Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: faith

What it Would Take to Believe

There’s beauty in the idea that we are chosen, and our reward will be worth any amount of suffering. There’s power in the idea that the Omnipotence indwells a believer. It’s great to believe that no matter how bad things get, the One in control of the cosmos has my back.

I’d wager it sounds trite to most unbelievers. The power of Evangelicalism is a bit like the harm of cultural appropriation: you can’t understand it unless you know the whole story. And even then there’s something important lost in translation.

See, every human restlessness and ache and shame and attachment is because of innate brokenness. Our souls are bent before birth, and our bodies reflect it. Ours is a world of exiles, so far from God that we wouldn’t believe the truth even if it slapped us in the face and sent us all to hell. Cut off from reason, we suffer and cause others to suffer until we die and reap suffering’s fulfillment.

Some are saved when God breathes life into their dead spirit, rips the scales from their eyes, gives them a heart of flesh instead of the stone inside. These ones are set apart. No matter what suffering they go through it will not be comparing the eternal weight of glory prepared for them through Christ.

I used to believe all that.

The year of living christianly is not about trying to recapture that belief–it seems dishonest to set out trying to attain any specific belief. But the other day someone asked me what I wanted from God. What would God have to do to prove that he was real? Well, faith is a gift of God, lest anyone boast. If God wanted to prove himself real to me, he would have to give me faith.

so either you aren’t real

or I am just not chosen

maybe I’ll never know

either way my heart is broken

– Derek Webb, “Goodbye, for now”

Morning Devotions

The main thing that bugged me about the State of the Union was the way Trump wove Christian narratives in his speech to co-opt religion into his uncompassionate policies. Even when I was a Believer I squirmed when politics stuck its greasy fingers into Faith. Faith almost never comes away clean when she screws around with politics.

So I’m going to talk about daily devotions this morning instead.

I get up around six. It’s dark and cold and I have to push away immediate feelings of hatred for all life. I don’t feel like a morning person during the first few minutes of consciousness.

I splash water on my hands and face. It’s cold because I won’t wait for the tap to warm up. The bathroom light is blinding that early. But now I am waking up.

I’m a morning person by the time I sit at my desk. I start with prayer.

I address my prayers to God—turns out I can still do that, even though I don’t think he’s real. I express my gratitude at the good things in my life. As I express, I recognize more and more good that I would not have noticed without a morning habit. Then I look to my struggles. Where do I want work/development/growth/sanctification? I close my prayers with a quiet spirit of willingness. I want wisdom. I am willing to listen.

In this spirit, I read.

Usually I read the Bible. I’ve read it cover-to-cover a few times, and I’ll do it again this year. I read slowly, with a journal and pen beside me. I read like a man looking for treasure in his basement. I almost always walk away with something, which is more than I can say about listening to the State of the Union.

Introducing a Year of Living Christianly

A boy walks through dark woods on a clear path he knows will lead to a celestial city until one day he emerges at an open field and the path is gone and he stands there saying, Well now what am I supposed to do?

I lost faith five years ago. Christ was all-in-all, so it meant losing identity, community, and my life’s purpose. It’s been a rough go, learning to live without faith. I’m starting to get the hang of it.

But I think about the Pilgrim’s Path all the time. I remember it being beautiful, for the most part, and worthwhile. So I’ve decided to go back for a visit. To get a torch and bag and walk the walk a bit. I don’t believe in God, so I can’t actually be a Christian, but I can do a year of living christianly.

In fact, I started last month.

Question: What is a year of living christianly?
A year of living christianly will be marked by these three facets: christianly ethics, christianly habits, and christianly stories. At all events, this means daily prayer and devotional reading, regular church attendance, and an attempt as sermon-on-the-mount styled love. I’m sure it will mean more, but this is the start.

Question: Why are you doing this?
First, to walk the Path again, for its own sake, to see what was lovely about it.
Also, to recapture some of the disciplinary power that the Christian walk seems to give. These years I’ve resonated with Bree the horse who lost the ability to push himself after he found freedom.
Finally, to open conversation about faith, its loss and change, and the stuff that comes after.

Question: Besides reading and prayer and going to church, what will you be doing?
Sharing. In a lot of ways I feel like I’ve been hiding from the world for five years. I plan to write about my experiences and invite conversations and review books. I plan to do things I haven’t thought of yet. Maybe you have a great idea for me.

Question: There’s a zillion kinds of Christianity, which one is informing the year of living christianly?
Evangelicalism forms the foundation I interpret Christianity through. That being said, I am interested in what other traditions have to say. That being said, I reserve the final judgement of whether an ethic, habit or story is christianly for myself. Kinda like every other pilgrim.

Question: Are you making fun of Christianity?
No, I’m being earnest.

Question: I have a book you should read for this!
Great! Tell me about it and I may add it to my growing reading list.

Question: Why don’t you just keep it simple and be a Christian again?
Because I do not think a personal Fathergod exists, and to pretend I do would be an insult to reason and religion. For this reason I also won’t be taking part in any sacraments like the Lord’s Supper.

Question: I have a question!
Ask! Comment or Facebook or Twitter or email or smoke signal. Let’s talk.

An Unmarked Bible

After I lost faith, someone mailed a Bible to me. It was my own Bible, misplaced years ago and given up for lost. It was good to hold it and let it open to worn, weathered pages. Some sections are positively brown from exposure.20170308_122719

These days, my projects have sent me looking into the past, at faith and fundamentalism and worship. My Bible is open on my desk, and I often run my eyes over familiar passages with great tenderness. The other day I found a verse that had been highlighted. I know I didn’t do it–when I bought this Bible I had decided to never mark it. It was lost for years, so there’s no way to guess who marked it, or why, or what the verse means to them:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18

Having never had much wisdom or knowledge, I can’t say whether this is true or not. But I do like Ecclesiastes, and one of the positive things about being faithless is that I can take these words whichever way I can muster, or just leave them altogether. Or flip over a few pages to other words that say other things.

Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Enjoy life with the ones you love, all the days of your vain life, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil. Whatever your hand finds to do with your might, do it. For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

With the Sufis in Toronto

Back when I was a religious man, a dear Sufi friend invited me to his prayer and meditation group. Many religious people try to avoid too much exposure from the competition, and I couldn’t blame them. We grow up with stories about unwary sheep stolen by wolves. But I rarely entertained fears that my faith could be destroyed. I believed either my truth was unshakeable and therefore priceless, or else it would prove vulnerable and I could dig deeper to find the unshakeable.

Featured imageWe met in a family apartment, and even though my friend hadn’t told the others I was coming, they didn’t bat an eye at me or my flashy yellow tie. I joined them with a guileless heart, open to whatever wisdom they had for me.

We recited mantras and slipped kidney beans into little bowls. We meditated on the colour blue with our eyes closed. We heard a woman’s simple sermon on love. I stayed in the house of the Sufis for hours, talking about Pakistan, love, and the price of mangoes. But mostly about love.

My faith shook and fell apart some years later and at first glance you’d think it was the foundational things that crumbled. But it wasn’t. The things we call foundational are usually just distinctives–the things we believe that separate us from them: Which books to trust, if any. Which prophets to venerate, if any. Which creators to call on, if any.

It’s hard to touch the fundamental parts of spirituality because of the clutter we surround them with. But the most solid things are deeper than mantras and kidney beans, richer than bread and wine. They are surer than scripture and reach further than prophecy. Those gentle Sufis knew the fundamentals and here’s the proof: If everyone in the world had their same heart, their spirituality, the kingdom of heaven would be here already.

The thing about Reason

They tell me that I should not rely on my Reason.  It’s faulty, after all.  Prone to bias and laziness.  It’s a good point.  But what should I rely on, then?  Which rule is higher or more reliable than my Reason?

The Absolute is higher.  That it makes sense.  There’s nothing Absolute about me.  So I’ll never be Absolutely right on my own.

But where is the Absolute?  Well, that depends on who I ask.

When I ask the religious friend, they point to God.  Rather, they use their Book to point to God.  Makes sense.  But how can I know that the Book is from / pointing to the Absolute?  I can only see one way of justifying a Book: by weighing and judging it through my imperfect but thoroughly lovely Reason.

Sure, I suppose I could engage it through other faculties.  A friend once told me he trusted his Book because of the positive spiritual feeling it gave him when he read it.  But I get similar feelings when I listen to Matt Redman, Noah and the Whale, and the Portal 2 soundtrack.

Others have told me to engage the Book with Faith.  I’ve never been clear on what that means.  It sounds like accepting something with the kind of trust a child might have.  If that were a good route I’d just accept whatever Book I was first given.

No, it’s my Reason that needs to be convinced that a certain Book or Word comes from the Absolute.

My Reason isn’t perfect.  It’s like a sharp tool.  It’ll hurt me if I use it wrong.  It’ll dull if I use it wrong.  I’ve misused it in the past, I expect I’ll misuse it in the future.  I’d wager I’m misusing it in some way now.  Sure.  But it seems to be one of the best tools I have.  And using it clumsily is better than not using it at all.

Tea with the landlord

Kunri, Sindh.  2006

Our landlord lives in the flat below us. He invites me over for tea in the evening, after the nap. His place is nicer than ours. I like ours better, though. We have the roof. It’s one of the biggest buildings in Kunri—three storeys. And the high walls on the roof make it look taller, though they do spoil our view.

I sit with my landlord on the charpai. His English is good, and I’m grateful. I’ve only been in Pakistan a year and Urdu still makes me nervous. We talk about all sorts of things. He asks me about my family. He asks me about Canada. Strange, I don’t seem to ask him much.

He brings up religion. They always do here. I’m eager on this subject. I take control. I make my argument. Tight and powerful. I show the weak spot in his (what shall I call it?) cosmology. Proved. Done. QED.

But he doesn’t get it. He has no answer, but he is unconvinced. Seeing that the stakes are raised, he throws his own attack at me. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Nothing I haven’t thought of before. It doesn’t faze me. I have no answer to give him, though. And the look on his face tells me he thinks he’s won something.

The conversation moves on, I suppose. I hardly notice. If only I’d had more time, I could have told him something clearer. Something that would have helped him see what I see. It’s just so obvious from my side, and I can’t understand why he can’t see it. He’s not an idiot, after all. I wonder, as we shake hands and I turn to go home, if he is thinking something similar about me.

I don’t sleep much that night. It’s hot. My bed is on the roof, nuzzled by winds that have been gentled by the high walls. I stare at the stars and ask my silent God to sow a seed in my landlord’s heart. To crack the hard shell of his delusion.

At least as much as he’s cracked mine.

My Journey #5 – Not all who wander are lost.

I guess that nearly leads us to the present, in wide, sweeping brush-strokes. There was no way to tell the whole complex story, but I told enough to be comfortable with.

I also feel comfortable enough to share hints about where I seem to be right now. Not because people will understand and accept it, but because I don’t feel like I need understanding or acceptance. And, man, it feels awesome to no longer need those things.

I’ve gotten some private feedback from people wondering what I’ve replaced Christianity with. The short answer is nothing. I have not found, nor looked for, anything to replace the all-pervasive hold that Christianity had on my life.

Zen-circle-symbol

That being said, I’m into Zen, which is as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone else.  I don’t actually have anything to say about it right now.  I used to think it was a silly empty thing. And it totally is, but not in the way I thought. If you look into Zen you’ll probably get frustrated by the cryptic one-liners the old Zen masters liked to throw around.  Don’t be too hard on them.  Zen can’t be expressed without either sounding ridiculous or completely misrepresenting it. Much like the best parts of Christianity (1 Cor. 1:23).

People will say I’m wandering. And I am. I totally am. But that doesn’t make me lost, despite what my friends may say. I can’t say where I am or where I’m going, but I love this journey. And I’m always home. My destination is in each step.

Also,
I love you.
And I bet you love me, too.

My Journey #3 – Hell

Every evangelical has to question hell eventually, unless they’ve had the humanity stripped from them. The idea of a loving God forever tormenting billions because they did not put their faith in Christ grates the teeth. Calvinism has a ready defense for hell: God is just, and when it looks like he isn’t just, it’s only because I am totally depraved and can’t see what real justice is. So even though it seems unjust to torment billions forever, it’s actually hunky-dory.

I used to do personal little theological studies. There was nothing better than opening up the Word, grabbing a pencil and notebook and working through some meaty theological problem. I picked up the study of hell a year or two after returning to Canada. To my surprise, though, I couldn’t find it.

Anywhere.

The Bible presents the two roads of a life following God and a life rebelling against him as a life / death battle, not a life / torture battle. The wages of sin is death. Those who do not believe will perish. Many verses use fire as an image of judgment, but I realized that fire is mainly used to make an end of a thing, not to torture it. A few passages in Revelation seemed to hint at something that sounded like the traditional view of hell, but Revelation is all manner of crazy, and I was not comfortable building a doctrine of hell from it alone.

I realized that if I had come to the Bible without going through the church first, I never would have come up with this idea of hell. Especially considering that the Gospels paint a picture of a God so loving that He was willing to sacrifice Himself to save (some of) humanity. I wondered if I was becoming an annihilationist. I wondered what this would do to my Calvinism.

And then Rob Bell showed up and everything went nuts.

You should have seen it.  The Internet blew up with anger over this geeky pastor who wrote an artsy book that suggested our ideas of hell were wrong. One of the most influential pastors in my own life excommunicated him on Twitter before the book even came out. It gave me a chill. Would that anger have been directed at me if I had shared some of the things Scripture was showing me? I had a realization:

My faith tradition had sacred cows–at least one of which I hadn’t noticed until now. How many more unjustifiable things did I believe?

I had to attempt a fresh look at the Scripture. And I had to do it no matter what the Internet said, because Truth was, and is, so much more important than the objections of friends.

My Journey #2 – Calvinism

I was a Christian. I sought after God through the Spirit. I preached in church and counseled at Bible camp and I knew that neither of those things meant anything. I was born of God and striving to live by the Spirit. So when high school ended, I signed up for Bible college.

CalvinInsignia

KLBC was the best time of my life, up to that point. I had never had such deep relationships as the ones I formed there. I had never met such deep and committed followers of Jesus. I dug through Scripture for treasures like the proverbial master of the house (Matt. 13:52). I met my wife there. I also met Calvinism.

Have you ever encountered a beautiful philosophy? A set of ideas that makes you pause, take a step back and go, “Wow”? Calvinism was one of those philosophies (or doctrines, if you prefer). From the outside, it seemed harsh and heavy, but when I dug a bit, I found something lovely. Much of Scripture seemed to imply it, and it in turn illumined much of Scripture. I was quickly convinced of its truth and I used it as I went through the next seven or eight years of my life. It wasn’t my God–it was a useful framework to understand Him.

Even though the denomination I was raised in was started by Calvinists, the philosophy had since fallen out of vogue. For the first time ever, I was standing a little bit away from the rest of my church on an issue of doctrine. Not very far, of course. But far enough for me to notice a difference. That difference allowed me to realize something I had already known:

It was up to me and the Spirit to explore the Bible and discover what I could about God, the universe and everything. While I was always willing to listen to my church, my tradition, my professors, I realized that I had to judge and seek out the answers for myself.

Even when the answers I found put me at odds with the people I loved.