My Christian Baggage

Photo by Noël Zia Lee
Photo by Noël Zia Lee

Yesterday I realized that I have what you might call, “Christian baggage.”

To many, this will come as no surprise. It’s been said as much on post after post, and in the occasional Pagan forum thread. In response, I always said that I didn’t think that label was fair. Most times I think I was correct. To write about or reflect on my Christian past is not, in my opinion, the same thing as having baggage.

Reflection is not baggage. Contemplation is not baggage.

But what happened yesterday was different. In a conversation with my husband about my knee-jerk reaction to a kind, innocuous comment left on my post about going to church by the very priest who gave the inspirational sermon I spoke of, I realized that when I was a Christian I believed — on some level — that my paradigm was the correct paradigm.

By that I mean that when we affirmed in the Creed that there was “one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth…” we were affirming something that was true. It must be true, I thought, even if only in some mysterious, esoteric manner beyond my comprehension, in order for the whole thing (the Gospel, the Jesus, the God) to have meaning.

Also, if my paradigm was true, that meant that other paradigms, if they were different, were not true. For example, if there was only one God, there were not two. If God was the creator of all things, there were no other creators.

Plain and simple.

As I unpacked these ideas I recognized a rigidity within me that I never knew I had. Even if I hadn’t held up cardboard signs proclaiming that my truth was the one and only truth, I stood up in church every weekend and reinforced the idea that my truth was the one and only truth.

Now, there are those for whom the Creed does not serve this purpose: the words are spoken, but not necessarily law. Converts to a creedal tradition, for example, might be capable of taking a more objective stance to their newfound credal affirmations. For them, the value in speaking the Creed aloud might simply be in the strengthening of the group bond.

But as a “cradle Episcopalian,” a child who was speaking “I believe” statements before I could understand what those “I believe” statements even meant, those words have carved a deep groove in me. Even when I no longer speak them, their echo is still present.

My husband suggested that perhaps we re-write the Creed, just as an exercise. Maybe that would release some of its hold on my psyche.

It might start something like…

We believe in this one god,

A father, kind of almighty,

One of the makers of heaven and earth,

Of some things, seen and unseen….

To creedal Christians reading this blog (and I’m not sure there are many of you), I mean no disrespect by this re-write. It isn’t for you, it’s for me. Adjusting the language allowed me to laugh at my own inner rigidity. Speaking these new words out loud made it feel like the old words are in fact not law, but rather one of many ways of believing.

In that moment, there was plurality.

2...3...4? Photo by Paul Gorbould
Photo by Paul Gorbould

My friend William, an ADF Druid, reminds me often that dualism — the view that the universe is divided into opposites like good/evil, right/wrong, heaven/hell — undergirds much of our Western thinking. Even if we profess to be pluralists, we still fall back on dualism as a default. Just look back on all of the conversations we’ve had about Pagan v.s. Polytheist. That’s dualism right there. The entire firestorm about gender-exclusive ritual can be seen as a biproduct of dualistic thinking (i.e. we are either male or female — end of story).

Perhaps dualism is my Christian baggage.

If that is true (or if it is one of many truths), what do I do with that information?

How does one take apart dualism? By introducing a third way? How do you hold the tension for more than two, opposite ways of thinking, being, or doing? How, I wonder, do I work to develop an ongoing personal practice that is relevant to me without slipping into a perspective that holds up my practice as the right way?

Have you stared your own dualism in the face? What did you see? How did you respond?






10 responses to “My Christian Baggage”

  1. elfkat Avatar

    Sometimes gender exclusive ritual is about disenfranchising and marginalizing lesbians from their only safe space due to lesbiphobia.

  2. Evan Avatar

    Ian, I resonate with your concern and wonder about the sweeping nature of many postmodern pluralist claims. I agree with Teo in that the us-vs-them, heaven-and-hell dualistic mentality of medieval monotheism is partly to blame for much cultural regression, not to mention countless atrocities.

    Yes, pluralism exposes a certain set of problems that must be addressed, problems that fundamentalism hasn’t helped solve.

    The world today is marked by two seemingly equal and opposite characteristics. On one hand, we are surrounded by people who view the world very differently from us. On the other hand, all of us hold so tightly to our worldview that it operates for each individual as if it were the only worldview.

    In broad terms, for example, there are New Agers and atheists, deists and pantheists, Christians and Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. The worldviews of each group lead them to live lives very different form each other. At the same time, within each group each person holds a worldview with unique features, often contrary to those of others in the group.

    Pluralism reigns both between and within the groups.

    One might think therefore, that no one would hold his or her worldview tightly. But that is not the case. Pluralism certainly puts pressure on everyone to adopt relativism, but mostly it does not succeed. In fact, each person in every group holds his or her worldview so firmly that, if we look closely, we can discern much of its character by what we see that person do and say.

    The fact is, however, that we usually do not look closely.

    As a result we often fail to understand why other people – even in our own group – vary so widely in their beliefs. “Why do they not agree with us more fully than they do?” we wonder. And in the US almost all of us are still utterly baffled by the mindset of the terrorists of 9/11. Their actions are radically contrary to good sense as we understand it.

    But what if, instead of seeking a way to resolve tension between opposing worldviews, we sought out a better understanding of worldviews themselves?

    A worldview is a commitment. A worldview is a fundmental orientation of the heart. It can be expressed as a story. It can be expressed as a set of presuppositions (which may be true, partially true, or entirely false). It is held consciously or subconsciously, and we readily accept the definition of reality it brings us. It provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.

    What if we understand worldviews that way?

    This notion of a worldview goes a long way toward making sense out of the seemingly senseless. It may not solve all the problems pluralism presents. It may not teach us how to get along with out deepest differences, but it does make sense of our situation.

    That at least is a beginning.

  3. Leona Oigheag Avatar

    I was one of those Catholics who didn’t really believe the creed. Oh I said it at mass, but I never really believed. For me, it was easy to understand polytheism as that was closer to my internal beliefs than monotheism. To me, there is very little that is truly a duality. Even black and white .. is black all/many colors or none? Is white all/many colors or none? It depends on how you create them. Not to mention the multiple colors of “black” … just look in your wardrobe!

    I don’t think that there is a need to hold the tension of dualism. It’s not either/or, it can be both/and. We also need to remember that our beliefs are just that .. OUR beliefs. It’s incredibly hard to prove a spiritual belief to be true .. and I mean true in the way that Ian refers to it .. a truth that transcends individuals. What *is* true for us, is that we believe a certain way. It doesn’t mean that anyone else has to.

    I think that it’s okay to have a practice where you occasionally hold a belief that you’re doing things the right way … as long as you remember that it’s your belief, not the truth. And my way might be the right way for me, even if it’s not the right way for you.

  4. Themon the Bard Avatar

    Ian — and you may find this helpful as well, Teo — I’d like to clarify a bit about Ptolemy.

    We’ve come to accept the heliocentric model of the solar system for reasons of conceptual elegance, but it suffers from something called the “N-body problem,” which is an extension of the “3-body problem” (the simplest instance). If you have three bodies interacting mutually through gravity, the equations of motion do not have a “closed-form analytic solution” — that is, there is no “formula” that will tell you where the three bodies end up over time. So it practice, the heliocentric model leads only to approximate solutions.

    There’s a thing called Fourier’s Theorem, which generally states that any complex periodic motion can be expressed as a sum of appropriately weighted simple periodic motions. There’s no physics behind this: it’s pure math. All you need to know are the weights, which can be determined empirically.

    So when NASA (for instance) computes ephemerides for when Venus will transit the sun, or when a particular moon phase will occur, they give up on the heliocentric model entirely: it leads to hideously complex math, and yields only approximate solutions anyway; furthermore, all of their observational data is NOT three-dimensional coordinates and velocities for the planets, but two-dimensional (spherical) earth-bound observations in geocentric coordinates. It is easier and more accurate to express the motions of the planets by weighted sums of simple periodic motions in geocentric coordinates.

    This is the precise mathematical expression of Ptolemy’s model of crystal spheres turning upon crystal spheres. The weights correspond to the sizes of the spheres.

    My point here is that when you dig deeply enough, many true/false dichotomies — such as Ptolemy versus Copernicus — merge into two different languages accurately describing exactly the same thing. The difference comes down to elegance versus practicality, which is something that exists only in the human mind, and the context of a particular discussion about the subject.

    One God, or many gods? We could say, perhaps, that elegance demands that Godhood be unitary. On the other hand, practicality demands that we deal with different gods on a daily basis.

    Perhaps there is some kind of spiritual Fourier Theorem that say that any God, however complex, can be expressed as a sum of appropriately weighted lesser gods.

    1. Eric Nielson Avatar

      Well said. 🙂

  5. William E. Ashton Avatar

    My own exploration into my liberation from dualistic, oppositional values began with identifying the opposites and moving then closer until they created an interstitial space.

    In this new space, having flavors of both, but being neither in totality, I was able to see other choices (sort of like a “both/and/AND scenario).

    Start your exploration in the border areas of dualism; although its somewhat comfortable, the experience is unique and of its own flavor when an in-between can be found.

    Blessings on your search, Teo… and thanks for the mention. 😉

  6. Eric Nielson Avatar

    I agree with Morgan completely and he beat me to it by a few minutes.

    In a holographic Universe (which we might be living in) both realities might coincide at the same time. Both truths are emergent because both truths are a part the universe expressing itself.

    There are really useful things to be seen when one tries on the paradigm “glasses” of the Christians. There are really useful things to be seen when one tries on the paradigm glasses of the pagans.

    I like costumes, so it’s quite a pleasure to try on as many pairs of cool glasses as possible. The tension comes from the attachment to the “what is real” and the “What is”. In a fractal, always-evolving, always transmuting universe, that can slow you down sometimes.

    Believe less, love your present experience more.

  7. Ian Corrigan Avatar

    I must say that I remain unsure of the ‘my truth/your truth’ notion.
    I suppose that ‘truth’ is an accurate description of reality. People do perceive reality differently, and that makes their interior understanding of reality vary. To describe that understanding is ‘individual truth’ I suppose.

    However I do not hold that reality itself is based upon individual perception. Reality transcends the individual, and an individual’s truth is only as good as it is an *accurate* description of a pre-existing reality.

    This brings us to the unfortunate position of having to assert that some descriptions of reality are mistaken. We know this happens. Ptolemy was wrong about the solar system, Avicenna was wrong about the causes of disease. Both founded systems that endured for centuries.

    So I must assert that monotheism is a mistaken description of the spiritual world. There is not One God, who made all and rules all. People ended up having it as a given because the priests of a specific god insisted on it, and those guys gained policial power.

    Now, is the dualism between true/false an error. I don’t think so. *Moral* dualism is an error – assigning ‘right and wrong’ to various opinions, etc. But correct/mistaken are simply descriptions of reality.

    So when I say monotheism is wrong I don’t mean that it is morally wrong to believe it, I mean only that it is mistaken – it does not describe the real world.

  8. Morgan Daimler Avatar
    Morgan Daimler

    “How do you hold the tension for more than two, opposite ways of thinking, being, or doing? ”

    Why does there need to be tension?
    I think many people struggle with what I call the either/or mindset, a view that only accepts either one statement is true or another is, when often Truth is much larger than our perception of it. Perhaps the first step is letting go of the tension and embracing the flow.

    1. Evan Avatar

      I agree Morgan, the either/or mindset is often unhelpful in most circumstances. So much undue grief would be avoided by our collective realization of that! Truth by definition, if it exists apart from our perception (and I believe it does), must be larger than our perception of it.

      My question pertains to the false dichotomy you presented between “letting go of tension” and “embracing the flow”. I would argue that is the very kind of unhelpful either/or statement you are protesting.

      Ultimately, the existence of opposing world views cannot simply be trumped by the pluralism card. The question is not whether there needs to be tension between opposing thinking. We must acknowledge the tension is there so we can move on to a new set of questions.

      What is a worldview? Can we agree that a worldview is essentially this: A set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world? Upon careful introspection, are there any presuppositions within my own worldview?

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