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Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Three


Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Religious to Atheist to Religious Again

And now, a couple examples of Stage IV people, both from the Christian tradition, and as much information as you want about the way they think (since each has written books). Both were religious when younger, then became atheists, and then later in life became Christians again. (Umm, well mostly. Not exactly sure what religious label Karen Armstrong identifies as. She is a religious scholar, and seems to put a great value on religion though. So I’ll put her in Stage IV in Peck’s framework, as I think it fits reasonably well.)

From the quoted excerpts below, I think it’s fairly clear that they are not fundamentalists. You’re unlikely to hear either quote read from the pulpit of a church, including more liberal churches. So clearly they don’t blindly believe the Bible as inerrant. And yet both find some level of profound truth in the Bible and in religion, although their beliefs are quite different from their views when younger, and quite different from fundamentalists too.

Leo Tolstoy

Yes, that Tolstoy. The famous Russian guy that wrote the monstrously large books that you probably haven’t read but are meaning to someday.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy by Leo Tolstoy:

“The significance of the Gospel is hidden from believers by the Church, from unbelievers by Science.”

The Gospel In Brief by Leo Tolstoy:

“I regard Christianity neither as an inclusive divine revelation nor as an historical phenomenon, but as a teaching which-gives us the meaning of life. I was led to Christianity neither by theological nor historical investigations but by this-that when I was fifty years old, having asked myself and all the learned men around me what I am and what is the meaning of my life, and received the answer that I am a fortuitous concatenation of atoms and that life has no meaning but is itself an evil, I fell into despair and wanted to put an end to my life; but remembered that formerly in childhood when I believed, life had a meaning for me, and that for the great mass of men about me who believe and are not corrupted by riches life has a meaning; and I doubted the validity of the reply given me by the learned men of my circle and I tried to understand the reply Christianity gives to those who live a real life. And I began to seek Christianity in the Christian teaching that guides such men’s lives. I began to study the Christianity which I saw applied in life and to compare that applied Christianity with its source.

The source of Christian teaching is the Gospels, and in them I found the explanation of the spirit which guides the life of all who really live.

But together with this source of the pure water of life I found, wrongfully united with it, mud and slime which had hidden its purity from me: by the side of and bound up with the lofty Christian teaching I found a Hebrew and a Church teaching alien to it. I was in the position of a man who receives a bag of stinking dirt, and only after long struggle and much labor finds that amid that dirt lie priceless pearls; and he understands that he was not to blame for disliking the stinking dirt, and that those who have collected and preserved these pearls together with the dirt are also not to blame but deserve love and respect.”

If you’re interested in more detail of what his view of religion is, you can get more of the meaning from reading the 5-6 page Prologue, and the one page “A SUMMARY OF THE CHAPTERS”, and get most of the ideas clearly.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong details her life story in the introduction to the book A History of God. She started out religious, even joining a convent, then left, became an atheist, did a television show arguing against religion, then later in life, became a religious scholar. I’m not sure whether she considers herself a Christian or not, but she’s certainly friendly towards religion.

The History of God is about how the notion of God has changed over time among the major Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) For example she talks about how the very early Jews were polytheists, then became monotheists. (Personally, I’ve only read the first chapter or so of the book. It’s interesting, but all I had time to read.)

The quote below should clearly differentiate her from fundamentalists, essentially saying that atheism is true, and yet, it proclaims that there is value in religion anyway! (You can read more in her book to get more explanation of how the notion of God evolved over time, and how it is worthwhile.)

From the introduction to A History of God:

When I began to research this history of the idea and experience of God in the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I expected to find that God had simply been a projection of human needs and desires. I thought that ‘he’ would mirror the fears and yearnings of society at each stage of its development. My predictions were not entirely unjustified but I have been extremely surprised by some of my findings and I wish that I had learned all this thirty years ago, when I was starting out in the religious life. It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear – from eminent monotheists in all three faiths – that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other Rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was – in any sense – a reality ‘out there’; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary rational process. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist – and yet that ‘he’ was the most important reality in the world.

To be continued….


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    I’m still struggling to understand what is meant by the term ‘spiritual’, other than a very general description that it’s the way we come to terms with the myriad of mysteries that surround us in the real world.

    Karen Armstrong is an author and apologist I haven’t read personally but she’s very unpopular in new atheist circles, and is regarded as representing the ‘regressive left’. She seems so obsessed with the benefits, indeed ‘truths’, of religion, whatever it happens to be, that she fails to understand some of the underlying dangers that are inherent, especially in Islam. The idea that because most Muslims are decent, peaceful people who just want jobs and to raise their kids, does not make Islam, or the Q’ran, inherently peaceful. Look at any Muslim prayer meeting, however moderate, and enquire as to the location of the women, and you’ll soon see the reality.

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      Kindred Spirits

      Even if I could define spirituality, (which I can’t), I could not force anyone else to use it consistently. So you’ll have to parse it out from each author. The average American knows something like 12,000 words, and yet most people rarely look up words in the dictionary, picking up meaning from context.

      Re: religion and Islam being dangerous

      I’m not endorsing all of her views, in part because I don’t know what they are. However, I seriously doubt we’re going to eradicate religion from the world. And making Islam, with a billion or so adherents in the world the enemy, doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy.

      The fact is, American foreign policy has manipulated the Middle East for 50+ years, and Britain did before that. The CIA toppled the democraticly elected government of Iran in the 1950s and install the Shah. And we’ve supported Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, never mentioning any human right violations they commit.

      The black-white view of the world, that everything is either all good or all bad, doesn’t match the real world. The larger part of this series is showing that all the mental concepts we have need to be examined. Religion is merely one of the many mythologies that we believe or disbelieve in varying degrees. Others examples are American Exceptionalism and Mythology of Progress.

      The Fundamentalist says: My religion is good (always, no exceptions), and refuses to understand where the concepts come from, or levy any criticism of any part of the. Watching Fundamentalists do the mental gymnastics to justify godly genocide and such would be entertaining, if it weren’t for their political power.
      Too often Atheists merely invert it to: All religion is bad (no exceptions). I think religion has both good and bad elements, and individual people have differing levels of the good and bad in their beliefs and their behaviors.

      You can see similar “reasoning” in other areas, eg, part of the Mythology of Progress assumes that all new technologies are great, and any criticism is unjustified and only comes from Luddites. A more realistic appraisal says that some technologies, such as nuclear power, come with some pretty hefty downsides, and we should be very careful in evaluating them and choosing to pursue them. (Of course, the True Believes always insist that the next revision of the technology is going to solve all the problems.) The antithesis of that is, all technology is bad, and creates people like the Unibomber, living in a shack in Montana, and sending bombs to kill and maim people he thinks are responsible for unleashing the demon technology on the world. Look at the range of people’s views on environmental policies, and you’ll see that there is a wide range of views, and trying to shoe-horn everyone into one side or the other doesn’t work very well.

      Doing the same thing with religion in general, or Islam in particular, doesn’t fit the real world very well, in my opinion.

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    I think it was Dan Dennett who complained that Armstrong’s book. “A History of God” was mis-titled. A more truthful title that reflected the contents would be “A History of the Concept of God.”

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    Some years ago, I started to read Karen Armstrong because she appeared to me to be moving away from traditional, rigid views and I needed help undoing the knots of religious rope around my heart and head. I did not stay with her long because she felt to me like a Christian healer trying to reach out intellectually and allow the family to heal from within belief. That said, I felt accepted by her even as I put her words down and said farewell. She may well be a Stage 4 but I am Stage-left…
    As for Tolstoy, he says quite clearly that he was bereft and remembered feeling happier in an earlier ‘belief’. He wanted to rid himself of life and so gave his lack of belief the old heave-ho! I was never happy for long in belief and knew it was a lie for me when set beside my everyday life. It became a matter of telling the truth or not for me and though I am human and do exaggerate, do lie, I did not feel right inside about continuing the big lie of the triune woo-woo in my own head. It did not give me the joy that Tolstoy seems to suggest he found in it. He might be saying that it saved his life and prevented suicide but that does not make the feast of belief any more palatable to me. What I have found is that the wonder of being, of the sunrise, the letter ‘A’, the recurring aches of my old frame, the little dog called Sky staring right into me…. these things are my why if somebody asks. It is all very very mortal, very eternally here and gone.
    Smile, said a placemat in Macdonald’s reataurant once: Smile, you are happy,
    Imagine that. In a freakin’ Macdonald’s. Poetry.

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      Kindred Spirits

      Re: “… I did not feel right inside about continuing the big lie of the triune woo-woo in my own head. It did not give me the joy that Tolstoy seems to suggest he found in it.”

      It’s been quite a while since I read the linked texts, so I don’t recall exactly, but I think Tolstoy’s view of the Gospels was more akin to the Jefferson Bible — all the supernatural “woo woo” was removed. It wasn’t a “turn or burn”, but more like the sermon on the mount as a way to live.

      (And as for me, even if I could have a woo-free mythological view of Christianity that I could assent too, I’d also have to think the majority of other people around me had similar views too. About the only groups that kinda sorta maybe I could associate with personally are the liberal Quakers, and the Unitarian Universalists. In the end, I’m just not a “joiner” personality I guess.)

      The point isn’t: you should believe because Tolstoy or Armstrong believe. The point is: that these people are just two examples of people that take a very different meaning from the Bible — less literal, more mythological — than the Fundamentalists. There don’t seem to be a lot of people that look at it this way, but they do exist, and have existed in multiple time periods.

      For some people that for whatever reason don’t want to go full atheist, or are uncomfortable thinking they’re the only ones that can’t swallow the full official theology, these well known people that also were willing to criticize the religion, but still find worthwhile elements too.

      And they’ve explicitly thrown out parts of the Bible or the theology that the fundamentalists adhere too. So I’d suggest that being willing to critique religion and find faults is important. But being able to see some good in religion, at least for other people if not for yourself, is also important. There really is a pretty wide and diverse group of people that claim to be Christian. Bruce has mentioned liking Thomas Merton, who was distinctly Catholic, and Wendell Berry, who if I recall, was/is also religious. Neither is remotely like Westboro Baptist Church.

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        Agreed, of course… My only caveat is that I do not think those who are able to take something worthwhile from the Bible or from other other religious texts, do so because of some magic woo. They do so because they have some basic humanity they honor and they are open to ideas, not closed as the good majority of Christians seem to be.

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          Kindred Spirits

          Re: “… I do not think those who are able to take something worthwhile from the Bible or from other other religious texts, do so because of some magic woo.”

          And amazingly (to me at least), many of the people that get something worthwhile agree with you that it is not some sort of magic woo! And I’ve tried to include quotes to that affect when I find them. Usually, what they call “god” is a much more abstract notion than what the majority of believers think of. As one wag (a believer) said: theology is like a swimming pool — all the noise comes from the shallow end. In fact, I think it’s drowned out so much that I think many people, myself included, didn’t even know they existed.

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            Thank-you, Kindred Spirits… I have found your series very interesting reading and look forward to the next installment.

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    “The significance of the Gospel is hidden from believers by the Church, from unbelievers by Science.”

    Although I don’t agree with it myself, this quote reminded me a little of Jung who said something similar. Perhaps you’d find him to be a Stage IV as well. Jung did believe in the Biblical God but not in a very recognizable way for Evangelicals or even most Protestants or Catholics. He was into Gnosticsm as well and interested in paranormal phenomenons.

    In Answer to Job he adresses this quite in depth saying that both the True Believers and those who are interested in science/materialists are looking at things the same way: in a black and white manner wanting (and seeing or not seeing) absolute proof. Only interested the physical facts: these believers say it all truly happened, the skeptics say none of it truly happened. Neither are very interested in something beyond this: the metaphysical truths. Unseeable but existent nevertheless. He did believe there is a spiritual dimension and an Unkown essence. Something transcendent. (Answer to Job, Prefatory Note)

    Makes me think Jung and Tolstoy may have had some overlapping beliefs in that regard.

    Jung’s ideas were some of the first I encountered when I dared to think outside of the Evangelical box and as a result I continue to have an interest in his work. He made me look at the Bible, God and Jesus in entirely new ways and I’ve found it very refreshing.

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      Kindred Spirits

      Haven’t read Jung directly, however, a later post will be on Alan Watts and his book Myth and Ritual in Christianity. In the introduction, Watts talks about Jung’s theories about myths coming from unconscious dreams, since there is apparently a lot of commonality in the dreams and symbolism in various myths around the globe. Alan Watts argues for the perennial philosophy, and also argues that it’s true, but not in literal sense, but in the sense that it’s true of the human condition. My own example would be: is the little boy who cried wolf a true story? No, not in a literal sense, but it’s “true” in that it fits with human nature and common occurrences.

      Joseph Campbell was a scholar of mythology. He noted a lot of similarities among world mythologies, which he termed the Hero’s Journey of the Monomyth. There will be a post about him as well.

      Both take mythology as being “true” about the human condition, but not “true” as in it actually happened. To me, a useful way of viewing it. However, it’s a minority view, at least among the pews, so I have no inclination to join any organized religion because of it. I suspect it’s less of a minority view among the clergy, but it appears they too often fear speaking their own minds for fear of losing their livelyhood.

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        That sounds a lot like Jung’s ideas. The role of myths and archetypes and how they are quite similar in various cultures throughout time and how/why that is possible. I just noticed that Joseph Campbell has written the introduction for the Portable Jung, a small world 🙂

        I am interested in the ‘truth’ of stories and myths: what can they tell us about mankind or the past, but no longer add any spiritual meaning to it myself. I do believe religion can bring out good in people, as well as, bad, and give meaning or a sense of belonging to many. I like the power of stories and that’s how I see religion now: stories that aim to explain the world, humanity, etc. I may sometimes like their meaning but no longer see them as literal truth or give them a special spiritual status.

        To me they are stories that can contain good life lessons or advice, just like stories that are written today can do the same.

        I think many clergy believe a similar way, if they’re in the more progressive camp. Seeing it as revealing deeper truths yet not as history.

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