of their hours working for him. This god didn’t seem to care much for the spiritually hungry, but was concerned only about compliance to authoritarian, changing rules from his divinely inspired publishing company in Brooklyn. The elders didn’t even write their own sermons. We were happy with slave-language, unflinching in the face of titles like “district overseer.” Jesus was a token presence in this community. The group as a whole was ultimately concerned with an idea of a god that would kill everyone on earth except JWs. This Jehovah-god was so limited he could only motivate by threats of murder. It is difficult for me to imagine it now, but I was zealous in this “faith,” until it proved to be heartless and destructive – even catastrophic – to myself and to others in ways that I could no longer ignore.

I pray that you will not be so disappointed.

All groups and all people have faults – keep your eyes on love.

In my case, after my disillusionment I started to look at the religious impulse from different perspectives. I read spiritual autobiographies, studied world religions and histories, communed and meditated with the cosmos in my own ways and in imitation of the ways of others. Jesus is not the only prophet of love and forgiveness. Even the teachings of Jesus are warped beyond recognition. I do not believe that people are “saved” in the way that you do, because I have come to believe that the doctrines of sacrificial redemption and Jesus as Messiah and only path to God miscast the message. To me, this is a kind of fanaticism with consequences that show no signs whatsoever of being fruits of the spirit. I know that there is a significant truth at the heart of Christianity but mandatory assent to these sort of doctrines came later, when you had to be able to divide the christians from the nonchristians (after a while, christians got the good government jobs in the empire).

I do believe that Jesus was an extraordinary man, and that spirit did reside in him. By your standards you would not call me a Christian, but I am one in the sense of the central teachings and message of Jesus. Jesus did not represent himself as an authoritative guru figure (although Jesus is an important model of praxis in many ways) but instead he always deferred to the power of the what he experienced as his “Father” working through him. His message was of about a love-energy that is within us. At-one-ment is getting attuned to that. He encouraged the release of love-spirit as a free will acceptance that was also empowering. He encouraged gatherings in the spirit of love and kindness and caring, and rejected greed, control, and hypocrisy. He wanted us to see God in one another, and to take care of one another in that spirit. He especially championed those without a voice, the powerless and the poor, the ones who are left out or judged – often unfairly – by others. My own calling requires that I test my faith, that I learn to ask better questions, that I reside in the spirit, but also continue walking as a pilgrim.

When some people think of God, they think of a wise king, others think of a mother hen guarding its chicks – neither of these is right, but we simply do not have the words that would accurately depict God. There are patterns that occur over and over again in all the world’s religions – but the closest descriptive “word” we have is love. It is an inadequate word, and easily misunderstood, but I’ve not seen a better one. I would say compassion, but that’s even more easily twisted into something else.

William James, in the “Varieties of Religious Experience” puts the mystical at the heart of all true religious experience. He argues that individual religious experiences (rather than the doctrines of organized religion) are what is most central to an authentic religious life.

“Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. …In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never wholly take the place of personal experience.”

Having said that, I must still respectfully disagree with your assertion that the intellect is not important. The mind is a wonderful tool, and of course it serves limited purposes. Our intellects are somewhat puny, and the tools of the intellect can only go so far. Thinking can (mis)lead one away from the spirit, especially if thinking is used dishonorably or without compassion or ethics or context. We have intellect as part of our free will, a cosmic gift of the highest order. It is wise, I think, to develop a sense of when to let go of formal thinking and focus on how you actually experience and navigate your reality in the moment, to pay attention to the tape that rattles on endlessly and become conscious of the way you actually think, or to focus on breathing, or simply being. I could quibble with you about whether there is experience without mind, but suffice to say that ideally there is integration – the mind, heart, spirit, and soul are not really separable. When they are at odds with one another, or artificially separated, you’ve got troubles.

Have you read any of the mystics? You would find echoes of your own experience in many of their narratives. Your experiences in spirit are very real, and I believe that you have experienced exactly what you say. My warnings to you were based on real experience too.

As the angel of annunciation is wont to say “Fear not!’ – there is nothing wrong between you and I. You are important to me – certainly enough so as to be granted the basic respect of being addressed with forthrightness and honesty and in caring how you thrive in the present and the future. Within that caring, we are still bound to disagree on some matters. What would be wrong would be if I were to be silent or placating. I could just “play along” but that would be so demeaning of you and of your experiences and belief!

I personally do not believe in demonic intervention in human life – but I do believe in panic attacks and my own interpretation of your experience is that you may well have been pressed to your outer limits under anxiety and fear because of all that had happened and all the rapid changes in your life. If the name of Jesus worked to rescue you from that experience, then you have a strong faith. I would only note that others might have different names to call upon during such a nightmarish vision – what seems to matter most is that faith.

Even Satan has a place and role. Mythologically and psychologically, he is the placeholder for the principle of opposition, pride, and the legalistic thinking (the letter of the law over the spirit of the law) that can so easily take over compassion and understanding and wise judgment. The figure of the adversary is, most of all, about the lie, including lies people tell themselves, rationalizations to justify hurting others, and the like.

I think that demons were personified representations of temptations and problems that could be projected outward and banished as a form of sympathetic magic or soul therapy. Demons became more intensely imagined as Christianity took over other religions. They were defined in terms of human ideological conflict. For example, our image of the horned devil isn’t biblical at all – it is only the Celtic Horned God rewritten as evil to overcome the native religious concentration on attunement with the earth and its cycles. Christians have sometimes been great “borgs” – resistance is futile, you will be assimilated. You can keep your festival, but now it’s called this.

Sam Keen looks at it from the point of view of sociology in “Faces of the Enemy,”using propaganda posters, cartoons, and print images. What psychology calls “neurosis, and acknowledged to be near universal, theologians once called sin, estrangement or alienation. The word paranoia is only the most recent name for this perennial human temptation to yield to a pervasive need of radical mistrust, defensiveness, and cynicism. As a mode of perception that often becomes a style of life, paranoia weaves around the vulnerable self or group an air-tight metaphysic and world view. Paranoia is an anti-religious mysticism based on the feeling or perception that the world in general, and others in particular, are against me or us. Reality is perceived as hostile. By contrast, the religious mystic experiences the ground of being as basically friendly to the deepest needs of the self… As the religious mystic turns to and trusts in God or the ground of being, the paranoid mystic organizes life around combat against the enemy.”

Jesus cast out demons, but look carefully at the texts themselves – even compare translations. He was very good at what we might now call guided meditations, and he spoke with compelling authority. He was able to heal people who were disturbed, self-destructive, possibly with multiple personalities or other problems. In such cases, a person “hands over” their disturbance and in some cases this can have a healing effect. I think there is a lot about healing the body and soul that we don’t know, so I am probably more open to the idea of Jesus as healer than you might think.

Whether you believe in the early Catholic view of demons or not, there is one aspect of this that cannot be denied. Historically, when people spend too much time meditating on the demonic, they start to become a little “demonic” themselves, seeing evil everywhere and especially in other people. Things like the Inquisitions and the Witch Hunts and the Holocaust were the result. When you look into the abyss, sometimes the abyss begins to look back at you.

On some days – especially after watching what some contemporary pseudo-christians are up to, soaked in hypocrisy, greed, paranoia and hatred in the drive to political power – I wonder if Nietzsche was right when he said that the last Christian died on the cross. Their leaders’ motivations and actions seem to me to have very little if anything to do with the message of Jesus or of Christianity.

Elaine Pagels wrote a book called “The Origin of Satan” in which she traces the development of Satan in the Jewish community from a sort of roving agent acting on God’s behalf – always obstructing but not always evil – to an increasingly evil force identified more and more with intimate enemies, members of one’s own community with whom one is in conflict. I also like her book “Adam, Even and the Serpent” – in which she argues that

“for many of the leaders of the early church, freedom was the practical message of the gospel: freedom in its many forms, including freedom from tyrannical government, freedom from prevailing social and sexual customs, freedom from sexual desire, and freedom of the will–that is, self-mastery as a means to spiritual renewal. For almost three hundred years, Christianity prospered and grew as an illegal sect whose members increasingly reflected the diverse interests of an ever more complex population. By the fourth century, as the Christian movement became more powerful, the emperor Constantine reversed the long-standing policy of persecution and himself became a Christian. In the century following these momentous conversions — of Constantine to Christianity and the church to a respected imperial institution — Christian teaching itself underwent a revolutionary change from a doctrine that celebrated human freedom to one that emphasized the universal bondage of original sin.”

I worry about your apocalyptic expectations, for many reasons that I will leave to another time except to note that the contemporary interpretation of what it means is extremely literalizing – even fatalistic. For instance, some feel perfectly comfortable destroying our earth and use this biblical interpretation as a rationalization for that behavior. But we are really meant to be “stewards,” how do we intend to explain our “management of the land” if the “landlord” does return?

You have found a place that gives you the kinds of things that were missing. You would find such acceptance and love in any religious community of which you are a potential new member. That is not at all to minimize any reality of that love, but just so you know that the one group is not alone in that. Ultimately, it is between you and the divine.

The spirit certainly does speak through us. Personally, I have my doubts about whether speaking in tongues is actually a manifestation of spirit – but suppose it is. Jesus said that miracles and wonders were secondary, not central to the message at all. I sometimes think he was actually a bit of a magician. In any case, what was important to was to feed the hungry, care for the poor, treat all with the forgiveness and compassion that you would wish from God, and to dwell with God in faith.

All traditions, including Pentacostal ones, are riddled with the traditions of men – how could they not be? We are human and religions are human. The collection of texts called the Bible has a history of its own, and the theory of divine inspiration came after libraries full of unacceptable materials were burned to the ground.

Each way has its resonance and its pitfalls. The Protestantism that emphasized faith and grace also lost much spiritual wisdom. The shallow-minded faith espoused by those such as Pat Robertson is a direct result.

If you take the scriptures seriously, you take them seriously. Why would you then turn your eyes away when you find something you don’t expect? Of course, if you don’t really take them seriously, you are not burdened with them. It’s kind of an either/or choice.

If faith and love direct experience are what is required, scripture is not necessary.

If scripture is necessary, why not learn the Greek, learn the methods of textual analysis, read what others have argued and why? Why not have the courage to test and deepen your faith with knowledge? Paul argued that a faith that cannot examine itself is a weak faith.

There are many religious texts. Even within the Christian traditions, there are the apocrypha, the dead sea scrolls, the philosophies and theologies and attempts to interpret meanings and ethics and mystical experience – hundreds of years worth of this stuff. That’s not even to consider archaeology, anthropology, sociology, myth studies, and all the other related fields of study.

I am sorry that you dropped that class.

I can only be honest with you about where I walk – I can do no other. I have seen evil masquerading as goodness, and once you interact with enough people who have been victims of it, it is hard not to worry about the potential.

So I say to you, beware the feeling that you are right. Beware a simple substitution of one kind of addiction for another. God’s love flows through you when you have chosen it in free will. Sometimes the choice is not rewarded, sometimes the choice is hard. But you will see this for yourself as you journey to the heart of it all. Although you may have episodes of spiritual ecstasy, it’s not all about bliss and being high/drunk on God.

The River Why

There is a wonderful novel called “The River Why” by David Duncan that is basically a spiritual quest novel, but the language is in the context of (of all things) fly-fishing. Now you know that’s not a big interest of mine, but it’s a wonderful read. I taught the book many years ago in a class on Religion and Society, and I reread it every once in a while. It has a good effect on me, kind of a re-alignment effect. It won’t be as overtly Christian as you might like, but I think you would really “get” and enjoy the book.

I have no intention of dampening your enthusiasm! I do understand and even applaud it. I would only say – pay attention, follow your heart, follow the bliss that gives you meaning, not bliss in itself.

Continue to separate the wheat from the chaff using the fruits of the spirit and a love of truth (not denial, deceit, convenience, tradition) as your guides. Pray in thanks and for guidance in love and truth – I think these are the kinds of prayers that matter most.

There are many callings, many gifts, many paths to God. Beware of thinking that one path is the only correct path. God is Love, and the one thing about the main road that I know is that it is paved with soured good intentions. If you uphold as your standard that God is a God of love, it will help to keep you on your path. You seem already to have grasped this, since you say:

“For instance it is all based on faith, hope, and love (agape Divine love, the love of God and Jesus Christ, unselfish, unconditional love) from the Scriptures and yields the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. all the qualities of Jesus).”

Know that you are loved, by God and the cosmos, and by some awkward earth people too.

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