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It’s been a busy few weeks. I’m taking a couple classes at a seminary (online, thankfully), and they’re certainly keeping me occupied. So far it’s been the good kind of busy, though, and I’m definitely enjoying what I’m learning.
I once heard someone refer to seminary as the place faith goes to die, or something to that effect. That hasn’t been my experience, although it does help that I’m not actually Christian; I’m monotheistic, for sure, but more Christian-adjacent. I don’t subscribe to some of the core tenants that you have to subscribe to in order to actually be Christian. But I’m still interested in theology, history, textual criticism, all of that stuff, and I’ve wanted to improve my religious education for awhile.
But I do understand how learning some of this stuff could affect someone’s faith. The early history of Christianity is full of examples of things being done differently, at the least, and it’s easy to question whether things have improved (I personally think that in many ways it has not). Meanwhile, being exposed to how different the early Christians were on various doctrinal issues could also be difficult, as it shows there has never really been a consensus beyond some broad strokes, and even that took a few hundred years to develop (depending on the issue). The same is true for theology more generally: having to think about how you got to where you did could doubtless be disconcerting.
For myself, I’ve noticed that I have to be careful trying to over-analyze certain aspects of my own faith. There’s a point after which reason just doesn’t work anymore, and trying to force it is not going to lead anywhere good. Trying to cram a logical framework on religious belief is simply using the wrong tools for the job.
While I’ve enjoyed what I’m learning, as I said, I did find myself facing some disappointment at one point. Exploring this further, and I realized that on some level I was looking for some new truth about my own faith and its basis. As I’ve said, of course, this can’t be based on logical extrapolation (or at least not predicated on it), so this was doomed to fail.
Take the Bible, for example. I’ve studied it some, but still don’t quite know how to take it in my own personal theology. There is no original text, really, as it was copied hundreds of times and things changed as a result. (My copy of the Greek New Testament is the best we’ve been able to reconstruct so far.) Meanwhile, it didn’t even start being written down until after Jesus’ death. There are also plenty of things that, to me, seem clearly to have been done to make Jesus sound more legitimate (the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew, for example). Did Jesus really take on the godhead? Examples abound. But this doesn’t mean everything it has to say, particularly in terms of Jesus’ specific teachings, aren’t really worth listening to.
Anyway, I think I was hoping for some kind of guidepost about how to approach Scripture, and so far no luck. Even the discussions about Biblical theology that we’ve had so far have assumed a Christian take on the Bible, i.e. as a legitimate source of Christ’s life and teachings. The debate is more about literalism vs. types vs. allegory, how to apply historical criticism, that kind of thing. Not useless, but not really what I was hoping for, either. I’m not incredibly surprised, looking back, as this kind of substantive change just doesn’t seem likely based on learning more history or whatever.
As I think about it more, I think it’s really that I’m feeling stuck. Or better said, I’m afraid that I am. I’m worried that my religious life isn’t really growing anymore, and that I’m somehow tailoring my religious beliefs to justify what I already think. At the same time, I don’t feel like blindly following some other teacher (living or dead) is the right answer, either. But it seems unlikely that I’ve “solved” my own faith, either. Meanwhile, it seems like so much of theology is concerned with things that are either unanswerable or irrelevant. It’s the reason I’m non-trinitarian, for example: it’s a fight about an arbitrary way to conceptualize the Divine, which is not something we can fully conceptualize anyway. Analogies are the only way we can remotely understand, so I don’t understand most of the fuss over how those analogies are formulated. Rarely is it going to make a practical difference.
There’s a related feeling here. I was recently talking to someone I know online about his finding a community and source of identity in the nation his ancestors came from. He talked about feeling like having a home for the first time. Since then, I’ve been realizing how much I myself feel homeless in this way. I don’t identify with my country, I’m not a member of a specific religious group, I don’t even have a sports team that I care about. I really don’t understand how these kinds of identities develop, and how I would go about finding one. I think having something by which to define my faith is part of this, and that on some level I was hoping my studies might lead to some kind of group identity. A sense of belonging, perhaps.
You may be interested in a book a friend of mine had me read recently by David Dark, entitled 'Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious'. I actually wasn't a huge fan of the book, but that has far less to do with its merits and more to do with my own disposition toward all things religious. To that end, I've recommended the book to three people in just the last week. I think it would speak to several of your concerns, albeit somewhat vaguely, perhaps, seeing as his interpretation of what the word "religion" ought to mean is far broader and more abstract than is typical. But nevertheless, especially as concerns the need to belong, it's worth checking out.
Do you suppose you're looking for a path forward in your religious life through something other than reason? As you say, reason ceases to be at all applicable sooner or later. I wonder how you might be affected by a stint of regular religious meditation. Sitting in quiet contemplation or appreciation need not be uncomfortably 'reasonable', for lack of a better word.
To some extent I envy the religious trust in scripture. I've always found the story of Augustine's conversion beneath the fig tree oddly moving.
I'm also very intrigued at the prospect of studying in a seminary. To be honest, with regards to its material commitments, I've often thought I would be well-suited to the role of Rabbi. Is there something in particular you intend to do with the credentials of your religious education once it's concluded?
Best of luck to you in your pursuits :-)
To me it's seemed like this of late:
Faith is "heart" functionality, not head.
"Heart" is in the vicinity of source of raw, discrimination-less attention.
"Head" is concepts/words, i.e. modeling.
Mistaking modeling (head stuff) for reality (heart stuff) is a huge, but common mistake.
Let the words/modeling go, which leadeth unto the "still, quiet place" (aka "heart" aka "raw attention"), where it all suddenly become a-conceptually (i.e. without being drowned/noised out by conceptuality/modeling) obvious.
At the risk of sounding ridiculous for using words :-) , the following gets me there almost every time:
"abide in awareness
with no illusion of person
you will be instantly free and at peace"
where I take "person" to mean "personal I-thought", i.e. "me", i.e. the conceptual model of a me, i.e. the head of the grand nesting of conceptuality eventually branching out to seemingly be The World.....
The "abide" part feels as though attention redirected from ex-perience to inwardly, i.e. upon/toward itself, raw attention sinking back toward its source, and poof... (i.e. words can't go there for being modeling, re-presentation (aka "again-presentation")).
Something like that. ;-)
(IMPORTANT NOTE: Should the above seem laughable gibberish to you, don't forget the "to you" part. I don't expect those who've not ingested "spiritual"-related conceptuality in ways/quantities/combinations different than I to wind up with the same mental/modeling "meaning" consistency, i.e. for your modeling to wind up objectively identical to mine.)
I relate to quite a few points here. I'm also a monotheist without a particular religion. In my case, I think a lot of that is ignorance on my part - I really do need to sit down and read through the New Testament at least.
Your questioning of the Bible also makes sense to me, which is a particularly interesting topic of conversation with Muslims, who might tell you that the stories of Jesus have indeed been distorted and that the Quran corrects the distorted messages. Then again, the Quran is also perhaps not invincible, as it was originally spread orally, and the standardised version now known was not necessarily the version Muhammad would have approved of. I've heard that the Twelver Al-Jamia would correct any distortions there, but that's pretty esoteric and only supposed to be revealed in the end-times.
I think it's a shame that group-identity and religion are so closely linked, especially amongst Muslims and Christians. Surely if God has sent a messenger, the goal is for the whole world to be united by the message - so there are none left not following the message - and therefor no group identity to be found in following the message? By finding value in the religious group identity, are you profiting from the ignorance of others? Of course, there is going to be some identification with anything this important, but that is very different to finding a religion for identity reasons - if that makes sense?
Hopefully that didn't come across too aggressively, because I do also relate to you there. A lot of my identity came from the town I was born in, so moving elsewhere for university made me double-down on national-identity which just didn't compare, and even now my identity seems quite tightly-wrapped up in specific worldviews held by specific forums, which even if I don't quite agree with them now I cannot pry myself from because I have nothing to replace them with. It is as if I need something to point to to say "this is what I believe, here are my answers".
Good luck - I'm sure your religious life will continue to grow as long as you keep living. I think to an extent it is easier to learn new deeper things from actions and life experiences than from dedicated studying.
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