Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: religion

The God-Shaped Whole

(I’ve been slowing down on the blog posts because of other projects. Gonna have a new thing starting up soon. Stay tuned.)

I still love the Bible. Heck, I still have a thing for reformed theology, and the precise and careful application of a christianly spirituality. Evangelical Christianity features powerful mythos, ritual, and ethics.

But it also features a slow-to-anger-abounding-in-lovingkindess God who considers religious pluralism to be so heinous as to warrant occasional genocide and eternal hell.

And if God, who is love,
is willing to eternally immiserate
the overwhelming majority
of sentient beings
over a defect they cannot remedy
without His direct intervention

well, that could certainly mess up a person’s idea of love, couldn’t it?

If it were swallowed whole.

I’m thinking about the ex-evangelical hashtags and the harsh, brazen, and deeply important stories and conversations attached to them.

#ChristianAltFacts
#EmptyThePews
#HowToEvangelical

There’s a lot of people hurt by the church–not just by the people, or specific conflicts, or isolated incidents–by the whole thing of it because Evangelicalism is a whole life. If you’re unsure what could be wrong with the church, please read some of the threads with these hashtags. And if people seem unduly agitated about the faith we hold dear, consider what could have made them that way.

Morning Devos: Seeing God’s Floor in Exodus 24

One day, at the mountain, God tells Moses to bring the ruling class of Israel up for dinner.

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in its clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink. Exodus 24:10-11

Imagine one of the nobles, coming home after supping with God.

“What was He like?”

“His floor was…so blue. Clear as the sky.”

“But what was He like?”

“He didn’t lay a hand on me.

“…”

Big revelations and encounters cannot be easily put into words. We resort to phrases like, You had to be there, when the story doesn’t hit our hearers the way it hits us. This is probably why most worldviews, besides your own, look trite or foolish or just plain wrong.

Reality created itself by accident? That’s just stupid!

A deity with an elephant head? How silly!

God kills himself to stop himself from killing us? Give me a break!

A dinner party with Yahweh and a shiny blue floor? What a fairy-tale!

Every meaningful experience has something in it that is ineffable. When we meet something real, sometimes the only thing we can put into words is the floor.

And, man oh man, it was clear as the sky.

Palm Sunday Report

It’s Palm Sunday today and I’m a quarter through my year of living christianly. Here’s some observations:

  • It wasn’t hard to lay down a habit of waking early and spending decent time in meditative reading. The habit has opened my mornings up, and it feels like there are more hours in the day.
  • The first few months were emotionally intense. This is a deliberate understatement. I never felt such sadness and anxiety before, though I could sense a healing thread in it all. I think I had to properly mourn my loss of faith a while.
  • I can sit and chew on a piece of myth or devotional reading without believing that any of it actually happened and still find worthwhile nuggets to carry with me and change mt outlook on life.
  • I haven’t been to church for about a month. I’d like to blame school and term papers, but the fact is, church is meant to be a community of like-minded spiritual pilgrims. It grows hard to sit as an outsider. I’ll be back, though.
  • Digging into Scripture and dense spiritual literature is invigorating. I’d forgotten.

 

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”

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.

My Journey #4 – The Turning

It was not hard to decide how to approach a fresh view of Scripture. Jesus first. Always Jesus first. I would start with the Gospels. It was going to be fun, because I had spent most of my spiritual study time with Paul. So I opened up the Gospel of Matthew and everything began to fall apart.

Since I was trying to read it for the first time, his words seemed charged with new power. Love your enemies. Do unto others. Walk the extra mile. Repay evil with good. I had known it all before and had lived a life doing my best to practice it. But I could feel its full weight now and it was incredible. I stood in awe of the Christ all over again.

But there was more underneath the ethics. Something that troubled me when I first saw it. Without Paul as a filter through whom to interpret Jesus, he no longer seemed Evangelical. He spoke of people being saved for acts of charity and damned for an unforgiving spirit. He sat with people of other religions and never tried to convert them.

The next few steps were harder and more complex than I’m able to express in this little post. I had a commitment to be honest with myself and the text, no matter what the authorities said. I began to see inconsistencies. They were nothing new – I had already read the Bible cover to cover more than once. I used to have ready answers for the discrepancies between the inclusive love and compassion of Jesus and the violent intolerance of Moses, Paul and Jehovah. But those ready answers didn’t seem to hold water anymore. Suddenly the stories of the Old Testament were tales of misogyny and genocide.  Paul’s ideas were typical examples of sexism and homophobia.

Those are big things to say, I know. Big huge things that I don’t even bother trying to back up. I bet that’s frustrating, and I’m sorry for that. But my purpose in telling this has never been to ‘de-convert’ anyone. I have no desire to pick apart the Bible and lay it open to specific criticisms in this post. Maybe there will be time for those kinds of discussions in the future. For now, I just want to tell my story. And my story leads me here:

I could not think of a good reason to have ever considered the Bible the authoritative, infallible Word of God in the first place.

Obviously, everything changed after that.

I had only known about sin and atonement through the Bible. I had only felt guilty for failing to keep a cosmic standard of behaviour because of the Bible. I had only believed in a personal God because of the Bible. And now the Bible was just another wonderful piece of literature. That’s when I had to admit a surprising truth to myself – I was in no way a Christian.

My Journey #1 – Purpose

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My name it Matt. I used to be a Christian. I’m not anymore, and I want to tell the story about how that happened.

Topics like these are controversial because most of us are intensely invested in our worldviews. It would be easy to misunderstand the purpose of my telling.

I am not telling the story to defend myself. As an evangelical I would never have been convinced to justify the moves of someone who left the faith. If there was no spirit of Christ, it did not matter how heavy the evidence or profound the experience. No Christ = no good. So I know that no one from where I’ve come from will be able to consider my path as legitimate. I understand that and I don’t begrudge it. I did the same when I heard of brothers and sisters who abandoned Christianity.

I’m not telling the story to draw anyone away from their own faith. Jesus gives the world one of the most powerful ethics I’ve ever seen. If everyone were to adopt his way of doing life, we would have world peace tomorrow. Sure, his ethic generally takes a backseat in the lives of his devotees, but every once in a while someone appears in the Church that takes Jesus’ way of life seriously, and the world is better for those people. I’d hate to pull someone away from that.

Part of the reason I’m telling the story is that everyone wants to be understood. It sucks when the people you love don’t understand you. It sucks when they look at your path, with all its complexities and struggles and nuances, and write it off without understanding how it all happened. And even though I know most of my friends will not understand even after I’ve told my story, heck, at least I tried.

The next four posts will highlight the major signposts in my journey. It is all from my perspective, because that is the only perspective I have the right to speak from. Take it as that. Or don’t. I don’t care, in the end. It is enough that I have had my say.

Ruth’s Last Word

One more guest post from Ruth.  Because she’s got things to say and I’m really tired.

So, as you can imagine, we’ve gotten a lot of emails this week. I’m sure each and every one of them was sent with a spirit of goodwill, but certain spoken/unspoken aspects of the communication have gotten me down, and I’d just like to express my feelings about them.

We have been married for more than nine years. Over this time we’ve developed a very special relationship. And not just in the normal way all relationships are special. I mean there is something weirdly uniquely special going on here that basically overcomes and destroys all joy-stealing obstacles in our path. Matt has changed over the years, but the thing that has not changed even the tiniest bit is that strange, wonderful relationship. I get the impression from others that our relationship is expected to suffer because of the different ways we view the world now. That sounds like a cop-out. Relationships suffer if the people in them are willing to let them suffer. There’s no other reason for it at all. In our situation, there is no obstacle to our walking together in perfect harmony, in spite of our disagreements. Matt’s different views have not turned him into some strange, new bizarro Matt.

There’s another idea that floats around the church that if you hang out with people who are outside the church you may get pulled along with them. But if someone’s faith can be injured by the people they hang out with, what kind of faith is that? Is that the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit the Bible talks about? I’ve never understood it when people try to avoid ‘bad people.’ The ‘others.’ The ones who are on the ‘outside.’ I’ve never understood it because those are the very people that Jesus hung out with the most. Matt encourages my faith. He’s never tried to impose his views on me, even though we often have lots of discussions about those high things.

And, lastly, I appreciate everyone’s prayers, but don’t be sad for me. I’m quite happy. I have the Three Things: Faith, Hope and Love. The best is Love.

PS – I love you, Matt

The one that clarifies things

I’ve written quite a few drafts of this over the summer. They were mostly long and had all manner of shiny points and quips. I didn’t really like any of them. Some of them were preachy and others sounded snarky. One of them read like a guy desperate to avoid misunderstanding, and so the text was long and meandering and sure to cause misunderstanding. So the best way, I decided this morning, is to keep things tight and brief.

I am not a Christian.

It’s partially my fault that even this statement needs a bit of clarification. As an evangelical I tried to distance myself from words like Christian and religion because I felt they had been hijacked by systems that did not represent Jesus in the way I saw him. So there needs to be just a little more clarity.

I think Jesus was an amazingly insightful man.
I think the Bible is an important piece of literature.
It’s been a long and complex road from where I was to where I am.

Only the tiniest tip of my walk has been expressed on-line. In the weeks to come I’ll use this blog to unpack some of my thoughts on the journey and how I look at the universe now. But it’s important to be brief when talking about big heavy things, so I won’t say much more right now.

Sunshine

Source: ruthconscious.tumblr.com

I’m open and approachable and would love to hear from you, either in public comments or private messages. I know a lot of folks don’t like using the Internet for important talks, but I think with care and mindfulness any medium can be awesome for clear, friendly communication, even when dealing with subjects as heavy as this one.

One last thing: I love you. I may be out, but I don’t even have a drop of negative feelings toward where I’ve come from or the people and institutions that have shaped me. I am happier than I have ever been in my life, both in magnitude and consistency, and that would never have been possible without my past.

Looking forward to many wonderful talks,

Matt

The thing about religion

The best, most exciting questions of the universe are the ones that can’t be figured out empirically.  Is there a God?  What is morality?  Who am I?  Why?  Why?  Why?

Unless I’m religious.  Then there’s a book for that.

Is there a God?  Look it up.
Who am I?  Look it up.
How shall I treat my neighbour?  Look it up.
Who can I love?  Look it up.

Even when the answers don’t make sense, with religion they are still, somehow, true.

The thing about religion is that it tries to convince me that the best questions of life, the most exciting ideas, are empirical.  That they are waiting for me in a book, if only I’d read it.

The other thing about religion, is that I’m done with it.  Finally and joyfully done.