A harmonious installment of the Heterodox and Fine, I Guess series
So here I was, mid-January, opened up to the idea that there could be more spiritual activity in the world than I’d previously perceived. That’s a fair assumption for anyone, can we agree? But it’s uncomfortable when people start taking you up on it. The kind of intellectual “humility” I’m used to goes something like: God is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. God is beyond our imagination and understanding. But God is definitely not THAT. Or that. Or that, or that, or that. There’s zero chance that the mystery of God could include multiple religious truths, the pull of the moon, revelation through nature, or any interpretation of the Bible even slightly different from this interpretation. But other than that, there’s SO much we don’t know.
Also, the intellectually humble pastor would add, of course when we get to heaven we will find out that we were wrong about some things. But if you disagree with me on this, this, this, or this, you’re going to hell.
I’ve never met a pastor or professor who would claim to know everything…or be potentially wrong about anything, specifically.
But more and more people around me were expressing interests in things like astrology and crystals and once I’d recovered from the eyestrain of rolling my eyes so hard, I decided to ask, “why? Why do people put so much stock in this stuff?”
So I just started to learn about the history and mechanics of astrology. I got a workbook and decided to “yes, and,” the ancient mystic arts. The wise men were astrologers, right? Follow a star to another country in search of a king? You’re in deep.
I listened to the podcast Skyline Drive and worked through Astrology for Yourself, and I’ll admit…I was surprised by how often the stars were spot on. Maybe the interpretations were vague and general enough to be true of anyone, but if nothing else, by seeing the semi-general guidance in myself and my life, I was looking deeper in and asking myself the kinds of questions that lead to revelation, transformation, and gratitude. Does Saturn, the great limit-setter, really show up most in my relationship to my children? Am I born to be a cycle-breaker as my chart’s placements of Pluto, Uranus and Part of Fortune would suggest? Is Cancer rising really the reason people think I’m nicer than I am? I don’t know, but all those things are true about me and so relating to them in an open and instructive way has made a huge difference.
Later, Moira got really into gems and Asa got really into runes. Same process. Skepticism gives way to curiosity, which gives way to exploration, which ends in learning. I don’t know about reading the future, but I’m sure learning to use what psychologist Lisa Miller would call my “awakened brain” that looks for connection, meaning, and spiritual value in the world.
Not long after I started tinkering around with astrology, Reza Aslan came to town. I’d always wanted to read his book Zealot, and this was the perfect opportunity. Fast forward three days, and the next phase of my intellectual deconstruction is in full swing. Suddenly I don’t know anything. I started reading more, looking for answers. Turns out, we know VERY little about historical Jesus of Nazareth, and have relied heavily on the story telling of ancient writers decades and decades after the Jesus events, most of whom were trying to build a new religion. These were people in conversation with Greek philosophy, various strands of Judaism, a growing awareness of various mythologies. They had merchants and traders among them, political groups, and religious factions. There was a lot going into the creation of Christianity besides whatever Jesus of Nazareth said and did. I don’t think this discredits Christianity at all, but it ought to let the air out of the dogma a little.
So I started digging around looking for the ways an awareness of God and the religious or spiritual impulse has played out in human history. And that, my friends, has led to my largest pile of books yet. At one point I told Lewis I would have to go back to school. This is important, because that desire came from a protective part of myself that if afraid of losing whatever shred of credibility I have from being a very rational journalist, dealing in facts. If I was going to depart from the Christian Things We Know ™ then I needed to find another Things We Know ™ to replace it. No making shit up.
“But Bekah,” you say, “you’ve been deconstructing for years! You’ve already come out as a looser ‘inspired but not inerrant’ Bible person, and someone who is comfortable with the answer ‘I don’t know, but love compels me.'”
Yeah, yeah, you’re right. But that was about Biblical interpretation and social ethics. Two out of many components of Christianity, albeit, huge ones. I was, if you’ll remember from an earlier post, a frequent guest at the “the Bible can authoritatively support progressive social positions” cafeteria table, and a passport-holding resident of the table that’s trying not to piss anybody off. That is very, very different from saying all religions are equally valid, or God may very well work through the push and pull of the stars.
I’d gone down the Richard Rohr Universal Christ path a long time ago, thinking of HISTORICAL Jesus as a savior of all, and the Bible as best read with a happy ending for all in mind. It was still Christianity, it was just Christianity for everybody. This new thing was the search for the root of it all. I was (am?) on the hunt for the wellspring that gave us Christianity and so much more. But it gets even more destabilizing: if God is truly in all things, does there have to be exclusivity between natural explanations and spiritual ones? Can the coincidences of astrological accuracy be explained away by genetics and other factors? Or can they be two expressions of a coherent God in nature?
As I read, I started to see spiritual life like a spool of yard in a river. If you drop the whole spool in the river of time, trying to keep it as a cohesive whole, it will slowly unravel and change shape, tangling and snagging, but it will only really be connected to one part of the river at a time. It’s shape will be more “of the moment” than it wants to admit. If, however, we tie one end of the yarn to something, a rock or an overhanging branch, the yarn will unravel quickly, and it will be connected to many parts of the river at once. It will take the shape of the whole river as it unwinds. Spirituality wrapped up in a rigid certainty and ritual is like the whole spool. It’s being changed by the river, but it won’t admit it, and the changes are treated as aberrant. Spirituality rooted in a fundamental desire to connect to God and God’s world has one fixed point, and isn’t afraid to be shaped by the river. You can’t tie yourself to the fixed point if you’re committed to keeping your shape.
This new thing, this search for the core pursuit that unites all faiths, was something new and terrifying. But the fact that it happened during my year of mysticism was, I now realize, no accident. If I wanted to be open to a bigger, more mysterious and profound experience of God, I had be open to a bigger, more mysterious and profound vision of God. If I wanted to feel connected to Spirit, I had to stop setting my limits before we’d even jumped in. It was like getting in a race car and saying, “I want to see how fast this car can go, and I only want to go 80 miles per hour.”
We had to take the governor—my use of Christianity as the plumbline for all other religions and experiences of God—off.
Of course, my protector parts were absolutely flipping their m-fing lids. Where they come from, leaving orthodoxy—and now we were REALLY leaving it—is how you become exiled. But there was a stronger voice, and it was growing. And growing. It was irresistible. I can’t explain how this happened, because my protector parts are strong, authoritative, and they do not slack. As the months rolled by and the world religions reading and chart observing went on, the guidance of the Spirit became impossible to ignore. I saw changes in myself, that spilled over into changes in my family for the better. More love. More joy. More peace. More patience. More kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Bible verses that had been turning my stomach for a decade suddenly blossomed with life-giving truth as I saw their counterparts in Zoroastrianism, Doaism, Mohism, and Buddhism.
Jesus’s death and resurrection to free humankind from sin? The big “well whatabout” that sets Christianity apart. The thing you have to confess and believe if you want to be a Christian. I’d given up penal substitution a long time ago, in favor of the historical Christus victor doctrine. Now the event itself was beginning to occupy a different category of truth—I still trust it as breaking the bonds of death, the triumph of God. But I have no choice but to put it in a different historical category from, say, the birth of my children, which I saw with my own eyes. Or even the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which, while probably shrouded in some of its own myths, is still verifiable enough for most of us who accept space-time as it is perceived, because the thing is hanging in a museum. What does it do to move the foundation of your faith into an actual category of faith and not fact?
It puts the spool of yarn into the river.
Sorting through the overlap and departure in various religions was a workout for my cognitive brain. They couldn’t all be correct, not in the way it is correct to say that our bodies are made of cells. But the followers of other Ways have just as much faith and fidelity as I have ever had in Jesus’s Way. I’ve always known that, but now I was seeing just how similar (and different) these Ways were to my faith in a dying and rising Christ who defeats evil and enlightens us to the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we can do unto others as we would have done unto us. It was a lot.
In the middle of this, a friend confessed that they were open to astrology, mediumship, anything they could try to get some guidance in a tricky situation. They asked if my exploration had turned up anything useful. This is a super rational person, brilliant and scientifically minded, and they admitted that they felt a little desperate or silly. Was it ridiculous to search for meaning in the stars?
I was deep in meditation one evening, listening for patterns in a rain storm, which seemed to be making a sort of song. Was I hearing that right? Was the rain making a symphony with the frogs and the wind? But then there would be off-croaks, and irregular drips from the gutter, and the wind never stayed on beat. Was I hearing a symphony, or just noise? Was it ridiculous to search for meaning in the stars? Are all religions just desperate attempts to fill a silence where we want God to be?
The answer to my friend’s question, and mine, came clearly, in articulate words, while I was deep in conversation with God, surrounded by nature going full force: God is calling. Religion is our attempt to answer. We have the Creator’s Spirit. We decide what is symphony. What is noise. What is silence.